Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holidays and the New Year

Holidays and the New Year

We were taking a drive to nowhere on Christmas Eve, looking at the lights that call attention to the holiday, and came across a small house with a simple display. It almost felt like a coloring book illustration. When we returned home, my husband put his photo of the house through a painting app and came up with something that plays on the simplicity and, like the light at the front door, draws you inside. I like the creative way it makes me think.

This year three holidays come at the same time: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. There is a sense of community within each holiday. Family and friends gather to celebrate, sharing food and fun. There is often an atmosphere of caring among people. I see more smiles and courtesy among the adults, and a joyful excitement among the children as gifts are anticipated.

Much has happened in our country these past few months, but not all has been positive. Nasty things have been said, people have been demonized, beliefs have been dismissed. Our world is too broadly populated for such non-acceptance to be the norm. America is based on the melding of people and ideas. I hope that the holiday season shifts some of the animosity that has developed.

I wish everyone a healthy, happy, expansive 2017!

Brief holiday descriptions:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Hawk Sighting

Hawk Sighting

This has been an interesting time in my backyard. Last week there were three deer sprinting through the bushes on their way to who knows where. I live in a housing development but there are a few woodsy places not far away. Why would they venture out of those beautiful areas to a place with houses and fences?

Then this week, there was a hawk hanging out under the leafless redbud tree out back. It just stood there for a while, seemingly checking out its surroundings. I’ve seen hawks circling above my yard and occasionally swooping down to grab a bird or chipmunk but this one seemed to be just hangin’ out. Then it flew to a branch on the tulip tree and there I could see the white under-feathers of a catch that hadn’t been obvious before. Later it returned to the ground and really chowed down, not my favorite thing to see though I realize that every creature needs to eat.

I imagine we’ll be seeing more hawks around here in the future. As the land gets more developed, the wildlife become more visible. We take away habitat. Even as more land is set aside for green preservation, it doesn’t undo what already has been used for human purposes. I wonder what incredible sightings will come next. I hope we all can learn to live peacefully with each other.

More hawk photos and info:

Hawk facts: 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Supermoon 2016

Supermoon 2016

Did you get to see the moon last night? It is the closest and brightest of 2016. It is also the largest since 1948. It won't come this close to Earth again until November 25, 2034. It is called a Supermoon as much for its brilliance as for its size.

The full moon has always had a mystique about it. It has always captured our imagination. A full moon has its romantic side as a moon for lovers. It has the reputation of bringing out craziness in people. Vampires come out when the moon is full, don’t they? We see faces in it and it sparks our imaginations for stories and poems. Many cultures have moon myths.

Whatever interpretations we apply to the full moon, it is good to just allow its glow to wash over us, to be awed by its beautiful presence. Our November 2016 may be a special one but it doesn’t negate all the others. Let’s allow ourselves to take a moment to feel the wholeness of the universe and the oneness of humanity. Especially in some difficult times, let the full moon help us to take a deep breath and allow its beauty to remind us of the joy of life.

2016 Supermoon:

Moon myths:

Science debunking some myths:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Skunk Scare

Skunk Scare

We were sniffing skunk around the neighborhood in late Summer but we didn’t see any. Then one morning in early Fall (you know what’s coming) I looked out the back window and saw the biggest skunk munching on our lawn. We watched as it meandered along under the bird feeders, at the edge of the hibiscus bushes, and through the dappled willow hedge on its way to our neighbor’s yard. Then we lost sight of it.

The skunk didn’t show up again and we haven’t been aware of its odor lately but the image is emblazoned in our memories. I had never seen one so large before nor one with just one large, white stripe down its back. I found out it is a particular species of skunk known as Conepatus leuconotus ( a white-backed hog-nosed skunk) that tends to inhabit Eastern Texas more than anywhere else.

I found out that skunks tend to be solitary except in breeding season, which has me wondering if there is a skunk family somewhere about. They often inhabit places where other animals have dug in the earth and we found some evidence of digging near our house.

It would be an understatement to say I am nervous about the situation. I try to remind myself that all creatures need a place to live. I wish it no harm but if it is lost, I admit that wouldn’t mind it finding its way back to its natural habitat.

General facts about skunks:
Specific facts about white-tailed hog nosed skunks:

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Groundhog Haven

Groundhog Haven

We have a backyard visitor – a groundhog. We have been trying to find its burrow but so far every time we catch sight of it, the critter takes off and ducks under our neighbors’ deck. Maybe that’s its home though we have seen evidence of digging in the dirt near our front door.

