Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Squirrels

THE squirrels in our garden are working their way through their winter stores. We keep finding little shallow hollows in the soil around the base of trees, which I can only assume are hidey holes for nuts, that have been dug up. The squirrels' diet is augmented by the dried corn cobs we put on the feeder. They seem to remove more corn from the cob than they eat, as there are always little pieces sitting on the feeder. We've noticed that birds often drop by after the squirrels have tired of their meal, to take advantage of the dropped pieces.

The squirrels are noisy, too! They make a kind of chirping/clicking sound which, based on the ensuing game of tag looks like it means: "Here I am, come and get me!" More knowledgeable sources point to a territorial signal though, and apparently it can also be a mating or warning call. I admit my untrained ear has yet to notice great variation. Did you know - squirrels also communicate through tail movements? These are Eastern Grey Squirrels, native to this part of the world. They live up to twelve years in the wild.

We used to have red squirrels in our garden at home in the south of England when I was growing up; now there are only grey squirrels. There are still red squirrels in some parts of the UK - mostly Scotland, Wales and Northeast England.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Owl Prowl

ON a cool, clear evening this week we set out to our favourite nature centre to take part in their Owl Prowl. With red filters on our torches, we walked quietly through the forest, the group leader playing the call of a screech owl as a lure. We did not see any owls in the dark night sky; however we heard the very distinctive call of a barred owl, which made Alexander's eyes pop open in amazement as he looked around to find the source of the strange noise.

This concluded a great day of animal discoveries. Earlier in the day we had been privileged to catch a rare daytime sight of a great horned owl, peering down at us from the trees. We had been alerted to its presence by a great ruckus caused by a rowdy bunch of crows. Apparently the owl was infringing on their feeding turf and had to be annoyed away. What a racket! After a few minutes the poor owl got the message and glided silently away to another part of the forest. Emma wanted to know where Sarah, Percy and Bill were. These are the names of three baby owls in the lovely book Owl Babies by Martin Waddell.

The same walk also revealed a red-headed woodpecker, tap tap tapping for grubs high in a dead pine tree, a heron flying in from the adjacent lake, a vulture scouring the forest floor for tasty titbits and a red-backed salamander skulking under a log.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ice Hike

NATURALLY we had to pick a day of near-freezing temperatures and after overnight rain to take a trip to Stone Mountain Park. Not that the cold per se was a problem; instead it was our chosen walking route, which took us around the bottom of the mountain and across wide expanses of exposed granite. Correction - exposed ice.

This was a sight we hadn't expected, and was really quite wonderful! Large but thin sheets of ice covered the smooth rock, melting from the inside out and causing little rivulets of water and air bubbles to trickle down beneath the icy cover. Emma soon discovered that while 'ice skating' on her feet was fun, sliding down on her bottom was way more exciting, and we quickly gave up trying to keep her dry. Some parts of the ice could be easily cracked with a light step, others required stomping or stabbing with a stick.

The steeper sections presented quite a puzzle finding the safest way to cross, and it was a toss-up who was in the trickier situation: Thomas with his slippery trainers (sneakers), dog on a lead and wobbly pre-schooler, or me with sensible hiking boots but the baby obscuring my view to the front and below and backpack on my back. We have the best ideas!! We hopped our way across, picking the safest path on moss and lichen-covered rock to avoid the slippy sections. Hmm, living organisms must be warmer than dead plant material, since there were plenty of fallen leaves and particularly pine needles frozen into the ice, but no living plants. Soon we arrived at the woods, where it was instantly warmer and the perfect picnic spot appeared.

Photo by Brett Rogers

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sights and Sounds

WHEN Emma was tiny, often on walks we would sit still and just watch and listen. Now that her whole world has exploded into one great question why, it takes a bit more effort to sit in peace and absorb the world around us. Twice this week however it has happened quite naturally and we were able to enjoy some time just being still. The first was in our back garden, as we took a break from some long-overdue cleanup to warm up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate. A large flock of American robins descended upon our lawn and Emma became fascinated by the noisy foraging in the dead leaves, so we sat and watched them for a while. It was she who alerted me to the tap tap tapping of a woodpecker high up in one of our pines, though we couldn't find him. We also saw a blue jay, a pair of cardinals and watched a couple of "doyors" (squirrels) playing chase.

