Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do Robins Herald Spring?

Do Robins Herald Spring? 

the robins are here
redbreasts hopping on brown grass
prompting thoughts of spring

This weekend it’s officially Spring. Hard to believe when today’s temperature is in the 30s to low 40s and tomorrow it will be hovering around freezing again. The forecast for Friday is snow.

But there are signs all around to bring our thoughts to warmer times. Daffodils are rising green and confident despite the weather predictions. Soon there will be bright, yellow flowers cheering up the barren garden. The lilac bushes are putting out tiny, cautious buds that will become fragrant purple blossoms. Geese are heading north in noisy flocks. And there are robins bounding over grass that is still recovering from being packed down with snow, finding worms and renewing expectations of the next season

Robins are credited with heralding Spring. Is that true? Well, some do migrate and return as winter starts to let go but many stay in their breeding grounds. They may be huddled in more wooded areas where there is more protection so they are less noticeable; it all depends on the availability of food. Our affection for the robin as herald remains in tact, however, and why not? Robin-spotting is a way for us to anticipate the more amiable season. 

In the midst of Winter it is always easy to pine for Spring but then we often ache for Summer and its swimming weather only to welcome Autumn for the heat-relief it brings. Then Winter calls to skiers, sledders, and everyone for holiday fun. The year’s variety, while it can be challenging, is emotionally bracing. It adds variety to our days and a sense of movement to our lives; almost like a well-written novel, it keeps us intrigued about what will happen next.

For the most part I like the change of seasons. And when I see the robins, even if they have been here all along, just out of my sight, my energy shifts into a lighter space. It’s time to expand, to plant, to come out of the house and greet the world that, like me, is ready to be new and refreshed. The first robin we see is a reminder of all of that.

Robin myths and reality:

More about robins:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Squirrel on the Roof

Squirrel on the Roof

It was a busy morning, in my head, anyway. I was wondering what to do first – go food shopping or work on the article I was writing or go to the library to return and replenish books or get a jump on house cleaning or bring stuff to the cleaners or…well, that was the kind of day it started out as. Food shopping won and I was on my way to the car when I saw a squirrel on the roof of the house. He/she was looking down at something. Then he looked up. Then turned toward me but didn’t scoot down as I expected he would. It seemed that he was just staring into space.

I sat in my car watching him for a while before I went on my errand. Was that squirrel going through a similar conundrum about what to do today or did he have something particular in mind? I know squirrels are smart. I have seen them figure out ways to get onto the bird feeders regardless of the obstacles we put in their way. A study of gray squirrels from the University of Exeter shows that they learn from observation, particularly if it relates to finding food. Was this one planning its next meal? Well, so was I.

I drove off to the market but I didn’t forget about that squirrel. We are learning so much about how animals think. Humans may be verbal but we are not exclusive to intelligence. Each species has its own way of interpreting information, especially about feeding, mating, and survival. It makes me look at other creatures with a less jaundiced eye. We all have to contend with the circumstances of life and we all need smarts to do it. Perhaps focus is the key. When I returned home the squirrel was gone. I had no doubt that he made a wise decision from the perspective on the roof.

University of Exeter study:

A fascinating study on animal intelligence by Virginia Morrell:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What a Winter!

What a Winter!

It snowed a few days ago. Then we had freezing rain. The streets were iced and the accidents abundant. Then it thawed a bit causing some flooding. Now, late afternoon on this gray Tuesday it is starting to snow again. Just a few flakes so far and only a couple of inches predicted. Oops, it has already shifted to freezing rain. It’s one storm after another.

What a winter. It is affecting the whole country differently. Boston is on the cusp of having record snows this year: Maine already surpassed its record. And while it would seem terrific to be in San Francisco where the Bay Area is experiencing the warmest weather in its history, it also in the midst of a record drought. Even Sitka, Alaska, is having an unusual winter – it’s warmest.

Call it polar vortex or whatever, it is certainly a strange season. I wonder how the migrating creatures are faring. Are they as confused as we are? Is nature playing games with us or is it that we have been playing games with nature? Both, it seems. Nature traditionally fluctuates in the amount of heat and chemicals available to earth but it is human activity that is creating a larger problem. Check out what NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency have to say about climate change. This winter may be a fluke but it might be a harbinger as well.

Temperature extremes this winter:

NASA’s look at climate change:

For an in-depth analysis from the EPA:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hawk in Nature

Hawk in Nature

It snowed again, a beautiful powdery fluff that made everything seem so pristine. I did what was needed, shoveling the front drive and relieving the cars from their white burden. As I was working I heard the birds around me  – a woodpecker knocking on the trunk of a tree, the frantic chirping of the finches as they rushed in and out of the forsythia bush, geese chatting overhead as they made their way south in a long vee. What I didn’t hear was something that was happening in the backyard.

