Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Into the Woods Again

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

    - "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
    - Robert Frost

 There wasn't any snow but the woods were certainly lovely, they were dark and they were deep. So thick in fact that we had to move branches out of the way before we could pass. And even then it was a chore. The ground had standing water from two day's rain (over 1.5") and the mud was shiny and slick. Even so, the morning began presenting some sun and the air was already pleasant.
 I am hunting morel mushrooms again with Dan Poffenberger. Our collection bags will remain empty but our souls will fill with the beauty of a spring woods.

 These polypores were shining with last night's rainwater and they seemed fresh and new. Living on rotting trees, polypores are fungi and do the job of decomposing fallen wood. They are, in truth, wild mushrooms, just not of the type we were hunting.

 This Soloman's Seal still held rain drops on its delicate leaves. Nature takes care of her own however well hidden from view.

 My greatest surprise was a thicket of Virginia Bluebells (Virginia Cowslip) growing deep in the woods. They are wildflowers, to be sure, but it seemed strange to find so many spread over such a large area. They could be seen through the trees from some distance away.
 I can imagine some 19th century farm wife planting them on her homestead. This land, in German Twp. and near the western edge of Montgomery County, was probably part of the Paula Lind farm. Lind was an early aviator and actress (b. 1897) and I suspect she had a hand in these. And if she didn't, she should have.

 Up close, the bluebell name is the perfect description. When buds, they are purple but the fade to a baby-blue as they mature. Is there a more perfect shade of blue? The sky itself must envy this color on the forest floor.

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village, though. [RF]

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Reserve

 It's prime time for morel mushrooms. But where are they?
 My favorite "never fail" spot ... has failed. I've checked it daily.
 Many people trust Germantown Metropark for mushrooms but, so far, I've been left high and dry there, too. Last Tuesday I went to the Reserve with Dan Poffenberger and Sue Barlett, two friends from my high school years. We enjoyed breakfast at Miss Molly's Bakery & Cafe in Farmersville first (Thanks, Dan!) and then began our hike about 9 a.m.

Large-flowered Trillium

 The wildflowers in the park on April 22 seemed to be at about the right stage for morels to be present. This Trillium grandiflorum was only beginning to bloom. Most plants were not yet flowering. Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) in bloom were few and far between. I saw a few Soloman's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), too.

 Sue (blue) and Dan (red) rest in the distance. The soil was a bit dry on the paths but the actual forest floor seemed damp. Just about right. And yet the morels were clearly not yet up.

Dogwood in bloom

 And yet today (April 29) when I pulled into the parking lot at the Nature Center, I found four other cars already there. I figured I'd be passing other mushroom hunters. But, no, I didn't see another soul during my hike. Of course the park is large: 1655 acres. I took several trails. The walking path is quite muddy from yesterday's rain.


 I left the trail and looked beneath many mature trees for morels. It was a pleasant hike, at least, even if empty-handed. Above 70° with sunny skies and calm winds was perfect hiking weather. The Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), also called Mandrakes, are already growing in profusion but I did not find any in bloom.

 There are mushrooms, all right, but not the edible kind I sought. These were coming up at the base of a tree. They served, at least, to show that I can spot a mushroom when there's one to see. It's a good eye test to find something.

 Coming back out of the woods, I saw a group of elderly birdwatchers getting ready to hit the trail. How could I tell? They carried large binoculars and their cameras had expensive telephoto lenses. The seriousness of a birdwatcher is in proportion to the quality of his optical equipment.

Amaryllis Blooms in April

 The bottom line is this: you have to know how to talk to an amaryllis bulb, how to reason with it, how to even put a little fear into it.
 Last fall, I cut the green leaves off the bulb and placed it atop a wooden shelf in the basement. It didn't bloom last year. I had planned to throw it onto the compost but Mom intervened and suggested I give it one more try. Last summer I added dry nitrogen fertilizer to the pot, hoping to prod it into a bloom this year.
 In November, I went down into the basement and brought the pot up onto the porch. I talked to the bulb at some length. "This is it," I said, "one last chance to bloom."
 "You had better think of blooming for Christmas," I said. But as the holidays arrived, the bulb continued to mock me. It was, in fact, dry and apparently lifeless. Good, I thought; this will make it easier to throw out.
 This was the winter of all winters. Constant snow. Brutal cold. I heated the porch with a kerosene heater on the coldest night, hoping to keep the overwintering plants alive. The bulb sat in its pot, brown and lifeless as the world outside the window.
 As winter ebbed, Mom kept watering the bulb each Friday. Eventuality a couple of leaves seem to sprout from the bulb. They took months to develop.Then, in late March, another shoot began to spring from the bulb. Could it be a bud?

