Pecking Order

If you ever want to see how apt a metaphor, “pecking order” is for hierarchical office politics, feed your laying flock an hour late.

I slept in this morning, and I usually wait about an hour after letting the chickens out to give them their daily (in the Drummies’ case, twice daily) ration. That gives them time to stretch their legs and forage for weed and bug appetizers before they’re sated with grain. So, it was 8:30 by the time I got out to fill the feeders.

Do not question my authority!

Do not question my authority!

The Barred Rocks, Ruby and Bea, are the unquestioned queens of the flock, along with Lacey, the Silver Lace Wyandotte. Lacey Does. Not. Allow. any younger or smaller hen anywhere near the feeder–they don’t belong there until she is finished, and she’s not sure they belong there at all. Ruby and Bea are a little more mellow so long as any interlopers don’t interfere with their right to eat from any and every part of the feeder they want. Insubordination is met with a harsh verbal and physical reprimand.

Spurz, our little Jungle Fowl rooster, is also at the top–the bigger ladies may not respect him in other ways, but they don’t chase him from the feeder. The second-tier hens are also fully mature from last year’s starter flock–they’re just smaller than the others (though as big as, or bigger than Spurz), so they have to wait their turn.

If they don't find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

If they don’t find you handy, they should at least find you handsome.

While the Americanas (Gilda and Frannie) respectfully wait to eat until the big girls are getting full, the Silkies are always jockeying for position. Robeson especially likes to sneak in and grab a beak-full of grain with the big hens, then run back out when she’s pecked–proceeding to give as much and more grief to the younger pullets flocking around the periphery. Robeson’s broody mates, Fog and Micheaux, take turns running out of their corner to steal some grain, careful to keep their prize egg hidden from view and squawking loud warnings when the pullets come too close. Talk about micro-managers!

And the poor pullets? Well, the six I’ve collectively nicknamed “juvenile delinquents” are now as big as Spurz-the-rooster, and bigger than the Silkies. But it’s not size that matters at this point–it’s sheer meanness! One of the new-crop Americanas is almost as big now as Gilda and Frannie, and she lords it over her brooder-mates. But when it comes feeding time, she hasn’t yet developed the “pluck” to challenge the higher-ups–and especially the middle management Silkies.

Last on the pecking order are the youngest–the nine Buff Orps and Black Australorps that are catching up to the “delinquents” in size, but who know better than to venture into the henhouse when the big girls are eating. Well, all except for this one rogue Orpington, who starts to peek in the door once the big girls have gone out and the second-tiers are getting at the “goods.” I think she’s the same one who gives us such grief every evening when it’s time to go in–breaking off from the flock and dodging out of the run to hide back under the currant bushes. I don’t know if it’s cleverness or sheer obstinance, but I do know she’s careful to remain out of range of the Silkies’ cruel beaks.

Rouge in disguise.

Rogue in disguise.

There’s a lot less strife when it comes time for the two batches of this year’s pullets to eat. There are more of them, but they fit better around the feeder, and I think the fact that they’re merging in size and that they spent a few weeks in the brooder together makes them a little less likely to jockey for position.

While there’s plenty of politics in the henhouse during a late feeding, I haven’t noticed anything like it with the “Drummies.” Sure the Red Rangers are constantly challenging each other out in the run–standing up tall and facing off (I swear they’d beat their breasts with tiny fists if they had them) before forgetting what the big deal was and running off in different directions–but feeding time is something altogether different.

Hey buddy, what're you lookin' at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

What’re you lookin’ at? I outweigh you by an ounce!

They’re all the same age, they’re all close in size, and they’re all going all-out for the same three feeders without the comprehension that there’s plenty for everyone. When I put the first feeder down, they climb all over each other to get at it before a few of them realize there’s another fully-stocked feeder three feet away. Eventually, they all disperse at the different stations and realize they aren’t going to starve if they just calm down, look around, and leave the greedy scrum for a more convivial “table.”

Maybe a better metaphor here is the 99%?

Most of the time they’re running in all different directions satisfying each individual’s chicken-y desires and getting a little peevish if anyone or anything gets in their way. But occasionally, like when I open the kennel and they taste the freedom of the morning, or when a shadow or loud noise threatens the flock, they all move together with a whooshing of wing feathers and a collective purpose that’s beautiful, powerful, and incredibly fun to watch.



Hoe, Hoe, Weed & Mow

The onset of summer-like weather has jump-started the growing season–and the weeds. Last weekend, John, Martin, and I put in the tomatoes, peppers, and most of the rest of the onions and leeks.

This morning, before the real heat set in (I think it might’ve hit 90!) I hoed that whole new tomato garden to wipe out the first post-planting flush of weeds. They never look very menacing at that tiny “white thread” stage (named for their single thin taproot), but they are a lot easier to take out at that stage and in this hot weather, when any little soil disturbance makes them wither and die.

