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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Backyard Warfare or Ain’t You Gonna Give Me No Sugar?…

Look, Ma, no wings!The leaves on the backyard maple hardly stir. Evening sunlight dapples the leaves, a calming medley of light and shadow. Calla lilies glow a crisp white along the blooming fence, and the hanging baskets on the gazebo brim pink-purple-white. Peonies are in full bloom, crimson and pink globes staking their claim along the split rails. Delphinium (delphiniums? delphinia?), blue and white spikes nearly head high, lend a touch of pastel to the scene. Both arbors are bursting with honeysuckle. You’d think the backyard would be a scene of peace and tranquility. But you’d be mistaken: the hummingbirds are carbo-loading, pumping themselves full of syrup energy, sucrose sustenance until dawn’s early light. The evening warfare has begun.

It is a territorial battle over sugar, for a turn at the syrup spigot. This season we have two species of hummers in the backyard. Our pair of Anna’s came in winter and have remained (but then weather-wise, so has winter, hasn’t it?). Anna's hummerMiniatures in gray, Anna’s are sooty little birds with splashy pink iridescent gorgets at their throats. When they are agitated, they flare their tails and display white- tipped black tail feathers. Anna’s are congenial little hummers. I have seen our two take turns at the feeder; a few sips for one which then graciously hovers aside to let the other take its turn.Agitated Anna's

If your backyard hummer has light brown flanks, especially along the base of the wings, you are observing a resident Rufous. When this species flares its tail in agitation, you’ll note the yellowish tail feathers. The male Rufous is a spectacular little dervish and it is he that gives the species its name: (rufus from the Latin, “red, red-haired”). In your face RufousThis flame coiffed sprite is an iridescent spark as he flits through the garden from flower to feeder to flower.

Rufous are highly territorial. No sharing of the feeder for them. Once the evening syrup fest is in session, the backyard is a flurry of aerial warfare. No “after you’s” for the roughhousing Rufous. A sip or two for one and then it’s dodge and feint, bob and weave as a competitor zooms in from nowhere and a hummingbird dogfight ensues.

A pair of Rufous’ do battle over sugar

One particularly pugnacious hummer perches on a twig near the window feeder, drives off all comers, then returns to her (yes, “her”; we only have one male Rufous among a harem of females) perch to stand guard. She’s there for combat, apparently, not for dinner.

The timid Anna’s bide their time, wait until their bellicose cousins have scattered each other, sneak in for a brief sip and then they in turn are scattered.

Confused Anna’s Jr. can’t figure it out

The two feeders are not the only article of possession: it’s as if the Rufous are stingy of every honeysuckle cluster, petunia or geranium blossom. Like contentious siblings they battle over everything. When a competitor accosts another at the feeder, it flares its tail feathers in indignation and zooms after it. Nor is this only playful competition either; we observed one female strike another with such force that feathers flew. The backyard is a battleground.

When a feeder empties, the little beggars become incensed, whirr about impatiently for a refill (one part sugar: four parts water. Dismiss the red food color. Hummers will come regardless…). They can’t wait until I rehang the bottle, ignore the human hand that brings the refill, and begin to feed while I’m still holding the feeder.

Hand fed hummer

The tiny things are nearly fearless. The small window feeder holds less than a quarter cup of syrup and I’m refilling it three times a day while the larger—a three holer--holds a cup and half and requires refilling every third day. Between spring feed for the honeybees and syrup for the hummers, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve hauled away a hundred pounds of sugar from Freddie’s this season.

I’ve been told the more feeders on the place, the greater your hummer population. In a nature magazine I saw a photo of a backyard “merry-go-round” clothes line with two or three dozen feeders hanging from the lines. There must have been a hundred or so little long beaks either feeding or perching on the clothesline. Another tip I read in a magazine came from a woman who places seeded out cattails around her yard as nesting material for her resident hummers (supposedly hummingbirds nest close to their food supply; I’d like to encourage them to nest here on the place). Good idea, I thought, and stuck three furred out ‘tails on posts in the hedge. So far only pine siskins and gold finches have helped themselves to the down, but the hummingbirds haven’t shown much interest. I did see our male Rufous perched atop one of the cattails surveying his domain. Checking out the ladies, perhaps?

Perhaps you’ve picked up on my less than subtle complaint about expenditure on sugar. When you think about the cost of a ticket, popcorn and sugary drinks at the movie theatre these days, any capital outlay on hummingbird food is well worth it for the sheer entertainment value. Watching a backyard full of pugnacious, warring hummers jockeying for an evening repast, dive bombing each other, vying for feeder airspace is real time Reality theatre. And all it takes is a feeder or two, a little time and, of course, sugar. Nancy L's hummer nest

This past week national headlines announced the death of Rodney King whose beating at the hands of over reactive L.A. police in 1991 caused interracial chaos in the city and consequently involved the entire nation in racial controversy. Although history will undoubtedly be harsh on King, I would hope in the midst of the escalating 1992 riots caused by the acquittal of four arresting officers, his words to the press will to some degree validate Rodney’s checkered forty-seven years of life. At a news conference May 1, 1992, King uttered these memorable words: “Can we all get along?” Given human nature and current world events, “Not very likely,” I believe, is the unfortunate answer to King’s question. And if my backyard is any indication, it’s not likely to happen with the hummingbirds any time soon either.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Swallowing Problems…a Post Script…

