Thursday, May 26, 2011


As I was sitting by my window messing around on the Internet I heard a clamor in the yard and turned around to see...two adorable, fresh out the the nest, fat, fluffy American robin fledglings hopping around behind their parent.

I'd been hearing them begging for food over the past several days and now they must have taken the plunge and leapt from the nest. They can actually get around pretty well, even fly a bit--one chased its parent all over the yard begging for food, and the other flapped off to the wrong side of the fence.

I am sorry that the photos are so crappy--taken through my window (the storm window is still on so actually taken through two sheets of glass), but I think just a little bit of the cuteness comes through.

Alien invaders

If you were an English major, or just really enjoy poetry, you are probably familiar with the lines from Paradise Lost, where Satan muses:

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; and in the lowest deep a lower deep Still threatening to devour me opens wide; to which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav'n.

If you can't relate to that at all...well, then, I really envy you. Because I can. Not that I am comparing myself to Satan, mind you. But I have a knack for making myself miserable. Right now that misery involves the stress and chaos of moving to our new house in Clinton, IL, plus worrying about a wide variety of (mostly minor, but not in my mind!) problems, such as the health of my new dog (I just noticed that he seems to have a bit of a sore area on his underside.... Is he OK?? Luckily going to the vet on Friday so I can ask her!)

BTW, this is my dog. Greenturtle and I adopted him from the Humane Society last weekend, and he is a little dachshund named Trevor.

Right now he is sleeping beside me, snoring just a little...I hope you like dogs, too, because Trevor will probably be a "regular" on my future posts.

Here is the handsome profile.

Normally I work out my "issues" by birding, but with the hectic pace of the last week the birds have been few and far between.

In the gap that not birding has caused, I have been doing yard work with a vengeance, whenever I can get outside--an hour after dinner, a couple hours while the movers were hauling our stuff inside, etc.

As I described in my last post, my goal is to make my yard an Avian Haven, crammed full of native and bird-friendly plants, with a feeding station, a bird bath, perhaps even a small pond. But first things first...and the first thing is that, although bursting with potential, the yard is currently a neglected nightmare.

Check out these weeds around my future veggie garden!

Earlier this week, I weeded one of the four raised beds, including removal of the Worst Weed of All Time, a gigantic, thorny thing that managed to sting me right through my gardening gloves, and had roots that went all the way down to Hell. I expected it to shriek like the mandrake root of legend when I finally yanked the hideous thing out--using a wide variety of garden implements since it was too spiny to actually grasp.

And then while the movers where taking our stuff in, I yanked all the grass and weeds from our brick walkway. The before photo is in my last post; much better looking now!

Although I felt a keen sense of accomplishment at these tiny triumphs, from a bird's perspective, an enormous ugly weed and a bunch of grass crowding the walkway is probably not that big of a deal. More important to my Avian Haven is the fact that the back yard is being over-run by a hideous, invasive, alien species: bamboo. Bamboo is fine, where it belongs. It does not belong in Illinois!

And not only is there bamboo, but beneath the bamboo is a multitude of weeds, vines, stray maple saplings, and God knows what else! One of the moving guys suggested I might want to invest in a little Round-Up, but I was actually thinking more like Agent Orange. Do they sell that at Lowe's? Just kidding! Sorta. Seriously, I bet few gardeners have seen the likes of this in their back yards.

I know very little about gardening, let alone gardening for birds, but here's something I do know: if you live in central Illinois, don't plant bamboo! If you look closely at the next photo, you will see a couple fresh shoots poking up through the lawn. A brief search on the Internet explained that bamboo spreads by means of underground runners, is almost impossible to eradicate once it really gets going, and to make any headway at all you have to dig it out!

Yesterday I pulled out a huge, viney mess of deadly nightshade (another non-native invasive) that was twining itself around the bamboo. My coworkers are actually a little suspicious at all the poisonous plants I can identify. What can I say--maybe I was a Wise Woman in a previous life.

But if you see this in your yard, take it out!

When I went back today to thin out the "understory" a bit, I found evidence that bamboo is not repulsive to all birds. Luckily this is an old nest; I'd feel terrible if I'd disturbed some babies!

I think it is a grackle's nest. Being a regular Sherlock Holmes (ha ha), I deduced this because grackles seem to enjoy congregating in the bamboo. So I looked up images for grackle nests on-line and the photos look quite similar.

If you look carefully, you can find one of said grackles in the photo--kind of like Where's Waldo, the backyard addition.

Robins don't seem to mind the bamboo either; in fact, I am itching to start clearing out the area in the next photo, but am holding off for the time being because a robin has made its nest somewhere in that mess. I see the parent bringing beaksful of worms to that vicinity, and as soon as she approaches, a clamor of begging nestlings starts up.

So this hideous mess of invasives and weeds is actually a bit better for the birds than a super-manicured expanse of lawn would be. It has provided shelter and a place to nest for at least two species. If birds loved it and I just didn't, I'd be tempted to just whack it back every now and then and make my peace with it.

