Before I get started with this week's discoveries in the natural world, I have a few bits of news. First, my apologies for missing last week's article. In case you didn't hear, we had a serious fire at our headquarters building on May 14, so we had a slight interruption. Everyone is safe and sound and we're back up and running, stronger than ever!
Second, my column, Down Nature's Trail, is moving! But it will be a simple click of your mouse to come along with me. Soon you will be redirected to my new e-home, Rootstock (www.rootstock.coop). The look and feel will be a little different, but I'll be the same Dan you've come to know, and I'll continue to share my adventures in the wonderful world of nature as ever. The new location will provide you and I with an even better way to have deeper conversations about, and enjoy pictures of all things Nature.
The true meaning of the word "green" came to be, as the week of leaf-out came to the Kickapoo Valley. I can't remember the last time I saw the landscape turn so lush and green so fast. It was a beautiful happening, even though it came two weeks late. Last year, leaf out came two weeks early. That's a month's difference from one year to the next.
The weather has been on the cool side, and we're getting a little rain. I saw some little Canada goose gosslings the other day, but couldn't get a picture of them before they followed their parents into the tall grass. There've been a few reports of folks seeing fawns, but I haven't been lucky enough to see one yet. It's been too cool for much insect activity, and the butterflies are almost non-existent. There are a couple of hummingbirds in the yard, but they've been too busy to pose for a picture. Haven't heard the whip-poor-will song lately, but I heard a wood thrush and a cuckoo today. So many new things to see!—so many subjects for the camera's lens as spring turns to summer.
Most of the birds have started their nesting duties and have paired off in their personal territories. A few pretty, white-crowned sparrows stopped for a few days, but have gone. Some say he's the most handsome of all the sparrows, and his song says, "here, wee willie, what do you see?" The white-throated sparrows were here for just a few days before heading further north.
I'm very grateful for all the beautiful orioles that have been in the valley this spring. I've never seen so many in one place—one day last week I counted 14. These striking birds have it all, a lovely melodic song and beautiful orange and black plumage. They aren't shy and land in the apple tree next to me, lured by the orange halves I stuck in the branches. Orioles are attracted to the color orange, and the oranges act like magnets for the hungry birds. I used up three dozen oranges last week and, to me, it was well worth the fifteen dollars to keep these birds around for a while. There seemed to be orioles everywhere I went in the Kickapoo Valley and I heard their sweet songs every time I opened the car door.
There are a few brown cowbirds coming to the birdfeeder. They aren't what you'd call colorful, but are quite handsome in their own right. Their unusual but pleasant song is one that I always look forward to. An old saying describes both cowbird and human alike: "Forgive them. They know not what they do."
The beautiful spring flowers jump right out against the green foliage, and I just had to snap a picture of a large cluster of spring beauties. How could something so beautiful appear in a place that was covered with snow and ice only a few weeks ago.
The kestrel peers out from the nesting box on the Radtke farm. The 4 or 5 eggs inside should hatch any day now, and it will be two-to-three weeks before young kestrels try out their new wings. We're keeping our eyes open and hopefully I can get some pictures of that first flight from the box. As long as was visiting the Radtkes, I thought I'd say "hi" to their pet Pete the Peacock, who was in fine form, standing atop the milk house. How totally handsome he is with all the colors of spring and summer in his regal feathers. Besides being so good-looking, his call can compete with the sandhill cranes for the loudest of all the birds.
The curious little brown bird I was watching darted into the cedar trees before I could get a good look. When I walked over for a closer look, I realized I was standing in a patch of gorgeous, wild geraniums. When I bent down to take a picture of the lavender flowers, the little brown bird landed on a branch only a few feet away. The female indigo bunting never made a sound, but seemed very curious about what I was doing.
These days, mushroom hunting is more of an excuse to check out the woodland birds and wildflowers. From time-to-time I have to remind myself that I'm looking for morel mushrooms. So many lovely white trilliums! I want to take a picture of each of them. My attention is drawn from one pretty wildflower to another, and the bright yellow petals of the large leaf bellwort catch my eye. I thought of the cuckoo when I noticed the web-tent of the tent caterpillar in the low branch of a cherry tree. The cuckoo is one of only a few birds who will eat furry caterpillars and it looks like they will have plenty to eat this year. The pretty blue birds-foot violets grow tall at the edge of the meadow and not far away, half hidden in the grass, a few morel mushrooms.
The huge beds of Virginia bluebells that grow in certain tree-sheltered places along the river bottom are as beautiful as ever. They stand tall and form a blanket of sweet blue flowers on lush green stems and leaves. They are one of my favorite wildflowers, but unfortunately they bloom for only a week or so and are gone.
On the other side of the river, two sandhill cranes stand in the green grass of a pasture. Their gray plumage has finally changed to cinnamon brown, which seems to go well with the grass green. They were just minding their own business when an angry red-winged blackbird came flying out of nowhere and started dive-bombing the cranes. Apparently they had ventured too close to the blackbird's nest, and he aimed to let them know they weren't welcomed there. He made quite a ruckus until the cranes finally walked off to find a more peaceful place to spend the morning. These little dramas are taking place all the time this time of year, and it's fun to watch to see what happens next.
There are more wild ducks in the area than I've seen in years, especially the wood ducks. On a two-acre grassy pond near the Kickapoo river, I counted 32 wood ducks, all male. The colorful male wood ducks are all waiting for the females to appear with their ducklings. Like the kestrel, the female wood duck finds a hole in a tree trunk or limb, then she lays her dozen (or so) eggs—sometimes thirty-to-forty-feet above ground, and often in a soft maple tree up to a mile away from any water. Shortly after the eggs hatch, the tiny downy ducklings will leap to the ground below, often bouncing (unharmed) as high as two feet in the air. Once they have all landed safely, mama wood duck will lead them to the nearest water. The wood ducks also are attracted to nesting boxes, even if they are put up at the edge of your yard. With a little luck, there will be lots of wild ducks to see next fall.
Got the zinnias planted on Thursday, a tedious job that takes a couple of hours, but is so worth it. The butterflies simply cannot resist the different colored flower blossoms, so I plant lots of them. For many years, I've planted an 80-foot-long double row of mixed zinnias for the butterflies and bees of summer, and the deer in the winter. While turning over the black dirt, I startled a wolf spider from where he was hiding.
A real treat came to the yard on Friday. Mother woodchuck came out from under the brush pile like she does every day, but this time there were six small woodchucks with her. Oh, how cute they are, and I'm looking forward to watching them grow and play together in the summer sun.
So much to do and so much to take in, spring is a busy but fun time. A new adventure in living every day; every day is a new chance to learn even more of what life is really all about. Get outside and enjoy the bounty of life all around you. Be a part of it!
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