Mo Bloggin'

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Archive for the tag “swainson’s thrush”

Highs and lows…

 

20170602_165417It’s a fine July morning as I write this, in the glory of another Pacific Northwest summer. The house is cool from the overnight chill (temps drop 20 degrees or more at night) and I’m sitting in the morning sun, anticipating a hot day (maybe as high as 80s) but trying to warm up in the sun’s rays.  Glorious seems like an over the top word, but it really, really is.

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The Swainson’s thrushes are winding down for the season, sadly.  I’ve heard a few this morning, but nothing like the intensity of just a few weeks ago. I’ve written of my Swainson’s serenades before, and the two months of their song is never enough.  Though I knew they were around for a couple weeks at least, I didn’t hear my first song until May 27 or 28.  It reached a crescendo in early July, with the morning and evening punctuated by seeming near-constant competition between birds and their territories, and reaching a fervor that brings wonder and even worry.  These birds are small – about half the size of a robin, and fit in your hand easily (one flew into my window in May – I picked it up and moved it to a safe, quiet spot while it recovered from the momentary stun).  I am glad I have lots of berries and cherries here for them to feed on as they sing, and hopefully don’t lose any to what has to be exhaustion by the end of the season.  I hope to hear them for a few more evenings yet – they are magical at sunset – but I know it’s almost over.  As I write this I see a young robin, breast still baby-speckled with immature feathering but obviously on her own, dining on the red huckleberries on my old growth stump.  It’s so nice to see.

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Native red elderberry; a favorite of the Swainson’s, but also Robins, Western Tanagers, Cedar Waxwing and more.

I took a few days off around the July 4th holiday this year and it was wonderful.  It seemed to last longer than normal (total time away from work was 5 days) and I got a lot done in that time.  Shearing is almost done, I got the ram lambs banded (except one who turned out to be cryptorchid – the vet will be doing surgery to retrieve the undescended testicle in 3 weeks) and all of them vaccinated except Ginger, Cinnamon’s lamb who is just as skittish as her mama and learning well. Sigh.  I haven’t been able to catch her OR her mama, who is the holdout for shearing.  I’ve sheared all of them myself this year, with a blade (i.e., hand scissors versus electric clippers).  I started off pretty rough and am getting better, and even faster, but I’m not sure I’ll do this again next year.  For one, even though I’m getting better, I can’t do more than two sheep a day, and the mini-rodeo to catch the each one is creating some wiley sheep.  Thus, it’s gotten late in the year, and doing them in June or July is WAY too late – part of the reason the more recent ones look better is because of the “rise” – the old fleece has basically lifted away and I’m just snipping it away from the new wool’s growth.  For another it’s back-breaking, hot work.  And yet another reason, even though I’m going slow, I’ve made way too many slices (cuts) to their skin.  It was harder in the beginning with the wool tight to the skin, you think you’re scissoring a thick patch of wool when you’ve actually got a snippet of skin in there.  Nothing too dramatic (if I had electric shearers I’m sure I would have had some ‘call the vet’ moments – it happens so fast!), but makes me jumpy for the process.  Practice, I guess, but it’s still a lot of work.  We’ll see.

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Meg, after I finally caught her and sheared her.  She obviously felt better without all that wool. 

Now it’s time to start deciding who stays and who goes after lambing.  I’ve gotten about halfway through the list and still have some tough decisions to make, as I need to get the flock back to about 10 sheep before the winter months.  They’ve pretty much devoured most of the greenery in the pasture, and much of the property as well, and are going through hay at a good clip too – the lambs may only be 40 pounds each, but they are growing youngsters and they eat!

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TJ in the pasture. He is huge!

I have one less to place this week, because unfortunately I lost a lamb recently to an accident with my feeding set up.  It was a freak accident, but also preventable, as most accidents are.  I feed with slow-feeder hay nets inside my big hay feeder.  The lambs have been jumping inside the hay feeder to get at the hay nets and I’m just waiting until they are too big to get in (we’re getting close now!).  The mesh on the nets is 1 ½ – 2 inches, but one of the nets had a hole where a couple of the strands had broken or worn through.  And one of the ram lambs (the polled one) stuck his head in the hole… You can guess the rest.  He struggled to get out and it twisted the net and made it worse.  When I found him he was still warm.  The hardest part of the loss is the knowing if I gone out there to check on them a half hour—or even 15 minutes—earlier I could have saved him.  I’ve been using that net for almost 7 years and I think the hole has been there for at least 3 or 4 years.  Obviously I will fix it now, but it was a tough day, and though I’m getting over the guilt I will always feel responsible.  I shared the incident with folks on one of my sheep forums on Facebook and it helped immensely to do so.  Not only are people kind and sympathetic, but so many shared similar stories – even nearly identical stories – of freak losses, which was enormously helpful to hear.  Stories about something that had been in the farm environment for years and the one intrepid or inquisitive sheep (or other critter) found the danger in a seemingly benign object or setup – it happens.  I buried the 20170713_181911little guy out back, and covered him with his mother’s fleece (she’s the scurf queen on a good year and especially with the late shearing this year; the fleece was basically destined for the compost so I was very glad to have it for this use) before covering him with soil.  It helped a lot, and brought some closure to the incident.  The other, farmer-practical part of me realizes I really need to learn to butcher.  He was small, but I could have salvaged something for the dogs at least.  Farm life.

