Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life in the Very, Very Slow Lane

Moss. Puddles. Drizzle. Muddles. This spring of epic precipitation drippingly continues, much to the delight of slugs and snails. The slugs, slimy cowards that they are, only creep out at night to munch on the struggling vegetables in the garden, but I often come across adventurous snails plowing across the sidewalk after it rains.

Even though snails are just as guilty as the slugs when it comes to wreaking havoc in the garden, they've got that cute-shell thing going on, so even though I'd never pick up a slug from the sidewalk and carry it home, I've rescued two snails in this way. I say "rescued" because poor snails caught on the sidewalk are likely to be trod upon (accidentally by grown-ups, on purpose by mean children) or eaten (by gobble-first, ask-questions-later Labradors like mine).

Max is unfazed by a flashlight beam.
The first snail surprised me with what seemed like a spark of personality. After I plucked it off the sidewalk, I expected it to shrink into its shell and stay there. But no. The little guy insisted on crawling up to the top of my hand (leaving no slime trail, incidentally, so there was no "ick" factor) and riding there for the entire walk home, its eye-tentacles stretched to their limit as if it were taking in the sights on a tour bus. Which I guess, for a snail, this experience was. Being carried in this way was surely like traveling at warp speed in snail world.

The snail's appearance of eagerness reminded me of Max, the dog in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, in the scene where Max sits up at the front of the sleigh, tail wagging and tongue lolling, assuming that he is going for a ride. So I named it Max. I created a mini-habitat for Max in an empty plastic container after poking airholes in the lid. Max immediately tucked into the feast of lettuce I provided, rasping a trail through it by evening's end. The next morning it was fast asleep, hanging upside down from the top of the container. All seemed well, since snails are nocturnal.

But when Max was still in the same position the next day, with a dry, crackly-looking clear film securing it to the container, I feared for the critter's life. I assumed the film was part of the snail's "epiphragm," a thin protective membrane secreted by a land snail to seal off its interior; it helps a hibernating snail maintain, among other things, the humidity that it likes. Perhaps the habitat I'd created wasn't humid enough for the snail.

Even though a snail can live for months in suspended animation (and some snails have lived years), I felt kind of bad about the epiphragm possibly leading to Max's epitaph, so I set the snail free in a flower planter in the garden. The theme from Born Free wasn't exactly thundering in the background, but it still felt like the right thing to do, even though I knew Max would soon be chomping on the chard.

I checked on Max later that evening, and there it was, cheerfully promenading around the planter, holding no grudges regarding former captivity.

Having learned nothing, I rescued another snail the next day. This one, however, was shy and retiring; it lacked the vivacity of Max. It retreated into its shell and stayed there all the way home. I didn't provide this one with a snail condo, instead sticking it straight into the planter to see if it would come out at night, ready for its closeup. A final check half a day later, around 10 p.m. on a damp, perfect-for-snails night, showed that it was still hiding; it hadn't even budged.

Dead? Nope, just extremely cautious, I guess. Maybe it's a species difference: Max was, I think, a Banded Wood Snail (a European species now common in the Pacific lowlands), while no-name was, I think, a Brown Garden Snail (another European import, described as a "serious garden pest" that has "moved into the Pacific Northwest much to the dismay of gardeners everywhere" on a snail website). Maybe Brown Garden Snails are geniuses who know it's wise to lie low when plucked up by a predator. Maybe Banded Wood Snails are doofuses. (At any rate, Snail 2 had ambled off by morning.)


"No water view? Fuhgeddaboudit."
The third sidewalk snail I found had already shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleedin' choir invisible: it was an ex-snail. Perhaps a lesson in what happens to snails that don't run for cover. The empty shell, however, was being investigated by a sowbug that looked a lot like a person at an open house. Despite the downturn in real-estate prices, would-be homeowners in Seattle still don't overlook prime residential spaces, so maybe this sowbug knew better than to overlook an opportunity (especially if there were granite countertops in the shell).

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Parrots of Phinney Hill (Keep Calm, Birders, Not Ones for the Life List)

There's nothing like taking your dog for a walk and running into a pair of colorful parrots screeching their opinion of your leashed predator to brighten an otherwise drab day.

Luna and I heard the parrots conversing from a block away, and I knew it was finally spring indeed (despite the damp, cold weather) because the parrot woman never takes her two macaws for a walk unless it's warm enough for them outside. What a delight it was to turn the corner and see her strolling down the street with a blue-and-gold on one hand and a scarlet on the other.