Tending chick

June 26

Last week the routine feeding flights by male and female continued, but the behavior of Mrs. has changed dramatically. Previously whenever she was in the nest, she would not tolerate my approach without darting out and off to the wide open spaces. No stealth on my part would prevent her from taking flight. Even when she began feeding her chicks, if I was standing motionless at the corner of the shed, camera in hand, she would make two or three passes at the entrance summoning up the courage to enter the nest. (The macho male, however, scoffed at my intrusions, stayed put, all the while giving me the evil eye.). Her wariness has turned to maternal vigilance and now I’m the wary one as she darts at my hat and head if I’m anywhere near the shed.

For two weeks I listened to the hatchlings chittering away in the box, faint peepings at first, but louder with each passing day. A few days later I see the first white-chinned chick at the entrance. But only one. I knew a single chick couldn’t possibly create such a ruckus and sure enough, three days later there were double chins at the opening. It was then Mother went on the offensive, dive bombing anything and everything that unwittingly wandered up the driveway.

Twice during the past few days, I’ve noticed two or three pair of swallows circling the shed, hovering near the nest box. Two even perched a while on the shed. I observed this behavior last year shortly before the chicks fledged and am at a loss to explain it. Consulting last year’s journal, I noted the following entry:

30 June—I noticed a flight of five swallows fluttering around the nest box. One after the other would hover at the entrance. Not sure what they were up to…encouraging the chicks to fly, perhaps? I recollect observing a flight of swallows last year in conjunction with the first chick leaving the nest. This flight of encouragement lasted less than five minutes, then the birds dispersed. The feeding of chicks has ceased. Part of the process to force them from the nest? Yesterday evening the mother was dive bombing, warning us away from the box. Today no such defensive behavior.

Ripple readers: if there are any birders among you who can shed some light on this curious flight of swallows, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

                                   *            *            *

10:00 a.m. Both white chins teeter on the lip of the entrance. Mother swallow continues her frenetic feeding, dumping one mouthful of bugs after another into their clamoring beaks.

1:00 p.m. I look up from my lunch just in time to see a solitary swallow dart from the nest box. A few minutes go by without any activity around the nest: no hovering mother…no gaping beaks…no swallow activity whatsoever. It appears the chicks have fledged and fled, flown the coop, are out and about: two more swallows on the prowl for Valley bugs. 

Evening. I look out at the nest one more time. The entrance is just a forlorn black hole, no longer plugged by little white chins. Strange not to see the parents flitting to and fro, beaks clotted with insects for their young. Strange after nearly two months of swallow activity to see the box and surrounding airspace deserted. No more the graceful swooping to the nest; no more curious little heads peering out on their new world; no more insistent clamoring from within, nor anxious parental chitterings from without. I’ll not see my swallows again until next May. Mom stands guard

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Valley in Strawberry Time…

Pickers afield8:15 a.m. when I arrive at Broers’ Farms strawberry field. Fog in the Valley this morning. Strange weather on this day, 20 June, when the summer solstice officially ushers in summer. The mist has lifted but left its moist footprint on the strawberry plants, leaves and berries.

Yesterday I halted my afternoon walk to talk with Ginnifer Broers in her driveway. “What’s the berry situation?” I asked her. Broad smile: “There’s a ton of berries out there,” I’m informed. “Well, please save a half ton for me,” I joked. “What time do you open?” “Start picking whenever you get here,” she replies.

Ginnifer runs out to meet this early bird. She rustles up a cardboard flat for me. I pick up a carrier and head for the field. As early as I am, there’s an earlier bird ahead of me: Rosario, the proprietor of Rosario’s nursery.Rosario It’s Rosario we have to thank for those beautiful floral baskets at Kurt’s Vegetable Stand. She has been in the strawberry fields since 5:00 a.m. she tells me and has already picked flats from Kurt’s field for sale at his farm stand. Now she’s picking for Broers’ Farms. I see two or three white plastic buckets brimming with fruit; Rosario means business when she’s in the berry field.

Time is relative, they say, but for some reason it seems to take much longer to cover the cardboard bottom of the flat than to heap it to the brim. I pick two or three rows at a time, back and forth; wherever I see a plump berry gleaming in the morning sun, I hop to pluck it. Fifteen minutes of this and my back begins to protest: not only do I have to stretch and bend over the row but there’s some sort of hindrance my belt can’t contain. I have to bend over that, too.

What a relief to stand and take in this brilliant Valley morning. (Rosario picks nonstop, definitely years of experience under her belt…and without such an encumbrance as mine). Off to the west two adult bald eagles spiral upward in the Valley air. The sun shimmers off their white tail feathers as it does the green of the Valley. A small airplane drones overhead, a local aviator enjoying the calm morning air. He flies in the realm of eagles, a spectacular view for both, I imagine.

