Cottonwood and Mallards….

May and June are some the best months to enjoy sitting on the dock, work in the yard and view the wildlife.  The first two because of pleasant temperatures, freshness of blooms and new plantings, the second because it is baby boomin time in nature and there are all sorts of birds feeding their fledglings, circling the feeders, small bunnies only noticed by two ears sticking above grassy spires, migrating ducks: Shovelers, Teals, Wood Ducks, Ringnecks and my constant companions, the Mallards.

I never paid that much attention to Mallards as they had always been such a common feature at any city lake, rural pond or creek on any occasional outing I took.  But at Green Heron Pond they are year round residents- at least some are- others migrate through, stopping for a few days of respite.   And I feed any that are here: “scratch” two times a day, everyday.  This gives me an up close view and familiarity with the Mallards; their personalities, moods and physical changes.

Now as I said usually May and June are great months being out by the pond but this year with the too frequent rains, it seems nature has sped up a bit and the early onset of skeeters,  infamous cottonwood fuzz (usually not seen til mid July) and Mallard molting season have distorted my idyllic scene…  All my potted plants on the deck and dock look like scenes from the old William Shatner movie Kingdom of the Spiders, as all are covered and coated with fine, fuzzy tufts of cottonwood fuzz and seeds….  Then there are the molting Mallards looking like pale cotton candy balls with orange legs,  preening themselves along the pond’s shoreline- Kansas winds taking to flight the fragile feathers – distributing them everywhere in the yard….  and they get stuck in the cottonwood fuzz on shrubs, flowers, chairs, deck. On. Everything.

April clutch heaped up sleeping in the yard
April clutch heaped up sleeping in the yard

When molting season arrives the ducks not only look ragged, they seem tired, listless but I guess that could be due to the previous plumage season…breeding season- when the drakes sported their brilliant emerald head feathers, chocolate brown chests and the curling fancy tail feathers- Drake Dandies on the lawn chasing every available  female….  But as they have been molting there have been two clutches of ducklings appear on the pond, one brood born April 27th and a new freshly hatched clutch- on the water just  today.  Bobbing around, tiny dark fluffs of feathers, they are already eating cottonwood fuzz stuck on the pond shoreline.

My curiosity and joy for the summer season is refreshed by these newcomers to the pond.  I will eagerly wait- to see them grow, eat “scratch” with Mom close by and see them flap their wings as they gain strength to fly.  Welcome little Ducklings! And July and August, I am looking forward to you!

front 6 ducks are from the April clutch
front 6 ducks are from the April clutch

Summer Supper at the Pond

The calendar has indicated the start of summer- just this last Sunday, June 21st.  I always look forward to that longest day of the year and the surrounding days, anticipating spending as much time as I can outside in the abundant volume of daylight.    This year Kansas has provided us with some heat to celebrate these summer days, which I like…I just don’t like the wind that so frequently accompanies it. Summer days in Kansas with just a hint of a breeze, not blast furnace wind, are some of the most pleasant days I know; perfect weather for gardening!

My herb garden here by the pond is small but packed with all kinds of flavors I love for kitchen use.  I have some of the perennials: sage, rosemary, French tarragon, Greek Oregano, Italian parsley, fennel, chives, lavender and a couple of different thymes.  In early spring I head to the garden to check and see if the tarragon and fennel are peeking out as they seem to be the first to brave the colder temps of an early spring.  Over a warmer winter the garden thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary stand ready for use throughout the cold months.  This doesn’t always happen though, so I am always glad to greet them back in the spring.

The parsley sends out several volunteers when the weather warms as does the fennel.   Though I buy my annual basil and cilantro plants each spring, I know they will be joined by other basil and cilantro seedlings that were secretly distributed last fall throughout the garden.  For Dan I plant one red cherry tomato and one tiny yellow pear tomato. For myself I purchase a rose geranium (though not the citronella type) as I use the rose geranium leaves for flavoring teas, home made ice cream and bakery items.  With all these wonderful herbs and veggies my tiny farm plot is complete and bursting with opportunities for seasoning meals.

