Sunday, July 15, 2012

Life from the Back Deck

For the first several years we owned our home, our back deck was the forgotten zone. Uninspiring, with no shade and painted a dark brown that soaked up the heat (with light baby blue trim--yuck!), it was a hot and basically miserable place to spend time. The "feel" of the deck matched the "feel" of the yard, which was nothing special either--dirt, some cinders, and three lilac bushes planted by the previous owner that never flower because we always have freezes well into May. Just for fun, here's a picture of what our yard looked like when we first moved here (I don't have a picture of the deck, it was that bad):

The best thing about it besides our previous dog Sheila standing out there was the one addition we first placed--a metal elk bird bath (which we still have and love). Being that the yard was the most uninspiring thing about our house, we spent the first four years of our lives here landscaping both the front and back yards. We first started with grass:

And added a small zig-zag of a fence for future flowering vines. And, as they say, after all this work, yadda yadda yadda, we now have this:

A pond is in front of the blue spruce tree; flowers that attract hummingbirds bloom all summer. Green grass prevents dogs tracking in mud. Blackberry and raspberry bushes hide in the back part of the yard. Bird and squirrel dramas play out on a daily basis--just this morning, a sharp-shinned hawk jetted in and tried to nab a pine siskin--and take a look at my entry from last year on our hummingbirds. We've seen squirrels stretched out on the grass, sleeping. We've attracted garter snakes to the pond, Arizona tree frogs to our gardens, and, unfortunately at times, skunks, raccoons, bears, and more to our oasis.

So a great yard finally deserved a decent back deck. A few years ago, we tore out the entire back deck, built a new, larger one, and covered part of it with a roof. It is like we opened up an entire new wing to the house--a liveable, breathable space where no TV is needed (or wanted) because all your entertainment is neatly packaged right in front of you, with nary a re-run. All you have to do is sit in a comfy chair with a drink of your choice, perhaps some knitting or a book, and you're set.

This snapshot of life from our back deck occurred between June and July 2012. First up, one day in mid-June we came home from work and took to watering our deck flowerpots. Lo and behold, hidden under a petunia was a nest with one little egg. Well, now, that was exciting. We moved the flower pot a couple feet to a better, safer location (on a plant stand under the eaves), got rid of the bird bath nailed to a corner of the deck (it attracts predatory birds like flickers and jays, who may find the nest), and started our daily security checks. A pair of dark-eyed juncos were the creators of what eventually became four eggs; they would fly back and forth to feed and incubate, soon becoming rather unafraid of us walking out onto the deck and every so often watering their flower pot to keep their cover alive.

Indeed, during the entire time, we'd often find one of the parents watching out over the nest from a nearby tree, a chair, the deck railing, and at times from our barbeque grill.


Life went on, however, for us. As the juncos were incubating their eggs, my friend Ellen arrived for a visit. Ellen, one of my dearest friends, happened to be the person who taught me how to knit. Whether or not that's a good thing--well, you may find differing opinions in our household after we basically remodeled our home so I could have a nook for my increasing stash of yarn. But that's neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that while I am an extremely happy person for a multitude of reasons (loving and beloved husband, incredible family and friends, great job, awesome dog, etc etc), my passion for knitting and any form of yarn-related crafts is a big part of that happiness. Ellen has picked up spinning, and makes her own fiber from all sorts of raw material, including alpaca, merino wool, silk, and cotton. Driving from Kansas to Arizona for a few weeks' vacation, Ellen was able to bring her spinning wheel with her to help me out with some very fine cashmere yarn--a gift from co-worker Nancy who happens to occasionally visit our Mongolia program and brought back an enormous amount of cashmere for me (thanks, Nancy!!!).

So during Ellen's visit, we would spend quite a bit of time on the back deck--starting out with coffee and breakfast, moving to knitting, spinning, reading, and crafting throughout the day, and ending with a glass of wine and some appetizers for happy hour(s).

Meanwhile, our view from the deck includes our garden. Things were starting to grow. Snap peas, lettuce, radishes, beets, basil, and soon after, zucchinis, were ready to pick.

And picked they were--nightly--and made into caprese salad, or sauteed with wild mushroom and sage-flavored olive oil, or eaten fresh, or, for my first time, made into pickled beets:

After Ellen left, a few days later our juncos hatched--three eggs out of four. It was amazing to watch their instinctual survival skills. While mom left the nest to find food, they huddled together and either slept or otherwise didn't move. The rustle of flowers indicated mom was returning, and they'd immediately strain their necks, heads facing upwards, mouths agape, waiting to be fed. 

While the babies in the nest were growing, my husband's mother Anne and sister Amy arrived for a July 4th holiday visit. I think they spent more time on the back deck than I did--and it was rewarding to see them enjoy watching the birds and squirrels, read, or just lounge and relax. Amy's two dogs, Gracie and Holly, didn't miss a beat, finding that the deck chairs were more comfortable than the deck itself. It was Amy, too, who gave us the delightful Welcome (with the birds on top) centerpiece, a lovely addition to the deck:

Amy brought with her a great idea for a July 4th drink--layer frozen pina colada and strawberry daquiri mixes, and top with blueberries--yum! So the 4th was spent barbequeing elk burgers, drinking flag-inspired striped frozen concoctions, squirting each other with water rifles, and playing Yahtzee (Anne won!).

