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Feral Cat Cuteness

>> Monday, April 26, 2010

I have mentioned many times that we have a feral cat problem in our neighborhood, largely because of a neighbor's misguided habit of feeding them.  When Tucker first started going outside, a number of the feral cats gave him a lot of grief, but our little tough guy successfully fought them all off to establish his dominance of his own yard.

All but one, that is.  Ever since he started going outside, he's been tortured by one imperious, domineering, self-important, rotten stinker of a wild tom cat to whom we affectionately refer as King Friday.

King Friday gives Tucker a real run for his money.  He's not the biggest tom cat around - not by any stretch - although he has enough fur for three cats.  He's just the wiliest, most irritating, most persistent tom, who seems to enjoy annoying Tucker.  I swear you can hear him snigger as he walks away, after having wound Tucker up to a yowling, twitching frenzy.  Given that Tucker did that to us for years before we started letting him outside, I don't begrudge King Friday his fun.

All of a sudden this spring, King Friday has acquired a set of mini-mes.  Clearly Friday is fertile.  His kittens are so damn cute it hurts, and they look so much like their papa it's incredible.  It turns out they appear to have inherited their papa's personality, too.  The pair of them now spend their days stalking Tucker, teasing him, annoying him, bothering him, and generally giving him no peace.

On Saturday, my husband captured one of them creeeeeeeping surreptitiously into Tucker's space.  I thought the photos were positively priceless.  Here he is, pretending to be invisible under the grill.

Remind me to wash the vegetable grilling tray thoroughly before I use it again.  The next sequence cracks me up:

Inching onto Tucker's back step.

Oh, there's a cameraman.

Oops - crap, there's Tucker, and he's not happy!

Tucker wins... for now.

They're only going to get more obnoxious as they get older and gain confidence.  Poor Tucker.  Methinks it's going to be a frustration-filled spring for him.  Serves him right.  He's the one who insisted on being an outdoors cat.


Chickadee Mating Politics

>> Sunday, April 25, 2010

Last week I had mentioned that chickadees had moved into our nest box.  I dearly love the whole chickadees nesting in my yard thing.  Each day I would go out there and peep into the box, looking for mama chickadee sitting on her nest.

Then, on Wednesday, disaster struck.

My cat ate my chickadee.

I have mentioned before that our evil little stinker of a cat Tucker tormented us for years before we ultimately started letting him go outside.  I happen to feel strongly that cats should be kept indoors precisely because they are killers by instinct, and take an unwonted toll on songbird populations when they are allowed outdoors.  In addition, being an outdoor cat significantly shortens a cat's life span, and it's healthiest for them to be kept inside.

That's all good in theory, but in practice it did not work out that way for us.  We rescued Tucker from the dumpster at out first apartment when I was in law school.  The vet guessed he was about 8 months old at the time, although he was small for his age.  We took him in, and he settled happily into our home.  In those first few months, he spent hours launching himself at the sliding glass doors, chasing the birds that liked to hang out at our feeders on our deck, and digging up all my houseplants.

Tucker expressing his gratitude for our having provided him 
with food, shelter, and often undeserved affection.

The honeymoon of our relationship with Tucker probably lasted only about 2 months before he started escaping.  Regularly.  We developed elaborate twists and blocking mechanisms to keep Tucker from getting out while we were going in.  He was particularly adept at scooting out while groceries were coming in.  Each time he escaped, he'd rocket down the three flights of external stairs and around the back of the building into the woods, with us hot on his heels.

Over the years we acquired various other pets, starting with our old dog.  They became fast friends, but I think Tucker's chief appreciation of Clancy was that he provided additional opportunities for escape.  Tucker became an expert at going out between Clancy's legs when Clancy was coming in.  After a while, the two began to collude together.  Clancy was 1/2 border collie and smart as a whip.  He taught himself how to open doors to let Tucker out.  It got to the point where we had to keep the doors dead bolted or the storm doors locked, or Clancy would work them open and Tucker would make yet another break for it.

A peaceful interlude among friends

Scheming.  Definitely scheming.

As an aside, Clancy also taught himself how to open the refrigerator door and help himself to the contents.  Ah, border collie brains.  I actually sometimes appreciate that my Basset hounds are dumber than a box of rocks.  At least they pretend to be.

The escapes went on for years, and would have gone on forever if Tucker hadn't started marking everything we owned.  Although we had had him neutered immediately when we rescued him, he began systematically marking the doors, walls, windows, counters, and pretty much everything else in the house.  We took him to the vet numerous times, but no one had a good explanation.  Tucker had just found yet another way to get back at us for holding him hostage against his will.  He even peed on our pillows in some particularly nasty fits of pique.

He was miserable.  We were miserable.  After years of battle, in desperation one afternoon, I threw open the back door and shouted at him to "GET OUT you little *expletive, expletive, expletive, expletive*!!!!!"  I figured that if he got hit by a car the next week, at least he would have spent the week happy.

Surprisingly, letting Tucker out pretty much solved everything.  It's been two years now that he's been living outside.  He's a different cat - happy, easy going, affectionate, laid-back.  He's a tough little booger who sorted out his place in the local feral cat hierarchy without hesitation, and spends his days lazing about the yard.  I feel wicked guilt pangs about it, but no amount of guilt could induce me to try again to confine that maniacally wild animal indoors for more than 24 hours.  And wild he is.  During the summers, he only comes in the house for perhaps an hour a day for a brief stint on a lap and some food.

Tucker, looking like he owns the universe.

Tucker defending his back stairs from an interloper upstart 
feral kitten who is getting too big for his britches.

That's not to say there aren't repercussions.  Back to the chickadees - I came home on Wednesday to find he'd caught, torn the wings off, eaten, and regurgitated a chickadee on my back steps.  My chickadee.  I contemplated strangulation, but told myself sternly that a cat is a cat, and it's not his fault he has hunting instincts.  Judging by the location of piles of feathers, I think said chickadee was getting a drink or perhaps taking a bath in the puddle of water next to our back door.  Time for Tucker to get a new bell on his collar to give the wildlife a fighting chance.  Too bad he tears them off within a day or two.

I broken-heartedly opened the side door of the nest box and peered in at the sweet little pile of lonely eggs.  9 of them.  With no one to warm them.

I swore at Tucker.  He tends to bring that out in me.

All night I felt terrible about it.  I checked the box several times that evening, but it remained empty.  What was going to happen to the chickadee's mate?  How long should I wait before emptying out the nest box in hopes some other chickadee pair might move in?

We were awakened at 5:00 the next morning by a chickadee singing at the top of its lungs in the spruce tree outside our bedroom window.  I'm assuming it was a male, but I really have no way of knowing.  He kept it up for hours until we left for work.  When I came home from work I opened the side of the nest box and peered in, expecting that pathetic lonely pile of eggs to still be there.  But there weren't any.  None.  Each and every egg was gone.

Puzzled, I went and sat on the back steps for a bit and watched.  Two chickadees occasionally went in and out.  Could it be that another pair had moved in that quickly?  Or perhaps my rolling stone papa chickadee had found another lady that quickly?  Given that it's a chickadee nest box with a hole far too small for blue jays or other eggs stealing varieties of birds to get in, I assume a chickadee emptied the motherless eggs out to prepare for a new set.

Indeed, it appears so.  Now if you look in the nest box, a pair of beady little black chickadee eyes looks back at you.  And if you happen to peer in when mama is gone, you can spot a neat pile of shiny new chickadee eggs.  There were 5 last time I looked.  Here's the new resident's backside.

I really don't know if the male found a new mate, or if it's an entirely new pair of chickadees in there.  I'm just happy we might have baby chickadees this year after all, no thanks to my wretch of a cat.

When my husband told the story to one of his work colleagues, she got visibly upset.  Was she angry with my little #$%! of a cat who caught then probably tortured and ate a sweet chickadee?  Nope.  Not in the least.  She was furious that a widowed chickadee might have sought and found a replacement mate that quickly without even mourning for his dead mate.

Ah, chickadee mating politics, from a human perspective.


I wish I were a runner

>> Tuesday, April 20, 2010

But I'm so definitely not a runner.  I always admire people who are runners.  Marathons?  How is that even humanly possible?  Or how about even the people I always see at the gym pounding away on the treadmills?  I am astonished by those who run for miles easily, without visible panting or strain.

I always have this feeling that running is sort of the ultimate workout.  It's possible I think that because it's so damn hard for me.  Even when I'm at my peak mountain climbing fitness and can readily hike 8 miles up and down a 4000 foot high mountain in a day at a good pace, I still am a supremely sucky runner.  I gasp, I pant, I stagger, I feel like my lungs are going to explode, and all I can think about is how much I want to be able to justify switching to walking instead.  Ugh.

I am, however, on a fitness kick, and I really would like to lose the extra 8 pounds I've packed on this past winter so that my clothes fit again, and so I'm not carrying an extra 8 pounds up and down mountains.  Think about that - 8 pounds is the equivalent of a lot of extra gear.  I would like to convert myself into a finely tuned physical machine.  (Ha!)  Oh, how far I have to go.

