Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Signs of Spring

I went looking for signs of spring on my walk Tuesday and was not disappointed. It was warm and sunny and so I heard peepers and tree frogs singing, there is one that sounds just like someone is rubbing their thumb across a comb, very loudly. They stop singing when you get near, then start up again as you pass by. They are almost impossible to spot because they are tiny and blend perfectly with the tree trunks and stop singing when you get close, so it’s really hard to see them. But their singing, from the creeks and the marsh, is most definitely the first song of spring.

I found the first trout lily and the first hepatica, which always bloom earlier than anything else. This is only the beginning as over the next few weeks the ground will be covered with the gray green spotty leaves and yellow flowers of the trout lily. Hepatica is less common and the most ephemeral of all the wildflowers, only blooming for a week or two.

Another sure sign that spring is on the way were the maple blossoms littering the path, red and yellow if you look real close. They stand out bright and frilly against the brown and gray leaf litter on the ground.

The witch hazel is in bloom around the pond, long yellow tassels sway in the breeze, so loaded with pollen they send off a cloud of dust if you touch them. There are tiny red tips above the tassels, not sure what their function is, maybe they become the small cones the plants sport in the fall.

Winter wrens and juncos are still about, bluebirds are checking out the nest boxes and singing up a storm so it won’t be long before the birds begin to make their shift. We got a half inch of rain yesterday and today is cold and windy, this capricious weather is just so February.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Merlin Sighting

We were surprised this week by Merlin, I don't mean the wizard, but the falcon. Yes, that makes the 100th new bird on our list of "backyard" birds. I thought it was a sharp-shinned hawk which are pretty common around here, but after studying the photos and the bird book we realized it was a Merlin. One major distintion is the Sharp-shins have red eyes and the Merlin's eyes are black. Very cool and kind of rare here. It was perched on the fountain just outside the kitchen door so that made it even more fantastic. It was hunting a junco or sparrow that was hiding for its life in the ferns. More than once we've seen a hawk make a strike on a smaller bird visiting our feeders, it's one of the down sides to having feeders, but doesn't make us take them away as we love having the birds here in the yard and its natural for hawks to prey on smaller birds.
On the gardening front, I planted 12 dozen onion plants I mail ordered from Dixon Dale farms, Stockton purple, Candy yellow, and Super Star white. I figure thats 12 onions a month which should be just about right, we eat a lot of onions around here. It looks like nothing but onions out there right now with the leeks, garlic and green onions planted in the fall next to all the new ones. But the peas are sprouting, sugar snap and snow, and I planted radish, spinach, carrots and lettuce that I'm watching for daily.

Bulbs are popping up everywhere, remember the 1,000 that we planted last fall? The squirrels keep digging them up and moving them around, so not only are they coming up where we planted them, but in other spots too- its kind of fun and the beauty of planting so many is you don't get so torqued out by those mischievous squirrel antics as you might if you had only planted 50.

We are working the flower beds, weeding, mulching and moving plants around, spring is so close we can really taste it now, those 60 degree days make us want to get out and dig and those 40 degree rainy ones that follow give us a chance to rest those winter tired and lazy muscles from the day before.

We are contemplating getting a really big cistern to set up behind our garden shed and gravity feed the veggies, I'm going to see how much they cost. Next on the to do list is to get the taters planted, I bought sets for 3 kinds last week and need to get them in the ground this week. The few we planted last year (from some that were sprouting in the kitchen) were so tasty that we vowed to plant MORE this year, enough to store.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Alamos, Mexico

I’m back from an amazing nine day bird watching trip to Arizona and Mexico. We saw over 150 birds over five days of birding and I added 60 new birds to my life list which left my head swimming. Even my brother who has to work hard to find new birds wracked up a couple dozen.

It was not as whirlwind as many birding trips have been though it did require 2 days of travel each way to fly to Tucson and then drive 8 hours south to the town of Alamos, a sweet little colonial town nestled in a valley of the Sierra Madre mountains. It’s very arid and part of Sonora, so cacti and other desert plants and scrubby trees like mesquite and paloverde predominate. Like much of mexicao and Central America, Bougainvillea cascade in sweeps of burgundy, pink and purple over every wall and fence.

Alamos in February has excellent weather. Night’s in the 40’s, warm into 70 to 80 degree days, with low humidity and gentle breezes that are extremely tranquilizing, perfect for shady afternoon siestas after long leisurely lunches at the CafĂ© del Sol, owned by the Jen and Dave MacKay-our hosts in Alamos and proprietors of Solipaso and El Pedregal. (Check out their whole trip at

The place where we stayed, El Pedregal, means stony place, but its part of a larger area known as the Chaleton, which is named for the ancient Chalate fig trees whose deep green spreading canopies and buttressed roots are the largest thing growing in the area. The centerpiece of El Pedregal is a large round thatch roofed palapa that is flanked by one such Chalate that happened to be loaded with figs while we were there. They are not tasty for human eaters but flocks of long-tailed magpie jays visited the tree by day and fruit bats by night to munch the small green fruits. I spent one afternoon working on my "fig drop-butterfly" meditation while lying under the palapa, listening to the thump of figs falling to the sandy soil while watching butterflies float through the canopy and across the clear blue sky.

