Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Apples and Unintended Consequences

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”
--Henry David Thoreau

There are several important annual events in my backyard. When will the first hummingbird show up at the feeder I put out? When will the ornamental grasses start to grow? When will the house wrens leave the nest box? When will I have enough apples to make apple sauce?

I got the answers to the last two questions on the same day. I discovered the house wren young had left the box and were following their parents around the yard, calling to be fed while being shown how to do it themselves.

That same morning I realized there was not one apple left in the tree. No apple sauce this year.

Apple tree leaves (Margo D. Beller)
This apple tree is peculiar. While most apple trees produce their fruits in the summer going into autumn, this one flowers in the spring and starts producing fruits in June. I don't spray the trees so when I pick these apples (either from the tree or whole ones that are dropped to the ground) I always have to cut them open and cut away the not-so-good stuff.

As a friend of mine once said, the only thing worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm is finding half a worm.

Like birds and people, trees want to survive and perpetuate the species. To do that, the trees fruit. The tree draws insects with flowers. When apples form from the pollinated flower, other insects burrow into them, which in turn draws the birds. In summer, squirrels will climb into the tree to take an apple for the sweet moisture. What they drop will be eaten by deer unless I get to them first.

The seeds from all this eaten fruit will be, to be polite, disseminated all over the place.

Many apple varieties aren't grown from seed but from grafts. That doesn't stop the plant from flowering and fruiting.
Apple from my tree (Margo D. Beller)

This particular apple tree's fruits are sweet and, if allowed to fully ripen, grow to be medium sized and red. I showed one to the head of a local farm market and he said it was a macintosh variety, although not like the type you can buy in grocers.

I rarely get apples fully sized and red because the squirrels start going after them when they are yellow and big enough for them to take a bite. 

When MH and I bought the property decades ago, there were five apple trees, a blueberry bush and a cherry tree.

The cherry tree died of rot and was removed. The blueberry bush had to be removed when we had foundation work done on the house. The smallest of the five apple trees was literally rubbed to death by bucks sharpening their antlers, scraping off all the protective bark. Of the remaining apples trees, we removed one because it got so big we could not get at the fruit until it hit the ground with a splat, at which time the deer would get it.

Two more trees, whose apples were yellow-green, hard and not particularly sweet, were removed because they were too prolific and there was no way I could deal with all those apples drawing the deer, which pooped all over the yard. The blue spruce and the dogwood we put in as replacements don't interest the deer but they do provide shelter for birds.

We now have the one apple and that is still a challenge. For one thing, there's the wren box hanging from one branch. The young growing too big to allow their parents inside to feed them seems to coincide with when the apples start getting large enough to interest the squirrels. The constant visits stress the parent wrens.

It is no surprise that the parents are very eager to get their brood out of the box and flying elsewhere just around the time I start picking apples. I rarely see a second wren family at the box because of all the activity.

Usually in late June or early July I go out in the early morning and pick up all the apples either dropped by the squirrels or by the tree. It takes a lot of energy to produce an apple so the sooner the tree can drop the fruit the better, particularly when hot summers and low rain can weaken the tree. Self-preservation rules.

I throw any chewed apples into a corner or the yard and take the whole ones inside for later processing into sauce. Squirrels and birds are messy eaters, and unless I clean up there would be much more deer mess under the tree than there already is.

Unlike the two trees that were prolific each year, with this tree I'm not always assured of a large crop. Several years ago we had the tree pruned. The following spring, it flowered prolifically and produced a bumper crop to make up for what it lost in the pruning. Quarts of apple sauce for the freezer to last me into the winter months.

House wren box in apple tree (Margo D. Beller)
This spring, however, either because of last year's bounty or the relatively mild winter or the lack of rain or the increase in mad-made pollution, there were few flowers. Few flowers = few fruit. I've managed to get a few apples here and there, not enough for sauce but enough to put into pancakes. I went outside on a Tuesday and picked one relatively large apple just so the squirrels didn't get it.

The next day, I discovered an empty wren box and an empty tree.

