Thursday, February 24, 2011

GBBC--Not In My Backyard

Did you participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count this past weekend?  After participating in my first bird count last year, I was eager to join in again this year, especially since I had two little visitors who would be more than willing to help to count all the different birds they could see.

No, no, I didn't mean these two helpers, although Sophie enjoys watching bird antics as much as anyone, as does Toby--when it's not interfering with his nap time, that is.  No, the visitors I was referring to are two of my grandchildren who spent the past week with us while their parents were off on a much-needed vacation.  Granddaughter, who is 7 1/2, is not only my garden helper, but also a lover of anything in nature.  She is not merely satisfied to name the birds with my help,  she must consult my Birds of Illinois field guide and then go to the computer to look up the species for even more information before confirming its identity.  (The Cornell University website, which is included on the GBBC links, is a great source for identifying birds, by the way, if you've never checked it out.)

But there was no need for either the field guide or the internet to identify the few birds we saw this past weekend. Just the week before, we had so many different birds visiting our yard. I was so happy to see the downy woodpecker finally come for a visit, after being absent all winter long.

There were even a pair of them, as the female lacks the distinctive red mark seen on the nape of the male.  (Please excuse the poor photos--all were taken through a dirty living room window with only the small zoom of my point-and-shoot camera--and I forgot to use the snow setting to avoid all the shadows here.)

Bluejays and cardinals were easy to spot in the trees and as they visited the feeders, though too quick for anything but this one photo.

And the most exciting for me of all, the red-bellied woodpecker visited briefly.  You'll have to look very closely to see him hiding here on a branch.  The red-bellied woodpeckers are not seen as often at my house as the downys, so their few visits are always cause for excitement.

 The week of February 7--12 was bitterly cold, and there was still a heavy snow cover.  But last week's warm spell, which reached into the upper 50's at times and melted all but a few piles of snow, may have prompted the birds to change their patterns.  Even the dark-eyed juncos, which have been around all winter long, were nowhere to be found during Bird Count weekend.  I don't know; maybe they all decided to go skiing in Wisconsin for the weekend.

I don't think I can count this critter in the Bird Count either, do you?:)  By the way, squirrels must be more intelligent than I ever gave them credit for.  This guy was totally impervious to the incessant barking and pawing of Sophie, who I thought was going to crash through the window to get at him!  He looked Sophie square in the eye and kept on chewing on the suet block as if to say, "Ha, ha, ha! You can't get me!"

All in all, our bird count this past weekend was very disappointing.  Despite making sure all the feeders were full, Granddaughter and I spied only a few species.  Our final tally:

15 House sparrows
30 European starlings
5 Crows
1 Hawk--which I believe was a red-tailed hawk, but it flew away so quickly I couldn't be sure.

A winter storm is moving in tonight with a forecast for another 5-7 inches of snow, so I imagine more of the birds will return in the next few days for a tasty meal.  But it's too bad they weren't here for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which ended on Monday.  I hope that you had better luck this past weekend than I did in seeing birds; although the count has ended, you do have until March 1 to report your findings.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

February Bloom Day

February is just flying by--a good thing, since it's my least favorite month of the year.  Here it is the middle of the month already, which can only mean one thing: time for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day!

I'm almost embarrassed to show my few meager "blooms" this month, but here goes anyway:

There are still a few blooms on the little kalanchoe,
an impulse purchase at the grocery store one dreary January day.

But otherwise, all you will see here are "almost" blooms--like this teeny-tiny tentative bloom on the over-wintered impatiens in the spare bedroom.

Or this out-of-focus bud on the Christmas cactus.  This little Christmas cactus has been a disappointment so far, and has just this one bloom-to-be.  Maybe it's a Valentine's cactus?  A Saint Patrick's cactus??

I've decided that forcing hyacinths indoors requires more patience than I realized.  All three bulbs sitting in vases show some green growth at the top, but this is the only one with roots stretching for moisture.  Maybe I'll have indoor hyacinths at the same time as the outdoor hyacinths bloom:)

Much more promising, though, is the almost-bloom of the amaryllis.  I won't complain at all that it's not blooming, since I completely forgot about it till mid-January when I rescued it from its hiding spot in the garage.  It's been growing like crazy ever since and should open within a week, I would think.

I know this is a pretty pathetic collection, but the garden outside is still covered with snow and you won't find anything at all there.  But the good news is, it's warming up and the snow is melting!!

