Monday, September 30, 2013

Fog and Mushrooms

               The radio says “clear skis.” But I look out at a soft gray fuzziness blanketing the lake and foliage of the opposite shore. A Slightly lighter gray highlights where the sky meets the treetops. Though we are told that temperatures will rise to the mid-seventies, there is no way I’ll be swimming in a lake that is now giving up its warmth to the air.
                Yesterday we spent an hour following an entertaining mycologist around a small path in the Frelinghuysen Arboretum. The mushroom walk—a highlight of the Fungi Fest—began amusingly  because our area of New Jersey has had so little rain lately that, naturally, there are few mushrooms growing. So mushrooms of various genera and species had been carefully placed along a small, looping path, with accompanying signs to identify them.
Amanita - Poisonous!
                I’ve always been a mushroom fancier. I do like to eat them, but I also enjoy their very different looks in the wild and the way they seemingly pop up in unexpected places over night. In my 20s, I collected mushrooms when I hiked, identified them with a guide book I still own, dried them and placed them into cute jars, usually on a bed of moss and soil. I labeled them on the bottom of the jar with a sketch to identify each mushroom within. I called this art “Forest Floors” and attempted to sell them—without much success.
                I learned a lot at the mushroom walk. If I were to make “Forest Floors” now, I’d be more careful of the mushroom’s surroundings. Now I know that some mushrooms only grow on wood and that many have a symbiotic relationship with trees, giving antibiotic protection to the trees while helping themselves to the trees’ sugars. And species specialize by tree type.
                Many of the people on the tour with us were members of the NJ Mycological Association, MNMA, and regularly go on mushroom forays. They all oohed when looking at the hen-of-the-woods colony placed next to an oak. Apparently it makes a welcome feast and there is no mistaking it. I think we had some growing next to a tree stump in our backyard. Maybe it will return next year.

                Looking out now, there is no lake, no opposite shore. Fog has enveloped and softened everything. Perhaps there’ll be rain – and mushrooms.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Water Fowl Convention

Someduck must have called for a convention in the cove end of Kittatinny Lake for Labor Day weekend, because all the water fowl of the lake seem to be congregating down this end.

 Usually we see a group of six to nine mallard ducks. They like to sun on the dock across from us, come up on land at our neighbor’s beach.  Other ducks frequent places further down the lake. I haven’t seen more than a dozen together all summer. 
The swan couple lives at the shallow south end, by the dense patches of water lilies.  They rarely sail up to the cove, although two summers ago, one of the pair regularly came up to beg for handouts of bread.  Neighbors at the south end tell me that the swans lay eggs each summer and attempt to raise their cygnets to adulthood. Apparently predators often deplete their brood. I suppose those that survive then relocate to their own lake, because we have only one couple in residence.

This weekend is different. The swans and 23 mallard ducks—only females and young adults, no mature males—are all hanging out in the cove. No bird produced a barbeque grill nor did any uncover a bowl of potato salad, so I can’t imagine what brought them all down here.  We offered crackers to the swans but they were not interested. Obviously they had somehow gotten plenty to eat at this party.

Could it be the current?  There is usually a mild current from south to north.  This weekend a steady wind has blown across the lake from the south making the current stronger than usual. But there have been stronger currents –days when I’ve tried to canoe out of the cove and have been continually turned back –and the birds have not been there.  

No. I’m convinced that somefowl has called an end of summer party in the cove. And we get to enjoy the gracious condescension of a swan visit. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Chicks and ducks and geese – We scurried around the county fair.

          Every variety of chicken, duck and rabbit was represented at the Sussex County Fair. Love the chickens so covered in fluffy feathers that it looks like fur!  And, during out morning visit on Tuesday, we also saw geese, sheep, alpacas – what beautiful faces they have, pigs –all sleeping, goats, cows, horses and oxen.  The 4-H clubs were much represented; many of the animals had been raised by youngsters, who proudly fed, combed and even sheered them. 
A chicken - believe it or not!


