Monday, May 24, 2010

Bird Walking with Becky Olsen

One of the long-lasting effects from the last Staff Appreciation Day were the extra lunch-hour workshop sessions held over the year. One such was the Bird Walk led by Becky Olsen from Financial Services about two weeks ago. She's an experienced, excellent and enthusiastic birder who has been keeping an eagle (sorry) eye on birds in, around or flying over campus for fifteen years or so. She told us, as we gathered on the north patio of the commons, that she's seen over 100 different species of birds on campus during those years including resident birds, temporarily resident (wintering over or here for the breeding season) and migratory birds, aka "fly-overs." She's also been a long-time volunteer at the Bird Rescue Center for Sonoma County.

Becky led our merry (though shhh! quiet!) band of five from the commons along the paved path toward the creek. We stopped by the palm trees near the pond, looking for a hooded oriole, a bright yellow bird that I'd never seen before and didn't then either. (But I did on the walk back, thanks, Becky!) Just before the walking bridge, we took a jog to the west to watch a family of chickadees flit around some low bushes -- actually, the parents flitted around while the three or four kids (they all moved too fast to be counted) clutched skinny twigs and begged: dee, dee, dee, dee!

Chestnut-backed chickadees (Poecile rufescens) are plucky year round residents, living, breeding and raising their kids in the heart of Wine Country and on our campus. They are active, inquisitive, chattery, amusing little critters, about 4.5 inches long on a good day, feeding on insects when they can get them and seeds when they can't. In the fall, they'll cache seeds, storing them against the meager fare of winter. It's been estimated that one chickadee can hide and remember up to a hundred thousand seeds in a season. Bird brain indeed! I can barely remember where my 10 keys are at any given time and they're all on the same ring.

During the fall and winter, when chickadees cache and retrieve seeds, the hippocampus of their little birdy-brains expands; in spring and summer, when they no longer need that info, it shrinks down to normal. Certainly gives credance to the motto "use it or lose it," as it applies to brains. Time to break out the crossword and jigsaw puzzles, folks, take up a new language, find that guitar in the back of the closet and take lessons again.

There are seven species of chickadees in North America: Black-capped, Carolina, Mountain, Boreal, Mexican, Grey-headed and our Chestnut-backed, with little overlap in territories. Most are various arrangements of grey, black, buff, russet-red and white. Ours sports a dapper chestnut-colored back and flanks, appearing at times to wear a very dashing suit coat with grey sleeves, or perhaps a tasteful russet-hued vest for the holidays. With strong legs and feet, chickadees often hang upside down as they forage, which is somehow quite endearing. They are perching birds (passerines) and quite social in nature, existing in loose flocks of several chickadee families, as well as in mixed foraging flocks composed of warblers or bushtits. They often share territory with downy woodpeckers and nuthatches. But for all their tiny size, they are spunky and not easily intimidated; they've been known to mob predators such as owls or hawks.

Chickadees are cavity-nesters, often commandeering old woodpecker holes in trees. As our small birding band backtracked east and wandered along the creek toward the butterfly garden, Becky pointed out a snag -- an old, mostly leafless, tree trunk leaning over the creek. Near the top was a nice-sized round hole and within moments, a chickadee had flown into it and then after a bit popped out, flying off immediately. "Babies are still in there," Becky said, "hungry babies." Within the hole, there might be a nest similar to the photo below (courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), moss and strips of bark providing structural support on the outside, soft animal fur, hair and even feathers, providing coziness on the inside.

Fascinating to think that while we're busy in our offices and class rooms, contemplating numbers and philosophies, examining theories and texts, balancing budgets and signing contracts, these little chickadee families are thriving in the bushes and trees along our fringes, hatching and raising their youngsters, teaching them how to find tasty bugs and save seeds, how to evade predators, how to sing, find a mate and thrive.

Everywhere you look, brains are working, critters are learning.

More links for thought:

Madrone Audubon Society
Hiding seeds, Black-capped Chickadees
Hippocampus and the Chickadee
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

We tried a new  method of gardening this weekend, one designed to spare the backs and knees of the boomer generation. It's a variation of the Lasagna Lawn, though I call it Compost Layer Cake Gardening, or alternatively, Compost Cookie gardening. The best part? No digging involved. The next best part? Water thrifty. I heard about it from my Garden Maven friend whose mom emailed her this article from the LA Times. It sounded easy ... and it was. Really, really, really, no digging, just hoisting a few bales and hauling some sacks of amendments around.