Running is a quick way to get in a workout when I don't have time for more.  Plus, damnit, I'm stubborn, and I want to be at least a tolerable runner who can manage a 5k without humiliation.  I'm a long way from that.  And, I figure every minute of running I suffer through will cause me to do better in sessions with my trainer at the gym.  It's all about saving face.

So, since it's a nice evening, I went for a run when I got home from work.

The Erie Canal path is a great place for a run.  Well, let's face it, in my case it's just a jog.  The fine gravel of the path is easy on my shins and knees and there's enough wildlife to distract me at least a little.  On occasion.

One of the many drawbacks of running along the Erie Canal, though, is that I can't take my camera.  And it's always then - when I am without a camera - that I spot the best and most photographable wildlife.  Tonight as I staggered, gasped and cursed my way along, I watched dozens of birds of all different varieties.  I scared a bunny into zig-zagging down the path ahead of me for a stretch.

Then I heard a faint "plop" from the canal, and as I am always looking for an excuse to stop running for a moment, I paused to investigate.  There, swimming a few feet away from me, was a muskrat.  I simply adore muskrats, or "scrats" as my husband calls them.  They're about as stinking cute as any critter can get.  Before we bought our house, our old daily commute took us along Onondaga Lake Parkway, where there are always dozens of muskrats feasting in the lawns and swales along the road.  The sight of all those little drippy munchy brown bodies was the highlight of many a day.

Muskrats also often call to mind the time when a student wrote a letter to the editor of my college's newspaper about the "giant rat" that was living in the college's pond.  She was appalled, and wanted the administration to "do something" about it.  The responsive letter to the editor was hilarious, with some outdoorsy students mocking the city folk who mistook the cute little resident muskrat for a terrifyingly giant rat in need of extermination.  I chuckle every time I remember that little exchange.

Today, after my friend the muskrat swam across the canal and wandered up the other bank and disappeared, I went back to my grudging jog.  While he didn't make the jog any less painful, at least he provided a bright spot in my evening.


Trees and a bird

>> Monday, April 19, 2010

I don't know about anyone else, but I'm itching for warmer weather. That 80 degree stuff we experienced a few weekends ago was a great big tease.  But, happily, although I'm cold and whiny, spring marches on.

We braved the cool temperatures on Sunday to do our big elm tree move. Here's the before shot of the tree in my Dad's yard:

Um, yeah.  My reaction to that was it had gotten awfully big since I last looked at it.

After lots and lots and lots and lots of digging, my Dad, my husband and I finally managed to get the tree up and out of the ground.  It went for a ride in Dad's truck, and then we did more digging.  Here's baby in its new home:

I'm really not sure it's going to make it.  We disturbed the roots a whole lot more than we should have, and I am more than a little concerned that it was too much damage.  But, we shall water it obsessively and nurse it along as best we can.  It's all we can do.

All that digging led to some serious pain, affliction, and other bad stuff this morning.  It's amazing how many muscles were tender.  And yet, I went to the gym as scheduled today anyway, fool that I am.  I figure I'll either feel better tomorrow, or be completely incapacitated.

After our tree transplant, I wandered around the yard to assess spring's progress.  I don't know what this bush is, but it's lovely every spring.

The pear is blooming, which amazes me given how sickly the poor thing is.

The apple has no flowers yet, but lots of buds.

And mama chickadee is still hanging out in her nest box.  I guess we haven't disturbed her nest enough to make her relocate.  I can hardly wait to hear those happy little baby bird cheeps emanating from the house!



>> Thursday, April 15, 2010

Simon's "suspicious face":

"What am I going to get if I do what you're asking?"  Stubborn, willful, conniving little monster.  It's a good thing for him that he's cute.

Next is a frequent occurrence in our house.  It's best not to set grocery bags on the floor, or when you pick them up they may rustle and bite.  My particular favorite is when all black Wednesday hides in an all black Wegman's grocery bag.  Somehow, even when one should expect it, it's all the more surprising when gold eyes and fuzzy paws lunge out of the shadows of the black bag.  It's perfect camoflage for my mischievous little sprite.

And finally, this is why I buy eggs, when I can, from a wonderful lady named Wendy at the Regional Market. On the right is a grocery store "large" egg.  On the left is one of Wendy's "large" eggs.

Her Jumbo Jumbo eggs are so large she can only fit 6 in a carton designed to hold 12.  Wendy's eggs taste amazing, too.  Plus, given that she refers to them as "her girls" and gets a rather wistful expression on her face when she talks about them, I think Wendy's chickens have a pretty good life.  At least, they have a good life before they become dinner.


Here birdie birdie birdie!

>> Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Easter there was a big fire out at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, which my husband and I had spotted from near our house with some sense of alarm.  There was a terrific column of black smoke billowing into the sky, and ash from the fire allegedly drifted down in Skaneateles, which is more than fifteen miles from the Refuge. 

Reports from Montezuma in the days after the fire were pretty positive, though, and I was curious about how scorched the place looked.  It's also migration season, and there are always lots of great birds to be spotted there this time of year.  So, we drove to Montezuma on Sunday.

One of the first critters we spotted was an osprey sitting in its huge nest on top of the power lines right by the side of the road.

She's got a wicked hook on the end of that beak, no?  I wouldn't want to cross her.

Next we decided to drive the loop that goes through the Refuge.  Near the start of the loop are some bird houses, and I captured this little series involving a pair of tree swallows.  I so love the iridescent blue-green on their backs, and the perfect fan of wing in the third photo.

Sadly, not too many of the rest of my bird pictures turned out all that well.  I need a more powerful zoom to get the birds from such distances, along with a good tripod that mounts on the window of the car (visitors are not supposed to get out of their cars for most of the loop).

We did spot a few species of ducks that we see there every year, some of which we only ever spot at Montezuma in the spring.  My personal favorites are the northern shovelers, because I so love their silly flat spoon bills.  This shot, sadly, doesn't do the bill justice.  Notice how well camoflaged this flamboyant fellow's lady is, on the top right.

We also spotted buffleheads:

And we saw pintails, ring necked ducks with their delicate rings around their bills, redheads with copper heads glistening in the sun, and a whole host of other lovely ducks who stayed too far away to be photographed.

Of course, there were plenty of great blue herons, with all their silly wispy feathers blowing in the breeze:

Dozens of red-winged blackbirds were staked out along the loop, showing off their bright epaulets and being all territorial:

Unsurprisingly, there were lots of Canada geese hanging around, and they were remarkably tolerant of me and my camera.

They didn't even hiss at me.  It seems they are mighty used to the visitors.

The area of Montezuma NWF that burned covers something like 660 to 700 acres (reports vary), and is mostly just wetland reeds and cattails.  The peat that underlies the marsh did not catch on fire, which I understand the fire fighters were concerned about and which would have been a much bigger problem.

Last I heard, they still weren't sure what sparked the fire, and suspicion lay with a cigarette tossed from a vehicle, or even sparks from a dragging chain on the Thruway. 

Personally, I like big firefighting equipment, and found this thing rather cool:

I understand it's known as a "Marsh Master", and can carry water to a fire or pump water from the swamp for fire fighting. 

Officials from Montezuma said that, despite the fire, the wildlife was fine (although I'm sure more than a few insects got toasted).  There were reports that the nesting bald eagles were sitting in their nests as usual while the fire was happening, looking as stoic as ever while bits of ash accumulated on top of their heads. 

All in all, it will probably be good for the health of Montezuma to have had a little part of it burn. They do occasional controlled burns there anyway, to encourage the growth of beneficial plants and discourage invasive species.

After all, in nature there would be fires on occasion, sparked by lightning. It's only during relatively recent human history that wildfires are suppressed, usually out of a concern for human property.  Not allowing things to burn as they naturally would is an artificial interruption of the natural cycle of things, and of course increases the likelihood of all that accumulated dry material causing a massive raging fire.  Here's hoping that Easter fire does what it should, and makes the marsh healthier. 

What a treasure it is to have Montezuma only a twenty minute drive from my house.  I take it too much for granted.


Garden growth, and some Anxiety

>> Tuesday, April 13, 2010

After we returned from our travels on Saturday and put away the groceries, I decided to do a little yard and garden inventory.

The first happy surprise was discovered by my husband:

Well, hello, babies! I thought we had killed off the ferns last year. Apparently not!


Fiddleheads are so dang cute!

The bleeding hearts are especially enchanting this early in the season, too.  Their leaves are almost silvery.

And the apple tree is starting to grow some baby leaves.

Now for the part of the story that involves some Major Anxiety on my part.  We put up a new birdhouse for chickadees last weekend.  We'd had chickadees nesting in an old birdhouse in that same spot the past two springs, but last year the old birdhouse self destructed at the end of the summer.  So, we went out and bought a house that's specifically designed for chickadees and put it up.  They thought it was lovely to have a new apartment, apparently, since the day after we put it up a pair of chickadees started going in and out.