Sheering his sheep
                There was also a quilt exhibit hanging from the ceiling of one hall. I walked around with arched neck the entire time admiring the colors here and the needlework there. I tried to quilt once, so I was also in awe, knowing the patience and precision it took to make such beautiful works of art. The fair ends on Sunday.

Back home we have plenty of wildlife of our own. The groundhogs—now there are two of them, one large, one small—have made an arrangement with a thieving squirrel.  Each day the squirrel climbs our pear tree, chooses a pear, takes one or two bites, and drops it to the ground. Then a groundhog comes and finishes them off. They do look cute sitting up on their haunches, munching our fruit. But thanks to those groundhogs, our garden is the worst it’s been in years. 

                And they seem to have gotten wise about the trap. Set at the garden’s entrance it only attracted a woebegone opossum.  Poor thing scrunched way back in the trap while I opened it. I let him play possum and left. He only left the trap when I was out of sight. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

August Showers Bring Mushrooms

               I’ve known for years that mushrooms grow in the rain. I’ve enjoyed looking for them—their  different forms and colors and their unpredictable appearance.  At one time, I used to pick up mushrooms samples when I hiked through woods in late summer and early fall. I’d categorize them with The Mushroom Handbook, dried the ones that cooperated, and placed them, with moss, into little arrangements in jars.  Even when I’ve been 99 percent certain that no poisonous mushroom resembled what I picked up, I never ate any. I’m not that daring.
                Two days ago, thing one and thing two poked their tiny caps up from the soil between the street and sidewalk in front of my next door neighbor’s house.  Then it rained.  And they grew, and grew. Now it’s impossible to walk by without noticing them—graceful and creamy white, with a little frill on their stems. Their mushroom caps measure a glorious 10 inches—dinner plate size!

                But these beauties should never find their way onto a dinner place.  Consulting the MycoKey fungus identifier,  (isn’t it fantastic how much you can find out on the Internet?) I confirmed suspicions gleaned from my trusty Mushroom Handbook. My neighbor’s mushroom are indeed amanitas.  In fact, they are Warted Amanitas (Amanita Strobiliformis) and most likely poisonous. But don’t they make a pretty picture?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Where are the Monarchs?

Most years, in midsummer, I’m finding many Monarch Butterfly eggs on my milkweed.  I bring them inside to let them hatch, grow into fat caterpillars, form chrysalises and finally transform into butterflies.  I’m a piker in this endeavor. There are many Monarch nurturers more dedicated than I. But this summer is different. There are no monarchs!  They have not returned to New Jersey after wintering in Mexico.

I’ve checked with Trina, our local “Butterfly Lady.”  She says people are still waiting.  Last year the butterflies arrived early –in June. Now, at July’s end, I am the lucky one. Two weeks ago I found two monarch eggs.   Others have found none.  Now I have two chrysalises. Hopefully their metamorphosis into butterflies will be successful.

 Monarch Watch,, reports the late arrival of the butterflies to Kansas and they worry that there will be little time for the usual four generations before it’s time for them to return to their winter quarters. They say that fewer –acres fewer—arrived last fall in Mexico. They attribute the reduced numbers to wet weather. And a very wet and chilly June may have delayed their return to New Jersey. But we’ve had a warm (too warm) July. Where are they? 

Environmentalists have long worried that the numbers of pollinators are greatly reduced. That’s one reason for breeding monarchs; in the wild, 98% of them don’t make it. Some think pesticides are killing them off –as well as genetically engineers crops which have a pesticide incorporated into their DNA. Even the pollen of those plants contains the pesticide!

