Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Old Ashippun, WI: A Honey of a Place to Watch Birds, etc.

You never know the fun that can bee had unless you comb the Badger State for adventure!

On a particularly BEE-u-t-ful Fathers Day Barbara and I jumped in the Optima and headed west.  We decided to leave Opie (the wonder toy-poodle) in the cool of the AC'd apartment because we knew we'd be stopping a lot and didn't want him to expire prematurely in an Easy-Bake car-oven.  A couple of convenient McDonald's drive-through steak burritos later, and we were driving down the 94 towards our destination(s).

As it turned out, Oconomowoc has a really nice Goodwill in the shadows of great (manmade) Mt. Olympia so we made it our first stop of the day.  I fully admit I am a complete drinking glassware whore. I find it necessary to peruse the shelves for a few more beer drinking vessels that will end up in storage in some box in the basement for that "someday" when I have a place to display them all.  A guy needs choices in which to sip his malted adult beverage from right?  I mean, the fanciest places I have ever visited match the brew to its appropriately coordinated drinking container.  That's class baby!  It takes so little to make me happy; really.

I ultimately scored three matching Bitburger pilsner glasses with gold (freakin') rims, a 49-cent double-ended, stainless steel shot glass measurer thingy, seven 99-cent LPs (of dust-molded vintage to "rip" from my USB turntable to my iPod), a mismatched set of five awesome stainless steel mixing bowls, and a fist-sized pair of actual "hand-painted" ceramic owl likenesses.  Barbara found clothes.  The kid at the register innocently looked up from his scanning of our purchases and asked, So there was a band called Bread?"

Next stop (just up the road) was the super-colossal, gi-normous Ben Franklin Crafts for some jewelry-making supplies Barbara needed, and a few things I wanted to find in order to complete a custom framing of a Milwaukee streetcar photo.  Crafting is one of those things like glassware collecting; you buy all sorts of stuff for "someday" and hope to hell you don't die before you use it. Buy hey...it's commerce that keeps the globe spinning, so we gleefully do our parts and never make each other feel guilty or stupid; that's true love baby...try it...no regrets!

A few more miles up the 67, through Ashippun and Old Ashippun was our (real) destination; Honey Acres. Honey Acres is a family business, now in its fifth generation. In 1852 great-grandfather, C.F. Diehnelt (1811-1882) arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from Rosswein, Germany with his beekeeping talents. Later his son August and grandson, Walter A., joined the honey business. At this time Honey Acres was called "Linden Apiary." In 1930 it was renamed Honey Acres and was moved to Menominee Falls, Wisconsin where it grew and prospered for 50 years.  In 1980 Honey Acres moved to a rural site near Ashippun, Wisconsin, where they developed a new, larger plant designed to handle the finest honey products.  

Their free and comprehensive honey museum is worth a visit, and be sure to watch their 20 minute video presentation.  You can even peer into an operating hive, cleverly disguised as a tree.  Notice the hot temperature inside the hive, courtesy of the handy dial thermometer.  A small “gift shop” and honey tasting area are located at the entrance/exit with a friendly and knowledgeable attendant on duty.  Their operating hours are Mon-Fri: 9am-3:30pm, May 15-Oct 30 - Sat & Sun Noon-4pm.  Rumor now has it that a “family from California” is in the process of buying out the business.  That will effectively break the long string of Diehnelt family ties to Honey Acres.  It’s sad when that happens, but I am very familiar with the dreams of one generation and how they sometimes do not translate to others.  Whatever occurs with new ownership it was obvious from my observations from two previous visits to this last one, that new blood and newly injected energy could vastly jump-start a now tired looking enterprise.

After placing our purchases into the Kia; Barbara and I decided to walk their “nature trail” that extends from the parking lot, over a tiny creek via wooden bridge, up a slight grade, through a pine forest into a deciduous planting, leading to a climbable one-story, somewhat neglected wooden elevated platform, and then back in a circular route towards the parking lot.  I brought the Bushnells along (cause I always do) and was treated right off the bat to a beautifully blue male Indigo bunting.  Other birds logged along this short but enjoyable path were the familiar patriotic trio of; American robin, American crow, and American goldfinch along with a Great-crested flycatcher, Cedar waxwing, White-breasted nuthatch and Red-tailed hawk.  All in all, this is a wonderful Saturday or Sunday afternoon diversion for birders and/or honey-enthusiasts alike.

