Search This Blog

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Curious Case of the Egg Missing in Daylight...

I awoke in the middle of the night thinking about that egg, one of those little mysteries that should make life interesting, but not so interesting it   keeps one from a good night's sleep. The mystery started out not as a mystery at all, an anomaly, rather: a single egg beneath the chicken coop, not in one of the two nest boxes where the girls usually leave payment for their room and board. Accidents happen, I thought. Maybe one of the ladies was taken short: the egg was on its way and the nest box too distant for deposit. Like on the evening news: those roadside freeway birthing events where impatient baby declines hospital and delivery room and opts for an impromptu roadside "coming o". There was precedent for a mislaid egg: when the girls were pullets, one of them laid the first egg under the coop, a "pullet surprise," you might say. But if memory serves, that first effort was the only "extra-coop" deposit for the two-year olds.

I passed by the chicken coop in mid-afternoon and noticed the egg lying all by its lonesome next to one of the coop post supports, thought it a bit odd, but an egg's an egg, right? I would have to enter the chicken run to retrieve it and thought I'd wait until I let the girls out in late afternoon for their daily free ranging.

Later that evening I went to gather the eggs, fully prepared first to enter the run, hunker under the protective netting and scoop up the errant egg. To my surprise, the egg was gone, nowhere to be seen. No trace that it was ever there. No eggshell debris field. Nothing. Vanished. Thus the mystery of the missing egg. It had so disappeared I began to question my sanity. Had I ever seen the egg in the first place? Yes, I had: twice at least, its presence so real, I even hatched a little plan to retrieve it. But as the old saw states: the best laid plans of mice and men....

The little mystery was too big to keep to myself, so I shared it with my wife and we became team Sherlock Holmes/Dr.Watson of the Valley, bent on solving the case. Motive, of course, would be food, hunger, sustenance. That's what the chicken scenario is all about, right? Heretofore we had been the only principals in this arena. Now, however, it appeared we had competition. But we were clueless: no yolk spatter, no shell casings left scattered about. Footprints? Obliterated by chicken feet. The crime scene had been sanitized. And this was not just some thief that came and went in the night, but a brazen act perpetrated in broad daylight.

No suspects in custody, so we conducted a virtual lineup. Topping the "most wanted" list were rats. Unlikely, we thought, a rat could carry an egg out of the run. Weasels are egg suckers, leave shell behind. Skunk? A striped kitty leaves a dis-stinky calling card. 'Possums...not likely because of their size and the secure construction of coop and run. Crows and jays are human-wary, and we're around the place most of the day. Squirrels? They're nut marauders and vegetarians as far as we know, and how could they roll an egg down the coop ramp without breaking it?

The investigation is on-going. As of this post none of the above are beyond suspicion. And given the   season, even the Easter bunny has not been ruled out.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Pollen...By the Basketful...

Despite the calendar's proclamation, spring has yet to arrive here in the Valley. At last the pussy-willow is blooming out--almost a month behind schedule. Last year at this time leaf buds were greening on the bush by the compost heap out back. Now the catkins are flush with golden pollen and the bush a frenzy of bees looting their golden plunder. The gold rush is on and the bees are desperate to stake their claims.Weather permitting, of course. The late winter pollen has come and gone: alder, hazelnut, crocus... all sluiced away by rain. The spring pollen supply is essential to spring buildup, the protein boost needed to ratchet up egg laying and brood rearing. And now the bees are playing catch-up.

Just what to call our pussy-willow these days? The spouted twig I planted a half dozen years ago is now twenty feet tall, thus it seems an insult to call the willow a "bush." What height must a plant reach before it qualifies as a bona fide "tree" escapes me. A pussy-willow tree? Surely we have one now.

Pollen. "Bee bread" I've heard it called, the bees' protein source. Mixed with sucrose, whether it be nectar or sugar refined from cane or beets, it becomes the essential pap for larval sustenance, crucial nourishment for young bees destined to become the work force that will gather the summer's nectar for the season's honey crop.

Pollen collection is solely the jurisdiction of the worker bee whose hind leg is especially designed for the task. The concave configuration of the third leg, the corbicula, which is surrounded by a bulwark of stiff hairs, serves as a basket for pollen loads. Fore and middle legs "rake" the pollen to the hind leg where the sticky substance is formed into a pollen pill.
When its two "baskets" are flush with pollen, the laden worker beelines it to the hive where its two-pack payload is tamped into cells for future use.