To quote Trina Paulus’ book , Hope for the Flowers, “Without butterflies the world will soon have few flowers.” There are many fewer bees too. Without them and the butterflies, there will also soon be no food crops. Isn’t it time to examine our use of pesticides and pay attention to the interactions within nature?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dragonfly Season

It’s dragonfly season again.. These gorgeous creatures flit around the dock and the shoreline of the lake. I’m disappointed that there are fewer this year but there is an obvious reason for that. There’s a scarcity of lake weed floating at our end of the lake. Dragon and damsel flies lay their eggs upon floating weeds.
I spy a small section, only about 12 square inches of weed floating near the cattails growing between our dock and the one next door. I suppose that explains why most of the dragonfly activity is centered there, with the insects often posing on the jewel-weed by our dock and the broad leaves of the cattails. When I take a canoe down the lake I am relieved to find larger patches of floating weed, a couple about a square yard in area. The weed is dotted with little bubbles. Good. The dragonflies have been laying their eggs. I would hate for them to leave our lake for lack of a breeding ground.
Dragonfly nymphs- the early stage that lives in the water—do us a great favor by eating mosquito larvae. They also eat other aquatic insects and worms. When they become beautiful airborne adults they continue to eat mosquitoes and also dine on ants, termites, gnats and other small flying insects.

But this time of year, I don’t see them eating. Rather they are chasing each other at great speed, rapidly changing direction like UFOs or the helicopters that must be styled after them. Occasionally they land on us. A pair of electric-blue damselflies land on my husband’s nose as he floats on a plastic noodle in the lake. I rush out of the water to retrieve the camera but, predictably they take off just as I line up the shot. Guess that’s the one that got away.

I remember reading, from when I was a Girl Scout leader, that dragonflies are one of the first insects to leave a place when it becomes polluted. Another reason I want to keep these indicators nearby. But even if they neither ate the nasty bugs nor told the quality of the water, I love to see them around. My favorites are the large ones whose dark brown wings sport a large patch of baby blue. When they fly, their wings look fluffy. I also love the electric-blue damselflies. But even the tiny amber dragons are fun to look at. They fearlessly land on my hand. The sun, filtered through their wings, shows as long orange ovals on my skin.  MY camera is totally misbehaving. I put in new batteries but it insists on telling me they are exhausted. So I have to use images from the Internet to show the gorgeous creatures flying about.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Heat Wave

               To escape the hazy, hot and humid wave in our New Jersey suburb we drove out to Sussex. Yes it is cooler out here –by about 5 degrees—outdoors. Indoors here is hotter since the cottage welcomes sunlight all morning. The only remedy is to jump in the lake. But today the lake, basking for an entire week in heat, feels like a warm tub; and there are no waves. No breeze to make any kind of wave but heat. I speculate that fish caught here today may already be half baked. At least the few cool spots I swim through are refreshing. Real cooling happens only when you get out of the water and sit in a wet bathing suit. Still, it’s much more tolerable than the 20 minutes I spent weeding and wilting in my garden this morning.  

                My garden! I am flattering it to call that plot of earth a garden this year. The zucchini borers finished off one plant before it produced a single squash. And each time my string bean plants recover from an attack, a groundhog finds his or her way past, under or through the fence to eat it down to the stalk. They ate the leaves off the other two zucchini plants too, making their production questionable. Most summers, we can count on our garden to supply lettuce and arugula for a nightly salad, this year other creatures have enjoyed it.

                At least the small garden by the lake is supplying salad greens and it gave us an abundance of snap peas before the heat wave finished off the plants. We are expecting tomatoes soon from both gardens. Groundhogs eschew tomatoes.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

