The Lily Bulb Rescue

My story started at the end of February 2010, a few weeks after our local Walmart received a shipment of spring bulbs. The bulbs had been packed in wood shavings and sealed in plastic bags with small air holes so they wouldn’t mould. The bags came in colourful display boxes so customers could admire the potential flowers and hopefully purchase the bulbs.

But it was still winter. Those bulbs should have been stored in a dark, cool place for another two months, but when they arrived at Walmart they were put on display in a warm, light environment. After a week or so they decided it must be spring and started sending out shoots.

Around two weeks later I happened to be in Walmart and wandered over to the display. A mental alarm bell started ringing, warning me to keep away from anything living – like plants. I already had a couple of African Violet “rescues” at home blooming their hearts out. But, drawn by the appealing colours, I yielded to temptation and checked out the lily bulbs.

I picked up several packages and examined them. This is a no-no for me, because I know what shape Walmart seasonal plants are often in: sadly neglected and suffering. And these definitely were.

By this time the shoots were from three to six inches long and reaching for light in whatever direction it could be found, hampered by those tiny bags. Some stems had grown a few inches, hit the end of the bag and turned around in a U. Some snaked like an S. They’d all grown as far as they possibly could and their topmost leaves, crammed up against plastic, would soon start to rot. It amazed me that the store hadn’t discounted them yet.

Seeing things like this always irks me. In most of these huge marts plants have a certain time to sell – a time when some effort is put forth to keep them alive – but after that initial period if it lives it lives; if it dies it dies. (Which is why I came to carry home some bedraggled looking African violets another day.) I know it’s business as usual, but these are living things. They need some care. And if things start to go south, put the plants on sale and move them out as soon as possible. Rotting leaves don’t make for an attractive display.

Okay. I have a soft heart and/or a weak mind. I searched through the plastic bags and found the bulbs with the longest, kinkiest, shoots, the ones most in danger of being hopelessly deformed. I did limit myself to three bags, though – three dozen bulbs – and carried them to the cashier, wondering all the while if I should get into therapy. When I got them home I immediately opened the packages to give the poor leaves a reprieve from the threat of mould.

Now what? It would be at least another month until I would even see the garden (now under four feet of snow.) I couldn’t leave the bulbs sit until then. Fortunately I had a bag of peat moss on hand and half a bag of potting soil, so I got a basin and mixed up a batch of soil, hunted up some old plastic pots and planted the things. When I ran out of pots, I found a stack of disposable plastic tumblers in the cupboard, and employed them in my rescue operation.

It wasn’t very easy to plant the bulbs, as kinky as their shoots were. I had to weigh down some of the pots so the heavy shoots hanging upside down over the edge wouldn’t pull the whole pot over. But I planted all thirty-six and set them in our wide, cool windowsill where they’d get the morning sun.

A couple of weeks went by and the shoots slowly reoriented themselves toward the light. Some remained a bit kinky at the base, but most of them straightened up nicely. About eight weeks later I planted them in the garden, wondering how they’d take the chilly spring nights. They held up well; every last one survived and grew into a nice, upright plant.

In July they bloomed – and they were gorgeous! I took a bouquet to the seniors’ home and the folks marvelled at their beauty, their colour and scent. One lady who was visiting there the next day called me to ask what variety they were. She thought I must have purchased some really special collection.

I told her, “Yes, in fact I did.” And she laughed when I told her about their “upbringing.”

Word Press daily prompt word: Reprieve

Diners on My Driveway

Mourning doves, prim and proper,
strut along, poke among the pebbles
for windblown seeds.
Their muffled cooing
mellows the morning air
while a jaunty flicker nearby
jack-hammers ant homes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

May Doings at Our Place

The tree swallows have been back for several weeks and are busy building their nests now. One pair has found our bathroom exhaust fan vent to their liking again so we’re hearing tiny scratching noises in the cavity. A few mourning doves have returned and I think I’ve seen some wrens in the last couple of days, as well as different warblers and the first goldfinches.

A couple of days ago a small flock of thrushes landed in our yard and have been foraging in our garden and on the driveway ever since. There are three kinds of thrush that come through here: hermit thrush; Swainson’s  thrush; gray-cheeked thrush. These are either Hermit thrush or Swainson’s, but it’s pretty hard to tell from pics in bird books.