Panama and Louis are two very happy parrots. It's a real kick to see them playing slide-down-the-metal-railing on their front steps or sitting on their perches outside supervising the yard work.

They have a lot to say about what's going on around them, and they're so darn smart, I'm quite sure it'd be very entertaining, if only I could understand their remarks. My husband recalls a parrot he had as a child that loved to whistle in a way that attracted the family dogs; when the hounds barreled into the room, looking around wildly to see who'd called them, the parrot made mischievous laughing sounds.

Luna usually goes into stalking-mode when she sees squirrels, cats, and crows on our walks, but she is completely dumbfounded by the macaws. She doesn't flinch--she's just stunned. She can do nothing but go quiet and stare at them. Clearly she can't make heads or tails of them, and when we walk away, she keeps twisting her head to look back at them; you can almost see the cartoon-strip question marks dancing over her head.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Lots of Spots and Aphid Tater-Tots

Suddenly, everything is bright lime-green in the garden. What a little sunshine will do for a place! It's so shockingly new-growth-green now that it makes your retinas vibrate. Scattered on all this greenery like sprinkles on a cake are bright red lady beetles galore. The whole place is looking like a kindergartner's drawing of a garden rendered with a brand-new box of 64 Crayola crayons.

I was easily distracted from more tedious gardening chores by these little beetles, which of course led to more discoveries of the entomological sort because the ladybugs were generally near clusters of green aphids.

Which I think are absolutely adorable creatures despite the fact that they can ruin your plants by sucking the life out of them or transmitting disease. They're just so round and fat and cuddly looking.

And lime green.

Soppy, I know. But I'm not alone. Some animator on the creative team of A Bug's Life thought much the same thing when he or she created a pet for the queen ant:

Not that I bear the aphid-eaters any ill will. I'm glad they are there to take care of keeping the aphids in check. And I loathe the dark aphids that cluster on the vegetable plants and nasturtiums . These little green guys are fewer in number and are like little families out for a picnic. The smaller aphids are hooligans who bring everyone they know and leave litter on the picnic grounds.

OK, I'm trying to justify why I am fond of the tubby lime-green aphids, but by now you must think I'm mad, so let's just move on to lady beetles, shall we?

Here is one that I spied on a vibernum in the back yard. It is probably a multicolored Asian lady beetle, a species introduced decades ago to control fruit-tree pests and is now widespread. It comes in so many patterns that it's the beetle equivalent of "tastes like chicken." This one had an interesting pattern on its back, what with that sploodgy marking in the middle:



This spotless one was tucked headfirst in a campanula out front and wouldn't show its face, so it was impossible to see the pattern on its pronotum, the shieldlike area behind its head. But it could be a multicolored Asian lady beetle, too:


And there was this one perched on a feverfew, who's probably also a (fill in the blank):


While ladybug-spotting, I came across this delicate little insect, which I thought at first was a species of lacewing. Lacewing larvae are as voracious when it comes to aphids as lady beetle larvae are. Some kinds also imbibe the honeydew excreted by aphids. And the females considerately lay their eggs near herds of aphids so their offspring will have plenty to eat upon hatching. But now I'm not so sure. It looked sort of aphid-like to me, not as slender as a lacewing. Sure enough, a bit of sleuthing turned up the information that aphids sometimes develop wings when conditions on a plant get overcrowded so they can pull up stakes and move elsewhere. So now I'm leaning toward this being a flying aphid.


OK, so after blathering on about aphids, what do I find forming a clump of deadness on the stalk of fresh broccoli I took out of the refrigerator this evening for dinner? I'll give you one guess. Let's just say it lends credence to the oft-quoted statistic that by law it is perfectly OK for there to be up to 60 aphids in 100 grams of frozen broccoli. Meaning you can sell it that way, not that very small police officers storm through the garden and do head counts of aphids on broccoli plants and close the vegetable garden down like a fire marshall would shut down an overcrowded theater. I actually don't care if I ingest an aphid or two. I just don't want to know about it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

C D P Patch!

Brrrrrinnnng. The phone rang early last week, bringing some good news, for a change. (For all you youngsters out there, "brrrrrinnnng" is the sound that pretty much all phones once made.) The news was that, after three or so years of idling on a wait list, I'd finally popped up as next in line to get a gardening plot at my local P-Patch.