We maintained our vigilance over those baby juncos. Literature suggested they would fledge any time between 10 and 14 days. On Day 13, for some reason, I knew that was the day. The birds were ready--most of the time they were awake and alert. Tail and wing feathers looked strong (albeit still a bit on the stumpy side). Every once in awhile, one would jump to the edge of the nest, seemingly asking itself "am I ready?" and then answering "Nope, not yet" and hopping back to its siblings.

So we let the birds have a little privacy. We limited the dog activity and stayed inside (I was canning over 20 jars of zucchini relish, so it was good timing). Coincidentally, right around the time I was done canning and Bruce was taking a break from weeding, watering, or whatever he does "out there," we both were on the deck when the three juncos fledged. This video shows almost the entire thing--each bird hopping out of the nest and taking their first flight--all in a matter of about 4 minutes. The adults teased the birds to follow them into the bushes, and off they went. Amazing.

The back deck just didn't seem the same without those little birds. We re-arranged the flower pots and replaced the bird bath. We didn't have much time to wait, however, for our next bird adventure. It didn't have anything to do with OUR back deck--it started on our neighbor's back deck. He woke up to a young pre-fledgling Flammulated owl hopping around his deck--too young to fly, and no parents around. It stayed there most of the day, so he brought it over to our house (knowing we both were in the wildlife biz) in a box. A check by the local rehabilitator, Susan, was in order. She pronounced the bird healthy. We faced a difficult decision--the parents may or may not find the bird, but is it right to relegate a healthy bird to a life of captivity? We decided to replace the bird in a tree cavity that was close to the neighbor's deck, stocked it with mealworms and the bird itself, and played a tape of its call to let the parents know it was there. It's probably a good sign that we haven't seen it wandering around again.

So amongst the nesting juncos, barking tree frogs, pine siskins mobbing our feeders, tree squirrels chasing each other through the grass, hummingbirds finally showing up in large numbers, and zucchinis taking over the garden, we enjoy the hundreds of big and little dramas that occur every day on and around our back deck. Please come over sometime and join us. I promise you won't regret it!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rearranging the Forest: Dog on a Mission

There is a yoga routine that many people do in the mornings, called Sun Salutation; it's one's way of stretching in the right manner, mentally preparing oneself for the day, and basically greeting the morning. I'm not a yoga person (yet), but I have my own Sun Salutation--my morning walk. Sometimes I'm joined by my husband, my neighbor Julie, or visiting friends or family; but always I'm with my dog Carly. Wintertime walks are relatively short--2.5 to 3 miles. When spring and summer arrive, however, we do a four-miler nearly every morning. It is a habit which I am now driven to do. My day is all wonky if I don't get my morning walk in--after nearly three years of this, it's a physical, mental, and spiritual need. I'm lucky in that we live in a very walkable neighborhood, which happens to be next to a huge swath of open forest, where we hook into a network of trails that wind for miles through the woods. The entire walk can be done without putting Carly on a leash, which makes it extra special--she gets to run, sniff, and (as you'll see soon) play with the neighborhood dogs. While I get to enjoy nature in all its glory and "see the forest for the trees," Carly on the other hand sees the forest for the sticks. And the sticks, it appears, are in all the wrong places. According to Carly, they must be put in their proper spots.

Things start out innocently enough. The first half-mile is down our road. We greet Denali, who is always happy to see us (probably because we've started giving her a little treat). Sometimes, we meet up with Dakota, another neighbor's Spitz, who crouches down and gets ready to pounce when Carly trots by--they play and romp a bit, and we move on.


At the end of the road, we are generally greeted by what everyone in the 'hood affectionately calls "The Tribe." Max, the redhead, Charlie, the brunette, and Buddy, the blonde. Max and Charlie are from one home, Buddy from another--Buddy is like the neighborhood kid who hangs out at neighbor Charlie and Max's house because he's bored at home. Most of my pictures of them are of their rear ends as they're trotting along, but to give you an idea:

Sometimes, they'll continue on with us for a bit and turn around when they feel like it, making their way home. Other times, they don't bother following at all; or, better yet, they'll come the entire length of our walk. It's up to them and we enjoy the company.

But it's here that we get off the road and onto a trail (some old logging road). Leaving any potential car interactions behind, the dogs are free to roam, and things get interesting. There are almost always new animal tracks along the trail--deer, elk, raccoon, skunk, turkey, coyote, and yes, even bear. We've seen deer, elk, and coyote (that's when the leash comes out), and honestly, I'm glad I haven't seen a raccoon, skunk, or bear. Regardless, knowing they're right here in our neighborhood is pretty cool.

Getting onto the trail

Elk track

Deer track

The Tribe and Us
We push onwards. Sunlight reaches the tops of the trees; it's that true quiet time when the wind hasn't picked up yet, the birds are waking up, and you can hear the crunch of dirt, pine needles, and twigs under your feet as you step along. Just when I think things are perfect, Carly finds a stick that is out of place and must be moved. She grabs it and carries it with her until something tells her to move off trail and find its correct spot. When the correct spot is found, she gently lets go of the stick, putting it in its correct position. The forest then becomes more balanced, and we move on until the next wrongly-placed stick comes along and the process repeats itself.