But, only two species seem to use it. I have also seen cardinals, mourning doves, house sparrows, starlings, and a house finch in my yard, but none of them have been spied going into the bamboo. I have also heard chickadees calling from a neighboring yard -- can't wait to lure them into mine!

And I haven't seen or heard a house wren or a catbird, two species which would enjoy bushes and shrubby areas, but clearly turn their beaks up at bamboo.

For a first step, I cleared the area out a little (staying away from the nestlings). Mostly I removed the maple saplings and thinned out the bamboo a bit. Perhaps it looks a little better now?

When I cleared out the brush underneath, I saw evidence that some time in the past someone else had tried to thin out the bamboo a bit -- but as I've learned, just lopping the stalks won't do the trick. You must dig it out!

My next task was to clear out the crap along the fence.

Mission accomplished! But look at that jungle back there. Luckily I am actually enjoying all this whacking and lopping and weeding and yanking things out by their roots. It's actually a good stress reliever -- not as good as birding, mind you. But fun in its own way.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Avian haven, the before series

They say that moving/buying a home is one of the most stressful things a couple can do. (Who's "they"? demands the ghost of English teachers past. Ummm...I don't know. The people who make surveys of the most stressful things?) (Also please note that "birding" is not on any of the Most Stressful Things lists. Just saying...or, as Greenturtle and I like to put it when we are arguing, "I'm just pointing out"!)

And you know what? "They" are right. It IS stressful. The whole process leads to disagreements. Case in point, as you can see in the above photo: our new home comes with a decent sized yard. And that yard has been halfway over-run by bamboo.

"Cool!" Greenturtle declares. "We have our own bamboo jungle!" He loves the bamboo. Any mention of trimming back (we have not even mentioned eradicating) the bamboo meets with immediate disagreement.

So what's the problem with bamboo? Well, if you want your backyard to be an exotic bamboo jungle, there is no problem. But let's say that you want to turn your back yard into an oasis for birds. Midwestern birds, I might add. As in, those that live in or migrate through the state of Illinois.

If that is your wish, a bamboo jungle might not be the best choice. In fact, a post on a website I've recently found (thanks to Sunwiggy) uses a photo of bamboo to illustrate their post on avoiding planting invasive species.

The problem is that bamboo is an exotic, invasive species. Native wildlife might not find it conducive to making their home. spreads. Look at the photos, it's already spreading across the yard!

Today, after my half day at work I went to admire my new home and poke around in the garden a bit. As I peered into the bamboo, a robin and a grackle flew out. It also seems to be quite popular with house sparrows.

So, it's not the worst plant in the world. It does provide shelter. And, from a non-avian point of view, it does make a great privacy screen. We have neighbors on one side, a non-scenic alley in the back, plus a place of business catty-corner. And I can't see any of it, thanks to the bamboo! Also, as we have found a home smack-dab in the middle of town, and bamboo doesn't have seeds or berries for birds to carry about, I don't think there's much chance of it spreading into the surrounding countryside. Anyway, here in the agricultural wasteland of central Illinois, invasive bamboo might even be an improvement. GMO corn and soy beans aren't natives, either...and I think more birds can shelter in the bamboo than one of those crop fields. Especially since henceforth, for the entire length of my tenure here, my yard is a Pesticide Free Zone!

As Greenturtle is so opposed to any bamboo control, tackling that will not be one of my first projects. Except maybe to trim it back...just a little?

Despite the mountain-load of work ahead in this garden, I can still see why I was charmed on my first (and second) visit to the property. This is a garden with potential. (The garage in the back is mine; the blue building belongs to the neighbor.)

I love the fact that there are four raised beds, for example. What I don't love is that the raised beds are completely overgrown.

The daisies are pretty.

And is this an iris?

And what are these?

It's my understanding that the previous owner of the property was an older lady who went blind, and after she passed the house sat on the market for quite some time. That explains why the general flair and tastefulness I have found has sadly grown a bit neglected.

I really do consider these the "before" pictures!

Here's our future patio:

Luckily, I love a challenge! And already, in my mind's eye, I see this garden as both an Avian Haven and a refuge for stressed out humans. Furthermore, I think the previous owner would have approved. I was so pleased to learn that the first thing that caught my eye in the house, the tiles on the kitchen walls, were hand-painted by the former owner. If that's not a sign that this was meant to be, I don't know what is!

OK, everything needs a really good cleaning! I don't compare myself to the character Monica on Friends for no reason! I plan on scrubbing, washing, and cleaning all weekend before we move in! (I did originally have "sanding" of hardwood floors on weekend agenda but somehow have listened to Greenturtle's suggestion that perhaps weekend plans were over-achieving? Especially as I have never sanded a floor before? [Alas, I have cleaned before...and cleaned...and cleaned.] That's right Greenturtle...I said, "You were right!" Maybe someday I'll hear the same back re: the bamboo? Breath NOT held in anticipation!)

This house is 95 years old. It has always been my dream to live in an older house. An since we were really house-shopping on a budget, I think this is great for us.

