Monday, December 26, 2011

The Ups and Downs of Christmas Week

Holiday traditions change over the years, none more so for us than this year. One constant until three years ago was Christmas with my dad. Now that he is gone and our children grown and living many miles away and not always willing or able to come here, and with us tied down with critters to tend, the most constant tradition has been our good friends the Millikans, who are always game for a holiday dinner at our house. This year, however, because of their schedules, dinner was two days before Christmas, leaving us with a weekend of no company. So we commandeered Tillamook friends, whose children also live far away, to go out to dinner with us on Christmas and then go birding. A new tradition may be in the making...

But I'm getting ahead of my story. Stories.

The week began with Johnny and a friend finishing the fence to keep the horses out of the swamp. It is a lovely thing and effective. They even straightened up my makeshift white tape electric fence so it no longer looks like it was erected by a drunken sailor. Here are Nightingale and Jessie Anne looking depressed that they can no longer destroy things on the other side of the sturdy, high, woven wire fence. With luck, Jessie Anne will leave my newly straightened white fence alone, too.

That was Monday. On Tuesday we rode up into the Tetons (of Oregon, not Wyoming) with friend Rand, who surveys that portion of my sector of our Upper Nestucca Christmas Bird Count circle. I intended to take photos of the areas where Rand found Mountain Quail on count day. Unfortunately, I left the camera battery at home. We didn't see quail but we learned new areas we didn't know about and look forward to exploring them again... when I have the battery in my camera.

Wednesday was a day of mixed emotions. I had decided to restart the North Santiam Raptor Route that I drove with my dad in the last year of his life. I only wish we'd started doing that years earlier. His ranch is two hours from our farm and I visited him daily between my morning and evening chores as often as I could during those last seasons, except when Johnny or my brother were staying with him. Taking Dad on a raptor route through areas near him where he had delivered his Polled Hereford cattle over the years was a fun way to spend time with him. I did not drive the route again after he died. It was too sad for me.

However, I wanted to visit the cemetery adjacent to his property, where he and Mom are buried, and to visit the good friends who had been managing Dad's land ever since it became too much for him. Those friends bought Dad's place after he died, as per pre-arrangement with Dad. It's been hard for both Johnny and me to go back to Mom and Dad's beautiful Timberknoll Ranch after we had finally emptied their house and many outbuildings. The raptor route would give us the impetus, I thought, to do it before the rains were reported to be returning and before the Christmas weekend. But Johnny had a doctor's appointment and other obligations so I enlisted friend Nancy and we drove the route together. It was great to have her company and to reminisce. In spite of the sadness, it was also comforting. I hope to take Johnny on the route in January.

Nancy and I stopped to visit the Millers, who had not only managed Dad's ranch but were his best friends and had checked on him each time they came by to feed their cattle. They had emailed me the day before our raptor run that a small raptor had hit the west window of Dad's bedroom and killed itself. They took a photo and would show me when we arrived. Actually, they had the bird itself in the freezer. Their hired hand, who is becoming quite a good birder, correctly identified it as a Northern Pygmy Owl. None of us knew pygmy owls lived there. Too bad I can't count dead birds on my route. Nancy told me later she had a great time, but the best part was seeing the dead owl.

The only photos I took on the trip were of a singing American Dipper at Fisherman's Bend Park, where we stopped for a snack and the hope of seeing a Bald Eagle on the North Santiam River, as I had done there once before. I don't remember ever seeing Dippers on that river in the past, but this one was singing non-stop near the river's edge. Dippers, like bluebirds, seem to radiate good cheer.
We made it home before dark and all seemed fine until I was in our long driveway. The car jerked and acted oddly. I stopped but could tell nothing so drove on into the garage. I forgot to ask Johnny to check the car until Sunday morning, when we were about to drive it to Tillamook. We took the pickup instead. The car had zero transmission fluid. That mystery is yet to be solved but my planned trips to visit kids post-Christmas are on hold until it is.

Thursday was the usual frantic house cleaning and sorting and cooking in preparation for "Christmas" dinner on Friday. I also cleaned the greenhouse and strung Christmas lights out there... my only decorating this year. Without wee ones coming, I couldn't work up decorating enthusiasm. I was alternately sad about no family for Christmas and happy about a weekend free to ride the jump gymnastic I'd set up weeks ago in the arboretum for Mr. Smith. However, that night Mr. Smith apparently slid while racing in for his supper, landed on his side and twisted his right front leg. He is just now sound on it again. Here are the arena jumps I have high hopes of riding one of these days.
Friday was a fun day with Barb and Mark and Linnet and our neighbor Irv for dinner. A few of us made the requisite post-dinner hike, this time up to Irv's place to see his fancy baby chicks with the wild hair-do's. I went back on Saturday to photograph his beloved birds and spend time with our almost-82-year-old neighbor.

Not as fanciful, but just as impressive, were the critters we saw on our trip to Tillamook on Christmas Day. A herd of over a hundred Roosevelt Elk grazed the green fields around the huge Air Museum, a former blimp hangar.

After Christmas dinner at a restaurant, Barbara and John drove us to their birding spots where we saw dozens of Black Turnstones and one Ruddy Turnstone. Here is a Black Turnstone, at water's edge.

The turnstones also wandered up onto the grass next to the parking area. And that's when we spotted the very similar Ruddy Turnstone, second bird from the left in the photo left... and all alone in photo right .

Our Tillamook friends also located for us, along their raptor route, a pair of Bald Eagles, a Rough-legged Hawk, and a distant White-tailed Kite.... along with a Northern Harrier, several Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. Then, before leaving for home, tiny Chestnut-backed Chickadees entertained us on their suet feeder.

