Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Buckeye Birds

Northern Cardinal, female
in snow

A small tree stands just beyond my back-facing window.
As it grows steadily, taller every year, I’ve come to realize that this lanky specimen brought proudly home from school by my fourth-grader over 15 years ago, is much like the long-legged, hungry puppy, whose large feet hint at its future size while it waits, wagging--innocently asking for a home.
It’s an Ohio Buckeye—our state tree. And although the woods edging our property contain an assortment of others—pin and shingle oaks, shagbark and pignut hickories, sycamore, honey locust, sugar, red and silver maples, black cherry, white pine and spruce—the buckeye wasn’t here. The small tree with the broad palmate leaves and the beautifully doe-eyed fruit was missing from the woods of our new Ohio home.
So I planted it where all could see—the short, spindly stem with four huge, 9-inch leaves, just beyond my back-facing window.

Northern Cardinal, male and female
in Ohio Buckeye

Now, approaching 15 feet in height, I wish I had planted it further than the 8 feet it stands from our house at the woods’ edge. But its closeness brings the birds to our backdoor. In the spring, its sweet, tubular flowers in tall pyramids of pale yellow attract hummingbirds to sip its nectar. And, with leaves fallen through the winter months, its slender horizontal branches fill with feeder birds, dashing in to snag a sunflower seed or darting down beneath it, foraging from the snow-covered ground.
These are my Buckeye Birds.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Carolina Chickadee

Song Sparrow

American Goldfinch

Blue Jay

Northern Cardinal

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Wilds

It’s not the picture you’d expect--
a mother rhino rolling in the soft mud, the escaping rays of afternoon sun strong on the face of her calf, wide-eyed and waiting at her shoulder.

Except for the heavy rails that contain the pair on this January afternoon, it would seem that we’ve caught a glimpse of a most natural sight—mother and young at ease in the wild.
And, actually, we have.

The Wilds

The pair is here, at the Wilds, an internationally acclaimed wildlife conservation center operating on 10,000 sprawling acres in southeast Ohio. A gift in 1986 from the Central Ohio Coal Company to a partnership formed by the Ohio Departments of Natural Resources and Development, the Ohio zoological parks, and the private sector, the land, which had been surface-mined from the 1940s through the 1980s, began its long process of rehabilitation.
To areas initially reclaimed as grassland and planted to prevent erosion of the soil too compact from mining operations to allow the regrowth of trees, diverse meadow species and prairie plants are gradually being introduced. An interdisciplinary team in restoration ecology continues to plan and test the success of this area, with its goal far more than the green of these rolling hills--to rebuild a biologically healthy and functional ecosystem.

A skein of Canada geese flies just above the horizon.

This wide, treeless expanse is recognized by the Audubon Society as an important birding area. In the winter, golden eagles, rarely seen in eastern North America and rough-legged hawks that breed in the arctic tundra are often sighted at the Wilds. But birders scanning the broad hillsides for the horned larks or short-eared owls which are often seen here, may find exotic mammals instead. Managed breeding programs for rare and endangered species around the world find success in the natural, open-range habitat.
Last fall, they welcomed the birth of the first 4th generation captive-born Southern White Rhino calf in North America, Anan.

Anan, Southern White Rhino calf,
at 3 months

Anan and her mother

Free to roll and run, rest and romp, she pauses beside her mother in the afternoon sun.
The face of innocence to be sure--and with each bounding step, the promise of our reward in restoring the balance.

(all photos enlarge with a click)

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Odd jobs

Gray Squirrel on patio

It’s easy to get wrapped up in things, carried away, distracted this time of year. So many of life’s great joys converge and attempt to land in a 2-week span, that the daily routine stops dead in its tracks. There’s a flurry of activity, a great gathering and refreshing of tradition and lore.
Then, as quickly as they came, they’re off, again.
And I step back onto the trail, check the compass and walk on.

Monday morning, I went out to a cold car whose frosty form sat with a light covering of snow. Many days of idleness had left us both unwilling to move very fast. Sitting stiffly on the chilled upholstery, I pulled the door closed behind me--its noisy protest, a plea for heat, even from a pile of steel.
We sat for a while, waiting, as the cloud of my exhaled air spread further and further, filling the car, freezing on the glass and frosting my lashes. Then, I reached a gloved finger forward to the dash, slid the control to ‘defrost’ and turned on the fan. A few rattles later, warm air and a handful of seeds and split shells rose from the fine line between windshield and dashboard.

Several years ago, my daughter had the unfortunate luck as to have the vent of her small car chosen by our driveway mouse as the perfect spot to set up house keeping—and mice are untidy house keepers. After leaving it with us for just a few days, she returned to the recognizable smell and a blocked venting system, which with hot air behind it, grew more vile with each attempt to blow it free. Unwilling to drive with her head out the window, she held her breath long enough to get the mousy motorcar to a mechanic who painstakingly disassembled the dash, removed the messy mouse house and charged us handsomely for it. Thankfully, the mouse moved on, or so we thought.

The rattle of seed within the defroster made me wonder, though.
Starting back to work after days away, I backed the car slowly down the gravel drive, advancing the selector to ‘heat,’ and cranking the fan high. The warm breeze from the vent blasted a steady stream of small, black bullets that bounced off my jacket and fell in showers to cover the front seats. Mouse presence confirmed.

Just before the holidays, we had picked up a fifty-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds and thinking it best to keep it safe from squirrels and wet weather, left it in the back of the car, while we got wrapped up in our guests and gift-giving. The bag had been removed days later and feeders filled with the small, black seeds, but not before being raided by the dreaded driveway mouse. A small pile of split shucks on the black upholstery in the back of the car marked the spot where he’d tasted just a few before dashing back and forth each night in what must have been a gargantuan task of stashing hundreds of small seeds, one by one, within the hidden chambers of the car.

Each day now, with each trip down the driveway, a few more seeds fly furiously from the dashboard. With every corner I turn, several more shift inside, finding their way into the airstream, and onto the lap of any passenger. Most of those already thrown free and scattered across the interior surfaces have been reclaimed or eaten on the spot. Newly split, silvery shells are left each morning to be discarded in my cup holder and seatbelt buckle. The nest has never been found, and I know that eventually every well-placed seed will be retrieved and the showers of sunflowers will cease. But I keep an eye on my rear-view mirror, just waiting for that little whiskered face to appear. Added to my ever growing list of odd jobs-- driver, to one well-fed driveway mouse.

A Lover of Sunflower Seeds

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