August harvester

August is not the best sleeping month at our house. My earlier blog was about loud, early morning fog horns. This blog is about a little busybody harvester whose work often wakes us with a loud BAM beginning about 5:30 a.m.

We have a huge Douglas fir tree towering over our house. Each year in late August a little red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), or maybe it is an army of red squirrels, begin harvesting the thousands of cones our tree produces each year. The skylight in the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom seems to be the main target. It is uncanny how loud the sound from a small three inch cone can be when it drops from 70 or 80 feet.

There does not seem to be a particular system for what happens once the cones are felled. Some of them get eaten on the roof. Some of them get carried into our wood pile. Most of them seem to be abandoned all over the back yard, where they are a bit like walking on marbles.

Years ago when I worked for the U.S. Forest Service we took advantage of the red squirrel’s scattered approach to putting away food stocks for the winter. Our forest biologist explained that they harvest way more cones than they need and actually forget where all their stores are. So, we would find a cache and collect cones to give to give to the nursery that grew young trees for our replanting operations.

I am not sure what signals the squirrels that our cones are ready for harvesting or why they quit after about 5 days. It is simply one of those mysteries I enjoy tracking in our rural setting.

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Fog-ust

Mid-morning fog out my front window

Mid-morning fog out my front window

Early this morning I awoke to the deep-throated booming of a ship’s foghorn. In the dawn light I could read the alarm “4:35 a.m.” In two minutes the “bee-ohhh” penetrated the morning silence again. This time it had moved closer to our house. In another two minutes it sounded like it was going to come in through the front door.

Living adjacent to the shipping lane in Puget Sound, I have come to love these wake-up calls. Often, I open the front door to see if I can catch a glimpse of our morning visitor.

August is a common time for fog in our area—so much so, that we dub this month “Fog-ust”. The low-lying clouds slide in over the Sound in the early morning hours and linger until mid-day when the summer sun manages to burn it off. We often say that summer here occurs between 1 p.m. when the sun burns off and 6 p.m. when the cool, marine air engulfs us once again and we put our fleece and wool sox on again.

There are many technical descriptions of why fog occurs in the warm summer months by the sea, but basically it is the result of warm atmospheric air clashing with cooler marine air.

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

Morning sun trying to burn off the fog

What fascinates me, though, is the personality of fog. It is mysterious. It is elusive. It is unpredictable—just when you see some blue sky overhead and think it is clearing, you are engulfed in deeper fog for hours. And never did I feel that unpredictability more profoundly than the summer I kayaked around Lake Superior.

“About twenty minutes into our crossing, the predicted blanket of fog descended and wrapped us in a gray cocoon. The distant shore became a wishful thought. . . our lives depended on our $80 mounted compasses and our steadfastness in believing them.” Deep Water Passage—a Spiritual Journey at Midlife by Ann Linnea

Twenty-one years later I still remember the sheer determination, fear, and good luck that got me through those frequent times on the world’s largest inland sea. Lying in my warm bed, I think about those huge ships outside my window with their fancy radar units and their old-fashioned fog horns warning small-time mariners who must depend only on their eyes and ears to navigate the fog.

A mother’s wisdom

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On a recent family trip our two-year-old granddaughter managed to hike up Easter Bluff on Cortes Island, BC. It was a challenging hike up and over big boulders. “I do it myself,” she stated many times. Her mom and dad were always close at hand.

It is no small thing that this little one was able to climb several hundred feet over a mile long trail. But what I will always remember is the trip down.

We watched the sunset after eating our picnic dinner. It was 8:30 p.m. and little Sasha had no nap that day. Within ten minutes of beginning our descent she was in full meltdown. No one could help. Nothing worked. We got to a flatter place in the trail beneath two very large, old growth Douglas fir trees.

My daughter, Sally, scooped Sasha into her arms and sat down beneath the tree. “OK, Sweetie, breathe. Just breathe. We will breathe together.” Within minutes Sasha was no longer crying. It was a mother’s magic at work.

And then, of course, her father carried her the rest of the way down the mountain.

Ancient Tree in an Ancient Town

img_2719smallx225On a recent European teaching trip we stopped to visit the town of Groznian on the Istria Peninsula in Croatia. Like so many things in this country, both the tree and the town have a long history.

A vendor near the tree identified it as a Mediterranean hackberry or European nettle tree, (Celtis australis). It stood prominently near the edge of the walled city. We were enthralled by its warty bark and hollow center. Indeed, it seemed to be a testament to perseverance, not unlike the town it had been planted in!

The first mention of the town in any written history was 1102. Being from North America where 400 year-year-old buildings are a rarity,
Groznjan awed us with its stone streets, walls, and arches. Today it is being revitalized as a meeting place for young musicians. Perhaps the tree will live to see the city thrive again as a cultural center of this area.

Weather Watching

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With a 40-mile view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains I love watching the weather. All kinds of clouds gallop across the Pacific Ocean and fly over the mountain tops  to produce our maritime weather.

As a citizen scientist, I am part of a team of volunteer weather watchers and measurers: www.cocorahs.org. Our information provides important supplemental backup for the National Weather Service forecasts. Anyone can participate. All it takes is a $30 rain gauge and a computer. Even my 10-year-old nephew in North Carolina is part of this team.

Look us up and join in. It is a lot of fun and very informative.

