A Busy Three Months

It has been almost three months since my last blog post—a bit of a break after the process of writing my seven-part series leading up to my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and the recurrence of my cancer after surgery. Many readers of my words and Carole’s posts have sent positive thoughts and comments our way. We appreciate them all. Some of you have gotten further periodic updates through in-person contacts or correspondence. For those who have not known the status since then, I wanted to bring you up to the present.

When I posted on September 10, the expectation was that I would begin radiation treatments as soon as possible. Additional scans and time needed by the radiation oncologist and the medical physicist to calculate and plan the dosage and targeting for my treatment meant radiation did not start until September 30. The schedule called for treatment sessions at the local cancer center five days a week for eight weeks. It was going to be quite a change from the relatively unscheduled life we’ve lived since we both retired.

To jump forward eight weeks, I completed the course of my radiation treatments on November 22, a few days before Thanksgiving Day—good timing because we were certainly thankful to reach that milestone. Throughout this period I have had no noticeable physical symptoms from my cancer and have experienced no additional problems or negative side effects either from the cancer or the treatment. Apparently when someone has radiation treatment for recurrent prostate cancer such as mine, there is no clear-cut evidence that the radiation has destroyed all the cancer cells. However, my hormone therapy, which is supposed to stop the growth of prostate cancer cells, has continued while I have been receiving the radiation therapy. My PSA level, which indicates prostate cancer cell activity, quickly dropped to undetectable after the hormone injections began—the anticipated and desirable result. So, even though the uncertainties of living with cancer are still part of our lives, our actions to deal with these uncertainties continue.

The entire cancer center experience has been wonderful to put it into a single word. Beginning with my first appointment back in August, the entire staff made each day pleasant and enjoyable. The receptionist who initially greeted me, the oncology nurse, the social worker, the radiation technicians, the radiation oncologist, and even other staff with whom I had only brief contacts were all exactly the type of people I would have wanted to be with me during this time. Most of my contact time was with the radiation technicians each day; they talked casually and joked around with me, were understanding when my body was sometimes not cooperative with their scheduling needs, and made me feel totally comfortable every step along the way. The oncology nurse was always eager to be sure I was not having any problems or difficulties with my treatments and to offer any assistance needed. The radiation oncologist, who had a background in social work before becoming a physician, spent lots of time talking with me before treatments began and throughout their duration. He was never rushed to get on to his other responsibilities, but made himself available for answering any and all questions, telling me what to expect at each stage, sharing information about latest medical studies and various treatment options, getting my thoughts and inputs about any concerns or developments as treatment progressed, and always asking how I wanted to proceed. When people have to deal with difficult medical situations, their support teams should always be as great as mine has been.

The actual time I was on the table for the radiation treatment each day was only about five or six minutes. Whether that brief period at the cancer center came in the early morning or later in the middle of the day, it resulted in a necessary but significant interruption of other activities. Everything had to be planned around the timing of my treatment each day. To have my body in the most cooperative condition for the radiation to be targeted effectively, I even had to figure out the best timing for eating and drinking—a meal or decent snack about eight hours before my appointment and twenty or more ounces of water about an hour before—though neither of these plans could be counted on to be exactly right. Travel time also had to be considered. Even in Boone, traffic can be an unpredictable problem—we have fewer alternative routes to get to a given location. We usually planned to allow forty-five minutes to get to my appointments, but changing school hours, lunchtime congestion, and snowy roads sometimes caused challenges. Our time at the cancer center ranged from thirty minutes to an hour, sometimes longer when there were delays or when we had a meeting with the oncologist to discuss progress and to plan details of treatment. While we were in town we fitted meals, other appointments, errands, and activities into the remaining time each day before heading home again.

Going back and forth to town each day this fall has given us many more opportunities than usual to see the colors as they spread across the mountainsides, not the most spectacular leaf season, but certainly it has been beautiful with leaves in shades of yellow and gold and bronze and occasional touches of red. We’ve also been treated to seeing a number of deer, including young ones, as well as wild turkeys, chipmunks, and woolly worms (also known as woolly bear caterpillars). At home the robins feasted for weeks on the abundant crop of mountain ash berries while numerous other birds (some of which were new varieties to us) have been very, very active close around the house. And we’ve been delighted as a couple of young mother raccoons at various times have brought their very tiny babies onto our deck, continuing a tradition that has extended over many generations. We can lie on the floor beside our glass doors watching them eating, just a couple of feet away from us. One day we stayed there for an hour or more. We do love being here.

As some readers may have seen on Facebook posts, Carole and I have also spent a great deal of any free time we’ve had during the past several months completing a book about her mother’s life which Carole has been researching and writing for the past two or three years. The writing had been finished a while back, but the final editing and formatting to prepare it for publication still had to be done—a demanding process to put it mildly. We still needed to go through it all again and again, page by page and often line by line, to adjust things to get the appearance of each page to be what we wanted.

Since I was chiefly responsible for formatting the text I had to remember how to get the writing program to handle things like pagination and photo placement without messing up other aspects of the design. And I had to figure out the pictures and text for the cover design and get that all to mesh with the requirements for printing. I had done those tasks for Carole’s 2016 book about her dad’s life, but I seem to quickly forget details about how to do such things when they are not my regular activities. It would be so helpful if the people who develop various computer programs would also write clear and easily understandable directions regarding how to accomplish various tasks using their programs. It has been a real challenge. Many times I would attempt to follow the few directions I could find, only to have the steps I took undo some of the editing I had previously done—very, very frustrating.

Many days we would each sit at our computers for twelve hours or more, comparing text and making adjustments until we got it right. But we did finally get it finished, submitted, approved, and printed. We didn’t quite have it completed for Carole’s mother’s ninety-sixth birthday in October, but we were very excited to take her a finished copy in mid-November. Anyone interested in seeing the results of our work can find the books on Amazon.