You'll note that these are not little sticks. No. They are more like mini-logs. Sometimes Carly's mouth is open so wide to take a stick in, when she finally places it in its correct position in the forest she must rotate her jaw back and forth to get it un-cramped before she can get going again. Sacrificing her comfort in the name of designing a better forest, I guess.

I can't tell a good stick from a bad stick. I'll suggest some sticks to Carly that may be out of place by pointing them out or shuffling them a bit with my foot, but alas, no. Only she can determine the true misplaced stick.

So I give up on helping her re-arrange the forest, and concentrate on the visuals. We walk along the Mogollon (prounounced "Moe-ghee-on") Rim, which is actually the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau--the geologic formation that gives us Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and the Colorado River. The Mogollon Rim stretches for nearly two hundred miles between Williams, AZ and the Arizona's eastern boundary with New Mexico, splitting the state geographically, topographically, and climatically, in half. There's southern Arizona (hot low desert, mesquite bosques, grasslands), the Rim, then northern Arizona (forests, cool weather, snow, and cold high desert). The Rim is where several vegetation types mix--pinyon/juniper habitat mixes with ponderosa pine, which mixes with firs and spruces. The Rim is also where you can get a nice view; these photos don't do it justice.

Atop the Mogollon Rim

View from the Rim

A hardy Alligator Juniper

Further on down the trail, another nice view
We often take the opportunity to explore other paths. One day, we followed an old road down through a meadow, and found ourselves walking through a thicker forest that eventually opened up into a wider, rocky canyon. Bruce's initial reaction upon stumbling across this lovely area was "this is really good mountain lion habitat." Great. I generally don't walk that route by myself with just Carly, but I will if I have Bruce, or Buddy and Charlie, along. Working our way up and out of that canyon one day, Buddy and Charlie flushed a Dusky Grouse (highly unusual at that elevation, they're normally much higher). Things like that make us aware that nature is always full of surprises.

Making our way through the meadow

Reaching the entrance to the canyon

At the canyon bottom--groves of Gambel's oak,
large ponderosa pines, and often, Carly with a stick
When Carly first started carrying and moving sticks, my husband remarked that she is, possibly, the world's finest "feng shui" expert of the forest. I agree. Sometimes the sticks are so out of place, she must carry them for miles. Other sticks just need to be moved a few hundred yards. Yet other sticks don't belong in the forest at all, and must be brought home, or at least as close as possible to the house.

After walking back up through the canyon, we loop back onto our regular trail and go back the way we came, sometimes diverting off onto other game trails--trails made by wandering elk (or more likely, cows and feral horses, which we see regularly).

No humans made this trail--animals did
Carly continues to carry her chosen stick of the day as we approach the end of the forest part of the trail. Trotting back down our road, she is hell-bent on bringing that stick home. Meeting up with Denali or Dakota (or even the Tribe if they didn't walk with us), forget about it. It's Stick Time.

We get comments from our neighbors who often ask if Carly can drop her sticks off at their house, because they'd like the firewood. She ignores them, and instead keeps trotting homeward. When we get to the ditch in front of our neighbor's property, Carly starts slowing down and pondering where her stick should go. Sometimes she brings it all the way home and into our yard. Other times, she drops it off in strategic locations along our neighbor's bar ditch. I don't know if he's ever noticed the growing number of sticks that magically appear along his ditch--if he has, he either doesn't mind, doesn't know it's Carly, or just doesn't really care. He's a nice guy.

At our house, though, at some point, we have to collect the sticks. We have two piles, here's one:

Sometimes, especially during the winter when we're relegated to just walking the roads because the forest is too muddy, snowy, or wet, Carly ends up having moved most of the accessible sticks and she can't find ones to carry. So, we toss the pile of sticks we've amassed into the bed of Bruce's truck, and Bruce drives down the road very slowly while I sit in back and "salt" the road with the sticks--repopulating the forest with misplaced sticks (I know, I'm so mean). I can see Bruce in the driver's seat, shaking his head thinking "I can't believe I'm doing this. I'm a man, dammit, not a slave to this dog." Dream on, buddy. We're both slaves to this dog.

And that's my morning. Can you not see how addicting it is, just knowing that new things await me in the forest--maybe new tracks, maybe another Dusky Grouse; maybe we'll see that pair of nesting Northern Flickers feeding their babies in that one tree. I know when to start listening for Spotted Towhees, and where the Western Tanagers and Plumbeous Vireos generally sing. I know it's really spring when the Western Bluebirds start appearing. I become aware of the rhythm of the seasons. I'll look behind me on occasion to see Carly tagging along, stick in mouth, and I know my Sun Salutation is working. I'm ready for what lies ahead because this morning, I saw beauty, animals, trees, and vistas, despite how obviously messed up the forest is with those darn messy sticks. I'll leave that one highly critical detail up to Carly.