Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mallard Melee

I was not aware they'd arrived, so can only guess in what order they came. It seems logical that the pair arrived together, having likely joined up last fall and continuing as a couple into this spring. On this particular day, another male happened along and had only one thing on his mind - to win over the female for his own. That may (or may not...) have happened, had he only her to convince. As it was, there was the other guy to contend with.
Dressed as they were in their brilliant mating plumage, the males stood out with glossy green heads and upper necks. These were separated from their light grey breasts and rusty colored backs by white rings resembling collars. The bottom edge of each of their wings held a bright blue rectangle and a white bar at the point where they met the body; each had the yellowish green bill and two distinct black feathers that curve back, giving them their characteristic curly tails.
As I peered out from the window above, I could hear the frantic splashing - their interaction was intense, but short-lived.
During the fray the female, much less colorful and smaller than the drakes, was nonchalant, casually swimming about out of their way and grooming herself... such a lady. The hen’s back and breast is a darker brown than the drake’s, and she does not have the same distinct curly tail. She has an orange bill, occasionally marked with black spots, orange legs and feet, and the same distinguishing blue rectangle and white bar on each wing.
The female probably has searched for, and staked out, a territory for her nest; the drake just followed along, as any good spouse might when it comes to housekeeping. Females typically try to locate a territory close to where they themselves were hatched, often returning to the same site year after year. Since we've seen at least one pair each year visit our small pond, their presence does not surprise me. The nesting site is sometimes close to a source of water but more often a small distance away in an area lined with bits of rushes, grass, weeds, and other organic material. The nest, built solely by the female, is usually somewhere with good cover such as thick grass or shrubs or in the hollow of a tree up to 12.2 m (40 ft.) off the ground. That would certainly explain the One Giant Leap we witnessed near the Yakima River some years back. These do not seem to nest near our pond, as we keep the area around it fairly cleared. With a multitude of ponds, drainage ditches, and thick brush in our neighborhood, they have a choice of good nesting spots. Perhaps in future years, when the plantings around our newly renovated pond mature, they'll nest closer by.
Ducks drop by here simply to dabble about for worms, tadpoles, small frogs, insects, and freshwater snails found in muddy areas along the edge. They scrounge in deeper water to feed from the mud below, using their bill as a very efficient filtration system similar to that of the baleen whale. In other areas they may find small fish, mollusks and fish eggs. Primarily vegetarians, Mallards feed day and night on leaves, seeds, berries, corn, bulrushes, wild rice, wheat, primrose, willows, and seeds of water elm, oak, hackberry.

In the melee I witnessed, one male finally had had enough and exited quickly. Resting at the edge of the pond, he preened, flapped, and re-gained his composure. The other male had allowed him to leave, but also left the water and began to "wander" in his direction. Soundly defeated, the other flew off. I have no way of knowing, but I think the one left was the original mate.
The battle over, the female, still unruffled by the whole affair (or, not-to-be affair?) came out of the pond and waddled up the small hill to preen and rest, her loyal drake following docilely behind.
Perhaps in the depths of his little duck brain he knows that in the next month he will begin to lose his colorful feathers and be unable to fly until his new feathers have grown in. Until breeding season returns in August, he will be a drab brown and more closely resemble her. He will likely remain in their nesting territory for the first ten days or so that she incubates the eggs, and then abandon her.  
Most Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) drakes are a fickle sort - best they strut their vanity while they can.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Accidental Oyster Thoughts

It was an accident, really, that I found both of them, lying there next to each other in the sand. By all reasoning, one of them should have been washed away, carried off by the gulls, or crushed beneath careless feet. I picked them up gently, feeling their coolness against my hands; they were totally clean, polished, surf-washed.

In my left hand, the flatter of the two - its smooth inner surface iridescent and glowing. Only slight ripples marred it. Those, and the flat scar where its muscle once had been attached.

The outer surface rougher, with concentric growth patterns extending out from one edge, rippled, and matte white.

In my right hand, the larger, deeper one - less iridescent, more rippled, its scar larger and slightly discolored. This one grew perfectly, as though meticulously planned, into a small, smooth cup just right for cradling the soft living thing it once held.