To Catch a Little Thief

We awakened to a “Wo – wo – wo –wo” call from the backyard. It sounded a bit like a mourning dove, but not quite.
                “That’s not a bird,” said my husband. “It’s a distressed animal. Did you set the trap last night?”
                I admitted to baiting the Hav-a-hart trap with a piece of broccoli and half a carrot. I had set it at the opening of the hole that tunneled under the black walnut stump at the far end of our property.
                We’d been plagued by a young groundhog lately. The clever fellow had dug three different holes from the driveway, recently paved with only stones, to get under our garden fence. The thief had cleaned us out, eating soy and bush bean plants as well as kale, lettuce and snap peas. We had retaliated by filling in the holes and placing a long metal ladder against the fence. That, and the fact that there was nothing left to eat, deterred him for a while. During that time, neighbors up the block reported his visits in their backyards.  
                “But he always heads back in your direction,” Sander told us.
                Two days ago the young groundhog reappeared in our garden. This time he dug his way under the garden gate.
                “That’s it!” I said. “I’m setting the trap.”
                I baited the trap and left it on the grass toward the back of the yard, intending to place it by the stump later that night.
                That stump has been a home to various wildlife—most often groundhog families—for at least six years. At different times I’ve discovered and blocked “back doors” and have caught and relocated groundhogs. I once caught a very frightened raccoon. He was allowed to remain. The only trouble raccoons have ever caused is to run off with entire stalks of corn. I don’t plant corn any more. It takes more room in my small garden than the yield is worth.
                I forgot to move the trap into place by the stump. It remained on the lawn for most of a cloudy day until I remembered and went to put it into place in the evening. To my surprise, I found in it a very dejected looking raccoon. She was curled up with her head on the ground to one side. I opened the trap and she quickly ran off. After re-baiting the trap, I put it by the stump opening.  What it caught that night – or more likely, early the next morning, was calling “Wo–wo-wo-wo,”
                My husband and I both went back to find we’d trapped a very young raccoon.
                “Poor baby,” I said and released him.
                “We’ll that’s official,” I told my husband. “Raccoons live under the stump; the groundhog does not. I don’t know where else to set the trap.”

                Later that day an idea struck me. Our garden fence is just a plastic mesh. I forced the trap under the fabric of the gate and placed rocks to guard all openings except the trap entrance --an open invitation, seemingly into our garden.  And it worked!  At 3:30 this afternoon I found the trap closed and inside was a small –cat-sized—groundhog. I would have said, “Poor baby” to him too, but I knew him to be a thief. We’ll give him his independence, out of our yard, on July Fourth. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Wildlife Welcome!

                “Where are you? Come and look at this!” My husband called me to the kitchen window yesterday afternoon. He pointed at the yard. “Look, he’s sitting up like a dog.”
                The baby groundhog had returned.  Not such a baby any more, he looked very independent, and quite cute. In his begging pose, it was easier to think of him as a prairie dog than the groundhog I knew him to be.
                Two weeks ago he had pushed away rocks coating the driveway to dig under the garden fence. He devastated the garden, devouring all the lettuce greens, kale and Swiss chard, eating each soy and bush bean and one pepper plant down to their stalks. He even ate the echinacea and dill, leaving only the tomato and recently emerging zucchini plants. We plugged up one hole after another. He had made three. Then my husband laid a metal ladder in the driveway, up against the garden fence and I set the Havahart trap nearby. I figured the groundhog was young enough that he might not be suspicious and would walk directly into the baited trap. He didn’t, but at least we stopped him. Or was it that there was nothing left to eat?  We later saw “Junior” and his mother in the backyard, several days in a row, happily grazing on clover. Then the rains came.
                Neither Mom nor Junior showed up for over a week. I didn’t know if we just weren’t in the yard or passing by the window while they were out there, or if they were avoiding the paucity of our garden. But one thing I was sure of—if they made their home under the black walnut stump at the far end of the yard, they were under water. The entire back half of our yard was soggy. When the grass became less wet and I explored toward the back, I could still see water sitting inside the entrance hole under the stump.  I placed some pulled-up weeds across the opening; if some-critter entered or exited I would know.
                Now that Junior had reappeared, and with our lettuce and kale making a comeback, I had to do something to protect our crops. During the day, still thinking Junior was a neophyte, I baited the trap with broccoli and kale, placed it outside the garden fence and covered it with branches.  But our young groundhog was not buying. I decided to put the trap out by the stump at night.
                At ten fifteen last night I grabbed a flashlight and opened the back door—and jumped back.  Three kitten-sized black and white balls of fur scattered as a larger, striped animal ran off to the right. I slammed the door shut before they decided to act on their fear.  The trap would not be set this night.
                “It’s your sign,” said my husband. “You invited them.”
                He was referring to the sign that proclaimed our backyard to be a certified wildlife habitat. It had been certified five years ago, but I only hung the sign on the back door last month. Obviously, our wildlife can read.
                This morning I checked the stump. The weeds had been moved. Someone had settled in under the stump. But who?  From past experience I knew that groundhogs wake up late. We’ve never trapped one before ten A.M. It was only 6:30 so I put the trap in front of the hole. But by one P.M. the trap was still empty. I removed it. Skunks come out at night. The last think I want to find in the trap is a family of skunks.