When my flat overflows with berries--the excess tumble off on the ground--I call it a morning. Rosario and I are no longer alone. Fifty or more pickers bob and weave among the rows; the parking lot is full; women and children hunker among the rows seeking berries. Aside from the little boys chaperoning their mothers, I notice I am the only male in the patch. At last another man shows up, a father, his wife and young son wearing a hat bigger than a Texas cattleman’s.A man at work My flat is brimful of fruit. The next step haunts me: washing, stemming, jamming, freezing, preserving, but I need to inquire. “I thought I was going to be the only man out here,” I complain. Dad, his sunglasses riding high on his baseball cap, answers, “I imagine they’re  all at work-- real work.” I think of Rosario and her buckets of berries, the flats she’s picked earlier. My back aches and my legs are twitching after straddling row after row. I look at the heavy flat, know my work has only yet begun and so I reply, “Picking berries, making and freezing jam…now that’s man’s work!”

As per our last year’s agreement Ginnifer accepts a quart of Valley knotweed honey in exchange for my fifteen pounds of fresh strawberries, an hour and a half’s worth of stooping, straddling, and plucking. Only then I realize I’ve been among the strawberries all this time and have yet to taste a single one of 2012’s crop. I select the plumpest (and cleanest) berry from the heaped flat and:

“…as Dr. Boteler said of strawberries: ‘Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did;…’” (Sir Isaak Walton, The Compleat Angler)An hour and a half's work

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Green Grocer Comes to the Valley…

Valley Farm StandMike, aka Kevin, aka Trevor, aka The Ukester at Island Blends Espresso has a new neighbor. Perhaps you’ve noticed the colorful signage that has sprouted here and there in front of the farm stand (the former Mott’s Produce). I stopped by the other morning after Gladys subjected me to a particularly rigorous pre-breakfast workout. A sign advertising “Fresh Peaches” whetted my appetite. A freshly sliced peach topping my morning’s bran flakes would make a fine launch, I thought, into my daily routine.

We rolled to a stop in front of a doorway where I perched the morning’s instrument of torture on her kickstand and went peach hunting. “I’m here for your peaches,” I say to a gentleman standing next to a produce table. “I’m afraid you’re a bit too early,” he smiles apologetically. Sure, I knew this… peaches in late May? “But your sign…?” Then I laugh and tell the fellow I was just joking around, knew peaches wouldn’t be ready until July at least. “False advertising….” The teasing continues. “But we should have peaches in a week or so,” he offers.

A peach inquiry? Nothing more than a dodge, of course, for The Ripple to ferret out the latest news. I introduce myself, reveal my affiliation with The Ripple and share its mission of reporting the latest Valley happenings. As always, the Press impresses and The Ripple is pleased to post the following:

Mike Bennett is the Valley’s new green grocer. I talked to Mike among tables piled with a variety of produce. Bennett has a “the customer not only is always right, he’s always more than welcome” manner about him.Mike Bennett Unlike Mott, Mike’s predecessor whose produce leaned heavily to fresh fruit and berries, Bennett’s tables brim with just about every kind of green produce you’d find at Freddies and some I’m sure Freddy never heard of—at least I hadn’t. Mike operates one other stand and also supplies several local restaurants and groceries with produce. Though he’s a busy man, Bennett agreed to a brief interview with The Ripple. My first question: “Does your establishment have a name or are you just going to go with the generic ‘Farm Stand’ as your signs read?” “We’re having a banner sign made with ‘Sweet Deals Produce’ printed,” Mike tells me. That ups the creativity quotient a notch or two, I tell him. He laughs and says he’d considered going with something a bit more rural like “Rusty Tractor Produce.” “Not the best marketing idea to mix rust with food,” I say, nodding toward the folksy old manure spreader complimenting the stand’s new signage.Not a tractor (That old derelict reminded me of a Garrison Keillor story where just such an implement was used to ornament a vegetable stand: “I don’t care how much varnish you slap on a thing like that,” said Keillor. “On a hot day everybody knows it’s not a tractor.”)

My interview continues: “What do you want your customers to know about Sweet Deals Produce?” I point to a sign that promises to “Support Local Business.” Mike nods and tells me by “local” he means Valley “local” first and cites Willie Green’s Organic Farms and the produce from Paul Bischoff’s vegetable patch west of Kelly Bolles’ place as local suppliers. County produce next and then eastern state soft fruit and vegetables.

Mike lives in Snohomish and as I said, he’s a busy man. I thank him for his time and off he goes to see to his other businesses. Mike’s son Zach tends the Tualco stand while his dad is elsewhere. When I ask Zach if he lives locally, too, he smiles a shy smile, points and says, “Yeah, in the trailer outside.” Can’t get much more local than that, can you?

