How Do You Create Pollinator Patches?

When we moved into our home ten years ago, we ended up with more than a house.  The former owner had regularly mowed most of our two acres. Within the next two years, we shrank the lawn by about half. A steep former lawn north of the house is now prairie and a fairly level quarter acre between our house and the road is Marion’s labyrinth that she created within a prairie we planted.

Today, most people call flower-studded prairies “pollinator patches” and interest is strong in transforming lawns into them. Here are just a few of the good reasons:

Why Plant Pollinator Patches?

  • Color: Lawns are a monoculture of green. Pollinator patches feature three seasons worth of changing vibrant color as many species of wildflowers come into and go out of bloom. They are beautiful.
  • Water: Closely mowed lawns don’t absorb rain well. Much of a storm’s water runs off, worsening flooding. In contrast, deep-rooted prairies channel most of a storm’s water into the soil, where it eventually recharges the water table and doesn’t worsen downstream flooding.
  • Labor: We don’t enjoy endless hours walking behind a lawnmower.  We will mow our newly planted prairie two or three times this summer and in the following years, we won’t mow it at all. The lawn takes about a dozen mows a year. So, we’re saving time and mower gas that costs money and creates carbon dioxide.
  • Wildlife: We love watching our wren pairs forage for insects in our pollinator patches. By expanding our prairie we’ll welcome even more beautiful and interesting beneficial wild animals to our yard.

Partnerships Work!

Our new prairie will be close to busy 30th St. Drive, so motorists cruising by will see the land transform. We’re partnering the project with the Monarch Research Project, Linn County Roadsides, Sustainable Landscape Solutions, and Pheasants Forever.

Many people want to create pollinator patches in their yards but don’t know how to do this.   We will be blogging through the process to help folks know how this is done. Stay tuned and keep visiting www.windingpathways.com to learn how.

How Do You Tell Animals Apart?

image of a white-headed downy woodpecker.

This Albino Woodpecker comes to the feeder regularly.

Several months ago, we looked out our dining room window and saw an unusual woodpecker enjoying suet at a feeder only a few feet away. It was a downy but it’s head was almost completely white, unlike all others of the same species we’ve seen.

Last year we had a fox squirrel with an unusually short tail that hung around our yard for months.  We’ve also spotted other wild animals with distinctive markings unusual for their species, healed but visible wounds and other characteristics that help identify it as an individual.

The Power of Observation

Being able to identify an individual animal adds to the fun of wildlife observation. For example, from the squirrel, we learned that he or she mostly just stayed in our yard and nearby woods. We never spotted it at a neighbor’s yard. Then, one day we remarked, “We haven’t seen’ shorty tail’ for a while”. We actually never saw the animal again and assumed he or she met his end due to an accident, predator, car collision, or some other catastrophic incident.  Because we could tell him from other squirrels, we know he lived at least ten months.

The piebald woodpecker still comes to our feeder, and we’re getting to know it as an individual rather than just a generic downy. It adds to the fun of wildlife observation.

Like people, animals are individuals. At first glance, every one may look the same but with careful observation, it’s possible to spot differences in plumage, fur, size, shape, gait, and even personality that help identify it as an individual. Scientists studying animals ranging from whales to snow leopards often learn to distinguish one from another by the pattern of barnacles on a whale’s body to the markings on a cat’s fur.

It’s a totally noninvasive way of distinguishing one from another. We can do this with common yard wild animals.

Do Squirrels Ever Fall?

Squirrel climbing up a tree.

What happens when a squirrel falls?

Squirrels are amazingly agile, but they do slip and fall. It’s not common, but it happens.   Rich has seen two squirrels fall from the top of large oak trees.

One squirrel lost its footing on a huge oak tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center when Rich was walking nearby. It spread out its legs and tail and fell horizontally, hitting the ground with a “thump”. Although it fell at least 40 feet the squirrel appeared uninjured, scampered off, and climbed right back up the oak.

Another squirrel fell from an even bigger oak in our home’s backyard. It did the same as the Nature Center Squirrel and spread out its body, hit the ground, and ran right off.

Squirrels rarely fall, but once in a while, they do. Fortunately, as this YouTube video shows, they seem amazingly able to recover from a fall that would instantly kill a human.

What are some of the animals you know as individuals? Let us know!

Where do You find Antler Sheds?

One February morning I took a short work break and walked through the woods near a parking lot and a busy road.  I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking until I stepped on a hard-pointy object.

Antler sheds

Finding a matching pair is unusual.

It was a huge deer antler that a buck had recently dropped. Finding it made my day and converted me into a shed hunter.

