Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Frozen Birds (and We're Not Talkin' Turkey)

A house finch contemplates the menu. We used to have lots
of these pretty finches in our summer garden, but they vanished
after a Cooper's hawk began frequenting the area, as did most of
the English sparrows. They pay us visits in winter, though.
The chickadees, juncos, and wrens who stuffed themselves at our feeders Tuesday morning got a much-needed energy boost to sustain them not only throughout the frigid day but also overnight, when temperatures dropped to a record-setting low for this date, settling in at a numbing 14 degrees Fahrenheit.

School was canceled for a second day in a row, which made for a lovely, dawdly sort of morning spent in PJs and bathrobe with a hot cup of coffee and the newspaper at hand. This slow time allowed for leisurely birdwatching at the feeders (which are stationed within easy viewing from the living room and kitchen windows; didn't want to actually go outside--that would be "brrr-watching").

And WHAT a ruckus there was. Somebody squealed and let slip that the eatin' was good in this little side yard, because there were many more birds and considerably more species tucking into the meal today.

English sparrows joined the crowd, shouldering aside the juncos at the suet feeder. A lone female Townsend's warbler slipped in among them briefly, her svelte form like a gazelle's in a herd of cape buffalo.

A strutting song sparrow showed up to claim his share along with three of his lady friends. A vivid male house finch perched to methodically consume sunflower seeds. The Bewick's wren seemed alarmed when he showed up; he looked disgusted by the commotion and huffed off like a gourmet irritated by commoners cramming into his favorite restaurant because it got a favorable review in The New York Times.

Plump, sated robin redbreast.
Meanwhile, the big suet feeder hanging from the birch tree near the kitchen window swayed violently under the three-pronged attack by a trio of hefty flickers. Above them, two dozen or so robins huddled on the birch's branches, puffed up to the size of grapefruits. They'd just completely stripped the cotoneaster bush of all its blood-red berries and were not just glutted but also, perhaps, a bit tipsy.

The appearance of a starling momentarily startled the small birds, but as he was interested only in digging his beak into the suet, they quickly returned to foraging. But when two crows showed up to see what all the fuss was about, that did it. Everybody scattered.

Everybody, that is, except the chickadees. They kept a wary eye on the crows (who didn't hang around long) but didn't stop grabbing seeds and fleeing to cache them elsewhere for use throughout the season. (I saw one tuck a seed securely behind the wooden frame of our neighbors' window.) It's not uncommon for a chickadee to cache upward of 100,000 seeds and other tidbits. If they were human,  they'd have been champion Green Stamp savers.

Here's the starling, resplendent in his winter finery of dark
feathers stippled with the stars that give the species its name. I
recently learned that the base of a male's beak is blue and a
female's is--yes, pink! When I blow up this photo, this bird's
beak looks blue at the base, so I'll go out on a suet feeder
and say he's a boy.
I'm thankful the birds all got a good meal under their feathers to help them get through another bone-chilling night, and that the only frozen birds around here are the two turkeys I got for free at a local grocery store and stuck into the freezer for cooking early next year, in an inspired bit of chickadee behavior on my part. (I thought of putting them behind the neighbor's window frame, but they wouldn't fit.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

First Snowfall

Snow, snow, yes or no? That was the big question on nearly everybody's mind yesterday here in the Pacific Northwest. Especially kids' minds. I could swear the pale clouds draped over the city consisted of the condensed exhalations of thousands of children chanting, "Please snow!" Snow would mean not only loads of fun, but also school closings.

A brief snowfall salted their hopes yesterday, but it didn't stick. By 6 a.m. this morning, however, snow was falling thickly, and the world was blanketed not only in white confetti but also the silence that snow brings. School would be half-closed--early dismissals for all.

In an unprecedented bit of organization, I actually managed to fill birdfeeders with sunflower seeds and suet yesterday, so the birds woke to a welcome banquet this morning.

As many as four chickadees are flitting to the feeder, nabbing seeds, and darting away with them to lever off the shells in the safety of the trees. Bushtits, which never go anywhere without bringing a dozen of their friends and family members, are swarming the suet.

And here's something I've personally never seen before: ground-feeding birds perching on the feeders. The juncos are normally content to hop about under the feeders, picking up whatever falls. Today, however, they've wedged themselves onto the tiny perches of the sunflower feeder and are clinging somewhat cautiously to the suet feeder, even when it is upholstered with bushtits. I imagine that's a testament to how cold it is and how cold it will be; 15 degrees Fahrenheit is the latest low predicted.

Just typing that makes me want to go brew up a fresh pot of coffee.

Bushtits: all for one and one for all.

The strawberry tree's fruits capped with snow
are an eyecatching blend of tropical and Arctic.
Of course, snow is all fun and games and not a threat to survival if
your only job is to find old tennis balls and enjoy the perpetual no-school
status of a well-fed and spoiled Labrador.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beasts on Earth

Now that the temperatures have plummeted to near freezing, and my down coat and gloves have been awakened from their slumber and put back to work, the appearance of Christmas decor in shops and windows feels a bit more appropriate, especially with Thanksgiving just a week away.

I did my best to ignore the Santas, sleighs, and stockings that shoved their way into stores before Halloween had even shouted its first "boo," but now I have released myself from this holiday restriction and can ease into enjoying the season.

(I really do like the Christmas season--the lead-up to the holiday is the best part, actually. It's terribly easy to escape the commercialism and onslaught of ads--just don't listen to the radio or watch too much TV, or spend any time at the mall. Presto: holidays at your own pace, in their right season.)

The first festive footsteps on our stroll into the holidays take us to Swanson's Nursery, a beautiful place just a hop, skip, and a jump northwest of us. Not only do they offer splendid, old-fashioned decor and a lovely cafe in which to meet a friend for coffee, they also set up spacious, hay-filled lodging for a miniature donkey, a camel, and a pair of reindeer.

I love to make this my first Christmastime stop. Over the years, I brought my daughter here many times on an uncrowded weekday afternoon to gaze at the animals before enjoying a cup of cocoa and a cookie in the cafe.

Now that she's in middle school and not available for such afternoon puttering, I visit the animals by myself. Makes me feel a bit wistful. Sometimes the days felt so very long when I was tending a toddler. Now I wonder where they've gone.

Donner and Blitzen, who are always rattling their antlers together as they fussily 
grumble at each other over hay rights. They're both does--the males shed
their antlers earlier than the girls, which means Santa's sleigh is really pulled by
female reindeer. These two always put me in mind of two elderly women
sharing an apartment, constantly rearranging doilies that the other one has mussed.
Curley the Camel, who like all of his kind has beautiful, soft eyes. When he drinks
out of his water bucket, he makes as much noise as a little kid slurping up the
last bit of milkshake at the bottom of a cup in a restaurant.
This little guy is Moe, the miniature donkey. He lives quite companionably with
his taller buddy, Curley. They're quite the Mutt-and-Jeff pair.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ode to a Rice Cooker

Riced in Peace.
 O Cooker, we
Are broken-hearted
That you are
Tragically departed.

You cooked up
Lovely, fluffy rice,
Making mealtimes
Very nice.

With rice, we always
Had good luck:
Your nonstick surface
Never stuck.

Another thing we liked,
O Cooker:
As rice pots go,
You were a looker.

Tubby, short,
And cherry red!
A tragic loss
That you are dead.

And now you face
The fate of all
Things that are
Shaped like a bowl:

Filled with dirt,
You will now not
Cook rice, but be
A flower pot.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Medieval Journey on Phinney Ridge

It didn't seem like an ominous day when I set out for a walk late last week with the dog. But as we trekked up one side of Phinney Ridge and down the other, we encountered signs and omens that perhaps we were on a perilous journey.

First, we found this:

I did not recognize it as The Sword On the Stone, otherwise I would've snatched it up to do battle with what we encountered next:

Fortunately, this monster was sleeping, or we would've been in great peril. As it was, we were able to sneak past it.

I'm not sure what damsel in distress we were supposed to rescue. Last year at about this time, we encountered the terrible Barbie Doll Head Upside-Down in a Tree (sadly, no picture), but I should think we were too late to do her any good.

We did find this when we got home, however--the only rose other than the wild roses to bloom in our garden this year. The rest of the buds on this bush would open up until they were fat, pink softballs, tantalizingly on the verge of bursting open into beautiful flowers--only to turn damp and brown and fall off before realizing their potential.

Seems odd that this one, coming of age at such a soggy, chilly time of year, would be the only one to emerge. Perhaps it has been left for us by some imprisoned princess as a Sign.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Farewell to Fall

I know fall doesn't technically end until just a few days before Christmas, but the fall feeling has definitely already fled here. There are still quite a few blazingly beautiful maples and other trees lighting up the otherwise gray, damp days; many, however, have tossed their leaves, which are now looking less like vivid red and yellow carpets and more like old brown doormats that need to be raked up and composted, the sooner the better.