Sweet Deals has an eclectic display of farm produce. There’s the usual fare: a variety of soft fruits (as yet no berries), potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes--but I couldn’t help notice a considerable amount of the stand’s inventory caters to Hispanics customers: peppers of all varieties and “heats,” salsa tomatoes, a bin of tomatillos, plantains, a table layered with bags of fresh tortillas, and some other unfamiliar produce like the stickery pear-shaped item Zach holds. A cross between an avocado and a cactus?  “What’s this?” I ask. “It looks like it might come crawling out of there at any minute.” Zach’s holding a spiney chayote, he tells me and believes it’s used in Mexican cuisine of some sort.  More strange stuff…Exotic produce. Ahhh, “prickly cactus pears.” It’s my guess that now the inventory has just left the jurisdiction of local produce. “And this?” I hold up a bundle of pods that looks like another hybrid, this time a cross between a catalpa and a locust trees’ seed pods.Guajes “Used in salsa, I guess,” Zach says. This is some interesting looking produce, I think, as I examine a bin of what looks like scabby fingerling potatoes ( but with the fingers of a giant). Zach’s not too sure about this one, but for those who know its use, they’ll pay $1.49 a pound, crusty scabs included. Strange roots

Zach’s hand-held device demands attention and as he tends to whatever business from whoever, wherever, I wander up and down the aisles. Sweet Deals has a bushel or two of variety up on the Mott’s of yesteryear. And milk, too, at $2.29 a gallon! Among the abundance of hand printed signage I note a few spelling infelicities (the English teacher may retire, but spelling errors sprout eternal): “asparugus” (the “uhhh” schwa sound continues to confound), “rubarb” (gimme an “h”), “apricotes” (a spring fashion, perhaps?), and “quarter” without the first “r” (always profread your work). I peer out the front door where two fruit bins brimming with watermelons (no superfluous “L”: good) guard the entrance. Are these local?

I ask Mike how business has been like so far. “Weekends have been ok,” he says, “but it’s pretty slow during the week.” (I notice Zach discarding some limp asparagus that didn’t sell.) Before Bennett decided to choose this corner, he took note of the traffic on 203 and thought it busy enough to support business here. I tell Mike business should perk up when the berry season starts; each season fresh, local berries bring a host of people to the Valley. “I hope you’re right,” he replies.

So if it’s local honey you want (Bob Hoffman’s: a Snohomish County beekeeper for years), fresh tortillas, sea salt in a variety of flavors (smoked sea salt, for one), fresh bread, milk at $2.29 a gallon, some seed pods, exotic roots, or one of those prickly, bristly things, come browse Sweet Deals Produce. On a hot day, however, you just might want to stay upwind of that rusty old piece of farm machinery out front. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

The British Invasion and Avian Discrimination: Swallowing Problems in the Valley…

Dad and Jrs.This time of the year when we were kids it seems like we’d always come across some baby bird that had tumbled from its nest and was foundering in the grass or weeds. Even then we were keen to the rule (long since disproved) that if you tried to return the chick to the nest, its mother would reject it because of the foreign odor on the nestling. The little thing was most certainly doomed unless Mother Nature’s little helpers came to its rescue, took it “under their wings,” assumed the role of surrogate parents. We’d spring into action; scavenge a cardboard box for a nest; clean rags for nesting material and warmth; and—the key to the rescue—nourishment; if a thing eats, it’s bound to live. For lack of crucial parental gruel—regurgitated insects, worms, grain—we would substitute what worked for human infants: dry baby cereal moistened with milk. In those days our pantry always included this staple; in our large family it seemed there was always an infant about. (And for the sake of nostalgia, we non-infants in the household might serve our own selves a bowl—heavily sugared, of course.) We would load the mushy substance into a medicine dropper and proceed to “inject” (or “drown”) the hapless fledgling with pabulum. With the exception of five magpie chicks we unwittingly adopted, all of which proved to be feathered alimentary canals, the morning after our youthful intensive care we would without fail awake to find a pitiful little corpse stiffened in its rag nest. Then the brief funeral and on with the day….

There is something satisfying about reaching out to a wild thing, connecting with it in some way. Perhaps it has something to do with a sense of kinship, or desire, to affirm our place in the natural world. Without spending an hour on a psychiatrist’s couch, that’s my amateur explanation of why I was determined to have a pair of tree swallows nest in a nest box I built especially for them. Years ago we had a pair of tree swallows nest in a birdhouse gourd I had grown in the garden the summer before. Shortly after I hung the gourd on the grape arbor, the swallows moved in and began the nesting process. As the summer progressed, we would spend some time each evening watching them come and go: nesting material first, then the male feeding the female while she sat the eggs, both sharing foraging flights for bugs to feed the hatchlings, finally the miniature heads bobbing about the entrance impatiently awaiting their next feeding. The foraging continued into the twilight of the evening, the parents working in tandem, each in turn swooping off into the dusk and returning to deposit its latest catch of mosquitoes and gnats into the clamoring mouths.

The chicks never fledged. They grew bolder by the day and then, as I feared, the inevitable happened. One of the chicks toppled from the gourd. I found the struggling bird on the ground beneath and unwittingly returned it to the nest. Two days later I noticed the feeding activity had ceased; only the female returned to the nest that day, peered inside and flew off. The next day I noticed flies flitting in and out of the gourd and went to investigate. I found the chicks dead, their swollen little bodies crawling with mites. Was I responsible for their tragic demise? Had the mites infested the fallen chick and by restoring it to the nest I had infected its siblings? Were the parents in some way responsible? Did the gourd’s proximity to the vine’s foliage contribute to their deaths? I never did discover the cause. Later that day the female, prompted by her maternal instinct--or hope-- returned one last time, perched on the nest’s entrance, and peered inside. Finding nothing stirring, she flew off. We never saw her again that summer and felt a twinge of sadness whenever we glanced at the abandoned gourd. For a while our evenings were not quite the same. Tree swallows have only one brood a season; we knew the pair wouldn’t return to the gourd  for a second settin.’