P.S.  I haven’t heard a Swainson’s thrush song since Saturday night.  I guess we’re done for the season. Sigh.

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Pebbles’ ewe lamb.  I am smitten with her.  A keeper, for sure.

 

 

A good grass year

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Everything is still green and juicy.  Can you see the bird dog on point?

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.

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Still filled with song in the evenings.

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.

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One of my favorite field guides.  My ex-mother-in-law gave it to me many years ago, and I reference it often this time of year.

 

Songbird season continues

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Not sure how old I was when I got this, but it was (is) well loved.

I’ve always been a birdwatcher; ever since I knew what birds were, I think. As a schoolchild I made (or had an older sibling or adult help me make) bird feeders  out of empty milk cartons and plastic jugs and hung them in the trees and shrubs near the house, where I could watch the birds and help them out during the snowy New Jersey winters. I had a bird book I read over and over, and I got books from the library about birds, including one from National Geographic that had a slim, floppy “record” you could play on a turntable. Here I heard the cries of a bald eagle for the first time – something I hear frequently now, but back then, when the species was still perilously endangered and I lived in an area they did not frequent, it was a thrill, even when my oldest brother said “it sounds like a canary” (I think we all expected something more raptor-ish, like the red-tailed hawk scream you heard on westerns on TV). Now when the eagles make their chittering cries, my old bird dog goes running to the window, or to the door to get outside, barking at the sky. Yesterday one was being dive-bombed by a hawk, and would turn on its back mid-flight to greet the diving hawk with talons raised in defense before flipping back to normal flight. Farley barked at them as I watched, marveling at this acrobatic display; no airshow could be more thrilling to me.

I got my first real field guide when I was 11 – a Christmas gift from that same brother. It was the gold standard for years, even when I moved to the West Coast. Now I have several – Peterson, National Geographic, and Audubon – and refer to each of them regularly. I try to update my life list but I would never call myself a birder. I am distracted by birds no matter where I am – on a city street, driving down the freeway, or sitting at my desk or table by the window. Mostly though, I’m just interested in MY birds, as a fellow blogger, new to birdwatching, put it so well. I am fiercely protective of “mine” – those who I am lucky to have visit and even set up house here. I’m torn when a Western Wood Peewee parks himself on a post near my beehive, flying out to snatch my girls out of the air on their way in or out of the hive and returning to the post. I’ve seen the peewees out in the pasture snatching flies and other insects out of the air and returning to their perch. But this day, when my girls (and other insects, I imagine) were pretty much grounded with the downpours, the peewee is coming in close – a thrill as I sat at my wee table and looked out the window at the beeyard (part of the reason I moved the bees up to where I have is just this view). Thankfully he only did this a few times before flying off.

I no longer feed the birds, due to the bear visit I had the first year I was here. I don’t mind that the bear visited so much, despite the damage to the fence and knocking over the chicken feed and bird feeder (nom nom!), but don’t want to habituate him or her (bears love bird seed/feeders), and thus endanger his life if he tries to do this at some other human’s house. So without the bird feeders I am reliant on really watching, versus just seeing them when they happen to cross my path, and more important, listening. And in this I suppose I am more like a birder now, learning what’s nearby from their voice (guessing the probable bird, and using my smart phone to play sounds (I am careful with this, and don’t use it to taunt the birds – just a quick match/doesn’t match to identify)), because I can rarely see them in the thick foliage. The robins and jays and Swainson’s and tanagers visiting the red huckleberry nearby – loaded with fruit, its bounty seemingly bottomless. The twee-ee-eee of the junco, the long whistle of the chickadee, the melodic song of the Black-headed grosbeak (a song as beautiful as the bird itself, though I rarely see them, high in the maple canopy), and on and on it goes. One wonders how these tiny creatures can create such big sound. After a long day of singing, I am exhausted for them.

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There’s nothing to him, but he fills the woods with song.

