The Juniper Tree

Sometime during the late 1950s, we went for a Sunday afternoon drive and stopped at a place called ‘Cashmere’, about a mile outside of town. On one side of the ‘dirt-road’ highway there was a farm. We stopped in a gravel pit on the opposite side and walked up over the side of the pit. There we pulled up a very young juniper tree, so tiny you could hold it in the palm of your hand. We brought it home and next day we planted it beside the walk. I guess we must have taken good care of it for it took root and began to grow. You could see a difference in it every year until finally it was taller than the house and strong enough for an adult to stand on its branches.

For many years the old juniper stood alone and empty just outside the kitchen window. In summer it shaded the back door and walk while dropping a little sap on the ground below. In fall it shed millions of tiny little bough pins and it was sometimes necessary to sweep the walk several times a day. In winter its thickly interwoven branches collected snow that it seemed to delight in dropping down your neck every time you went out. In spring it was one of the first things in the yard to turn green in the warm sunlight. Birds pitched in the tree but none ever stayed.

Strangely enough, in the past year that old juniper attracted more visitors than ever before. On May 27, 2005 I was sitting down to lunch when I glanced out the window and noticed something unusual in the tree. A closer inspection revealed what appeared to be the start of a bird’s nest. Of course I had to capture this momentous event with the digital camera – we’d never had a bird’s nest in the tree before. We kept watching and soon saw a robin come to the tree with grass in its beak. So we kept watching and I kept the camera nearby. I could not get up close to the nest to take photos so I had to be content with taking them through the window.

By the first of June we knew she had laid her eggs for she was spending practically all her time on the nest. Even when we opened the door she stayed there, although we only used that door when absolutely necessary for we didn’t want to disturb her. Every day at lunch time I watched the nest as I ate. Then, on June 25 I saw baby robins for the first time! With the camera focused on the nest, I waited patiently until I was rewarded with a photo of Mama Robin feeding her babies. The tree, by now, was in full bloom and it was difficult to see the nest through the protective covering of the lush green branches. However, the very thing that prevented me from getting good clear photos was the same thing that protected the nest and babies from would-be predators. Still, I did manage to get a few photos of little heads peeping up over the nest and of little ones being fed. There appeared to be only two young ones.

As much as we watched that nest, we never did see the young robins learning to fly, or leaving the nest. It was like one day they were there and the next they were gone. Then, in the evening of July 8, I was bringing large flat stones (from a vacant lot across the street) to line the path going around the shed in the far corner of the garden. I came back with a stone in each hand and as I turned the corner of the path, I heard a fluttering sound. I glanced up just in time to see a robin flying off. I continued on with my stones and when I reached the far end of the path I froze. There, in the shrubs at the corner of the path was a young robin. I laid the stones down very carefully and left. I thought about getting the camera from the house but didn’t think the young robin would be around long. However, when I returned with the next two stones, it was still there. I laid the stones down, got the camera, and was lucky enough to get several good close photos of the young robin. After that, I continued laying all the stones I needed and the robin stayed there.

During this time I noticed the Mama Robin flying back and forth several times, probably keeping watch over her young one. What had happened to the other baby? Had Mama Robin brought her surviving youngster back to what she thought was a safe haven until it could fly a little better? At any rate, the young one was still there the following morning so I took a few more pictures. Throughout the way, the young robin flew from tree to tree in the yard, and by the end of the day it had flown away. The nest finally dried up and blew away with the strong autumn winds.

In the early morning of September 14, I went out to sweet the bough pins off the walk and it was littered with pieces of juniper buds. We had never seen squirrels this close but I recognized the evidence. I had seen similar evidence at the base of large trees around the cabin several years earlier. Still, there was no sign of a squirrel and no sound so I came back inside.

My bedroom is on the same side of the house and I was making the bed. As I went around the bed I glanced at the window just in time to see a squirrel run up the smaller juniper in the corner of the yard. Okay, that proved my suspicions were right. I took the camera and went outside again. The squirrel had jumped from the smaller tree to the large one and was sitting there munching contentedly on juniper buds. It didn’t seem to mind me being there so I was able to get several fairly good photos. After a couple of days the squirrel had gone again and hasn’t been back since. I guess it departed after exhausting the food supply.

Throughout the winter of 2005-6, all sorts of songbirds used the juniper as a gathering place. They visited the feeder in the back yard and then came round the side to the juniper where they perched in the topmost branches, and what a clatter!

I wonder if the old juniper enjoyed all this activity in its branches after so many years of being left alone. Will it see further activity in 2006? I hope the robin returns to rebuild her nest and raise another family. As for the squirrel, I hope it stays away, at least until in the fall when there will be no bird eggs for it to destroy.

© F. Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, October/November 2006

Non Fiction, Page 1
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