Mom looked out the window last week and saw a flock of wild turkeys picking at the dormant grass in the front yard. The birds were oblivious to the humans standing behind the glass just a few feet away. By the time we’d stopped fiddling with cameras and technical mishaps (dead batteries,etc.), the flock had proceeded to the end of the driveway, just beyond the rough-scaled ‘Heritage’ river birch on their left.
The birds headed across the road to the field (it becomes full of Queen Anne’s lace and sweet peas in summer), then veered toward a dilapidated old barn with a metal roof that threatens to fly off into the sky every time the wind blows hard. As a child, I helped the neighbor boys set up a general store in that little barn. We had old glass bottles, clunky tin cans, and small boxes with lettering muted by dampness from the building’s dirt floor. I always wanted to be the shopkeeper. The boys bought some of my make-believe groceries and goods to humor me.
* * * * *
I’ve been a bit of a turkey with my blogging recently — wandering, picking at things, keeping my head low to the ground. Blogging requires commitment and time, and the ante gets upped pretty often, I think. An example is how many photos to provide for a posting. When I write about gardening, I feel compelled to include a lot of images, following the trend. But it takes a lot of time to sort, re-size, and prepare photos for the web, then write a story, and do the behind-the-scenes work that makes the blog come together technically. Then, every few weeks a new app or social media platform surfaces, compelling bloggers to join in order to be relevant, or searchable, or whatever. So far, I’ve resisted, though I admire those who use those resources well.
For now, I need to be relevant to the social circle that’s in the flesh, needs my help, and doesn’t care if I’m search-engine optimized. In other words, blogging needs to take a back seat to parental and other responsibilities in the coming months.
When Meander Mountain first started, my goal was to have a very simple blog. For each posting, I wanted to show one or two photos that were nature-or-garden-related or that illustrated something compelling or offbeat about traveling or life in Southern Appalachia (mostly east Tennessee and western North Carolina). I want to re-commit to that approach, and also post more frequently — just without too many shoulds in my brain.
Too, I want to reach out more, to readers/other bloggers, who have made the past three M. Mountain years so enjoyable and worthwhile. For you, and for those who have made it to the end of this epistle, I am grateful. I look forward to staying in touch!
Cheers — to blogging and to wild turkeys,
All good wishes for 2014, starting with the Irish toast below!
* * *
May the blessings of light be within you,
Light without and light within.
And in all your comings and goings,
May you ever have a kindly greeting
From them you meet along the road.
A few weeks ago, a cacaphony of wing-fluttering and bird calls came from the direction of the creek in the back of the house. It was LOUD out there and I had to go investigate.
The cause of the commotion? The mulberries were ripening. A mature red mulberry, the native Morus rubra, was the source of big-time, early-summer bounty. Several kinds of birds were in a fruit-picking frenzy. They darted back and forth in the treetops and in the sky, their varied shapes outlined against the clouds. They were happy, happy, happy — especially the bluejays.
The birds appreciate our 35-40′ mulberry, but sometimes I forget about the tree when the berries aren’t ripening. Its foliage is high and it’s nestled among a group of other native trees — hemlock, tulip tree, sugar maple, and sycamore — that make up the landscape canopy along the creek. Some years, I’m out of town and the birds strip all the berries while I’m gone. But when I’m here, and the fruit start to ripen, the scraggly, unpretentious mulberry becomes the star of the garden.
The vegetation under the mulberry is thick — both at canopy and ground level — so it’s hard to see the berries when they fall. Some of the berries land on the lawn (i.e weed/moss area) in the sun, so they’re easier to spot.
Guess who else was out there getting a bellyful of berries? A squirrel (naturally) that kept jumping from one limb to another, pausing just long enough to stuff it’s mouth full. Here’s a blurry picture of him/her semi-camouflaged in the leaves.
Not far from the “mother” mulberry, there’s a seedling — also a red mulberry — about 10′ tall. The yellow leaf in the photo below is actually from the mother mulberry, while the big green one is from the seedling. Leaf variation is common with mulberries, although I suspect the yellow leaf was under stress and assumed its fall coloration.
It pleases me to look in the direction of the big mulberry and realize there’s not an exotic tree in sight — an increasingly rare experience in the home landscape. (Note: You will see some wonderful non-native specimens trees nearby, including a Korean stewartia, fullmoon maple and Japanese umbrella pine. There’s definitely a mix in my garden).
The mulberry trunk is in heavy shade. It likes the moist acidic soil above the creek. Judging from the shape of the tree, it probably started as a seedlling. I love having it in at the edge of the woods but would not want it near a patio or deck.
If I had been more diligent I would have lingered in the shady spot under the mulberry and hemlock tree and collected some of the inch-long berries to make jam. I did pick up a few to keep in a bowl in the refrigerator, just for the pleasure of looking at something from my own yard, mixed-in with fruits and vegetables from someone else’s land.
I left the rest of the berries for the birds. Maybe next year I’ll get the squirrel’s share.
When I walk the little path above the stone wall in front of the house, I’m at eye level with the top of a lovely hinoki falsecypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa.* Birds gravitate to this dense, gracefully-branching evergreen. They fly in and out of it all year, presumably for cover, but also for a landing place near the birdbath a few feet away. Every spring, the tree shelters a nest of fledglings. The species varies from year to year.
One day on the path, I felt a pair of eyes focusing on me from the top branches of the hinoki. It appeared to be an American robin, Turdus migratorius, sitting on a nest made of sturdily-woven leaves and small twigs. The nest was nearly obscured by soft, delicate sprays of evergreen foliage.
Over the next few days, I watched a female robin fly in and out of the evergreen. One afternoon I looked out the window and saw a good-sized bird in the lower branches of the twelve-foot tall tree. It had the beautifully-speckled chest of a juvenile robin, so I figured it had gotten too big for the nest and hadn’t quite reached the stage of being able to fly. The young bird just looked stuck, bobbing up and down on the soft branches that barely held its weight. When it saw me looking out the window, it averted its eyes and looked up, as if to say Come help, mama! She’s looking at me!
I know you’re not supposed to intervene when birds fall out of the nest — that the parent will find them and feed or coax them out of a bad situation. But it’s really hard to just stand by and wonder if a snake or cat will come by or the fledgling will die from lack of food or water. On the other hand, a lot of birds die because well-meaning humans take them away from the vicinity of the mother or nest and try to care for them. It’s always best to research the alternative before interfering. There are several good online resources for information about rescuing or rehabilitating baby birds. I particularly like this one: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/baby_birds.html .
With my robin, I decided to hold off and see what happened. Sure enough, the next morning, the baby had ascended much of the tree and was sitting within a foot or two of the nest. I watched as the mama swooped down with a worm and deposited it directly in the young bird’s mouth, despite the bobbing branches. Very impressive!
Today, it’s quiet out in the falsecypress. Another day. Another nest. I ‘m just hoping one of the young robins flying about or scratching in the leaf mold is my little robin — healthy and active, thanks to its watchful, industrious mother.
*According to the original plant label, this is supposed to be a cultivar of falsecypress called ‘Nana Gracilis’. While my tree has most of that plant’s features, it has already doubled the 6′ height expectancy listed in plant books. Maybe the label was wrong, but the birds don’t care.
With all its wildlife and plant abundance, my own yard feels like a nature sanctuary. It’s always changing, and I just walk outside to get there. But on lush, cool days in May, I’m ready to meet friends and family to experience the outdoors in a different setting. Last week, it was Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg that enticed me; this week, Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville.
Ijams has changed considerably since 1910, when Harry and Alice Ijams purchased the Center’s original twenty acres for their home place. The couple set out to create a haven for birds and plants, and they just kept on creating and expanding. In the 1960s, the land became a public nature park. Now owned by the City of Knoxville, Ijams is a non-profit park overseen by staff and a board of directors for the purpose of conservation and public education. Over the years, the Center has expanded to 300 acres, including ten miles of walking trails.
One of the first teaching opportunities at Ijams appears on a sign leading to the visitors’ center. The display is about turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and shows that nature is not just about pretty butterflies and songbirds. The cycle of life and death is complex, with each plant and animal playing a part of the process.
A five-lined skink, Eumeces fasciatus, sits on top of a carved duck close to the roofline of the visitors’ center.
You’ll see a bit of this and that at the nature exhibits inside Ijams. Glad I didn’t see a snake this big outside, although I appreciate its purpose in the scheme of things. The turtle and fish, all slow-motion in the water, were definitely alive.
The gift shop has nature-themed gifts and regional crafts for sale. The shop is a source of revenue for Ijams, plus a dispenser of snacks and souvenirs for little visitors. Okay … for big ones too.
A mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, kept a sharp eye on visitors below. I wish I’d gotten a sharper photo of this appealing little bird.
We had a private visit with a red screech owl just below the dove’s nest. I’m saving that (longer) story for another day.
Behind the education building, we saw this very fine specimen of native fringetree, also called old man’s beard. I love this tree, Chionanthus virginicus.
Oh, and how could you not swoon when you see the native Lonicera sempervirens, or trumpet honeysuckle? All kinds of pollinators are attracted to this vine. It’s a little hard to find at nurseries, but don’t give up. There is a yellow version of it — nothing like the invasive Japanese honeysuckle vine that grows throughout the southeast and beyond.
This lake (ducks or geese in the distant background) used to be a quarry where marble was extracted for buildings and monuments. We climbed to the top of the steep, stone cliffs, passing a small country graveyard along the way.
I’m always moved by graveyards, especially small, remote ones like this that are on the verge of reverting to wild.
One of my goals for this year is to learn more about lichens. We saw these just after a pair of indigo buntings landed in a nearby tree. Such beautiful birds. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted both the photos I took of the buntings before they flew away.
Since there are so many positive examples of nature conservation at Ijams, I’m a bit reluctant to mention how disturbing it was to see so many invasive plants growing rampantly on the property, especially near the quarry. At first I thought this was kudzu, but it was the Japanese import Wisteria floribundans (abundant flora, for sure).
On my own 3/4ths acre lot, we struggle with English ivy and Japanese stilt grass (Microstegia) so I understand the challenge of invasives. Recent rains have only added to the problem. But the level of wisteria, multiflora rose, poison ivy and other invasives at Ijams seems a call for remediation. Otherwise, the entire property and surrounding countryside will be compromised.
To end on an upbeat note, I’m including a drawing and poem that was displayed near the administrative offices at Ijams. It’s by a third-grader named Ethan.
My brother’s name is Nick
Pollution makes him sick
He doesn’t like pollution
So I came up with a solution.
Pollution is everywhere
It scares the bunnies and hares
Trucks and cars pollute the air
Ride your bicycle because you care.
Don’t throw trash in the street
Pick it up and be real neat
Don’t dump chemicals in the river
Some day it might harm your liver.
So, go, Ethan, third-grade budding naturalist. And go Ijams, until my return another day.
After a mentally-draining session with blogs and websites, my son and I found reprieve in a late-winter walk along Third Creek greenway in Knoxville. We parked at the Sutherland Avenue entrance and walked down a straight stretch of paving with grass clearings on either side. Groups of fat robins converged at the edge of a thicket of trees and undergrowth. There is good habitat for birds here: cover, water, and (presumably) plenty of food.
More evidence of birds, in this case woodpeckers. This tree has been foraged repeatedly for grubs and insects.
We saw bird silhouettes in distant trees, and a grouping of what appeared to be young, native beech trees with their buttery-brown winter foliage.
The creek meanders alongside the path. The view was pretty from the first vantage point when the sun was out. Unfortunately, the creek had just flooded and there was a good bit of trash and debris on the banks in some areas. The grasses and other plants (too early in the season to know what they were) had been flattened by the rising water.
The course of the stream was changed to a curving one by a process called stream re-meandering. According to this sign, the stream was dredged and straightened several decades ago because of erosion, sediment, and other problems associated with nearby development. Some people who grew up in this area say the stream was always straight. I don’t know. Unfortunately, there are still issues with the creek, as this sign will attest:
We saw a lot of bamboo, privet, and other invasive plants along this section of the greenway. It’s hard to keep invasives under control in areas such as utility right-of-ways, greenways, shoulders of highways, and other disturbed areas. At my own house, the creeks have eroded, and privet has seeded itself — with the help of birds — along the steep banks.
A happy surprise — which brought back many childhood memories – was the discovery of crawfish holes in the moist areas near the beginning of the trail. According to the sign we saw later, the holes were made by Appalachian brook crayfish (also called crawfish and crawdads). I think these were the very ones that kept making tunnels in the dam of my dad’s pond in North Carolina. He spent many an hour plugging up crawfish holes.
The trail leads to an area of thick vegetation near a railroad viaduct. The trestle is supported by thick columns, and the creek flows under some of them near the point where the greenway trail splits.
On the tracks above the greenway, a train was carrying a load of fresh lumber. The late afternoon light was reflected on the concrete below the tracks. I was so absorbed in the sound of the sparkling creek, cascading over the rocks near the viaduct, that I forgot to get pictures of people running, riding bikes, and walking.
This might have been my favorite part of the trail. I love trains — the mystery and romance of them and the evocative sound of their horns from a distance. With the train, added to the winter sunshine and rushing creek, it was one of the best-ever escapes from a computer.
There was a persistent kik-kik-kik sound in the backyard Sunday. I ignored it for a while, but it got increasingly loud. Turns out, it was a cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), sitting within the bare, criss-crossed branches of a large Japanese maple.
Cooper hawks have a fierce, intent look in their eyes — all the better to watch the small birds and mammals they prey on. This young hawk was probably eyeing chipmunks: they’re always scurrying around, looking out for seeds that fall from the feeder attached to the eaves of the house. Since I had just tossed out several cupfuls of safflower seeds, they were probably intercepting those too. Squirrels don’t usually like safflower; chipmunks don’t care if it’s that or the most prime selection of black oil sunflower. If it’s edible, they go for it.
This is the first cooper’s hawk I’ve seen on our property — at least upclose. They’re probably regular visitors, but either blend into the background or stay too high in the treetops for us to see or identify.
Immature cooper hawks (like this one) have yellow eyes and white chests with thin, brown streaks. Their backs are usually dark with white markings. They nest near the edge of deciduous or mixed woods like ours. Coopers are fairly common in Tennessee, more so during the months of September and October.
I hope this hawk comes back. I want to learn its call so, next time, I’ll recognize it right away.
Note: Wish I could have gotten a better shot of the Cooper’s Hawk, but it was taken from a window and without appropriate camera lens.
Shasta viburnum is a nice, short way to say Viburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Shasta’, or doublefile viburnum. I’ve been fond of this plant for a long time. Here’s why:
(1) It’s covered with layers and layers of snow-white flowers in spring. (2) Its dense, lateral branches provide year-round shelter to birds, plus hiding places for deer (or so they think). (3) The flowers are followed by red berries that turn glossy black — that is, if the birds let them last that long. (4) Shastas grow fast and are architecturally dense. (5) They make wonderful screens. We planted seven or eight three-gallon containers of Shasta on the hill near the house, staggering them about six feet apart. Within a few years, the plants were wide and tall enough to block out the view of the neighbor’s house above us.
The downside: (1) These plants sucker badly at the base. This of course makes them form a thicker screen, so it’s not all bad. (2) At my house, seedlings pop up in other parts of the yard. They revert to the species form, which does not have rounded, scalloped leaves. (3) They root deeply and grow quickly — again, a mixed blessing. (4) The nursery trade sometimes sells plants that are labelled Shasta, but are really Marie’s viburnum or ‘Mariesii’. I suspect this may have been the case with my plants; they’re supposed to be 6-8 ‘, when they’re actually closer to 10 or 12’. For our purposes the added height and width is no big deal — the better to keep my neighbor from seeing all the nefarious goings-on at the house below!
My favorite doublefile viburnum is ‘Summer Snowflake’. I have one in the back yard that, from a distance, looks like a very healthy, narrow-form flowering dogwood. It’s always a barometer for dry soil, but toughs it out pretty well between rains. More and more, I’m liking and recommending the native viburnums, especially blackhaw (V. prunifolium) and possomhaw (V. nudum).
Everybody’s garden needs a viburnum or two … more if you want wildlife, beauty, and a little bit of privacy in the ‘burbs.