Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Phenology: Berries and Cherries

No, Gentle Readers, the Sickly Snail (old, cheap laptop computer) is not dead yet. I've been neglecting it. I've been at the Cat Sanctuary, seduced by a season that, unlike many recent summers, reminds me of the better summer vacations of my childhood. Sunny days, moderate humidity, relatively low pollution, bearable temperatures. Most days' highs have been around 75 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit with overnight lows around 50 or 60. Seven adorable kittens--when I was a child we had bantam chicks, but the general idea of tiny cute things scampering around underfoot resonates, for me. Cold enough winter, and sunny enough spring, for an actual fruit crop.

When I finally logged in this morning I saw that a lot of people have been reopening the caterpillar articles, so evidently some people are still seeing the hateful Buck Moth caterpillars (stingingworms) that have discouraged those who used to pick their own cherries at the Cat Sanctuary. But I've not seen one all summer. This, also, reminds me of the 1970s, when so few oak trees survived that local populations of Hemileuca had gone extinct.

I've been asked about the other animals at the Cat Sanctuary. I think Gulegi may have mated again this year; I saw a smaller snake of his kind in the road one day. (Why have I always suspected that Gulegi is male? I can't tell by looking at the snakes...but the Cat Sanctuary has always had a resident snake, and so has a neighbor's house, and when we've found snake eggs it's always been in the neighbor's cellar not mine.) Snakes don't stay together long. I think they can smell when another snake of their kind wants a mate, so they declare a truce for a day or two. Then they separate. They are solitary hunters and, although they prefer snakes of inferior species, they do eat smaller snakes. If crowded together, king snakes will eventually eat their own mates and young.

We used to have a huge Hognose Skunk, Pepe, and a pretty little Striped Skunk, Hepzibah. (Hognose Skunks are bigger than Striped Skunks, and male mustelids are bigger than females. Pepe looked three or four times the size of Hepzibah.) They were not a couple; Pepe spent a few winters in the cellar--I think Mackerel persuaded him to move further up into the woods--and Hepzibah mostly lived in the ruins of a barn nearby. In 2008 I wrote a satirical piece about the fact that the Cat Sanctuary's resident animals did not vote, despite reports that several other animals had been registered and voted for Obama, and gave Pepe and Hepzibah silly things to say. In 2011 somebody in a truck ran over Hepzibah but Pepe, or his heir, still lives in the woods above the orchard.

We still have a resident cardinal clan. I don't know how many adults have claimed the nest site near the front room of the Cat Sanctuary since I was six years old, but there's always been a pair and they've usually had a brood. Cardinals are monogamous while both of a couple are alive, but not obsessive about it; whenever one cardinal has died, the survivor has found a mate within a week. They've always been pretty good at discouraging other birds from coming too close to the house, even when cats weren't patrolling the yard. I hear birds calling from the woods, and while picking berries I've been reproached by towhees, but the birds I actually see are nearly always cardinals--except when I see a woodpecker. (A neighbor let a large field grow up in trees, and, due to fire blight, the woodpeckers have been quite active in recent years.)

I've seen positive evidence of another possum in residence, but for more than a year I've not actually seen this possum. If it would come out and be recognized and answer to a name, as some resident possums have done, its name might be Phantom, but then it wouldn't be a phantom any more would it?

I'm not sure how much we owe to last winter's Deep Freeze, and how much to diseases deliberately introduced to check the spread of gypsy moths, but local moth populations seem to be changing. I've not seen a Tulip Tree Beauty all year, either. Nor have I seen any specimen of Haploidea at the Cat Sanctuary, although I saw one in town. Haploidea and other Tiger Moths that fly at this time of year are normally abundant at the Cat Sanctuary and, although they're not considered pests, they usually manage to be a nuisance. This year I've seen only one. On the other hand I've seen several moths of a species I've not noticed here before (and don't know by name).

Butterfly populations seem normal; lots of Spring Azures, Tiger Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, fritillaries, Painted Ladies, Red-Spotted Purples, Cabbage Whites, Sulphurs, and Wood Nymphs.

But what have really kept my paper wasp and hornet friends busy have been nuisance insects--flies and gnats. The Deep Freeze didn't disturb them at all, and I hate to imagine how much less pleasant this summer would have been without the wasps.

I think my father had educated our neighbors, in his forthright and irascible way, about the folly of spraying insects. I remember only a few visits to the homes of ignorant people who tried to poison insects. Such visits usually led to my coming down with what adults back then called a cold. It typically takes a month or two, after an ignorant person has poisoned a paper wasp family, for nuisance insect populations to explode.

These days, instead of trying to spray poisons into the air to kill insects, some farmers are trying to plant crops that will poison only insects who eat crop plants. I suppose this is a step in the right direction, but why am I not surprised that splicing DNA from disease bacteria into crop plants produces crops that make some people sick. I've spent only a day or two, this year, being sick after eating something that was in theory safe to eat. Then again I've become very wary of foods containing rice and corn.

Two or three times this year I have walked past a place where some fool was spraying some sort of pesticide on his lawn or garden. I still react to some of these chemicals with the same out-of-control sneezing, weakness, dehydration, sometimes even asthma-like effects I had as a child. What's changed is that as an adult I notice that I'm not the only one reacting to these chemicals, even if I am the only one whose every breath is coming out as a sneeze. I see babies suffering more from colic, school-age children suffering more from all those "learning disabilities" it's so trendy to diagnose so readily these days, men showing more hostility, women showing more depression, and seniors acting more forgetful, along with the minority of people who develop skin rashes and "hay fever," after exposure to Raid and Roundup and similar poisons.

By and large I think the fools out there spraying the aphids off their roses would be better off to eat the aphids. Aphids are not even hard to get rid of in a Green way, actually--just knock them off the roses with a blast of pressurized water, which can be produced by holding your thumb halfway across the garden hose, and be sure you have not poisoned all the ladybird beetles. Ladybird beetles love aphids with a greed that is hardly ladylike. Even if you have a few imperfect roses, isn't that better than making all the humans in the family feel sick in one way or another? Instead of trying to poison the plants and insects you don't want, try paying attention to them, encouraging natural predators to eat the specimens that are most inconvenient to you, or moving them to places where they are less inconvenient.

Wild flowers are blooming in the usual order this year, producing a few unusual color combinations along Route 23. I'm seeing a few last lingering fleabane daisies and honeysuckle, lots of Queen Anne's lace, not so many elder bushes (or pokeweeds), lots of chicory, wild mustards, oxeye daisies, wild plantain, red and white clover, milkweed, crown vetch, and some native vetch. Someone planted sweet peas beside Route 23 a few years ago; they really bloomed in the first week of June but I saw two blooms left on one stalk yesterday. A patch of tiger lilies, which seems to expand every year, is in full bloom this week.

The privet hedge at the Cat Sanctuary seems to be positively dawdling, as if the bushes suspected that, when they've bloomed, they will be pruned. If that were the real reason why they're not yet in full bloom, they might have bloomed this week, since I've been too busy picking fruit to prune flowers. I don't know what is delaying the privet blooms.

I've missed being online this month. I had hoped to be able to maintain this web site at night and be outdoors during the day. That has not been possible, but I've enjoyed some beautiful days.