April 17, 2008

Bird watch: Niches in my yard & notes on the hedgerow and mountain ash

Source: Ken Thomas, photographer

Yesterday I told another person outside my household about the cedar waxwing that died after hitting one of the living room windows. Now I share the death with you. It was aweful: I heard a thud, I saw a small feather stuck on the window, and by the time I made it outside, the waxwing was literally taking its last breath.

Cedar waxwings are no longer visiting the yard, at least not in the quantity they did in February when there were many, many berries on the tree I thought was a mountain ash, forgetting that ashes have compound leaves! The red-berried tree in my yard has simple leaves. Dr. Mike Wilcox (in Trees of the World), writing about the mountain ash, notes that its also known as rowan. He describes the tree as follows:

Something about its strongly ascending branches, its lacy foliage or the masses of its striking red berries has connected it with witchcraft from ancient times. It’s very name, rowan, is believed to be derived from the Norse word runa, meaning ‘charm.’ Rowan trees were often planted outside houses and in churchyards to ward of witches (39).

A diversity of birds visit the yard like Cedar Waxwing, Robin, Anna’s Hummingbird, and House Finch. I’ve heard a woodpecker recently; it could be Nuttall’s Woodpecker or Downy Woodpecker. I like to think that the yard offers a variety of niches. There’s a hedgerow of sorts, though Julie Zickefoose would call it a hedge (it’s a monoculture except for some pioneering blackberry). It’s located along the western fence in the neighbor’s yard. A proper hedgerow “is a tangled, assorted mixture of various plants, small trees, and vines” (Zickefoose, 116). Dr. Mike Wilcox uses the word hedgerow and hedge interchangeably in his description of Welsh hedgerows. He writes that “in different periods of history people have favoured different hedgerow plants. An ancient hedgerow will often have giant coppiced trees; hedges of the Tudor age are identified by their maple and dogwood; pre-Tudor hedges feature hazel and spindle; and in post-1800 hedge hawthorn is common” (46).

There are other niches in the yard. The honeysuckle has formed a thicket along the neighbor’s porch. It’s a vine so it’s also crawling along a utility wire that is strung across the front part of the parcel. I had a brush pile, but it was “cleaned up” by gardeners hired by the landlord. The half dead sidewalk tree, a purpleleaf plum, acts as a snag.

Coincidentally I was trying to grow a meadow, another niche recommended by Zickefoose, but the California poppies did not take and I am crossing my fingers for the sunflowers. I got the seeds of the latter from the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) at the Ecology Center. The yard is also lacking coniferous evergreens. The red-berried tree is evergreen, but Zickefoose highlights the “seeds and shelter” offered by pines, spruces, firs, and cedars.

Although the poppies were a failure and the sunflowers have yet to germinate, there are lots of flowers in the yard. The rose, the quince flower, the lemon flower (the tree is in yard of the neighbor to the east), and the “orange” flower, pictured above (note: this is not the actual name of the plant).

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