I hadn't seen them for a day or two, though, so I decided to sneak a peek see if they were actually building a nest in there.  I opened up the side of the house a teensie bit.  Nestled in the bottom of the house was a sweet little pile of moss with little tufts of fluffy stuff on top.  I leaned in closer.  What was that fluffy pink stuff on top?  It sort of looks like cotton candy, but not quite...

Egad!  My chickadees found some fiberglass insulation somewhere and are using that as nesting material! Criminy - I really don't know what chickadee hosting etiquette calls for under these circumstances. Fiberglass insulation cannot possibly make healthy nesting material for naked little baby chickadees.  Ouch!  I broke some major taboos and actually picked some of the fiberglass material out of the nest and disposed of it.  I promptly brought out a collection of fluffy alternatives, including dryer lint, dog fur, and fuzzy yarn, all being things I've had chickadees use for nests in the past.

I don't want to keep disturbing the chickadees so don't want to open the box again, but yikes!  I sincerely hope they either a) decided I was too much of a threat and built a new nest out of something other than fiberglass elsewhere, or b) decided to pile a bunch of non-fiberglass fluff on top of that horrid itchy stuff. I shall have to watch over the next few days to see if they are still going in and out, preparing to lay some eggs in there.  Should I just have left them alone?  Removed the nest entirely?  I haven't the foggiest idea.

Note to self:  make sure fiberglass insulation is never exposed where critters can find it.  We had trouble when we first moved in with some naked feral cats who were getting into the basement through a small opening that was lined with fiberglass insulation.  It turns out that having fiberglass embedded in their skin causes cats to lose their fur.  Go figure.  We closed that space up long ago, though, and I'm not aware of any fiberglass insulation on our property that's exposed.  I shall have to do an inventory to confirm.  Somewhere in the neighborhood, though, there's still some enticing fuzzy Pink Panther fiberglass insulation available for the birds.  Ugh.


Too blue to be true

>> Monday, April 12, 2010

This past weekend was decidedly colder than some we've experienced lately, especially if one was exposed to the wind.  The sun was delicious, though, so Saturday afternoon we spent a few minutes along the Erie Canal trail just to see what was greening.

It turned out there was a lot of fresh glowing green.  It's amazing just how fast everything turns all different shades of green in the spring.  I particularly love how the trees get all spotty when their new leaves start to emerge.

The fresh bright buds against the sky made the sky seem an unbelievable shade of blue.

The colors were so bright they were almost neon in places.  Whenever the colors are that intense, I always think that if I painted a painting using those colors, people would think it was too bright to look real.  Sunsets often have that effect, but new growth and blue April sky can apparently be too intense to seem real, too.

Moss on the top of a post, outlined against the sky:

Since the wind was mighty cold but the sun so hot it was quickly thawing the frozen groceries in the car, we didn't linger long along the trail.  However, we did spot one odd thing that I cannot for the life of me explain:

The other side of it:

You can click on the photos to enlarge them.  It looked like perhaps a pellet of some kind?  It was super lightweight and stuck together into a tight little dry ball with some kind of saliva or mucus that dried clear and shiny.  It was composed largely of iridescent beetle wings.  There was some fuzzy stuff that looked like it might have been fur stuck in there, too, although it could have been some kind of plant matter.  I wished, not for the first time, that I had a good macro lens for the camera so I could show off its detail better.  It's on my (rather long) wish list.  I should have adjusted the aperture on the camera to get more of it in focus, but didn't think to do so until after I was home and downloaded the photos.

Any of my faithful readers have any ideas?

After we left the canal path to drive the rest of the way home, I made my husband pull over next to a bit of swamp so I could take some more photos.  The colors were just as magnificent in the swamp, with the water reflecting that unbelievably blue sky.

Last year's cattails were glowing in the sun:

There wasn't as much green in the swamp as there was along the trail, but just above the water tiny new cattails were starting to emerge:

If you look carefully, you can see a Canada goose sticking her neck out standing on a log in the center of this one:

We had to watch carefully for a few minutes before we could find the source of the echoing tapping sound emanating from a patch of cattails.  The culprit?  A downy woodpecker, pecking on one of the hollow reeds:

Have I mentioned my abiding love of swamps?  I especially adore them this time of year, when the frogs are gregarious and the mosquitoes few and far between.  I always find myself wanting a pair of waders when I look at a swamp like this - standing on its edge just isn't quite close enough.


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