I had hoped to trap some pussy willow pollen this spring as there is a demand for local pollen; some allergy sufferers believe pollen is nature's panacea for spring allergies. A delicate shade of pale gold, pussy-willow pollen is pleasing to the eye, especially when packaged in glass containers. The bees are relieved of the fruit of their labors by means of a pollen trap, an especially designed device that forces the pollen-laden workers to enter the hive through a small gauge mesh.

As they crawl through the wire one leg at a time, the pollen pill is dislodged from the "basket" and tumbles into a muslin-lined collection tray where it is harvested by the beekeeper. It is always with a slight sense of guilt that I deprive my bees of their beebread and butter and am careful not to be too greedy. Two, three consecutive days at the most I restrict the pollen flow and then allow the pollen bearers full access to the hive. This season's weather embargo on pollen foraging has sidelined my pollen collecting. Perhaps in a month or so from the maple and dandelion, but by no means now.

This pollen trail has led me astray of the post's original intent. The Ripple wonders if anyone in the blogosphere would consider it possible to compute the total annual pollen yield of a twenty/thirty foot tall pussy-willow tree. Yield in pounds would be preferable, but if the metric system is your measurement of choice, I''ll settle for an estimate in kilos.

For the beekeeper who wishes a bounty of pollen for his bees' spring buildup, I suggest he plant a pussy-willow or two in his landscape. Pussy-willow is easily rooted: half a dozen twigs in a water-filled quart jar or a pot of wet sand will do the trick. When planting the rooted twigs in their permanent location, exercise a bit of caution: willows are vigorous plants and will easily take over a garden spot if not kept well pruned. Please note, too: willow root systems are "divining" roots; they seek out water, so don't plant a willow near a septic drain field as the system most certainly will become root bound.

I would recommend using willows only in horticultural pursuits...not advisable to put a pussy-willow to use in the manner Imogene Herdman suggests in the delightful Christmas story The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The fractious little urchin bullies the prim and proper Alice Wendlekin ("I am always Mary"), whose role Imogene covets, with the scare tactic: "And next spring when the pussy-willows come out, I'm going to stick a pussy-willow so far down your ear where nobody can reach it. And it'll sit there and grow and grow and grow, so for the rest of your life there'll be a pussy-willow bush growing out of your ear."

Bad enough to have to prune and trim one's ear. And to endure all that humming and buzzing every spring. But for pollen-starved bees, what an unexpected windfall.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Safety First in the Valley...

The paramount concern in the country today appears to be the safety and security of America's citizens: build a wall to keep out the evil ones; hire more security personnel and station them to have its back should the wall not be high enough to thwart the hordes of villains and blackguards lurking without, eager to work their evil on our citizenry; increase security groping at airports, extreme pat downs, if you will, to protect air travelers from the evil that is afoot in the world at large; implement travel bans to insulate the homeland from those bent on wreaking havoc on our way of life, families, and peace of mind; and for the future, promise the country will boast a military the likes of which haven't existed on Earth since the days of the great Caesars. Soon all citizens will be able to have a good night's sleep: safe and secure in the knowledge we can now go about our daily lives without constantly having to look over our shoulders. In short, we will finally be able to roam the country in safety and at last be able to leave our guns at home.

The foregoing pertains, in the main, to the national stage, but those who pass through or reside in the Valley should give thanks to our State's Department of Transportation for its proactive efforts to keep drivers safe, detect any potential snares and pitfalls that may prove a hazard to motorists who use the Valley's Tualco Loop Road.

There's new signage, if you haven't noticed it, an embellishment to the Tualco-North Highrock turn lane. If you aren't too focused on looking left and right (twice on the latter...remember your Driver's Ed instruction) for your opportunity to creep carefully onto SR. 203, you'll see it. Staring you straight in the face on the east side of 203 and firmly bolted to a state-of-the art breakaway stanchion is a yellow warning sign featuring two bold black arrows. One arrow points north toward town; the other to all points south on SR. 203.

I happened along just as a pair of orange vested DOT workers finished the installation. They moved from side to side examining  their work, and apparently satisfied, moved across the road for a repeat performance on a new stop sign for traffic coming to the intersection.