Since we were driving the pickup instead of the car, we opted to stop at Munson Creek Falls on our way home. The last time we had hiked the falls was many years ago when the road was too pot-holed for our low-riding car. But now the road was quite good and the trail positively civilized. Munson Creek Falls is the highest waterfall in the coast range. The lay of the land prevents you from seeing the entire falls from any one point. The portion pictured at the top of this overly-long blog is about half the total length.

Rain began just after we returned to our pickup. And so our Christmas week ended, but not so different after all. Like most of our holidays... and other days, it featured good friends and the great outdoors.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Strange Happenings

Maybe it's the weather. December is usually cold and wet. This December is not so cold and strangely dry. (Of course, it's not over yet and snow may be coming for Christmas weekend.) One of the odd things around here, perhaps odder than the weather, is, admittedly, me... or odd things I've been doing. Okay, so not all of my faux pas are recent oddities.

Years ago, I foolishly planted invasive English Ivy along Johnny's shop. I know why I did it... that wall is two stories high, ugly yellow metal, and, well, just plain ugly. Thanks to the cuttings I took from the Grand Ronde library ivy (that they try yearly to get rid of), the ugly wall was converted into a lovely ivy-covered wall. But the ivy is not content to stay on the outside of the wall. It has moved through cracks into the inside and is covering Johnny's tools. It has also poked out the roof. And I worry that the berries it is producing will be carried by birds into the forest and choke innocent trees.

So during this oddly rain-free weather I chopped it down. Or tried to. I had hung netting on the wall for the ivy to climb on. That was a stupid thing to do because ivy needs nothing but its own hairy stalks to glue itself to any surface. But the ivy was happy to twine its tendrils through the netting as well. The netting, over the years, buried itself in the dirt under massive ivy roots. It took me two days to cut netting and ivy stalks away from the ground. Pictured is what it looks like now, severed from the ground that it used to cover. There was no bare metal showing on the outside of the shop before my efforts this week. The other photos show what it did and still does look like inside the shop. Having the ivy on the lower part of the wall gone and disconnected from its roots in the ground does not seem to have had any effect whatsoever on the part still hanging inside and out.

Next came the dilemma of what to do with the huge mound of ivy I'd chopped down. I planned to burn it, but the burn pile is in the orchard, near the woods. What if those impossible-to-kill cuttings rooted and crept into our woodland? I decided to make the burn pile in the middle of the goat field where there are no trees anywhere near. So I did. The goats, of course, immediately dashed out to eat the ivy leaves. Then I remembered reading that ivy was poisonous to goats. I raced to the computer to research. Yes! said the first site I found, ivy is poisonous to goats! I raced back outside and tried to cover the ivy with boards and berry vines but that did nothing to deter the goats. Panic-stricken, I raced to the house again and googled for remedies for ivy poisoning, sure I had just killed all my goats. This time I found a site that said "Don't believe everything you read on the internet. You'll find sites that say ivy is poisonous to goats. I've been feeding ivy trimmings to my goats for years. They love them."

So far, my goats are fine.

Two days later came the Upper Nestucca Christmas Bird Count we do each year. This year, thanks to the odd dry weather, we had no snow or rain to struggle through in our mountain sector. That was good. But there were far fewer birds than usual. Why, I have no idea. In spite of the fact that most of the other teams also found few birds in their sectors, the count came up with the highest number of total species it ever had and higher numbers on quite a few of the species than ever before. Of course, some of those "higher numbers" were not very high: 10 (Downy Woodpecker) and 4 (Western Screech Owl). And our total species count (60) was less than half many other counts: our Upper Nestucca count circle is not in prime bird habitat. But it's pretty. Pictured is one of our non-rainy, non-snowy, pretty spots that should have had birds that day but did not.

Oddly enough, Johnny and I discovered on our earlier scouting trip in the count circle that we had cell phone coverage in our sector, which we've never had before. So we planned to bring our cell phones on count day in case we needed to call for help up there in the wilderness. But I forgot mine. That is, I thought I forgot it. I searched my pockets and backpack before Johnny dropped me off at the edge of the circle. He then drove home to do morning chores. I asked him to bring my phone back when he came later to join me.

Hours later, as I sat in a forest clearing eating a snack, my cell phone rang. From somewhere. It had to be in my clothing but darned if I could find it. I frantically dug through coat pockets as the phone rang again after getting no answer the first time. I knew Johnny was calling the number to try to find my phone at home, where I'd said I left it. I began peeling my many layers, each with pockets, trying to find the elusive phone. Didn't. Unpacked my backpack... no phone. So I started over again, feeling each article of clothing for a hidden lump. At last I felt such a lump in the very bottom of my coat. A hole in a pocket had allowed the cell phone to fall through into the lining. I called Johnny and told him the phone was with me.

But the strangest happening of all this week happened at home. I'm not sure when. My exotic Buckeye hen, one of the chicks I bought a year and a half ago, suddenly turned into a rooster. Well, I don't know how suddenly but she has looked like a hen for over a year. A few days ago I thought I heard two roosters, instead of one, crowing in the morning. Yesterday, I saw two roosters and fourteen hens instead of the usual one rooster and fifteen hens. One rooster had a pea comb but was otherwise nearly identical to our original rooster... and it was chasing and mounting and breeding the hens. My exotic Buckeye hen was not there. Well, I think she was there but a he instead of a she. The Buckeye is the only bird I have with a pea comb other than the Americaunas which look totally different. I've heard of some roosters being slow to mature, but a year and a half?? Possibly, Johnny and I are just really unobservant but... Here she is in her former life as a hen. And now, apparently, as a rooster.

I know they don't look alike but I swear it has to be the same bird... unless someone has done a switcheroo on me. Here are the two roosters together, and their heads showing the vastly different comb styles.

Could it be the weather??