Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

My Corner Office

A good back porch beats a big corner office.
--from a side panel tacked to my wall that was once on a box that held a sixpack of Mike's Hard Lemonade

From my comfortable chair in the corner of my enclosed porch, a chair that should not even be out here but I had no place to put it after we got some new recliners, I can see the bird house next door where a pair of house wrens are now feeding young. Looking the other way, I can see the hummingbird feeder that has so far drawn one bird to feed.

Backporch dining area, with plants (Margo D. Beller)
If I turn my head even further to the right, I can see my wren box where another house wren took over after a pair of black-capped chickadees apparently abandoned their nest. Another female wren put in a few twigs and now the male sings every morning, hunting for food to bring to the box. Since I hear no chatter of young, I am presuming the female is sitting on eggs.

Some early mornings when I sit out here with my first mug of coffee, I can hear both male wrens "battle" each other in song. I watch the catbirds in summer just as I watched the white-throated sparrows in winter, looking for breakfast from the vantage point of atop the flood wall. I watch the flowering plants in succession: forsythia, quince, dogwood, lilacs, the wild rose.

I am out here most mornings, taking advantage of having a more flexible schedule, no longer killing myself to make the train or drive a major highway, enjoying the quiet as other people head to work and school or run or walk their dogs. I enjoy my solitude as MH sleeps upstairs. This enclosed porch was one of the reasons we bought this house almost 25 years ago.

When we bought it, the porch had a roof and was "walled" with floor to ceiling screens. The first winter we lived here a couple of inches of snow blew in. The company that re-sided the house put in kick plates to block the snow, outside carpeting over the bricks and window panels we could raise and lower, making the porch usable in every season, including summer thanks to our fan, except on the coldest of days (although I have been known to sit out here in winter coat, hood up and blanket on my legs).

It is the best of both worlds, outside the main house but not completely exposed to the elements. "This is outside?" a visiting friend once asked. For me, yes. I can be seen or not seen. I can write, as I am doing out here now, or read or get away from MH or the sound of the washer or dryer and, with headphones, avoid the sound of suburban lawn mowers.
Plants, May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)

This is where I store soil, pots and other plant supplies. It is where I put rooted cuttings into small pots or plants into bigger pots. It is from where I put seed into feeders and take them outside in the mornings, then bring in the feeders to protect them from bears every evening until around Memorial Day.

Now the feeders are put away and many of my front room plants can sit out here all summer, getting a shot of sunlight in the early morning and the late afternoon because of the configuration of the house. If there are two things I'd have changed about this porch they would be to have it facing south instead of north (so my plants can stay out here all year long) and cranks to open and close windows instead of my having to lift them with my balky back.

This porch has hosted large cookouts and MH and me eating our ice cream side by side. It has allowed me to sit in my chair and watch an assortment of common and migrant birds eat seed and suet, the ultimate bird blind.

It is my sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life, although not always from insects. Let others enjoy their outdoor patios or their street-facing front porches. There is something to be said for sitting outside in the breeze, and I enjoy it when I take a folding chair outside in the morning shade to better hear the birds. I can even understand the need to sit out in public and wave at passersby.

My mornings. May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
But from the comfort of my chair here on my enclosed porch, this is all the society I want as I watch the birds, my jungle of houseplants and the trees' green leaves unfold and later turn color. From here the world looks swell.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The World According to Spruce

Hello, there! Spruce Bringsgreen here. The lady of the house said she needed a breather and asked me to fill in. Honestly, I have never written anything before, writing not being one of the traits one needs in a spruce tree. But I'll give it a go.

Here I am, relaxing at home, May 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
I've been here since 2007 when Margo and MH decided to spend their annual November vacation at home and ordered a number of big plants, including me! That was real good of her because it gets kinda nerve-wracking standing in a garden center far from my native state - Colorado - not knowing where I'm gonna end up, if my new home will be a good fit for my deep roots and height. I come from a family that can grow to 100 feet high back home in Colorado. Right now I'm just a kid.  

Also, who knows if the homeowner even wanted a blue spruce. We blue up as we mature; otherwise, we can be pretty green. We can be a lot to handle for the wrong person.

Luckily for me, Margo picked me and thanks to her good sense in where I should go and good planting by the garden center guys - two guys took a big device to dig a deep hole for me and another to put me and then the soil back in - careful watering by her and mowing by MH, I have been growing like a weed for the past 10 years. 

10 years. Man, how they fly by.

So Margo bought me to replace some apple trees she had cut down. I should be upset some of my tree brothers were removed but if that is the reason I'm here, so be it. Apples can be messy. Apples drop their fruit and squirrels grab them. So do those big, four-legged creatures that come through at night. I don't drop anything and those creatures don't come over and eat me as I've seen them do to some of the shrubs at the houses I can see. Maybe once one took a nibble. But with my sharp, short, hard needles, I'm not very appetizing! A good thing!

Here's how I grow (Margo D. Beller)
I will say, however, I am not happy with things right now in this place. It's not Margo's fault. I mean, I like it cool here rather than be hot and sweaty but the air has sure stayed cold longer than usual! Based on what I see of the sun, and it's always in my face (that's why I'm planted where I am and not stuck under an oak tree in the back), it should be way warmer now and there should be more flowers planted in the garden by the lady of the house. Last year at this time she was putting out pots of all sorts of things. Pretty colors too. 

But this year I haven't seen a lot of her, not since that recent warm spell before the cold and the rain. 

