Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The aftermath

Early today, the day after Hurricane Irene struck, I was on the screened-in back porch, listening to the rain, trying to wake myself. The rain was coming down hard but I heard the “thief!” call of a blue jay.

Jays are not my favorite bird. They are noisy and hit the feeder hard and often, scaring off everything else. They will attack the young of others - I have seen one snatch up a baby house wren that had fallen from the nest box and make off with it before I could get out of my porch chair.

Today I’d never heard a sweeter call.

We all remember the story of Noah sending out a dove that came back with an olive branch, giving him hope the water was receding. The next time the dove was sent it did not return because the worst was over.

Birds are wonderful indicators of both good and bad. Days before the great tsunami that hit Indonesia a few years ago, the birds were among those leaving the area. Closer to home, if you see a gull inland a storm may be brewing off the coast. (Of course, gulls are just as likely to be Dumpster-diving with the crows nowadays, so seeing one inland may not be a sign of anything.)

On the good end, as happened today, when the pair of cardinals called to each other it meant Irene's rain was ending, the water table would recede and the worst was over.

We were lucky. We came through relatively unscathed. The worst was dripping from the ceiling that came into the attic and then into a smoke detector, setting it off around 2 am and scaring me out of a deep, dreamless sleep. My husband (MH) was awake, and would ultimately be awake for 34 straight hours tracking the storm, checking the attic (once he’d plugged the leak and put in tarps and buckets to catch any water) and especially checking on the sump pump that ran regularly all night as the water table rose.

After noon today it was the wind that became a problem. One past hurricane, Floyd, didn’t hurt us as he blew through but the backlash winds blew over a tree that took out the power lines for several days, forcing us to bring perishables to MH‘s parents, then a few towns away.

I remembered they now live in New Hampshire when, around 2pm, the winds picked up and the power went off.

Mercifully, it quickly came back on and has stayed on.

After already making three trips taking brush to the curb for pickup I will be rising early tomorrow to get the last of it. I will put back outside the thistle feeder for the goldfinches and will add the house feeder with sunflower seeds for the cardinals, my way thanking them for reminding me there's always hope.

I won’t even mind the jay coming to call.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Waiting for Irene

I am waiting for a hurricane.

When I went out earlier to run some errands, the streets in my part of town were quiet. No one out or around. The closer I got to town, the more traffic increased. A lot of people were acting like it was just another humid, overcast day.

Perhaps I should be that way, denying that just days after a major earthquake hit the region, a Category 2 storm 600 miles across is making its windy way through areas I know well - the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Delmarva peninsula, Cape May - straight for the greater NY area.

The coastal part of Brooklyn where I was born and where my parents and paternal grandparents lived is under mandatory evacuation. The part of Far Rockaway, Queens, where my maternal grandmother died is under mandatory evacation.

My life is tied to the shore, and Irene will be at her worst tomorrow on what would have been my mother's 91st birthday.

As I sit in what I hope is a sturdy house 30 or so miles west of New York City, I wonder about the birds. They have begun heading south - I found three types of warblers in one little area of Flat Rock Brook Park in Englewood within 2 minutes Friday morning - and unless they make a wide turn toward Pennsylvania they are going to head into a hurricane. A lot of birds may just come down where they are and stay put.

Many will die.

The sea birds may ride out the storm far into the ocean although I am sure there is at least one person on a south-facing beach, watching for a shearwater or storm-petrel to be blown in. That is nuts. I have taken in my thistle feeder and I hope the pair of goldfinches that had been using it are not blown out of one of my trees.

Category 1 or 2 hurricanes don't hit New York City that often, certainly not in the same week as a major earthquake, just in time for the new moon and higher tides. Remember all the snow of last winter in New Jersey? The unusual cold? The heavy spring rains and the intense heat that made May feel like August? There is something unnatural going on in Nature, and I hope those people who don't believe in global warming realize the error of their ways.

In the meantime I have done as much as I can but feel helpless at what may come. My husband, the scientific type, is monitoring TV reports and plotting the hurricane on his maps. It is his way of feeling like he is accomplishing something.

This post is my attempt. Godspeed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A few words about weeds

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but for the last few weeks, maybe even months, I have not been in the mood to work in the garden.

It has either been too hot, I’ve been too busy elsewhere or it has been raining buckets.

While I was making excuses, the weeds were taking over.

The ones at the edge of the front garden were bigger than the salvias, which were also in desperate need of deadheading. (So were the butterfly weed, the daisies, the Jupiter’s beard and the coreopsis.)

Thus today I was outside for several hours before the next deluge and before it got too hot, doing hand to hand combat with the weeds.

I must give them credit, they know how to survive. Some grow between the cracks of the paving stones where it‘s hard to get them out whole; others thrive hidden under other plants; still others grow in plain sight in the middle of the lawn, hogging whatever bit of sunlight they can get.

Some won't budge without a lot of effort. Some give easily - too easily, leaving behind a root or small tendril that allows the weed to continue growing.
Some are wonderful mimics. One looks like a mum before it flowers, one looks like the leaves of a daisy and others seem like grasses except they grow a little too tall, too fast.

A weed can be defined as a plant growing in the wrong place, but some of them can be useful. The stand of Queen Anne’s Lace in the far corner of the yard is pretty and I leave it alone. Wild rose can be invasive and you have to be careful pulling it up, but if allowed to flower it provides fruits for birds. Thistle seed heads feed goldfinch families. Orange trumpet vine flowers draw hummingbirds.

Catbirds love inkweed berries like the ones above, but the one time I found a small plant in the garden I pulled it out because if you let it dig its taproot in you won’t be able to get it out without a lot of hard labor.

Butter and egg is a nice little yellow wildflower that becomes a pervasive weed unless kept in check. There are a lot of nasty weeds, such as crabgrass and ground ivy, that have to be yanked out with extreme prejudice.

And the deer assuredly do NOT eat them.

Every year I take one or two days to pull up, dig out or mow down the weeds. But I know it is an exercise in futility.

MH sprays the ones between the driveway paving stones but they are soon back. I pull out plants, including the roots, but I know somewhere down deep is a section I have missed and it will grow again. I have smothered weeds with mulch only to have squirrels dig and provide enough space and light for the weeds to come back.

The irony is, the more you disturb the ground removing weeds, the greater the chance you’ll have new and/or different ones soon.

There certainly are enough varieties. I have a Reader’s Digest book that identifies the weeds and gives their good and bad points and how best to rid your yard of them. That’s how I learned some weeds are edible - purslaine and lamb’s quarters, smaller dandelion leaves and wild onion.

But most of the time I pull up the lot and throw it in the compost pile.

As I was yanking out the weeds and cutting back my tattered perennials today I thought of a scene in a movie I saw long ago.

I like Len Deighton’s novel “The Ipcress File” with his nameless spy. Parts of the book were changed when it was made into a movie with Michael Caine. The first and most important change was the spy got a name, Harry Palmer.

But at least one other scene I don’t remember from the book is when Palmer visits his boss at home and the boss is in his English garden. All the plants are weeds.

If I remember correctly the gist of the explanation is that since they take over anyway, he might as well grow them.

Now there’s an idea for a sale pitch: Weeds, the ultimate in deer-proof plants! They take care of themselves no matter what the weather! Buy one, get a yardful in two years or less!

Well, maybe not.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two mysteries

I am known as a birding expert among my city friends. When they travel and see birds they think, “Margo would know what that is.” Then they get home and ask me what that “big white bird” could be.

This is when my journalism training comes in handy. Where were you when you saw the bird? A beach? A forest? Was in in a tree or on the ground? Was there any other color besides the white? Was it bigger than a robin (or a more common bird they’d recognize)?

Eventually we work it out and my reputation is secure.

However, I know the only reason I can identify the birds and they can’t is because I took the time to learn, to observe, to read the birding books, to follow a call until I found the caller and note the field marks.

I was not born with this innate knowledge, although I am now at that point of being an enlightened intermediate who can recognize birds in my area without effort. It took a long time and a lot of practice.

But there are times when I don't know the answer.

Here are two examples, both seen on the same day, yesterday, at a grasslands in Franklin Township, Somerset County, in central New Jersey.

I am very, very bad on shorebirds. They generally all look the same to me. But I know from previous sightings the tall bird to the right is a solitary sandpiper, and not just because it was all alone at the edge of a small pond in the middle of the grassland. It has that eye ring and a white breast and is largish.

The other, smaller birds are the mystery. Because of the body shape I am guessing they are sandpipers rather than the stockier plovers such as the killdeer. But what types of sandpipers? Least sandpiper or the slightly larger semipalmated sandpiper? Something else?

The other mystery bird was seen in the tree bordering the grasslands. It is a remarkably dull brown bird, about robin size, with that slight mottling in the whitish breast. It had some barring in the back toward the tail that made me think it was a large house wren. But this was no house wren.

I saw a male indigo bunting in the area so I thought this might have been the duller, browner female but the bill is wrong - buntings, like finches, have stout bills for cracking seeds. This one is thinner, pointed and looks like the bill on a blackbird, which includes members of the meadowlark and oriole families. The big eye and eyebrow made me think it was a thrush, but it doesn’t have the spotting of the wood or hermit thrush and it doesn’t have the reddish color of the veery.

Both have me stumped.

I continue to look through my books and have asked at least one more experienced birder what he thinks.

Can you identify these mystery birds? Let me know at

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The good and bad at Greystone

There are a lot of good things about living across the street from a large piece of undeveloped land.

There is quiet during early morning walks. There are the many birds that enliven the area and come to my feeders.

And then there are the deer, which isn't so good.

I recently read a blog post elsewhere complaining about deer and the resulting comments ran to the "stop whining, they were here first" camp. That is true, they were here before I moved here, before my 1960s-era house was even built.

Tough. I live here now and discovering what one deer can do in damage has changed the way I garden. Had I known when I was landscaping in 1993 what I know now, everything would be different.

No way would I have taken my friend's hostas when she had to break up her garden. Nor would I have planted hydrangea - since deceased - to remind me of those in my mother's backyard. Nor would I have put in six yellow and green euonymous bushes, although they do bounce back whenever a deer has gotten past the netting.

Ah, yes, the netting. There is no such thing as just going outside and picking a flower or two when you have to get behind deer netting. The planning is reminiscent of battle. I've restrung my netting many times over the years as I refine the process of allowing access to me while blocking it to the deer.

But most of the flowers I now grow would not be here, starting with the azaleas I thought were so pretty in the garden shop.

The same garden shop that NOW so proudly trumpets "We have deer-resistant plants!"

There are no such things, by the way. A hungry deer will try anything once. Many of my "deer-resistant" plants have been nibbled including the canna, the monarda and the maidenhair grasses I put in a plot where there was once an apple tree, another casualty.

The previous homeowner had a lot of apple trees, which are very pretty for about a week when they blossom but become a royal pain when the apples come out, the squirrels drop them and the deer poop all over the yard while visiting to pick up the leavings.

One tree succumbed to illness, another to having young bucks rub against it to lose the velvet off their antlers. Two others I took down because the apples weren't very tasty to me but they did draw the deer. I replaced them with a dogwood (currently behind netting so it isn't rubbed into oblivion) and a blue spruce (that has hidden some juncos in winter).

For two weeks a year I must go out to pick apples for my cooking from the one remaining tree or dispose of half-eaten ones to minimize the attraction for deer. Judging by what I find in the grass, I am only partly successful.

More of my neighbors are either putting netting around their plants or putting out "deer-resistant" plants that are mainly spiny shrubs that hurt to eat. If any have flowers they are in hanging baskets.

We don't keep a dog so the other obvious answer would be to surround the yard with a tall fence, at least 8 feet high. (I have seen deer casually jump over a 6-foot fence. They have powerful hind legs.) There are two problems: in my part of town the requirement is for a "park-like setting" and so no fencing in the front yard. In the back, my husband likes being able to look beyond the yards to the streets and see who is driving or walking around and says he would feel shut in.

I don't see the difficulty in this. But since MH works in our home and I do not, I must net the two gardens in front and one in the back that is dominated by yews, another deer favorite, and what is left of the hostas.

I have learned to think like a deer. I know to stay to the side and behind the group so they keep going forward - a deer that goes back the way it came will likely be back as soon as you go into the house. I know that if a horned buck looks you in the eye and puts its head down, back away slowly because otherwise it will charge you (particularly in rutting season). I have learned that if you try to chase off a doe and she just stands there, there is usually at least one spotted fawn somewhere nearby - the sooner mother and child are reunited, the sooner they both leave.

I know, they are only animals. It is not their fault that large tracts of meadowland were cut into suburban yards with just enough space to feed them and not enough space to allow humans to hunt them.

In rural New Hampshire, my sister-in-law doesn't have to worry about deer eating her flowers. The properties are not close together and the woods are full of wolves, coyotes and, in season, hunters.

In short, they are afraid of people. Not like the deer in New Jersey. New Jersey deer have attitude to spare.