Dave is an expert bird guide and well known after living in Alamos for 13 years and leading bird watching trips all over Sonora and other parts of Mexico. This is an area that seems to specialize in big birds with long tails. The Black-throated Magpie Jay and the Squirrel Cuckoo were two of my favorites, each with tails 12-14 inches long. We also saw Rufous-bellied Chacalacas, noisy turkey-sized birds that jumped around high in the fig trees eating fruit and cackling, their name derived from their raucous call.

Other favorite exotics were the Russet-crowned Mot Mot, green back, reddish head, creamy chest and long blue tail culminating in two feathers with small round paddle like appendages. There were tiny Mexican Parrotlettes, who won the prize for cutest bird, the 5 inch mini-parrots clustered together on sunny bare branches, looked like clumps of bright green leaves from a distance, but on closer inspection were revealed to be birds, preening each other and warming up before flying off into the sunny day.

Jen and Dave were fabulous hosts and treated us swell, touring us to local restaurants for dinner, and also to the plaza on Sunday night to eat tacos de carne asada while the whole town gathered to crown three local teen beauties in one of the many such contests that are held each year. Only 10,000 people live in Alamos, which was founded in the 1600’s when silver was discovered in nearby Aduana. Spaniards enslaved the local Yaqui Indians to work in the silver mines and build the grand colonial houses that still stand in Alamos.

Once the silver mines played out the town began to fall into disrepair, but in the 1900’s it was “discovered” by an American who began to buy property and restore it. There are now about 200 expats who own property in the area, many only visit in winter. The 110 degree, high humidity days of summer are not for the faint of heart. My two favorite stories of expat's are the dentist for the Grateful Dead and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s personal assistant of 20 years. The actor Carroll O’Connor also made Alamos his home along with others who have adopted this quaint Mexican town.

After four days of birding we left Alamos and headed back to the states. We spent a night in Madera Canyon- famous for bird watching- especially hummingbirds in spring. We were there in the off season for one reason only, to find the Crescent-Chested Warbler, a bird rarely seen in the US that had been hanging out in one section of the canyon for the past couple of months. We woke early and climbed up a rocky switch-back trail in the chill air, snow dusting the tops of the mountains on either side of the canyon. We encountered several other birdwatchers, all intent on finding “the bird”.

Few birds were stirring because it was still very cold and I wandered ahead of the group. I caught sight of a small group of Red Crossbills, they look like House Finches with their reddish heads but have these crazy crossed-bills, one of those odd evolutionary adaptations that allow them to pop open pinecones to get to the seed inside. While studying the Crossbills- a new bird for me, I saw something smaller flitting through the branches and called to my brother “Hey- I’ve got something here, small bird, yellow breast, white eyebrow” “That’s IT!” he shouted, “my sisters got the bird.” And everyone clustered around craning their necks to see this tiny warbler, with a small chestnut colored crescent on its yellow chest, bluish gray back and white eyebrow.

He was very cooperative as birders say and hung around so everyone could get a nice long look. Before leaving the warbler, my bro got to talking with another birder who told him that a place about 100 miles from Tucson had lots of owls roosting, including a Long-Eared Owl. This was the last North American owl my brother had yet to see and he had been looking hard for this bird. I knew where we would be heading our final day in Arizona. The rest of the day was anti-climactic, not many birds around and so we drove into Tucson for dinner and a night with an old family friend.

The next morning we dropped our traveling companions at the airport to catch their early flight and zipped out to Whitewater Wash. No sooner were we out of the car than my brother met another birder who knew the area well and walked us directly to the tree where the long-eared owl was resting and pointed it out to us. I don’t think we would have found the bird without help, it was so well camouflaged. A large bird with tall ears, half brownish gray, half white. We agreed he was much grayer than portrayed in any of the books, but perhaps it was the light or winter plumage. The facial discs were yellowish brown, a wide line of white feathers covered the center of its face above the beak and the bird blinked at us from his hiding place in the tree. We also spotted several barn owls roosting deeper in the clump of willows at the end of a large pond.

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes also winter at this location, though most of them were out foraging by the time we arrived, we did get to see a few of them standing and flying in and out. There were lots of ducks and good sparrow watching at this location as well. We walked around and birded from the car a bit and then zipped back to Tucson to catch our mid afternoon flight. It was a dandy trip and I’m glad I got the opportunity to go. Getting to Alamos wasn’t particularly easy, but seeing so many great birds and having Jen and Dave as our hosts made it worthwhile.

Monday, February 4, 2008

January Locavores

So some of you might be curious how the attempt to eat local went. The goal was to eat as much from the house, freezer and garden as possible in January and reduce the grocery bill. I've just tallied up the receipts and the sad truth is- we still spent $400 at the grocery store which seems to be our general average through out the year. Oh well. We did eat a lot of food out of our freezer and our garden and our pantry. The biggest expense- coffee! We have a pound and a half a week habit and since we only buy sustainable, eco and people friendly coffee, which runs about $12 a pound, it really adds up.

