As inspirational garden photos go, this one ranks pretty far down the list:
It won't be gracing the cover of National Geographic any time soon. The sky is nice and blue, sure, but you can look outside and see blue sky any day of the week. Day in, day out, from one horizon to the other, nothing but blue, blue, blue. Hardly worth wasting pixels on.*
And OK, the trees are losing some leaves up there at the top. October is galloping toward the finish line, and many of us in the northern hemisphere do expect our deciduous trees to lose a leaf or two in October (although these particular trees generally wait until November). Then again, we also expect them to be picturesque, not all scraggly and haphazard. But this isn't seasonal leaf loss, not the disheveled loveliness of autumn, nothing that would make you want to go for a tramp in golden woods, kicking up fallen leaves as you go.
Sadly, this is just what the top branches of all three desert olives (Forestiera neomexicana) look like from mid-August on, until some windstorm in November mercifully tidies the rest of the leaves away. The bareness can't even be blamed on the leaf rollers that plague these trees every year (just mine for some reason; the rest in the neighborhood—and apparently the entire southwest—are fine). The culprits are actually some of my otherwise favorite garden visitors, ones I go out of my way to court: the cheerful, gregarious, brightly-colored, overly communicative, endlessly hungry lesser goldfinches.
One goldfinch in spring is a mighty fine thing; a mated pair quite exciting. Two pairs make your heart go pitter-pat with hope and delight. When both pairs clutch in late summer, you're thrilled at the wonders of nature. You enjoy seeing the couples become families, and you laugh sympathetically at the fledglings' accidental antics. Then the pairs produce a second clutch apiece, and before you know it, two dozen lesser goldfinches are perched in your desert olives, impatiently waiting their turn at the feeder.
Except "perched" isn't quite it, is it. They're clinging to the vertical upper branches, and sometimes their unpracticed feet slip a little, taking a leaf or a bud with them as they slide down. One leaf here, another bud there, and pretty soon, what with gravity taking its toll and all, those upper branches have no leaves left. Since the finches have done the same for several years running, long, bare gaps show on older branches, too, where the buds were sheared off by little bird claws, back when those branches had their turn being the slender ones at the top.
Don't get me wrong: I love the lesser goldfinches. They are not only enjoyable but useful, and I'm quite grateful to have them around. They're not strict vegetarians like the American goldfinch, and they have dined on many a pest (we'll assume that they were pests—why would a goldfinch eat beneficial insects?) in the trees when the feeder was occupied. They've even helped keep the leaf rollers under control, and in the most ingenious way. Not content with just eating the little caterpillars, the finches have gone one step better, making sure that there are no leaves for the rollers to eat.
Is that brilliant or what? Talk about thinking ahead. It's almost as clever as taking the gas tank out of your car to make it more fuel-efficient, or turning chickens (gently) upside down so they lay their eggs over-easy.
Almost as clever, and even more effective—and yet, somehow, maybe missing the point?
*Disclaimer: I wrote this last week, in the middle of a long spell of sunny weather. We've seen a cloud or two since then.