With my cancer treatments and the book editing behind us for the present, we were able to schedule some other activities which we have had to postpone for several months. So yesterday I was finally able to have the cataract surgery on my left eye which had been anticipated since August. The surgery was done in Hickory, about a ninety-minute drive from our homeplace. The travel was not a big deal except that the mountains were blanketed with dense fog when we awoke. Of course, we’ve had lots of experience driving in fog. It’s common here in the mountains for visibility to be limited to a hundred feet or less as the clouds cover the higher elevations and sometimes the valleys as well. But it always causes anxiety, especially when trying to get to a scheduled appointment. The trip was uneventful and we got below the fog about halfway to our destination. The surgery was also uneventful. I was amazed at the change in my vision when I awoke this morning. I could see more clearly with my left eye than during the previous several years. Everything in my world was suddenly brighter and more colorful. For the next four weeks I’ll be putting two or three types of drops in my eye each day. Then I’ll be going through the same process again starting on New Year’s Eve when I have surgery on the other eye. But, with all the beauty that surrounds me here at our homeplace, I definitely look forward to having an even better view of this world.

I’ll share a few photos which I’ve taken during these recent months. I hope you enjoy seeing these sights as much as I have.

A brilliantly colored tree near the cancer center this fall.

Our mountain ash trees were loaded with berries this year.

One of the robins who helped clear all the mountain ash berries.

A young hawk just outside our window one morning.

Momma raccoon and three babies having an early supper.

One of the raccoon babies who hasn’t discovered the marshmallow treat yet.

We feed more than just our raccoon visitors.

Hoar frost occurs when fog freezes onto everything.

Mountain ash branches with hoar frost instead of berries.

Our sixty-foot-tall Norway spruce trees covered in hoar frost.

Beautiful combination of hoar frost and snow.

Carole’s mom having her first look at Carole’s book about her own life.

 

An Exciting Day

We had an exciting day yesterday here in the mountains. A week or so ago I wrote about all the bird nesting activity we’ve been having around our home. While the phoebes and juncos had finished with their nests, the wrens nesting on our deck were still very active. The adults had been busy with their non-stop food delivery to the young ones we could hear cheeping in the nest. A little head or two had begun peeking over the top of the board in the roof structure which hid the nest from our view. Then during this past week one or two of the young wrens sometimes climbed up from the nest to sit briefly on the board, surveying their surroundings before diving back into the nest when their parents approached with food.

Yesterday Carole and I had to go out of town for an appointment with our departure planned for 11:00 am. We ate breakfast in our usual spot where we could enjoy watching the coming and going of the wrens. Two young wrens we had seen before seemed even more active than on most days, coming up from the nest after every visit by the parents. Sometimes one would even stay sitting on the board when the adult returned with food and fed the eager young one. Once or twice the boldest young wren hopped along the board until it was about a foot away from the nest, sat for a few seconds, and then hurried back into the nest again. On some of its ventures out this wren would grip the edge of the board with its feet and lean over to look down to the floor eight feet below, occasionally flapping its wings for a few seconds but still holding tightly to the solid wood under its feet.

We wondered whether all this activity meant the young were getting closer to the time when they had grown enough to be ready to leave the nest. Surely it must be getting crowded in their tiny home since they now appeared to be about the same size as the adults, if not slightly larger. As we continued to watch, the two little heads we had seen peeking from the nest area became three little heads for the first time. After a few more minutes all three babies decided to climb up and perch on the board. Three little wrens, all sitting side by side and looking at their larger world. What adventurers they were.

By that time we needed to be getting ready to leave, so we reluctantly took turns away from our viewing location, calling activity reports to each other. I was still upstairs when Carole excitedly yelled, “Ron, there are four of them out of the nest. Now there are five! Now there are six!!” Needless to say, I hurried downstairs in amazement and delight to see this wonder. Before I could get there the first bold little wren had flown away from their perch and a second had flown a couple of feet to a nearby beam. I did see that second wren fly down to the lower deck rail and then later fly off into a nearby tree. And I did get to see the four remaining wrens sitting together and then one by one fly away from the nest site in different directions. We could hear the adults chattering their messages to their babies and we were excitedly doing the same as we urged, “Come on. You can do it. You can fly down and get your own food now. It’s not so far. Yes! That’s the way. You did it.”

The last of the six was the smallest and the most hesitant. Its big leap was more a flutter than a flight as its tiny wings slowed its descent to the floor of the deck. But then after a brief rest it actually flew fifteen feet and disappeared into the leaves of the trumpet vine at the corner of the deck, its short little tail clearly visible as it moved away from us. Now they are all off with their parents or on their own. We haven’t seen them since yesterday, but hopefully we will see them around from time to time. Maybe they will even grace our home with a nest of their own next year.

Carole had seen all six of the baby wrens make their first flights and I had seen five of them. We both had beamed with excitement and joy, ecstatic at our good fortune. An hour later and we would have been driving down the mountain and would have missed this big moment. The rest of the day was good as well. A few minutes after leaving home we passed a few feet from a mother turkey and at least three young turkeys a foot or so tall. As we came home in late afternoon, an older fawn, still spotted but much larger than a newborn, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods. And once we were home, the two mama raccoons came to our yard and our deck to get some needed nourishment; both are no longer as skinny as when they first started visiting. It was a very good day, an exciting day, made especially great by the flight of the baby wrens.

There wasn’t much time for pictures, but here are a few.

And then there were three.

And then there were two.

Come on. You can do it too.

And then there was one. But not for long.

Bursting with New Life: An Update from the Mountain

Last month I wrote about the nesting activity of the phoebes and the wrens around our house. Since then there has been a virtual explosion of bird nurseries, so I thought it appropriate to provide an update on some of the bird and animal happenings during the interim.

