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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It's Not All Butterflies and Rainbows

A few weeks back, my post featured butterflies, those soaring flowers of the sky. Gorgeous creatures, all. But I have many other visitors to my yard and garden, who might not have the glitz and glory of those pretty insects.

Below are some other garden guests, including some butterflies who were late arrivals this summer, and didn't make it into my first post. By this time of year--late summer--you can see the wear and tear on  butterfly wings. No longer pristine and smooth, wings show rough spots and jagged edges. Yet it doesn't seem to slow them down.  This year, I've had quite a few first-time butterflies.

As a total beginner in identifying these gorgeous creatures, I often found myself on, particularly their identification page. That truly is the only way I figured out who my visitors were.

I saw this Giant swallowtail only once. A little battered, this big beauty was still quite spectacular, boasting a 5-inch wingspan.
There are several butterflies in the northeast that feature orange and black patterns, so they are easy to confuse. This Pearl Crescent is so named because of a half-moon shape on its ventral side. Of course, this individual only allowed me a close look at the dorsal side (shown here), but I still believe I identified him correctly.
I think this is one of my favorites among the newcomers. Although it's called a Red-spotted purple, this butterfly's wings are a spectacular iridescent blue on the dorsal side. I love this picture because you can clearly see the proboscis, basically a rolled-up straw butterflies use to suck up nectar.
This is another view of the Red-spotted purple. I think this guy was posing.
On the ventral side of the Red-spotted purple's wings, you can see the red spots that inspire the name. After I looked up this butterfly online, I learned that it likes ripe fruits. And once I put out peaches, strawberries and bananas, I saw this species in my garden almost daily, slurping my butterfly fruit salad. Unfortunately, the buffet was open to all, and the Red-spotted was also joined by yellow jackets, fruit flies and other nuisance insects and I had to close it down.

So even though myriad butterfly species visited my garden, they weren't the only creatures with many representatives showing up amidst my flowers. Other pollinators--specifically bees--flew into town.

I was particularly thrilled to see honeybees in my garden. They had nearly disappeared, probably due to the mysterious illness known as colony collapse disorder, which destroyed thousands of hives.  Here's our sweet pollinator on Verbena bonariensis, a perennial that was a gift from the garden of my oldest friend, Cathy, whom I've known since third grade.
I admit, I'm not great at bee identification, so I'm not sure of the species here. This creature visited in the early morning, casting his shadow in one of my fall-blooming asters.
Bumble bees love my anemone. I often see several trying to climb into one flower, where it seems pretty obvious to me that there's really only room for one. This picture amuses me, as the one bee looks like he is knocking at the door; I can imagine the other one calling out, "Occupied!"

In addition to the flying insects, there are also creepy crawlies, like this caterpillar.

I believe this is a yellow bear caterpillar, identifiable by the extra long hairs on his body. About the shape and size of the black and brown wooly bear that many of us often see in the fall, this charming fuzzball turns into a Virginian tiger moth, a beautiful  nighttime flier that looks like it's wearing a cape of bright white fur. I believe I've encountered one of these fine specimens on a warm summer evening.
This looks like a type of ladybird beetle, often called a ladybug. I don't mind seeing these little guys in my garden, because they hunt mites and other nasty plant destroyers.
I have no clue what this incredible insect is--some kind of beatle, er beetle, I think. Based on its '70s-era flower-power coat of vibrant colors, I think perhaps "beatle" may be more appropriate.

Not everyone who visits my garden wants his or her presence known. If you look carefully, you can see past the camouflage and discover other inhabitants.

This moth was tucked under a leaf, a very pale green, just about invisible.
Can you spot the grasshopper-type insect here? Talk about invisible!

We even get to see our share of dragonflies and damselflies. I really like these guys because they feast on the gnats that sometimes plague my backyard--and prey on me--often making it very difficult to go outside without some kind of citronella coating.

Trying to capture them with the camera is a bit of challenge, usually resulting in blurry pictures or photos of sticks that used to have an insect on them. I was lucky a few times, though, and got these two beauties to stay still long enough and to let me snap off a few shots.