I love the creativity of cooking with herbs, but I do not like complex, time extensive recipes…especially in summer heat.  So I spend my energy, (most likely seated with a glass of herbal tea) thinking of simple meals that showcase fresh herbs and  are easy to put together.  For this blog I will share one of my favorite quick, quintessentially summer suppers.20150624_184200 (2)

TBLT and Cool Cucumber Avocado Soup

For the TBLT you need: 6 slices turkey bacon microwaved, cherry or pear tomatoes sliced horizontally thin, leaf lettuce, mayo and 4 pieces of toasted bread… you know the rest…enough for 2 for a light supper

Cool Cucumber Avocado Soup (I can not take credit for this recipe but have tweaked one I found via internet or in a magazine years ago…)

  • 1 large seedless (English cucumber) peel and remove seeds (I usually leave in seeds..pick your texture preference…)
  • 1 large ripe but firm avocado
  • 2 scallions greens n all chopped a bit
  • 1-2 Tbs lime juice
  • 1 cup cold sparkling water
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp sea salt and pepper to your liking
  • 1-2  Tbs cilantro and 1 tsp mint (did I mention I grow mint…just not in the garden…it has its own “special” place away from all other plants) Personally I just throw in a small handful of carefully picked leaves of both cilantro and  mint.
  • Food process all ingredients to texture preference and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving
  • Top with a spoonful of sour cream or Greek yogurt and garnish with some  cilantro or mint leaves. Just for a dash of color I usually add a sprinkling of pink sea salt over the toppings.  Serves 2-4

Reptilians at Green Heron Pond

While my back door begonias have flourished with the recent rainfalls, the dampness and high water has literally brought riparians to my front door…  On one of the few sunny afternoons a few of weeks ago I made my way to the mailbox (barefooted) only to take a step off the porch and reverse that motion noting a snake.  Well, part of a moving snake at the bottom of the steps…  it was dark reddish brown with a small lined pattern going up it’s sides and at least an inch in circumference.  Needless to say I did not wait to see either head nor tail, the midsection had been enough.  I immediately thought of my cats in their “catio” ( a small open air kitty enclosure) and headed downstairs to usher them quickly inside and shut the cat door, as the snake’s path was in that direction.

Now I have seen snakes here once in awhile during summer’s intense heat, but most of the time they are maybe about 14- 16 inches long, no bigger around than my little finger and they are temporarily up close to the house seeking water, not avoiding it. Not until evening, wearing shoes, did I ventured back out to the mailbox.

I already deal with reptiles on a regular basis as some little dark metallic skinned skinks (who’s home is under the edge of the driveway) lurk about the garage and flowerbeds. These are Great Plains Skinks,  about 7-8 inches long, crazy fast and unpredictable in movement.  (Last summer one came rushing at me in a zigzag fashion before turning abruptly and diving under the deck.)

This spring two of them were constantly hanging around in the garage- scrambling about, darting in or out.  You could hear them behind lawn tools whenever you opened or closed the garage door. They would actually come out from behind some tool, gaze at me motionless for a few seconds and then disappear again.  I decided they were playing a game with me-  a bit unsettling at times.  But I soon got used to them and had mostly forgotten the snake incident.

The next weekend one of the kids was coming home for a visit.    That Saturday afternoon was sunny, pleasantly warm and a perfect day to do a little fishing.  The two Dans chatting, fishing hollered for me to join them.  I made my way down to the dock, got settled and was just enjoying the moment.  Now the dock lies between some old gnarled willows and a big cottonwood tree.  About twenty feet up in the cottonwood we usually have a Robin couple nesting and if we are lucky- a Baltimore Oriole nest.  This year we have both and so sitting on the dock is a double pleasure due to the pond views and the birds above.

My reverie of these pleasant thoughts was broken by frantic Robins shrieking above us.  Just as I looked up Dan said “Snake” and there- my friend from the earlier front steps snake sighting- was precariously hanging to cottonwood leaves while the Robin couple flew at him hitting him with their beaks and feet.  I believe they would have fought to their death, so fierce and determined were they in their attack.  I exited the dock, the snake fell missing the dock but hitting the ground hard with a thunk.  Stunned and dazed  he lay there for just a moment; baby Robin feathers coming out of his mouth and then he slithered into the pond, swallowing his meal and disappeared under the dock.  The Robins searched for their baby for a few minutes going to the waters edge and checking where the snake had entered the pond to no avail.  They then returned to feeding the surviving baby Robins.

Our reptilian visitor was probably a Plain-bellied Water Snake.  Phone photos snapped while he entered the water match pictures/descriptions we looked up.  His trip up the tree was typical behavior even if it seemed unusual to us that Saturday afternoon.