You know, I am still so new to all of this that I'm wandering around in a bit of a daze: "Is this really mine? For real? I actually bought it?" I have been such a gypsy all of my life that it's a strange feeling. Truth to tell, I never expected it. But, as I have always wanted a garden of my own---and for the birds---I am so excited at the possibilities.

So, consider this "Esmerelda's Avian Haven: the Before Series." And if backyard birding is not your thing...don't fear. I still plan on a regular series of Crazy Birding Adventures to keep things interesting!

My Yard List so far:


Finally, if any of you have experiences with bamboo, or any suggestions on how to deal with it, please don't be shy! I need all the advice I can get!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Not so secret garden

Once upon a time, behind a wall, there was an mansion surrounded by a lovely garden. Many times I went past it, perhaps catching a trace of the perfume of flowers blooming, peering through the gate. Perhaps there was something magical on the other side, a world of beauty like I had not before seen.

And then one day, the gate was open, and I strolled within....

Wouldn't that be a lovely start for a fairy tale? Who doesn't love secret gardens, mysterious mansions, and gates that finally swing open to admit you? In this case, the garden was the not-very-secret grounds of the Ewing Manor, where the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is held each summer. I'm sure I could have wandered inside long before today, if I'd thought of it, but that wouldn't make a good start to a fairy tale, would it?

The grounds are small but pleasant.

Although it was pleasant enough, the garden was spectacularly unbirdy. Since I recently acquired a yard that I plan to transform into a bird friendly garden (one Avian Haven coming up!), I should take notes about what not to do. Vast swathes of lawn, everything manicured, little diversity of plants--perhaps that's what's keeping the birds away?

I saw crows, which flew off before I could try to get their picture, and many, many house sparrows.

Starlings were nesting at the top of that spout--the babies, which I never got a glimpse of, created quite a racket whenever the parent flew up with a beakful of earthworms to share.

There was also a small Japanese-style garden.

Although it was quite attractive, I found myself quickly getting a little bored with the grounds, and retraced myself to neighboring Ewing Park, hoping perhaps to find a warbler or two still lingering in the area.

I like this park because it is deliberately untidy in places, the better to attract a nice variety of birds.

But very little was going on this evening -- a cardinal and an indigo bunting, both singing, and a noisy chickadee. My morning walks around the pond at work have gotten pretty dull as well. I think spring migration has definitely wound down.

Before going home, I made one last stop at Tipton Park, to see if the pair of swans that have been hanging out there were still in residence. Greenturtle thinks they were probably brought in on purpose to be decorative, but I think they can come and go as they please and have just chosen to linger. One day I saw six of them, and one flew away while I was watching.

I really had to work for that photo, as the swans seemed to have an uncanny ability to drift to the furthest point of the pond from wherever I happened to be standing.

One pied-billed grebe still lingers.

And of course many, many red-winged blackbirds.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Birding hiatus?

I don't think it's possible to be tired of birds. But it is possible to be just flat-out tired. And stressed out. And busy.

I have given a couple of hints in my previous posts about being busier than I'd like, and while I never came right out and said, "I am going insane from all the stress!" perhaps, reading between the lines, one might have noticed it.

But it's a good sort of busy, and stress with a purpose, and now that it's a "done deal" I will announce that Greenturtle and I have purchased a house in the nearby small town of Clinton! Most of the uncertainty is behind us (as first time home-buyers we found the whole process a little crazy-making), and most of the actual hard work is in front of us--you know, the packing, moving, home repairs and what not.

Last weekend was to have been my final birding blast before the hard work set in, and alas, it rained. It drizzled, mizzled, misted and spurted. Every once in a while it even poured. The skies were gray; the temperature dropped from the high eighties to the high forties. WTF, Mother Nature? So, I didn't bird.

And now I'll be too busy to do much birding for the next week or so. Luckily, the warbler invasion seems to have passed. On my morning walk around the pond before work, I saw a flock of cedar waxwings, all the usual suspects, and just one glimpse of a little yellow job that was probably a Wilson's warbler. But the warblerama seems to be done for the season. In fact, the only "year birds" I've gotten since last week was a pair of veeries I spotted Monday morning.

Although I have no energy left to go looking for birds, when I'm not birding, a feel a bit of a lack. A gap in my days. But to make up for it, I remind myself of my new project: bird gardening! Yes, my new house comes with a nice sized yard and I can't wait to begin turning it into an avian haven! I like having new projects to keep things fresh, and as Green Birding has so far been a wash, maybe Bird Gardening will make up for it.

So far, my Yard List (yay, I get to make a new list!!) consists of two species: American robin, common grackle.

In the meantime...oh, well. In general, I find my life's progress more of a spiral than a straight line, and I think that's a good thing. Every turn on the path usually leads to a deeper layer of experience. Or that's what I say when I'm being an optimist. (Sometimes I say, "Why on earth did I ever do that? Was I nuts?"...but never about birding. And hopefully not about New Project: House and Bird Garden!)

Do you ever find yourself having to take a hiatus from birding (or your obsession of choice, if not a birder)? And if so, did you come back to it with renewed interest, or did you find yourself branching out in a new direction along the way?