Monday, August 30, 2010

Roadrunner Returns


I find birds in a garden irresistible. I consider having a wide array of avian visitors as a signal of a healthy place, one where they feel welcome, where their needs coincide nicely with your garden’s. You do not after all see many birds hovering around barren lawns, or rifling through fruit orchards.

Some are incredibly easy to please - the silver-throated mockingbird, the voracious house sparrow and the cranky starling - but I find that they fade into the garden background. To get the others birds, the ones that come in quietly, make you hold your breath and hope they do not fly away too soon you need a much better place.

Watching birds is a quiet time - sipping tea or coffee, waiting in the shadows of the porch for them to move over just a to catch a better glimpse or to be assaulted unexpectedly by the aerobatic pranks of hummingbirds while I water or weed - is more relaxing than a spa, and cheaper too.

This is an odd in between time of year for the birds in our garden. The hummingbirds, thrashers, cactus wrens and towhees have finished raising their young and those youngsters are racing around trying out their skills at territorial defenses, guarding food, and preening. They are a delight to watch having much less fear and wariness than their elders. The quail still keep their youngsters close but it won’t be long before they, too, are hard to tell from the adult females and become just part of the crowd.

Occasionally, the odd warbler or vireo passes through but you have to be lucky with these guys. They rarely stay long and I find that they are punctuation marks on by garden bird watching, entirely unpredictable and always a splendid surprise.

Then there are time times when a bird shows up that is not particularly uncommon or unusual for the area, but is shy and seldom seen. That is how it was a week or so ago when the roadrunner showed up.

One of our neighbors used to put out chicken bones and such from time to time for the foxes that live in the neighborhood. To both our and her astonishment it was a roadrunner that took in most of the free grub. She is now gone and we haven’t seen a roadrunner in the yard or around the area in a long time. Then one morning, as I was puttering with something at the sink I saw a full grown roadrunner stabbing at the ground in one of the front patio beds. The bill of a roadrunner is serious, long, thick, and sturdy. They feed on small lizards, snakes, an array of insects, and even nestling birds if they can find them. It was after something and that bill was like a ram going into the ground.

I called Gary and a weekend guest over for a look and we were mesmerized by its determined activity and exquisite plumage. It was clearly a young bird, both in size and in purity of feathers, and we were delighted to see it so close.

But one of us moved, or shifted and even though we were in the house and it was in the garden, it picked up that one tiny movement and took it to mean trouble. It raised its head swiveling and turning its big, wide eye over the area with its tail flying straight up. All of these are poses and signals of the wariness of the wild in these most primitive of birds. Finally, after looking around some more, it gave up on feeding and jumped to the wall giving us a splendid view of his blue-tinged tail and wide, unfeathered eye ring.

These are odd birds and look more like the fossils of proto-birds than any of the others that fill the yard. Roadrunners are related to cuckoos and have a lineage that goes back almost as far as birds themselves. If you have one in your hand, you will find that they have a small hook on their wing, at their wrist. In roadrunners it is more or less as useful as our appendix, but in other relatives it allows the bird, particularly baby birds, to grab a limb or bark and climb out of harm’s way.

But this one considered that the patio had become a nervy locale and after a look or two around, more waving of its tail straight up to the sky, it jumped off the wall and we could not find it again. Yet even this brief look was enough to let us bask in the wonder of sharing, however briefly, in the daily back and forth of another life that also finds our garden attractive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Milkweeds For Free

It all began with a long-delayed renovation of the front patio. This charming area had waited patiently for us to get around to routing out the weedy undergrowth of moss verbena, the forest of seedling Baja fairyduster, and the overwhelming black dalea for a couple of years - since Gary had finished the patio in fact. Finally last fall it was time, and I cut and pulled and pruned. We planted a few things that had either been taken up to make room for the stones, or that were in need of some relocation. It began to look like a real place. But the bed nearest the door needed work, it needed that ‘something’, that final touch that would make it all come together.

A friend suggested a big agave as a centerpiece of the bed. The centerpiece idea was good, but any agave large enough to do the design trick was too large for the spot. We mulled about a Hesperoyucca whipplei for a while, chiefly because there are three in the shade crying for a home in the ground but it just wasn’t right. Without warning, the solution came to us one evening, the desert milkweed.

This desert milkweed (Asclepias subulata) had been living in this spot by the walkway since before the walk was taken up and redone, before the wall was built, and long before the patio was finished. It was an old hand at our minimal watering scheme in the front, and it was so large that it needed to be cut back from time to get through to the front door. It was actually a little too close to the path, but then who was really in charge here anyway. But it would look splendid rising up out of those perennials a few feet over, more in mid bed than the edge.

Last November we dug a hole for it, dug it out, planted it in the ground, leaving the seedling it had produced in the middle of the path as insurance. We watered it, we coddled it and by the spring it was clear it was dead and not coming back. I left the stems much longer than necessary hoping for a miracle. Nothing.

We then dug up the insurance seedling, planted it more or less in the same spot and since it was smaller and younger we thought we had a great chance. Hah, since when have plants listened to our desires? It began to fade even more quickly than the other one, and although the sticks are still there in a vain hope that something will come from the root, it is clearly dead. The obliging black dalea covered up the corpse for us, and we haven’t had the heart to get rid of it yet.

And then, the plant rose up and showed us the way. One day this summer, as I went out to lay hoses around to water, I noticed a mass of small stems, with even tinier thread-like leaves at the edge of the bed. I was busy, it was early, we had morning chores to do, and I parked it in the back of my mind. The next day while getting the paper, I stopped to notice it, thinking that perhaps it was a wayward desert broom. To my amazement, it looked just like a desert milkweed, it was a desert milkweed, how could this be? Well, how would I know? but there it was, a 6-inch bunch of around two dozen stems full of leaves and vigor on the second day over 110, looking like a little chick that just emerged from its egg shelter.

It is in the original spot, the one that is too close to the path. Now the great quandary, move it again to the spot we would prefer - it clearly likes the heat, or leave it alone and cope with the endless pruning and pushing and cajoling that will be inevitable when it grows up. Can’t say that we know yet, it will take a bit of thinking to come to the right conclusion. But in the meantime, there it is, a chipper little reminder that even in the direst weather, some little life out there is content and happy.