I would like to say the snake sighting on the dock was the last of the reptile “too close encounters”. But my kitties made sure I had one more event before the water receded and the land dried out after the rains.  Yes, someone did finally wiggle into the “catio” one afternoon…  fortunately NOT the snake!  One of the skinks, possibly sunning himself on the “catio” deck managed to be dragged inside the cat door and played with downstairs…  This Great Plains Skink, rescued by Dan, is only about 4 inches long right now as he will be growing a new tail.  No, I have not found his tail in the house…plain bellied water snake

John’s Blueberry Almond Muffins

blueberry muffins Last week when my neighbor John left to go live at a care center, I promised myself that I would continue to bake him muffins.  When he lived around the pond from us, you could always count on his offer to help with any project or need, but he would never ask for help himself, so baking muffins became my thanks and just a little something I could do.  He loved whatever muffins I might concoct and believe me with an herb garden, alternative flours and “personal tweaks” to any recipe, I have made some interesting baked items.  So, I thought I would share my Blueberry Almond recipe today.

This recipe is sort of based on one from an old Betty Crocker Cookbook my mom sent with me to my first apartment over 40 years ago.  In fact this morning while baking the muffins I realized I still use the baking  rack and measuring spoons she sent sent with me along with the cookbook to that apartment.  They are cherished items and always make whatever I’m baking take on special meaning.  That cookbook is still a constant kitchen companion that I refer to often!

Muffins are a simple pleasure, but they are my go to for something “cake-ish” as I seldom eat sweet cakes or cookies.  These are a healthy alternative and I know they will be special for my neighbor John.

John’s Blueberry Almond Muffins

  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup vanilla almond milk
  • 1/4 cup light  tasting olive oil
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 3/4 cup Organic Einkorn all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp flax meal
  • 1/3 cup sugar (I use a combo of demarara and regular sugar)
  • 2 tsp aluminum free baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
  • 1/3 cup slivered almonds

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare muffin tin using muffin papers. Beat egg and stir in almond milk and olive oil. In another bowl put in your dry ingredients.  Mix wet and dry ingredients and then gently fold in the lemon zest, fresh blueberries and slivered almonds.  Mix only enough for the batter to be moistened but still a bit lumpy. Fill muffin papers 2/3 full and bake 18-22 minutes. Muffins should be golden and muffin bottoms should not look very dark- I always check this to be sure I don’t leave them in the oven too little or too long. Remove muffins immediately from muffin tin and cool on rack.

You can use conventional ingredients ie flour, milk and sugar- just be sure to note how much you need.  But I never use canola oil choosing to use a light olive oil instead and it works great!!  Enjoy!

The Greenbacks Are Here

I don’t really know if there is an official name for the “lake”  we live on.  But I arbitrarily named it myself a few years ago.  Dan had a very fine ironworks sign stating “Green Heron Pond” with tiny heron figures made for my birthday last year-  which we promptly attached to the dock- and as far as I am concerned that settles it, this is Green Heron Pond. heron sign

This year is my 6th summer on the pond.  That very first spring I spent here, I remember a cold rainy April day looking out and seeing a small heron-ish, bittern looking bird gazing over the pond from one of the big cottonwood branches.  It was as if he was evaluating this pond as a possible living space; scoping out best nesting sites, lookouts and fishing areas.  He apparently liked it and started building a nest, in fact the starts and stops of quite a few nests that first year.  I asked Dan if he had ever seen them here before as he is a quiet observer of all the goings on out our back door but he said he had never noticed these shore birds on this pond- ever.

I was elated and spent time going through my heron guide trying to figure out which heron or bittern he was, as his coloring seemed to change with the variances of sunlight and his size with his movements.  With binoculars and patience I finally got a good enough view to determine he was a Green Back Heron and his vocally loud “skows” confirmed any doubts I had.  I loved watching him fly over the lake calling repeatedly for a possible mate.  Soon two or three more showed up and it  seemed that they spent less time here and had probably flown to a bigger pond.  But once in awhile I would see or hear one, so I was comforted that they were still near.

By early June that year Dan and I were doing a little row boating on the pond, as always binocs in hand, when we spotted movement in an old willow on the far end of the pond.  Rowing closer we could spot a well hidden nest on the curve of a willow branch and some eggs…after the fast exit of an adult Green Back.  These secretive and solitary nesters had fooled me and countless predators finding their perfect home on that branch.

From then on we rowed frequently by (at a safe distance) and viewed freshly hatched brownish-gray chicks seemingly all bill and a little bit of feathery fluff needing constant food.  Soon we’d row by while their parents were out foraging and fishing and we’d watch the chicks become quiet and motionless as they felt our presence nearby.

Late that June the pterodactyl-resembling chicks were out of the nest, hopping around on the willow boughs grasping, climbing them and expanding their territory.  In July they were flying short distances- first from the far end willows to the next clump of trees on the East, then increasing their range by going from the South end to the North end and finally crisscrossing the lake at different points before heading back to the nesting perch. Late August found the Green Backs fledglings and  parents  flying to the other ponds around the neighborhood- preparing for their long journey South for the winter.