During the winter I consulted references books on nest boxes for cavity nesting birds, especially tree swallows. The source I chose specified the following:

Interior floor size—5”x 5”

Height of box—10-12”

Entrance hole diameter—1 1/2”

Mounting height of box—10-12’ from the ground

A photo of a nest box showed the entrance hole at least two-thirds up the face of the nest. This got me to thinking about the gourd failure: perhaps the cavity was too shallow, allowing the overeager chicks to tumble out before they were ready to fledge. A deeper cavity would prevent such premature adventures. Using rough cedar fence rails for lumber, I followed the above specs and constructed the nest. The roof I hinged so I could access the cavity for cleaning. The sloping top had an inch and a half overhang for rain protection and shade. I installed two brass hooks to latch the roof to the nest. Before I cut the nest box entrance, I consulted authorities on the hole’s diameter. Everyone I talked to said an inch and a half diameter would allow larger birds access, especially English sparrows. They recommended I reduce the hole to one inch and make it oblong instead of circular. I cut a round hole one inch in diameter in the face of the box and left it at that.

On a sunny spring day usually mid-April the tree swallows arrive on the place and immediately examine the premises for potential nesting sites. A day or so later after their first visit I climbed a ladder to the peak of our storage shed (at a height a half dozen feet higher than the specs required) and installed the new cedar nest box just under the eaves. Hardly two hours later the swallows did a fly-by, kicking the tires, so to speak. The male swooped up, landed on the box, peered in two or three times, and departed. Every three or four hours they’d return and repeat their inspection.

A couple days later the male attempted to enter the nest box (the male apparently must give an “all clear” before his mate crosses the threshold herself). Head inside but no further. Time and again he’d struggle to gain entrance but could go no further than his shoulders. For its size a tree swallow is a broad shouldered little bird. I determined the entrance must be too small, took the box down and enlarged the hole. This time I tried to give it an oblong shape. Up the ladder again. Hardly had my feet touched ground when Mr. flew to the nest, looked in a time or two, teetered on the lip of the hole and disappeared inside. Success at last, or so I thought.

“Bully,” as the British say, and so right they are: the English sparrow is just that, a backyard bully, a dowdy thug that is as aggressive and tenacious as a pit bull. Its nesting instinct is more powerful than the Octomom’s (three to five broods a year!). When the Brit takes a liking to a nesting site, it will have it or else, mercilessly harass any other tenant, and drive it from the premises. A few years back we installed a stylish high rise bird condominium, hoping to attract a respectable clientele, birds with both class and color. By the end of the summer the “Engs,” (our family’s pejorative for this avian pest) had trashed the condo, turned it into a Dickensian tenement.Sparrow Heights  To discourage their presence on the property, I boarded up the entrance holes. Today Sparrow Heights stands like an abandoned tenement row after the Watts’ neighborhood riots.

Yes, I enlarged the entrance…and the modification did not go unnoticed by the Engs. A pair started their bullying ways almost immediately, perching on the shed roof or carport, even settling on top of the occupied nest box, insinuating themselves on the swallow tenants. The Engs work in tandem…like Bonny and Clyde without Tommy guns. For a few days the swallow male defended the nest box with the help of his mate. In the evening both would fly away to roost elsewhere during the night. Early in the morning they would return and defend their stake in the nest box. The Engs would bide their time, making periodic incursions in the swallows’ space, just waiting, waiting…. One evening not a half hour after the swallows left for night, the sparrows moved in. Come morning the swallows found their nest occupied. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the Engs now ruled the roost. I would take my air rifle and rattle a bb off the nest, chase them out and away. Even though the bullies had left the premises, for some reason the swallows were reluctant to reclaim the nest box. They would hover around the entrance, briefly land on the face of the nest, but refused to enter the box. If I had errands to run or indoor chores to do, the Engs would return and commandeer the nest box again. The swallows would leave for the night but would return and perch on our t.v. antennae, waiting for who knows what to happen. This scenario repeated for two or three days. I began to fear that the swallows would give up and nest somewhere else. Not only had the sparrows hauled in nesting material, but I suspected they had left a “scent fence,” a territorial odor that kept the swallows at bay. Up the ladder again. Down with the box. I soaked it in a bucket of rainwater for a day, let the box dry and air out for a week, back up the ladder, rehung it again. 

Now I know you’re probably thinking I had plenty more pressing things to attend to and you’d be right, but this man was NOT about to be bullied by a pair of frumpy Engs. For the next three weeks I was up and down the ladder at least two more times. But for bit of luck and poor aim resulting in sparrowcide, who knows how long I would have had to arbitrate the nest box issue. Unfortunately the male Eng got in the way of an errant bb and that was that. The swallow pair moved in immediately; they didn’t even bother to attend the funeral. The rest of the nesting cycle seemed routine; however, one of the chicks fledged too soon. I found it dead in the weeds nearby. As far as I know the remaining hatchling fledged successfully the very next day. Their nesting ordeal finished for the season, the pair left in the company of the youngster, and the nest box was abandoned.