The outer side of this one was rugged, the ripples of its layers forming rolling wavelike patterns with tinges of lavender and deep purple. Carefully, I turned the flat one over in my left hand and placed it together with the other one. The fit was perfect, as I knew it would be.

For this was its design: where one was larger and deeper, the other was smaller and more shallow.

Over time, each had grown to accommodate the other - one curved out where the other curved in - so that the fit between the two was flawless.

At one end, as if finely tooled, the hinge, where tough fiber once held the two together.

In many ways, my husband and I are not at all alike. When it comes to making decisions, I tend to think hard, turning things over and over, trying to see all sides. My husband is much more decisive and to the point, seeing the “either - or” quickly. In dealing with others he can be brusque, telling it exactly as he sees it. I treasure tact and gentleness, trying not to offend or hurt feelings. He is organized and neat, putting things away as used, and in their proper places. I’m organized too, but in a different fashion, with various piles and hidden stashes just waiting for further attention. In so many areas, we just operate totally differently.

I have much in common with friends, but there are glaring differences there, also. Sometimes, as we each go about things in our own special way, annoyances crop up. But I have come to see how these differences - whether between friends or spouses - enrich us all. There is a time for quick decision, as well as for thought and scope. A place for “handling with kid gloves” as well as “telling it like it is”. Where I am weak, someone else is bound to be strong. It is in fitting our strength into another’s weakness, and allowing their strength to fill in our gaps, that we both become more complete. It’s not always easy, for sometimes we rub each other the wrong way. But if the tough fiber of love and commitment hold us together, even these irritations can result in a pearl.

I’ve kept that oyster shell - the two halves make a beautiful whole.

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because
I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
Psalm 139: 13 - 15

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Too Much Green

Vine n. 1. Any plant having a long, slender stem that trails or creeps on the ground or climbs by winding itself about a support or holding fast with tendrils or claspers. 2. the stem of any such plant. 3. a grape plant.

Washington is called the Evergreen State and that is certainly true in the western part of the state. Oh, I know that this nickname refers to the conifers, those trees which keep their leaves all year long. And we certainly do have an abundance of cedar, pine, fir, and hemlock. But I am thinking of the color green which we also have year-round. In other parts of the country when the heat of summer, then the cold winter weather, moves in, lawns dry up and turn brown. Not here. Although the growth of our grass slows during the rainy months, it remains bright green. Besides the conifers, the woods are filled with other evergreens such as rhododendrons, madrones, salal, evergreen huckleberries, and sword ferns, all of which remain green throughout the year. Mixed in with all this green, however, are the deciduous trees which do shed their leaves. And so we are granted a respite, if you will, from all this green during the winter months. Well, winter is over and we are now, one again, smothered in green.


I don't mean to seem ungrateful. I've lived where the summers bring hot, dry, and brown and the winters bring cold, frozen, and white. I've adjusted to living here and the mild climate suits me most of the time. I enjoy venturing out any time of the year, during any type of weather to take a walk and enjoy the native plants and animals. After the drizzly, damp, cloudy winter, it is nice to see the new buds form and burst into life throughout our native woods. It's just that... well, it's almost TOO MUCH!

I spent my childhood and early married years in Montana where there is a definite change of seasons. Living on the high plains in the central part of the state, I took for granted the fact that the countryside was vast and uncluttered. Whenever we drove outside of town, there it was - that huge sky, ringed by distant bluish mountains. Miles and miles of open space, with only scrubby grasses, sage, and ranches as far as you could see - until your eyes bumped into those far-off hills and mountains. It spoiled me for life...

My husband and I spent a few years in Colorado, Texas, and Idaho - always west of the Mississippi. I am western through and through. Those places each had their own kind of natural beauty and I am not sorry to have lived in any of them. Colorado had the mountains, Ponderosa Pines, and dry grassy undergrowth. Texas had the hill country, Live Oaks, and acres of wildflowers. Idaho had grassy hills, sagebrush, and ancient lava flows. All of them had hot, dry summers which turned brown.

