Tag Archive: backyard habitat


The wild kingdom

TowheeWeb(Video below) A coworker recently discovered that her very tall bamboo was very invasive. When she recently bought the house, she was told it was that non-invasive kind. Right. It had sent roots under a shed and around the sewer pipe.  It was coming up everywhere. Eradicating it would mean digging deep down to remove every bit of root.

“Or I could move,” she said. “And get away from it.”

She won’t be the first to express that sentiment.  Nor the last.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, everything grows- with a vengeance.  If you amend your soil, give plants some summer water, then voila, they grow bigger than the plant list says and take over the earth. If blackberry or ivy is on your property, you can’t turn your back without fearing a coup.

MaybeWarbler

Even the house is habitat to a Pacific slope flycatcher.

I’ve been planting for 17 years. I buy bareroot plants at the annual Conservation District sale. Then there are plants that I propagate.  My neighbor gives me plants. Plants volunteer on their own, too.

For years, I felt like I had to save every seed, every live stake, and plant it somewhere. There weren’t enough barriers to keep out my neighbor’s cows.  There weren’t enough plants for nesting.

GoatsbeardForest

Goatsbeard, salal and bleeding heart in bloom.  There is a path in there somewhere.

Then the balance started to tip.  I had starts coming up everywhere.  Plants needed dividing.  I started noticing hawthorns and cherry trees growing wild along the roadway.

The volunteer red dogwood reached 20 feet into the air, and 30 feet across. A volunteer willow erupted into an exploding green fountain.  Cherry branches drooped over the gate, dark red leaves shading the entry. Pacific ninebark branches drooped low over the driveway. The weeping cedar in front of the house grabs me as I try to clean the roof.  Oceanspray sprouts in the gravel path, and wood sorrel carpets the garden along with some groundcover the previous owner planted. The rose that beavers mowed down last year springs back as a lush hedge.

I started to be grateful when something died, or the squirrels or rabbits ate it.The giant cherry trees my predecessor planted tipped over.  Oh, darn. The Italian prune plum that grew to 20 feet in two years blew down. Oh, darn. I even gave away hundreds of plants the last couple years to get rid of pots and thin things.

This winter, we got 4 feet of rain between October and March.  The spring wore on, cool and wet. When I came home from a trip to the Montana prairie after two weeks of nice weather, the contrast between the dry, open prairie and my jungle was overwhelming. I felt like I was entering a tight leafy tunnel as I drove through the gate.

CoyoteTwitterWildlife thrives in this florid abundance. American goldfinches show up at the feeders in flocks, and disappear into thickets to hidden nests.  A robin angrily attacks its reflection in one window after another for weeks. Squirrels race after each other up and down trees. A tangle of garter snakes unwinds from the crack between the concrete pad and barn floor. A red-tail hawk hunts from owl perches and weasels roam the fence rails in search of eggs and small birds.

GarterSnakes

I won’t complain or move, because I signed up for this. And wielding a loppers beats checking the latest news in this historic crazy time. Dragging cuttings into slash piles and digging out weeds wears me down so that I sleep at night. Diligent effort opens corridors and paths, and gives shrubs and trees a fresh start.

As I work, kingfishers rattle warnings on the river where they have burrows, robin parents escort a fledgling out to forage, bald eagles trill at a youngster testing its wings, hawks soar over the field. A towhee takes a stand on top of a cedar and a Pacific slope flycatcher sneaks insects to nestlings tucked on top of the breaker box.

Vulture

You know your habitat is complete when the vultures show up.

I could move, maybe to an apartment in the city, tidy and spare, with no yard work.  I could join a gym and work out without getting sunburned, scratched by thorns or scalded by nettle. Or I could just stay here for awhile, where everything is simpler.

 

 

 

CoyoteRealizaton

Canis latrans follows humans where ever we go, living off our leavings. They pursue our scraps and the animals atracted to our waste and the table we set for birds and pets.  Coyotes have walked in our wagon tracks and footsteps, across trails and highways, to occupy North and Central America.  As we exterminated their enemies, especially wolves, their populations grew and their territory expanded.  They grew bolder. After grey wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park, coyote populations dropped by half, and they abandoned the apex predator behavior they had assumed.

My valley had a stable coyote pack for a long time, until the neighbor without adequate protection for his sheep started taking them out in revenge for lamb nabbings.  A year later, the rabbit population exploded and garden destruction began.  Worse, the mesh fence my neighbor put in to keep his wayward cows out of my yard blocks the travel of coyotes. Now, I’m happy to see any coyotes at all.