There were no birds on the feeders, a rather unusual occurrence for the time of day, especially during a snowy day when food is harder to find. They had been there earlier in the day, flitting back and forth between mouthfuls of seed. A mourning dove had joined them and was quietly cooing. Now there was silence. Hmmm.

Then I knew why. Toward the back of the yard was a large bird – a hawk! It was on the snow, pecking at something. By the look of the feathers underneath its feet, the mourning dove was its meal. Poor thing.

Nature can seem cruel at times but then everything has to eat. In the natural scheme of things, there is something for everyone. It is when part of nature becomes greedy that cruelty comes in. Animals that are forced out of their natural habitat must find a source of food. WHYY has been presenting a series by M. Sanjayan called A New Wild about the interaction of people and animals. It is worth seeing and, even more so, contemplating our impact on this incredible earth.

An interview with M. Sanjayan:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Winter and Baking

Winter and Baking

Let me start off by saying it’s winter, just in case you forgot. It’s cold, often snowy (especially if you live in the northeast), and not particularly inviting to be outside. The birds on the feeders stay only as long as they can eat their fill and then scoot away to their hidden nests. The squirrels are grumpy, chasing each other away from the limited supply of frozen meals. There are no flowers brightening up the neighborhood. 

So I huddle inside, fire up the oven and bake!

This week I made what look like camouflage cookies; they blend in so well on my plates that it is easy to pretend the plate is empty and have another cookie. They are actually oatmeal chocolate chip cookies that are hearty, chewy and delicious. I followed a recipe but did what I usually do, that is I make changes as I go along. For instance, I use coconut sugar instead of granulated. None of my creations look fancy like the creations on The British Baking Show on PBS (Sunday at 8 PM in New Jersey), a show I enjoy watching. Several bakers make three assigned creations each week. At the end of the show, one baker is let go. I couldn’t compete like that. My baking is for home consumption, for family and friends only.

I actually like winter. When I have to go out, I bundle up and feel adventurous. Then I return and appreciate the warm comfort of the indoors. I know spring will be here soon enough and I will be spending less time baking as I plan my garden. But for now, I will blend in with the season, enjoy my baking, and look forward to what each season brings.

The British Baking Show: 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hydrangea in Winter

Hydrangea in Winter

Well, winter made its presence known today with a storm (some are calling it a blizzard) that dropped snow on a large portion of the Northeast. We were lucky, with only a few inches in our area as opposed to a couple of feet in New York and Boston. More snow is being predicted for Monday. But that is days away and there are things to be done now.

We had to shovel, of course, and the township trucks were on the job early. The birds were a constant presence in our yard and the squirrels were digging into the snow for their buried acorn treasures. Rabbits left footprints as they looked for food. Everyone seemed busy.

But there is a quiet scene, too. In the midst of it all, Mother Nature is planning for the spring. With branches bare and its roots covered in snow, the hydrangea bush is laying on buds. It’s hard to imagine from the tight nubs the beautiful leaves and flowers that will delight us next season. The comfrey leaves have shriveled and gone yet I know the plant is only storing its energy and will return for another year. The hibiscus branches are white and brittle but they can’t fool me. Their blossoms will be dazzling late spring and well through the summer months.

It is the hydrangea bush, though, that is speaking to me now. I know some hydrangeas need shelter but mine have had an unsheltered life and still bloom. I am grateful for that. I sense its determination to survive and thrive despite difficulties. It reminds me that we all have things in life that are challenging and yet there is the hidden drive to blossom when we can, to let our inner selves support us until the right time comes to let the world see our beauty. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what’s inside but the hydrangea can remind us that it is worth the effort.

Taking care of your hydrangea:

Tons of comfrey facts:

What to grow in winter:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Passenger Pigeons, Extinct

Passenger Pigeons, Extinct

It’s nice to think that things we value last forever but it isn’t always so. Case in point – the Passenger Pigeon. The New Jersey State Museum in Trenton is paying homage to the bird. Through June 27, 2015, it commemorates the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the very last passenger pigeon in the world, who died on September 1st, 1914.

The birds once numbered in the billions but within a few decades became extinct. They were over-hunted and their forest nesting areas were decimated for agriculture. It’s ironic that the largest bird population in the world came down to zero, because of us.

Yes, we humans have needs – for housing, for sustenance, for reproduction. But so do other creatures. Should our needs always supersede those of others? We’re smart, surely we can figure out how to live within nature rather than decimating nature.

We can ask this about people, too. Can we respect all life, even if it is dissimilar to our own? Can we make room for those who look different from us, who hold various opinions, who have other beliefs? Or are we destined to be passenger pigeons, extinct by our own hands?

Facts about the Passenger Pigeon:

A state-by-state look at the Passenger Pigeon:

Go see the exhibit for yourself!