While the lack of apples means less work for me, it creates some unintended consequences.

Deer that were expecting apples look for other sources of food - such as what bits of flowers and plants they can get at through my deer netting. Squirrels that used apples as a source of moisture are now hitting the water dishes I have out for the birds. Birds that were using the apples for moisture or to pick off the insects now have to find another food source.

However, there is the chance a second house wren will discover the box, start singing his territorial song and draw a mate to create a second brood. That would more than make up for the loss of apples.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Summer Babies

When my first niece was born nearly three decades ago, we waited for the phone to ring. Back then it was a landline on a table in the hall. We were not alone in waiting. When we visited MH’s parents, each time the phone rang he’d yell, “The baby, the baby!” but it was usually someone else.

When the call finally came, I answered and MH yanked the phone from my hand. “I’m the blood relative,” he said. I’ve never forgotten that. Luckily, our niece loves me just the same as him.

(photo courtesy of Redmond family)
This niece has just had her first child. Everyone knew about it within seconds on Facebook and there were literally hundreds of congratulations and other comments on the many photos. It is a fast and technological world we live in now.

Meanwhile, out in the yard, birds are also having babies in the June heat. However, they aren’t tweeting out the news using Twitter or posting to Facebook, so you have to keep your eyes open and watch for the signs.

I knew when the babies were hatched in the house wren box when Papa Wren stopped his near-constant singing. Now, he was trying to protect the young by keeping the location of the nest hidden.

Another clue: Both parents started shuttling back and forth to the box with food. One would get something, bring it to the box, climb inside, then come out. The other would come seconds later to do the same thing.

Wren box (Margo D. Beller)
When the babies got too big, the parents stayed on the outside of the box to feed the young. It is up to each chick to push its way to the front to get fed. Mom or Dad won’t be coming inside anymore. Fight to feed or die.

Today I came into the backyard and the wrens were scolding their warnings to the young, as usual at my appearance. However, this time, they were in a bush at the other end of the yard. When I stood under the nest box, none came to hover over me as they were doing as recently as the day before.

The young had fledged.

It’s not just the wrens that are doing this. From my open window I can hear the raucous families of tufted titmice and black-capped chickadees. Taking a walk, I see small groups of starlings, the young a sandy brown color, not yet the black of their parents.

Once the quiet period of egg laying, brooding and fledging is over, the young noisily follow their parents around, begging to be fed, slowly learning how to do this for themselves. The birds are more active and are more easily found in the thick tree canopy.

I am hearing more bird song, too, cardinals, chipping sparrows and song sparrows singing territorial songs before starting a new brood. Most birds are not monogamous. Once the young have fledged, the parents go their separate ways and start over. Many birds have several broods each season before it is time to head south in the autumn. That means two birds can create 10 or more birds in one summer. They must do this for their species to survive. 

Tree swallow brood -- look carefully, there are 5 (Margo D. Beller)
Humans do things in a different order. You have nine months of great anticipation and frenzied nest building after conception, not before. Then, once the young are born, it can take decades of care and feeding to get the young ready to leave the nest, presuming they want to or can afford it.

Birds have it easier.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A River Walk Down Memory Lane

This morning I awoke thinking of Sheepshead Bay.

When I was growing up in this coastal area of southern Brooklyn, decades ago, it had the ambiance of a fishing village. This was long after the racetrack that first brought crowds to this area was demolished.

Walking east along the main commercial street, Emmons Avenue, you had the bay on your right. A small bridge over the bay (below) would take you to Manhattan Beach, through a neighborhood of stately mansions.

(Photo by Jim Henderson
courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There was a large fleet of fishing boats that went out before dawn and were back in the late afternoon with their catch, blowing their horns as they arrived so the housewives could hurry down and buy that night's supper. There were fishing boats for hire that, once three miles out, would open the liquor cabinets and turn into party boats.