I knew I had a coyote around somewhere in June:  scat with cherries and occasional hair was appearing on the road and in my horses’ paddocks.  I finally caught sight of a young coyote as I was meandering around the fields on a rental tractor, mowing thigh high grass.  Many raptors follow tractors, for good reason.  The rumbling and vibration of the machinery chases mice and voles from the grass, where they become easy prey.  Those that don’t survive the tires or blade become dinner for scavengers.

CoyoteNotSure

This young pup is on her own early.  In the morning, she would flee when she saw me.

At first wary, this young coyote figured out after several hours that the tractor meant food, and by evening was following at a safe distance.  I can’t imagine how the scrawny little thing stuffed so many rodents down her gullet.  She was still at it after the tractor got turned off at sunset, stalking the grass for confused voles. Another coyote learning the ways of her ancestors, following people for our scraps.

SkinnyCoyote

Not a great picture, but you get the idea how young and scrawny this coyote is.  Most pups don’t survive their first year.

CoyoteThinkingOnIt

She seems to have figured out that the tractor means food.

CoyoteVole

Success- chewing on a vole

CoyoteGotOne

She got braver as the evening wore on, even though her belly started to look round with the feast.

 

It’s the baby time of year- they’re starting to leave their nests and find their way in the world.  Sometimes mom and dad is there to help, but eventually, they gotta fly on their own.  None of this college graduate living at home with a mountain of student debt for them….

 

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I look like one of those people, but I’m not.  No, I don’t watch television.  There is too much else to do. But that “else” isn’t pursuit of the spiritual, the religious, the social. I do things with my beat up hands, with my land, with my horses. In my spare time, I either stay home or pack bags and go:  near or far, with a pass or a passport; drive, take the bus or train, or fly; stay in a tent or a motel or a hut.

I’m not a total luddite:  I will indulge in crazy animated movies once in awhile. I obviously use electronics, digital cameras, a computer, a smartphone, a tablet.

 

But a bald eagle tumbling through the air grabbing at the talons of a territory-invading hawk is a commercial free distraction. The dark eyes of a harbor seal that has followed my kayak home and hovers in the pool by the beach is a soulful farewell. A hummingbird that weighs less than a nickel defending a stand of bee balm from butterflies, bees, and birds entertains.  These moments are far more arresting than a conversation over chai tea in a carefully designed faux salvage cafe decor.

HummerBranchThis region’s legendary traffic is my excuse for not indulging in urban cultural events and going to dinner with friends.  My friends live three dozen miles away, south on a perpetually crowded freeway, or a thousand miles away.  My family, like many, is spread across the country. But travel isn’t really the barrier, because I do that a lot.  I just like wandering around by my lonesome, in the moment, in as natural an environment as I can find. dragonfly1

I paid my dues retrieving my mother’s blood spattered, broken glasses from the wreckage of her truck 30 years ago. Already supremely independent and restless, I’ve never again been that easy close to people after that little tragedy.  I wander afar, road trip, hike, and camp on my own, or stay home to do artwork and landscaping in the company of animals, most of them wild. In practice, I’m an absent, unrelaible friend, checking in sporadically with pictures and stories about travel and home. RedSnake

So I don’t watch television, attend retreats to become mindful and soulful, seek cultural events and stimulating conversation over gourmet meals. I sound awful.  But I’m not a hermit: I work with the public and give volunteer presentations and workshops whenever I’m asked. I’m friendly to every friendly person I meet. I care about the friends I don’t keep up with. I’m interested in other people’s stories. It’s just that when the day is done, I take my stories home, disconnect from humanity, and go where the wild things are.

And that’s okay.  The world has enough people- it doesn’t need me out there.

VultureOnSlashPileThe animal company I keep does need people, though.  They need us to plant more trees and shrubs, build more rock piles and slash piles, hoist up more nests until there is enough nature to build their own.  They need cleaner, cooler water and skies without flight hazards and light pollution. At my little sanctuary, they reward my efforts by mulitplying and bringing their offspring back each year. My visitors are a study in simplicity, with simple wants:  food, family, turf, home. This, I understand.

 

BewicksWren

In a year where I’m grabbing for the steering wheel and brake pedal as the driverless car careens down a ravine, the patterns of nature go on as usual.  For the second year, a Bewicks wren has built a nest in a compartment under the gooseneck of the horse trailer.  I can see little bits of grass inside the entry, and hear the hatchlings fruitlessly singing at me to bring them a spider, a moth, anything.

The horse trailer may as well be a home for birds.  This year I know why Tigger has been breaking the top rail of his fence, piling up bedding against a wall, lagging behind me on the way to the barn once in awhile.  The vet ultrasounds his fetlocks and lo, he has an old suspensory ligament injury, or perhaps chronic degradation of the ligament, she can’t tell which.  He’s been perching on fencing and piling up material to perch his butt and get weight off his back feet.

I get the answer to catastrophic versus chronic a month later, when I come home from a three-day conference and find a swelling below his hock that signals trouble.  A new ultrasound shows torn ligament and a fragment of bone pulled away. It is the end of his riding life, and signals time to make a decision.  Not a decision to do surgery or stem cell injections, which are options, but excessive: he’s 17, abnormally tall and broad for his breed.  The most humane decision is to let him go gentle into that good night.  It is for people to rage against the dying light, foolishly perhaps, but not for me to kill my horse on the ground after he embarks on one last hurrah and rips the ligaments to shreds.

But this isn’t coming easily, because there is work to do and a companion to find for my other horse. I work on insurance to board a horse, start to repair that top rail and consider the trouble an average horse might find in my barn.  My horses are ridiculously polite about fencing and wood and the occasional rough edge, but I know that a new horse may test those fences and find those edges.  Finding a companion proves to be a saga, too, reminding me of a friend’s one-time journey through the deceit of Match.com. She’s calm, I’m told, and then the mare slams the door of her stall with a foot as I pass by.  There goes my kneecap, I think.  He has no bad habits, I hear, but then I find his stall chewed to splinters.

The vet suggests a companion animal. An article about Pharoah, first winner of the Triple Crown in 37 years, talks about his companion gelding.  For racehorses too dominant for another horse, there are goats and donkeys and even a pig, Charlie. But what if I get the goat or the donkey, neither of which I want, and Lark doesn’t like it?

And I leave for the Arctic on some wayward crazy journey (read: rage against the dying light or something to that effect), so changing up is a challenge before I leave. With the vet’s blessing, we labor on, with Tigger in a makeshift miniature paddock so Lark can live normally.  Larkey gets exercised under saddle, Tigger gets daily walks and hand grazing and I panic when he does anything sudden.  It’s summer, so I’ve taken to hand-grazing while I sit in a lawn chair with a camera and watch the world go by.

This is a rare treat for me, after years of planting and building and remodeling, and I see things that likely happen daily witnessed only by Tigger and Lark.  I hear the distinct sound of an Anna’s hummingbird and finally spy a female on a dead elderberry twig.  AnnasFemale1She begins tilting her head and then suddenly, a male lands on the branch and assumes a sort of begging posture.  This gets the “heck no” response from her, and she flies up and dive bombs him.  He leaves. There are many hummers this year, on every plant put in the ground for them, and draining the feeders.PrettyPlease

AnnasIHearSomething

HeckNo

Both bald eagles appear today to sit on the raptor-friendly power pole by the river to fish.  I haven’t been able to see the nest since leaves erupted on the huge cottonwood, but at one point my neighbor spied a white head in the nest.  Maybe there are young and they are both out hunting.  They fly in low over the horses as they graze, then lift up to the top of the pole.  I don’t have a camera then, and to get one, I have to tuck Tigger in Lark’s pen so he doesn’t run.  As I return, the visibly smaller eagle is heading back toward the nest, right over my head.

The remaining eagle sits watchful under bluebird skies, then suddenly starts calling.  He tilts his head, then out of nowhere comes a hawk of some kind (I think).  The hawk sails toward him, talons extended, and he throws his wings up like a powerful magic cape, screaming as he does.  The hawk lifts away, and the eagle arches in tense anger before relaxing again into his watchful pose.

EaglePowerPole EagleHawk1EagleHawk2There are always different filters to see with, and gifts to find along every path. I feel indecisive and uncertain about the choice to keep Tigger alive until I come home, but I am at peace with his situation. Two days after he was diagnosed, the Nepal earthquake hit, killing and rendering homeless many people who have never experienced a fraction of the health care my horse has received.  There are children starving in refugee camps, people trembling at every rumble, disease spreading through crowded camps.  There are people buried under the rubble of homes never meant to withstand shaking.

Yes, I raised this horse from a weanling.  Yes, he is sensible and calm, precious and dog-like.  But he has enjoyed more sustenance, attention, and care than many people, and it is good enough.  He will teach me to sit peacefully and see little things until he goes gentle into the good night.  And the trailer will sit singing until it’s time for his last journey.

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Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

Orange trumpet honeysuckle, a native with flower length better suited to hummingbirds than some cultivars

I was going to quit this year, finally, and just maintain areas that  turned into crazy  jungles.  Just prune and weed and divide occasionally, do something else with my time in the winter and spring.

But the orange honeysuckle burst into bloom for the first time in a decade and the Anna’s hummingbirds drink from every flower as it matures from yellow to deep orange.  And veritable flocks of Western swallowtail butterflies hang adoringly off the mock orange flowers. Red Admiral butterflies showed up for the first time to lay eggs on the stinging nettle lurking where I can’t get at it, a painted lady butterfly made a first appearance for strawberry flowers, and mourning cloaks basked on the power line and the lawn for over a month. A Lorquin’s admiral defends Now in June, bees work globe mallow flowers, wild lilac, and nodding onion.  Flocks of cedar waxwings move from the salmonberry to the twinberry and await the ripening of serviceberry and Oregon grape berries. There are pairs of nesting black-headed grosbeaks, Western tanagers, and Bullock’s orioles, none of which I’ve seen before.  Nests are everywhere, with babies crying to be fed. Scent follows me everywhere as I walk past the woodland garden, the sun garden, hedgerows, fruit trees, borders.

None of this rich world was here when I arrived fourteen years ago.  I made it happen- and I am not even a gardener.

Male Anna's hummingbird, staking a claim.

Male Anna’s hummingbird, staking a claim.

The planting addiction  started after I bought the house with  acreage that had been mowed and mowed again, beaten into submission by the motor and the blade.  The neighbors said they could hear Keith mowing all the time, maybe to get away from his wife.  The mower had a beer can holder, and the crushed aluminum victims lay in the thousands in the barn, testament to an ugly stint in Vietnam and an uglier marriage.  I don’t know who did the mowing after Keith shot a friend during a hot tub party and went to jail for awhile. Mary landscaped around the house, and though reputed to be mean and manipulative, festooned the greenery with kitschy gnomes and little girls in dresses and signs that said, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.”

The mowing began after massive clearing that took place some 70 years ago, long after Dr. Henry Smith made his way up the Snohomish River and decided it would be tamed to create a new Holland.  While the river has never agreed to this, and occasionally wipes out everything man puts in its way, the land has changed forever with diking and drainage.

The only survivor on my property is a bigleaf maple, now huge in girth,   left as a property boundary marker as was the practice throughout the river valley.  This tree would have stood as cedar, spruce, willow, crabapple, and maple were felled in the swamps around it, as sediment was dredged to make farmer-engineered dikes that cut off the land from water and nutrients, as a river once seasonally choked with salmon was raked to fill canneries as if there were no tomorrow.  The old maple leafs out every year and bears seed still, but the number of giant limbs dropping signals impending demise.  I wonder if that tree will breathe a sigh of relief to go to eternal sleep and see no more destruction of the world into which it sprouted.

The maple has more company of compatriot plants it once stood beside, along with some fresh faces that better survive the drained condition.  When I moved here, it became immediately obvious that I didn’t need so much reed canarygrass, a terrible horse forage due to its fibrous nature and alkaloid content. I needed wind and sun break.  Western Washington is not a chronic sheet of drizzle, as people think, but a Mediterranean climate that dries during the summer.  Afternoon marine thermals are common in the summer.  In the fall and spring, windstorms can brew as low pressure fronts arrive.  All this wind comes pretty much straight at my property from Fobes Hill.  The hill returns the favor by deflecting weather, but that means my ground is drier as a result. The afternoon sun would bake my horses and heat up the barn so that bringing them inside just meant they would sweat instead of burn.

So my neighbor, the grant administrator for the Snohomish Conservation District, encouraged me to check out their annual bareroot plant sale.  Since then, I have spent an average of $300/year on plants that cost $1 apiece, and frequently come home with sale plants or needy homeless plants.  I was told to plant dense, that half the plants would die.  I was told to bring in better soil for planting, to use compost and mulch.

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Twinberry is a twining shrub with flowers for hummingbirds and berries that waxwings love

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

Mock orange, more frequent in Eastern Washington, with nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds- and citrus scent for people!

And then most of the plants decided life was worth living. They cheerfully suckered, layered their branches as they marched across the land, sent out runners, produced berries and seeds for birds to poop out and start new plants elsewhere.  It is a sad day when you’re relieved the pesky beaver has wandered into the yard and nabbed a shore pine you never should have planted in that location.  Equally sad is the day you uncover dead trees girdled by voles and thank the voles for being such good owl snacks and saving you from your over-planting along the way.

There are always new areas to plant, however, and the birds and butterflies egg me on.  Fencing in this area, with our high water table, either rots or rusts;as farmers in medieval England discovered,  hedgerows planted along fencing create the same animal barriers with less maintenance, and they provide wildlife benefit.  And the earthen dike needs more root mass and fewer Himalayan blackberries, so there is always space there.

The real truth of the matter is that wearing out gloves, boots and jeans whether it’s sunny or raining has not just attracted wildlife, fostered life and protected water quality: it’s also kept me sane.  I work with the public in an activist West Coast urban center known for its addiction to process, and sometimes want to run screaming from the complexity of the human race.  And then I come home, dig in the dirt, plant the next phase of jungle, and watch the world come alive in the spring with animals that are happy simply with a food source, shelter and a safe place to start a family.  It’s a good balance for me.

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