Sunday, July 11, 2010

My lepidopteron summer

It has been a summer of challenges, well, mostly one challenge – getting my elbow to move. I had a second surgery two weeks ago and I’m making incremental progress. An interesting side effect is that I am living local. I am not commuting to work, unless you count walking down the hall to my office is a commute. I am fortunate that most of my needs can be met within a 5 mile radius. Driving with one arm is a bit of a challenge so I try to limit my freeway driving since doing something dangerous is even more dangerous at high speed. This whole thing has slowed me down quite a bit. I am someone who enjoys a project and a challenge. Grabbing some power tools and putting something together is my idea of fun. But this physical limitation has resulted in a messier house, fewer projects, and more time to read and think.
I start every day with a cup of coffee and an exploration of my backyard. I have an average sized backyard but the diversity is amazing. I have always enjoyed watching butterflies but this summer I have been fortunate to observe lots of larval and butterfly activity. My vegetable garden attracted horn worm caterpillars. (These turn into a moth, not a butterfly.) I went out one day to discover this one covered in these little white things.
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A little research turned up some info. The wasp, Cotesia congregata, lays her eggs in the caterpillar (Manduca sexta). The caterpillar is a food source for the larvae. After a while the larvae emerge and continue their transformation, metamorphosing into pupas, and then flying adults. I learned that the tomato plant, or any plant under attack by the horn worm caterpillar, sends out a chemical message which attracts the wasp. This symbiotic relationship – caterpillar, plant, wasp – has gone on at least since the Jurassic period. That’s a hell of a long time.
All around the yard volunteer sunflower plants sprang up in the spring and are now all in bloom. They have attracted some butterfly larvae that I believe to be some sort of checkerspot. They all feed together in a mass and completely skeletalize the leaves.
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I was keeping a close eye on these, checking a couple of times a day, watching as they went from small black caterpillars to these more colorful varieties.
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But life isn’t easy for them either. One day I went out to the plant they were working on. I had been out a couple of hours earlier but on this second visit, they were completely gone. Circling the plant was a paper wasp. The female paper wasp creates a paper nest and lays an egg in each cell. She feeds the young larvae pieces of chewed caterpillar. In my backyard it appears these checker spots were the victims. I think if I find some more I’m going to learn how to isolate them so that at least a few survive.
But here’s a happy story. When I put in my square foot gardens I planted some dill and parsley. I’m not wild about cooking with either but I remembered that the last time I grew parsley I wound up with swallowtail caterpillars. Growing these plants was all it took to attract them and I’ve been rewarded with several generations so far. Here are a couple of larvae chomping on dill and parsley:
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I read that when it is time to pupate, the larvae will travel some distance to find a suitable location. I was fortunate enough to discover one tethering itself to a post I am using to prop up a tomato plant. I didn’t get a picture of the caterpillar pre-chrysalis but I did manage to photograph the chrysalis. Before the chrysalis forms, the caterpillar attaches itself with these two little guy lines that are shown in the chrysalis photograph. The larva sits very still and is slowly transformed into a chrysalis.
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And, all I can say is that I must be living right because when I did my little yard tour this morning this black swallowtail butterfly was emerging:
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After this last photograph she flew off. I hope she’s able to mate and come back to late more eggs on my herbs.
There are lots of other butterflies in the yard but I haven’t been able to photograph all of them. Here’s a bordered patch butterfly.
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I’ve learned a lot about butterflies this summer. It has only whetted my appetite for more information. I want to research and add more butterfly-attracting plants to my yard. If I can get some help with the labor I want to create another bed in the front yard filled only with plants for butterflies.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Forgotten blog - The Square Foot Gardens

I just realized that I never posted this blog entry. The season is different but here is the entry:
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Square foot gardening and the promise of abundance

I haven’t had a vegetable garden in probably 20 years, so when I purchased the Square Foot Garden book by Mel Bartholomew, I was cautiously optimistic. Why cautiously? Because every garden I’ve ever had resulted in wimpy plants. But following on the success of the accidental greenhouse tomatoes, I felt empowered.