After the phoebes’ first brood had flown the nest, the adults did take a brief break. Both the adults and the young phoebes stayed around our area, but they didn’t come back to the nest at all. The adults finally did start working on the nest some more, so we thought they were probably preparing for a second brood. They seemed to be doing some cleaning and repair work and even built up one side of the nest a bit higher. Occasionally one of the birds would sit in the nest for a while. However, after a few days they stopped hanging around the nest. We still see them nearby, but they have apparently decided that raising one family was enough for this year.

Meanwhile on the other side of the house the wrens have been busy for weeks, working and singing. At first we couldn’t tell for sure what they were doing since it appeared that they might have been working on nests in the hidden spaces at both ends of the deck roof. Plus they were making frequent trips into a nearby brush pile; could they possibly have been building a third nest?

We finally decided the wrens must have settled on one of the nest sites, because we observed them going in and out of that one quite a bit. After a couple of weeks we saw them carrying food into the nest area, a sure sign that eggs had hatched.Then a week or so ago we saw a couple of young wrens coming out of the nest area, being fed by the adults, and then hanging around begging to be fed more. The strange thing is that we have continued to see the adults carrying food into the nest site; obviously there are still baby wrens in the nest. Had there been two broods in quick succession? We don’t know. We can hear little cheeps now coming from the nest when the adults bring food, so I guess before long some more young ones will be emerging. We should have a sizable colony of wrens for the rest of the summer. That’s just fine, since you can’t ever have too many wrens with that lovely song of theirs.

On the side of the house opposite from all of the wren activity we had placed a hanging basket of fuchsias about five feet from the phoebe nest. After being away from home for several days the plants were quite dry. When Carole took the basket down for watering, she discovered a neat little nest had been inserted into the center of the fuchsias. In the center of the nest was a single egg. Apparently, while we had been away, a pair of birds had decided that was the perfect spot for their new home. We hadn’t seen any activity around the nest site, but I was really surprised when I got up on a step stool a day or two later to water the flowers and was greeted by an equally startled mother junco. In the nest by then were two small eggs, followed on subsequent days by a third and a fourth egg.

The next several weeks were exciting for both people and birds. We couldn’t avoid disturbing the juncos at least occasionally since the nest was located just about three feet from the door we had to use anytime we were going to town, but we used the door onto the deck whenever possible. The male junco sat in the witch hazel plant a few feet from the nest to raise an alarm anytime we came near the door or were outside in sight of the nest. If we came too close, both juncos scolded us with their constant chit, chit, chit sounds. When we looked out the screen door to check on the birds, one of the juncos would fly frantically from the nest to the door to the porch railing to the tree and back to the nest. One day as I was making more noise than usual at the sink while washing dishes (the kitchen window is only about ten feet from the nest’s location), the male junco came and sat on the window sill and fussed at me. And then suddenly one day they were gone. The nest was empty. The whole family had slipped away quietly without even letting us know.

The phoebes, the wrens, and the juncos are the birds we have been able to observe most closely during these past few weeks, but we know they are just a small part of all that’s happening. We also have seen catbirds carrying food into an area near the garden where we feel sure they have nested before and into spots closer to the house. Cedar waxwings are not common around our house except when migrating, but I did see a pair gathering nesting materials from a tree by our deck. A turkey and several very small chicks (poults) strolled down our drive and into the meadow a few days ago. A female cardinal perched in the front yard recently holding a very long stem of grass before flying off into the woods, presumably for some nest-building activities of her own. Every drive into town reveals many groups of recently-hatched birds of every variety, testing their wings and exploring their new world. If all the nesting we’ve seen is indicative of what’s going on with the rest of our mountainside bird population, we should have plenty of new residents around us by the end of the summer.

After our visit from the bear earlier this spring, we decided we should not be putting out bird feeders or otherwise feeding all the creatures who share this place with us. That was a difficult decision since we’ve been providing food for many of them for a long time. Over the years we’ve provided black-oil sunflower seed and/or corn, intended primarily for the birds, but also consumed in varying degrees (and frequently in very large amounts) by red and gray squirrels, rabbits, deer, possums, skunks, and especially raccoons. We do very much enjoy having them close around so we can observe their activities. But we also realize it’s not good for them to become overly dependent on having people supply food for them; they need to be able to forage for themselves within their natural environment.

But about a month ago one rather skinny raccoon (we believe she’s a young mother) started coming around each afternoon, seemingly thinking she might find some food on our deck. We believe she was probably one of the baby raccoons who had been brought to our deck in previous years to learn about one of the good local food sources. Seeing how thin she was and recognizing that she was probably providing sustenance to several little mouths back home, we thought she needed to be an exception to our no-food rule. We did a little research, got some nutritious dog food suggested by several sources, and began putting some out for her on a random basis to supplement her natural food gathering activities. She generally comes up to the house in mid to late afternoon. If we haven’t put any food out yet, she retreats to a nearby spot and waits for us to put something in a pan on the deck or in the yard. When she has finished eating, she usually comes up on our deck and looks in at us through the glass doors, seemingly wondering whether there might be more. Then she heads off on her own to search elsewhere.

Last week Mama Raccoon honored us by bringing her three babies to visit with us. They are still extremely skittish, spending most of their brief excursion hiding among the ferns, chirring to each other or to Mama, and running out quickly to grab a few morsels of food. Thus they have continued a long tradition of young mother raccoons introducing their young ones to our place here on the mountain and showing off the next generation to the folks who now live here. It’s a tradition we’re delighted to share with all these very special neighbors of ours.

Here are a few pictures of our newest visitors.

Mama raccoon and her three babies

Mama and two babies eating, one going to hide

Two baby raccoons exploring the deck

So adorable!