I'm sure some entomologist somewhere can identify this bright red aeronaut with gossamer wings. Check out the tiny red spots on those wings--like finding just the right earrings to go with your outfit!
I was able to identify this blue and black dragonfly--a Twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella)--by using the cool new Google search feature where you can upload an image and it will find similar pictures.

And then there are the creatures who don't seem to know what they are, but are fascinating in their uniqueness, like the Hummingbird clearwing moth, shown below.  Hummingbird? Well, they are only a little smaller than those lovely birds (who also visit my yard--I'll feature them in a future post). And they hover just like the hummers do. Clearwing? Well, yes, if you see the wings; just like the hummingbirds, they beat so fast, you can't see them unless you have a camera with a fast shutter speed to stop the motion. Moth? According to the books, that's what they are, though they are daytime fliers, hanging out with the butterflies and bees in the bright sun.

Hummingbird clearwing moth showing off its clearly beautiful wings.

So while it's not always butterflies and rainbows (and unicorns) in my yard, I welcome all and sundry. It's one of the reasons I love my gardens so much; not only do I get to enjoy the flowers, but I am providing food and shelter for all kinds of living things. And, in return, they provide me with a daily dance of beauty and fascination.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Twinkle: the Devilish Dog of My Childhood

The first dog I shared my life with was a beagle poodle mix, back before there were such things as designer mutts. Her fur was mostly black, with single white hairs stippled throughout. Kind of a salt-and-pepper look, though mostly pepper. She had a beagle-shaped body, with wavy not-quite curly poodle fur, and a beard that always dripped when she drank.

The runt of her litter, she seemed to have been born with a pushy attitude; she earned the nickname Diablo because she would nip at her siblings to get her spot at the Mommy Bar. We probably should have kept her nickname, or some devilish derivation thereof. Twinkle, which we came up with due to certain glint in her eyes, turned out to be a bit too small and cute for her personality.

Smart as a whip, Twink knew what she wanted and knew how to get it. She loved people food and surely could not imagine why she didn’t get it more often. As in, Always. So, if we didn’t give her people food, by her Right as Dog of the House, she would just go ahead and help herself.  And there were ever so many ways to get it.

Ya Gotta Hand it to Her  
My mom kept a free-standing pantry in our laundry room, where crackers and cereal and soups and snacks were kept. Twinkle’s nose informed her of its contents, and it was only a matter of time before she figured out how to access the goodies. She was way too short to reach the handles (and there was that minor issue of lacking opposable thumbs), but Twink discovered that if she banged on one door in just the right way, the other door opened. That first victory must have tasted sweet. 

As for me, I was awakened that night by a series of moans.“Oooommmoooonnn. Hhhhhhmmmnnnnnnooooon.” I sat up and saw Twinkle sitting on the floor by my bed. “What’s the matter?” “Hhhhhmmmmmmooaaaaaaaaaannnn.” “All right, show me what you want.” I followed Twink to the kitchen where she sat patiently in front of her water dish. Ok, she’s thirsty, I thought, and filled it up from the sink and went back to bed.

It seemed a little funny that she was so thirsty in the middle of the night, as my mom always kept her water bowl full. But I didn’t really think about it much. However, when the scenario was repeated over the course of several evenings, and we kept finding the laundry room cabinet opened, we didn’t need to call in the detectives to put the clues together. Simple solution: boxes of cookies and biscuits were moved to the upper shelves: Twinkle-height shelves were now filled with cans of soup and other non-edibles.

Not that something so simple would stop Twinkle. Even after that, every once in a while, she would come into my room and moan me awake. “Now what? Show me what you want.” And she’d lead me to the kitchen pantry where her dog bicsuits were and paw at the door. “You want a snack?” She would look at me. I’d give her a Milk Bone, and she’d trot off satisfied. “You woke me up for that?”  Hmmm. Guess who was training who?

I didn’t really mind, though, because I was so pleased that she chose me out of all the members of the family to serve her treats.

Those snacks are for me, right?  
Twink was never one to miss a Snack Opportunity whenever it presented itself. One time, my mom had set out milk and cookies on the table for my brothers and I before we went to bed. Though she called to us to let us know, we all took a little time heading downstairs. And my trusting mom left the kitchen unattended. 