 Indeed it was and we've watched it develop since. The above picture shows how one of the two flowers look this morning (April 29). It is spectacular ... of fire engine red, two huge blooms, surely visible like warning flags from down the road.
 Because I saw this coming, I have been taking regular photographs of the amaryllis. Here's how it developed, three weeks from the day the bud rose above the bulb to this wonderful flower of flame.

April 8

 The bud popped up as a complete surprise. Can you see one of last year's cut leaves at the base of the bud shoot?

April 13

 Mom and I could not imagine how quickly the bud rocketed skyward.

April 21

 Just a week ago, the flower showed the first signs of color. A stripe or two of pink began to rise as the bud sheath split in two.

April 22

Now the two buds are first visible. Compare the difference in just one day!

April 24

Two days later and the sheath that holds the folded buds is retracting and the double flames stand ready to open.

April 29

 This morning one bud has fully opened and this other is still partially unfolded.

April 29

 This bud was fully opened when I took the last two shots at 8:30 am.
 The picture at the top of this post was taken at 10:30 am, just two hours later.

So, the amaryllis gets a reprieve and even a place of honor on our back porch this summer. I'll keep it outdoors all summer long and only take it to the basement when cold weather returns in October.

Note: I've documented the past four blooms of this same bulb: April 29 2011, May 1 2010, May 15 2009, May 22 2008. They're all available here on this blog. Use the search tool at the top left and search for "amaryllis".

Later: On May 1, the flowers are magnificent. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Walk in the Woods

It is a perfect spring day: 75° at 3 pm. Sunny. Calm.
Wouldn't any mushroom enjoy poking its head above the spring soil on a day like this?

So, with that in mind, I decided to spend some time in our woods (well, not ours, not legally ... our two acres were broken off the 40 acres when we moved here in 1987; this woods was part of the original plot but it is not owned by us). The soil is damp from recent rains. The grasses and spring wildflowers are in bloom. Tiny insects have awakened from their winter sleep and are threading their way among the trees.

I have not spent any great amount of time in this woods for the past three years. In fact, the only time I can go there is this time of year, before the allergens do me in. In mid-summer, the woods are too overgrown, too green, too buggy.

I first came upon this old buggy left lying on the soil who-knows-when ago. I've always marveled at the wooden spokes in the wheels. It is slowly falling apart, dissolving into the soil. The metal frame makes me think it is 20th century but, if so, I think it dates back to the earliest years of Pinehaven.

The rubber wheels are just about decayed.
I would love to know who left it here, what they last used it for, why they abandoned it at this place. I would love to know the date and what the day was like. Was it sunny and warm, similar to this day? Or was it a winter's day, the cart cast aside in the snow? And where does that person rest today? Did he consider me, some future sojourner, peering into the past, wondering?

When I am up this way, I always look for the old Pinehaven outhouse. Or, as I discussed in my blog on March 28, 2011, is that not what this is at all? It's been nearly 37 months since I stood in this same spot and took a similar photo. Have a look at it by clicking here. How has it changed?

 Returning home, I came across a clearing in the woods. It is oddly devoid of trees and sunlight pours down from above. Why do no trees grow here? There are no stumps. Nothing seems to have been cut. The soil is certainly not sterile ... weeds grow abundantly. I came upon the spot by seeing purple in the distance, calling me through the trees. What was this color blanketing the ground?

Violets! Thousands of mature violet plants. They are natural plants here so they were likely planted by themselves. The spot is protected among the tall trees, isolated from any foot traffic. It's a violet oasis mid-woods.

Of course I came here to look for mushrooms. I did not find the first one.
Instead I found the past.

Later (04/27/14) ... I've walked back to the woods this morning with my Canon in hand (yesterday I had but a cell phone to take pictures with). I wanted to get a more detailed shot of the violets. I had some trouble finding the spot again, even though I've been there many times. The woods is fairly deep and being early morning the shadows were long and dark. Eventually I saw the roof of the "outhouse" and knew where the violets were in relation to it.