Shed hunting is a fun late winter activity that lets anyone hunt deer without the need to buy a hunting license. It is deer hunting without the need to kill an animal.

 

What is a deer shed?

All male members of the deer family and caribou females grow a new pair of antlers every year. They’re not horns. Sheep and goats grow horns, which stay on their head for life and are made of the same material as human fingernails.  Antlers, in contrast, are bones of mostly calcium. They are the only bones that grow outside the body and are nourished by a blood-rich skin called velvet.

Why do deer drop their antlers?

Bucks begin growing antlers around April in most places. By September they are fully formed. They rub their antlers on trees to remove the no longer needed velvet, and the now polished bones are ready for jousts between males to figure out who’s the boss buck.  By Christmas a dropping testosterone level causes the antlers to fall off.  These “cast” or “shed” antlers can hit the ground as early as Christmas or as late as early April. But February is a prime time to search for them.

Where can I look for deer sheds?

Obviously, the best place to look for sheds is where deer hang out.  Tracks, droppings, and actual deer sightings help locate prime places. In this modern era, some of the biggest bucks live in suburban and urban areas, so it’s possible to saunter out into the backyard and find one. Wooded city parks and timbered wooded corridors are also prime spots.  Be sure to have permission before venturing on private land.

There’s more to shed hunting than we’re putting in this short blog.  An outstanding resource is SHED HUNTING, A Guide To Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers by Joe Shead (yup that’s his real name, and it’s pronounced “shed).  For information check out www.goshedhunting.com/shop.

How a Dedicated Walker Reduced Knee Pain

Background

I’ve been a dedicated walker all my life. As a young person wandering the woods, a biologist tromping the Alaskan tundra, a nature center director leading groups of kids afield, and as a birder, backpacker, and cross-country skier I’ve put a lot of miles on my 70-year-old joints. My iPhone says I’ve averaged about 11,000 steps a day for the past four years. If extrapolated backward that’s about 240 million flexes on my knee joints!

Several years ago, my physician treated me for elevated blood pressure (BP) with meds that I didn’t like taking.  I asked her if increasing my physical activity might reduce my blood pressure. She said, “Give it a try.”  I did and expanded my walking and added some simple daily weight exercises.  It worked.  After about six months my BP fell into the normal range. I tossed out the meds and kept exercising.

Then an ironic problem arose. In early 2019 my left knee started to hurt. Really hurt.  A few months later the right knee followed suit. My doc prescribed an X-Ray that revealed cartilage worn thin. I was caught in a dilemma.  If pain caused me to reduce walking, my blood pressure would rise. Not good. Medical science started steering me toward knee replacement. However, I wanted to try other solutions first.  Sooner or later knee surgery may be needed but after almost a year of experimenting with ways and places to walk and what shoes are best, I’m able to stay physically active and reduce, but not completely eliminate the knee joint pain.

Pain Meds

My family physician suggested I try over the counter pain medications to reduce knee swelling and pain. I tried Ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen at different times.   None reduced swelling or seem to diminish knee pain, so I rarely use them during the day.  I do occasionally take them if my knee hurts at night when I’m trying to sleep.

Where I Walk

I usually walk in three distinctly different places. Cedar Rapids has several paved trails that circle two lakes and make for interesting walking. I found that the unyielding hard paved surface adds to knee pain. Other area trails are surfaced with crushed limestone.  It’s firm but less hard than pavement and seems to create less knee pain than asphalt.   My third walking area is nearby woodlands, grasslands, and lawns. It involves walking on dead leaves, grass or dirt pathways in the woods. These surfaces create the least discomfort: Lesson:   Where I walk has a bearing on knee pain.

How I Walk

When knee pain appeared each step hurt, and I walked gingerly.  I took shorter strides and climbed stairs slowly and deliberately. I eventually learned that a quicker pace and longer strides reduced knee pain. And, as I walk knee pain gradually subsides. It doesn’t completely go away but diminishes after the first quarter mile or so. It would be easy to simply give up after a few steps and retreat to a chair, but that’s counterproductive. Lesson:  Walk briskly and don’t give up if the first few hundred steps hurt.

 Footwear

For most of my life, I’ve worn hard-soled hiking boots, often with distinct and high heels, like a cowboy boot. After my knees started hurting, I began experimenting with many types of shoes, insoles, and boots. I believe that the hardness/softness of shoes and soles along with the angle the shoes create for the lower legs has a strong bearing on knee pain. The high heeled stiff boots I once wore produced the most pain. The most comfortable boots for me have soft cushioning soles and a shallow or no heel. Some shoes are very “squishy”. They have thick very soft soles. They made walking on hard surfaces more comfortable but have a major disadvantage. Whenever I walk on a side slope the squishy soles have some give to them and this puts side pressure on my knees. It hurts. I’ve also experimented with various insoles. Some make the shoes more cushioning and have helped. They also slightly change the angle where my lower leg joins the knee.

