July 25th, 2014 §
Monday I was on the mountain again, hiking with three dogs. My companion and I stopped into a swimming hole and were tossing sticks in the water for the dogs to fetch when we realized we were directing them right toward a dark snake sunning itself on a rock in the river. I took this photo before we spotted the snake:
When we called the dogs back and went to investigate, the snake slipped into the water and swam away to rest in some brush downstream.
I think it was a northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon). This is neat—it’s name is derived from the Greek neros meaning “flowing” or “liquid” and dia meaning “through.” Sipedon is derived from the Greek word sepedon which means “a serpent whose bite causes mortification.” Apparently these buggers have a mean bite and will use it if provoked. In fact, my Guide to the Snakes of Virginia lists the northern watersnake’s name translation as “nasty bite water snake.” I am glad we called the dogs away before they found it and even more glad to not be in the water when the snake swam by!
I was also happy it wasn’t one of the two poisonous snakes that live in my backyard mountains: the copperhead and the timber rattlesnake, both of which I have encountered while hiking these trails—sometimes by stepping over them whilst hiking!
July 24th, 2014 §
The year’s first wren nesting didn’t work out too well. But the wrens are back, this time having set up a much more concealed nest in one of my planters on the front porch. I am doing my part, this time, by surrounding the planter with a fortress of porch chairs and ladders, all positioned to keep Tucker away. Thus far it’s working. I’ve got four baby wrens growing up on the porch. Their nest is so deep in the planter that it took a flashlight to get this shot.
July 14th, 2014 §
Male widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) found in the new meadow garden.
July 7th, 2014 §
It was a perfect holiday weekend at the farm—unseasonably cool and dry, crystal-clear with a great brisk breeze thanks to Hurricane Arthur. I had the windows open all weekend, the A.C. off, and did a double-take Saturday night when the temperature outside was 52 degrees right before bed. It had been a fun night—from about nine to ten I enjoyed the sounds of the Crozet fireworks show. Despite being fifteen miles away, it sounded like it was in my backyard. Sound has a funny way of bouncing up and down this valley, and it was cool to stand in the yard and hear the blasts echo off each mountain top.
I took advantage of the weather to dry some clean sheets outside on my new clothesline, which I love as it’s relaxing to watch whatever’s hung on it billow in the breeze. Then I parked myself on the back porch for two days straight to soak up the amazing weather before the more seasonal heat and humidity returns again today. I ate all my meals outside, caught up on my magazines, began re-reading some Faulkner, and started in on this little cross-stitch of green seedlings.
The designer is Japanese artist Kazuko Aoki, and the pattern book (Wildflower Garden) I have is a Chinese translation. So it’s been a bit of a crap-shoot to figure out but I think I got it. I had about given up on sewing when I failed to finish a project begun in high school, but I like these simple, spare and natural designs so much that they tempted me back in. I am pleased that I found this sewing easy and relaxing, so much so that I completed the whole project in two days!
Spending hours on end sitting on the porch really provided me with a secret window into the workings of all the neighborhood bird life. It’s amazing what you can see if you just. don’t. move. I caught the baby mockingbird’s discovery of the bird bath, and watched as it figured out how to toss water over its wings. I am convinced that the birdbath, which I added last year, is behind the notable uptick in the number of breeding birds in the yard. I was going to shim it up to make it more level, but watching this fledgling explore the water made me realize that the birds probably appreciate the beach-like effect of a slightly off-level bird bath. It’s a zero-depth entry kiddie pool!
Then yesterday in early afternoon I heard dramatic, insistent bird cries from somewhere near my head. I poked around following the sound and discovered a sparrow fledgling in the big lilac, begging for food. I got this shot of its parent stuffing a fat green worm beak-deep into its loud child’s mouth.
The temperature had begun to creep up yesterday evening, and by 5:00 p.m. the sun was too much on the porch. So Tuck and I hit the road for our usual three-mile loop to a nearby river, where we could cool our paws in the slow-moving water.
And then home, walking in the sun along a hot and dusty gravel road between verges full of warm and fragrant yarrow. It smelled dry and sweet, like the desert, or, I imagine, the Mediterranean. It was the perfect end to this gift of a summer weekend.
July 5th, 2014 §
I hosted a little July 4 cookout yesterday, and as we were all sitting around the back porch I kept noticing unusual bird action under the azaleas next to the well house. By the end of the evening I had pretty well figured out there were baby birds involved—baby mockingbirds.