I sprouted a bunch of things in those little jiffy pots you can buy everywhere around springtime. My back yard was a mess of bedstraw and fescue – AKA weeds and trash grass. My nephew promised to come over and mow it for me but blew me off. That set me back a week. My seldom used lawnmower needs carburetor work so it sits idle until I can get it over to the repair guy. Finally, my enterprising son managed to borrow the neighbor’s lawnmower and get the yard cleaned up for me. Then came the drilling of holes in the 4’ X 6” x 2” foot wood planks. A trip to the Natural gardener resulted in several bags of their brand of “Mel’s mix”. That made life so much easier. Otherwise I would have had to mix 5 kinds of compost with the other ingredients. This way I just poured the stuff in the big squares.

I got one of the square foot gardens set up over the weekend and put in the second one last night. After sitting all day at the computer, it was so refreshing to be outdoors working with living things. Thankfully, the mosquitoes haven’t hatched yet. Clumsy crane flies loped around and Scrappy, the only cat allowed outdoors, did her best to catch them. After about an hour of work, I felt a little sweaty and slightly itchy and then I remembered that feeling. It was the same one I used to get when I was kid. After school, I would play outside until dark, running around with the neighborhood kids. The world smelled like earth and green, growing things – 50 years ago and last night.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The broken arm blog

Last Friday I tripped and broke my arm. Now I am doing everything with one arm. So everything I was doing before I now tag on “the one armed” in front of it to describe myself. I am a one armed blogger, a one armed gardener, a one armed cook – well, you get the idea.
I am typically very busy person so it’s really hard to sit with my arm up to reduce the swelling while I wait a week for surgery. As a gardener, I enjoy walking out every day and surveying my plants. I know each one and its little story, where I got it, where it didn’t do well, and how it like its new location. I can still go out walk around and look at everything, but I can’t pull any weeds or do much puttering around. We’ve had plenty of rain the last few days so my plants have not a really needed me at all. In fact, they are thriving in my absence. I, however miss them quite a bit.
With my camera mounted on the new tripod, I went out in the late afternoon light and took a few photos. They look a little blurry and far away but that’s a good metaphor for my life right now.
I did manage to get a close-up of my fragrant mimosa, blooming for the first time ever. (see photo at top) As a kid growing up in West Texas I enjoyed the mimosa trees we had in our neighborhood. Now, of course I realize that those were all invasive trees. I was careful to get the native variety for my yard. It smells just as good and it’s such a sweet, delicate little tree.
Here are the evening Primrose. This little patch didn’t do so well last year but with all the rain we’ve had it’s quite happy this year.

Here’s the little xeric garden and behind that is an assortment of native Texas plants.

The Engelmann’s daisies and standing Cyprus are both in bloom right now.

This is a patch of Salvia, mealy blue Sage, with some wild to vetch mixed in.

And here are my little vegetable gardens. The squash plant in the foreground (near the spider wort) has two tiny little squashes. I bought four different kinds of squash seeds and they were the most productive of all the seeds I bought. In the beginning I had it all figured out but now I have no idea what kind of squash is what out there. Thankfully I’ve never met a squash I didn’t like so it’s all good. The back row is herbs and onions. I have one pretty hardy looking Romaine lettuce plant and a couple of Swiss chard that Fosco might enjoy. The other square-foot garden has more mystery squash, some peas – another offering for Fosco – carrots, chives, and a tomato plant. I have a bunch more tomatoes in the greenhouse. The one that I put in there in the fall has done so well that I thought I would try raising most of them in the greenhouse.

Maybe I needed this time off. The first couple of days I was a little down, mostly just dopey and in a lot of pain. One day I felt really sorry for myself and I went out into the greenhouse and cried as the rain hit the plastic top. I’ve had my share of grumpiness, usually followed by feelings of guilt, sometimes followed by extreme gratitude. My son has been a real standup guy, my friend Marie has been terrific in bringing things over to me, the neighbors are very sweet and concerned, and both Janet and Mary Ellen have helped me through some grumpy times by listening to me whine.
After I went to the doctor on Tuesday things turned around for me emotionally (OK, I know there was still some whining). I do like this doctor. I feel very confident that he’s going to do a good job on my arm. So, after the surgery, I can start healing. I leave you with this graphic of the affected area.

Sometime late Tuesday my version of this will have a lot of metal in it. I found myself wondering today if those super strong tiny magnets that I have will stick to my arm now. The old science teacher in me can’t wait to try.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter in the backyard

As I move through life, I find that I'm constantly remaking holidays. The way I was raised doesn't fit who I am now. So I am shaping things to fit, adding new traditions, deleting old ones, and melding some of them together. I was raised to observe Lent, usually giving up chocolate for 40 days. As a kid that was a supreme sacrifice. Come to think of it, it would be a sacrifice now. After Lent, I attended Easter Mass. I got the spiritual angle but I also got the commercial angle - I loved shopping for a new Easter dress, hat, and shoes. Easter egg hunts were fun but I mostly looked forward to Easter dinner. It was a feast as elaborate as Christmas dinner. We usually had a roast ham, a hen, or a goose. That was accompanied by a big spread of veggies, bread, and whatever else we had. I can't remember it all, but most likely dessert was some kind of cream pie with perfect meringue. And my brother and I got to drink wine at Easter dinner. Here I am on some Sunday, holding my prayer book, getting ready to go to Mass. It could have been Easter Sunday.
I observed this Easter by working most of the day. I cleaned the window from the kitchen to the patio. That was an ugly job but now the view from my breakfast table to the backyard is a little clearer. I got the patio cleaned and swept. I potted 30 strawberry plants and 7 okra plants.
I bought no new clothes, I didn't prepare a feast, and I'm definitely a heathen by my family of origin standards. These days I walk the shaman path. I worship the spirit that makes living things live. I don't have a name for it but I'm grateful to it. These early weeks of spring have been a time for gratitude. The temperature is Goldilocks perfect - not too hot; not too cold; just right. I know this pleasant weather will be followed by a hot summer. I can't predict how hot or how long it will be. But today was picture perfect. At this point in time, plants are growing, birds are nesting, and life feels new.
Here's one of the prickly pears. They both have new pads. These are the scrambled eggs that Marie gave me. They over-wintered nicely and spread a little. I can't wait for them to bloom.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cranes, Part 2 – Bosque del Apache and the stay at the B&B

After a quick lunch of Mexican food in Socorro, we headed straight for the Dancing Cranes B&B to check in and meet our hosts, Jim and Jana. We wanted to be sure to get to Bosque del Apache for the nightly fly out of the cranes so after a quick meet and greet, we took off in that direction.
Here’s the crane drill for novices (and I was in that camp until this trip). Like most (maybe all?) waterfowl, the cranes get up at the crack of dawn and fly off for a day of eating and doing whatever else they do. Mostly eating, I suppose. Toward dusk they fly back to their favorite water spot and settle in for the night. For the birds, this is a fairly simple thing. Humans scramble around, layering cold weather clothes on themselves, putting wool stockinged feet into boots, grabbing cameras, hats, and so on, all the while muttering (all of us) “We don’t want to miss the fly out.” Having been bitten by the crane bug earlier in the day at Bernardo Wildlife Refuge, I was right there with the other humans, wanting to get out the door and off to “pond one” which we had been assured was the favorite nightly spot for the cranes.
Thankfully, we got there enough in advance of their arrival that we had some time to drive around Bosque del Apache for a bit. We also hit the gift shop where I bought things I didn’t need but am happy with still the same. Around where this picture was taken, we saw flocks of small, frustrating little birds that challenged our birding knowledge. Later we discovered they were pine siskins. Here are Mary Ellen and Gail.

We headed over to pond one, parked, and walked as close to the pond as we could get. I took along my little Canon point and shoot mostly because it has a video feature. That allowed me to capture the sound of the cranes. I was truly fascinated by the sounds they make. What’s interesting is that most of us humans barely spoke. We stood and listened as bird after bird flew in noisily announcing their arrival while the birds already in the water called out greetings. We stayed until it was dark and the stragglers were few and far between.

Back at the B&B, Jana had made a vegetable casserole. There’s something about being cold that works up an appetite. I ate my share and then some, along with a few glasses of wine with Gail and Jana. All that was followed by fresh apple cake and it was all accompanied by friendly conversation with our hosts. Jim was more than happy to fill in my knowledge gap around the cranes. He pulled out a book and showed us photos and maps of the trek these amazing animals take every year. We learned that a separate group makes a similar journey over in the Midwest around the Platt River. I sat and looked through the book some more while Jim and Jana tidied up. Then it was off to bed so we could get up early and go back to pond one for the fly out!
I was still on Central Time so it was no trouble for me to get up early. I got dressed and had coffee and more apple cake with Jana. I learned that, in addition to being a photographer and jeweler, she’s an avid scuba diver and counts the Galapagos as one of her scuba destinations. Here is the link to her photography gallery. When Mary Ellen and Gail got up and had a little coffee, we headed back to the pond. Jana joined us so she could add to her collection of crane photos.
The fly out was as spectacular as the fly in. I stood with Jana in a location close to a group of cranes. We watched and listened as they talked and talked about flying out, doing so in small groups, pairs or singly, but all with much conversation.

Here is a photo of Mary Ellen, Gail, and Jana, bundled up.

As the last of the flock headed out for the day, we headed back to the B&B, where Jana had promised a tour of her studio. There we saw many of her photos and some of her jewelry. I bought a silver pendant with a bird stamped on it. It’s now one of my favorites. After that, we packed up, said our goodbyes to Jim & Jana, and hit the road again, headed back to ABQ.
The trip back is short but it was marked by three interesting events. We had gotten word that an artisan familiar to Mary Ellen and Gail (who also happens to be a neighbor of Jim & Jana) had a table at the Socorro Farmers Market. We stopped in there to see her wares. I bought some prayer flags that I still need to hang up – and a onesie for a little baby who is still in the oven. She’ll get the onesie in May when she joins the rest of us in the world. Thing two was a surprisingly hip restaurant/coffee shop that we found in Socorro. The food was great. I had an avocado/cheese sandwich with a side of homemade potato soup. Thing three about the trip back was the weather. After leaving Socorro, we drove through rain, sleet, snow, and hail – all in an hour and a half! All in all, the trip to see the cranes was an amazing adventure. It has taken me so long to write about it that I’m ready for another adventure now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Thoughts on an iris

News of Robin’s death.
First iris– progeny of my parents’ irises – blooms,
is snipped, and put in the empty
pear preserves jar – the kind my father loved.
Life persists; cycles cycle.
A rainy day starts in Central Texas.
My gratitude for life is boundless.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Trip to New Mexico - Part 1

Let me just start by saying it’s not called the land of enchantment for nothing. My good friends Mary Ellen and Gail have a wonderful home in Albuquerque and they asked me if I would like to come visit them and go see the Sandhill Cranes at Bosque Del Apache. Being busy people it took a few emails to figure out the best time and we settled on late January.
I flew up on a Thursday and we had a relaxing evening at the house, sitting at the kitchen table eating lentil soup and catching up. I should probably point out that Mary Ellen and Gail are former B & B owners so staying at their house is always a treat. I had a very sweet bedroom all to myself. The next morning after coffee and bagels, we started throwing our overnight stuff into various bags so we could head down to Bosque del Apache where we had booked rooms at a nearby B&B. Some dicey weather in the forecast almost changed our plans but we decided to go for it. As we headed south from Albuquerque the mountains to the west of us had lots of snow on them. It was cold and a little bleak outside the car but inside the car, we were in good spirits. We stopped for a few minutes so I could take this picture.

Our first stop was the Bernardo Wildlife Area, located between Belen and Socorro between I-25 and the Rio Grande. It’s set up so that you can drive your car through a big loop and stop at various places along the way to look at birds and take photographs. Rain had made the road impassable so the drive was closed. Undeterred by the closed gate, we parked outside and walked in. I heard the cranes before I saw them. It’s an amazing sound that I can’t begin to describe. For me, there is something mystical about it. I loved listening to them. Maybe it’s because their kind have been on this planet longer than we can imagine. From Wikipedia, “The oldest unequivocal Sandhill Crane fossil is "just" 2.5 million years old, over one and a half times older than the earliest remains of most living species of birds.” We are virtual spring chickens compared to these birds. To be in their presence is to touch the primal nature of the earth.

At Bernardo we saw hundreds, maybe thousands of sandhill cranes and lots of snow geese. We also saw a large flock of mountain bluebirds that rested in some branches a few feet away from us. The males are blue over most of their bodies. It’s a shocking bright blue that really catches the eye. We spent the better part of an hour walking around the area. It’s sort of an accidental wetland. Many years ago they diverted the Rio Grande to provide water to farmers. This created a riparian habitat that is now home to many creatures. In addition to their usual crops, many farmers plant corn for the cranes and the big birds can be seen on the fields, casually eating while overexcited humans gawk at them.
We weren’t thrilled with the mud that stuck to our feet but the cranes thought it was just dandy. Here are some of the many, many tracks we saw.

Stay tuned for the next post – Bosque del Apache and the stay at the B&B.