 

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Toddler Hummingbird

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A young rufuous hummingbird (left) learned to drink from our feeder today and lucky me got to witness it. This morning while making tea I noticed a hummer fly in and sit right next to another hummer who was feeding.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Hummingbirds generally fight each other, not sit together.”

Then the one who flew in began to beg for food from the other. It put its little beak up in the air and opened it, hoping for breakfast. The mother completely ignored its young offspring and kept drinking. The message was clear. It’s time for you to learn how to do this.

After several attempts at begging, the little bird started jabbing its bill into the red plastic. “Dang,” I could almost hear it thinking. “This is not getting me any food.”

Then the little hummer flew underneath the feeder and tried jabbing at it. Still nothing. Back it flew to the top of the feeder and began begging again. Mom was not impressed. She kept feeding. The little hummer started jabbing its bill at the feeder again and BINGO in went its beak. The little guy got excited and started flapping madly with its beak in the hole.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “Its beak is shorter than its mothers and the feeder is only about a third full. I am not sure it’s getting any sugar water.” The two hummers flew off. I made more sugar water and filled the feeder. They were back in minutes.

Once again the whole scene repeated itself—begging, ignoring behavior, more begging, more ignoring behavior, finally success at sticking its beak in the hole and resting on the perch drinking.

Such a miracle to see one of nature’s vulnerable moments!

The bird on the left is the young. The bird on the right is the mother. The photo below shows the characteristic rufous hummingbird reddish tail.
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Snow in May?

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Snow in May?

At first glance, it looks like we got a light dusting of snow here on Whidbey Island in May. Unlike my disgruntled friends and family members in Minnesota who DID get snow on May 2, this white substance by the side of the road is white flowers from our beautiful madrone trees.

Madrone flowers on the road

Madrone flowers on the road

 

The madrone tree, Arbutus menziesii, is found all along the west coast of North America. In spring it creates these white flowers and in the fall it bears red berries that are much loved by local birds.
img_9834It is an evergreen tree with rich, orange-red bark that peels in thin sheets, not unlike birch trees. It is very dense and therefore good for firewood. I love the curved, sensuous beauty of its twisting trunks. One of its challenges is that the heavily populated west coast no longer allows fires, which it readily survives and thrives on.

 

 

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Farewell Orion

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The most spectacular constellation in the northern winter sky is Orion, the Hunter (named after a god from Greek mythology). By mid-April this constellation is only visible in the western sky for a couple of hours after sunset. No longer the spectacular overhead cluster of stars with its belt and sword, it is making its exodus from prominence in the sky just as winter fades. In Canada and higher elevations and latitudes in the U.S. there may still be snow on the ground. In milder parts of North America Orion takes his leave as tulips bloom, daffodils fade, and lilac buds begin to form.

By May the mighty hunter is gone from our early night view until October when fall returns. I love this constellation. It is like having a friend up in the sky that is a better marker of the monthly calendar than the more fickle phenology of snow cover or blooming plants.

And imagine my surprise to discover Orion is also found in the southern hemisphere—as, of course, a marker in the summer sky. There he lies on his side, but he is as well known and distinctive to the Australians as he is to us. Though when we were visiting recently, I was informed the constellation is more commonly known as “the Pot” from the shape of the sword and belt. Constellations are named through our imagination and if we tend to them, they can tell us a lot about the changing seasons.

Nature is Everywhere

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Nature is everywhere. My 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter, Sasha Ann, watched her mother carefully remove a bee from the window of their LA apartment using a jar and a piece of paper. Lesson: Bees are good. Don’t hurt them. They belong outdoors.

An hour later Sasha, I, and Grandma Nina (the photographer) were playing in a park when she wandered out of the playground onto a nearby sports field. Suddenly she stooped to point out a bee on some clover. “Good bee,” she said.

When her mother, my daughter Sally, was tiny I carefully removed bugs from the house. Obviously, the lesson took. As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, let us never overlook the impact of our actions on our children.

Tasmania—southern temperate rain forest

 

 

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“Where is Tasmania?” asked my Minnesota parents when I Skype called their land line. “It sounds like a fairy land.”

It is a fairy land of gorgeous coasts, wild rivers, and high mountains that is an island state of Australia—the last significant land mass before Antarctica. I am spending a few days vacationing in Cradle Mountain National Park here in Tasmania between Australian work assignments.

Hiking from 900 meters up through the southern temperate rain forest to subalpine vistas of craggy peaks, I was struck how similar the forest felt to the northern temperate rain forest where I live. Temperatures are comparable in this shoulder season between summer and winter. Moss covers every downed log. There are very few understory plants because little light can get to the forest floor past the tall trees. Downed logs serve as nursery logs for young, upstart trees. Green is the operative color and big is the operative size of trees.

However, none of the plant or animal species are the same. Here there are three poisonous snakes. Back home there are none. Here there are no large mammalian predators. Back home there are cougar and bear. (Tasmanians could make a strong case for which scenario they prefer!)Here all the mammals are marsupial—wallabies, wombats, and pademelons. Back home there are no marsupials.

The King Billy Pine found only in Tasmania occupies a niche comparable to the giant Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, and western red cedar of home. The largest “leafy tree” here is the myrtle beech, which is not deciduous, unlike the big leaf maple back home.

Everywhere our beautiful earth has evolved with the changes of ice ages, volcanoes, tectonic plate shifts, and intruding meteorites. It is a stunning things to have the privilege to view so much diversity . . . and it brings me great hope for the future adaptations that must happen.