If there is any bird I associate with the farm, it’s a mockingbird. When I first moved in, I was dive-bombed and attacked by a mockingbird that had taken advantage of the abandoned property and nested in the quince by my mailbox. We had a discussion, and agreed to keep the peace. However, our detente didn’t stop any number of mockingbirds from calling all day long around the farm. They even call at night in the spring, waking me at three a.m. through open windows. Instead of being annoyed, I chose to accept and enjoy the soundtrack to life in the wilderness.
I grew to appreciate these birds more when I learned a bit about them. They were Thomas Jefferson’s favorite birds, and prized for their wide and varied song repertoire, which they add to throughout their lives. They can live to be older than a decade, and a male mockingbird can learn up to 200 songs in his lifetime. Because of their songs, mockingbirds were once prized as pets, and in the nineteenth century nearly became extinct on the East coast because of people catching them for cage birds. Even though their numbers are no longer considered threatened, they are declining.
Which is why I was thrilled to look out the kitchen window this morning and see a mockingbird swoop down as two other birds ran out from under the shadows of the azaleas. I grabbed my camera and ran out on the porch to catch this:
Two fledglings charged at their parent, beaks open and begging. I found it hilarious that even as chicks these birds exhibited the fearless, assertive character and stance that I’ve come to admire in adult mockingbirds.
The parent fed the more self-assured chick first…
And then turned to its sibling.
The parent then took off, just as its offspring caught wind of me and got wary, diving back under the bushes.
It was just a half-second encounter, but one of the neatest I’ve had around here. This brings the total number of bird species that I have seen reproduce in my yard this spring to five: bluebirds, cardinals, sparrows, wrens, and now mockingbirds. Sometimes it feels like I am living in a Disney movie, and I love it.
June 28th, 2014 §
This is a nymph form of the Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus), which I found perched on an almost-blooming thistle in my “wildflower meadow.” The nymphs appear in mid-June, and when they molt they will emerge brilliant coral with the characteristic wheel-shaped ridge on the back. About twenty minutes after molting, the Wheel Bug will turn from pink to grey.
Wheel Bugs, which are members of the Assassin Bug family, are incredibly beneficial to have in your garden as they prey on all sorts of pests including members of the dreaded stink bug family (harlequin bugs, squash bugs, brown marmorated stink bugs, etc.), which really decimate my garden. However, you don’t want to get bitten by an Assassin Bug—it is supposedly ten times more painful than a bee sting. So give these guys a wide berth when you find them, but definitely keep them around!
June 27th, 2014 §
The year’s second batch of bluebirds hatched early this week. There were four eggs, and now three hungry babies.
June 25th, 2014 §
Look who bounded in the house last night, keyed up like all get-out, covered forehead to paws in skunk juice, as I was all showered and in my pjs and ready to go to bed? At least he took it like a man and was only shot down his front and not all over. So last night at 10:00 p.m. I was doing emergency bathing in a little puddle of floodlight.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. The last time Tuck was skunked was May 2012, which isn’t too bad for living in the wilderness. At least now I have my act together to run a hot water hose out of the laundry room, so I don’t have to do cleanup in the house.
One word: Technu. It’s that poison ivy, outdoorsman soap that combines with and removes nasty oily stuff. After the last skunking, I’d bought a bottle for just such an emergency, and boy, does it work. I rubbed it into Tuck’s fur and it seemed to instantly neutralize the skunk smell in a way that the dish soap and vinegar I used last time didn’t. I followed up with a regular dish soap wash and this morning he smells pretty decent, all things considered. Interestingly, the Technu wasn’t as effective at removing the smell from Tucker’s invisible fence and nylon collars, which still smell pretty skunky.
There are some recipes for homemade skunk smell remover online, but they use hydrogen peroxide. As the owner of a black dog, I didn’t want to play amateur beauty parlor and end up with a bleached-out pet!
June 17th, 2014 §
This gorgeous cuckoo wasp (Parnopes chrysoprasinus…I think) flew in the front door last night, along with myriad tiny gnats that managed to set off the fire alarm outside of my bedroom in the middle of the night, turning what was already a miserably hot and humid sleep into one spiked with gallons of adrenaline. Ahhh…summer.
June 9th, 2014 §
I found these little guys high in the big azaleas by the garage. It’s been a challenge to get a good photo of them—when disturbed they tuck their heads into the nest and flatten their bodies. Here’s their nest ten days earlier, for those of you who are working on your nest/egg i.d. skills:
This is the first cardinal nest that I’ve found, and it’s right in my yard. As everyone’s sounding alarms about the decline of our native songbird populations, because of habitat loss and home and agricultural pesticide and herbicide use, I am very happy to be fighting back by maintaining a property that supports birds’ needs well enough to encourage them to breed here. To some people a bird’s nest is just a bird’s nest, but to me it’s a sign that I must be doing something right on this tiny scrap of land I’ve chosen to take care of.