Thursday, May 30, 2013

bright red bee eater

bright red bee eater
bashing its body against
its own reflection

Driving home this afternoon, I admire a "blue cloud," a patch of open sky to the southeast, hoping for signs of letup in the rain. But when I look the other direction, the sky is covered by a massive dark gray eminence, moving fast. I barely make it home before the tumultuous 70 mph wind and torrential downpour. It blows in and blows out quickly, taking down more trees (including a big willow on a little island on a neighbor's pond). Soon the sun comes out and every rain-soaked plant glistens. 
         Then a mysterious bright red bird appears under the bird feeder and begins bashing itself against the sun porch windows, over and over and over. I've seen this behavior with male birds before during breeding season. He's obviously mistaking his reflection in the glass for a rival male, which he's trying to drive away from his nesting mate. 
          I've never seen a totally all red bird like this before. He doesn't have a crest, so he's not a Cardinal. I go outside to try to shoo him away from the windows. He's so intent on his mission that he lets me get really close so I take a few photos, but he just keeps moving from window to window as I follow him around the house. Once, he flies off to the cherry tree and returns to the fence railing with a green grub, which he quickly consumes, then back to attacking his imagined rival. Later, he catches what looks like a wasp, then beats and rubs the insect on the fence railing before gulping it down. In between bashing bouts, the "red and all red" bird sits on a branch and makes a sound like "Chi up!," which must be his mating call.
          I'm wondering where his mate is when I suddenly I recall seeing an unfamiliar olive brown bird a few days ago hopping around our Summer Sweet bush. She was pecking at last year's empty seed pods, then finally breaking one off and flying away with it. I figured she was on a nest-building project and now I think she must be the female Summer Tanager.
          I go inside to call my bird expert friend for advice. She thinks it might be a Scarlet Tanager or a Summer Tanager and suggests taping cardboard to the windows to block the reflection. That would be a lot of cardboard and the windows are wet. John tries plastering the windows with wet leaves, but the persistent bird can still see its reflection, so all we can do is wait for it to get dark. 
          When I do an internet search, I discover that our crazy bird is a Summer Tanager. Southern Iowa is its northern-most breeding grounds. This bird is special because it's the only all red bird, and also because it specializes in eating wasps and bees. The bird has mastered the technique of killing the insect by bashing it against a branch (or fence railing) and, even more amazing, how to rub the stinger off before swallowing its catch. Well, we'd be delighted to have our own private wasp eater, but our bee keeper neighbor is not going to be happy about having him around!
          The next day, Red is back, but he's progressed from body flinging to body bobbing. He perches on top of the bench outside the sun porch, facing the window, and bobs his body up and down over and over. And today, no sign of him. Perhaps he's busy catching bugs for baby birds.

Monday, May 27, 2013

raindrops bejewel blue

raindrops bejewel blue
iris, the weight of water
bending the blossom down

Memorial Day, more rain. The tall blue iris on their meter long stems have fallen to the ground with the weight of water droplets still clinging to the soft petals. I fetch bamboo poles and make tripods to prop them up. Still the raindrops bejewel the blossoms like sequins on a blue velvet ball gown.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

tube line bale wrapper

tube line bale wrapper
encases giant round hay bales
in a white plastic tube

In the two dry days between rainstorms, local farmers not only cut and baled hay, but also wrapped the round bales in a long plastic tube for protection from the elements. It kind of looks like they're stuffing sausage for a giant. Come winter, these huge bales of alfalfa will end up in the bellies of cattle. Last year, hay sold at $5 per bale, but this year, because of last year's drought, bales sell for $100 apiece. There have been reports of theft, so perhaps encasing the bales helps protect them from pilfering as well.

Monday, May 20, 2013

mayapple blossoms

mayapple blossoms
cradle their nascent fruit under
twin green umbrellas

The third week of May and it's tornado season already. So far, the funnels have missed us, but last night we had a big thunderstorm with high winds that knocked down trees and sent flash floods catapulting down rivers. Today while I'm picking up fallen branches, I stop to admire a clonal colony of mayapples growing in the shade of a big oak tree. Under the protection of the green umbrella leaves, I find only one blossom still intact, with the nascent fruit wearing its golden stigma like a crown. The "apple" has a lemony taste, but should be eaten sparingly because large amounts are poisonous.
           This congregation of mayapples popped up less than a month ago, sending up the most amazing shoots from the interconnected rhizomes. At first they look like white cones, then these protective husks split open and the bud appears, looking like a green brain sitting on top of a pair of tightly folded leaves. As the shoots continue to unfold, they look like angels with delicate green wings or magicians wrapped in russet cloaks. Finally, the deeply lobed leaves spread their umbrellas on paired stalks over the buds. 

Here a mayapple leaf holds a collection of flowers blown off by the storm: one white mayapple petal and several shagbark hickory blossoms.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

frightened by a fish

frightened by a fish
jumping, a gaggle of geese
flee across the lake

Rounding a curve on the path around Bonnefield Lake on a hot spring afternoon, I catch a gaggle of Canada geese launching one by one into a small cove, four adult females and seven goslings. I'm amused to see the mothers with their babies because the Park Department has been trying to prevent these giant birds (Branta canadensis maxima) from nesting at the lake. Their droppings make a mess on the sand beach, the nitrogen in the droppings causes algal growth that reduces water quality, and the feces may carry the eggs of a parasite that causes swimmer's itch rash (cercarial dermatitis). So the Park staff strung rope along the shoreline, with the notion that geese don't like anything obstructing their access to the water. I've seen some of the "barricade" in other areas but none around this little cove, so their partial efforts failed with these geese.
          They look like teachers taking a group of students out for recess. While the adults watch, the goslings bob and splash about. Suddenly, a big fish jumps not far from the "playground." Startled, one of the geese instinctively lifts her wings to fly off, but then, remembering her charges, she turns the take-off into a dash across the water, followed by all the others. Fright forgotten, they swim sedately toward the middle of the lake.
          It's mid-May and so hot that the Park Department has already opened the lake for swimming. There's a roped-off swimming area by the beach, but because some swimmers like to swim all the way across the lake, there are long buoys placed at intervals for them to rest on. So far, the only swimmers I see are the geese.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

first woodland wildflowers

first woodland flowers --
white trout lily, dutchman's breetches,
pink-tinged spring beauty

After a long, cold early Spring, temperatures suddenly soared into the upper nineties (98 F, 37 C) in early May, way too early. Woodland wildflowers erupted in a hurry in late April and are already gone to seed by mid-May. These charming flowers prefer to grow in dappled shade, so I find them easily beside the path along Pilgrim Creek. White Trout Lily, so-called because of the spotted trout-shaped leaf, has upward curving petals that look like shooting stars. Dutchman's Breetches, named for the flowers that appear like upside-down pantaloons, look to me more like a congregation of white-winged angels hovering above the lacy leaves. The star-shaped Spring Beauty has a delicate pink-tinged star-shaped blossom, and in addition, edible roots that also give it the name "Fairy Spud."

Friday, May 10, 2013

sweet scent of wild plum

sweet scent of wild plum -- 
honey bees hover over 
froth of white blossoms

With frost continuing into May, the wild plums blossomed late this year. The first fruit trees to bloom, their sweet scent quickly attracted our neighbor's honey bees, as well as other pollinators such as native green bees, wasps and even horse flies. I, too, am drawn by the alluring fragrance and stand for a long time with my nose close to the small, frilly white flowers, attuning my breath to the hum of the bees.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

early morning fog

early morning fog
dapples the tulips with drops
of glistening dew

After four days of rain, this morning the rain makers seem to have run out of steam, having only enough energy to make tiny droplets that hang in the air as pale gray fog and accumulate on plants in the form of glistening dewdrops.
          We had planned on going to the annual Tulip Festival in Pella, a town in central Iowa founded by Dutch. The festival was scheduled to begin on Thursday, but a cold, steady rain began on Wednesday. By Thursday morning the temperature had dropped to just above freezing and further north they had 11 inches of snow. The rain continued right through Friday and Saturday, so we didn't make it to the festival this year. 
          After the fog lifted this morning, I found a little patch of tulips in town, bedazzled with dewdrops, holding their own little festival. Then in the late afternoon, a sudden cloud burst, complete with pea-sized hail. Poor, bedraggled tulips!

clusters of red blossoms

clusters of red blossoms
shoot forth long red tassels,
unfold golden wings 

The red maples by the Aquatic Center seem to be in a hurry, like so many other plants in springtime. In less than two weeks, they produce both flowers and fruit. These particular maples have male flowers that pop out like pom poms in clusters of red blossoms all along the dark red twigs. From the five-lobed calayx, multiple red styles protrude and lengthen in a few days into long tassels ending in tiny bell-shaped blossoms. Within another week the flowers develop into fruit in the form of double-winged samara. And a week later, before the leaves are fully out, the pairs of golden wings will carry the fat green seeds away on the wind.