                So whose garden is it? The battle continues. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Groundhog Woes—The Saga Continues

“Cozy Burrow Available
Beautiful neighborhood amid lush vegetable gardens.
The perfect home for your growing family.
Ready to move in – you need only dig your own tunnels.
50 Gordonhurst Ave.”

I’m convinced that ad is circulating within the local groundhog population. Why else would I find yet another groundhog happily grazing under our pear tree only weeks after we evicted another pair? I had felt badly about sending them away. They were a charming couple. I know they were enjoying the new spring grass of our backyard and I’m certain they intended to raise a family there. But we told them, “The backyard is open to you, but not our house.”

We are not mean landlords. Our backyard is a certified wildlife habitat. There’s a big black walnut stump by the back fence under which other groundhogs and even raccoons have enjoyed residing. As long as they stay out of my vegetable garden they are welcome there. I’ve seen them happily munching clover leaves and the partially eaten pears that the squirrels throw down from the tree.

But our house is not a wildlife habitat. They are absolutely not welcome to settle in under the sunroom. We’ve stuffed rocks in their tunnels and placed boards over the foot-wide area of earth that runs next to the house along the driveway, and pegged down chicken wire over where my beautiful irises and a peony should be growing, had the previous tenants had not dug them up. As a last resort, we threw several ounces of mothballs into the crawl space before screening in the small access opening. That was a big mistake!  Who would have imagined that the entire house would reek of camphor? Only the sunroom is atop the crawl space. But each morning when we awaken we notice the smell. Every time we re-enter the house we say, “Mothballs, yuck!”

Yet in spite of our inconvenienced living with the odor, that new groundhog attempted to dig its way under the back stairs in hopes of becoming our new tenant. It was the rocks we stuffed there that stopped his tunneling, not the smell. When I surprised him by opening the back door while he was munching grass, he ran behind the garage into our neighbor’s yard and under their Jacuzzi.  So they might have to deal with him now. I won’t suggest mothballs.

Today I put on my grubbiest painting clothes and removed the screen covering the crawl space “window.”  I crawled in and picked up every last mothball. They will go out with the garbage tonight. We’ve opened windows and burned incense. Now if only I knew how to advertise “No Vacancy” to the groundhog grapevine. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Groundhog Day

                I love Groundhogs’ Day. I enjoy the silliness of otherwise sensible people seemingly taking the prediction of a large rodent seriously.  And, although I’m not fond of small rodents, I actually find groundhogs cute. When a groundhog sits up on his haunches, front paws pulled up like a begging pup, I just melt. True, I have yet to discover their positive contribution to the environment. Unlike their smaller cousin, the squirrel, who eats the products of plants—nuts and fruits—and who actually sows seeds, the groundhog eats the plants themselves, before they mature enough to bear fruit, and never re-plants. Very destructive.
                 This Groundhogs Day Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. A groundhog repeatedly visited our backyard last fall, and I believed he overwintered at the far end of our yard, under the stump of the black walnut tree that fell down during the microburst of 2006. I looked out our back window wondering what opinion our groundhog held.
                But I saw no sign of our woodchuck that first week of February. A snowstorm on February 8th left a white cover over all. Somewhere, shortly after it snowed, footprints appeared across the lawn, terminating by the stump. Ah ha! Chucky was awake!
                It was only when all the snow finally exposed the grass—two and a half weeks later—that I noticed a new hole near the house, where a peony plant should grow. It was just under our sunroom window. We had believed our “basement apartment” to be empty. Until  now. Had Chucky moved to the warmer quarters of the crawl space under the sunroom? Or was this a relative who had hibernated in that comfortable den?  
                “Either way,” said my husband, Adel, “he’s got to go. He can have all of the outdoors but not our house.”
                In the fall we had evicted a groundhog from that very burrow. Adel had then constructed a network of slats to cover the narrow strip of soil between the house and the driveway. Our previous tenant had riddled the area with entries and exits.  Adel pushed rocks into the new hole.  But the next day, a new hole appeared; this one, close to the walkway, removed some iris plants.
                “There’s no dirt around the hole,” said my husband. “He’s digging from inside. How’d he get in?”
                I Googled groundhogs and learned that they dig two to five pathways to their dens. They might have as much as 45 feet of tunnels that may be five feet below the surface. Could Chucky have tunneled from the far end of our property?
                Determined not to let a groundhog get the better of us, Adel began covering the square of soil by the sunroom with planks and rocks.
                “The irises and what’s left of the peony won’t be able to grow,” I protested.
                So he constructed a frame the size of the plot, stretched wire mesh over it, planted it over the dirt and rocks and weighed it down with bricks.
                “Now he’ll never get in!” declared Adel.
                But the next morning there was a new hole on the other side of the entrance steps to the sunroom in another small plot of soil.
                “That does it!” said Adel. “We’ll borrow the trap!”
                We procured a Have-A-Heart trap from our neighbors, bated it with broccoli and cabbage and, after dark positioned it by the hole, blocking it on the sides. After a full day the trap remained empty.
                Facing the driveway, there’s a small window opening from the crawl space. Once wooden bars kept intruders out. Several years of tenants had chewed and broken them, prompting my husband to staple a screen over the frame. Now we noticed that one corner of the screen had been pushed free. Our groundhog had escaped again.
                Adel added a dozen staples to the screen and we plotted to wait until evening to set the trap again.  But in the early afternoon, I looked out our kitchen window to see a groundhog calmly grazing on the lawn. I went out the front door, tiptoed down the driveway and entered the lawn from behind the groundhog. He saw me and made a beeline for the hole. I set the trap in place and framed it with bricks. Three hours later I had a prisoner. I found Chucky (or perhaps Woodchick?) to be adorable and feisty.  When I touched the handle of the trap he lunged at me, showing two prominent front teeth.
                “I don’t blame you,” I said. “But we’ll relocate you to a lovely wild area.”
                Chucky was not consoled. He repeatedly examined each corner of the trap hoping for an opening that wasn’t there. We had plans to visit our summer house in Sussex the next day, so bringing our groundhog there was an obvious solution. We moved the trap to the garage. Expecting freezing temperatures over night, we covered it with a tarp.  
                The next morning I offered our captive more food, but breakfast was not the first item on his agenda. First he re-examined every inch of the cage. Only when he had despaired of escape did he sit down to a meal.
                When Adel went to get the trap, he found another groundhog standing by the hole, looking disconsolately at the captive.
                “Oh, no! We’re splitting up a family!” I said.
                But there was only one trap. One groundhog would have to go to Sussex and the mate would have to wait. My research had informed me that groundhogs mate in March. It was March 1st. We’d definitely cut their honeymoon short. Maybe they hadn’t started a family yet. Maybe the “woodchick” was slightly pregnant. With a gestation period of 31 to 32 days, we were somewhat confident that we wouldn’t be leaving infants unattended.  After all, these two had only awakened from hibernation in the last few weeks.
                We delivered groundhog number one to a lovely wooded area near a stream which flowed into a meadow. He or she scampered off to explore. Back home, we again bated the trap and placed it by the hole after dark. By 10:00 AM the trap was still empty; groundhogs are not early risers. But when we looked at 10:30, there was a new, dejected occupant. This one was much more docile, causing us to speculate that the first may well have been a pregnant female.  We took it for a ride to a not-nearly-as-far wild area so Chucky could find a new home.
                I wish them both well while feeling guilty for being a home wreaker. Landlords are sometimes required to make perturbing decisions.