Sunday, June 25, 2017

Box Turtle

I’m on my way to pick up the mail.
You are parked along the driveway.
Back leg extended, neck craning forward in suspended
Your amber reptilian eye
fixates on me with an air of defiance.

I know where you are headed.
Across the asphalt
to reach the other side of the road.

But would you not be safer here?
Under the juniper hedge,
Sheltered in cool layers of leaf litter.

You know better.
Instincts intact, you stand dead still.
Wait for me to go,
quite unperturbed. I take in the beauty
of your embossed shell.

Golds and russets and grays adorn you.
Your skin is folds, scales and horny leather.
A pert little tail protrudes from under.

Will your sharp claws propel you
to the other side
in your own sweet time?

Half an hour later

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hawk Eye

A sharp-shinned hawk has been visiting my garden lately. It is a young bird, quite at home, sitting for quite long periods of time in full view from the kitchen window. This photo was taken when it was sitting on the dogwood tree, which is just yards from the house.  The bird was pulling its beak along tail and wing feathers, preening and altogether having a thorough clean up. Had it just eaten some prey? The yard was eerily silent but every now and again the hawk would swivel its head to observe some tiny motion or sound with its intense hawk eyes. Eventually, some bold chickadees ventured to the bird feeder. I gingerly opened the back door, but before I could aim my camera the hawk had vanished.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Earth's Eye

There is gathering place in my garden where I commune with nature. Downy feathers floating on water, blazes of guano on rocks and footprints in snow on ice are all evidence of avian visitors. Uprooted plants and tracks in the mud tell me that raccoons have been searching for sustenance here and my cat makes a beeline to drink from this pond’s fresh water. I watch the pond in all seasons. In winter I spy from my kitchen window through the bare branches of the dogwood tree.  On a summer’s afternoon I watch, as I relax with a cup of tea in hand, from a strategically placed plastic garden chair. I often observe a myriad of visitors up close by crouching low on the pond’s banks.

This watering hole is my creation. I put a shovel to the ground to build some habitat in a distressed patch of woodland. I sculpted ledges for plants, depths and shallows for breeding and bathing, and a pebbly beach as access for the waders-in. I placed a black rubber liner to prevent water from draining into the sandy base. I hauled boulders and stone to create a natural boundary and to hold the liner in place. I turn on a pump in summer months to recirculate and aerate the water, to keep it fresh and to deter mosquitos from multiplying. I spread a net in the fall to prevent a build up of leaves.

Yet this artifice is a window to many dimensions of nature. Water brings sound, movement and an ever-changing palette of color. It splashes and ripples, gurgles and bubbles. It reflects the sky, clouds, leaves and winter trees. Birds flap their wings and sip through their beaks in this essential element, which also provides a nursery for insects and frogs. And so nature takes over from the man-made and an ecosystem is built. Plants aerate and clean the water, some scramble over the rocks, greening the boundary. Pond lily leaves are landing pads for insects. Along with duckweed they keep the pond from overheating by covering open water. Stems thrust above the surface and bear colorful flowers that attract bees and butterflies. Etched by glaciers or the movement of the earth, each rock carries its own mystery of how it was formed. Some are speckled and rough with granite, some are a smooth blue-grey and some twinkle with mica. All of this has replaced a dry clearing in a suburban garden.

A pond nourishes and shelters. It is a place to gather thoughts, soothe a soul and find serenity. Henri David Thoreau referred to Walden Pond as “Earth’s Eye, a place to measure the depth of one’s nature”. Even a much smaller mirror of a pond has such a power, whether its surface is white with snow, sparkling in sunlight or reflecting grey skies. I see birds bathing in the January thaw, the flash of a hummingbird visiting a cardinal flower, the plop of a frog diving for cover. Life goes on, no matter our misgivings about the state of the world. 

Friday, September 16, 2016


At the height of the day the goldenrods in the meadow are abuzz with bees, wasps, flies and beetles and I hardly dare to brush against them. But in early morning I notice that the golden blossoms are dotted with dozing bumblebees. They are found clinging to stems and hanging onto the underside of inflorescences – whole motionless camps of them. These are the males that have emerged from the queen’s nest and whose sole purpose in life is to mate before dying off in the approaching cold season. They have nowhere better to go for the night than a plant bearing sweet nectar.

The tall plants in the meadow do indeed provide a good vantage point for viewing all kinds of fascinating visitors. A few weeks ago I noticed several yellow bear caterpillars attached to New York ironweed, munching away on the undersides of the leaves and unseen by birds from above. This is the larval stage of the Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica), a handsome white moth with black stripes and a touch of orange on its abdomen.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Spicing up the Garden

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) on Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Much to my joy I have seen many large black butterflies fluttering around the garden. I assumed they were black swallowtails as their gloriously striped caterpillars have consumed much of my potted parsley. But today I caught an image of a spicebush swallowtail sipping nectar from a hot red cardinal flower by the pond. The subtle difference between the spicebush and the black is easy to discern once the butterflies have come to rest. The tails on the spicebush are spoon-shaped and the upper side wings lack a post median row of yellow spots. The larvae feed on spicebush and sassafras, plenty of which grow on my property. I am also pleased to report that Monarch butterflies have been more numerous this year than in the past few summers.

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Say No to Winter Blues

The ground has been covered in layers of snow and ice for several weeks now. There have been warnings of blizzard and wind chill and we’ve been grumbling. Longing for winter to ease off. But the true survivors turn up at the bird feeder every day and by observing them and other wildlife visitors, I feel better able to think ahead to spring. Here is my census: red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, Carolina wren, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jays, northern cardinals, American goldfinch, song sparrow, white-throated sparrow, dark-eyed junco, grey squirrel and white-tailed deer. Fortunately, the deer stay beyond the fence!

Trees and shrubs aid my mood as well. The ailing dogwood tree provides a strategic perch. Its hollows provide shelter and a pounding board for birds to crack open sunflower husks. Bare branches show off the true architecture of a tree and they are also places to monitor the swelling buds of spring. Tree trunks reflect the glow of the setting sun, which I notice goes down later every evening. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Winter Garden Secrets

Fine Hair Moss (Dicranella heteromalla)

The winter garden reveals many secrets. The absence of green leafiness uncovers nests made in warmer times. From my kitchen window I view winter denizens, bird and squirrel, as they come out of shelter to visit the birdfeeder. Mosses stand out along the woodland path. I took a few strands inside and placed them in a saucer of water as an attempt to identify their species. Fine hair moss (Dicranella heteromalla) resembles a tiny tree with needle-like leaves. A bright pink spore capsule is held high above as a beacon. The ovate leaves of another moss (I could not positively identify) form dense whorls for a thick emerald carpet. Mosses hold many more secrets for which I will need a stronger lens.

On raking fallen leaves off the gravel driveway I uncovered some star earthball fungi (Scleroderma polyrhizum). Another common name for this basidiomycete is Dead Man’s Hand. The fruiting body forms underground before being thrust up through the soil to expose a star of five leathery, yellow lobes surrounding a spore mass. It is sinister-looking plant with an otherwordly look about it. 

On New Years Eve I looked upward towards heavenly stars. We were out trying to view a glowing green comet, named Lovejoy, which is reported to be visible near the Orion constellation in this first week of January. As we stood, our necks craned in the frosty air, we heard the haunting sound of great horned owls making themselves known to all. Perhaps it was their nuptial calls that echoed back and forth loudly across the neighborhood. Finding no comet, I scanned bare branches in the hope of locating the owls at least. But their exact whereabouts remains a secret. 

Star Earthball (Scleroderma polyrhizum)