By the time the next Bloom Day rolls around, we will be only a week away from spring, and there is a hope that we just might have something outdoors blooming.  For now, though, be sure to check out other gardeners' blooms by visiting our hostess,  Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Somewhere It Must Be Warm...

Someone once said that you should never apologize or feel the need to explain when you've been absent from blogging for awhile.  I think that is a wise idea, yet I'm the kind of person who wears her heart on her sleeve, as my close friends would tell you, and always feel I must apologize when I haven't kept up with leaving comments on the blogs I regularly visit.  Last week I was away, visiting my youngest daughter, and though I found a few minutes here and there to read blogs, it was hit and miss, not part of my usual morning routine as the cobwebs in my brain lift, fueled by the morning jolt of caffeine.

I had planned a post as soon as I returned the first of this week, but for the past week my family has been dealing with a very sad situation--the death of a close family member who died very unexpectedly, leaving behind a young widow and two small children.  It's been a difficult time for all, and I haven't felt like blogging at all, needless to say.  But it has been a reminder of just how fragile and precious life is; we must appreciate and take advantage of every moment given to us.

While everyone back home was digging out from the Great Blizzard of  '11, I was enjoying the relative warmth of Portland, Oregon, where 48 or 50 degrees felt like spring to me.  I managed to get out of town just in time.  My flight from Indianapolis was delayed for awhile, including some time to spray the plane down with de-icer ("Yes, I'll gladly wait here on the tarmac if it means those wings don't ice up!), but the flight was uneventful otherwise, thank goodness.

Rear view of Pittock Mansion
 February is not a good time for visiting gardens, even in Oregon, so I didn't even attempt to see some of my favorite places from past visits, like the International Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden, or the Chinese Garden.   But Daughter and I did take an afternoon sightseeing drive through the city, including a stop at a place she thought I would enjoy, the Pittock Mansion located 1,000 feet above the heart of Portland. 

Completed in 1914, the mansion featured many innovative features for that time, including a central vacuum system and intercoms.  But it is the architectual details that really capture a visitor's attention, especially this beautful three-story marble staircase.  Daughter and I both took time to pose for photos on this staircase, but thought it would have been more appropriate if we had been wearing ballgowns instead of blue jeans and sneakers.

The home is filled with 17th and 18th century antiques; I'm not sure why the only photo I took, though, was of the cookstove:)  Perhaps it was because I was distracted by the view--the cook could roll out pastry while looking out a window with a breathtaking view of the city. The estate remained in the family until the late '50's when it was put on the market.  Fortunately, a group of concerned citizens supported its preservation, and in 1964 the city of Portland purchased it and began restoring the mansion, saving it from demolition and land developers.

As beautiful as the interior is, the exterior is even more appealing.  Strolling down the back lawn, a visitor finds one of the best views of the city with Mount Hood clearly visible on the horizon.

Georgiana Pittock, who commissioned the building of this house along with her husband Henry, was an avid gardener and originated the tradition of Portland's annual Rose Festival.  The grounds around the mansion are filled with many different plants; I hope that on my next trip I'll be able to see these in bloom, because even in winter the garden was impressive. There were even roses blooming near the front door--an amazing sight in early February!  Daughter took great delight in testing my knowledge of different plants; it wasn't hard to identify the large plantings of  azaleas--or maybe these were rhododendrons.

Nor was it hard to pick out these Japanese maples.  Judging by their thick trunks, I thought they must be fairly mature specimens, yet both were less than 5 feet tall.

But I had no idea what kind of tree this was, and there were no identifying markers beside it.  It certainly has a unique trunk.

The Pittock Mansion is open year-round and is in close proximity to both the Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden.   I'd definitely recommend visting all three of these places if you're ever in Portland.

One of the things I love about Portland is that you don't need a car to get around.  While Daughter was working one day, I took advantage of the excellent mass transit system to do some exploring on my own.  For less than $5.00 you can purchase an all-day pass that allows you to ride to and from anywhere in the city and the outlying suburbs (where Daughter lives) on the train, then take any city bus or the streetcar downtown. 

Of course, if you want to travel further, you might need additional transportation as this street sign in Pioneer Square indicates:)

I was content, though, just to stay where I was, enjoying some precious time with Daughter and, of course, Coconut, who is quite the fashionista at times, as you can see.