I was the first to arrive. What I saw simply didn't compute. It was so wrong that I couldn't figure out exactly what I was seeing. For a second or two, I simple stared stupidly into the kitchen. Standing on the table was Twinkle with her snout deep in a red plastic cup. At my exclamation, she looked up, startled. Milk dripped from her beard, and cookie crumbs decorated her snout. She growled at me, like I was the one with the issue here. And then, grumbling and snarling, she hopped off the table, onto the chair and to the floor, and slunk off under the dining room table, where I’m sure she spent the next few hours bemoaning my interruption and mulling over ways to try that trick again.

Behind those adorable furry eyebrows was a master planner.

When my older brother turned 13, my grandparents flew in to be there for his Bar Mitzvah. My grandmother had baked a traditional braided Jewish bread, a challah, and lugged it all the way from Michigan in a paper bag. The challah was huge, the size of a 9-month old child; I could just imagine my Grandma cradling in her arms during the trip, protecting it from flight attendants who might have asked her to stow it. 

At one point during the weekend celebrations, someone had moved the bag onto the kitchen floor, not knowing what was in it. Once again, I was the lucky one to catch Twink in the act, seeing only her rear end and tail sticking out of the bag. “Twinkle!” I yelled. She pulled her head out, growled, and stared at me with a crumb-covered muzzle. “Get out of there!” As I grabbed the bag to get it out of dog snout range, my mom walked into the kitchen. I told her what happened and, as we pulled the chewed-up challah out of the bag, we pondered whether we should tell my grandmother or not.  We stared in dismay at dog-head sized cavity that extended about 6 inches into the bread.

And then my grandma walked in. We had no choice but to explain, and I was bracing myself for her to be devasted. Instead: “Hey, the dog should enjoy the challah, too!” (Best rendered in a typical Jewish grandma tone of voice.) We cut off the offensive 6 inches, and served the rest of the bread to the guests.

On our front porch: ruler of her domain.

Having a Ball  
Twinkle wasn’t all about food. She also was a true Ball hound; she loved for one of us to throw a Ball for her when we were outside. She’d eventually chew the rubber ball into pieces, and after a while all we had to throw were Ball Pieces, but she’d chase after them as well. Twink was tireless when it came to Ball Chasing. Her tongue would be hanging out, slung sideways over her teeth, she’d be panting like mad, but she still wanted more. I used to sit on top of our picnic table and lower a bucket attached to a jump rope. “Put the Ball, Twink,” I’d say, and she’d drop the slobbery, shlorby rubber ball in, impatiently wait for me to reel it up and then take off in anticipation of my throw. Twinkle loved playing Ball, and she loved being outside. 

Yes, that's a very young me, holding the remnants of a slimy rubber ball. According to Twinkle, if it was big enough to fit in her mouth, it was still a Ball and therefore qualified for throwing.

When the silly humans decided it was time to go back in the house, Twink would sit on the hill in our backyard and ponder the request. She’d look at me, then look off in the distance where it would be fun to explore other backyards. Back to me. Then to other yards. Me. Other yards. And then she’d just trot off, not in a hurry, but completely ignoring my calls to Come. And forget about chasing after her; that would just start a game of You Can’t Catch Me. Instead, she’d appear at our back door a half hour or so later, waiting to be let inside.

What a Drag  
Twinkle’s favorite indoor game was Tug. Though of course, she put her own spin on it. Basically, she’d hold on to the Tug toy, and someone would pull her around the floor. She’d lay there like a seal, back legs dragging behind her, her eyes smiling underneath her furry eyebrows. There were other toys meant for Tug, particularly fuzzy slippers. To be specific; fuzzy slippers on someone’s feet. My mom or I would put on those fuzzy, furry slippers to keep our feet warm, and the next thing we knew, we’d have a dog attached to one of our feet. I learned to drag Twink along as I walked through the house: Step. Tug. Drag. Step. Tug. Drag.

Playing Twinkle's version of Tug. She holds on, you drag her around the floor.

