Tag Archive for: backyard conservation

Meeting the Eastern Hemlock

Eastern Hemlock branch covered in snow with cones hanging below

The abundance of cones this year was what drew my attention to this Eastern Hemlock.

It was an abundance of tiny pinecones dangling below the branches that brought my attention to the tree this winter. I had not paid much attention to this tree in the past, mostly because it was just one of the many evergreens that grow here, and I had not spent time getting to know them individually. It is probably no coincidence that the tree came into my awareness now when I have just stepped onto the Druidic path.

After some research I discovered that the tree was an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), whose common name came from the poisonous European herb, perhaps because of a similar smell. This Hemlock tree is a pine. The branches are pretty and lacy, and the tree is loosely pyramid-shaped.

I was curious about the noticeably large number of cones this year but read that the Eastern Hemlock likes moist soil. Last summer was cool and very, very rainy. It seemed there were few hot, sunny days. I kept wishing it would dry out for a bit, but I guess the tree was happy.

The seeds in those cones are popular with some of the local wildlife, including red squirrels. My little friends must be eating well, as scales (the “petals” of the cone) litter the snow under the tree. Mice, voles, and even snowshoe hares will pick up any seeds that fall to the ground. A few of the winter birds, including black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, also enjoy the seeds. I also learned that porcupine like to dine on the bark and twigs of the Hemlock, but I have not seen one here.

Hemlocks grow slowly and make take 300 years to reach maturity. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an aphid-like insect native to Japan and accidentally introduced to North America, is decimating our Hemlocks. An infestation leads to decline and mortality within ten years. Hemlock trees are dying all along the east coast of the United States. Because the cold seems to be the only thing that stops the Woolly Adelgids, the Hemlocks here, in the Adirondacks, have been spared. Since the average temperature is rising due to climate change, our Hemlocks may not be safe for too much longer, though.

I will be monitoring my new acquaintance, the Eastern Hemlock, for signs of Woolly Adelgid while I observe the tree’s seasonal changes. If watching the tree means I am likely to spot a red squirrel scurrying across a branch, all the better. I feel blessed that I was invited to meet this tree.

Good Morning, Blue Jays (Part 2)

About the same time the “Vs” of geese could be seen heading south, the blue jay who had become my friend disappeared. For a few days I continued to leave peanuts then, assuming the blue jays had followed the geese, gave up and stood the canning jar that held the few remaining nuts on the floor inside the door. By the time the snow melted the following spring, I had all but forgotten about the jar and its contents.

one of the blue jays sitting on a branch over snowBy May, mornings include a cacophony of all the returning species. It was during an early morning interlude that I heard the familiar caw of a blue jay. I jumped out of bed, donned my bathrobe, and dug the canning jar out from under the snow boots piled by the back door. I left a peanut on the rail and called out, “Good morning, blue jay. Welcome back!”

The peanut was gone the next morning when I brought another peanut from my now refreshed supply and called out my greeting. After only a few days, the blue jay was sitting in the tree before I opened the back door. We enjoyed another summer of our brief daily encounters before the fall sent him away again.

The following spring he returned, but not alone. I heard the pair of blue jays calling to each other from tree to tree, and occasionally caught sight of the two following each other across the sky. I upped the daily peanut ration to there was enough for both. By the end of that summer I counted four blue jays perching in the trees and it appeared their family had grown.

Fall came, but the blue jay pair did not leave. Their fledges seemed to have moved on, but the two were still visiting the tree overhanging the deck once or twice a week. Now, a few years later, even the youngsters stay. I am blessed to see them daily and to say, “Good morning, blue jays!”

Good Morning, Blue Jay (Part 1)

When I am asked for suggestions for connecting with nature, I tell folks to feed the birds. Nothing breaks down the myth of separation from nature like hearing insistent tweets outside your window when the feeder is empty.

This is never truer than with blue jays. I once left a peanut on the rail of our back deck, hoping to attract a crow, the living manifestation of one of my helping spirits. The peanut disappeared, but I did not see who took it. For a few weeks I left a peanut daily and, for a few minutes, watched.

blue jay sitting on rock looking at nuts

Apparently not satisfied with peanuts, the blue jay eyed up a walnut I had put out for the squirrels.

One day I caught sight of a blue jay swooping in and grabbing the peanut. I was excited! While not a crow, a blue jay is also a member of the corvid family. I continued putting peanuts out every day and watching from just inside the door. For the first week or so, the blue jay would sit on a branch in the tree that overhangs the deck and watch me watching him until I gave up and went about my day. Once I stopped looking, the peanut would disappear. Over time, the jay became less concerned about my presence and I would often see him fly to the deck rail and grab the peanut before he disappeared into a tree.

Eventually, the blue jay would come to the rail to watch me through the door. While I was trying to be consistent with the timing of my peanut offerings, there were days when I was distracted from my morning ritual by household goings on. The jay must have stayed close enough to keep an eye on the deck rail, because he never missed his treat. One morning, he was on the rail before I was back through the door. I said, “Good morning, blue jay.” He picked up his peanut and flew off.

After that, each time I left a peanut, I would look into the trees and say, in my best “yoga teacher projecting to the back of the room” voice, “Good morning, blue jay. Here’s your peanut.” He must have heard me, because he would arrive in an instant. My morning ritual expanded to include a greeting to my friend.

One of those distracted mornings, I became aware of the short, sharp “caw” of the blue jay and looked out to see him sitting in the tree watching the back door. I brought him his peanut. The next morning I was again reminded by the caw, and every morning after that he would be in the tree demanding his breakfast peanut. I felt as though me and the blue jay were friends.

This story will continue in tomorrow’s post.

Garden for Life

While I had always been ecologically conscious, Shamanic Reiki training drew me into a deeper connection with the land and the Earth’s beings. When I added wildlife rehabilitation into the mix, I became aware of the needs of those beings and how best to help them. With both a spiritual and ecological imperative, I committed to garden for life.

dark eyed juncos enjoying the garden for life in winter

Dark-eyed juncos enjoy the garden for life in winter.

I do not consider myself a gardener in the usual sense. Each spring I put some annuals into containers and seedlings into my two raised vegetable beds. Anything that needs special care or weeding to thrive is out of luck, because by late spring turtle care takes precedence. I gave up long ago on things like foundation plantings or landscaping. Instead, I let the land go wild.

I learned how the introduction of non-native landscape plants and trees has reduced the food and shelter available for wildlife. Most imported cultivars lack fruit or nuts and repel rather than attract bugs. Typically, the dried stalks of perennials are cut back in the fall, shrubs are trimmed, and leaves are raked. I chose to do none of that.

Instead, after researching which are best for the animals here, I add only native trees and shrubs to my land. Nothing gets cut back or shaped. To give our dogs a safe place to run, we fenced in part of our yard, which gets mowed, but infrequently. We only rake leaves that are covering the driveway, as they are slippery when we get light snow. We do very little “yard work” here.

Compared to the manicured lawns and gardens that have become idealized in America, our yard looks messy. The land, however, is teeming with life. Everyone from squirrels to snakes hangs around in the summer. I am seeing a increase in the variety of birds as well.

A couple of days ago we got our first significant snowfall for this winter. When I went outside, I was rewarded for not “cleaning up the yard” last fall with a flock of dark-eyed juncos nibbling on the remains of a clump of native evening primrose. That sight was a blessing and a reminder of why I garden for life.