A P-Patch, as you either know or could guess, is a community garden endorsed by the city and partly organized and supported by it in cooperation with the people gardening in it. I'd always assumed that the term "P-Patch" was national in scope and was a play on "pea patch," and was surprised to learn that it's actually a Seattle-specific, home-grown term. It harks back to the first community garden in town, a plot of land acquired from a farming family, the Picardos, who ran a truck farm on it in the early 1900s. Hence the "P" is gleaned from Picardo, not peas.

Here's what my new 100-square-feet looked like, after a sopping-wet, cold winter-spring (headline in last week's paper noted that Seattle had gone 191 days straight without climbing above 70 degrees):


Needless to say, it was weedy, mainly with lanky strands of shotweed, which lay across the soil like a bad comb-over. Shotweed is named for its sneaky habit of explosively spraying seeds in all directions as you yank it from the ground, sort of like an herbal Gatling gun. Other names for this charmer include spitweed, poppit, and pop-in-the-eye weed. They grudgingly shared the space with a few brawny dandelions and tentative bugleweeds.

But there were a few gems scattered among the weeds: some poppies, their heads bowed but ready to burst into bloom any day now; fluffy feverfew, which spreads like crazy but suppresses other weeds and obligingly allows itself to be plucked from the ground without any fuss (kind of a Schmoo-like plant); ferny sprays of fennel (which I don't like, but a gardener near me did, and so the fennel will simply be moved), and even some beets that overwintered and went straight into the oven, sprinkled with kosher salt and roasted at 400 degrees.

I hoed the heck out of the plot on Sunday in the pouring rain and tossed in some random garden slates that were scattered in the path nearby, left behind by a previous gardener. Now, in the warmth of home, I get to indulge in the best gardening activity of all: dreaming of what to plant.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Tiny Bird's Stupendous Nest

When I first moved to the Northwest, I was bowled over by the charismatic-megafauna types of birds that lived in, soared over, and surrounded my city. Bald eagles soaring overhead--and even perching on telephone poles across the street! Ducks from all stops along the migratory flyway diving and dabbling in the lake just down the road! Great blue herons fishing just 30 feet away on the beach!

After this first feathery onslaught, I came down to earth and started noticing the smaller "backyard birds." One of the smallest and most humble of these little birds turned out to be the most persistently charming: the tiny bushtit, Psaltriparus minimus.

(Let's get right past that awkward Anglo-saxon name immediately, OK? It is not a fortuitous one to have to share with a gaggle of middle-school kids or even adult nonbirders. Move along, now. Make your jokes. Now go to your homes. Nothing to see here.)

Here's a closeup of this species, not taken by me but by one George Gentry of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and generously placed in the public domain:



This little fellow appears to be a male, because the males have dark eyes and the females have cream-colored eyes. No, I do not know why.

One rarely sees bushtits sitting by themselves like this. They usually travel in great big cheerful flocks that may contain 30 or more individuals. They travel through trees and shrubs in flittering waves, peeping and lisping to each other to keep in contact. In winter, they descend on the suet feeder en masse, looking like a banana-bunch made up of bats as they scramble all over the wire cage to feed, even hanging upside-down if necessary. This is how I usually see them (and this is a small crowd!):



"Share and share alike" is the bushtits' motto. I never see them squabbling or shoving as they jostle for position on the feeder. If one flies away, all the rest are sure to follow. Even when the flock disperses for breeding season, each pair heading off to build its own nest, that cohesiveness endures: mated pairs often are assisted in the task of raising chicks by other, younger birds.

The bushtit is often described as small and drab, with no special field marks, but its nest is a splendid little work of art, a sac larger than the 4.5-inch bird itself that hangs scarcely concealed from a branch. This is one I spied in a small tree on the route of my daily dog walk:


It's cunningly woven from tiny twigs, dry grass, lichens, and moss, with snippets of what look like willow leaves, birch bark, and bits of excelsior, all bound together with spider silk--like something made by fairies.

I was curious to find out what the bushtit's scientific name means and learned that it basically translates to "small harp-player" (Psaltriparus, from psaltria, Greek for "female harp-player," + parus, Latin for "titmouse," from Icelandic tittr, "anything small," + Anglo-Saxon mase, "small bird." Minimus, as you might guess, just means "smallest.") The "small" in the translation is obvious. The birds' calls are impossibly high-pitched twitters that sound completely un-harplike to me, but then again I would never have named the ring-necked duck for the faint ring around its neck when it conveniently displays a very bold white ring around its bill.

Much better is the Spanish name for the bird, "sastrecillo," which means "a little tailor." I'm guessing this name refers to the bird's intricately woven nest.