I think it is probably a male because females usually have several babies that stay with her for a while and I haven’t seen any little ones around. This single one is a regular by our bird feeders, eating its fill through the remaining days of summer. When the weather turns cold it will hunker in its burrow, slow its heart rate and hibernate until the spring, living off its fat reserves. But until then, this seems to be the particular groundhog’s haven.

The groundhog is a member of the squirrel family, though that connection is somewhat surprising because it is more of a solitary being than a social one like the squirrel; it certainly has a lot of squirrel family members in my backyard. I guess we all need the comfort of connection when we want it and the space to be on our own when we need it.

Want to know more about groundhogs? 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Home Farm Produce

Home Farm Produce

We have a small home farm, well, that’s how we think of it. It is more of a teeny tiny carved out section of our suburban yard

Each year we plant tomatoes not only because we like them but also we know that they will grow for us. We planted potatoes because some of our store-bought ones started to sprout and we figured we might as well give them a chance. We planted the bottom of a red-leaf lettuce when I read somewhere that it would grow, and it has; we’ve been enjoying the crispy new leaves in our nightly salads. The zucchini plants have grown high and with the bright yellow flowers, we expect some yummy veggies soon.

Last year we bought a small, thornless blackberry bush. It produced a few berries but most of them went to the birds before they ripened. This year the bush spread out, sending shoots in a wide circle. I haphazardly tossed some netting around them to see if we would get any berries for ourselves this season. Boy, are we getting fruit!

We wrapped screening around the plantings to keep out the squirrels. We (mostly my husband) fertilize the plants with natural products and water them but otherwise we kind of leave them alone. Yes, I talk to them, telling each how much I appreciate its providing us with such beautiful, edible products.

We are delighted with it all, considering we really know not much about farming; we are more improvisers than farmers. But our home farm produce connects us with something larger than ourselves. Each time we bite into a tomato that has come from our own garden, we pay attention – to its flavor, its value. When we pick the berries, we know exactly where they have come from. We are all part of nature. What a joyful thing to experience.

Two sites to help you make your own vegetable garden:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hibiscus Beauty

Hibiscus Beauty

I was out grocery shopping today at my local Trader Joe’s. As usual, the parking lot was crowded and the adjacent strip stores were also busy. As I approached my car, I noticed a hibiscus bush in full bloom alongside the parked cars. The brilliant white flowers were big and exuberant, stretching out past the bumpers, waving to the cars coming up the drive to the stores, almost defying the stop sign by growing bigger and fuller by the day.

I know that hibiscus plants are not native to the U.S. but the blossoms are so magnificent it is hard to discourage planting them. I have several at my house. They produce giant red flowers that make me stop to admire them every time I go outside. I actually enjoy the surprise of such elegance when I open my front door.

The hibiscus plant is a grand reminder that even in the most crowded environments, in places that seem to discourage nature, we can always find beauty if we look for it; a red maple at the curb of a city street, a lotus blooming in a polluted pond, a garden known as the High Line that was created on a stretch of unused railroad tracks in New York City. Who would expect such beauty there? In keeping ourselves open for what nature offers, we help ourselves to be open to beauty in other aspects of life, too. It is a meditation on the amazing experience of living.

Learn about hibiscus and see lots of varieties:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Wouldn’t That Be Peachy?

Wouldn’t That Be Peachy?

We have a peach tree. The tree has lots of peaches though they are not yet ripe enough for people to eat. That doesn’t stop the squirrels, however. The peaches that fall to the ground are fair game for munching. This young squirrel is nibbling away on an unripe peach. He decided that the table between two of our patio chairs was the perfect place for his snack.

I have seen this little one before. He hops right up even if I am sitting in there. I can tell it’s the same one because he has a slightly dark stripe of hair across his cheeks. Sometimes I talk to him (I am just guessing it’s male) and instead of running away, he stays on the table and seems to listen. I’ll chat about the weather or maybe I’ll tell him about the latest antics of my grandson who likes to make “peach soup” on the outdoor play kitchen with some of the fallen fruit. When we are finished playing, we usually put the peaches we collected into a container and place it where the squirrels can find it. Perhaps this squirrel thinks it’s his personal dinner plate.

I know I complain about the squirrels eating everything we plant, the reason we constructed a screened-in vegetable garden, but in truth, I like them. They are inventive and extremely smart. They help me remember that different is only an adjective, it does not mean inferior. And different is how we all are, from other life forms and from each other. If only we can learn to appreciate the value of differences within all of life, perhaps we would not be so quick to do harmful things to each other. Wouldn’t that be peachy?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Our Own Weather Vane

Our Own Weather Vane

This has been a very strange year, weather-wise. April showers happened more in May.   We hear about intense thunderstorms and severe drought conditions in California. Snow fell in the Great Lakes and the Northeast while Alaska is experiencing record warm temperatures. Now the northeast is expecting intense summer heat in the middle of spring.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) National Weather Service map said predictability was low. Weather predictors on the news are often wrong. Each day seems to be a guess as to what we’ll find; we need to be flexible enough to deal with it.