The Garden—Planted and Unplanted

I’ve described the evolution of our gardening activities in an earlier blog entitled The Garden. In its current incarnation our vegetable and fruit garden encompasses a ninety- by sixty-foot area enclosed by a seven-foot-high deer fence installed to prevent our deer, raccoon, possum, rabbit, and other animal neighbors from helping themselves to our produce. We still have provided some food to the animals, but have placed it outside the fence. Most of the planted space is now within wooden raised garden beds of various sizes. We’ve raised a wide variety of vegetables and berries over the years—over twelve hundred pounds worth in the one year we actually measured the crops produced.

The contents of the garden have changed from year to year. We decided within the past couple of years to be more selective in our plantings, limiting them to the crops we especially want to grow for ourselves and eliminating the plants that require more space or energy than we choose to devote for the returns received. We will rely on the local farmers’ markets and the generosity of neighbors for the items we do not produce ourselves. We also have begun planting more berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, honey berries, and high bush cranberries) and fruits (grapes, plums, pears, apples, apricots, Asian persimmons, figs, and hardy kiwis so far) which hopefully will produce their fruits without the same effort required by annual crops. And we do have thriving beds of asparagus and rhubarb that keep us well supplied with minimal continuing effort on our part.

The garden space last year, ready for planting

This year, however, we decided that our garden would be different, very different. We wanted to spend major amounts of our time on some other important activities we’ve had on hold for too long: more writing, planning and preparing for an addition to our house, various landscaping and building projects, some additional travels we’ve talked about, art and photography projects, and spur-of-the-moment fun time spent together. So we decided not to plant a garden this year. After clearing out the garden remnants from the growing season last year, we intended to put the garden to bed and let it rest for a year.

However, nature had other ideas. Nature never rests. Over the course of the winter when nothing appears to be happening in the garden, much is in preparation for the coming spring. Spring comes to us late here on the mountain. Our last average frost date is about May 25 and we’ve seen three inches of snow here on Memorial Day weekend. But, even though spring may be delayed, it comes finally with great enthusiasm. Seeds and roots that have been waiting patiently for warmer weather burst forth when those warm sunny days arrive. Patches of ground that had seemed empty a few days ago now are covered with the green of new growth.

The edge of the garden is no more than thirty feet from our deck, so we can see it easily from the house. We’ve been harvesting asparagus for weeks now, so we have been into the garden at least every other day. But when I made a more thorough survey of the entire garden a few days ago, I was overwhelmed. Most of the beds, which we had really intended to cover with black plastic last fall, were now covered instead with masses of chickweed, wild sorrel, dandelions, burdock, curly dock, various grasses, wild asters, daisies, and dozens of other kinds of plants. It has always been difficult to control the vegetation in the pathways and border areas because of the sloping, confined area, not to mention the problems I have keeping mowers and weed eaters functioning. The pathways now were were knee-deep in plants of every sort and much of the border area had grass that was shoulder-high. It was a depressing sight and one that called out for some immediate attention.

Several days of torrential rain in our area had finally come to an end, so Carole and I started on the task of reclaiming the garden from the profusion of growth that spring had brought. She really needed to be busy with the finishing touches of the book she has been working on for the past two years, but recognizing my distress at seeing this unexpected garden project, she put her project aside for a time. I settled down to work at clearing the weeds from the asparagus beds, since the still emerging asparagus spears were about to be overrun. Carole tackled several of the beds that supposedly held nothing but weeds, though we did discover some cilantro, dill, potato, and tomato plants that had managed to find themselves a spot here and there—volunteers or self-seeders as they are called. We probably worked for five or six hours before a late-afternoon shower ended our efforts for the day. At least we were able to get a few of the beds cleared out.

The following day I resumed the garden activity while Carole returned to the more pressing matters of the book and some other tasks, including pressure washing part of our deck and siding in preparation for painting later in the summer. The planting beds on which I was working are either three or four feet wide and about twenty-four feet long. I would work the length of each bed on hands and knees or sometimes sitting down, reaching halfway across the bed, then returning along the other side of the bed to get the other half. For most of the beds the weeds had to be pulled individually, being sure to get the roots to avoid re-sprouting. Each of the larger weeds that was pulled revealed several dozen minute pairs of leaves marking another weed seed that had sprouted, waiting for its place in the sun to start growing. The soil then had to be stirred to dislodge and bury each of these tiny plants, hopefully not to re-emerge. Occasionally there were burdock or curly dock plants to be removed; their long tap roots extended a foot or more into the ground and had to be dug out—pulling was not an option.

Six or seven hours of work found all the beds on one side of the garden cleared of weeds, probably a fourth of the overall area that needed to be dealt with, and not necessarily the most difficult part of this project. Yet it was very satisfying to see the results of our two days of labor. It wasn’t just the end result that was rewarding. The process of working in the garden, like many repetitive tasks that might be considered tedious and meaningless, is filled with opportunities. The work requires that I get up close and personal with the plants; it can’t be done at a distance. The physical acts require focus, removing tiny plants that are unwanted (at least in the spot where they are growing), re-locating garden spiders and worms to continue their activity away from my digging, replacing and smoothing the soil disturbed by my weeding. The process allows for quiet meditation as I am quite literally absorbed in being just one part of this natural world.

What a marvel is the abundance of nature, filling every available space with a profusion of plants, small animals, insects, and life forms beyond our ability to see. All around me the life of our meadow goes on. A thrush flies through the garden and stops to sit on the fence, perhaps wondering what I am doing in this place. Two fritillary butterflies sip nectar from the blossoms of red clover plants a few feet away. A catbird carefully examines the areas I have just cleared, comes close to see if I’ve uncovered anything of interest, then hurries off with a new morsel of food for the young ones in the nest nearby. The breeze sings quietly through the grasses and trees as clouds drift across the sky. Probably new clouds will bring rain again tomorrow, but not today. Mindful of all that has surrounded me, I have had another good day.