Tall Tails 
As I was growing up, we added other animals to our menagerie. Twinkle was really my mom’s dog, so I wanted an animal of “my own” and eventually convinced my parents to let me have a guinea pig. Prior to Piggy’s arrival, I could sometimes convince Twinkle to come hang out on my bed with me. Often I’d coax her into my room when my parents were out at night. I’d lead her on to my bed with a few doggy cookies. Twink would follow obediently, hop up on my bed, and munch on the treats. Only a few minutes later, she would “hear” something outside, and bark. “Hark! There is a sound that only I, the Dog, can hear. I must go investigate. Unless you have more cookies?” And off she would go. I never knew dogs could tell fibs, but I swear there never was a noise; she just didn’t want to stay in my room. Unless there were snacks.

Wasn't a Dog Enough?
Once I adopted Piggy, though, Twink wouldn’t even bother to go through the charade. She’d come up on the bed for the cookies and then jump right off. I think she was offended that I had another animal in my room. Of course that wasn’t half as offensive as the white rabbit we adopted not so long afterwards.  Snow was a large, pure white, sweet and friendly bunny that my brother and a friend found in the woods while walking home from school. Long story short, the friend’s family said they couldn't keep it, and we found ourselves with a pet rabbit. Snow lived in a hutch we kept on the front porch, and we brought her inside the house at night to hop around our rec room while we watched TV.

Piggy the guinea pig, Snow the rabbit, and Twinkle the dog hang out on the hill behind our house.

Snow was pretty smart for a bunny. She was potty trained; she went to the bathroom on newspapers placed in a corner of the room. An affectionate creature, she loved to sit on a person’s lap and snuggle, and lick his or her arm. Sometimes she’d get a little nutty, and start tearing around the room making bizarre snizzing noises. A few circuits around the floor and then she’d take a flying leap into someone’s lap.

Except. She never got the concept of look before you leap. Or that a lap required a person in the chair. And every once in awhile, she’d do her snizzy running circles and leap into the air--and land on Twinkle. Twink would jump up and off the chair and slink out of the room, looking back at us as if to say, “Why? Why would you do this? Why would we need such a creature? The indignity of all. Humph.”

 Snow would sit on the chair and blink in confusion. Where was the lap? She never learned.

When Twinkle had enough of rabbits and guinea pigs or sometimes human guests, she had a few hiding places where you could count on finding her. She’d lay behind the couch in the living room, where she could keep an eye on things from underneath it. Or, her most favorite spot was under the dining room table, which had a floor-length tablecloth on it. There, she’d be completely hidden, unless you knew to look for her. Often all you’d see of Twinkle would be a nose and two eyeballs watching everything--from the safety of her lair.  I'm sure she was planning her next move.

Twinkle: looking for her next adventure.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

After Irene

It rained and raged and stormed and blew. By the next morning, though, the rain had let up a bit. And by early afternoon, all that was left of Hurricane Irene was the wind. We were unscathed for the most part: a few downed branches, puddles that were more like ponds throughout the yard, and green leaves everywhere that had been stripped from the trees. We even had electricity until about 2 pm, but then our generator kicked in and our pumps continued to pump. We had no internet or phone service for two days, until the "real" power came back on.

We were spared. Living on the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains certainly has its benefits.While our house doesn't have a million-dollar view (we live on what I like to call the backside of the mountain), all the water does flow downhill. So, while our basement floods if we aren't pumping, we do not have to worry about rivers overflowing. 

Unfortunately, so many of the towns nearby--a mere 5 minute drive from our home--were inundated. Homes were destroyed. Lives uprooted. Basements flooded to ceilings. I can just barely comprehend what those folks are going through, since we dealt with our flood a year and a half ago. My little picture story of our experiences doesn't begin to compare, so I'll share it simply. My heart goes out to the people who still have lots of recover ahead of them.

As for us, on Sunday morning, Irene was dragging her rear end through New Jersey. It was still raining, and the cats continued to enjoy the Blowing Leaves Channel on the Window TV.
Athena watching Cat TV.
The dogs needed to go out, so we braved the weather, but by that time, the rain had slowed quite a bit.

Many branches littered the yard. A dog's paradise: more sticks than even Jasper and Tucker could chew in a day...maybe even a week.

Lilah surveys the damage to my butterfly bushes. Every one was blown over.

Our driveway had become a stream.

Speaking of streams, here's a "before" picture of one of the streams in our woods.

