Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Of Chickens...

...and foxes

Our fox family is back. We had a siting a couple weeks ago at Mom and Dad's and on Memorial day we spotted one fox in the morning and two in the evening. We've had foxes here for a while. The first spring that we were in the house, I got some grainy pictures of a fox sunning itself in our strawberry raised bed at the end of our lot. The fox also liked sunning itself on the neighbors flat bed trailer too. Last summer we had several sightings and I got some good shots (like this one below) of the fox behind Mom and Dad's field.
The pair (I use the term loosely as I seriously doubt it is the same pair over these last several years) have raised pups (or kits? or cubs? I should know that off the top of my head) in the neighbors horse barn and in the woods behind Mom and Dad's house. Foxes are beautiful any time of year, although this year their red coats fade to more tawny and later in the summer they will look downright raggedy as they shed their summer coat. But what of the chickens? Well Memorial day morning I was at the kitchen sink and Andrew was at the table eating breakfast and all of the sudden he said "Fox!" And pointed at the backyard. I didn't have my glasses on and convinced a fox perpetrated chicken snatch was about to occur, ran out the back door and down the yard in my socks shouting and clapping and hoping the chickens were okay. The chickens were okay. The fox was in the field along one of the fence lines. It took a few minutes for it to run back towards the horse barn. Maybe they will den there this year. We'll see. This is problematic. It means no more laid back chicken ranging. When the chickens are out now, Andrew or I or both of us will need to be out and nearby. No more doing housework for an hour while they range. We'll have to be out and about in the yard. The grass in the neighbors field was baled over the weekend. Now the foxes can scavenge for any animals that were run over by the hay equipment and it is much easier for them to chase mice in the short cover of grass. It may very well be the foxes still aren't aware of the chickens even though they have been thirty yards away from them, or they don't recognize the chickens as a prey option...yet. In the evening, while Mom and Dad were here for dinner, we saw the fox again and we watched her on and off for an hour, keeping an eye on the chickens, as she raced around hay bales (I don't know why I am saying it was a female, I mean, who knows.) and stalked mice. I tried to get her in a mid air pounce with my sports speed on the camera but no luck yet. As you can see with the hay bale picture, I got very close and the zoom lens made up the difference. If I get any more good shots I will post them. I will leave you with this one below, of when the mate arrived on the scene. And I got them both in the same frame.

Robin Update: No hand-outs in the Avian World!

This story is a couple weeks old now, but that's okay. The first clutch of robins fledged about three weeks ago...or is it four now? Anyway, it was the Monday morning after the garden project painting the wash tubs blue and planting the mint and lemon balm. All day that Sunday, I caught glimpses of the juvenile robins hopping about the yard. On Monday morning when Andrew came home, he looked at the front porch and I greeted him at the front door. When I opened the door he said "look down at the welcome mat," and there, right by my feet was one of the juvenile robins. "Is he hurt?" I asked. We didn't know so I shut the door and got the camera and when I came back he had flown past the door and onto the grape vine tree.
I took several pictures of him, relieved that he could at least fly a bit. But I had to get ready for work. When I was switching laundry out though, I heard this really high pitched insistent chirping. I mean, it was almost ear splitting. So I went out to the front porch with the camera and he had moved on to our planter that is by the nest. He had basically flown as close to the nest as he could without actually going back to the nest and he kept up his high pitched crying.
The parent robins were both nearby in the garden with worms, but they wouldn't go near the juvenile at all. I wondered if he was begging for food but being cut off. Just the day before I had caught the robins refreshing the nest with grasses and ah, working on the next clutch so to speak. So I wrote Cornell, home of the best heron cam ever. If you haven't checked it out go now and see the babies. All five herons are thriving which shows the parents can find plenty of food for five hungry mouths. It's quite amazing to see these birds up close, and hilarious when the babies give the camera and extreme closeup. These nest cams are not only fun to watch, but gives scientists a whole new way to analyze behavior like never before. Below is the correspondence with Cornell, reprinted with their permission. Hi, we had four robins fledge from their front porch nest on Wednesday May 2. This morning, one of the juveniles was perched on one of our garden features just a few feet from the nest. The parents have already started to refurbish for the second clutch. this juvenile, was making very high pitched, insistent chirps. Neither adult robin would approach him or the nest and hovered about the garden at large. He did not appear hurt. Was he begging for food and the adults were trying to wean him off? Thanks Dear Julie, Some kids just don't get the hint! What you suspect is the most likely explanation for this behavior. I have even watched parents chase a youngster who keep coming around to beg for food when they believe that he ought to be feeding himself. We don't like watching that but, from the bird's perspective, it's really important that the youngster learn to fend for himself. I hope you've been watching the nest cams we've got up at our All About Birds website. There's one on a Red-tailed Hawk nest on the Cornell University campus where there are now three little balls of white fluff being fed regularly. They can be viewed at www.allaboutbirds.org/cornellhawks. In addition, four of the five eggs in the Great Blue Heron nest have hatched so the heron parents are being kept busy. They can be viewed at www.allaboutbirds.org/cornellherons. There's so much going on at the Lab that is fascinating. To learn more about some of those activities, sign up for our monthly eNewsletter at www.birds.cornell.edu. I also encourage you to visit our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/cornellbirds, where there is a community of people who are always asking and answering questions about birds. I'm so behind on blogging I haven't posted pictures of the robins right before they made their way into the wide world. Enjoy this series. I won't post pictures of the second robin clutch unless something notable happens.
And last but not least, a parent's work is never done. Here the male rests with a beakful of worms, waiting for me to leave before going to the nest. It's the male because the ring of white around his eyes is not very prominent and his feathers on top of the head give him more of a buzz cut look whereas a female has more of a sleek cap look to the top of her head.

