Prairie Renaissance Part 8

Springtime on the Prairie

This spring we anxiously await the emergence of prairie flowers in an area that had been traditional lawn. This is a periodic continuing blog about the process of converting the lawn to a prairie. We’ll have a couple more updates this season. Here’s what we did to prepare for this year’s growth:

2020

April and May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions sprayed the lawn twice to kill existing grass plants, which were nearly entirely exotic species.

May 2020: Sustainable Landscape Solutions tilled the now dead turf.

May 2020: Rich and Marion broadcast a diverse array of seeds that included 82 wildflower species and a few lower-growing types of priaire grasses.

August 2020: A derecho felled three trees west of the site and a few to the east.  This increases the sun on the new prairie. That’s good.

By mid-summer, a thick growth of annual crabgrass covered the site with only partridge pea obvious from our seeds.

November 2020: The crabgrass was dead and dry, so we burned it on the same day we burned our existing prairies. The fire was slow and low.

2021

Winter 2020/21: Heavy snow covered the site for much of the winter. When it melted, we discovered mostly bare soil with few surviving exotic grasses present.  This is perfect, as native seeds will respond to warm temperatures.

April 2021: Small prairie forbs are emerging. Among the many spring greens poking up, we can identify Black-Eyed Susans, Mountain Mint, and Partridge Pea. Only a few of the 82 species we cast out. Part of the fun of restoring prairie is learning what the emerging plants are.

We’ll update with a Prairie Renaissance Blog as the natives get going.

How Do You Get a $13.38 Electric Bill?

Many people dread the arrival of their monthly electric bill. Not us.

We recently received a $13.38 monthly bill from Alliant Energy for electricity used in March.  A day later Enphase Energy emailed us our March photovoltaic production. That’s correct. Thirteen dollars and thirty-eight cents.

Our bill is about 1/10th the national average homeowner’s bill and is small thanks to three actions. Here’s what we do:

  • Shut “it” off: We are stingy on both money and wasteful appliances being on. If we’re not using lights, computers, the television, toaster, radon machine (that we turn off when we happen to be gone), or other electricity consumers we turn them off. We never leave outside lights on all night. They are wasteful, advertise where you live, and diminish the night sky. The latter we are learning is more important to humans than realized.
  • Embrace efficiency: Our house is almost entirely lit by LED bulbs with a few fluorescents and no incandescents. LEDs use only a tiny bit of electricity to provide outstanding light, and when we purchase appliances, we choose those most efficient.
  • Installed photovoltaics. We installed a small system four years ago and reaped federal and state tax credits. As soon as the system went active our bills plummeted.
  • Of course, in order to do the above, one has to plan and save money by doing the simple acts of turning off electric sources and long-term spend on only what you truly need.
Solar panels

On sunny days solar powers our energy needs.

Every month Enphase Energy emails us a report of our prior months’ electric production. March 2021 was mostly sunny and clear and our system produced 283 kilowatts. February was a dark winter month and our system was blanketed with snow. The system only made 76 KWH. However, as days lengthen our nine solar panels will produce ever more electricity,  keeping our monthly bill low.

What Is YOUR Pogo Story?

Readers’ Adventures With Pogo Possum

The Pogo Possum adventures really resonated with people.  So, Winding Pathways is sharing some of these.

SA enthusiastically wrote: I love that you named him Pogo. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

JH has a thoughtful perspective: Pogo certainly has some caring humans. I agree with you that they are very interesting critters. I just wish the rest of the world that zips by in four-wheeled contraptions would think likewise instead of hitting them.

MH shared: We found one in our house. I was gone for a week. I like fresh air at night so left an outside door open that had a small hole in the screen my husband called to say there was a pile of poop in the living room. On investigation, he found one hidden behind our TV console. We guessed he came in through the screen.

From Colleges to Communities Pogo Resonates

MM told about Kirkwood Community College’s adventures: While at Kirkwood, when the original greenhouses were attached to my Grounds Department building, we found a female, with babies, living in the north greenhouse. Once Stacey, the students, and my crew understood the benefits of having this tenant, we left her and her babies alone. Occasionally, one of the babies would explore the greenhouse, but with a little coaxing, he or she would return to the nest. I was fortunate to see the mother finally take her young out of the greenhouse, exposing them to their new life outside of the greenhouse environment. I don’t know if it was the same opossum or one of the babies, but one of them must have been paying rent, as each year we welcomed a resident, with babies. I do miss the interaction and YES, I was providing a bit of food, as well as the occasional rat or mouse courtesy of the raptor building behind our greenhouses.

SR What a lovely story about Pogo, your cozy little possum neighbor! Friends not far from you have another small one who scoots on into the garage for cat food whenever the door is open. One day she found it curled up for a daytime nap inside the watering can in her garage. What a handy handle to walk it on back outside. The sleepy little creature just looked up blinking its eyes and smacking its possum smile. Then it ambled right out of the watering can once she put it down on its side. I dare anyone to try this with a raccoon or even a groundhog.

AF Too cute to pass up commenting on. We too have a possum neighbor.

PL succinctly wrote: Love Pogo!!!

Thank you, all for sharing your Pogo adventures!  This looks like a periodic series on an ancient, maligned and interesting resident among us.

Thank you, all for sharing your Pogo adventures!  This looks like a periodic series on an ancient, maligned, and interesting resident among us.

Why Did We Test the Chevy Bolt?

During recent cold months, we’ve been day-tripping to many museums as we research our articles for the Cedar Rapids GAZETTE.

On an early March morning electric car specialist, William Weiland, at Cedar Rapids McGrath Chevyland showed us how to drive a Bolt, a completely electric car. Soon we sped the 70 miles to Dubuque without burning a drop of gas. After a pleasant and productive visit to the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium and picnic at Mines of Spain, we drove back to Cedar Rapids and returned the car.

First Experience

It was our first experience driving a totally electric vehicle. We were impressed. As is common with anyone considering going electric, we worried about having enough battery capacity for the 160 miles we drove on a cold, windy day. We didn’t need to worry  The Bolt’s “gas gauge” is an easily viewed display of electricity used and remaining and clearly shows how many more miles we could go until the battery was drained.  We could have done our Dubuque trip and continued another 50, or so, miles before it needed recharging.

How Does the bolt Compare?

We own and like a Chevy Cruze, which is an efficient and comfortable gasoline engine car. It is approximately the same size as the Bolt, so our drive gave us an opportunity to compare similarities and differences between cars. Here’s what we noted about the Bolt:

  • It’s fast and powerful. Step on the acceleration pedal and it smoothly and quickly powers forward. The Bolt is gutsier than our Cruze.
  • It’s quiet.
  • It’s comfortable. Much more legroom for front-seat occupants than the Cruze, although the back seat has less legroom.
  • It’s an engineering marvel. The Bolt goes about 280 miles on a charge and can be recharged in several ways. It lacks nothing in electronic capability. Just about any device can be connected, and the audio was of top quality.

How Does a Bolt Work?

  • It regenerates energy. This took a bit of getting used to.  When going down a hill or slowing for a red light or stop sign the Bolt automatically “brakes.”  Although it really isn’t braking. Taking a foot off the acceleration pedal causes the car to slow and stop by generating electricity that is later used for forward motion.  So, it’s slowing the car without engaging brakes. We found it important to ease our foot pressure off the accelerator pedal to slow down rather than taking the foot off immediately.  This avoids being rear-ended by vehicles behind us. After getting the hang of this we really liked the feature. The Bolt has conventional brakes and a brake pedal that can be used.  But, because of regenerative braking, the conventional brakes are used much less than on a gas car, so they last longer.
  • It’s efficient. We used 50 Kilowatt-hours of electricity from the battery to go 160 miles or just over three miles per KWH. Our electric utility charges us 11 cents a KWH at home, so charging the Bolt would cost about 3.7 cents a mile. Our Cruze gets about 36 miles to the gallon on cold windy days and gas costs about $2.80 a gallon as we write this. That’s about 8 cents a mile or a hair over double the bolt’s fuel cost. Gas prices are rising faster than electricity so the gap will widen.

Maintenance Matters

  • Maintenance needs and costs are lower. Electric cars do not need oil changes, since they have no oil.  Also, no radiator or need to change coolant. No spark plugs to change. Basically, maintenance involves rotating tires.

Overall Impression and Conclusion

Before our test drive, we thought we might buy an electric car in the future. Now we’re certain we will. General Motors will switch to entirely electric vehicles, and many other car companies are also making the transition. It’s transformative. As more electrics hit the road more charging stations will appear and technology will continue to advance.  We are entering an electric future that will be cleaner and quieter than our petroleum present.

* Winding Pathways was not paid to review the Chevy Bolt. Ours is an independent review.

*  For another independent review see www.caranddriver.com/chevrolet/bolt-ev.

New Adventures with “Pogo” Possum

Winter Wanderers

We’ve been having more adventures with possums. Marion spotted a new visitor to the bird feeder one late February afternoon.

It was a smallish opossum.  We called him “Pogo” after one of our favorite cartoon characters but didn’t realize we’d be playing tag with him (or her) for the next few weeks.

Pogo’s Feet

Possum feet.

Possums’ feet help it hold food and climb.

Many people dislike possums and think they’re ugly and dumb. We like ‘em. They’re fascinating and love to eat ticks, including those that spread Lyme Disease. We find their paws especially interesting. Take a look at Pogo’s feet in the photos. They’re like strong-clawed hands that let him climb.

 

 

We spotted Pogo a few evenings later sniffing around our composter.  He ambled off and scooted under a brush pile, where we assume he lived. That’s a fine place for an opossum to live so we left a scoop of dog food nearby for a late-night snack.

The next night Rich went out after dark to check the chickens in the barn. He turned on the light and there, staring at him from inside, was Pogo. Now, we like possums but not when they’re in the barn near the chickens.

Quite Comfortable

possum leaving chicken nest.

After eating an egg, Pogo took a nap.

I wondered, how in the world did he get in?  We searched high and low for holes in the building big enough for a smallish opossum to squeeze through. There weren’t any, so we assumed he probably scooted in the open door during the day unseen. Rich ushered him out.

We didn’t see Pogo after that for a few days until Rich went out to gather eggs. There was Pogo napping in a nest!  Our possum never seemed aggressive. He didn’t growl, snarl, or attempt to bite the shovel Rich used to scoot him out the door. He just opened his toothy mouth, stared at Rich as if to say, “What’s the problem?” and ambled to the brush pile.  Again, we looked for possible openings and didn’t find any.

Quite at Home

No sign of Pogo for two more days. Then it was coop spring cleaning time. The chicken’s waterer was perched on two cinder blocks. Rich removed the waterer and went to pick up a cinder block when he saw a nose pointing out. There sat Pogo, curled up snugly inside one of the block’s cavities.

Opossum in cinder block

Opossum curled up in cinder block nest.

Again, all he did was stare and open his mouth as Rich explained that he was welcome to live under the brush pile but not in the barn.

We think we have the mystery solved. Pogo didn’t come into the barn after dark. He walked right through the chicken’s pop hole door when it was open during the day and made a home in the cinder block. It’s a great possum spot. He slept on soft wood chips and had plenty of fresh water and chicken feed nearby. Pogo probably snacked on an egg or two but never attempted to catch or kill a chicken.

We still want him to live in the brush pile but not in the barn. So, we now carefully monitor every nook and cranny in the barn before we lock the door at night. We haven’t seen Pogo in the coop lately and hope he’s relocated permanently to the brush pile.

Why Is March Birdhouse Month?

March is a pivot month. It’s neither winter nor spring. Often called “mud season”, March is maple syruping time, but it’s also birdhouse building month at Winding Pathways.

As humans in northern climates wade through mud and long for spring, millions of birds far to the south are planning their long migration north. A few hardy waterfowl arrive as soon as the ice melts from lakes and ponds, but most birds appear, as if by magic, in April and May. We make sure our birdhouses are up before they arrive.

Young Wren

Looking out at the world.

House Wrens, Eastern Phoebes, American Robins, House Sparrows, and House Finches all nest on or near homes, barns, and garages. Although few people enjoy seeing messy House Sparrow nests tucked into nooks and crannies, most love hosting the native species as they raise the new generation outside the window.

Make Birdhouses

March is the best month to make birdhouses and restore older ones somewhat worse for the wear. Most are easy to build using simple carpentry tools. Better yet, birds aren’t fussy. Although the size of the house and the diameter of the entrance hole is important, the residents don’t care if the maker is an excellent carpenter or a novice. So, if the joints don’t fit perfectly it won’t bother birds!

Helping children make birdhouses is a fun project that involves them in nature as they learn safe tool use and basic construction techniques.

We scrounge a nearby pallet pile for free wood. Often the discarded pallets are made from boards the right width for our houses. Relatively inexpensive pine, spruce, or fir work for people who prefer to buy wood.

Great Resources to Guide Your Work

The best information source for virtually anything about wild birds is the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.  Their website gives great information on many aspects of birds, including what species likely live in an area.  The site is complex but fascinating. A second website, also by the Lab, is more specific to birdhouses and nesting. The Laboratory of Ornithology site helps anyone predict what birds might migrate to their yard and when they’ll arrive. It also includes plans on how to build birdhouses. There’s even a video showing construction tips.

There’s more to birdhouses than just making one. They must be erected in the right place and height above the ground. The Lab’s website provides the right information. And, here are two tips from Winding Pathways.

Tips from Winding Pathways

  • Many birdhouse plans to use nails as a hinge so the house can be opened for cleaning. We buy and use small hinges,  hooks, and eyes to make opening the box to clean it easier.
  • It’s tempting to attach a birdhouse to a tree using a nail or screw. That may work but eventually, the birdhouse falls off. But, the metal remains embedded in the tree. This creates danger as the tree grows around the metal, hiding it. Hitting a nail with a chainsaw is downright scary and dangerous. Also, driving a nail into a live tree can introduce diseases that could kill it. We use wire or rope to attach our birdhouses to live trees and use screws to attach birdhouses to nonliving posts and poles. One of our wren houses is suspended from a hook screwed into our porch ceiling.

Building birdhouses and enjoying a wren couple raises a brood is a fun family activity that we never tire of.