 The sky was partly cloudy but the sun shone through the opening while I was there. Though the woods is overgrown, this spot is a small floral oasis in the midst of chaos.

 All of the violets in this spot are the traditional purple-blue ones. I've seen white ones elsewhere (including our yard). These must be genetically pure.

 And how often have I passed this heavy metal frame at the edge of the field? It was lying there when we bought Pinehaven and it lays in the same spot today. While it slowly rusts, I doubt it is much changed in the past three decades. Think of the winter winds and snows, the summer heat and storms. It lays there draped over a rock and I suppose it will lay there many more years before someone decides to move it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Morning Walk ... Solitude

 I always enjoy my morning walk. Generally I'll do a couple of laps in Sam's lane (about 1.2 miles) and then repeat that later in the day. Other than when the snow is deep or the rain is pouring down, I do that every day of the year.
 Today the weather was perfect ... 50° at 7:45 am, almost clear, calm ... and yet I did not walk.
 Why? DR is spraying his fields (probably with weed killer but perhaps with an insecticide) and I took one look at the white mist rising about his machinery and came right back inside. My sinuses and allergies sure don't need a dose of whatever that is.
 Instead I drove to the Farmersville-Jackson Twp. Park and walked a couple of laps. I've always figured the path is about 0.7 miles long. I timed a circuit: 10:30. It takes me about that long to do a lap in Sam's lane and I've measured that with the car to be 0.6 miles. In any case, the two are close to identical.

 You've seen similar shots to this in the past. This line of white pines on the west side of the pond always get my attention, like dark soldiers standing at attention. The air is calm this morning and the pond is mirror smooth.

 If I walk opposite that first shot and aim back to the east, this is what I see. The sun is shining weakly through muted clouds and jet contrails and foretells rain tonight.
 I was alone for my first lap. Only after I completed half of the second did others begin to arrive. The first was a man and woman with a dog; the second was a lone man who two dogs on leashes. One, who was most interested in me, was a pit bull. In both cases, the people politely kept the dogs away from my path so I didn't have to slow down.
 "Great morning for a walk,' I said. All agreed.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Carolina Wren Nesting

 It's rare when we see a Carolina Wren but last winter I noticed one a few times. She was interested in the other birds at our suet but I don't think I ever saw her move closer than the trunk of the maple tree.
 A Carolina is unmistakable with that vivid white line above and behind her eyes. She's also of a reddish-brown that is different from the other birds, particularly when viewed in direct sunlight.
 I'd see her every now and then and then I'd go long periods without noticing her.
 Now, though, I find she is nesting in a hollowed-our birdhouse gourd we have hung from a nail on the brick wall of the garage.

 Can you see her sitting on her clutch of eggs though the small opening? When she is not there (she flies away if I forget and pass too close to the nest) I see a clutch of off-white eggs, speckled with brown. There are perhaps five.
 She's chosen a bad spot. I pass the nest whenever I walk to the garden. Our sidewalk passes right beside the nest. It is, perhaps, five feet off the ground. Above her is the ample overhang of the garage, offering good protection from storms. Also the nest is on the east side of the garage.
 Here's a closer view of her sitting on her nest:

 She is buried down in the moss. It's a wonder she can get in and out of the nest with ease. I see debris spilling from the opening so perhaps she is not as good at it as I'd hope.
 It'll be fun watching the young hatch and fledge. I'm going to have to stay away as much as possible until that happens.

Later: The eggs are hatching on April 30. "Carol" is being assisted by the father, carrying food to the nest.

May 1: Carol and her mate - we'll call him Carl - have been making feeding trips to the nest. I only saw one baby bird when I looked in yesterday but I'd guess all five will be hatched within the day. When I got ready to have lunch, I stood at the back door with my camera in hand. It took perhaps five minutes before one of the birds came with a beak-full of something.

May 1

May 5: Though I don't see Mama making as many feeding trips as I'd have expected, when she is gone I'm able to walk up to the nest and see the babies squirming. They have grown from jelly bean size to real honest-to-goodness miniature birds. They are balls of gray fluff. Most prominent is their eyes (not open, at least not when I'm looking at them) and wide mouths. Here's a view from a couple of feet away ...

 ... and then in for a closer look ...

