Saturday, October 24, 2015

Indian Summer 2015

I’ve always insisted that, by definition, Indian Summer must follow the first frost. In previous years I’ve argued with other gardeners, “This can’t be it; we haven’t had a frost!” But this year, Mother Nature reminded me that temperature, like rain, does not respect human boundaries.

In the Montclair/Glen Ridge area, we’ve not had a frost yet this autumn. The temperature may have dipped to the low 30s, but it never made it to 320. My tomato plants still have some green leaves—and green tomatoes that will never ripen too.

We were able to fit a day in Sussex into this week’s schedule.
Can't see the foliage colors, but what a sunrise!
What a glorious day Wednesday was! Temperature in the 70s, warm sunshine, and the hills a rolling patchwork of reds, oranges and ambers; a perfect Indian Summer day. And in Sussex, it was Indian Summer. The stalks that were once tomato plants, as well as black leaves and burnt crisps of dahlias that had recently been bright pink, testified that in this part of New Jersey, there had, indeed been a frost.

So where had the frost ended?  Did it include Morris County? Had it crawled over hills to Parsippany? How about Verona and Caldwell? Did it only stop at First Mountain? I’ve noticed over years of observation that predicted rain sometimes goes around that mountain and spares Montclair. (Or during a drought, singles the town out for more parching.) Perhaps the frost also spared Eastern Essex thus far.

Thank goodness that Indian Summer is no respecter of that boundary! For here too, we have the lovely, temporary respite from cold—a teaser before Nature plunges us into a serious turn away from sunlight. It’s time to enjoy the fall fruits and pumpkin confections; to admire the colors and enjoy the crisp air; And it’s Mother Nature’s wake-up-call to dig the warm clothing out of storage before it’s too late.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Veery— Late in Season

I thought it was too late in the season. Thought the veery family had abandoned the house we provided it. After all, last week we only heard a bit of scolding from the veery, not the charming song he had kept up for hours several weeks ago.
But I was wrong.
We returned to another scolding, from a branch above the deck where I stood.
“What’s your problem?” I asked. “I would never harm you or your family. You can use the house any time you want – rent free.” I sat down. I wasn’t going away.
After a few minutes of che, che, che, che the veery gave up.
Then I learned what all the noise was about. There are multiple chirping sounds from within the birdhouse. And momma and poppa veery are making repeated visits in and out of the house. Their brood must have hatched while we were gone—within the last five days.

It’s late in season to bring up a brood, considering they’ll all have to depart to a tropical clime in the fall. But who am I to criticize? We started late too.
The Audubon site says that sometimes veeries raise two broods per year. Perhaps this is the second?
Or – maybe they did just start late. All that serenading in early July wasn’t for our benefit. Mr. Veery was obviously singing for his lady love. Given that the eggs take 10 to 14 days to hatch, this family was begun a short time ago.
The blackberries that grew under the deck are all gone. But the ripe berries last month may have been one more enticement to convince Mrs. Veery that this birdhouse was in an ideal spot. We are lucky they chose our birdhouse. The habit of the veery is to nest close to the ground in dense forest or in a shrub or sapling.

 The adults continually fly off to the trees and return. I suppose they are bringing insects for food. The kids need protein. They make a lot of noise when momma or poppa returns. All of them saying, “Me first!”
Standing on the deck, looking down at the house, I see it rock slightly, and the insistent chirps are replaced by a rhythmic cooing. Suddenly momma flies out and off.

I hope we are here when the little ones learn to fly—10 to 12 days after hatching, according to Audubon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Duck Armada

Several weeks ago I wrote about the mother mallard duck who ushered seven little ones to the lake edge to feast on snails. Momma duck is still bringing the kids around; now there are six. I’ll never know if number seven chose to go it on his own, or if he is no more.
The youngsters have grown to teenage size or at least, they are young adults. They are almost as large as momma. The only clue that they are not full grown mallards is that they are entirely brown. Only momma duck sports the lovely blue chevron—the hallmark of a mallard—on her wings, and none of them have the striking green head of the full grown male mallard.  I’ve read that normally, there will be more males than females in a duck population; maybe I’ll start seeing green in a few weeks.
The ducks are still gulping down snails, and I wonder how the snail population will ever recover from their daily repasts. I am still astonished to see – first the snail in a ducks beak, as he snaps it open and shut to adjust the shell toward the back of his mouth,  and then the lump in his throat as the snail goes down. I can’t imagine how any-creature could be comfortable with a tummy full of snails—in shells!
I found the on-line Princeton Science Library, “A Natural History of Shells” that says “The prey is swallowed, enveloped, or smothered without damage to the shell; the flesh is then slowly digested before the empty shell is expelled…Shell destruction after swallowing also occurs in the gizzard of the ducks.”

 In the afternoons the entire duck population of the lake now gathers to socialize. An armada of 15 ducks cruises together, their wakes trailing multiple V formations. 
I wonder if they’re drilling for the time, in the fall, when they will depart the lake as a group and head for a warmer clime. Four males travel nearby; they don’t seem interested in traveling with the flock. Are they old timers? Been there. Done that?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Dragonfly Season

