Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The conversation of the crows: the crow clock

A magazine to which I am subscribed ran an article on the times when different species of birds in central Europe begin singing each morning. I’ve never seen data like that for our local birds. For  years I’ve been recording now and then the early morning bird choruses, so I’ve got some raw material of my own which might be useful in working out something like that for my backyard birds. Even with recordings it won’t be easy because in addition to the their widely recognized songs, birds produce other less readily recognized sounds.
Right now I’m focused on the calls of one particular species of bird, the local crow. The local crows have had roosts nearby for at least a half century. Human construction development has caused them to move several times, but they seem to have remained in the same general area. The enormous crow flocks we had before West Nile disease nearly eliminated the local crows, jays and starlings are a thing of the past. There was a time when hundreds, maybe thousands, of crows gathered late every day in the woods in back of the house before they flew off en masse to their roost. And once the crows were gone, the patient, knowledgeable bird watcher can wait for the next act: with the crows gone, any accipiters lurking in the woods launch themselves off to their roost.  
Although the local crow population is currently small, they are still noisy. And that noise is what interests me now. About a month ago I began to notice that the crows were arriving in our neighborhood at about 7:30 A.M. As time passed, they arrived a bit earlier. Right now, they are arriving just a bit past 7 A.M. I’ve written “arriving” but actually what I’m noticing is the time I hear them for the first time. For all I know they have been sitting out there in the trees earlier than that.  What’s certain is that those first morning crow noises are getting earlier and earlier. Sunrise now is not until 7:27 A.M., so they obviously are not waiting for the sun to rise. And after a brief arrival chat, they quiet down and I don't hear them. 
By the way, when I hear these early morning crows, I'm still deeply snuggled down into my cocoon in bed. I guess they know the truth in the old adage “the early bird catches the worm”! Maybe, but  I don't want to be the  early outdoor bird watcher who catches pneumonia!  

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Chinese ginger jar and a house of my dreams

If you read this post before today, January 8, 2019, you read an earlier, somewhat truncated version. After reading that version, Wayne suggested a number of additions and other changes. Those have been woven in below.

Most of us accumulate a lot of stuff during our lifetimes; but I'll bet that few of us leave behind any sort of documentation to help others give significance (other than monetary) to those things. Here's the story behind the Chinese ginger jar in the image above. I doubt that it's worth anything on the market, so its significance is not one of dollars and cents; but it's a tangible reminder of a neat day trip Wayne and I experienced one August day a few years ago.

During the 20s and 30s of the last century magazines sometimes contained advertisements placed by lumber companies selling house kits. One example caught my eye long ago, and when I later purchased a Dover book on 20s house designs (see the image above), I found that very house described. Judge of my surprise (has anyone else used this phrase since pre-WWII times?) when a Google search turned up a surviving example about two hours away in western Virginia. It was in a small town just east of I-81, one we pass every time we visit Wayne's mom.

We had attended a family reunion held earlier in the day in the Luray, Virginia area. When we left the reunion, we headed west, with the massive Massanutten Range spread out before us. And we could see a storm roiling and churning the valley sky on the other side of the range. When we eventually got onto Route 11 beyond Massanutten, we saw plenty of evidence of what that storm must have been like for people living there.  Evidently it was yard sale day in that part of the valley. Here and there along Route 11  we began to see the havoc caused by that powerful wind storm: items for the prospective yard sales were scattered over lawns and adjacent fields. By then it was late in the day and getting dark,  and people were scurrying about picking up the pieces.

 That storm did us a favor: I didn't have contact information about the current owners, so we just took a chance and drove by. The goal was simply to get a close look at the house, maybe even knock on the door and have a chat with the people living there now. As we approached the house, we could see activity in the driveway. We lucked out: the occupants were home and were out on the driveway picking up the pieces of their part of the yard sale. So we went up and introduced ourselves, told them why we were interested in the house, and then discovered that they evidently knew little about the history of the house.

They had no idea that nearly a century ago magazine readers would have seen that very model pictured in several publications. Those magazine photos even had a name for the house: "The House Beautiful".   When we showed them the photo of "their" house in the Dover book, it created a stir. It should have: the editors of that Dover book chose an image of that model for the front cover of their book. The book itself is a reprint of a house kit catalog originally published in 1923. Something gave me the impression that the current occupants did not own the house - maybe they were renters? And they were not prepared to have visitors inside the house. We did learn that the house had originally been built for a doctor, and he made certain changes to the basic design. These included changes to the interior floor plans and the election of an exterior other than stucco. When we saw it, the exterior had been painted with a disagreeably glossy white paint which produced a plastic-like effect on the faux block siding.

I really like stucco, and I've seen houses on the east side of the National Zoo, houses probably built a century or so ago, with stucco in good shape. I'm still hoping that a future Google search will turn up another existing example of my dream house, one in better condition and in particular one with a stucco exterior.