It is not often you have the opportunity to thank those whose job it is to keep you safer. And The Ripple was not about to let this chance slip by. I pulled alongside the two State workers, rolled down my window, and shouted my approval of their labors. "Thanks to your efforts and that sign," I shared, "I'll no longer have the urge to run the new stop sign, shoot across three lanes of traffic on a busy State Road, and plow through a thicket of blackberries into the murk of Riley Slough." One orange vest stood momentarily, smiled, shook his head, and gave me that quizzical look as if to say: "We're just doing our job, 'ours not to question why,'" and resumed work on the new breakaway stop sign.

So on behalf Tualco Valley motorists The Ripple extends a heartfelt thanks for making the Valley a safer place for drivers. Thanks, WSDOT. Thanks for your service.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

You Go, Gulls...

The other day a small flock of  Valley seagulls circled gracefully around Tony Broers' house, then swooped to a landing on the ridge peak where each assumed that stoic gull stance, seemingly as comfortable as if it were standing sentinel on a pier or jetty. "Not a sight you see every day," I thought. (Many a crow, yes, but never a gull.)

Our Valley boasts a healthy population of gulls, "sea"gulls, that is, which makes one wonder why these classic seabirds have strayed so far from their namesake saline seas to pasture lands and cornfields. It seems seagulls would be uncomfortable "landlubbers" as their principal habitat is large body of salt or fresh water which provides abundant food and rocky coastlines ideal for breeding grounds, both, excepting the seasonal flooding, the Valley lacks. Seagulls, however, are fixtures among the Valley's diverse and abundant avian population: Gladys and I see them nearly every outing.

While I wouldn't dare presume to be an avid birder, I can readily identify most of our Valley's avian species. Not so with gulls, which for me are all lumped into that category. My Birds of Washington field guide lists five species of seagulls, none of which I've checked off  my backyard bird list. Even if one happened to alight on the property, I wouldn't know which of the five paid me a visit.

When I'm afoot in the Valley, my mind tends to wander, and today it's led astray by those stately seabirds perched as if sculpted on my neighbor Tony's rooftop. To my surprise I realize over the years I've accumulated an inventory of seagull experiences. Tony's visitors and The Ripple are just the excuse I need to share them  (or rather unburden) myself.

Back in the early '60s when I scurried about the University of Washington campus in a freshman panic, seagulls were a part of daily life. North of Hec Edmundson Sports Pavilion, Seattle maintained the Montlake Landfill, a vast garbage dump. The landfill sustained a seagull population which must have numbered in the thousands. For post meal exercise a goodly number of these dumpster divers left the heaps and mounds of garbage and made their way to the rooftops of campus buildings where, gorged with excremental deviltry, they would perch. I had a morning humanities class in the old pink lady, Parrington Hall. When classes ended, students would pour from Parrington in a rush trying to make their next class on time. The resulting commotion spooked the napping gulls, all of which rose in alarm, issuing a deluge of whitewash that had all the undergrads bobbing and rushing for cover. (I've always maintained this gull behavior inspired a new style, at least for men: the white trenchcoat.) Those days seagulls were so much a part of UW daily life that The Daily, UW's  newspaper, featured the cartoon character Spencer the Seagull. In each Daily cartoon Spencer posed, stentorian beak foremost, in his goggles and leather aviator's cap, human figures tallied on its side, the latest victims of his scatological bombardment.

Over the years I've watched these inland seabirds go about their Valley business, the strangest of which is the gulls' occasional vortex behavior. I'll notice a whirlwind of a hundred or so spiraling upwards like extras in the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz. They whirl upwards in a drifting cone, spin for a while, and then break formation. Why they do this I have no idea. Their grossest behavior: foraging in the green mist of the poo-poo sprinklers, feasting on dairy by-product tidbits, happy as if they were gourmet diners. I've noted, as well, gulls presage imminent Valley storms, their numbers increasing as the incoming storm drives them inland. On one of my walks I was spectator to an act of gull bullying. For no other reason than he could, a bald eagle singled out a gull and harried its poor victim across a cornfield. The gull knew enough about raptor behavior not to let the eagle take the high ground. Pursuer and the pursued continued on across the open field until I lost sight of them in the trees along the river.

