It rained again last night. We’ve been having an unusually wet July so far, and though I’d normally be complaining, I’m totally good with it this year. After last year’s drought, and the year before not much wetter, not to mention our freaky, end-of-times heat wave this past April, it feels good, even soothing, to have what is essentially a normal weather year. And yes, it’s great for grass growing on my shade-challenged little hillside. Last year the grass was done by the end of June. Once solstice passes, the whole growth thing shifts. Everything seeds out and if there’s no water the grasses just go dormant. I don’t have the well capacity (or hose capacity!) to do much more than spot watering so these rains are welcome. The sheep are still getting plenty of graze considering the time of year and the flock size. To that end, I’m managing the sheep differently than in previous years, partly because of the number – I just don’t have the grazing capacity, given the aforementioned shade challenges, to run much more than 5-head. And until two days ago, I’ve been running 11. Now it’s down to 9 (my freezer will be full in a week) and that will ease the pressure. So I feed hay pretty much year round, just less of it when the grass is growing. I’m still making decisions with the flock, and hope to breed this fall – it’s been a few years since my last lambs – and I’m culling for both fleece quality and temperament. After Minnie’s twins turned out to be as friendly as two puppies (and have remained so, two years later, bringing their mother along), I discovered how delightful it can be to have easy, approachable sheep. And seriously, on this small setup it’s crazy to do otherwise. So the wild, untamable ones are slowly being weeded out. I still have a couple more out there, but one will likely stay until her natural end (sentimental, plus she’s an excellent mother who produces babies that are not as wild as her) and the other one, well, we’ll see. After she lambs she may be easier, plus I culled her dam, and I’m hoping without that freak-out influence from her mother she’ll follow the lead of the rest of the flock and at least get close enough to nose-touch my outstretched hand.
The songbird season has also shifted since solstice, with babies seemingly everywhere. And the song is changing. The Swainson’s daytime song has decreased as nesting goes into full swing. It’s one thing to mark your territory with song, it’s another to attract potential predators with them, and setting females and then the hatchlings and nestlings are very vulnerable. Plus the territories are well established now as everyone’s nesting. The evening song is still magical, though I’ll miss it when it ceases altogether in another few weeks. I can guess where certain species are in their nest cycles by their song: the black-headed grosbeak had been insistent and melodic the last week, so are probably on nest/brood number two now); the robins are still melodic but slowing down, with probable nesting number three underway, for the last of the season before it’s time to bulk up for winter migrations. The tanagers and western wood peewees are intermittent as well. Everyone is too busy to sing, with all those mouths to feed. And here the rain is helpful too, as it keeps the insect populations bountiful as well, so feeding the babies is easier. The drought last year was hard on everyone, from grass to invertebrates to feathered and woolly residents.
I saw a fat baby robin fly after its parent down the driveway as I was leaving for work one morning. And the other day I came home to a juvenile crow hopping and poking around the driveway as my car followed it slowly up to the gate. It finally flew up to the gate rail, then up to a low cedar branch when I got out of the car. There weren’t any screaming parents around, or any other crows at all, which was odd, because although it was fully feathered, it shouldn’t have been alone. I wondered if maybe it got bonked by a car as it flew too low across the road, and maybe lay stunned long enough that the parents left it for dead. Even that would be odd – crows are excellent parents and don’t give up easily. I was bringing the yard waste and garbage bins up from the road, and he watched me nervously from his branch. I picked some thimble berries from along the driveway, and pulled a little bit of meat off the rotisserie chicken I’d just purchased at the grocery on the way home, and put these on top of the yard waste bin, close to where he was perched, and left him there to go up to the house and unload the groceries. An hour or so later I went down to check. He was gone, and the meat and berries still on the top of the bin (Farley was right there for the meat). I hope he found his way back to his crow family.
A brown creeper nested in the loose bark of a cedar tree along the driveway. I couldn’t get a good shot of the parent bird coming in or out, but coming out the view was akin to someone trying to get into their skinny jeans, as she squeezed out of this impossibly small space to go get more insects for the babies.