And it definitely smelled like snow the other morning, after several very cold days on which it seemed that the falling rain might verge into sleet at any moment.

I love the upcoming winter holidays, but I'll miss the beautiful warm colors of autumn.

The witch hazel out back is now the only shrub in the yard displaying glorious color. It's as if
it waited on purpose for all the other plants to shed their leaves so that it could show off all
by itself. Now if only it would flower in January like it's supposed to, and hasn't for years...

Luna the Lab displays her natural camouflaging properties amidst the last of the birch tree's fallen leaves.
Plenty of pumpkins...

...and gourd-geous gourds.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Week of Weird Weather and Wonderful Wildlife

Nope, I didn't see a grizzly with a pumpkin on
the streets. This is Keema, a grizzly who lives
at the zoo, safely behind thick glass.
Typical Pacific Northwest damp fall weather took a holiday on Halloween this past week and also called in sick on several other days, perhaps having exhausted itself by pulling out all the stops on Monday with a record-setting rainfall.

But most surprising was the wildlife. The city gifted me over the past few days with an abundance of sightings, including some critters I'd never glimpsed in our streets before. (And I don't mean the two-legged cows, miniature unicorns, Godzillas, and oversized bees wandering on Halloween night.)

First, there was the bald eagle, sighted on Sunday, a day that was true to its name--blazingly sunny and balmy atmosphere. That day, we decided it was time to tackle the dreaded task of cleaning the gutters. Which we hadn't done in a decade, at least. But when we saw six-inch-tall plants sprouting from the southernmost gutter over the back of the house, we knew we couldn't avoid it any longer.

While teetering atop a ladder scooping up muck and lime-green moss, I chanced to look up and spied the eagle wheeling over our house. Chocolate-brown body, bright white head, spiraling against a turquoise blue sky. It was a fine reward for grubbing about in the gutter.

Bald eagles aren't an uncommon sight in the city--there are even several pairs nesting within its limits. But they never fail to amaze. A Cooper's hawk, on the other hand, is harder to spot. There are probably plenty of them living in city limits, but being smaller birds accustomed to hunting at lower levels instead of riding on rising vortices of warm air, one doesn't see them as often. But this hawk streaked across the road ahead of me as I walked the dog that day. Typically when I've seen a Cooper's in town, it's being chased by crows, but this one seemed to be flying below the corvid radar.

That night, while my dog and I accompanied a large duck, a nun, a witch, and a can of soup on a trick-or-treat tour of the neighborhood, we spotted a strange animal that is scarcely ever seen in the flesh--and actually we're not quite in agreement as to which normally-underground beastie it was.

It was scuttling about near the curb under parked cars after dashing down a driveway. The witch thought it was a lost guinea pig, and rushed over in an attempt to "rescue" it, with the soup can and the duck in tow. But they backed off when the clearly-not-a-guinea pig trundled out from under a car and bored its way back up the driveway, seemingly oblivious to onlookers.

It looked like a very determined fur-covered butternut squash. Luna (the dog) was flabbergasted as the thing practically strolled right under her nose. Normally she lunges at her leash to try and chase squirrels; now, with a squirrel-esque summer sausage practically on her paws, she just gaped in amazement.

A young mountain beaver
(from a U.S.G.S. photo)
I'm thinking it was a mountain beaver, judging by its size, shape, relative speed, and apparent lack of a tail. The soup can is more inclined to the view that it's a Townsend's mole. Both animals are often active at night--the mountain beaver gathering plants, the mole hunting worms or gathering nesting material.

Midday Thursday, I spied another small scurrying scamperer I've never seen in the streets before (though I know they live in the parks): a chipmunk, species unknown. It was skittering about in the yard and on the sidewalk in front of a house one block over that was built to very exacting and expensive "green" standards. Which makes me wonder if all newly built "green" homes come complete with adorable chipmunks.

Weather-wise, the week's wonders included Monday's rainfall of 1.56", a new record for November 1. And Wednesday boasted a high of 74F, the record high temperature for November 3.
If I were superstitious, I'd be looking for signs and omens in a Halloween week of weird weather and wildlife. But, oh, maybe it's just climate change.