And here's the "after." In the background, you can see how the plants on the side of the stream were flattened by the rushing water; by the time I took this picture, much of it had receded.

The next day, we went for our regular morning walk. Instead of the peace and quiet of an early stroll, with birdsong in our ears, we were treated to the cacophony of multiple generators; so many people were still without power.

As always, Lilah leads the way on our walk.

This was not an usual sight. Throughout our neighborhood, trees rested on wires; in any normal circumstances, this would have been taken care of within hours. In many cases, days went by before trees were removed. If it wasn't an immediate danger or affected power, it stayed.

A bonus: downed trees meant there were sticks to play with on the walk.

We saw lots of wildlife on our walk. The dogs were not allowed to chase that deer you see in the background. Instead, we practiced Leave It--as in, pay attention to me instead of that thing you're really interested in. But it was a deer!

As usual, Jasper checks for squirrels in his favorite Squirrel Yard. Came up empty this time, but maybe they'll show up on our next walk. One can always hope.

When cars came by, we practiced our Sits and Stays off the road.

Ahhh...home. The sun is coming up and dinner is sure to follow once we get inside.

Later that day in our backyard, we saw a hawk on our pool fence drying out wings in the sun. He's an immature bird, not fully grown, and I'm not that great at identifying immatures, but my best guess is he's a young Cooper's Hawk.
As the days have gone by, more debris has been cleaned up. Piles of soggy belongings appeared on the sides of streets in towns like Manville and Bound Brook, indicating flooded basements. The remnants of Hurricane Lee came pouring through, adding more wet insult to injury with severe storms. 

But over the past week or so, we straightened out our butterfly bushes, attaching them to our deck with the bungee cords we had used to tie down our furniture. The branches are picked up and the creek beds are back to normal level.

I think some of our local wildlife suffered. I've only seen one flying squirrel since the storm. And some nights the peanut butter I leave out goes untouched. And only a solitary gray squirrel has visited our feeders during the day; Brian saw him. I haven't seen a one.

But the butterflies are back, and we've seen the sun a few times. Things are getting back to normal on the "mountaintop." 

A monarch feasting on buddleia (butterfly bush).

Friday, September 2, 2011

Battening Down the Hatches, Hunkering Down and Dodging Bullets

Henceforth, I declare that I will never, ever use the following expressions:
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Hunker down
  • Dodge a bullet
The arrival of Hurricane Irene on the east coast of the U.S. caused an outbreak of these expressions--dare I say an epidemic. I woulda thunk that somewhere, somehow, there would be at least one creative talking head who did NOT use one or all of those expressions when reporting on this historic storm.
At least none of my cats or dogs did. Nor will I in this post.

For the most part, they ignored Irene.
Jasper is trying to ignore the activity as we prepare for Irene's arrival. For some reason, Playing with Dogs wasn't on the list of things to do.
Preparing for the worst, with help from the dogs
The humans, though, found it hard to ignore. The rain wasn’t that dramatic, and although it was windy, we didn’t get the full brunt of Mother Nature’s intensity.  Before Irene hit, Brian and I spent most of Saturday tying down lawn furniture, stowing plant pots, and removing blowable items, to prevent them from becoming missiles during the hurricane.

Before Irene: our deck. Everything had to be stowed.
Chairs, umbrella and plants removed; glass from the tabletop stored in the shed.
Every pillow, cushion, table and plant had to be accounted for.

After everything was as ready as we could make it, Dr. Lilah inspected.
Previously, we had gone shopping, buying water and human, cat and dog food to last us for a week. We didn’t need batteries, as we always have tons; flashlights are always on hand for nighttime dog walking.

Once flooded, twice shy 
As Irene bore down upon us, we watched The Weather Channel almost obsessively. A year and a half ago, after a particularly wet spring, the power went out during a heavy thunderstorm. Despite a panicked run to Home Depot to buy a generator, and a group effort to pull things out of our basement, we wound up with 8 inches of water there. Doesn’t sound like much if it’s never happened to you, but it was enough to ruin a huge amount of our stuff—and took us nearly a year to clean up afterwards.
From last year's flood; only a small portion of the stuff we lost.
After we cleaned everything out of the basement, the remediator brought a few fans to help dry it out. This is NOT all of them.
I can only begin to imagine the fear and loss that so many people here in New Jersey and throughout the northeast felt and are feeling from the devastation that Irene wreaked. My hearts go out to them; our little flood does not compare.