Footwear Lesson One:    The type of footwear and insoles I wear lessens or worsens knee pain.   Finding the right combination is by trial and error.  My favorite footwear for cool weather walking on hard surfaces is crepe-soled leather boots with only a shallow heel. These are often used by carpenters who spend hours every day on their feet. 

 Footwear Lesson Two:   Quality shoes and boots are expensive but they seem to fit better, are more comfortable and last longer than cheaper counterparts. Put money upfront. The cost of a quality pair is trivial if they reduce pain.

My Advice

My knees may continue to deteriorate to the point where I need knee surgery, but altering my shoes and boots and changing how and where I walk has helped reduce pain and may be all I need. I hope so but won’t hesitate to seek medical help if the pain worsens.

Everyone is different and what works for me to reduce knee pain may not work for others. However, I feel many people can reduce pain by finding the right combination of shoes/boots/insoles that produce the least knee pain and walking on the most comfortable surfaces at the pace that produces the least discomfort.

 How to Know When to Seek Medical Help

When My knees began hurting and I experimented with ways to reduce it, I wondered how to know when it’s time for knee surgery. I asked Matt Schmitz, Physical and Integrated Wellness Program Manager at the Nassif Community Cancer Center, and his advice was superb. “When pain causes you to not do the things you like it’s time to take action,” he said.  It’s good advice.

I’m not a physician and recognize that everyone’s body is different. What works for me may not work for someone else.   Over the counter pain medications, for example, might help others even though they seemed ineffective for me.  The trick is finding a combination of footwear, medication, and exercise that reduces knee pain.  

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Who Remembers Smokey the Bear?

News Reports and Remembering

Recent photos of burned and displaced kangaroos and koalas from massive Australian wildfires are heartbreaking and bring back memories of both fighting and setting fires in American woods and prairies.

As a 24-year-old US Forest Service Hot Shot back nearly 50 years ago I had the good fortune to help contain three wildfires in Southern Idaho. One left a memory of towering flames roaring up a steep slope toward my crew as we hurriedly dug a fire line parallel to the ridge. I wielded a chainsaw, dropping pines and firs toward the approaching flames. It was noisy, hot, and scary but our line, with the help of an airplane that dropped a load of “slurry”, stopped the blaze.

Not All Fires Respond the Same

Just a year later I lit a fire in dry prairie grass at the Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson, Kansas. It roared onward until stopped dead by a mowed path. Green grass doesn’t burn.

We burn our prairie and oak woodland at Winding Pathways every year, usually in the fall because we know that our land, like much of North America, needs fire for good ecological health.

Misleading Reporting

Evening news stories about the terrible destruction of wildfires can be misleading and are never complete because:

     * They show the most incinerated place in a vast burned area. Sometimes the land is not nearly so consumed by the fire.
     * They never follow up. Months after a burn the same spot is lush with green growth and spangled with wildflowers. 

Fire is as much a force of nature as rain and wind. Yes, they destroy houses in their path. Remember, often these were built in the woods without the fire-resistant construction recommended by the US Forest Service. In North America, fires don’t destroy forests or grasslands. They invigorate them.

Every year we look forward to abundant wildflowers and healthy grass in areas we’ve burned.   But what about wildlife caught in a rapidly spreading fire?  I’ve had the opportunity to watch rabbits, birds, deer, and even elk respond to flames.  They don’t panic. Rabbits simply seem to hop to places unlikely to burn.  So do deer. Snakes and some insects might enter holes and tunnels in the ground. Some are probably cooked. Baby animals would be unable to flee flames. Fortunately, spring fires, when babies are helpless, are rare.

2019 marked a huge fire event. It was Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday!  I love Smokey. He is one of the most successful marketers ever convincing people to drown campfires and snuff out matches. Smokey was so successful that fires became rare enough for plenty of dead wood to accumulate in Western Forests. That, combined with climate change, helped create the conditions for the catastrophic fires that have burned in recent years. Smokey’s message was a little off, but he’s still a loveable character.

Here is how he came to be. In 1950, after the Smokey Bear character was created, a singed bear cub was found after a fire. He lived for years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Known as Smokey, millions of people saw him until his death in  1976. He’s buried near the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, New Mexico.

An outstanding website about Smokey and wildfires is sponsored by the US Forest Service.  If you are ever in Moscow, Idaho, be sure to stop at the Smokey Bear store on Main Street.