So best of luck Honey Acres towards whatever your future has in store for you.  It’d be tragic to lose such a time-tested, Wisconsin-made, icon of tradition.  I say, partner up with Leinenkugels as their exclusive provider to their Honey Weiss recipe and branch out your bees-ness into hats, shirts, a much more manicured and bee-utiful garden at your entrance, and see if you can perhaps market yourself into prominence once more.  If you need any more ideas; feel free to give me a buzz!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Unwitting Killing Fields

How can something which appears so good on the surface, have such an unanticipated and seemingly dark side?  That one question just about sums up life on this planet at times doesn’t it?  Unintended consequences, best intentions, and didn’t see that one coming moments are a merely part of the imperfect lives we all must live.  We make calculated decisions based upon whatever “research” we have conducted, questions asked and answered of trusted resources, juxtaposition against personal ideals and beliefs, all blended with a modicum of “gut” feelings every day.   Sometimes we get it right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes there are no absolutes…just unintended consequences.

One such tangible example of the above happens at your very own bird feeders with regularity; killing fields.

That is to say that no one planned it, made it so, or purposefully endorsed it; but it is as certain as the coming of spring.  Each season we lovingly place feeding stations in our yards surrounding them with inviting flora, hoping to attract all manner of hungry avian visitors.  These frequenting birds come to “depend” (or at least expect) that food will be provided and available to them as their source of easily obtained nutrition.  In the late winter and early spring, birds will decide where to locate their nesting sites in large part due to careful triangulation of their basic needs; shelter (habitat), food sources, and available water.  Access to and availability of these vital resources imprints somewhere in the (still not completely understood) areas of a bird’s brain and appears to be passed along to future generations of that bird’s offspring.  Left there; that serenely pastoral picture would be completely lovely and innocently sublime year after year.  Unfortunately to the keen observer; there’s a little more to it, and it ain’t so pretty.

The Common grackle is a medium-sized bird that looks like a small crow.  It's black and purple shiny plumage is somewhat iridescent and its range is almost all of North America east of the Rocky Mountains.  It has bright yellow eyes and a rounded, keel-shaped tail which it uses to "steer" itself on the wind very much like a sailboat.  It's beak is long and pointed.  It is very comfortable simply walking around on the ground to move from place to place.  A grackle's call is described as "abrasive, harsh, and grating.

A few years ago in the early morning as I was walking to my truck in the alley across the back yard, my heart was first briefly warmed then immediately broken at what I witnessed.  A baby (immature) cardinal was hopping in the grass on an apparent solo trip away from its nest when out of the blue appeared a Common grackle.  The grackle snatched the baby by the neck in its long and powerful beak, and flew several neighbor's yards away as I stood there in horror.   At that time, I didn’t put the pieces together - this year they clicked; you go fishing where the fish are…simple as that.

Barbara and I have transformed our apartment’s yard over the past two seasons into a bird-friendly oasis.  This particular winter into spring we have supplied vast amounts of black-oil sunflower seed and suet and have attracted a faithful following of American robins, Northern cardinals, Red-winged blackbirds, European starlings and (of course) House sparrows.  Birds have been nesting nearby and began to bring their individual fledglings to the source of all their food and water.  Fluttery-winged “babies” stand on the grass squawking

and keening for a parent-delivered beakful of suet.  They hop-fly awkwardly to the topside of curved iron shepherds hooks innocently awaiting their next feeding in the pecking order.  That’s when they strike…Common grackle assassins.  This year the circle of life has been especially brutal to witness out our upper apartment window as one after another unsuspecting juvenile bird is carried off and systematically shredded into a meal.  Did I cause this to happen?  No, not intentionally, however I do have some blame to claim for setting the dinner table.

I am a firm believer in the aforementioned “circle of life” but that does not include or excuse the seemingly indiscriminate beheadings I have also discovered below the feeders.  They always appear to be young House sparrows whose bodies are lying there in the grass sans head, in a pile of strewn feathers.  Why the grackles do not take away the rest of their kill on every occasion is unknown to me.  I am only left to ponder in some anthropomorphic manner as to their motives.  Why are some consumed entirely and others only left behind in a dismembered state? Is the head the tastiest part?  Is it to send a message to the rest of the flock that these feeders have been claimed by grackles, for grackles?  Are these the unfortunate targets of a few “rogue” birds that have passed along a penchant for murderous behavior to their offspring?  Whatever the reason; it is extremely violent and unsettling to the casual nature-lover who witnesses the act at their own feeder; but it is nature nonetheless.

The Internet is dotted with posts from individuals who wish to know if a grackle perpetrated this or that heinous crime involving avian cannibalism.  No one definitive answer has been offered that I can find, however I can personally attest to the behavior first hand.  Does it make me hate grackles and wish to take revenge?  Absolutely not, but I can understand that some might feel that way.  So, will I stop feeding birds so that grackles can’t swoop in to pick off unsuspecting baby birds in the spring?  No I won’t, but be forewarned; if you are personally faint of heart – prepare yourself for the inevitable fishing expedition into your well stocked pond.  Plus, remember that it’s not your fault…it’s only “natural.”  We all make choices, we live (or die) with them accordingly; but we make them and go on.