On the other side of Emmons from the Bay were large homes that would be rented out for the summer, and groups of bungalows crammed together in an area separated by "courts" rather than streets. There were seafood restaurants of all sizes including the famous Lundy's, the less famous Randazzo's and the Kips comedy club where many now-famous people got their start.

Continuing east, past the bars where fights would send the wounded to my father the doctor to patch up, were the two big beach clubs, the Deauville and the Palms Shore. Here, you paid your dues and rented a cabana for the summer, bringing out your chairs to sit around the large pool to work on your tan or swim. The older ladies would sit under their beach umbrellas in their bright bathing suits and coverups, dripping with jewelry and bronzed, sagging skin.

Beyond was Plumb Beach, a dirty stretch of sand where you did not play because of the garbage strewn around. You never knew what you might step on. People would drive down here at night to make out, or "submarine race watching." Instead, if you didn't want to join the beach clubs or walk into Manhattan Beach, you would go west on Emmons to where it became Neptune Ave.,  under the elevated train tracks (where the track sign pointed you to "the city"), toward the beaches of  Brighton Beach and Coney Island.

North of Emmons Ave., you had to travel up Sheepshead Bay Rd., Ocean or Bedford or Nostrand avenues to get past the elevated Belt Parkway. Here, you had apartment buildings, schools, commercial shopping strips and rows of identical houses. This is the area where we lived, not on the water but close enough to walk over and enjoy it.

I woke up thinking of Sheepshead Bay because like other waterfront communities, what made it unique has disappeared.

The beach was rediscovered and cleaned up. It is now a destination for sunbathers and bird watchers who want to see endangered least terns and assorted shorebirds including the occasional rarity. That's a good thing.

(Plumb Beach now, courtesy of Wikipedia)
But the waterfront also drew profit-seeking developers. The old beach houses are gone. The diners where we ate are gone. The tiny summer bungalows have been winterized and people live there year around. Many of the small businesses were expanded or torn down for larger ones. The seafood places became chains or large restaurants. The big barn that was Lundy's was divided up to create two restaurants and an indoor mall.

You can still walk along the water near the small bridge to Manhattan Beach and there are still fishing boats, but there are fewer of them and the bait and tackle shops are mainly gone. LIke the party boats, the gambling boats wait until they have sailed out three miles before the real action starts.

The old beach clubs are gone. In their place are tall apartment buildings that block the view of the bay to anyone except those paying for "ocean views." Emmons Ave. is now crowded all year, not just when beach seekers from other New York City neighborhoods come off the Elevated to walk into Manhattan Beach over the foot bridge.

The same thing has happened elsewhere. Industrial areas that dumped their chemical byproducts into adjacent waterways are closing, many torn down to make way for waterfront parks to allow people access to the water again, even if that water is still slowly recovering from decades of pollution.

I can still walk along the Charles River, as I did when I went to college in Boston, but looking across to Cambridge and Charlestown you now see more huge "waterfront" apartments. On the Boston side, the removal of the elevated highway known as the Central Artery brought light to an area near the Boston Garden that I remember from my college days as being perpetually dark. Once down, however, huge apartment buildings and offices went up. This "development" has spread into the old North End, along the waterfront and down into less-scenic neighborhoods of Boston.

All because of those water views.

The first towns were built on rivers. Roads were slow going, if there were roads at all. Rivers moved you from one place to another and took your goods to market. New York City was founded on a natural port sheltered from the Atlantic, with a mighty river, the Hudson, that allowed for transport inland. Even where I live, far from the ocean, there are several rivers on which many towns were founded.

You wouldn't realize that now unless you were told. No one notices rivers. "Developments" are placed anywhere because they can get highway access. Forests are cut down. Old farms suddenly sprout "luxury townhouses" and multi-acre estates. All of them look alike.

After all that tearing down, it seems inevitable that anywhere with some water running through it would be seen as an attractive, "natural" alternative. The more built-up this world becomes, the more yearning there is to go back to a simpler time -- as long as you still have all the modern conveniences. If you are a developer, you can cash in on that.

You may not have a forest anymore but the river just keeps flowing along, at least for now.