Last spring some birder reported sighting a rare gull in the Valley. A black-headed gull (Chroicocephelus ridibundus), an east coast resident, had allegedly been seen in the company of resident Valley gulls. Birders eager to notch another sighting on their life lists rushed to the Valley hoping for a glimpse of this east coast "exotic." On one of my Valley strolls I happened upon a birder friend of mine parked by Swiss Hall, "bird" oculars pressed to his eyes: the object of his surveillance...the black-headed gull. Sandy Frohning told me caravans of birders ("gullibles?") streamed by her house hoping for a glimpse of the vagrant seabird.

Other gull trivia. One of my five-year old grandson's favorite bedtime stories features an old salt named Burt Dow (Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man). Burt's companion on shore or the high seas is the "Giggling Gull," a happy-go-lucky seabird that expresses its levity in three syllables: "Tee-hee-hee" regardless of the seriousness of the matter at hand.

In my days as a struggling undergrad at the UW, to access an afternoon class I parked my used 1957 four-door Bel Aire sedan in a metered slot on 45th Ave (in the day when there were a few parking spaces left in Seattle). It so happened that often that empty space was in front of a Mercedes Benz 300 SL, fire engine red, spotless and shiny as a newly minted penny. The 300 was the first automobile to feature "gull-wing" doors which, when opened, gave the illusion of a seagull in flight. If  I was early to class, I would circle the SL two or three times and dream....

And  Beryl Markham, the first aviatrix to fly transatlantic from east to west made the historic crossing in an aircraft she named the "Vega Gull."

Finally, one of my favorite puns concerns a gull relative. Birders, this one's for you:

Sailor to shipmate: "Why do you have a leash on that seagull?"

Shipmate: "I'm just taking a tern around the deck."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Just a Stranger Passin' Through...

                                           "I've got a gun in my holster,
                                             A horse between my knees.
                                             I'm goin' to Arizona,
                                             Pardon me boys if you please."

                                                                            Randy Newman
                                                                           "Rider in the Rain"

The Valley. It has been a tedious winter to date, and dangerous too, like the morning I slipped on the frosty deck and like a poleaxed steer, came down unceremoniously across the top steps. If it hadn't have been for the winter padding I'd donned prior, I might yet be wearing plaster clothes, tangled in a web of ropes and pulleys, being served up those mystery meals catered for the hospital bedridden. Now the bruises have faded and my right arm protests only a little when I put it to use.Yes, cold snaps and a couple of snow episodes have made this Valley winter seem interminable.

But not today. I'm afoot in the Valley. The sun has the upper hand. The sky, blue, anticipates swallows. The Valley is green, flush with early spring. It's one of those days, as my old dairyman neighbor Herman Zylstra put it, "When you get new hope."

In a Valley where routines and scenery might, to hurrying passersby, never seem to change, I almost always see something different, a thing of interest directs my thoughts in a strange direction: say, for instance, that heap of boulders Ed Broers has piled like a terminal moraine from an Ice Age past in the field below his "movie star" barn. Yes, the Valley always seems to serve up something of interest....

Today is no different. As I stroll homeward, I see movement far ahead and out of that movement a horse and rider emerge. As they mosey toward me, I hear music. "A musical horse," I think. "Now this is something...." I can see the rider now, a young woman, wearing heeled boots, jeans, a white hoodie, and as if it were a gun and holster, a water bottle at her hip. Her horse, a big black with its tail in a half braid, carries her gently along. A cap topped with a jaunty tassel covers her head and ears. It is a woolen cap of many colors, hand knitted, it appears. I look at her face. High cheekbones, prominent nose, and bronzed complexion bring to mind "Castillan" ethnicity: Spanish. She is no stranger to horses and, as Louis L'amour might say, rides "tall and easy in the saddle." As she passes I give her a friendly smile which she does not return. Nor does she nod a greeting but maintains a stoic pose as she continues. It's as if she's in another world, this stranger, the Argentine pampas, perhaps, instead of Werkhovens' field of grass. On down the road she and her mount continue, tunes billowing out of her clothing.

I can only stare after her and it's then I notice the small backpack. Poking its head out of the pack was the head of a small dog, brown and furry like a koala, its perky ears bobbing with sway of the horse. Mouth open, tongue lolling out, the pup seemed to be smiling as if to say: "Aren't we a sight?"

And indeed they were. I continued on, my thoughts now occupied by what I'd seen. "Who was this stranger on her high horse," I wondered, "this stranger just passing through?"