I once watched a juvenile Green Back comically practice raising his crest repeatedly as he sat on a branch with his siblings hopping and fluttering nearby.   I have seen a nest with the skeleton’s of a mother Green Back, wings out and a baby under her bony remains, victims of a fierce hail storm.  The adult’s protecting wings no match for the frozen orbs of ice.  I have watched as one heron bent over on my dock and peered at the new signage declaring “Green Heron Pond”.  And Dan and I have listened to “skow, skeer, ruh ruh and skuk” countless times now.

This last fall after the Green Backs left for warmer parts someone in the next neighborhood decided to trim back an area by the pond so they might have a better water view and get rid of some of the dead willow limbs and stumps.  Horrified I looked at the aftermath, stacks of limbs and the willows cut back past the shore.  It made me sad and I hoped the Green Backs would look for another home on one of the other cottonwoods or willows here…I thought that in nature trees die, fall, the terrain changes but the birds sometimes return, so I was somewhat hopeful and looked forward to this spring.

End of April- the herons arrived gazing over pond, would there be a worthy home site?  They flew past the old willow nesting site and searched other areas of the pond. Today,  I looked out my kitchen window through view finder trained on a low hanging cottonwood limb poised over the North end of the pond.  Three brownish gray chicks- all bills and a little feathery fluff, with those long bills open wide were waiting for food and two parents were delivering a fresh catch as quickly as possible. The Green Backs Are Here!!

Works of Art or In Praise of the Ordinary

I once read in a birding guide that indicated Gadwall Ducks were a “nondescript” waterfowl- sort of looking like a Mallard hen- dull, brown, plain- thus ordinary.  Granted Gadwalls somewhat resemble Mallard hens but their feathers are an intricate mix of brown outlined in black, understated, chic (nothing nondescript in my eyes).  The same can be said for any number of LBBs (little brown birds) or the female of many of the more colorful songbird species.  It is a given that specific color or lack thereof is the best camouflage for nest sitters or it may provide some small bird safety while foraging or resting on a branch….but these birds, on further inspection are finely detailed, tailored for their role in Nature… a perfect and beautiful fit.

Once in a conversation about birds at Green Heron Pond, one of my neighbors remarked about the large gray ugly bird that fished on the pond.  I was taken aback….my favorite Great Blue Heron, smartly decked out in stylish gray blue, blending into the watery background- sleek lined and much more efficient than any fisherman to ever cast in this pond.  How could one see the power in that rapier sharp bill, the long, lean neck wrapped in its fancy feathery boa, the agility and grace in flight and not think it beautiful…20160112_150358

Or what about our new winter visitor, the diminutive Ruby Crowned Kinglet, showing up daily to the suet feeder.  Just a little over 4″ in length, olive colored with that distinctive ruby red cap; understated with a pop of color.  There are the Chickadees in their dressy black hats and bib, Mr and Mrs Downy in their smart black and white (only identified as such by the back of the head red dot or lack thereof) or the rusty brown Carolina Wren (scolding my cats through the glass or me when I venture out) with its bright white eye line…I only wish I could apply eye make up as expertly.

I am constantly in awe of the world outside my window, there is no ordinary or nondescript element or creature. The  less showy and flashy, the greater care to observe and detect the nuance, the beauty.   Ordinary days on Green Heron Pond – never dull, never nondescript but filled with works of art in Nature.

 

 

My Neighbor John

I really have not fully introduced my readers to the cast of characters that live on, in and around Green Heron Pond.  There are the feathered, the furred, the reptilian, insect-ish and then there are those of us who just live by the pond, as hopefully, stewards of this special place- as we never really “own” anything here.

My neighbor John is one of those stewards who has lived here on the pond for well over 20 years.  He was here long before me and I can only imagine the changes, wonders  and happenings he has witnessed in all those years.  He and his wonderful wife are the very best neighbors I have ever had.  They are incredibly generous with others, always offering help, a kind word, needed advice and slow to ever ask for help themselves.  They are an older couple who have turned into sort of surrogate parents to me- though I doubt they know that- other than my frequent face and voice calling to them over the pond and wandering up on their deck to tell them my latest story or adventure here on the pond.  They have listened always with genuine interest and with additional information and stories of their own.