Weedy mats float at the edge of the lake, heralding the season for dragon and damselflies to lay their eggs. They normally blanket these floating weeds with their bubble-like egg clutches.
The larvae cycle of the damsel and dragonflies includes two or three years of living in the water as some of the ugliest bugs I’ve ever seen.  Then they crawl out the water and right out of their skin! 
A dragonfly exoskeleton
Well, it’s really an exoskeleton. They uncurl their needle-thin bodies and, similarly to butterflies, unfurl their wings to dry in the sun. Then follows a few frantic summer weeks of consuming mosquitoes, mating and laying eggs and dying.
In previous years, I’ve found dozens of the empty exoskeletons clinging to the edge of the dock. This year, there’s only one, and fewer of these jewel-like insects—less than a dozen of two varieties of damselflies and only three or four dragonflies flitting about.
I know that when an area is polluted, the first to leave are the dragon and damselflies. But that is not the problem here, nor can I blame Monsanto for this dearth, as I do for the diminishing monarch butterflies. A recent report assured us that the lake is pristine and protected. It is home to ducks, geese, swans, heron, frogs, snapping turtles, snails and muskrats, and a variety of fish as well as damselflies and dragonflies.
So what could be the explanation for the shortage of our gorgeous mosquito-eaters? 
Damselfly - image from Google

I blame the fish. The lake is seeded with bass, catfish and others and is home to an abundance of sunnies. They need to eat too. There are a couple of fishermen who take the sport seriously—but very few others around the lake actually fish. I may have to start fishing and encourage neighbors to do the same, for the sake of keeping the environment balanced for dragonflies. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Renter’s Serenade

We’re being treated today to almost constant music from a tiny bird who appears to be our tenant. Though I repaired, repainted and mounted a birdhouse from the deck two years ago, till now it’s been a disappointment.  Previously, a tree swallow showed interest, but his mate insisted on nesting in a tree in our neighbor’s yard. My husband suggested I post a sign on the house, “For rent—cheap,” or maybe cheep. 
But the new tenants do so much more than cheep.
This bird’s song is a trill—just hearing it makes one happy. He sang from a nearby tree all last evening and made frequent trips to and from the house.  I can’t see inside, so I have to assume there’s a lady bird there, and perhaps little ones?  It seems late in the season to me, but why else would he be so attentive?
Veery sitting on the Bird House
My husband says we should be charging rent. But it seems to me that his lovely song is more than ample payment for his one-room flat.
There’s a wonderful website, http://www., that I used to try to learn our senenader’s name. I checked “New Jersey,” “Small size,” “brown,” “all purpose beak” and “forest habitat” and it came up with a Veery. Our bird looks a bit deeper red-brown and a little more slender than their picture, but his song is very like their veery recordings and, apparently, eastern veery have a deeper color than others.
Another veery recently showed itself and the two are flitting about, perhaps looking for their favorite foods, bugs and fruit. Their presence may explain why there are no wild blackberries left for us on the vine beneath our deck.  
The website says that our veeries spent the winter in Brazil. What travelers they are!

You can hear the veery’s song at

Friday, June 26, 2015

Just Ducky

Each year I learn more about the mallard ducks which summer at my favorite lake.
In early spring I’ve seen male-female pairs. Then, by June, it’s usual to see a few males paddling about together—what my husband calls, “boys’ night out.” Later in the season, we’re more likely to see several females accompanied by a group of youngsters; males nowhere in sight. I figure the guys believe their job is done until it’s time to return and get the whole flock ready to migrate. A little research informed me that all ducks molt their flying feathers during the nesting period; they cannot fly for three to four weeks! And there are usually more male ducks than females. This is definitely true this year.
Two weeks ago I saw three male mallards, sun glinting off their handsome green heads, cruising the lake together. I saw no females and figured they were keeping a low profile because the kids were probably quite young.
This week, at first I saw no male ducks and thought they might have left the lake already.  Then I discovered seven males sitting on a dock with two females—while one female was taking seven adorable ducklings out for lunch.
 The area by our dock was especially attractive to them because the grass slopes
gradually down to the water. There’s some lake weed where teensy fish hang out, as well as small black snails. I’d seen adult ducks eating the snails; thought that they must crack the shells with their beaks to get the snail, though it did appear that they swallowed them shell and all. Google research confirms that ducks eat snails whole! The thought gives me a stomach ache.
The female babysitter—a duck site confirms that sometimes one adult will watch all the kids—had no fear of us. She simply kept watch as the babies fed, dipping, or rather ducking, bottoms up, in the shallows. Some were brave enough to dive for a snail when they were in 18 inch-deep water. We were only two yards away, watching the little ones down snail after snail – whole!
Besides the ducks, our lake has always been home to a pair of swans. They nest at the far end of the lake and, I’m told, though there have been eggs, they rarely raise a cygnet to adulthood because of predators. But they must have succeeded last year, because there are now two pairs of adult swans at the far end of the lake. They grace us with their presence, gliding to our end about once each day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Indian Summer?

I want to protest the brevity of this year’s Indian summer.  I have looked forward to Indian summer each fall. When the days become short and chilly, though the leaves are gorgeous, I must fight sadness and the urge to hibernate. Knowing there’ll be that reprieve of warm days before true cold sinks in keeps me hopeful until the holiday excitement takes over.

Some people told me we were having Indian summer in October. Nonsense!  I learned as a Girl Scout that first we needed a frost.  The Farmers’ Almanac says, “The time of occurrence is important: The warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost,” and that it comes after St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.

Most years that frost is a snap of cold one night that kills the late tomato and pepper plants, the begonias and nasturtium, and the delicate herbs like basil.  This year’s frost was colder, harder and longer, wilting even the hardier vegetables like kale, carrot tops and parsley and fusing dead tomato stems in the earth.  
And worse!—this year’s Indian summer lasted merely one glorious day and one day less lovely, but nevertheless warm.

But it would not be fair to protest to Mother Nature. She has every right to give us only a short respite after the first frost. After all, we've taken the carbon out of her earth, sent it into the atmosphere and upset her carefully balanced weather. Until we find a way to appease her, we’ll have to accept what she sends—including today’s dumping of snow, just in time for Thanksgiving.