When we first came to this place, it was a beautiful misty meadow. We were amazed then at the daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, flame azaleas, wild geraniums, mountain laurel, wild asters, tall coneflowers, and numerous other plants that filled the meadow and the woods. All those plants are still here, an unplanted garden that we enjoy throughout the year. We have simply placed our fenced fruit and vegetable garden in the midst of this natural garden that was here long before we came. Seeing how quickly the native plants have spread throughout our garden area during the brief time we have left it unplanted this year, we realize it would not take long for our garden to revert to its natural state. A few markers would remain to show our impact upon the land: a patch of rhubarb, some clusters of asparagus stalks, thornless blackberries, Concord grapes, and non-native fruit trees. But for the most part the unplanted garden would return after a bit more time and our meadow would again be a field full of daisies. A garden, planted or unplanted, will likely be here for a long time to come.

Fritillary butterfly

Tall coneflowers

An abundance of daisies

The Phoebes and the Wrens

We had an exciting day here on our mountainside a few days ago. After being with us for more than two weeks, the children have finally decided it’s time they ventured out on their own. No, I’m not writing about our own children; they made that big move many years ago. Now it’s the eastern phoebe young who have rapidly outgrown their nest, covered their fragile little bodies with feathers, exercised and strengthened their wings, and made that first (surely somewhat scary) leap into the air, thankfully coming down to a safe landing on the porch rail about ten feet away. What excitement that must have been for those little ones.

Adult phoebes first built a nest on the crossbeam close under the roof of our small entry porch five years ago. Their chosen spot is only about five feet from a good viewing place just inside our glass storm door. We happily spent many minutes each day watching their progress as they built their nest. For anyone who doesn’t already know, nest building is a time-consuming, complicated, and messy process made more difficult by the fact that the only tools involved are beaks and tiny feet. The nest was anchored to the beam with bits of mud, hard to come by during stretches of several days without rain. The bulk of the nest was an incredible mixture of small twigs, bits of dried grass, soft mosses and lichens, and other materials that caught the eye of the female nest builder. It’s not a straightforward process either. Decisions have to be made about where each piece goes. We’ve watched as the phoebe brought tiny strands of grass, studied the partially-built nest, apparently decided those particular materials were not suitable for the next spot in the project, tossed them aside, and flew off to find something better. The rejected debris scattered over the corner of the porch were clear evidence of the search for just the perfect materials. Some days we could tell the nest walls were a bit higher; the next day part of the wall had been removed as a new plan was developed.

Eventually the nest was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and the female settled in for her extended sitting spell. We’ve read that the incubation period for phoebe eggs is about sixteen days, but it seemed additional time might be needed for getting comfortable with the nest and actually producing the eggs. We all had a long wait ahead of us. Although we tried not to disturb the birds any more than absolutely necessary, we found it hard to resist taking a peek whenever we passed near our viewing spot during the day. Mama phoebe would greet our approach with any icy stare.

Mama phoebe’s icy stare

Whenever we had to exit the house by way of the entry porch door, the phoebe would fly ten or fifteen feet to one of several nearby azaleas or a witch hazel tree, where she watched closely until we had moved the appropriate safe distance away from the nest area. During the entire incubation period the male phoebe could usually be seen sitting on one of several perches from which he guarded the area, leaving only occasionally to get food for his mate or himself. When the female left the nest to take a break, he continued duty at his watch post. Watch and wait, watch and wait.

Adult eastern phoebe, always on alert

Each year the basic process has been the same for the birds and for us. This year was slightly different because a lot more nest building was needed. The original nest deteriorated a bit during the seasons it was unoccupied so each year has required repairs or remodeling. After some storms this past year the old nest was pretty much gone, so the new builders had to start from scratch after removing the debris remaining from the old nest. This beam on our porch must be a good site for a nest since this is now the fifth year it has been used. It’s well sheltered from the weather and fairly inaccessible to any intruders who might attempt to disturb the nest. We have no way to know if the same pair has returned each year to their original nesting spot or if the current phoebes are the great-great grandchildren of the original pair coming back to the old homeplace. It’s exciting to see the phoebes when they arrive after being absent for most of the year and it’s fascinating to observe the adults repeat the now-familiar patterns.

We had to be away this year for a few days at the time when we expected the hatching might occur. We were concerned when we came home and did not immediately see the female phoebe sitting on the nest. Surely the young ones had not already hatched and moved away. But we soon saw the adults busy at their new activities, constantly going back and forth finding food and bringing it back to the hungry babies. Such a demanding time for both of the adults. At first we knew the young ones were in the nest because we could see the adults carrying food, looking down into the nest, and then poking something downward before flying off again on the next mission. Eventually we saw little beaks lifting above the edge of the nest and, a few days later, two small heads rising into view. Phoebes commonly have up to four young at a time, but we were only aware of seeing two this time.

An earlier year. See the little beak on the left.

It’s amazing how quickly the babies grow. We read that the young typically remain in the nest about sixteen days after hatching, but within a few days the two were looking almost as large as the adults and their bodies were beginning to extend past the boundaries of the nest.

Two almost grown babies in an earlier year.

Then came the magical moment. I happened to be walking toward the door when I luckily saw a little one flutter—not fly, but flutter—from the nest to the porch rail. I had never seen a young bird make its first flight. It was almost as great as seeing one’s child or grandchild take those first baby steps. The young phoebe seemed as surprised as a child does when stepping out unassisted for the first time. It sat motionless on the rail for perhaps twenty minutes, glancing around as if wondering, “What do I do next?”

I’m out of the nest. Now what do I do?

When we passed by after those twenty minutes, the young phoebe was no longer on the rail, the nest was empty, and the new family was off somewhere with the adults apparently helping their young ones adapt to their new life out of the nest. We haven’t seen the babies since they left, but we did spot at least one of the adults. Hopefully they are taking a bit of a rest break before doing it all over again with a new brood, as is their custom each season. Wow! What a tough way to spend the summer.

As the phoebes have been finishing this round of their family life, there has been some activity on the deck on the other side of our house. For several years Carolina wrens have found a couple of cozy little spots for their own nesting activity. Their chosen locations are also under the protective roof in little pockets only about an inch and a half wide between two of the structural boards. A similar niche is located at each end of the deck roof and each has been used at one time or another over the years. Our first indication that something was happening this year was the discovery of twigs, grasses, and mosses scattered over the deck under the potential nest site. Someone had been clearing out the old nesting materials in preparation for something new. We soon spotted the male wren hanging around the deck, flying up to the nest area, and going down into it with bits of material. When not busy dealing with the nest, this tiny little fellow sits of the branches of the mountain ash tree adjacent to the deck. There he sings his lovely song for all he’s worth, apparently letting his mate or potential mate know that he’s working on a new home. And we do hear songs coming back from nearby as they “talk” about the possibilities. We read that the male wren starts the nest and then the female does the finishing work on the new home; seems like a good way to share in the process. One of the male’s chief activities now appears to be keeping unwanted visitors at a distance; we’ve already seen him very effectively chasing squirrels away from the deck in spite of their great difference in size. The wrens are still early in their building process, but we’re pleased to have another opportunity to share in their adventure as we watch through our living room door.

The wren was even singing for us just now as I was writing these words. What a joy to share this place here on the mountainside with such wonderful neighbors.

They May Be Small, But They Can Be Fierce

We have four varieties of squirrels living around us: flying squirrels, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, and red squirrels. The first two types have been seen by us only rarely. The flying squirrel has visited only once on a night a couple of years ago; it moved so fast snatching food on our deck that we barely saw it then. The impressive fox squirrels (about twice the size of gray squirrels) live primarily in the piedmont and coastal regions of North Carolina, but a small, growing population lives in the three county area which includes our homeplace. Still, we’ve only seen this rare creature twice and never before two years ago. Our most common encounters are with the familiar gray squirrels and the perhaps less-well-known little red squirrels, both of which are frequent daily visitors.

All of the squirrels are amazing to watch. I admire their agility and daring in moving from tree to tree, finding a path through the maze of interconnecting branches, sometimes leaping great distances or dropping from one tree to another. They climb the posts and beams on the deck, clamber down wires and chains to reach hanging feeders, and then hang upside down by the toes of their back feet while helping themselves to the seed or suet that was mostly intended for the birds. I can’t help but marvel at the intelligence and determination they apply to their pursuit of food, as anyone who has birdfeeders knows very well.

I enjoy observing all our wildlife neighbors, but I’m especially fond of the little red squirrels. It’s difficult to imagine an animal cuter than these characters. And the poses they strike appear so friendly, tiny paws clutched in front of their chests and big, dark eyes seeming to beg, “Can I please have some more sunflower seed now?” Who could resist such a plea?

Who wouldn’t be charmed by this cutie?

The little red squirrels (notice that I usually add the adjective little; it just seems a natural part of their name) don’t appear particularly disturbed by my presence when I am near them on the deck. As long as they can continue eating, I can go about my activities; they are not bothered by me and I’m not bothered by them. They will actually come up to the food bowls while I am still adding sunflower seed or corn. Occasionally when I have been attempting to shoo one off a suet feeder so the birds can get something to eat, I’ve had to poke the little squirrel with my finger to get it to yield its place.

Other animals and birds aren’t tolerated as well by the little red squirrels, at least when it comes to food. We usually have at least two containers (bowls, trays, and pans all work) with sunflower seed or cracked corn available on the deck. Many times we see a squirrel enjoying its meal while sitting in one of the two food containers. Several feet away is the second bowl with plenty of food available for another squirrel to come and dine. Yet, if another red or gray squirrel approaches, it is likely to be charged by the fierce little red squirrel who was on the deck first. Back and forth they go, first contending over possession of one bowl and then the other. If the intruder is another red squirrel, it is likely to be persistent enough and fierce enough to eventually win a grudging truce that allows each squirrel to eat from its own container. However, if a gray squirrel is involved, it’s much more likely to give up and go elsewhere looking for food, even though it is twice the size of the little red squirrel.

The standoff

Recently we’ve observed several encounters with crows competing with the red squirrels for their share of the food. Crows also like sunflower seed and corn (and just about anything else that might be available) and are frequent visitors on our deck. Crows are surprisingly large birds. They also are very wise, very observant, and very cautious. But when they see a good serving of food waiting to be taken, they are willing to risk a confrontation. The bravest crow will land on the far end of the deck, usually backed by several of its companions. Gradually and cautiously the crow will begin edging its way toward the food, its zigzag path allowing it to check that we are not coming out onto the deck to interfere. It also keeps its eyes on the little red squirrel sitting in the food bowl, assessing the potential threat from the much smaller creature. A few steps closer, a few steps back, approaching first from one direction and then another, the crow moves toward the food. But eventually the squirrel makes its charge and the crow jumps away. The red squirrel is such a tiny little thing, but fierceness is not necessarily determined by size. No doubt the crow will eventually get some of the available seed, but only after the little red squirrel has its fill. What fun it is to watch their dance around the food bowl. 

Sorry, but the little one ate it all this time.

A House Open to the World

The kitchen window makes a perfect frame for this winter scene.

When we go into town or travel to cities around the country, we are struck by how different our daily environment is. The close proximity of other people and houses and streets necessitates different living conditions for city dwellers and even those living in closer rural communities. Obviously different people like different things. Many people would not care to live at the end of the road here on our mountainside, but this is just what we were looking for. I can understand the many reasons why people choose to live in cities, but I’m always glad when we get back here to our homeplace. One of the main reasons is that I love the openness of our house compared to the much more closed nature of many houses and other buildings, shut off from natural world, isolated from the occupants’ surroundings.

Our house has lots of windows. With the exception of cold wintry days or blowing rainstorms the windows are usually open. We have shades on most of our windows, but they are hardly ever pulled down. Living where we do at the end of our driveway at the end of our road, we have no reason to block the outside world. We can only see one other house from our location and we can barely see that when the trees are leafed out. We have no traffic passing by; the rare vehicle that appears is either for a delivery or someone who has taken a wrong turn.

The openness of the windows allows us better to see and experience the natural world in which we live. We are open to the sounds and scents that surround us. We hear the winds blowing over the ridges and through the trees. Dogs and coyotes bark and howl in the distance, cows moo in the pastures, and owls call in the night. The birds, squirrels, raccoons, and other animals come onto our deck or pass through the yard. The deer and turkeys move through the edge of the woods or walk down our drive. The clouds move across the sky and their shadows play across the mountains. We are aware of these things because our windows are uncovered. We delight in these experiences. They bring joy to our daily lives. We are so glad to be here.

Here are a few views from within our home.

Rhododendron in full bloom viewed through our living room window

Some visitors watching another visitor and vice versa.

It’s best to stay indoors to look out at this picnic table on our deck.

Rabbit and chipmunk enjoying lunch on the deck.

Eastern phoebe babies viewed through our porch door. Adult phoebes have used this nest for several years.

We look out at the snow because we can’t open the door.

Even our dear cat enjoys observing the outside world through the door.

One of our skunk friends. Some visitors are best viewed from inside the house.

We look out the window while this deer looks in.

Beautiful and Cold New Year’s Day

Mountain to our east in hoar frost and snow

Our first day of 2018 dawned beautiful and very cold. The fine snow that started in the afternoon yesterday continued through the night, giving us a bit more than an inch by morning. The snow is very light and powdery because of the extremely dry air and bitter cold, -1 at its lowest overnight. 

We had to get out for a bit to walk through the quiet beauty and take a few photos. We already have so many we’ve taken on snowy days over the years but can never resist taking a few more. Seems that having the camera in hand focuses my attention on the beautiful sights to be seen all around us. The snow also accentuates the shapes and forms of the mountains and trees. The fluffy snow sits in puffs atop the pine and spruce needles, occasionally coming off in a cloud of snow dust when a sudden gust shakes the branches. Rhododendron leaves are curled tight against the cold. Even though we see these places every day, each new day is unique and every view is rewarding.

Tracks in the snow reveal that our rabbit friends have been out and about, going up and down our road, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs. A neighbor cat who frequently comes to check us out has also left the prints of its slow, methodical walk. Someone else has been running along the road, larger than a cat but smaller than most dogs – perhaps a fox. I would love to be able to see all the coming and going during the nights.

The birds are staying close around the suet feeders today; cold weather brings them out in profusion. They all appear about twice their normal sizes, feathers fluffed up to provide extra insulation against the cold. Melting snow drips from a corner of the roof  and is forming a large icicle on one of the feeders, making the diners dodge the possible cold shower. 

Returning to the welcoming warmth of our house in winter is always a delight. We can sit and watch our little friends and still enjoy the views of the snow-covered landscape. What a great way to start this new year. I hope your New Year’s Day and all your coming days will be great also. May you enjoy them all!

Puffs of snow on pine needles

Fraser Fir with snow sitting atop hoar frost

Icy suet feeder

Visits from Our Closest Friends and Neighbors

Living here at the end of the road, we can’t see any other houses, except one a few hundred feet away which is only visible in winter when the trees are totally bare. That house is occupied during its owners’ occasional visits, but most of the time we’re the only people around. If a vehicle is coming down our road, either family members are coming for an expected visit, a package is being delivered, or someone is very lost. But we do have plenty of friends and neighbors who come for visits every day.

The first visitors of the morning are the juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches. No doubt they are close by each night for they are here almost immediately when I replenish their supply of cracked corn first thing each day. Who can tell how many there are; it’s impossible to count them with all the coming and going.

Downy woodpeckers and the larger hairy woodpeckers are soon attracted by the activity and come to join in breakfast at the suet feeder. The red-bellied woodpeckers do not appear quite as early nor do they show up every day (perhaps they have other stops on their rounds to add more variety to their diet), but they are reliable enough that we know there are two pairs.

Usually by now there will be at least one grey squirrel, if not all eight of the nearby clan. Frequently the lovable and less skittish little red squirrels will beat them to the food. The few fox squirrels we’ve seen in the past year have made it to our driveway a time or two, but haven’t come up yet to see what’s available to eat. We look forward to getting a closer view of those rare creatures; most live nearer the coast with smaller populations here and in a couple of adjacent counties.

Bluejays swoop in usually by mid-morning, one whole family of six and sometimes their relatives. They can be a greedy and fussy crowd, trying to dominate the available food. The squirrels are pretty good at holding their places though and the smaller birds are fast enough to dart in to grab a bit and fly off to a quieter spot to eat.

The bluejays stir up enough commotion to capture the attention of our wonderful crows if these smartest of birds haven’t spotted the spread earlier while flying over or surveying the scene from one of their nearby perches in the treetops. We love to hear their varied calls announcing to the family that it’s time to dine. At least one crow always sits apart to watch for danger while the others strut around or hop over each other to get to what is perceived as a better spot to get at the food.

Each group takes its turn at the table, some staying all day, others coming and going as their appetites dictate. In the past year 2 to 24 doves have joined in the gathering, though they are much more gentle and definitely less pushy than many of the others. They tend to wait until things clear out a bit and then cautiously come to pick through the remnants for their part of the feast.