The Scordatos Have Gone to the Birds...

Or it feels like it these days. Aside from the Robin news, we have a few kildeer about, the barn swallows are back in force, the bluebirds are still about, and the red winged blackbirds continue to be our nicest regular at the bird station. Here one of our resident males is hanging out in one of our oldest orchard trees.
We've had a couple yellow finches at the feeders, but they aren't in full force yet. And the mockingbirds are back. It's so much fun to here their range of song. Basically, when you go outside and it sounds like you have a bunch of birds in your backyard singing all at once, look for a single gray brown bird about the size of a dove but slimmer. Mockingbirds have white bars across the middle of their wings, and tend to look like pinwheels when they are spiraling about fighting another bird for territory (like the skirmish I saw around our pine trees a few weeks ago) or coupling their song with a dance (literally!) Last summer I watched a mockingbird perched on our electric pole and he would run through all of his songs once in the same order, then he would launch himself off the pole top and execute a tight loop, then land and do it all over again. He even let out a frog ribbit! Dad does not really believe this but it is true! I've read in books that they can mimic frogs, crickets and other insects. I read once that a mockingbird can have up to thirty tunes in his songbook. How amazing, they don't have their own song, but can pilfer any one elses. I would love to come across a mockingbird nest. I don't know where they like to nest and I've never seen them at the bird feeder. I've read that they like berries. Here is a picture of our resident mocker on one of our pine trees, belting out a favorite for the ladies.
Sometimes it is really a fun discovery to find a nest. I see them all the time in the pine trees while mowing and the other afternoon I found a sweet little nest in the grapes as I was watering them and wetting the ground down for the chickens to have a cool place to hang out. I think the nest is abandoned though. My guess is the birds built the nest thinking it a great site, then realized there was a lot of action going on, once Andrew got his grapes in the mail and started planting. I will be posting about Andrew's grapes one of these days soon.
In other bird news, (see, we really have gone to the birds) Andrew surprised me a couple weeks ago by building super bird feeder station to replace the assortment of hooks and feeders I had behind the house. It is a huge improvement and the height of the feeders is really nice too.
And finally, here's a shot of Molly, checking out a bird of a much different sort...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It was a year ago today...

