Smell Like Dirt

In Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Margaret Atwood

Archive for January, 2008

Real Estate Boom

bbhouse.jpgWith all the talk about the real estate bubble bursting across the country, its definitely a buyers market right now.  And plenty of “buyers” will be visiting your backyard in the weeks to come.  February is when we start to see the birds staking their claims to the bird houses in our backyard.  The bluebirds will be among the first to check out the boxes in our backyard, so the first of February is when I make sure that I have cleaned out the houses well to welcome any pairs who may stop by.  There are disagreements among the experts about whether or not you should leave the old nests in the boxes, or clean them out, so I compromise by leaving in the old nests through the winter for insulation, but cleaning them out in February.  If you want the best shot at attracting a pair of bluebirds to your yard, start with a house specifically designed with bluebirds in mind.  There are many plans on line or you can visit your local bird store, like Backyard Wild in Matthews, to buy one.  All the books say to place your bluebird house so that it is facing an open area, preferably south or southeast.  Sometimes the birds have read the same books, but others have not.  The best way to ensure you will get a pair of bluebirds in your backyard is to offer them their favorite food, mealworms.  Although bluebirds will come to your traditional seed feeders, they are primarily insect eaters and can be easily trained to come when you whistle if you regularly offer them mealworms.   Start by picking a time of day that you consistently at home, for me, its in the morning.  Set up a worm feeding station.  It can be a dish on a deck rail, or a specifically designed feeding station that hooks onto the post where you have your bluebird house attached.  Every day, at roughly the same time, go outside and whistle, ring a bell or make another non-threatening noise and put your worms in the feeder.  Then go back inside and wait.  The first day or two, it make take a while for the birds to find it, but after that, they will learn that the time of day and the whistle or other noise you make means MEALWORMS! and they will be there waiting for you.  If you’re quiet and patient, you may even be able to stand near the feeder and watch them gobble up the worms.  Once you have the birds trained that there’s a reliable source of their favorite food in your backyard, they will most likely nest in the bluebird house you have provided for them, not matter what direction its facing.   And while you’re at it, don’t forget our other feathered friends.  Put up a variety of birdhouses. Different sizes with different size entry holes.  That will provide a place to raise young for a large variety of area songbirds and ensure your backyard is filled with beautiful birds all spring and summer.  A large variety of food will also attract a large variety of birds.  Add one final element of fresh water and you will be guaranteed a large demand for the birdhouse real estate in your yard!

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Camping in January, Part 1

 congareepic.jpgI’m back from my first week camping in the Congaree National Park outside Columbia, SC.  It was the first of two weeks I will spend in the swamp searching for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.  And while I am not sure I can recommend camping for a couple of weeks in the middle of January, if you can, you really should visit the Park.  It is the largest remnant of old growth flood plain forest in North America and the birding and wildlife viewing was wonderful.  The park has a healthy population of wild pigs and I’m not sure who jumped highest each time I came across one in the woods, me or him.  Although I didn’t get too close to one, evidence of their presence is everywhere.  They are constantly rooting around for food so walking through the forest was like walking across a newly plowed field.  And between that and the cypress knees that were everywhere, you really had to watch where you were going.  Each night we were serenaded by Barred Owls and with overnight temperatures in the 20’s and 30’s, it was hard to get out of the warm sleeping bag but the team was up and on our way to our search sites well before dawn each day.  Sitting quietly as the sun rose was a wonderful way to witness the swamp waking up.  From otter, to pigs, to birds of all types, the wildlife viewing was spectacular.  Draped in camo from head to toe, I blended in well enough to watch as the activity level increased the wildlife greeted the new day.  On Wednesday night, it started raining and rained well into Thursday, but once it stopped, I could move much more quietly in the woods because the leaves were wet and muffled each step.  I will be heading back down soon for a second week and will be posting a video on some of the sites, sounds and wildlife you can see in the swamp.  So stay tuned and start planning a trip to the Congaree soon!