Weather change is probably an apt metaphor for life in general. Sometimes the sun shines brightly for us, sometimes it rains on our parade. We can prepare for what life brings us by caring for ourselves. When we feel frenetic, it’s a good time to stop and take a few deep breaths before continuing on. We can plan for what we see coming but allow ourselves to understand that things may change. We might take time out of our busy days to take a walk or to exercise or listen to our favorite music, to dance, to smile. Let’s set our inner weather vane to predict a good life whatever it brings our way.

What’s going on with the weather?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Wanted - Squirrels

Wanted – Squirrels

Squirrels are smart. They are inventive. They are pesky. Especially when it comes to planting time. They jump on flowerpots, skitter between newly transplanted bushes, and worse, they eat everything we put in the ground. We have never have peaches mature on the tree before those little creatures get to them. I find semi-ripened fruit lying on the ground with one bite taken from the still-hard flesh. I tried placing a covering around the tree but when I saw the holes bitten through the material, I gave up.

We had to put screening around our vegetables in our handmade greenhouse to keep the squirrels away, not that they don’t try to get in. Occasionally we’ll find a tomato just outside the enclosure with the usual single bite taken out of it. Then we tighten all the edges that might have allowed the invasion and hope for the best.

I have no problem co-existing with the local animals – chipmunks, rabbits, groundhogs - but squirrels seem to have trouble coexisting with us. They want it all. I am not the only one who complains about them. One of my friends who had the most beautiful vegetable garden gave up planting because of the work it took to keep the squirrels at bay. Someone else offered peanuts in the shell to the local critter but when she was late with the offering, the squirrel actually knocked on her back door!

They are brazen garden thieves who need rehabbing. But considering that most housing developments exist on land that was originally theirs, perhaps it is people who need to learn to live with them. They are kind of cute, don’t you think?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Nest Time

Nest Time

This is the time of year when birds get busy. One friend told me about a robin building a nest on her front porch. Another friend described mourning doves at her house. And I’ve seen finches flitting in and out of our forsythia bush with branches in their beaks.

Spring is the ideal time for birds to breed. It provides accommodating weather, seeds from sprouting plants, worms. The trees leaf out to offer hidden nesting places.  

The Swallow here was seen at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum in Philadelphia. There was a flurry of birds, mating couples flitting back and forth from man-made birdhouses in the water. It seemed frenetic at times but there was no doubt that all that activity had a purpose. Soon there will be eggs and then nestlings and the chain of life will continue.

People make nests, too, at least symbolically, where we can feel comfortable and raise our children. Like the birds, we try to keep our little ones safe and well fed until they are ready to be independent and find their own way in life.

Unfortunately, in today’s difficult world, that isn’t always a given. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could count on our nests to be the places they are meant to be?

An overview of nest info and be sure to click on the nesting birds link: 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Best Nest

The Best Nest

There are lots of signs of Spring; crocuses and daffodils pop up everywhere, bare tree limbs hint at the color of the leaves to come, robins scuttle around lawns looking for the choicest worms. Geese make a U-turn and head back north.

Three years ago I noticed a couple of geese outside of a shopping center. I wondered if they were lost. They seemed to be scouting around looking for something, which I thought might be the rest of their flock. After a few days they had settled onto a garden display and it looked as if they were making a nest. The landscapers delayed planting until the geese left.

Last year they came back and there was no doubt about what they were doing – they were building a nest in the same garden display. A young boy on his way to the Little Gym next door looked as if he wanted to give chase but the nesting female was being guarded by a mate who didn’t look intimidated at all. The boy’s mother hustled him away.

This year there was an official sign to welcome the geese and to keep shoppers away. The geese definitely appeared to be at home.

I wonder why the geese chose such an unlikely place to start their family. Cars are constantly driving close by. People are walking back and forth all day right next to the nest. What am I missing about the appeal of the place?

I discovered that birds often nest in the strangest places. A friend once told me that she had sparrows nesting in a basket at her front entrance. Who’s to say that an unusual spot isn’t the best. Don’t we all live in our own individual spaces? The bird parents take care of their young like any good parents, regardless of the neighborhood. We can be good neighbors to them as we are to the people we live near. 