That Andrew and I were sleeping in the guest room, and had most of our bedroom furniture in our master bath while we picked up shingles and other debris out of our backyard. Yup. On May 23 2011 tornado strength (but not the actual tornado) winds whipped past the hill on Parkview and took off most of the roof above our bedroom and half of the roof over our garage. The winds buckled our next door neighbors garage door inward, and chucked their super deluxe playground set over their chain link fence and into our yard. Two doors down, the front door blew off its hinges and into their kitchen. Andrew and I weren't home. Andrew was at work, and I had been in Columbus getting my hair cut. Dad called me as I was leaving Dublin to see where I was and which route I was taking. "161 is okay," he said, "it's going to go down 29 and head towards West Jeff." But of course, it didn't. I kept thinking as I went down 161, that man of man, the bulk of the deep blue gray, on the horizon, actually, it was the whole horizon, looked worse and I was heading straight for it. I didn't fathom how bad it would be, I didn't see any funnel clouds, but just past Irwin I had to stop in the middle of the road because it was raining so hard I couldn't see anything. I've never been in a rain like that ever. I didn't even trust myself to pull over and just hoped no one would rear end me. It only took a few minutes for the rain to lighten up so I could drive again and in the space of a few miles, stopped completely. By the time I pulled down our lane, I could see the pinks and oranges of the setting sun and hear birds singing. Then I pulled into our lane. It took a minute to computer that one, the house looked wrong and it took another minute to computer how it looked wrong. I didn't remember our roof being yellow...oh wait that's the plywood that's underneath the shingles, paper, and plastic. And what was wrong with our front porch. What is all that stuff on our front porch? Oh wait, it's the soffit under our front porch, all tour out and bent up in front of our door. Where were our garden boxes? Um, blown away apparently. Where were some of my terra cotta pots? Smashed on the walkway. Those suckers weighed 6 to 10 pounds but were toss and broken. Thank God none of them hit a window. I went into the house and was still really unaware of the extent of the damage. I was still thinking that you know, we would call someone to replace the shingles. the cats greeted me and didn't seem too upset. I freaked out when I looked in the back yard to see all this stuff scattered across the yard until a realized that a lot of it was from the neighbors jungle gym. I went upstairs and that's when I noticed two things pretty much at once, quickly spreading stains on the ceiling and the sound of water running. It wasn't raining anymore. It was the sound of water running down the tresses of our house. I called Dad and asked him to come over. I called Andrew and told him I thought the damage was worse that I thought and I would call him back. I turned on the bedroom light to see water pouring out from our ceiling fan. I shut the light off and turned the one in the bathroom on. I striped the bedding off the mattress. It was completely soaked for a circle about two feet across. Dad came over and shut off the breakers and took a ladder up into the addict. He brought some tarps but the water was overwhelming. We called a local roofer's emergency line and I called Andrew to tell him to find coverage and come home. He came home about the same time as the roofers, who using a spotlight, tightly tarped up the rest of the house. Because we called so quickly, we would be the first in line for repairs, as there was a lot of damage in the route 4 corridor from Springfield to Mechanicsburg with two tornado sightings, one, very close to where I stopped the car in the rain. The next day was calls to the insurance agent, taking pictures, lots and lots of pictures, moving stuff out of our bedroom. Mom was a huge help. I had timed laundry great, we had tons of dirty laundry and Mom took all our bedding and laundry and other bedroom linens home for washing/storage. For weeks Andrew and I would be getting most of our clothes out of laundry baskets in our other guest bedroom. Dad brought his dump bed trailer and gator over and we spent three hours picking up shingles and other debris. I wish I had taken a picture of this from our second story window but I didn't at the time, of the backyard. This was the eeriest part of the whole thing, all the debris was laid down in our backyard in a very precise spiral, think hard peppermint candy (like a Brack's) kind of swirl. It literally looked like the items had been whipped around to land in this spiral that started out narrow at the house and fattened as it stretched across our backyard and into the field beyond. The second thing that happened is that the folks who came to remove all the wet insulation (that was really starting to smell like ammonia) fell through our bedroom ceiling. I mean, FELL through the ceiling. Insulation and drywall was everywhere. I will say this for our roofers. If you live in my neck of the woods. Consider Metz roofing. They came out quickly the night of the storm and tarped everything up. They told me and Andrew that they would start work on Wednesday as Tuesday would be spent addressing everyone who called them with emergency repair needs, and they would also get the supplies together for our roof. On Wednesday morning they came at 7 am and had the entire old roof removed by lunch. While they left for lunch the giant shingle truck came and by Wednesday night the bulk of the work was done. Andrew had to work that night and I remember Doug Metz telling me "the roof isn't done but it's tight. It's going to rain and I don't want you to worry, no water will get in and we will be done tomorrow." I hated the sound of rain falling outside that night, but I really appreciated Doug's reassurance. Last Memorial Day weekend was spent with a giant dumpster in our backyard and Andrew and I trying to keep up with gardening and planning the steps it would take to put things back together. I think that's the weekend we also shopped for a new bed. It took 6 weeks. We got the original drywall person to do replace the entire ceiling of the bedroom. We had to have the ceilings in four rooms repainted. We got the soffit replaced on the front porch and had to repaint the entire bedroom and clean the carpets upstairs because of all the insulation. Andrew was home during the day enough to call contractors, the insurance adjuster, and do the myriad of paperwork things needed to keep everything rolling. Dad helped me plant the lavender that year and Mom gave us a leg up by helping with all the linens. Having family close by makes a huge difference in life I think. I know we are really lucky and overall the repairs can still be considered minor. People lose their whole homes everyday. We were able to still say in our house and that is huge. I'm hoping this brush with severe weather will be our last. Below are some pictures. The last picture I took tonight, the last visual remnant of the damage, where a piece of debris literally split the board fence in half...from the middle.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Scordatos Go to Asheville Part One: Biltmore