May 6:

May 9: I noticed the babies (I now see four) have their eyes open this morning. Now that they can see me, they seem much more afraid. So I won't be bothering them much with a camera. But I had my camera with me this morning, though, and used the opportunity for this shot. Look how much they've changed in a mere three days ...

 While I was working in the yard, digging dandelions, and not far from the nest, I saw an egg shell had been discarded there. There is no bird inside, only a little bit of yellow yolk, so I suppose this is the shell from one of the surviving babies. Mama probably dumped the shell there. This is indeed a Carolina Wren egg and I know of no other nearby nests.

May 13: This morning when I walked to the garden the baby birds were alert and active. By noon they were gone, fledged while we weren't looking! So, 23 days start to finish.

Later: June 28, 2014: Carol's back. I saw her flying from this same nest about a week ago. During the past week I've watched as one egg became five. So she's beginning to sit on a second brood. Here's a shot I took this morning ...

July 8, 2014: This morning I saw that the first of this clutch of eggs had hatched. This afternoon (2 pm) I noticed that all five appear to have hatched. Carol's sitting most of the time but leaves regularly for short breaks.

July 12, 2014: Carol has been busy feeding the brood, often already making rounds before I get up. This morning I walked to the garden with compost at about 7:15 am and she had already left the nest. Later, I saw where she stopped at our concrete bench to rest. That's when I took this shot.

July 13, 2014: While Mama was away I managed to get a shot of two of the babies (these hogs dominate the front of the nest, the perfect spot to grab the next meal from). I see that the one is just now beginning to open his eyes. What big mouths they have ...

July 14, 2014: This evening, as thunderstorms began to arrive from the northwest, the little Carolina Wren sat on the back of a wooden chair on our back porch and just sang her little heart out. Such a songstress. It is a simple trill, repeated endlessly. The next morning she repeated the performance from the same spot. Mom thinks she's calling for the babies to leave the nest. They are no more than ten feet away from her singing spot. The babies seem fully-formed and feathered and they are packed into the tiny gourd like sardines in a can. Mama doesn't have room any longer for herself. So what else is there to do but sing, hope they'll take the clue and join her in the wide wild world?

July 18, 2014: Carol has been trying for days to get the babies out of the nest. Every time I walk by, their sound asleep. Easy life! She'll perch on the chair or the concrete bench near the nest and just sing and sing. Today she's taken to the maple above the nest. She seems quite nervous. "Why won't they fledge?" she seems to be singing. Here's how she sounds:

July 21, 2014: The babies fledged this morning. When I walked to the garden compost pile at 7:30 am they were still in the nest. When we came home from a walk in the late morning, they were all gone. It's been three weeks from start to finish this time. So, 21 days this time; 23 the time before.
 Thus ends the Carolina Wren story for this year. It's certainly too late for a third brood, isn't it?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Frank's Rye Bread

 Mom and I enjoy an automatic bread maker though we've been known to use it to simply produce the dough and then bake the bread manually in our oven. I prefer a horizontal loaf (our bread maker produces a vertical loaf) and I enjoy working with the warm, raw dough. But sometimes (most times) we're lazy and just pour all the ingredients in the machine and come back four hours later.

When my weather buddy in Wisconsin talked of taking his homemade rye bread to work, Mom told me to ask him for the recipe. He also makes his bread in an automatic bread maker.

 Rye has been a bit of a sticking point with us. In the past, we've had problem loaves - those that seemed to inflate normally and the deflate at the last moment like a stuck balloon (I later found out that this is due to adding too much yeast). So we tried Frank's recipe.

Just sliced - steamy hot - ready for butter

 Frank said he once forgot to add the stirring blade when he made rye bread. "I had loaded everything but the blade was not there," he said. "Disaster!"
 "The recipe is from Toastmaster," Frank said, "and asks me to use the Basic program which takes three hours."
 Our basic loaf takes an hour longer.

Frank's Rye Bread (for Bread Machine)

1-1/2 cups bread flour
3/4 cup medium rye flour
3/4 cup water
4 teaspoons olive oil
4 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

 Even with this "known good" recipe, the rye bread seems much more dense, much less inflated than a white loaf. That's normal, though.

Frank makes a large loaf where our machine will hold only a one pound loaf. The recipe above is modified for a one pound loaf. "With my larger recipe I can simply use an entire 1/4 ounce package of yeast," Frank said. I needed to cut back.