I am not jealous of those things in the pots. They fade or have to come inside when it gets cold. I am tall and sturdy and can take the cold real well. I also take dry periods well thanks to Margo's care in my early years. I feel loved and wanted.

MH gave me this name, Spruce Bringsgreen, for some reason. No one in my family has ever had a name. Not that we called each other anything. Sometimes, around the time of the shortest stretch of daylight I see, he starts calling me Tannenbaum. I don't really care either way. He takes care of me, she takes care of me and I take care of them. I don't shed, I look good on the lawn, I provide shelter for a lot of little birds. 

Me and the lady of the house
 (RE Berg-Andersson)
The other day I had a robin build a nest in a little gap that showed up near the top. It was going back and forth, back and forth. I was sure it would lay eggs. But no. Next thing I know, a big old sharp-shinned hawk got up there and was picking at whatever might have been in there. I guess that robin was some smart. Boy did those hawk talons sting my upper branches! 

I know sharpies, as they are called. They hang around in Colorado all year. I saw them all the time when I was a kid, before I was brought east.

Anyway, I much prefer the smaller birds. One little guy I used to see back home, a junco, was in my branches all the time it was cold this past season. Now he and the others have gone away, although it really isn't as warm as it should be. Guess there was something in them that said it was time to go. Other types of birds come and go but that robin's nest was my first in this location. Maybe one of the other small birds will use it, as long as Margo and MH keep the hawks away.

I guess you can say I've seen quite a lot in my 10 years here. I live straight, I know my place, I don't cause any problems for Margo and MH and I remember my roots. I'm glad to be alive and growing. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

5 Ways of Looking at a Catbird

The river is moving. The blackbird must be flying.   

Every spring day brings a new surprise. One day the perennial salvia looks dead from too much cold and rain, the next it's showing this year's leaves. Soon it will grow and have big spikes of purple flowers the bees love.

Birds have a way of surprising, too. Suddenly, there is a lot of birdsong in the mornings. There is still one white-throated sparrow from the winter in my yard, the nest box I thought would have a pair of house wrens as usual has been taken by a pair of chickadees (I can tell because the nest materials I see poking out at the seams are soft arborvitae leaves and animal fir, not the twigs used by house wrens) and such migrants as rose-breasted grosbeaks and black and white warblers have passed through the yard where I can see them.

But to me, it isn't spring until the catbird shows up.  One day you are wondering why you haven't seen or heard any yet this year, the next they are everywhere in the yard, in your neighbor's yard, in the local park. Come one, come all.

Catbird-2012 (Margo D. Beller)

Here are five ways of looking at a catbird, with apologies to Wallace Stevens.

    1. What is that black bird?

Actually, it is gray and its full name is the Gray Catbird. It has, as you can see above, a black eye, black atop its head and at the end of its tail. What you can't see is the distinctive red under the tail. This bird, Dumetella carolinensis, is a cousin to the robin but is not a thrush. Cornell's ornithology lab calls the catbird "secretive but energetic" and every morning I can depend on it to be singing in the dawn chorus with the house wren, chipping sparrow, cardinal and occasionally that remaining white-throated sparrow.

2. Why that name?

Catbirds have a mewing call that can sound like a cat. Its warbling song is actually an amalgam of other bird songs, similar to the mimicry of the mockingbird - another cousin - although the songs used are rarely that clear, at least to me. To me the catbird sounds like it is chattering with no set pattern, unlike the mockingbird.

3. Why would someone be in the catbird's seat?

The "catbird seat," according to Merriam-Webster, is a position of great prominence or advantage. It is a southern expression, one famously used by the sports announcer Red Barber while he was calling games for, among others, the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In James Thurber's 1942 story "The Catbird Seat" he notes one of the characters uses that phrase a lot, probably from listening to Red Barber.

In my experience you are just as likely to find a catbird calling from within a bush or poking for food on the ground as you are to see one in a tree, rarely as high up as the mockingbird that doesn't care a bit if you hear its complicated mimicry and can see where it is.

However, it is true that many are the times I've been weeding the back garden or digging a hole to put in a plant or moving things around in the compost pile and found a catbird sitting over my head, waiting for me to walk away so it can swoop down and see what worms or other food I've inadvertently provided it.

4. Cold-blooded killer

Birds gotta eat, be they hawks swooping down to snatch a mourning dove picking at dropped seed under my feeder or a robin tugging at a worm struggling to stay in the ground after MH has cut the lawn.

When I think of catbirds I remember the time when a sphinx moth graced my property. I did not realize it was a moth at first because it was large, dark and hovered like a hummingbird as it fed from flowers with a long, thin, hummer-like bill.

It was flying among my flowering plants one day when out jumped a catbird to snatch a meal. I was amazed and upset. Who knew catbirds (or any bird for that matter) ate hummingbirds? 

However, I had wondered about that "hummer's" coloring. The only hummingbird we usually get in my area is the rubythroat, and this didn't have the right coloring, being more brownish than greenish. That was when I looked in MH's various insect books and learned about the sphinx moth. Still, I was sad to see it go and have held it against the catbird ever since.

5. Now you see it, now you don't.

One year I was watering shrubs at the side of the house and suddenly a catbird flew out to a nearby tree. Something made me look behind and there was a nest with two or three eggs in it. I left it alone. The next time I watered I shut off the hose and looked first and there she was, on her eggs. Not long after, all were gone.

Same with the end of the summer. One moment the catbirds have descended en masse in your yard, the next they have disappeared. It seems that when the summer is over, nearly all are out of here, heading to their wintering grounds in the U.S. south, Cuba and central America.

But I know they'll be back next spring.