On the second weekend of May Andrew and I went down to Asheville North Carolina for a weekend trip. The drive down and the first day we were down there it was beautiful. I will have some highlights from where we stayed/ate/shopped in a later post but for this one I'll describe the main attraction. Biltmore...um mansion? I don't really know what they call it. To break up the text, I'm inserting pictures we were allowed to take on the architect's tour so when you look at the big picture of Biltmore, picture me and Andrew walking around parts of the roof. Descriptions are under each picture.
Taken from the top of the retaining wall.
This picture was taken from the roof. Andrew and I were standing on the top tier of the brickwork you see here when I snapped the first picture on this post. Biltmore is the largest private residence in the US. No one lives in it now, but one of the guides told me that the family has private homes on the 8,000 acre parcel. Built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1880s and early 1890s this is a true walk back in time to the gilded age. I've been telling people it was like touring a land version of the titanic. George Vanderbilt paid for over 160,000 acres of land in four counties to build a house over 80,000 square feet and he was the third son! His inheritance was 10 million dollars which in today's currency would be in the low billions.
This is one of maybe dozens of gargoyle sculptures on the roof. I was close enough to touch it. (not that I did touch it, well, maybe I could have but...) Gargoyles were thought to keep bad spirits away. It was also believed that evil spirits haunt corners of rooms, and two of the rooms in Biltmore are ovals, so there are no corners! One oval room was where Mrs. Vanderbilt delivered their only child, Corneilia. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside but it is truly jaw dropping. My favorite part was the indoor winter garden, a huge space covered by a glass solar. We paid the extra ten bucks on top of the regular tickets to go on the audio tour and that was really nice because each room on the map they gave us had one to three corresponding numbers that you typed in to hear the narrator. The narration was good and it was just enough information. We toured 42 rooms and that is just a drop in the bucket. Some highlights for me included walking by a door with the nameplate "Mrs. Edward Wharton." That's American novelist Edith Wharton, who was a good friend of Edith Vanderbilt. I really liked the crazy indoor swimming pool in the basement. First of all there was a row of these fantastically wood worked dressing rooms for women to change into their swimsuits. These dressing rooms were the size of small bedrooms and had their own sinks and furniture. The indoor pool was nothing like you would picture. The whole room was in white tile (tiled by the same guy who did the base of the statue of liberty and NYC Grand Central Station) and the ceiling curved in a big arch. Their were heavy duty ropes on one side that (get this) were for women to cling too as they bobbed in the water because their modest woolen swimsuits were so heavy, they couldn't be in the water more than a couple minutes before they would sink from the weight of the wet wool. The pool held 77,000 gallons of water (but it is dry now) and every two or three days the servants would drain the pool and scrub the tiles clean and then refill it because there was no chlorine back then.
This is the top of the giant "winter garden" Note yet another gargoyle in the lower left hand corner. All the "green stuff" is copper. Biltmore has 43 bathrooms (keep in mind this home was open to stay in, in late 1898 and had working modern plumbing. So you know, after a hard day of croquet and taking tea in the winter garden, Edith Wharton could turn on a hot bath in her giant clawfoot tub just like we do today. It became pretty obvious on the tour that if we were to travel back in time to be a guest of the Vanderbilts, it would not be a hardship for most of the modern conveniences of life. I also enjoyed the tour of the servants work area, they had a pastry, roasting and regular kitchen and each one included massive ceramic sinks with giant rose marble draining boards. And I loved the pantries. There were like 6 different pantries including a refrigerated pantry, one of the first specially adapted by Vanderbilt instead of using ice and sawdust. The canned pantry was also cool because it was filled with rows and rows of ball jars like the ones I collect for the herbal pantry.
We missed out on the landscape tour and took the architect's tour instead which was very interesting. We got to see a scale model of Vanderbilt that was made for Vanderbilt, it was like a huge doll house and we got to get an up close look at some of the features. Here is a smattering of facts that I remember. The copper features on the roof actually clean the slate shingles because when it rains, copper emits this toxin that runs down the shingles and cleans them. The woodwork (and boy there is a lot of it) came from timber pulled from 6 states. Ans as the tour guide said "except for the walnut, all the walnut is from France." All the walnut was shipped from France? Geez. The glass panes in the lead framed windows were hand blown and the chandelier (actually three giant chandeliers of the same style all fixed around the same pole) in the grand staircase weighed something crazy like 1,700 pounds (or was it tons?) Maybe I didn't pay as much attention as I thought. Of all the things I learned and saw at Biltmore, I think this will stick with me the most. When I looked out on the rolling smoky mountains from the second floor balcony, I assumed it was all naturally occurring. But we learned later in the day that when George Vanderbilt bought all this land, it was pretty much stripped bare from mining and logging. ALL the trees for as far as we could see had been planted over 100 years ago to replace what had been lost. There was soil brought in because of erosion problems, and water features were created. There was one man named Olmstead who oversaw all the landscape architecture and they even built their own nursery to supply the sheer number of trees. George Vanderbilt only live there for 19 years before dying young (well we would think it was young) at 51. He never got to see the view hundreds of people enjoy every day today.
There is a rumor that this stone carving face is modeled after George Vanderbilt. The stone carvers had to carve so fast, that they often used each other as models. One stone carving reflects that by showing a grinning face with just one tooth. These little stone carvings were everywhere.
We saw two barn swallow nests on the tour. All the stone ledges were right up their alley for the kind of mud nests that they make. This nest was the most photogenic
Below are some pictures from the extensive gardens. We didn't get to see all of it. There was a huge rose garden and plenty of lavender plants pruned up all fancy. And there was an amazing huge conservatory that had three wings behind the main building full of tropical plants in pots. Enjoy the photos and please consider following the blog. You'll get an email when I've posted something new...I think. These arbors led to the extensive gardens.
This Chinese Wisteria was huge.
Please enjoy the following series taken with my new macro lens