As if I hadn’t spent considerable time with my swallowing problem already, I kept a journal of the swallow/Eng ordeal, keeping a daily account of both species’ behaviors. When the swallows came back this spring, I consulted last year’s experience and found it was “pete and repeat” this season with the sparrows. Up and down the ladder; rinsing out the nestbox. The second time I rehung the box, I thought my efforts would pay off. The swallows took over their nest, but four days later as soon as they flew off to their nightly roosting site, a pair of Engs moved in, carrying nesting material with them. “Ok, you little buggers, go for it,” I said. “You can do your dirty work for a week and then down comes your home and all its contents.” Five days later I climbed the ladder again. When I lifted the roof of the box, I found a complete nest and four eggs. No wonder the countryside is overrun with the tenacious little fluff devils. I dumped the contents, eggs and all, over the fence and submerged the purged nest box in the rain barrel once more. In the meantime the tree swallows remained ever hopeful, faithfully returning to the t.v. antenna each morning, periodically fluttering around their nesting site as if expecting the box to pop out of the side of the shed for them. A week later…up the ladder again.

At this point the pair are at home in the box as if nothing had happened. Currently they have chicks to feed and are foraging for bugs (a single swallow can consume two hundred or so insects in a single day) to feed their young. Both parents are hard at work: as soon as one arrives at the nest, the other spurts out and takes its turn. Back and forth they fly from dawn to twilight.Swallow mom

What I have learned from my swallowing experience is apparently the one-brood species has a certain window of time for nest building. During this period they instinctively know it’s do or die if they want to raise a family that season. Once this “zero hour” is reached, they will defend their nesting site aggressively, doing battle with Engs, starlings, or any other bird that enters their space. My last year’s journal has been helpful with the timeline:

May 15-17—Female began carrying in nesting material.

May 18—Nest building continues…

May 20—Noticed mating activity…

May 22—More mating activity. Female is spending more time in the nest? Eggs, perhaps?

June 1—The female is brooding; the male feeds her periodically…

June 16—Chicks have hatched. Both parents are foraging for bugs and feeding their babies…

June 25—Miniature heads appear in the nest entrance…

June 29—Two heads always at the door, one larger than the other, the larger is just poised to fledge…

July 1—The chicks have apparently fledged. No sign of them anywhere. The male visited the nest twice, checked inside, and flew off. Probably won’t see anymore swallow activity at the nest until next season. I hope both chicks fledged and are soaring in the Valley with their parents.Feeding time

There you have the swallow season in an “eggshell,” and this one has been almost a mirror image of last’s. But I’m a wiser person now. Next year I’ll wait until mid-May to struggle up the ladder: hopefully, only one round trip this time. The rungs seem to get farther apart each year, the height more dizzying. After all, I’m not the fledgling I used to be.Waiting for Mrs.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Ballad of the Supine Cyclist…

Recumbant aheadFeet in the air,

Feet in the air,

Pedalin’ up a storm

With my feet in the air.

Lying on my backside…

It’s not polite to stare,

Cruisin’ down the road

With my feet in the air.

Sure, I’m horizontal…

Don’t much really care,

Pedalin’ on my back

With my knees in the air.

Ridin’ down the fog line,

Feet whirlin’ away.

If and when I get there,

Cannot really say.

Feet pointin’ skyward,

Backside at the road,

Wibble, wobble, side-to-side,

Distributing the load.

Cars flyin’ by me,

Miss me by a hair.

Just pedalin’ like a fool

With my feet in the air…

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Stone for the Ages: From the Archives…

[sic]“…the wildflowers bloomed and the winters fell…”

By now the trip is familiar—seventeen of the last eighteen years if memory serves—winding up McNeill Canyon to the wheat fields on the Waterville Plateau. Some are fallow, some flush with sprouted winter wheat. Off the blacktop, dust funneling away behind the truck as I head north along the “Primitive Roads,” between plowed and seeded wheat fields and the basalt scablands on the northern fringe of the Waterville Plateau. On both sides of the road, some near, some distant, huge haystack rocks (“erratics,” geologists call them), dot the landscape.

“Bear left,” I remind myself as I come to one dusty intersection after another. I need to head west now. Gently slide the sharp corner by the Grigg place (a “hundred year-old farm” the sign reads) and head north again. A mile down the road next to an old homestead I slow to a stop and step out into a cool, breezy late May morning. The old cabin’s roof has succumbed to the weight of many winters, is near collapse; the structure is about to implode. Doors and windows just gaping holes through which I can see bare lathe and plaster walls. The same debris litters the floor in heaps. From somewhere within a sound startles me. I stop, listen…nothing. I continue, cautiously weaving my way through waist high grasses, stepping over snares of barbed wire, the remnants of an old gate, to an ancient lilac bush.

A white lilac, this old pioneer, is in full bloom now. Not the case in seasons past: either a late bloom or past bloom. This spring the bush (actually more a small tree) blossoms profusely and the morning breeze has loosed the heady fragrance around me. Though I’m on a tight schedule, have driven nonstop for over three hours, I take time to breathe deeply, savor the gift of lilac, for the gift comes only once a year. And next year is a long way distant, and even then, who knows…. Out with the jackknife and I cut four nice, blossom-laden branches, return to the truck and place them gently in the ice chest in the company of a bouquet of iris. One more turn to the west and I can see the canopy of pines below the ridge of the plateau: my destination where since 1994, excepting one year, I’ve performed this annual rite.

The pines always whisper there. The breeze sweeps up valley from the river, sets them to talking. Sometimes a gust of wind: the pines explode with sound, a gentle roar, subsides and they whisper again.… You might hear the keening of a red-tailed hawk mounting the currents above the plateau. In spring the drumming of a blue grouse to his lady… a flicker hammering out a grub from a dead pine below…a jay might yammer back at a rook croaking overhead…but mostly it’s the never silent pines that murmur, theirs a lullaby for the eternities. Shovel and rake in hand I make my way down slope through the bunchgrass and sage to the familiar stone….

Twelve years ago when I was about to rest on my laurels after thirty-one years of coexisting peacefully with high school sophomores, it used to irritate me each time I was asked (which was often): “What are you going to do when you retire?”… as if something was expected of me now I was about to inherit what the paycheck/nine-to-five demographic considered one whole lot of free time. For them, I guess, I was their retirement by proxy, and when I’d reply: “Oh, there’s always plenty to keep me busy around the place,” you could almost see the disappointment play across their faces. No plans to scale Everest or hike Nepal and the Himalayas? Sail solo around the world, perhaps? No intentions to rent an artist’s loft in Paris, set up an easel by a sidewalk bistro and render Parisian scenes in water color? Golf at least, right? (I’d sooner bungee jump, skydive, wrestle a ‘gator, or swim with the sharks, but I never told them that.) No, retirement was a time to keep one’s personal promises, promises the nine-to-five, five day work week until now had made extremely inconvenient to fulfill--if not impossible. And since these pledges were personal, they were nobody’s business….

Packwood Memorial Cemetery perches on a narrow bench off Central Ferry Canyon Road in northwest Douglas County. You could find it easily on a contour map of the area; it would be the wider space set between narrow lines above and below it east off the upper Central Ferry Canyon Road. Packwood CemeteryThis December, eighteen years ago, we carried Dad to this place and now Packwood has him for eternity. For seven years his grave was marked by only a small metal nameplate, courtesy of the local funeral home, and now seven years later the cheap copper plating had worn off. Dad deserved better than that from his family, and so I promised…. Thus, in January of 2001, my first full year of retirement, I began to make good that promise.

Dad loved the ridge above where he now lies. A deer hunter and outdoorsman, he spent many hunting seasons scouring the Packwood pines for deer (“This looks ‘deery,’” Dad always said). We thought about the geography of the area, wanted something natural for Dad’s monument. The granite and marble markers in the cemetery seemed oddly out of place in the geography of the area. The dominant petrology of the Waterville Plateau is basalt from some ancient volcanic lava spill that oozed across hundreds of miles of Eastern Washington. The northern fringe of this flow ended in northwest Douglas County; basalt scablands and “rimrocks” compose the  steep hillside above Packwood. A monument of basalt seemed appropriate for the setting. (Other families thought the same: at least two plain basalt slabs from the hillside mark where their loved ones lie.)Marker 2Marker 1






Just down the road a mile here in the Valley was a business that sold stone of all sorts: flagstone, pavers, boulders for “big” landscapes…rocks of all types and compositions. A convenient place to begin the search. I needed to include family in the decision, so I called my brothers Tim and Kevin. We met at the stone place and checked out their inventory. After stumbling around, over and through one rock pile after another, we found what we were looking for: blocks of columnar basalt from the Columbia Basin. The stones were huge, some weighing tons, so immediately we were confronted by a transport problem. The brothers and I discussed the feasibility of freighting such a monolith to a pioneer cemetery one hundred eighty miles away across one mountain pass to its final resting place. We chose the smallest block of basalt in the stone yard, one that was slightly longer than its height but even that chunk scaled out at slightly more than a ton. Then we had an idea that would lighten up the stone by half. Most columnar basalt is hexagonal. Halving the stone would result in a three-sided monument, one side to serve as the top, the opposite side as the base, and the sliced third—the largest surface area—would be a perfect inscription surface for Dad’s epitaph…and lighter now by half. We asked the owners if the stone could be halved and were told yes; however, they did not have the machinery for the job on site and would have to haul the rock to Seattle. We made the decision to go ahead with the project.The stone was forklifted aboard a pallet, weighed, set aside with a “sold” tag on it, and we left the yard.

Thus began a long and frustrating ordeal. Because I was closest to the work site, it made sense for me to be the one to oversee the project. My brothers, besides, had a business to run.  Then there was the fact I was the eldest sibling, the one with a “whole lot of free time” on my hands, remember. It was my promise after all and I swore to honor it.