John is almost always outside, weathered, slim and in his characteristic garb of jeans and tee shirt…only changes are gloves, jacket and stocking cap in winter and maybe a no-sleeved tee in the hottest summer.  I am sure the thought of sun screen and sun glasses is shrugged off by him as he does yard work, picks up litter off the pond and checks on all the various little critters that reside close to his yard.  I have watched he and Dan head out to the ice covered pond on a January day treading on frozen water to do some repairs several times  He even takes care of an old feral cat- we call her “Spook”, who though no one has ever gotten close to- John has and he feeds her daily and has done so for years.

This spring one of my favorite memories of John will always be his “jumping jig with geese”… John had gone on his daily pond litter patrol when he came up a bit short of his designated trail back to the house.  His new path this day took him directly by the mamma goose’s nest…with eggs….  as John headed up he was met by the gander and Momma, both quite vocal and animated.  Soon John was too.  He danced around trying to get away from mandibles clapping and wings flapping… fortunately he escaped with only the lens from his glasses missing.

I saw him a bit later with a stick in hand (only for protection) as he warded of both geese again while finding the clear round lens.  He escaped unscathed as did the geese.  No worse for wear the geese settled back down to their sentinel and brooding duties.  John panted up to the house for a glass of water and quieter surroundings…lens in pocket.  Talking with him later I got the idea that he had been a bit surprised to find himself willing to enter their territory a second time… his good humor about it all made the geese event very memorable.

Yesterday John’s constant presence around Green Heron Pond ended.  He looked out over his beloved pond and home for the last time before heading to a memory unit.  It broke Dan’s and my heart- not to speak of the heartbreak for him, his precious wife and his family.  I thought of all the changes John had witnessed here and wondered if he ever envisioned a time he would not daily see it.

Change…change comes for all of us…sometimes for our joy and sometimes as a reminder that we are only stewards here.  I will visit John and tell him what has been happening on Green Heron Pond, but only if he wants to know and remember.  Dan and I will help look after Spook, clear the shoreline and attempt to be stewards as John has been here.  Today there has been change on the pond but Spook has been around, there was a Black Crested Night Heron in the willows this morning…I will tuck these happenings in my heart as there are changes on the pond.

Past the Shoreline

A few years ago I talked my husband Dan into having a small dock built. After speaking with a contractor and weighing the cost Dan drew up his own plans and said with cooler weather and lower water levels, he would begin the work himself. Cooler weather did come and on a sunny 29 degree day in February Dan and two of his long time friends dressed in waders and layers of winter wear set out- in icy water- with a “post pounder” defining the boundaries for the framing.   By noon 10 posts- really poles, were in the soil that was usually well under water in warmer temps and the framing actually began.  A walkway and small dock began to take shape and by afternoon decking appeared hiding water and providing a platform to view a whole new world.

By April of that year it was warm enough to paint the framing- which was my only contribution to the project (other than my “opinions”).  Upon finding a couple of chairs for the dock Dan and I began to spend dock time watching spring happen.  We had entered a new environment that on land one might not even realize was happening. Birds I’d never see- just hear, Warbling Vireos, other vireos, a small gnat catcher and tiny Yellow Warblers, appeared flitting about in the high branches of just budding cottonwoods and willows, we were now in their world.  Below a watery world of fish swimming by us, under and around; schools of minnows turning the water black, sun fish- small perch flashing metallic, some decent sized bass coming to the surface for a bite and the little water turtles waiting for softening bits of food to nibble and then disappearing under the surface again.  Most impressive were the large grass carp, diamond patterned, with their shark fins cutting through the water, splashing,tossing their tails about, big mouths opening wide swallowing  bit after bit of dog food thrown from the dock.

I was amazed at this different perspective of our yard, the pond and surroundings.   Dan and I were alert to this new aspect now,  this little dock, not a stage set over the water but a ring side seat to a private world set past the trees and shrubs of the shoreline.

On a warm, lazy summer Saturday evening we watched this realm, fanned by breezes and the shade of the big cottonwoods.  We had been tossing out dog food when I spotted a wasp land lightly on the surface of the pond.  Some of the sun fish spotted him too and made their way sucking at his tiny legs perched there.  The wasp began struggling knowing he was sinking and being attacked.  One by one his legs disappeared into the pursed mouths of the fish when all of a sudden one of the large grass carp appeared and with one fluid motion gulped the wasp down as if to show the sun fish “this is how you do it”.

dan dockWe have some friends, neighbors, who come to fish once in awhile (catch/release) and our own kids when visiting like to get a pole out and cast for a few minutes, hoping to land that picture of a bass on the line. Me, I just like to look and listen….it can change your whole perspective.