The Scordatos Go To Asheville Part Two: Out and About

Building mural in Weaverville Andrew and I stayed at the Dry Ridge Inn in Weaversville which is just a few miles north of Asheville. This B&B was super comfortable. We stayed on the third floor and even had a big closet off the shower that I could hang shirts up. The inn was built in the mid-late 1800s and the original owner, Mr. Brown was the Asheville buggie dealer and repairman and he often picked up the Vanderbilts from the train station and drove them to their home. Lots of great old wood floors. Breakfasts were good, and there was a guest refrigerator and plenty of soda and water for guests on the road. They also gave great restaurant reservations like the Glass Onion. A little Italian restaurant just a couple blocks walk from the inn, this was my favorite meal of our trip. There were also some nice art places in Weaversville like Magnum Pottery. and I made some nice antique finds at Shop Around the Corner like an old egg basket in good condition. Andrew and I also ate at the famous Tupelo Cafe We loved the Appalachian spring rolls here with pulled pork and man they were good. I also enjoyed Rosemary Peach Lemonade and am looking forward to trying to replicate it this summer. The other restaurant of note was the Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village, this place had a long wait because it was Mother's Day but boy was it worth it. If you like local art, Asheville is a great place because it has a very strong and varied art community. We enjoyed this gallery Also, this was neat, they retrofitted the old Woolworth building and both floors were full of local art. Andrew and I picked up some pottery pieces. They even had a working soda fountain. I'll end this post with a few pictures from an overlook about an hour west of Asheville.
This last picture was actually taken on our walk from the parking lot to Biltmore, I couldn't resist the perspective.
I've got lots of wildlife updates and garden news coming up so keep your eyes peeled for updates or try becoming a blog follower.