Facts about geese nesting:

Birds nest in the strangest places: 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Grackles Out for Dinner

Grackles Out for Dinner

A couple of grackles (or is that a grackle couple?) came for dinner the other night. They usually come in groups and stay on the ground, eating the seeds tossed down by the smaller birds at the feeders. But maybe tonight was special.

When the whole group lands, they can inundate the area, taking turns splashing in the birdbath, covering the lawn like a feathery blanket, flitting back and forth from ground to tree. I like to observe their activities. But as much as I observe them, they are quite the observers themselves. When something, whether a person or the neighborhood stray cat or a visiting grandchild comes too near, they will take off and wait until the supposed danger has passed, then return to whatever they were doing. If someone, mostly me, becomes too annoying, the birds will tell me off, squawking loudly from the trees as if they are yelling at me to go away.

They are often confused with crows but there are differences in size and feathers: crows are larger but grackles have the most beautiful iridescent feathers. Crows are corvids while grackles are icterids, relatives but from different sides of the blackbird family.

Whatever their differences, however, they are both smart birds. They have exceptional memories for faces and places. They can make and use tools. They can actually think like humans, according to tests being done in determining their brain capacity.

I remember how the old term “bird brain” was used to criticize someone who didn’t understand something but perhaps it wasn’t an epithet at all. The more we learn about these birds, the more impressive they seem. And that may go for most assumptions that we make. When we look at others in a negative way, are we really only showing our own lack of understanding? Grackles or crows, us or others, life in any form is an intriguing mystery.

The Massachusetts Audubon Society helps us distinguish grackles from crows:

John Marzluff's findings about crow smarts:


Monday, February 29, 2016

A Flock is a Family

A Flock is a Family

I apologize to my all backyard friends for my not having posted for a while. Sometimes life demands our attention in one direction or another, as happened with me. My sister was battling a rare illness that took too many years to diagnose and it finally took its toll. These past several months she was in and out of the hospital, then in a Hospice facility and she recently passed away. As you can imagine, my thoughts were not focused on my blog.

Then I saw this tree. There were so many birds on it. The birds were grackles, a species that travels in flocks, sort of like traveling with a large family. It made me think about the concept of family. There are many individuals connected to each other. Sometimes the connection works, sometimes not but when it does, it is a joy.  Family members can provide support and caring, a sense of belonging and sharing.

Grackles can be aggressive with each other at times, like siblings, but they can also join with other birds like red-winged blackbirds and starlings to increase their family connection. We can choose friends to be part of our family, too. It is as much a concept as a definition. I was lucky to have a great sister as both a relative and a friend.

Info about grackles:

A discussion about what “family” means:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Pumpkin Question

A Pumpkin Question

I put out a pumpkin for Thanksgiving decoration. It remained on our doorstep through Christmas and the beginning of the New Year, a bright entry to our winter home. Today it called to me to cut it open. I usually like to make pumpkin soup. Sometimes I bake pumpkin cookies. I bake the seeds or share them with the birds outside.

But I had lots going on recently and didn’t get to making my favorite pumpkin recipes. I wondered about the lifespan of the pumpkin, if it was still usable. So I checked around. It seems pumpkins last about 8-12 weeks if uncarved, which was within the parameters. They fare best in temperatures about 50-56 degrees; our weather has been unusually warm this year so most of the time it has been in the 40s to mid 50s. The last couple of days, however, it has been hovering around freezing. Was my pumpkin still good to cook with? I wondered.

I cut it open and saw that it must have frozen last night and thawed when the morning warmed up, not the best way to preserve it. I would hate to see it go to waste. Perhaps I’ll boil it up and see if it is still good to use.

Any ideas?

Pumpkin lifespan:

Monday, January 4, 2016

Squirrel Knows

Squirrel Knows

Wow, it’s 2016. Didn’t last year seem to fly by? Time to take stock of things. Not to make resolutions, necessarily, as they rarely last through the year, but to see what is of value in our lives, to appreciate the people we love, and to move in positive directions. Do we respect ourselves? Are there things we’d like to change?

It isn’t necessary to do everything at once; rather let’s be realistic and focus on one idea at a time. We have to focus on the everyday things. This squirrel knows that. It is giving itself a good cleaning. It does its other usual chores as well like going in search of food, digging up nuts and seeds that were buried for the winter, looking for a mate.

Squirrels are inventive creatures, particularly when it comes to food. They can figure out ways to get onto bird feeders. They can sniff out acorns that were planted in the fall. One squirrel, which was being fed with peanuts by a friendly homeowner, took to knocking on the back door when it didn’t see its daily bounty.

I hope that this year is a good one for us all.

Squirrels’ behavior:

A story I wrote for Chicken Soup for the Soul My Resolution: if you haven’t read it yet, here it is: