Nature Notes, April 6th – 14th

This is the first of many blurry and shadowy photos ahead as I usually just snap quick photos for later identification, usually while juggling a child or two (or three, or four). We spent this afternoon at the park. I found a robin’s nest in the highest tower of the playground. What beautiful eggs! We lifted each of the kids up for a peek, then shooed them away to protect the nest. I hope the parents don’t abandon it. They picked a busy place to raise their babies.

A week ago only small bushes and the crabapple trees were leafing out. Why do they sprout leaves before the larger trees? The willows came to life again at the same time. For several days the treetop landscape from our hill was all grays and browns, interspersed with fresh yellow-green patches in all the damp valleys and pondsides where the willows grow. We have one in our backyard, too, which makes me happy. I love willows. A week later and many of the larger trees are putting out leaves as well. I found out an interesting tidbit while reading. We often worry about a mid-winter thaw confusing the trees and triggering too-early buds. However, it turns out that trees rely not on the temporary temperature but on receiving a set total number of cold days to start budding. That’s why you want to plant trees grown in your own area. Among other problems, a southern tree planted in the north could be programmed to leaf out too early for this area and get killed off by frost.

The crocuses are dying off. Daffodils are at peak bloom. Many yards have large patches of pretty blue squill. I took the kids on a hike earlier this week where we saw mayapples popping up, trillium, bloodroot, one lonely first bluebell, and this hard-to-identify flower. The closest match I could find in my wildflowers guide was cutleaf toothwort (a Harry Potter-esque name if I ever heard one). It’s a perfect match in leaf, bud, color, and design except that every description of cutleaf toothwort I read said it has four petals and this has five. Any naturalists want to help me out?


At home that afternoon I realized we have large patches of violets in the yard. We also have a redbud tree I hadn’t spotted before. You can’t see the flowers in the pine-shaded woods unless the sun hits it just right so it snuck under our radar. My Mom identified the last plant below as phlox, but wasn’t sure of the variety.

On another hike on Palm Sunday we heard spring frogs by the hundreds in a pond. We also saw lots of deer tracks, and found a large patch of fur where a deer was rubbing off its heavy winter coat.

I usually think of herons as solitary birds but the other day five white herons flew low over the road in front of my car. I’ve seen many others, mostly blue, flying in pairs lately. It turns out that herons nest in heronries of up to 150 birds in the spring. Given the numbers I’m seeing there must be one nearby. They usually pick isolated places to nest like islands or more remote patches of woods so I suppose we won’t get a look. From what I’ve read, what we think of as a white herons is often just a white stage of the blue heron. Either way, they always look eerily prehistoric to me.

Much earlier this spring I saw a huge flock of unfamiliar big birds flying high overhead. Another flew over as I picked the kids up from school the next day. They had unfamiliar and beautiful calls I’d never heard before. Annie’s aide wondered if they were herons, but a heron’s call is a hoarse croak. I finally pinned them down as sandhill cranes. Quite a rare thing to spot (and hear!) around here as they’re not local and just fly through during their migration to northern breeding grounds after a winter in the warm South.

Many other birds are back to stay. I’ve seen lots of cardinals and robins, of course. Pigeons, gulls, and swallows have returned. Jack has a great memory. After hearing a mourning dove for the first time a couple of weeks back he heard another on a walk this week and recognized it right away. The marshland is full of red-winged blackbirds. I see several hawks a day, including a couple of small hawks or falcons I don’t recognize. Are they juveniles or another variety? A pretty little house finch hung out by the dining room window as we ate this weekend and sent me off on a long rabbit trail to identify it.

Bees and wasps are back, and we came out to find box elder bugs in tight little clusters covering the front of the house by the hundreds. Annie had a grand time gently poking them off. Then Josie staggered up the front steps, toddled over to inspect a giant clump, turned around, and slowly, placidly…sat on them. Good thing we’re used to laundry.

We’ve had lots of beautiful open windows weather lately. Long walks, hikes, park afternoons, picnics on the deck. Spring!

 

Advertisements

Neighborhood Walk

Yesterday I bundled the still-sick babies into the stroller and took all four sniffling kids out for a long walk in the fresh air. We found this beauty down the back lane to the forest preserve ponds. Forsythia is my favorite spring bloom. I love how it bursts into jubilant sunny sprays when most scenery is still gray and dreary.

We live in a semi-rural area surrounded by woods and farms. Our neighborhood has larger lots with patches of forest preserve land, marshes, creeks, and ponds intermixed. Deer, coyotes, foxes, possums, raccoons, and smaller wildlife hide out in the timber and prairies. Yesterday, though, the wildlife was less dramatic but very plentiful. After five months of no worms the earthworm hordes suddenly emerged by the hundreds. Slugs, too. In other words, little kid heaven. Everyone except the baby got to hold earthworms but I denied the request to keep them as pets. When I pulled out the phone to catch a picture of the first worm Jenny helpfully leaned in and told the worm “Cheeeeeeese!” All this led to an afternoon rabbit trail on Google learning about earthworm habits and slug identification. We also heard the first mourning dove of the year. We couldn’t spot it so I showed the kids pictures of one at lunch.

I know it’s a standard gripe now – “O tempora! O mores! O technology!” – and I spend my fair share of hours in front of a screen. However, we’re also watching the effects of excessive technology in our new neighborhood and they’re dramatic. Earlier this week I read another doom-and-gloom article stating that the average child aged 8-18 now spends 1/3 of their hours sleeping, 1/3 of their hours in school, and 1/3 of their time in front of a screen. I’d have rolled my eyes except that, sadly, it’s true here. You would never guess that half the houses in our neighborhood have children in them. We try to get our kids outside daily, often a couple times a day. We’re still limited by the fact that they’re not old yet enough to go outside without our supervision. Whenever the weather allows we’re out with bikes and scooters on the driveway, taking walks, playing baseball in the yard, hitting a park, or hiking nearby trails. In our nine months in this home I have literally never seen any children other than ours out on a walk with their parents. I didn’t even realize any small children lived in several of the houses near us until other neighbors told me. Most have large yards and woods. Many have trampolines, long driveways perfect for bikes, and elaborate swing sets. A few even have pools. And yet, it’s a ghost town out there.

The Man and I recently slipped out for an evening hour at a coffee shop together. Three teen girls sat at a table near us sharing a delicious-looking chocolate fondue in the cozy shop. It looked like it would have been so much fun as a teen…except that two spent the entire time staring at their phones. The third tried to strike up a conversation but all they talked about were various friends being bullied on social media (that, and the need to diet, despite all being Size 0 or 2 from the look of them). They barely cracked a smile and almost never looked at one another. After an hour they shuffled out. We left feeling so sorry for those poor glum girls and the pressures they face, and a bit depressed ourselves. So, on that cheery note, get outside with your kids! Teach them to interact with the world without an electronic device always in hand. Look at some slugs! (On second thought, perhaps that’s not the best motiviation…).

Spring and the Infectious Diseases Ward

We’ve been sick a lot this winter thanks to a combination of preschool germs, four kids who still put things in their mouths, lots of indoor time due to nasty weather, and finally coming out of our preemie-with-immature-lungs cocoon and spending time in public places now that Jenny is over two. Among multiple other illnesses the entire family caught RSV (Josie developed croup to boot). We’ve had three rounds of the stomach flu in the last month. The poor Man, bless his heart, had to spend the night on call in the ICU in a nauseous haze. Just as half the family got over the stomach flu we traded with the other half and caught a nasty cold that involves four days of high fevers and general misery before mellowing out to a week of hacking, runny noses, and sneezing. The baby cried for a good four hours today, and the kids spent half of yesterday slumped on the couch watching Daniel Tiger as their brains leaked out their ears. Basically, you would not want us as party guests right now. In fact, you don’t want us out on your driveway, and it’s probably best if we don’t even glance your direction while passing by.

Outside, though, things are looking up. There’s a new spring “first” every way we turn:

That first short-lived crocus was quickly followed by six more. Two days ago I spotted the first daffodil blooming up on the wooded ridge between our house and the neighbors. That afternoon, driving Annie home from an appointment, I glanced at the prairie to my right; overnight every scrub bush had produced a delicate haze of newborn green leaves. Just before dinner yesterday we loaded our sick kids in the car for a drive and passed new rain-dotted snowdrops. The yards around us are starting to green up. On a damp drizzly walk this afternoon we heard the first woodpecker of the year drumming away in the woods, and the first frogs calling in the marsh as deer ran away from us through the chest-high grass.


(I turned around after photographing flowers and spotted an audience)

Two days ago we enjoyed a random temperature spike into the 70s. Nobody felt great but the twins joined me for a bit as we cleared out dead leaves and old tomato vines from the kitchen garden. Eventually they ran off to climb their favorite backyard tree and told me they were Winnie the Pooh trying to reach some honey. In the afternoon I loaded sick babies in the stroller and we headed off on a gloriously sunny walk.

It’s not all grim inside. The twins are pulling out of their colds, Jenny is close behind, and hopefully Josie will follow soon. I found this set of magnetic wooden people for $2 at a consignment sale and it’s bought us some sick days breathing room. I was excited that it’s a racially diverse set. Annie loves them and keeps begging to play with “the Maggot People.” 

Hair day needs to happen, sick or well.. My skills need work but I liked this part line pattern.

Jenny has joined Josie in her ditch-the-pants obsession. We turned around from folding laundry this afternoon to proud little girl giggles and this sight: