It was wet and 39 degrees at the Tualatin River Refuge Wednesday morning. But I can never stay away for long.
Thanks to winter storms, the water is brown and running much faster than it was last summer and early fall.
I peeked under the rails of a footbridge, noticed this Great Blue Heron looking for breakfast, and took a dozen photos hoping to capture his face. He refused to cooperate but catching the elegant feathers on his body was enough.
The storms of the last two weeks were too much for a large old oak. The relatively new wetland overlook will need repairs.
Teddy and I meant to spend a few hours exploring Woodard Park in Tigard this morning. Instead, we stayed on the boardwalk at the end of Johnson Street and marveled at the Derry Dell Creek Restoration project.
Only a few years ago, Derry Dell Creek had become an ugly ditch that frequently threatened homes, property, and sewage systems. It was inhospitable to humans and wildlife, and it was a dead end for fish trying to move upstream.
Today, the creek is a messy, chaotic, living work of art; exactly what a healthy creek should be. It’s a piece of wild beauty in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood.
Now the creek is rich in inviting habitat for herons and many other birds.
There are streams of fast-moving water making ripples in the surface. The stream sometimes wanders around giant root balls and logs piled up like pick -up-sticks, other times it sits quietly at rest in pools. A pair of raptors nest in one of the tall trees standing over the creek
The restoration work received the Oregon State Land Board’s Stream Project Award in 2014.
One day soon, Teddy and I will go back to explore the rest of Woodard Park, and we will go back again in the spring to see what’s happening on Derry Dell Creek.
The backyard chimes I enjoyed so much in a tiny breeze last summer, are temporarily down. I wasn’t thinking about winter storms when I hung them outside my bedroom window last spring.
A few nights ago, tucked in my warm bed, I listened to a howling wind and buckets of rain splashing against the bedroom window. The wind and rain only only heightened my sense of warmth and security.
The storm woke me up every once in a while, but only long enough to turn my pillow over, snuggle deeper under the blankets, and drift back to sleep. My pillow was cool, the bed was warm, the dog was at my feet, and I remembered how fortunate I am.
A wild night of wind and heavy rain had flooded the paths in the oak savannah area of the refuge this week. Still, I counted myself lucky to be able to take a nice walk before the rain began again.
Thank to the storm the night before, the river was moving swiftly, carrying logs and debris. I rarely see any noticeable movement on the lazy Tualatin River. Drops from rain-soaked trees along the banks fell to the river, briefly expanded in concentric circles, then quickly disappeared before being replaced by others.
As I stood there, a single black goose flew over the river, reminding me of my ignorance in identifying waterbirds.
While walking to the river, I had seen a pair of Bald Eagles fly to the top of a tall fir overlooking a large pond crowded with ducks and geese. I’d first noticed the eagles because of the modest little chirrup sound they made as they landed. It’s a sound that doesn’t seem appropriate for such a magnificent creature. As for the ducks and geese, they didn’t appear alarmed, though I’m sure the eagles were planning dinner.
I left the eagles and took the path into the woods and out to the wetland viewing platform where I could see several ponds in the distance and a small herd of deer gathered together on the grassland about half a mile away.
On the way back, I glanced to my left just in time to see the eagles land together in a fir tree directly across the river from me. It is hard to miss the bright white plumage of the huge bird. One of the eagles seemed to be sitting low on a nest and the other sat beside the nest, tall and confident. I lingered under the dripping trees for a while just to savor the sight.
The minute I first saw the huge windows in the back of the little house, I was blinded to the broken down backyard fence and kitchen cabinets, the oversized low-hanging bedroom fan threatening decapitation, an aged dirty carpet covering a plywood floor, and a multitude of smaller sins.
Love, after all, is the ability to look past the warts and treasure the good. I told myself I would fix what I could, when I could.
The windows were old, no longer fit, and couldn’t be locked. I saw them as my year-round access to the outdoors and whatever wildlife I could nurture in my tiny backyard.
Butterflies, bees, tiny green tree frogs, and garter snakes live in my new little yard,
Hummingbirds found the feeder the day I first put it up. A scrub jay and a pair of house wrens frequent the yard and drink from the bird bath. Skunks and squirrels and chipmunks live nearby. I only need to pay attention to enjoy their presence.
The house is close to the wildlife refuge and the autumn skies are often filled
with large flocks of noisy gossiping geese.
Yesterday morning, as I was looking out my back window I saw a tremendous flurry of activity in a neighbor’s large tree. Hundreds of Cedar Waxwings were filling up on the bright orange berries covering that tree. Cedar Waxwings are the most nattily dressed of birds. I was so delighted to see them that I forgot to take a picture.
Feeding wild birds can be a delightful distraction in these days of social isolation; but not so much when you find yourself dealing with sprouting seed under your feeder, wet and rotting bird seed, and squirrels who hog what little is left. It took years, but I finally learned that it is possible to enjoy feeding backyard birds without the mess, the spoilage, and the waste, and without inviting rodents to share the feast.
I learned by making mistakes, many mistakes; none more disconcerting than the sunny afternoon I realized I was hosting a family of rats under the feeder (The Honeymooners). Having made so many mistakes, I’d like to share some things that took all the fuss out of what should be one of life’s small joys.
To get the most pleasure out of your yard birds you really only need a few things, a source of water, a good quality feeder and the right food.
Whether you feed or not, consider a bird bath filled with fresh, clean water. Thirsty birds will gladly stop by, and the antics of bathing birds are endlessly entertaining. An inexpensive concrete bath is perfect, but a shallow bowl or ceramic container will do. Even a large rock with a natural indentation makes a lovely bath.
Most important is a clean bath and fresh water. The bath should be kept free of scum. I keep a stiff brush by the faucet to quickly clean the concrete bath as I replenish water. The best bird baths have a gradual slope so that the birds can wade into the depth they prefer. If yours doesn’t slope, a few decorative rocks of different sizes will enable birds to use it more easily.
Feeder and Seed
Your feeder should keep seed dry. Rotting seed, wasted seed, and the mess under your feeder, can kill the birds and will eventually make you feel like trashing the idea of bird feeding.
I stick with a gazebo style feeder and keep it full of sunflower “hearts” (chopped sunflower seeds). Sunflower hearts are the only seed I buy. Since they are already shelled and broken up, even finches love them.
Don’t waste your money on bags of seed mixes. They contain a large percentage of “filler” seeds that the birds don’t eat. You’ll find sunflower hearts in the in the garden section of your grocery store, not the pet section. You can also get them at bird shops, and yard and garden stores.
The gazebo style feeder is ideal for beauty and practicality. Food stays dry until the bird enters the feeder and coaxes the seed from the plastic center cone. A mesh floor keeps water from collecting in the feeder. Because the seed is dispensed in the center of the gazebo, and because it holds only shelled, chopped, sunflower seeds, not a single shell or seed hits the ground. There is absolutely no waste, no shells to attract rodents, and no rot to sicken the birds.
Placing your Feeder
Pick an open spot in your yard, about ten feet from overhanging branches, or any structure which will allow a clever squirrel to jump on top of the feeder. Don’t place your feeder near undergrowth where your neighbor’s cat can lay in wait. Mount your feeder about five feet high (a metal pole in a concrete block is ideal). Don’t forget to add an inexpensive metal squirrel baffle under the feeder, about four feet above the ground.
Now you are ready for years of bird watching without the mess.
If you are interested in attracting colorful woodpeckers, and delightful flocks of tiny Bush Tits, you may consider offering suet to the birds. Suet is fat from cattle and a delight to woodpeckers and other insect eaters. Directions for making suet are available online but I much prefer buying suet blocks at same place I get seed. It’s not expensive, and the birds have not complained.
Suet can also attract more aggressive birds like Starlings, Crows, and Jays; birds that can quickly finish off a suet cake and discourage the birds you want to feed. The trick is to buy a holder that is only open on the bottom. Woodpeckers and Bush Tits are fine hanging upside down while they dine; crows and starlings don’t like it at all and will soon give up trying.
Hummingbirds are fascinating back yard guests. The often behave like ferocious little terriers of the bird world, zipping after each other like fighter pilots and keeping the area around a feeder exciting. The formula for food is simple, four parts water, one-part sugar. Never use honey or any other kind of sweetener and never add coloring. It’s important to thoroughly wash the feeders and give fresh food frequently.
I’m hoping there is something here that will make your bird feeding simpler, less messy, and much more fun. Wishing you a happy spring enjoying the wild birds in your own yard!
If the fish in your backyard pond kept disappearing, you’d get tired of replacing them. You’d start focusing on getting rid of the character who was eating them, most likely a raccoon.
That’s why Debbie and Jerry bought a large Havahart live trap, set it up near their pond, baited it with tuna fish, and waited. Several mornings later Jerry stepped out the back door, saw they had something in the trap, and was immediately disappointed to realize they had apparently caught someone’s black and white cat.
Fortunately, Jerry was approaching the trap from the rear when he realized what he really had in that wire cage.
The back end was all Jerry could see of the little skunk. That was good. It meant the skunk could not see him.
Quietly, Jerry backed away from the cage. He would much rather have dealt with a thirty-pound snarling raccoon than a five-pound skunk. He needed advice.
Clackamas County Fish and Wildlife said, “You have to release it. Take it five miles past the Oregon City limits and let it go.”
“Don’t you have someone who can come out and help me?” Jerry asked.
It’s a skunk in a large wire cage. I won’t be able to get anywhere near it!
“We don’t do that, sir. You have to take it out of town.”
How about a humane way to get rid of it without getting close?” Jerry asked.
“No! You are required to take it five miles out of town.”
Jerry was running short of patience by then, “How about I take it to your offices and release it there?”
“No! Do not bring it here, sir and do not do anything to that skunk! We may send a officer out to your house and make sure you properly release it!”
Jerry had to work that morning but he came up with a plan.
Debbie grew up on a farm in Colton. She knows skunks and she says, “If a skunk can’t see you, it won’t spray you.”
Holding up a large tarp so the skunk couldn’t see him, Jerry tip-toed quietly through the tulips, past the pond and right up to the wire cage. Still hidden, he carefully covered the entire cage with the tarp. Then he used several bungee cords to make sure the tarp was tied down tightly. Next, Jerry lifted the large cage to the back of their small Chevy pickup. The skunk was quiet.
Jerry planned to park the truck in a shady spot at his office and then, after work, take the skunk out of the city and release it.
Sailing down I-205, with the skunk in the back of his truck, Jerry was feeling pretty confident.” So far so good,” he thought!
It wasn’t long before Jerry noticed honking, a lot of honking. Then the driver of a white Toyota flew by and scowled at Jerry. Suddenly Jerry picked up the powerful scent of skunk. Panic took hold of him when he looked in the back of the pickup and saw the tarp flapping in the wind. People in the lane next to him flew by as fast as they could, some of them were gesturing toward the back of the truck. Many were making obscene gestures. Those who passed carried with them the scent of a terrified freeway-riding skunk.
They say that a skunk can spray about six times in a row to a distance of ten feet. But this skunk was really terrified and Jerry swears the skunk never stopped shooting until they arrived at Jerry’s work. In any event, the ten-foot range must have been extended to hundreds of feet behind the truck – what with the wind produced by the freeway speeds.
Jerry made it to work and parked in a shady spot far away from any other vehicles. He told his work buddy, John, the tale of his morning adventure.
“Skunks have never bothered me,” John said, “I’m a single man with a cabin in the woods. Bring the skunk out to my place and let him loose. He’s welcome!”
After work, Jerry carefully tied the tarp down again and followed John out to the cabin. In a pleasant wooded spot they slowly lifted the tarp from the front of the cage.
John stood behind the cage, held the tarp in front of himself, and lifted the door of the cage. The skunk could see nothing but freedom.
He waited. And waited.
Jerry couldn’t see any reason to wait for the skunk to gather courage so he went home.
Now it was just John and the skunk.
John continued waiting for several minutes.
Since he was hiding behind the tarp, John couldn’t see the skunk but he was pretty sure it hadn’t left the cage yet.
He continued to wait.
After a while, John peeked over the tarp, just barely, he was too nervous to pull it back far enough to see the cage.
He continued to wait. There seemed to be no movement from inside the cage.
Then he thought, “Maybe I looked away for a second, the little guy ran out, and I missed it completely.”
So he lowered the tarp a little bit more, peeked further over, and looked into the shiny black eyes of one mad and disoriented skunk. Before John could think, the skunk turned, fired, then proudly waddled off.
Too late John dropped the tarp and ran to his cabin.
It’s twenty years since we built the pond and this was the first winter we’ve had a net over it. The net was great for keeping fallen leaves out, but we were mostly trying to protect our ten-for-a-dollar feeder fish from the Great Blue Heron.
This makes no sense. We built the pond for the heron, not for the fish. The fish are food. We throw the tiny things in the pond every spring and they spend a relaxing summer eating and growing. The heron always gets most of them before the next spring.
And when he does, I feel bad.
The problem is that the fish become pets. By the end of summer they have come to expect to be fed when they see us near the pond. We take pride in their beauty, their health, and their growth. Some of them have interesting and distinctive markings. This is where our priorities get confused. We start with the intention of nurturing wildlife but end up nurturing the food.
Dave wanted to protect the fish this spring and summer, but I thought we should stick to our original intent – welcome the heron and his appetite. Then we took the net off last week and I saw the fish! Tiny babies from last spring have grown. Some of the babies actually hatched in our pond. I recognized the gold one with the large black oval on his back and I saw the white fish that has been around for three years.
I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t let them be eaten. The last several years I’ve been lashing four long pieces of bamboo together forming a tic-tac-toe grid. I toss several of the bamboo structures in the pond and hope they discourage the heron. It hasn’t worked so far.
I’m trying something new this year. I attached the bamboo to stakes in the ground near the edge of the pond. That way the heron can’t use his trick of pushing all the bamboo to one end of the pond while he dines.
This morning we were delighted to admire a flock of robins bathing while standing on the floating bamboo.
When the heron comes, it’s a wonderful thing to see. He makes a deep croaking sound as he stalks around the pond. It’s a prehistoric noise straight out of the Jurassic Park sound track. Once in a while one of our clever ideas slows him down for a while, but eventually he will outsmart us. He always does.
Until then, the fish are happy and the robins are loving the bamboo!
In this post I explain why I choose experiencing a great moment over taking a great photo. Please see my invitation at the end of this post and seriously consider sharing your story. I look forward to hearing from you!
Last year my family and I had the incredible good fortune to be on a whale-watching tour in Kuai. It was a dream-come-true. Eight of us perched on a yellow rubber boat that seemed too flimsy for hanging around humpback whales, but it worked fine.
Our guide gave us a great piece of advice, “Don’t bother with your cameras. Don’t try to take pictures. You’ll ruin it for yourselves. Just enjoy!”
We watched mama humpbacks with their babies. Because they are in the ocean, we were seeing a lot of exciting flukes and backs.
After two hours, our guide began to turn us back toward shore when a sudden explosion of water erupted directly in front of us. One whale had burst out of the water and seemed to stand on his tail before dropping back into the churning sea. It was breathtaking, a stunning end to our tour, and it lasted less than ten seconds.
I have the picture in my mind, and it will live there as long as I live.
Still, I sometimes regret the photos I never got, the pictures I’ll never be able to share. After years of wandering the neighborhood and wildlife refuges, I have plenty of mental snapshots:
*A morning at Oaks Bottom when I watched a coyote chase down a fat nutria, catch it, and carry it off into the bushes.
*The summer night I saw the great horned owl looking down at me from the top of the redwood next door.
*Dozens of ducklings trailing after their mothers every spring at Oaks Bottom and the Rhododendron Garden.
*The July morning I watched a mama raccoon lead her three little ones into the creek and teach them to turn over rocks and hunt for food.
*The very young coyote pup who jumped out of the bushes, cocked his silly little head, and watched the dog and I walk down the street.
*Every spring when the does finally bring the fawns out and show them off.
*Another July when I accidently confronted a mama raccoon and her babies on the trail at the refuge.
My head is full of delightful fleeting encounters. Maybe yours is too. Photographs are wonderful, but if you have to choose between a great shot and relishing the moment, choose the moment.
Then you can tell everyone about it! That’s what I do.
AN INVITATION: If you have a memory (with our without a photo) please consider sharing it here. Your stories are a gift only you can give and they are more interesting than you may realize. Send me an email or leave a comment here. We can talk on the phone or, if you’re willing, we can meet. I can’t wait to hear your story.
I call her Lily now, which doesn’t make any sense because I didn’t name her until she disappeared. Besides, I don’t name wild animals. I first saw her three years ago when she was just a spindly-legged new fawn. She was a pied fawn, more white than brown. There were no other deer so conspicuous in the herd. Tiny fawns are left alone when their mothers are feeding and I worried she would be easy prey for coyote.
Near the end of her first summer, I spotted her from a quarter mile away one morning. She seemed to be alone in a grassy field. When I got closer, I realized the entire herd was there. The pied had been easy to spot while the others blended in and were only visible when I was very close to them.
She stayed with her mother that first winter. They grazed quietly together, sometimes only a few hundred yards away from the herd, often completely alone, as though they weren’t part of the herd.
I saw Lily the next spring with her mother and a new fawn.. They made a pretty trio, the lovely doe, the pied, and her little brown baby sister.
That summer I saw her every week or so, but not with her mother; she was always by herself.
I came to believe that the rest of the herd didn’t want her near. It seemed like common sense. Her pretty white coat reflected brightly in sun or shade. Surely her presence endangered the whole herd.
Winter came again and I didn’t see her at all, though I often saw the other deer. Eventually, I decided something might have happened to the little doe. Then, a year ago, on a foggy early spring morning, I turned a corner near the fields. There she stood, fully grown, filled out, and healthy-looking.
She was pulling on the new buds of a rose bush. Many people hate the deer for their rose-loving ways. I glanced at the window of the house, half-expecting to see an angry homeowner, but a woman stood in the window wearing a blue bathrobe, watching the first of her rosebuds disappear, and smiling broadly.
There is nothing like starting the day with good news. The pied doe was alive and well!
I thought her story would stop there, with a known and happy ending. She was separated from the herd, probably because of her conspicuous color, yet she was near, and well. Then I saw her once more.
Last fall, in the middle of a warm afternoon, she was in the street in front of my house. The neighbors across the street have an old apple tree and I often get to watch the deer enjoy fallen fruit. But Lily wasn’t eating apples. She was moving back and forth restlessly. Turning to start back toward Kellogg Creek where the rest of the herd would likely be, then turning anxiously in the other direction. She didn’t seem to know where to go.
I have seen very young bucks doing the same thing in late summer, just before breeding season. I was told the bucks have been turned away from the herd and must move on. They act confused and upset. Its the only comparison I can make to the way the doe was behaving that afternoon.
I saw her make a decision that day. She marched forward, into the unknown, down Snowberry toward Briggs. If she stayed on that path she could only end up on Oatfield Road and, perhaps, McLoughlin. A doe was killed on Oatfield a few years ago. McLoughlin Boulevard would surely kill her. There was nothing I could do but watch. Maybe she went around the block and back to Kellogg Creek, but my gut tells me she was leaving.
I like to think the cars stopped on McLoughlin and watched her make her way across the busy highway and on to a new home. That happened once for my old blind dog, Jasper. I heard about it later, how all the cars stopped because the drivers seemed to understand he was trying to find his way home. He made it too, with a little help from a stranger.
Why did I name her after she was gone? I’m not sure. I was able to pick her out of the herd. I was able to follow her story. I came to know her, so now I call her by name.