So, for the Compost Layer Cake. First we laid down interleaved newspaper and cardboard (the plate) as a basic barrier against weeds, then plopped down the first layer of alfalfa flakes, added bone and blood meal (filling), slapped on a thicker layer of straw, tossed in a few soupcons of blood and bone meal (for flavor) and then iced it with a thick, choclately layer of compost.

Ours, being rather freeform,  ended up looking like a tasty layer cake, or a gi-normous chocolate-drop cookie.

After it sat for a few days, I planted three Early Girl tomato starters in it late this afternoon, to take advantage of the predicted, though highly unusual, rain.  Steam rose as I dug down into the hay, it was like a little furnace down in there. Man, that pile is busy!

I might give it another layer of icing this weekend. It's looking a bit naked there.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Erratic Week in an Aberrant Spring

After a weekend of stunningly perfect weather (bright blue skies, mild wind, brilliant sun), last Monday arrived cold and rainy, a thick sky of grim nimbus clouds and a wind too full of itself. Cloudburst, downpour, sprinkle, drizzle, rinse, repeat. The view out the office window was grey, grey, grey, all day. Still, not much daunts the intrepid Amateur Campus Naturalist and so, jamming the hat down to my ears and cinching tight all openings of the raincoat, out I went. Sticking to a route under overhangs and close to trees, I avoided becoming completely drenched while freshening my lungs with oxygen-rich air. Win, win, win. At least for me.

We're not used to this sort of wet and variable spring in Sonoma County. All this cold rain and dreary grey feels more like epileptic relapses into winter. April showers bring May flowers in other parts of the country. Here, the ultra-pleasant and dry weeks of April merely launch us full-tilt into summer; by mid-May, telltale patches of brown will line the crests of the hills as the winter rains recede into the water table. This spring though, with rains every other week, the hills are staying green, and with rainfall totals above normal, the three-year drought has been conquered. (Fingers crossed on that one.)

Walking just inside a silvery curtain of rain under the Salazar overhang, I wondered where the cliff swallows hide in all this wet. The birds had arrived per usual in mid-April, with their radio-static buzzy clicks, swinging freely over the quad in waves, then winging over the playing fields, scooping up their bug lunches. Certainly nest building has suffered from rain delays; under the eaves high above, I could see only the most rudimentary lines of daubed mud sketching in the nest foundations. How will this affect raising and fledging the next brood?

From Salazar, I hopped, skipped and skidded around the gym and up into the Kenneth Stocking Native Botanical Garden. Under the tree-canopy, the rain was but a minor nuisance. I wandered along the spongy floor of dense leaf-litter and needles, breathing deep, the air fragrant and damp, and stopped to watch through crossed tree branches as the lessening rain dimpled the pond. Suddenly I heard dee! dee dee dee! dee! shockingly close to my head. I spotted the commotion right away:  two spry chestnut-backed chickadees bouncing around the branches and twigs just above me, gleaning insects and bugs as fast as they could to feed their fluffy, demanding, just-fledged progeny, three lumps-on-a-branch, barely moving, except to open their beaks for food or to dee! deee! deee! for more.

Obviously, this aberrant spring has had little effect on these adorable (admit it, they are) little busybodies.   And it probably won't do more than slow down the swallows as they follow the inevitable course of actions leading to the next generation. Nor will it interfere with our own about-to-fledge graduates who, in about two weeks, will fling up their black caps, tassels and all, and come rain or come shine, fly on.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Settler's Chase

My friend Doris Eraldi's second book, Settler's Chase, will be released in July 2010 by Berkeley. This is a sequel to her book, Settler's Law, also published by Berkeley in 1998. Now, it seems like a long time between books, and it is, but I happen to know that she's written at least one whole novel in between,while training a slew of horses, teaching horsemanship, coaching young riders and in general gallivanting around. No moss grows under her hooves. Anyway, as a first reader of her first book, I am now an eager awaiter of her second.

I'm starting to send out the scholarship award letters for the Napa this weekend; how exciting! It's also the first hot-hot weekend of the year, 80's for at least an hour or two this afternoon, the sky brilliant and sun all over the place. Feels like the conference is about to start any minute.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"The Oracle of Stamboul,"

Michael Lukas, a fiction participant at the Napa Valley Writers Conference last summer, wrote to say that his novel "The Oracle of Stanboul," has been purchased by HarperCollins and will be released in February, 2011. WhoooHoooo!  ZZ Packer's group will remember seeing his first chapter.

From Michael's website:

I enjoyed reading the chapter which he submitted for his application; I particularly remember the image of hoopoes circling the harbor and the town and then settling, "coating the town like frosting," which opens the book. I look forward to reading the whole thing, printed and bound.
A thousand and one congratulations, Michael!