I think Coconut was just as happy to have me visit as was Daughter, especially since we took frequent daily walks past the wetland area across the street from Daughter's apartment complex.  We both enjoyed seeing the ducks, geese, and different species of birds flying about and swimming in this nature area.  I'm almost positive that one day I saw an eagle flying above the area as well.

Although afternoons in Portland were warm enough that I could comfortably shed my winter coat on walks with Coconut, I didn't completely escape the effects of the big winter storm.  My flight home late Sunday evening went without a hitch . . . until I reached Indianapolis.  I had left my car in the long-term parking lot, and I soon realized what everyone there had had to endure, as I spent an hour chipping ice off my windshield ... and then needed assistance to get "unstuck" from the ice in my parking space!  

I'm glad to be back home, but it was -8 degrees (-22 C) when I woke up this morning, and I'm already dreaming of finding someplace warm . . . maybe it's time to visit Older Daughter in Phoenix, too!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

February Book Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
--George Santayana

On a winter's day with the wind howling outside and the weather forecast for more snow and possible icy conditions, there is nothing better than curling up with a good book.  Deciding to take a break from my usual diet of mysteries and thrillers, several weeks ago I picked up The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman on the recommendation of a friend, a school librarian.  I didn't realize at the time that it was non-fiction, so I've been reading it at a slower pace, but finished it just in time for this month's meeting of the Book Review Club.

The Zookeeper's Wife takes place during World War II and is the story of Antonina Zabinski, wife of the zookeeper of  the Warsaw Zoo, who, like a "horse whisperer," seems to have a mystical way of communicating with animals.  This ability to calm wild animals serves her well later in the war during a few dangerous confrontations with the Nazis and later with a band of marauding Russian soldiers. 

The Zoo in 1938.  (Image from Wikipedia)

Their peaceful existence, where it wasn't unusual to find a pet badger or lynx roaming the halls of the villa, is shattered when the Nazis invade Poland in 1939.  The Nazis were fond of big game hunting and were also obsessed with creating a "pure" Aryan environment, including re-creating some extinct species. Under their rule, the zoo soon loses most of its animals.  Over the course of the war, it is used for different purposes depending on the whim of its captors, including a vegetable farm and a fur farm.

Antonina's husband Jan becomes a member of the Polish Underground, and one of his main activities is spiriting Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto to safety.  Soon the zoo becomes a hiding place for many of them, who hide in the various cages and buildings once occupied by pheasants or peacocks or in the villa itself. It falls upon Antonina to provide enough food and warmth for all the "guests" while Jan is busy with the Underground's activities. To maintain secrecy, Antonina even refers to them by animal names so that eventually the code name for the zoo becomes "The House Under a Crazy Star."  Three hundred people lived for a time in the Warsaw Zoo during the course of the war, escaping certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

Historic district in Warsaw today.  The city was rebuilt after 80% of the buildings were destroyed in the war.
(Image from Wikipedia)
 A best-selling author and naturalist, Ackerman includes detailed descriptions of animal behavior and unusual species, such as the wild horses who run free through the primeval forest in northeastern Poland. Unlike dry scientific explanations, Ackerman's prose becomes almost poetic as she brings nature to life for the reader. The book is meticulously researched,  based on Antonina's own diaries as well as many other factual accounts of the time, as listed in a lengthy bibliography at the end of the book.

  While I believe it is very important to remember the Holocaust, I usually don't read books about this time in history because it tears at my heart to read of these atrocities.  However, Ackerman doesn't dwell on the horrors, but presents these events in the context of the everyday existence of the residents of Warsaw.  There is inspiration in some of the stories, and the Zoo's villa is at times filled with laughter and music as Antonina and the guests share some peaceful moments.  There is even a touch of humor in the picture of Antonina pounding on the piano a loud rendition of Offenbach's "Go, Go to Crete" as a signal to her guests that danger is imminent and they must retreat to underground tunnels or cages to hide.

The Zookeeper's Wife is not so much a story of the tragedies in Warsaw during WWII as it is a story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit over despair.   Antonina Zabinski was an ordinary housewife in her husband Jan's words, yet she was determined "to be true to herself, to follow her heart, even though it meant enduring a lot of sacrifice." Like her husband, she believed "if you can save somebody's life, it's your duty to try."  Though they faced countless dangers, the Zabinskis put on an air of outer calm and never questioned their purpose; they were true heroes.

True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason.

~Alfred North Whitehead

 Click here to see more reviews @barrie summy.

Disclaimer: Once again, no compensation was received for this review, and I checked the book out from my local library.