Tree Seedling and Rain Barrel Sale January 26

The annual Mecklenburg County Tree Seedling and Rain Barrel Sale is just around the corner!  If you haven’t already ordered your rain barrel, make sure you do it by Monday, January 14th.  And when you are there picking up your Rain Barrel on the 26th, you can pick up a lot of great bushes and trees which are native to the Piedmont area of the Carolinas.  This sale is an hugely popular event and even though the doors don’t open until 9am, lines start forming around 8am.  There will be dogwoods, red maples, oaks, beauty berry, long leaf pine, button bushes and more on sale for $1-$5.  For a complete list and more information, click here.  Doors will remain open while supplies last, or noon, whichever comes first. If you miss out on the opportunity to get a rain barrel on the 26th, there will be other opportunities throughout 2008. For a list of the schedule, click here.

The Santa Fe River

Last October, we spent a week in North Florida kayaking the Ichetucknee River filming the amazing wildlife there (see video at right).  And while we were there, we took a day and kayaked about 10 miles of the Santa Fe River.  The Santa Fe is longer and wider than the Itch so you see some different wildlife, most notably, alligators!  We only saw two on this trip.  The Santa Fe has a unique characteristic in that it disappears at the O’Leno State Park and flows underground about three miles before it re-emerges.  We launched downstream of the River Rise Park where it comes back above ground. Although O’leno is something you should visit at least once, we did not visit there this trip. The area where the river flows underground looks like a large pond and is filled with all the trash that ignorant litterbugs throw into the river, which is sad to see.  There were about a dozen springs along the stretch that we kayaked.  It started out as a cool fall day, but warmed up during the trip which took about 6 hours (lots of wildlife viewing slowed us down!).  I hope you will enjoy this video of our adventures.  Special thanks to Lauri Shubert, our best kayaking buddy, for the still photographs used in this vid.  She does an amazing job of getting great stills of the flora and fauna on our trips.

The Search for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

Big news!  I’ve been accepted as a volunteer on the team searching the the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the Congaree National Park outside Columbia, SC.  As you may or may not know, The Nature Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the US Fish and Wildlife Service continue to search for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina and this year Smell Like Dirt will be part of the team!  If you haven’t followed the story, the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which hadn’t been seen since the 1940’s, was spotted in the swamps of Arkansas in 2004.  Tim Gallagher, Editor in Chief of Living Bird, Cornell’s flagship publication, chronicles his experiences in his book, The Grail Bird (see listing under “My Favorites”), which I read when it was first published in 2005.  I was immediately intrigued with the whole story and with the thought that this bird might still exist.   In researching more about the bird, I discovered that the Congaree National Park in South Carolina is the perfect habitat for the bird and that there had been “unconfirmed sightings”, so we went out and bought two kayaks and have made many trips to the Congaree to see if we could find it.  We haven’t (so far), but the Congaree is a beautiful place and a day spent kayaking there is a good way to spend some time, regardless of Ivory Billed sightings. ibwopick.jpg So, when I heard they were looking for volunteers to search again this year, I couldn’t apply fast enough.  Although you don’t have to have a Ph.D in birdwatching, they were looking for experienced birders crazy enough, um, I mean willing to agree to get dumped into the middle of the swamp for five days at a time with everything you’re going to eat and drink and wear for those five days strapped to your back and enough electronic equipment (and the resulting batteries) to sink a battleship.   I’ll be one of four on a team camping in tents, sleeping on the ground and fanning out during the day to search for the bird and signs of the bird.  It will require a lot of sitting motionless for a few hours before and after sunrise and again at sunset each day.   At the end of my first five days, I will come home for a week to recuperate and then head back down for another week.  Although I won’t be able to disclose what I experience as it relates to the IB Woodpecker, I will be able to document and share my experiences on everything else.  Since I’ll be there in January, I’m hoping that the snake encounters will be kept to a minimum, but I am hoping to see lots of other wildlife that I will be able to tell you about.  The search will continue through April when the leaves on the trees will start to complicate bird watching.  So stay tuned for more news on my adventure!  After 5 days in the woods with no running water, I’ll definitely Smell Like Dirt!