They are still scattered around the yard this morning. Such cute birds with their pudgy white tummies, speckled at the throats, white eye rings. They won’t stay around; their nesting grounds are in the pine forests farther north, but I enjoy seeing them passing through every spring and fall.

A United Defense

Blackbirds sound the alarm
warn the neighbors of a robbing
raven who dares drift over, checking
menu offerings in the nests.

Two, three, four parents rally
to the defense, dive-bomb the foe.
No slackers here; from every field
they rise to the cry, on guard
for home and fledglings dear.

The fighter jet swallows soar
into attack mode; even a passing seagull
joins the effort. All together, resistant,
insistent, they chase the marauding foe.

I watched, amazed. What teamwork!
We should be so smart.

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Word Press daily prompt: Collaboration

The Swallows Are Back!

“When the Swallows Come Back to Our Exhaust Fan…”

Did you know that tree swallows have seriously decreased in numbers here in North America, especially in areas where English sparrows have multiplied. Non-native birds, English Sparrows are miserable, aggressive neighbours. They’ll chase adult tree swallows away and hog the food and best nesting sites. They will also invade swallow nests, kill the adult birds, eat their eggs and destroy their chicks. Heartless things, they lay their own eggs on top of the corpses and pick away at the remains.

Swallows may find a remote abandoned building where sparrows don’t hang out, or they may find humans who are blind enough —or kind enough— to let them live close by, where sparrows and other predators won’t venture. All the better if there’s an opening easy to defend. At least that’s what one pair of tree swallows must have thought in the spring of 2010, when they found the cover of our exhaust fan missing.

There’s a small hole in the outside wall of our mobile home just below the roof, where the bathroom fan is vented. It’s supposed to have a covering but this fell off sometime, leaving the recessed pipe about one and a half inches in diameter with one end open to the great outdoors. Tree swallows checked it out and found an entry just their size in a wall warmed by morning sun and a nice interior ledge with ample room for a nest. Thus began our own personal experience with swallows.

They set about furnishing their digs. We took note of their presence when a few straws started falling onto the bathroom counter but since we never used that bathroom fan anyway–it was far too noisy and rattling–it seemed a worthwhile nature lesson to observe this process. (Beside which, there was no way on earth we could get them out.) We taped the switch so the fan couldn’t be turned on by unsuspecting visitors and watched the swallows make forays past our window as they built their nest.

In time we heard tiny peeps coming from behind the fan. We dusted shreds of grass from our bathroom counter and smiled at the baby racket we heard when lunch was served — an all-day affair. Our cat was intrigued but helpless to disturb the birds — as were the outside cats. Weeks passed and peep volume grew.

One day I was in the bathroom brushing my hair when the peeping suddenly hushed. Then I heard the unmistakable tones of marching orders; it sounded like a parent bird laying down the law to indolent offspring just like human parents sometimes do. Followed by tiny feet scrabbling on wood, then the bathroom was silent.

I hurried to the kitchen and looked out the window just as the air exploded with swallows. Back and forth the young birds swooped and dived, getting their bearings in this new world into which they’d been shoved. They still called the nest home and for days after, whenever we passed that side of the trailer, we saw a tiny black head poking out the hole as someone prepared for takeoff.

Then the offspring moved out for good. For the rest of July we watched them zip through the sky or balance on wires, learning the ropes, feasting on mosquitoes and other insects. Swallows are entertaining acrobats and can clean up a fantastic number of bugs, especially mosquitoes, every day.

Shortly after their babies left, Ma & Pa Bird were back behind the bathroom fan scratching around. New peeps started coming through the wall and the cycle repeated itself: comings & goings increased; the peeps got loud again. I happened to be there again when another set of marching orders were issued. I could almost hear a harried parent insisting, “It’s time you were on your own. Get out there and feed yourselves!”

Repeat explosion of swallow swoopers. Repeat dives, twirls, and other aerobatics to strengthen wings. More birds on the clothesline.

The bathroom fan is vented not far from our outside tap, so we were often near their nest, but they never minded our coming and going. One or the other would often have its head out watching as I turned the tap on or off. I’d even talk to it from about two metres (6′) away and it never moved.

The next spring I learned an important lesson: don’t put out inviting bird food (i.e. sunflower seeds & nuts) for larger birds like grackles anywhere near the swallow nest. Our bird feeder, hung on a post in the lawn, was too close to the bathroom vent and the swallows were obviously distressed by the presence of bigger birds at the feeder. Several times I saw them dive at grackles sitting there. That spring the swallows raised only one batch of babies, then left.