Depending on the time of year, the year-round crowd is joined on the deck by Carolina wrens, warblers of various sorts, eastern phoebes, goldfinches, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, thrushes, towhees, song sparrows, cowbirds, starlings, indigo buntings, grackles, and hummingbirds. We’ve even had hawks sit on the corner of the deck or in a tree a few feet away to see if a squirrel was foolish enough to venture out at the same time, but they have always flown away after a few minutes when no one showed up.

In winter the birds have always been our main feeding population. The healthy chipmunk tribe we have around in all other seasons is no doubt snuggled away in their numerous underground burrows, enjoying the sunflower seeds and corn they hauled away in preparation for the cold weather. When they were out gathering, there were usually three or four at once at the food bowls stuffing their cheeks to maximum capacity, then running off to sequester their supplies in their winter homes. They are also thoughtful enough to plant some of the seeds (especially sunflowers) in lots of spots in our garden for us to enjoy the beautiful golden blooms in the summer and fall and for the birds to have some extra sunflower seed heads as well.

Raccoon families have joined us on our deck since we first built it many years ago, usually coming after dark, though one young raccoon mama and her kids started coming as early as 1:00 pm this past year to avoid the rush and the bigger, grumpier older raccoons. They would even dine on one end of the deck while we sat fifteen feet away on the other end and enjoyed watching their antics. Over the years we’ve had as many as thirteen eating at once. Younger generations appear to come back in subsequent years, bringing along their kids to a favorite place to eat out.

Possums also come to visit with their unexpectedly charming pink ear tips, noses, and tiny little feet and toes. They enjoy most foods that they find waiting for them, but are especially fond of leftover baked sweet potatoes and baked butternut squash or pumpkin with remnants of butter and brown sugar.

This past summer at least three different adult skunks also started checking us out. Each had different coloration and markings: one black with a few white markings vertical on its sides, one white with black stripe down its back, and one black with a white stripe down each side of its back. One of these was kind enough to grace us with bringing her two babies for visits. All were some of the most beautiful animals you could imagine.

We see plenty of rabbits around, but only one ventures onto the deck from time to time to get a little snack. Less frequently seen, but ever present and often heard moving through the meadow and woods are wild turkeys; if we are very fortunate, we get to see two or three adults leading up to a dozen young ones on a foraging expedition. As might be expected, there are also lots of deer hereabouts, but they are so stealthy and so well camouflaged that we don’t catch sight of them very often. However, a few years ago during a particularly difficult winter when lots of lingering snow made it hard for the deer to find food, we saw nine searching to the east of the house and nine more on the west side of the house. We put corn out overnight and the next day at least eight came again, ate the corn, then lay down in the sun and rested for several hours about fifty to seventy-five feet from the house, a treat for them and us. And while we have made no effort to feed the black bears, on at least two occasions we had a bear enjoying the contents of a bird feeder in the front yard about fifteen feet from the house. Then there was the time a bear was on the deck while I was in the living room about ten feet away separated only by the sliding glass doors; needless to say the bear and I were both startled.

So while we may not have many people coming by the house daily or stopping in for a visit, we have lots of company. We could enjoy watching them for hours and do whenever other things don’t keep us from doing so. We absolutely love being able to share this place with our delightful friends and neighbors. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Hopefully they wouldn’t either.

So Much To See

Our quiet place here at the end of the road first greeted us with a meadow covered in a profusion of daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild strawberries. But it had not always been that way. Not many years before we came here the land had been cleared and farmed. The son of a nearby neighbor whose family had once owned this land told us of helping his family clear the land and then grow cabbage, a common crop throughout the area even for some years after we arrived. The decaying remnants of split rail fences they had built bordered part of the property and locust posts remained where barbed wire fences had been placed. The woods still covering two-thirds of our homeplace even now contain stumps and moss-covered logs of the chestnut trees killed by blight in the early part of last century. Since chestnut trees made up an estimated one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Appalachians before the blight, no doubt this mountainside was once covered with chestnuts.

The land continues to change. Obviously our presence here has had a large impact on the land closest around the house and garden, but that is a small part of our homeplace. The woods have retaken naturally part of the meadow that we were not using otherwise. An abandoned project of ours to raise Christmas trees in part of the meadow now gives us a sizable patch of 50-75 foot tall trees, mainly Norway Spruce, loved by deer and birds and who knows which of our other animal friends. Were we to stop maintaining the yard and garden areas, this would all quickly revert to woodland through the natural progression of an Appalachian hardwood forest.

We came here wanting to be in a place in the mountains, surrounded by nature, and we certainly are. To name a few of the things we have found here:

Trees: oaks, maples, cherries, black birches, hickories, elms, beeches, black locusts, tulip poplars, mountain magnolias (cucumber tree), ashes, hemlocks, cedars, white pines, sourwoods, serviceberries, hawthorns

Flowering plants: rhododendrons, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, dog hobbles, daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, blueberries

Birds: chickadees, house finches, purple finches, tufted titmice, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluejays, crows, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, starlings, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks

Mammals: red squirrels, grey squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, grey foxes, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, mice, voles, bats

Reptiles: black snakes, corn snakes, garter snakes, ring-neck snakes

Amphibians: red-spotted newts, black salamanders, spade-foot toads, wood frogs, spring peepers

Grasses, “weeds”, and other small/low-growing plants: too numerous to begin listing

There are so many fascinating things to be observed even in this small patch of the world where we live. I get the feeling that many people never even see some of the most obvious things around them, too busy with the affairs of their everyday lives or perhaps thinking the natural world not important or not interesting enough to merit their attention. Many don’t know the names of the most common birds, trees, or flowers that surround them every day and are amazed when we recognize a wildflower from a distance or identify a bird by its flight pattern or call. So much is there to be seen by merely taking the time to notice. So much delight is there to be missed when we don’t pay attention to our natural surroundings.