Finished loaf, just out of the bread maker, and not yet sliced

 "Usually, my loaf of bread lasts for a week and makes good sandwiches for work. Rye bread does crumble more and I'm going to switch to white bread which rises higher, stretches better and will allow me to put more on the sandwich," Frank added.
 I'm going to add caraway seed next time. This recipe doesn't taste strongly rye so something is needed to ramp up the flavor. It is quite brown, however. I may also experiment with slightly more sugar and salt.
 But that will come another day.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


 It wasn't unexpected. And yet it was.
 When I crawled into bed last night (about 9 pm) is was raining heavily. In fact, the sound was so pretty on the shingles above my head that I turned my radio off and contented myself listening to the brief deluge.
 Later, after midnight, I awoke to silence. I got up and looked out the bathroom window since a total  eclipse of the moon was about to begin. While it wasn't raining - at least not hard enough to hear - it was heavily clouded and there wasn't any chance of seeing the moon hide in Earth's shadow. So back to bed went I.
 I woke about 7 am and climbed out of bed to an unusual light. As predicted, it snowed overnight. On grassy surfaces I measured a full two inches. On our concrete bench I found less than an inch. And on our concrete porch (still warm from yesterday's sun) I found nothing.

 This was my first view of the snow, out the north-facing window at the top of the steps.

 The maple outside the kitchen window has its branches lacy-white with the new snow. This is the tree that we tapped for maple syrup. That was March 9 last year (read about it here).

 Looking east from the same spot, the yard is patchy white. Some spots have a full two inches of snow. Other spots have already melted clear, probably due to last evening's warm rain. By the way, there was 0.72" of precipitation in the gauge (both rain and snow, of course).

 The remainder of last year's onions stand snow-covered in the garden. Bare soil, as you can see, did not hold the snow; in the distance, the straw-covered soil held it just fine.

 Beside the kitchen maple, we leaned a couple of mill stones many years ago. They betrayed the snow falling from the south.
 Yesterday our temperature reached 71°; the day before (Sunday) we reached 79° and some spots touched 80°. What a difference a mere day makes this time of year, when air masses collide.
 How long will it last? Well, some of the snow should make it through today. It's 32° at 8:45 am as I type this. We'll rise into the upper 30's. Tomorrow we'll return to more spring-like weather with a high into the low 50's. And then back into the 60's.
 By then, today's snow will be but a bad memory.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Pinehaven in Early Spring

 It's not a perfect day. It's sunny but it's also a little chilly (48° as I gave the yard a first mow of the season) and there's a breeze from the north that brings up goose bumps. It's one of those deceptive days ... too pretty to stay inside and too cool once you're outside to comfortably stay there.
 And yet after this brutal winter, what other choice is there?
 A cloudy morning gave way to sunshine, at least, and I feel the need to knock the rough edges off the lawn. I didn't manage to finish but I've done more than half of what I planned. My feet are wet from the soggy ground, my socks are sodden about the toes and when I unroll my jeans, great amounts of cut grass fall back to the ground. A shower was needed - and quickly - and it has made a quick difference in my mood.
 But back outside I go. Clean body, clean clothes and smartphone in hand to share the joy of this day.

 I have mowed this section of lawn behind the garage. It always seems to grow more quickly than the rest though I seldom give it fertilizer. The septic system is buried here. Is that the reason?

  Farther back and looking east, the sky is full of small cumulus clouds and contrails. The sky is as brilliant and pure a blue as is possible hereabouts. The air could not be clearer.

 From the back of our driveway looking north, the edge of the area I mow is shown. Another acre is north of that row of trees and we allow it to grow naturally, with as little pruning as possible. It's a wonderful nature habitat and I figure the less I change it, the better. It has been growing wild for over 27 years.

 And from that treeline looking ESE back towards the house, this shot demonstrates how much I have to mow. I'd be happy if it were all wild, except right around the house.
 Isn't the scenery particularly beautiful just before the trees leaf out? Our view is less blocked now and unlike winter we can stop and enjoy the view long enough for it to sink in.

 I told a friend in Las Vegas that I'd be mowing this afternoon and that she might catch me on our weather webcam if it happened to upload a frame at the right time. Oddly enough, it did. This view is westward from the garage.
 And speaking of mowing, tomorrow I finish.