The swallows used the exhaust fan vent for two summers, then moved on to other nesting sites. We’ve put up several more swallow nest boxes over the past six years, all of which are claimed every spring and new broods raised.

Our yard can be bad for mosquitoes, but we’ve noticed that as long as the swallows are around, the mosquitoes aren’t as plentiful. Nice! It would be worth the price of a dozen birdhouses if we’re spared West Nile Virus. The swallows usually leave us at the end of July and head over to the sloughs to feast on the multitudes of mosquitoes there. After that we  have to look out for ourselves mosquito-wise.

In the fall of 2010 I read in a gardening magazine that “swallows produce one batch of young every summer.” Well, ours must not have read the rules. Or they felt so secure in their cozy home that they decided on a second family. The ones who occupy the nest we mounted on the garage have raised two broods some summers as well.

Yesterday at leas one family of swallows returned, twittering around and all trying to get into their old nest box just outside my sewing room window. Welcome home, friends!

My Little World

Well, I made a very quick trip through the Cancer Clinic yesterday, getting there about 10:20 and leaving at 10:40am. I’ve never had an appointment go that fast before; I was barely into the building before I was called into the examining room and the doctor was in a few moments later.

My oncologist had great news for me: my blood cell counts are all normal. Now I can get on with life again for the next six months. 🙂

The more difficult diagnosis: she doesn’t think bouncing ideas around in my brain and running my fingers across a keyboard is adequate exercise for someone my age. If I want to build up my energy, she says, I really need to be more active. So I’ve resolved to get out and walk more. And this is the season to start.

We live in a mobile home on what was once part of a pasture. The farmer’s son fenced off these few acres from the main pasture when he got engaged and wanted a place to set up his trailer. He later moved away and we bought the place ten years ago. So on our west and north side there was a narrow strip of pasture; it has since been converted into a grain field in which the farmer has been growing canola these past few years.

On the other side of the pasture there’s a train track, so we sometimes watch and count the cars as they rattle past on their way to country grain terminals and oil fields. Some are potash cars.

To the east of us there’s a narrow strip of mostly poplar and willow woods between us and the farmer’s yard. To the south is a gravel road with minimum traffic; south of that is a strip of cultivated land, a hedge row of chokecherries, then more pasture. We often hear from this hedgerow and the pasture beyond, the conversations of coyotes in the twilight.

We are avid bird watchers; we delight in this little woods that abounds with a number of local bird species for most of the year and various migrating birds during spring & fall. We are right on the flight lane of the sandhill cranes; spring and fall they stop over for several weeks at a slough just north of us, or in the pasture across the road to the south. Many fall evenings are filled with their funny “throbbing” or hoarse honking as they settle in for the night. And what a racket if the coyotes pester them!

We’re also on the flyway of the snow geese: at times flocks of a thousand or more passed over our heads. Coming home yesterday we saw a flock of easily a thousand birds milling around and settling in a field right beside the highway. At times we’ve seen 10-20 acres white with “snow” in the early mornings.

We see killdeer, meadow larks, the odd nighthawk, tree swallows, a dozen different native sparrows, robins, brown thrashers, catbirds, wrens, warblers, orioles, hummingbirds — even golden and bald eagles, and the Grand Duke (great-horned owl) who lives in the woods beside us. Great place to live!

To the west of us, across the train tracks, there are large sloughs north and south of the highway, with their waters lapping away at both road edges. To the east of us, past the farmyard, there are a couple of other smaller sloughs. Ducks and Canada geese paddle around these bodies of water until they dry up in summer, if they do. We often see a snipe on a fence post beside the road and redwing blackbirds clinging to the bull rushes. One day several ducks came waddling down our driveway as if on inspection, checking up on what the tenants are doing.

I should mention the muskrat homes dotting the sloughs. Sometimes I surprise one paddling in the water or sitting on the bank as I approach. Sometimes all I see is a ripple of water if the animal spots me first. And there are a zillion frogs that fill our evenings with their songs. These are the “wetlands” our Canadian prairies are noted for, sloughs of all sizes teeming with wildlife.

Yes, it’s a great place to get out for a walk. And my oncologist says none of us — even she in her busy practice — has a just excuse not to get enough exercise. So I’d best follow doctor’s orders. It’s a great time of year to be alive. 🙂