Next biggest expense was cheese and milk- almost $70 for the month. This is a major protein source, and lots of milk goes into all the coffee that we drink too. The milk is local from a dairy just up the road and so is some of the cheese. We save a lot by baking our own multi-grain, nutty, crusty, chewy bread, which is the perfect platform for much of the cheese that gets consumed around here.

We spent about $100 on fruits and veggies, mainly apples and citrus- including a half case of the sweetest, juiciest honeybell tangelos direct from Florida that I have ever tasted. (Tip for those in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area, second Sunday of the month- 11:00-1:00 in the Fitch Lumber parking lot- truckload of citrus by the case, cash and check only- totally worth checking out).

The only veggies I bought were onions, garlic, celery, carrots, cauliflower, one giant beet and lettuce. We continued to eat veggies from the garden right through January, all the stuff I harvested on January 1st is consumed acccept for a few turnips that might become soup today and I am still picking a few greens, kale, swiss chard and spinach and harvesting brussel sprouts too.

I'm going to re-dedicate myself to this goal of eating more from home because there is still a lot of food in the pantry and the freezer that needs eating up. Mr. D can work on all those frozen homemade soups while I'm down in Mexico and when I get back we'll be planting lots of veggies, so in about 6-8 weeks we should be able to begin harvesting our own home grown lettuces and greens again. I can't wait.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Reading the Land

Walking the land in winter I’m intrigued by the marks that humans have made over the decades. Being able to go off trail and bushwhack without the fear of ticks and poison ivy make exploring a bit easier this time of year. It’s possible to really read the land and see what’s hidden when all the undergrowth is down. The other day I walked downstream, something I’ve always wanted to do, went all the way to highway 54. It was about 3 miles each way- I was tired when I got home.

The thing that precipitated this adventure was a talk given on the grist mills of Morgan and Bolin Creeks at the Chapel Hill Historical Society on Sunday. One of the guest speakers was Mark Chilton, who happens to be the mayor of Carrboro and has been doing research and writing a book on the history of the Haw River watershed including the mills in the area. Mark talked about how the mills were built at places along the creeks and rivers where there was a drop in the land. He said in the 1800’s people didn’t use the word rapid but rather described those places as “powers”, they recognized the energy waiting to be harnessed in those places of rushing water. There were at least six mills on Morgan Creek and one of them was close to our place, so I went down stream to try and find it, and I did.

All that’s really left is the remains of a rock and earth dam that formed the mill pond back in the 1880’s. It was clear to me from pictures of other mills that this is what I was looking at, and that the dry stream bed above the dam was the mill’s head race where water was diverted from the creek to fill the mill pond. Now an electric power easement crosses the creek just below the place where the mill once stood and I could see no evidence of any building or mill parts, probably all removed in floods over the last century or by the power company when they cleared the power line.
(All thats left of the mill dam)

Further upstream I noticed the evidence of either an earlier oxbow of the creek or perhaps an old road or both. In the winter landscape these things pop out like they never would amidst the greenery of summer. Our land is criss-crossed with old roads from days of logging and farming, no telling how old these roads are but I think some may date as far back as the 18th century. There are also lots of washes that are now fern lined, I can only imagine what they looked like 100 years ago after all the trees were cut down and the gullies would fill with red muddy water every time it rained, eroding soil from the fields and carving trenches deeper and deeper into the earth.

There is an old cabin chimney off another edge of the property that has always intrigued me. I’m guessing it was destroyed by fire, the base of the main fireplace is massive, made of native stone, the very top was extended with brick, and there is a tiny fireplace where the second floor would have been. I am eager to do some archaeology of this site, poking around the other day I found some broken pieces from a porcelain dish, I could still make out a green and violet floral design, the edges grey from burn or perhaps from age I don’t know. Did some pioneer woman pack them in her trunk and carry them in a wagon from the North- or even across the ocean from England or Ireland? Pine needles pile several feet deep in the fireplace and over the base of what was once the cabin floor, but I think of taking some tools up there and burrowing down into those needles to see what I might find below.
(Old road or old creek bed or both?)

There are old dumps in the forest too; I worry sometimes, how many bottles of chemicals and farm fertilizers were piled in these old dumps and left to seep slowly down into the water table, possibly contaminating our wells in the next 100 years. What is the speed of hydrology in our area, how long does it take for surface water to reach the aquifers underground?

On the rare occasion that it snows, there are areas where I can still see the furrows from 20 or 30 years ago rolling across the land like swells on the ocean, tall trees now growing up out of them, they were never pushed smooth after the last crop was harvested. I wonder- who harvested that last crop? How many years ago was that? Who traveled the old roads that are worn deep into the landscape, did cars ride those roads or are they from earlier horse and buggy, or covered wagon times?

I’m doing some research when I have time and mostly just walking for hours around the land to see what I can see before spring covers everything again in her green cloak. I sent in a seed order today, will plant peas this weekend and onion sets are coming in a couple of weeks- it won’t be long now before I’m absorbed in gardening again and woodland walks will be about wildflowers and migrating birds. Until then, I hope to do some more backwoods exploration and see what I might discover that I haven’t seen or noticed before.
(Dry wash gully that crosses our yard)