With money from the insurance (plus a lot more we added), we installed better drains and improved sump pumps in the basement, and then created a finished room. Most important, we also installed a gas-powered generator that automatically turns on 3 seconds after we lose power.

The generator is the only reason I wasn’t panicked during Irene. Because I’ve had two flooded basements in my lifetime—and that is two too many.

That said, I was a bit concerned about the storm. As Irene approached the wind and rain began and intensified. The Weather Channel had our area under a tornado warning. And the gorgeous old maple tree by our patio was looking too darn close to the house.
Big tree. Near house. Very pretty, but a little scary when you consider the hurricane force winds that were expected with Irene.
Raining cats and dogs
During the afternoon, the rain and winds came in earnest. Lilah barely noticed it was raining. I’m not sure if she cared about the wind. But the two boys, Jasper and Tucker, Do Not Like Getting Wet. And, while they’ve learned to got outside and Potty when it rains, this was a little over the top. 

Each time I took the dogs out, after they did their business, Jasper would stand next to me and Tucker would try to shelter under me, sitting as close as he could to my legs. Lilah ran around splashing in puddles and sniffing Good Sniffs.  When it got too much for them, Jasper and Tucker would bolt for the door, hoping for the opposable thumbs that would enable them to get out of the rain without having to wait for me to help them.
"Hey, let us in! It's starting to rain!"

Our routine when the dogs come in from a wet outside is that they wait by the door on the bath mat we have there—just for soaking up wet dog paws. And then we play Treats for the Feets. That’s when I towel off a doggy and then he or she gets a treat for each foot that I dry. Lilah loves it, and Tucker says it’s worth it for the treat. But Jasper just hates having me Do Things to him, so he’s always last, and, while he lets me dry off each foot, it’s grudgingly, and only just barely worth the proffered treat.

During the storm, Dawn and Athena went about their normal cat duties: prowling, sleeping, pouncing and hunting bugs. 

The night of the hurricane, Athena seemed blissfully unaware.

The windows, otherwise known as Cat TV, seemed to be tuned to a different channel; normally it’s the Birdie Chipmunk Squirrel channel. For no discernable reason (to the cats), someone had changed it to the Blowing Leaves Channel. Still good viewing, though, and both Dawn and Athena were amused until it got too dark to see.
We took some of the more vulnerable plants inside and put them on the table in the dining room. The plastic tablecloth made a fantastic cat cave where it covered the chairs. The next day, there were little pinprick holes in the tablecloth. Athena must have been redecorating; I think she was going for the Night Sky look.

Blowing in the wind
When night came, we closed all the curtains to minimize flying glass should our windows break. Dawn and Athena were sent to their basement lair, where I had the crates open and ready in case we needed to transport the cats. The misses were a little perturbed because they only like going into the basement when it’s their idea—not when they’re sent there by lowly humans. But it’s comfy and there are plenty of soft and hidey cat places. Tolerable, I guess.

The dogs and Brian and I camped out in the living room all night, as it was far from the part of the house where the big maple might land.  Aaron slept in his bedroom, a bit disappointed and wishing the storm was bigger and more exciting; I think he wanted a Jim Cantore moment: standing outside in the rain and getting blown sideways. (For those of you who are not Weather Channel geeks like I am, Jim Cantore is one of their star meteorologists, and they always send him to the place they think will get the worst weather. My daughter, who lives in Manhattan, texted me before the storm arrived to say, “Jim Cantore is being sent to NYC. We’re screwed.”)

The dogs were thrilled to be in the living room, since I slept on the floor on an old comforter. Which, to a dog, is simply a very long dog bed. And it was the best kind of bed, because they could all snuggle up next to me.  Which they did. It would have been kind of fun, actually, if there wasn’t a hurricane raging outside.
Jasper on my--excuse me, his--bed where we spent the night.
So, with cats in the basement, humans and dogs camped in the living room, we passed the night, sometimes sleeping, sometimes listening to the wind and rain.

To be continued…my next post will be about the end of the storm and the aftermath.