Songbirds and Snow

Meadow garden with a dusting of snow

While sitting on my back steps a few days past – before the winter storm that dusted the garden and meadow white with snow – the swift motion of a pair of young mockingbirds caught  my attention. Two young males were cartwheeling together, fighting it out over territory for the coming winter, establishing their boundaries. The contest lasted only a few seconds before the invader fled and the victor retreated to a post at the edge of the garage roof to keep watch.

Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are one of the common over-wintering songbirds here at the Hermitage, along with cardinals, blue jays and assorted small sparrows and titmouse. Our mild winters ensure that if birds are inclined to stay put, they generally do. In addition to our usual crowd, we also get the annual migratory birds, all of which contribute to our local mockingbirds’ repertoire of song.

Birdsong is one of the sounds that humans tend to associate with joy, although the birds may have other things in mind. Mating calls, of course, are the sound of spring.  Much of the rest is basic communication – different chirps and squeaks have different meanings, dependent on species.

Much of the mockingbirds’ singing is to establish territory. Ornithologists will sometimes record mockingbird calls to determine what more bashful species may be in the area. They may even adopt the sound of car alarms or – to my sister’s annoyance one year long ago – the sound of a bad starter solenoid.  Establishing territory is important right now, because this is the season when young male mockingbirds begin building nests in preparation for their early spring mating. They fly the boundaries of their territories, their song at times a few twitters and chirps, at others long trillings of multiple bird calls sung end-to-end.

And so the seasons blend together, one into another, not in the clearly delineated progression we humans tend to prefer, but blurred together at the edges. And now we have Winter, smudged with both Fall and Spring, and with the promise of Summer at its depths.

Granny’s Redbud tree, outlined in snow


In the Garden:

Artichoke plant in snow

I had hoped to have some photos of my fall-blooming saffron crocuses (Crocus sativus) to share, but they haven’t bloomed yet for some reason. They’re a couple of weeks overdue, although they are sending up scattered bunches of narrow leaves. The squirrels have also discovered them this year, unfortunately, and have been digging in the bed in the early morning. I still have a few of the threads from last fall saved back, so I’ll have to make do.

A bag of tulip bulbs is living temporarily in the back of my refrigerator, waiting for mid-January when they can be tucked into pots around the yard. Tulips can’t be naturalized this far south, so they have to be treated as annuals. I have several large shallow pots ready for them.

My kitchen garden has finally given up. I was harvesting eggplants right up until last weekend, but our surprise freeze has put an end to the few small fruits that were still growing. The okra has gone to seed, and I’ve allowed it to hopefully self-sow.

I’ve added a thick mulch of leaves to the edges of the blueberry patch, so it can be expanded this spring. Otherwise, I’m mulching heavily with the fallen oak leaves, when my inherited landscaping crew will leave them alone. I almost cried when I came home from work a few weeks ago to find most of my carefully raked mulching around the trees had fallen to a well-meaning guy with a lawnmower.

Right now is a time for planning. At some point before March, I have several bare-root trees arriving, so I’m working out where they will go. I’m also hoping to finally add the two apple trees to the front yard this next year. I’m also planning a reworking of a narrow strip along the driveway using primarily native shrubs and grasses, to help it absorb water more efficiently.

Shrimp plant in snow


Around the Hermitage:

We have entered the time of baking. I long ago stopped giving meaningless gifts to the adults in my circle at Yule. Children will get a well-thought-out gift of books or toys, but anyone over 18 years knows to expect a tin of cookies. Everyone likes cookies. They show up once a year and are eaten and gone. The tin often comes back to me for refilling next year. No stress, no heavy expenses. They enjoy the treats, and I enjoy baking them.

It does, however, take some planning.

This year’s list, so far:

  • Cinnamon Chocolate Snaps
  • Cranberry Refrigerator Cookies
  • Lemon Curd Sandwiches
  • Black Pepper Spice Cutouts

Yep, that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I need to hit the cook books.

The banquette project is coming along – I have one side in place and have picked out the fabric for the bench seats – but may be on hold until I get my tax refund.  In the meantime, I’m picking back up a project I started before Mom passed away. I’m stripping down the old wallpaper in my bedroom and painting the plank walls with Zinsser Mold Killing primer.

This project started when I first moved in and became very, very sick with sinus infections over and over. After the fourth bout of being confined to bed with high fever and congestion in three months, I realized that the wallpaper was covered in mildew. I started pulling it down and discovered that it wasn’t just the wallpaper – the canvas behind it and the planks themselves were stained, too. I got the worst of the problem covered and my sinus problems disappeared. When Mom got sick, the project stalled.

It’s kind of slow going. The walls were covered with light weight wallpaper canvas to keep the old papers from cracking, and the threads are stuck in the nails all up and down the walls. Then there’s the remnants of old paper in some places, pre-dating the canvass.

I vaguely remember this pattern
Quick update: Apparently, that wallpaper was originally a sort of lurid salmon pink (very ’50s!), at least based on the scrap remaining around this outlet. I suspect the greenish fleur-de-lis were originally painted with some shiny or iridescent coating.
I also found scraps of the original ceiling paper, which I suspect is still lurking under the ugly ’70s acoustic tile, but that’s a deconstruction for another day!

The results are worth the effort, though. Eventually, I’ll need to seal between the planks and repaint with something other than primer, but I’m kind of enjoying the white walls for the moment. I could put up sheet rock over the planks, but at the moment I can see each and every nail that my father and grandfather pounded in by hand, the divots around the nails where the hammer made its final strike. I feel like I’m surrounded by their will, determination and fierce pride, and for now the plank walls will stay bare.

Generations sliding one into the next: photos of my daughter, grandson and grand-nephew surrounded by the walls their grandfather and great-grandfathers built

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