Monday, February 13, 2017

Bough Down to Winter...

That rodent meteorologist Punxatawny Phil was spot on with his prescient prognistication of six more weeks of winter. Yes, we knuckled under to a four inch blanket of snow the 6th of February and quite a wet blanket it was. I had an early dentist's appointment that morning and reluctantly left the warmth of my bed to get ready. Here in the Valley we know when our one slim acre has fallen victim to an overnight snowfall. Hardly any traffic on the state highway out front. The bold commuters who braved the road crept by with muffled passage, tiptoed along tentatively. The interplay of snow and darkness rendered a strange refraction of light. The drawn shades glowed with the eeriness of a world outside turned white.

As I hurried to make my appointment, I glanced out the front window, stopped short for a second look, Something was amiss with the lay of the land out there. Then I saw it. The heavy snow had a caused a landscape malfunction: our golden chain tree was no longer standing. The snow had toppled the tree sometime during the night and it now lay splayed out across the snowy lawn. "I didn't need that," I groused, thinking about the labor ahead of me: chainsaw work, snipping and lopping, hauling away the brush to a heap that's already the size of a small mountain.... Anger first, right? Step one of the grieving process. Then I moved on to the mourning phase, remembering the golden chain's dazzling display of dainty yellow pendants, its May promise summer was just around the corner.

I'm not much for record keeping and thus can't say how long that tree has been a part of our landscape. One chronological milestone, however, jogs my memory. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis passed away May 19th, 1994. The day of her funeral I lowered the flag to half staff. The golden chain was in full blossom that day and the Stars and Stripes swung gently in the May breeze, beautifully silhouetted against a field of trailing yellow blossoms.

The last few years the tree has had health issues. One season it didn't bloom at all, lost its leaves, regrew the foliage, and shed its leaves again. When the tree toppled, no root ball surfaced and though I'm no arborist, I suspect the tree's undercarriage had simply rotted away... thankfully while I was safe in bed, not mowing the lawn in its shadow.

The Ripple, inspired by Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay,"(March 7, 2010) posted about the fleeting nature of plant life that during its season, whether it be new sprouts or blossoms, presented the color yellow. I think about that poem now as, chainsaw in hand, I go out to address the work ahead: turning a onetime landscape friend that gave me spring joy and beauty into the firewood of winter.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Pondering the Fate of the White House Beehive...

Here in the Valley I've seen beehives and bee yards abandoned, which makes for a sad sight indeed.
One "lost and lorn" hive was consumed by a blackberry thicket, its bees left to navigate their flight through vines and leaves. Neglected for years, left to the mercy of mites and disease, it struggled along on its own. I have no idea what happened to its attendant beekeeper. In another instance a bee yard of twenty or so colonies appeared bereft of a caretaker. I visited the yard last May and found it in disarray: a jumble of boxes, broken feeding jars, and displaced woodware. Only five hives showed any activity. When I asked the property owner what she knew about the yard, all she could tell me was she hadn't seen their caretaker in several months. Twenty colonies. That's considerable capital outlay to let go to ruination. Such negligence of stock and equipment seems downright irresponsible.

As our country transitions to new leadership, I'm concerned about another bee hive these days, this one across the continent in our Nation's Capitol...the White House beehive. Part of our former First Lady's gardening initiative, the hive was the first domestic colony ever on White House grounds. The First Lady's bees pollinated her vegetable gardens and gathered nectar for honey that was served at White House functions. More importantly the bee hive's presence on the grounds represented the past administration's awareness of and concern for the environment, the importance of pollinators in nature's scheme of things, to humankind in particular.

I have yet to see much environmental sensitivity from the President-elect or his appointees. In fact our "Soon To be Born Again" nation promises to tread forward leaving Gulliver-sized carbon footprints: more jobs, more industry, more pollution. This, plus opening up more federal land to mining and mineral exploration both of which lead to habitat destruction and species' decline. Given the recent campaign rhetoric and posturing, it appears crucial issues like climate change, conservation, and the environment will be given short shrift--if any shrift at all.

As our country embarks on the peaceful transfer of power I hope that bee hive on the White House lawn--and what it represents-- doesn't go the way some of our Valley hives have. And as far as "transfer of power" and new appointees, should the President-elect decide to keep the First Beehive but appoint a new beekeeper, I hope I'm among those considered.