The project needed a timeline. It was mid-January when we purchased the stone. All members of the family were contacted and the installation date set: July seventh, the Independence Day holiday weekend. Ours is a large family and the Fourth of July is one of the few times of the year we could manage to get together. My youngest sister and family were making the trip west from Omaha and planned to participate. Mid-January to July seventh, nearly seven months…plenty of time to prepare Dad’s monument. Or so I thought….

Every two or three weeks I would drive the mile to the stone yard, check on the progress. Time after time I would pull in the driveway only to find our “project” hunkering in the same place as before. Into the office and politely, “No progress yet?”only to be told “We’ve been busy lately but we’ll get on it soon.” Soon? I reminded them again that July seventh the family would be together for the installation. They’d smile and nod as if July 7 was a millennium away.

February and March went by. The stone hadn’t budged, and I’m thinking about the $500 deposit I’d left as down payment. “Our trucks have been very busy,”they explained, “and we just haven’t been able to free one up for the trip to Seattle.” Two weeks later I turned into the driveway and was surprised to see the stone had left the yard. My next visit our half, neatly sliced, was back on its pallet in the yard. And there it sat: the next phase, sandblasting an inscription surface still unfinished.

April came and went. I talked to the fellow assigned to our project: “Every time I’m about to get started, they give me another job,” he apologized. Back to the office where I suggested they hire more help if they weren’t able to complete their orders.

Finally in mid-May, progress at last: the face of the stone had been sandblasted, smoothed and sculpted to a shiny, obsidian-black. My hopes soared.

May passed into June and the epitaph had yet to be engraved. Two weeks later…same old, same old, and I’d had enough. I stormed into the office, asked to see the manager, and unloaded on him: “If the project isn’t done by the first of July, I want my money refunded and I’m cancelling the project.” July 1. I drove down promptly at opening time and there, strapped to a pallet, ready for transport, was—at long last—Dad’s stone. An American flag, posted in the top of the stone above the epitaph, fluttered gently in the Tualco Valley breeze. Now all that remained was transporting the 1,200 pound monument across Stevens Pass one hundred eighty miles to Packwood Memorial Cemetery.

Whether my little Toyota was up to the task, I wasn’t sure. I asked Larry at Courtesy Tire about the weight issue. He thought the truck could handle a 1,200 pound load. “Air up your tires to 40 pounds pressure,” he advised. “You’ll be fine.” I had the stone loaded, made sure the pallet was moved forward to the cab to distribute the weight forward. Departure was two days away, and to spare the Toyota’s suspension system, the truck sat in the driveway with a one ton jack supporting the springs.ready to transport

At five a.m. July 6 I headed east. My little Toyota performed admirably: third gear the last few miles to the summit but otherwise a routine drive. Proper weight distribution made the difference and kept the front end from floating at highway speed. Before noon I arrived at the packing shed complex on the ranch where Dad had been foreman for so many years…our staging area. One of the shed hands met me and with a ranch forklift relieved the truck of 1,200 pounds of stone. The monument spent the night in an empty cold storage room.

July 7. I arrived at the staging area around 8:00 a.m. The ranch mechanic gave me a brief driving lesson for the balloon-tired big forklift that would carry the headstone uphill the last seven miles to the cemetery.Staging The family gathering and installation were at 10:00, so with brother Tim as escort, I began the last leg of our seven month “journey.”

Seven slow miles…plenty of time to let memories wash over me as the big machine whined its way up Central Ferry Canyon Road.all uphill


in transit 

As I turn into the cemetery driveway, I can feel the tension of the last seven months slip away. I bring the  forklift to a stop in the shade of the big pine tree in the dusty parking lot, lower the pallet to the ground.

I need to reposition the stone so the epitaph reads downhill, and reverse the machine, approach the pallet from the opposite side, and with Tim’s directions slide the forks under the pallet. I ease along through the sagebrush to the gravesite, carefully lower the pallet to the ground, and shut down the engine. As the roar subsides, the murmur of the pines whispers a gentle welcome.almost, but not quite

One by one our families gather. When all are present, we prepare the gravesite for the stone’s final resting place.A family gathering The brothers fashion a sling from the canvas strapping belt, and I lift the stone while they remove the pallet. Placing the monument is done with ease, thanks to the forks of the lift which not only lift and lower but also slide horizontally.A proper place

A few hand directions from the brothers and the stone settles to rest. We pull loose the straps, stand back and admire our work. The stone belongs, as if it’s always been there…a part of the place…at home at last.

                  *          *          *          *          *

I set the rake and shovel aside and critique my work. Another year and Dad’s gravesite is cleared of the  growth of native plants ever anxious to reclaim the site. The grave is newly mounded, raked and smoothed. I decorate it with the lilacs I cut earlier and add the iris I brought from the Valley. Only one thing left to do: I retrieve the new flag from the truck, return to the stone,  release the red, white and blue cloth from its furl and insert the dowel in the posting hole. A few steps back for final approval. The ever present breeze sets the flag in motion. Time for a moment’s reflection: my journey of eleven years ago to honor a man, my father, and his lifetime.Dad 2012

If a man deserves the stone, I say he should have it. Now Dad has his. A stone for the ages…a promise kept….