I've now had 30+ years of "abrupt" change. GREEN change. Through our woods, there is a lovely vine which creeps through the other trees and shrubs and makes its presence known. But a vine is not always what it seems...

The Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) is so named because its slender, crooked trunks and long limbs sprawl across the understory of the conifer forest. It grows as a large, multi-stemmed shrub or as a small, single-stemmed tree, depending on its location and how much sunlight reaches it. It flourishes beneath the dark canopy on moist sites along the Northwest coast and on humid sites on the east slope of the Cascades. The Quinault people of the Olympic Peninsula referred to the vine maple as "basket tree" because they used its long, straight shoots for weaving baskets in which they carried clams and fish.

In spring the vigorous young shoots are reddish, with delicate emerging leaves of bright yellow-green. They unfold almost as miniature fans and give a spattered appearance among the larger trees.

Clusters of small flowers with red and green parts appear, bringing a sharp contrast of color to the woods. In the fall, the leaves stand out as splotches of brilliant red, pink, orange or yellow, contributing considerable color to the somber, conifer-dominated landscape. Vine Maples are well worth getting to know.

And so, we are getting into the very green season here, which I dearly love. But I do still sometimes feel smothered and have the urge to "part the greenery" and view those beautiful miles and miles of uncluttered space. Spoiled for life, I am!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

One in a Million

Driving into the Hoh Rain Forest, ever deeper, I was at first excited, then totally enthralled, with these huge trees. They stood naked, disguised as over-sized furry monsters; draped and dripping they were with long, heavy masses of mosses and lichens - ocher-green, luminous with back-lit sunlight. Long limbs and gnarled fingers reached down, like characters from some spooky stage play.

But we were not afraid, viewing them somehow as kindly giants, willing to share their braches, trunks and exposed roots with a myriad of other living things.

The Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), North America's largest maple is the only native large maple in the west. Superbly adapted to the wet, mild climate west of the Cascade Mountains, this is the trademark species of the coastal rain forest.

Huge they do become - up to six feet across and up to one hundred and twenty-five feet tall. Their leaves are the largest of any maple - up to a whopping eight to twelve inches across.

In the temperate rain forests of western Washington, the moss and lichen coats on these trees can weigh up to four times as much as the tree's foliage, even more when saturated with rain or laden with snow, which is much of the time.

Although relatively tolerant of shade and competition for growing space, Bigleaf Maples are gradually shaded out by conifers that eventually tower over them. They don't mind occasional wet feet, but cannot tolerate long-term flooding.

These looked dead to those unfamiliar with them, I suppose, but closer inspection showed them ready to burst to life, buds swollen and unfolding into translucent, yellow-green new leaves. Shelf fungus lined some of their massive trunks, bright green licorice ferns sprouted in groups on the limbs and moss-covered boles.

Copious clusters of fragrant yellow blossoms, four to six inches long, dangled among the green. On warm spring days, these teem with honeybees and other insects gathering their nectar and pollen. These trees depend on insects to fertilize their flowers and the system works well.

Huge numbers of seeds sprout everywhere in the spring, but only about one in a million new seedlings is able to root into mineral soil in a spot with adequate growing space for it to grow into a tree.

Their fallen leaves contain high levels of potassium, calcium and other important minerals. Fresh new Oxalis, Trillium, and wild Violets sprout around their feet, drawing nourishment from the decaying residue of last year's leaves, lying thick and heavy on the forest floor.

Each giant truly is one in a million.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Spring Creeps In

Spring creeps in
On soft pussy toes,
Assailing your senses
Tickling your nose

Blowing, then pouring
Then quietly drips
Reflecting perfection
In brief sun-drenched bits

She's wary, she's fickle
She's slippery as sin
We're completely enchanted
Wondering where she's last been

How well we all know
It's beauty that sells
But as for tomorrow
Spring never tells

Indian Plum or Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) is native to the Pacific Northwest and is one of the earliest shrubs to bloom and leaf out in the spring. The flowers are an early nectar source for bees and other insects. The small plum-like fruits are edible to humans, but are usually quickly scarfed down by birds and other wildlife. I rarely get one!