The next day, we went to our favourite swamp place for a walk. While Basil explored in the woods, I and the children sat on a log watching the creek. Along the mud bank were hundreds of mouse-sized holes and we sat in silence hoping something would peek out. I guess they were all hibernating, night animals or, as Emma hypothesized, "gone out shopping" as none graced us with their whiskers. But we did hear lots of rustly noises, some coming from the leaves under our feet which turned out to be a large beetle. And then the peace came crashing to a halt as a big slobbery labrador charged back through the bushes. Back to the real world.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Never-Ending Storybook

EMMA and Alexander together received around ten books for Christmas. Emma's favourite? The one I bought as a Christmas present to myself: Nick Baker's British Wildlife: A Month By Month Guide. It's a large hardback book, described by the author as (paraphrased) a coffee table book that's intended to be used. Not even half way through January, it's already seen its fair share of use in our household! Naturally it doesn't correspond exactly to what we see here in the southern US, but for me, it satisfies a nostalgia for distant pleasures and answers some questions I'd never even thought to ask. As a children's wildlife programme presenter, Nick Baker's chatty style make the subject matter highly accessible to even the most amateur of nature enthusiasts.

It's the colourful photos and lifelike sketches Emma likes of course. So while I take in all the fine print before swiching off the light late at night, several times a day at nursing time you'll find the children and I sitting on the bed with the badgers, bluebells and sticklebacks. And not just talking... There is no doubt that Nick Baker knows a whole lot more about wildlife than I do, but I wonder if he gets as much practice telling stories about every picture on the page? If he only knew what adventures the badgers and the sticklebacks have in the bluebells in our version, he would be quite astonished.
Photo taken from the website of Coton Manor in Northamptonshire, of their 5-acre bluebell wood

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar

FOR the last few days we've been preparing for Epiphany, or the Coming of the Magi. We've baked star biscuits, made a large star to carry and crowns to wear, made a hanging star for our nature table and learned a new song. Most of all we've practised being Sternsinger to surprise Papa when he came home from work this evening.

The practice of Sternsinger, or Star Singers, goes back to the sixteenth century and is a tradition in German-speaking countries. Church members, usually children, dressed as the three kings go from door to door singing and collecting money for the poor. 20*C+M+B+09 is written in chalk on the outside of the door. The star represents the star of Bethlehem, and the three crosses for the holy trinity. C, M and B have traditionally been understood to stand for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, however, according to the Church it stands for "Christus Mansionem Benedictat" (Christ bless this home). The numbers at the beginning and end of the blessing represent the year.

Sternsingerlied from Austria
(own translation)

From far beyond the eastern sky three travelling Kings are we,
We've come from mountains far away and journeyed over the sea.

A child lies in the manger, obedient and good.
Most wonderful on Earth is he, a halo o'er his head.

We've prayed to him and offered gifts and made our sacrifice.
And now we bid a fond farewell and leave this very night.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nature's Tree Ornaments

Sweetgum seed pods hanging in our garden at dusk.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Bark is Beautiful

NOTHING smells sweeter than the outdoors just after a rain. Checking out a new spot, we discovered the small but charming in-town wood called Blue Heron Nature Preserve.

With a joyously shrieking three-year-old, fussy baby and bounding dog obliterating any chance of wildlife encounters, our attention was drawn to the trees and especially their bark. When competing with leaves, fruits and seeds, the poor old bark usually loses out. But when the showier portions of the tree have succumbed to winter's plan, it is the tree's outer layer whose turn it is to shine. If you, like I, have never noticed such diversity in tree bark, now is the time to get out there and take a look.

We noted rough, scaly pines and smooth, pale beech trees on one side of the creek. The pines told us from which direction the rain had come as that side of the tree was dark, almost black. On the other side, the tree landscape was a little different. Emma was intrigued by the peeling papery birch bark, which I admitted to using as fire kindling in my far off DofE (Duke of Edinburgh Award) expedition days. Then we came across a number of sycamores, even more interesting. Sycamore bark has patches of brown, green, grey and tan that are randomly put together in a camouflage-like pattern. The darker outer layers can be peeled off to reveal new growth beneath, which is a yellow-white colour.

As we stopped for a snack, we noticed hidden under a fence the unmistakeable shoots of daffodils. At the beginning of January?? And still people don't believe global warming is a problem.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Birds and the Bees

WHAT a beautiful day to ring in the New Year! Walking around a local lake, the weather was cold, crisp and sunny. With no leaves on the trees, birds, old nests and other points of interest could easily be spotted against the bright blue sky. We saw a large paper wasp nest suspended from a branch about thirty feet in the air, and watched a vine tendrill swinging in the wind trying to catch a foothold in the tree it was climbing.

We had planned to feed the ducks with an aging tortilla, but Emma was nibbling away at it herself and declined to share, even when the ducks and geese started following her. Once they'd given up hope of a snack, they went back about their business and we sat on the bank and watched them. To Emma's question what a particular pair of ducks were doing, I confidently answered that they were drinking. Then the head bobbing became more rhythmic and it became apparent that this was more than mere drinking. A pattern of intriguing movements followed including a vigorous head pecking and a victory lap by the male, then the lovers bid farewell and went their separate ways.