And then there are my dark-eyed juncos, a.k.a. Oregon juncos. In early June I was trimming some overgrown salmonberry branches I’d cut from behind the fence line, walking over to dump them into the pasture for the sheep, when a bird suddenly flitted from underneath my feet. I looked to see a junco on the fence, tsking madly at me. I turned to where I’d just walked. Juncos are ground nesters, usually tucking their perfect little nest beneath a fern or hidden in a bit of weedy overgrowth. But there was nothing nearby…or was there? It was all grass, but I saw a larger tuft of grass and walked back and…sure enough. This seemed extreme, even for a junco. But really, what better camouflage then “in plain sight.” The only problem with this, aside from the fact that I’d nearly flattened it walking to the fence, is it was perilously close to Pal’s flight path – he runs down the driveway multiple times a day at breakneck speed (Farley too, though he’s not as fast as he once was), in the grass just to the right of the driveway tracks. If he didn’t find the nest with his mad bird dog skillz, then surely he would trample it by accident. And the sheep run down there too, grazing on the grass and sometimes galloping and leaping and tossing their heads in sheepy exuberance, sometimes being rounded up by an exuberant Daisy. No one would see this nest in time. So I added this bit of attractiveness to the landscape – the junco kiddie corral. (click on the photos for captions)
Judging by their size and feathering, I figured them to be a few days old when I first found them. They fledge (leave the nest) in 14 days, so it wasn’t too long before they were gone, off with mom and dad to the safety of the pasture and woods, with their little calls a zippery sound that’s hard to describe; it almost sounds like tiny chains being dropped. The male kept watch, flying and singing his song, helping feed the kids and warning them of any dangers.
A week or so later another pair were up by the house, the male trilling loudly from the corner of the roof, boisterous and animated, and, with a little anthropomorphism thrown in, one could say proudly. And the female was nearby, letting me get remarkably close as she hopped around the driveway, picking up bits of dried grass and dog hair so she looked like she was sporting a bushy, 1880s-style mustache. She’d fly off furtively and disappear with her beakful of nesting material, but I knew it had to be close. I finally was able discover its location by watching from inside the house. The pair would land on the railing of the back porch frequently, setting the cats to chittering at the window in feline excitement. So I hid in the door of the closet to watch them and saw the female duck behind a tuft of grass at the bottom of my retaining wall. Voila! I checked it for several days in a row – the sheep ate a large fern leaf that was providing much of the cover – dang. First it was just the nest, looking completed, but no sign of the pair, no scolding. Maybe they abandoned the site? The next day there was one single egg there. The following day, a second egg, and a day later, egg number three and then she was setting on them. Time to put up the Junco kiddie corral again. This one would have to protect against the chickens too. The first nest was further down the driveway than they usually wander this time of year (plenty to eat up by the house), but this nest is within a few feet of my back door and if the chickens found it the eggs, or hatchlings, would be quite the delicacy (the chickens love stuff like this and regularly eat the cats’ abandoned hunting trophies: shrews, mice, small voles).
The fence against the wall would deter all but the cats. I could add some netting over the top, to prevent the most obvious access (the wall is about 4 feet tall here), but the cats can squeeze through the bottom openings of the woven wire fence too. I could put up chicken wire around the bottom (and with all this construction, I worry about disturbing the juncos enough that they abandon the nest). So the solution is total cat confinement for the next few weeks. The female began setting on June 29, which means the babies will hatch around July 10th (nothing so far) or 11th, and they’ll be fledged by July 25 at the latest. Then the cats can start going out at night again. Maybe. In the meantime it’s a bit of a circus keeping them from darting out the door every time I open it. They begin to get stir crazy after a while. All my area rugs are bunched up in the mornings, as they attack them and chase each other around at night, batting found objects around (something clicky/draggy last night – have no idea what it was). I found their cat carrier pushed across the floor of the loft one morning – not sure who was doing what up there, but sometimes living with cats is like living with monkeys – they get into everything and everywhere, sometimes literally climbing the walls, but certainly the window screens and clawing up the furniture.