And of course now is the nesting season, so babies – and the drama around them – abound. I’ve been keeping the cats inside during daylight hours, much as they hate this. Until recently, I let them out after full dark, and thankfully they’re of an age when staying out all night has less allure. After two or three mice on the doorstep (or, and I don’t know who’s doing this, the mouse “face” left–truly, the only thing left is the ears and face; just enough of an appendage, or a whisker, to pick up the gruesome artifact and toss it into the grass, a treasure for the chickens to fight over the next day) they are willing to come inside. Even sooner if it’s raining or otherwise crappy out.

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Almost time to let the cats out safely.

But with Pal, the younger of the two setter boys and really more like a 47-pound cat, running like the wind around the property and stalking, stalking, stalking, I watch and worry. With the adult birds I don’t worry too much, but with the babies fledging now…  A stramash early one Saturday morning left a juvenile Robin in the driveway, still alive (part of the stramash was me running out the door in my nightie, screaming NO! PAL NO!). The parent bird was chirping madly, though the youngster had stopped its screaming. Pal was running in wide circles around me (NO!) as I picked it up—it had enough juice left to peck at me aggressively, but I didn’t hold much hope—and put it in the pasture with the gate closed, bringing Pal into the house. I checked on it a few hours later and it was, unfortunately, right where I’d left it, rigor mortis set in. Damn.  I apologized aloud.

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Pal’s other favorite prey – moles.  He dug up a 20 x 20 section of the pasture recently.  I don’t think he got the mole this time, but he’s gotten a few in his time, plus he’s so cute to watch, digging furiously, so I don’t mind.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I heard an unusual call, sounding like a baby bird call of sorts, and accompanied by a call from a robin. I went back towards the woods, watching Pal to see where it was coming from (and also to be sure he didn’t find it before I did!). He eventually honed in with a hard point, and began to creep forward toward something on the ground in the thick growth in the woods. PAL NO! I called, as I headed toward him (I do hate doing this, because his point is frippin’ gorgeous, and everything he’s doing is just perfect, not wrong, for a bird dog bred to hunt birds). I saw the little bit of grey and brown scuttle off and followed it, Pal running around me as I repeated NO! (this to Farley and Daisy too, joining in on the fun). I caught the wee bit of fluff and found it to be a baby robin, it seemed a little too young to be off the nest – maybe for just a couple more days of growing feathers. The tail feathers short and stubby and the flying skills not anywhere near ready, but the nest is also a target for predators and parasites. I looked for a nest (in case this was a precocious early fledger), as the parent birds chirped excitedly from branches high above. And I heard a call of another baby (sibling?) further into the woods on the other side of the fence. I tried putting the little guy up high on a branch or even one of the half rotted old growth stumps but it wanted nothing to do with being up high. It would flutter down to the ground and scuttle along into some underbrush, with me yelling (I’m sure the neighbors must wonder about me sometimes) at the dogs to LEAVE IT!  It was somewhat of a free for all for a bit. Finally I caught the wee thing and held it. It seemed okay and was uninjured. What to do?  I’ve raised baby birds but with attentive parents present it didn’t seem necessary (though how attentive – if the baby couldn’t get up to them, would they come down for it?). Dusk was coming on fast and I decided to feed the little guy (he seemed a little out of it – stress/shock? Or the warmth of being held in my hand causing him to nod off?) and find him a safe place for the night. I dug up a few worms and stuffed them in, then put him down in a safe spot near where I found him. He immediately scuttled off down the path and into the brush, then to the other side of the fence, thankfully.

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You have NO idea how hard it was to leave this little bit of fluffy innocence underneath that sword fern and go inside for the night.

I left him there – it was a good safe spot, but it was still seriously difficult to leave this little bit of innocence to the coming night. I checked on the spot the next day. He was gone, but there were a couple of healthy droppings left. I hope the parent birds collected him/her in the morning and they continued his rearing and education. A week later and the scene was repeated in nearly the exact same sequence and location. Another baby of about the same age/size as the one a week earlier, maybe even a little younger, me screaming at the dogs NO! (Pal left; though he’s the one who found it, of the three he’s the most responsive) – Farley was especially enamored of this one. Finally I grabbed Far by scruff of the neck (the setter boys don’t wear collars) and dragged him away. I checked the baby – it seemed uninjured and lively, and the two parent birds were coming down close to chirp wildly at us. I put the dogs inside and went back out to check. The little guy was gone from where I’d left him, and the parents were calling from the trees a little further into the woods. I have to assume the little tyke scuttled after them and they tucked him in for the night. The birds have the place to themselves all week long, except for a few hours each evening, so one hopes we’re avoiding most of this fledgling drama. I don’t know if I can take much more of it.  But wait, there’s more… (to be continued)

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