In the meantime, I have that Chinese ginger jar, selected from the detritus on my dream house's driveway,  to remind me to continue the search.  

Thursday, January 3, 2019

A Pholcid spider's response to disturbance


Because so many of them are found in houses, spiders of the family Pholcidae are among the most frequently encountered spiders.
Although I’ve known this spider all of my adult life (it’s common in bathrooms and is widely called the cellar spider), thanks to Wikipedia I recently learned something fascinating and entertaining about it. These spiders have a messy web with no apparent pattern. Usually you’ll see them waiting near the center of the disorganized mass of web. But watch the video above to see what happens when they are disturbed. This one is in the home bathroom. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Mid-winter florist flowers and a few others

When I was a kid I was intrigued by the popularity of certain flowering house plants which in northern Europe seemed to be hugely popular but which always seemed to die quickly for me.  The Persian cyclamen is a good example: when I first tried them long ago they lasted about a week before they collapsed. The begonias of the hiemalis hybrid group are another. Back in those days I had trouble keeping these going for long, too. 

Now that I'm on a retirement income and looking for ways to economize, and now that I realize that heating an entire house twenty-four hours per day for one person is a huge waste of resources, I keep the house much cooler than most of you are probably used to. 
It took a while to get used to this, and my resolve was boosted by reading in Gilbert White's late eighteenth- century The Natural History of Selbourne of the mornings when the water kept under his bed sometimes froze on really cold nights. 

There have been some rewards to my seeming austerity. I've discovered that those Persian cyclamen from the florist thrive under these chilly conditions. So long as I keep them watered they continue to bloom for months. I've been careful to select the ones with good fragrance: the typical huge Persian cyclamens of the florists are either not scented or ill scented. The smaller sorts, closer to the wild Cyclamen persicum, sometimes have a great scent - like the fragrance of the beautician's cold cream. 

A hiemalis begonia on trial this year (the lowest of the three images above)  just gets better and better (i.e. more floriferous)  week after week. It shows no sign of slowing down.  

Right now my favorite florist flower of the season is the stock, Matthiola incana (these are probably hybrids of several Matthiola species). That's what you see in the two upper images above. The individual flowers are an inch and a half across and remind me of the blooms of Prunus mume. They are very pretty, and five stems make a handsome display. The ones in the image were purchased a week ago and still look fresh. But I've neglected to mention their best quality: the blooms have a wonderful clove scent, a scent free on the air and capable of filling the air in a still room. I've never seen these in a local garden, nor have I ever heard anyone speak of them as garden plants. Old books suggest that they are typical burn-out annuals which do not tolerate high temperatures. In the parts of England and Europe where cold summers (by eastern American standards) are the rule, they have been garden essentials for centuries. I've seen early twentieth-century German seed lists which catalog a prodigious number of varieties, few of which probably survive. 

Here's something interesting for those of you who like words: you probably know the botanical name Leucojum used for a group of early blooming amaryllis family plants. That name is derived from the old Greek words for "white" and "violet". The modern German word for stocks is Levkoje (say lef-ko-yer, where the italicized  r is not fully pronounced). It looks a lot like Leucojum, doesn't it? As it turns out, the German word is also based on the old Greek words for "white" and "violet".  I'm not sure when this word became standard in modern German; a quick look in the mid-sixteenth century herbal of Fuchs does not seem to use this word.  

The only stock I've grown in the garden is the related night-scented stock, Matthiola longipetala (long known as M. bicornis).  This is one of those annuals which one sows by scattering the seed in late winter or earliest spring. The resulting plants are nothing to look at, but when they begin to  bloom on late spring or early summer evenings,  they can stop garden visitors in their tracks - that's how powerful the delightful scent is. This used to be a garden essential, but I get the impression that few gardeners now even seem to know about it. 

There are other intensely fragrant crucifers which have similar fragrances. The dame's violet, Hesperis matronalis, is one of them. Once a garden favorite, it's apt to be given weed status now, but that amazing fragrance earns it a place somewhere in many gardens. 

Years ago, I tried to puzzle out the Russian name for a lily ( an obscure early twentieth- century hybrid raised by Russia's Luther Burbank, Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin, Иван Владимирович Мичурин). The lily name was Romanized as "Fialkovaya" .  The "Fialko-" part of the name is the Russian word for violet,  фиалка.  A bad translation of the name is "orchid lily" as if the lily were named for the color orchid. But the lily was really named for its scent, and while it might have been named for violet in the sense of sweet violet or Parma violet,  I have a hunch it was named for the scent of Hesperis, a scent often likened to that of sweet violet. 

One modern Russian name for Hesperis matronalis is ночна́я фиа́лка (night violet), but a good Google search turns up other translations with a vaguely suggestive sense ( such as "mattress party violet" !).