The Red Ranger broiler chickens are growing like the weeds, too. John took to calling them the “Drumsticks,” so I’m now referring to them as “Drummies.” They’re only three weeks old now, but I swear some of their legs are as thick as a full-grown laying hen.

I grabbed one up particularly recalcitrant one up in my hands this evening as I was trying to herd them into their kennel, and was amazed at how “meaty” it felt. Just solid and pulsing with heat and energy. I’ve never raised the typical Cornish Cross broilers, which some farmers I know are repulsed by for their tendency to do nothing but sit by the feeder and eat ’til their legs give out, but I’m impressed by the zip of these Rangers.

In the morning when I release them from their secure quarters, they all race out into the grass pen, flapping their wings and checking out anything that might’ve changed in the night. That’s not to say they don’t like their ration: I’ve taken to calling feeder-filling time, the “Drummie Scrum,” and I’ve also taken to filling a third feeder because fifty rapidly growing chickens at two feeders got to be a little too crazy for me to find amusing anymore.

The guys headed off to camp tonight, and I hope they have good weather for it (or at least that Martin is not scared, and the tent doesn’t leak–in that order). We have seen dark clouds roll through a few times today, and now there is lightning flashing in a few different directions. I got the raised bed garden watered early this morning, but I didn’t have time to water the tomato garden before work–I did water it yesterday, so it should be fine.

Instead of watering this evening, I stayed out ’til 9:30 or so weeding garden beds and cleaning things up with the gas trimmer–taking the cages off the rugosa roses and serviceberry and hazelnuts and trimming around them and the edges of border beds and around the buffalo berry bushes. We’ve got a couple of cattle panels leaning up against our power poles, and I pulled those out and trimmed underneath them, too. I think grass loves cattle panels more than anything–if you leave one sitting along a fenceline or in the yard for any length of time, it becomes a real project to pull it out.

I also took a hint from my friend and colleague Robin Moore, who is this amazing blacksmithing, flower-growing, skill-having woman I’m blessed to know. We were at a Women Caring for the Land gathering that Land Stewardship Project hosts in Glenwood, and she started talking about this guy who buys up all the old seed from garden centers and where-have-you and plants it all together in a big, crazy mix.

I got to thinking about all the one or two year-old flower and herb seed I have just sitting around, waiting for the perfect place to put it. Except there is no perfect place, and there is no time to individually plant every last thing I want to grow (or even that I have seed for). But what I did have is this kind of bare, ugly place along the west side of the goat barn that used to have a big pile of goat manure on it, and was sprouting a bunch of weeds.

There were plans for that spot–I was going to transplant the “secret stash” of hollyhocks that John has so far managed not to mow (my dear husband is a hollyhock-hater, but I will let him tell that story!), but with the weather so hot and the spot so remote from my normal watering route, that probably would’ve just led to more hollyhock demise. So instead I mixed up a great, big batch of flower and herb seed–from amaranth to cilantro to Thai basil to zinnias and everything in between–and I hoed up the area, kicked some soil over it, and we’ll see what grows. Oh, and dare I say the mix contains my mother’s special “no-mow” hollyhocks? Shhhhh!

Then I cracked a cold beer and sat on the corner of a garden bed in the deepening dusk–when all the bird calls sound as if they’re coming from far away, watching lightning play across the southern sky and the rain clouds curtain around the farm. The breeze was light, the mosquitoes were somehow absent, and I spent some well-earned time just enjoying the view of the work we’ve accomplished.


Joelie’s Dandelion Cookies

Have you ever had one of those Euwell Gibbons’ moments? Moments where you find yourself searching roadside ditches for wild asparagus or turning cattail “hotdogs” into a pancake mix, or even collecting and cooking dandelions?

Our bountiful field of yellow!

Our bountiful field of yellow!

Earlier this week a friend of ours, Joelie Hicks, posted a recipe for dandelion cookies. Hmmmm?

Back in my Dubuque days with the exciting daily Telegraph-Herald, I wrote a story on a junk yard guy in his 70s who was married and, according to all involved, fathered a child with his 29-year-old wife. There was little doubt of her deep feelings for the old codger, for you could see love in her eyes as she talked of how he respected and treated her as a person. He was one of those tough exterior guys with a soft heart who acted and worked like a man half his age. After recording the interview and doing the pictures, he asked, “Say, Boy, how about I pour you a little glass of my homemade dandy-line wine?”

Those yellow petals are intense with color.

Those yellow petals are intense with color.

At that age I was far from being one to turn down an offered drink, so he pushed a paint-chipped chair past the prone German Shepard in his little office and reached for a label-free wine bottle, pulled the cork and filled my glass about a third full. Before jumping to conclusions, this was a little fruit juice glass. “Pour you any more, Boy, and you ain’t drivin’ back to no Dubuque.”

The old man was honest as a summer day is long, for I was challenged to make the drive even with what he poured.

Fortunately I have once again settled down with a dear woman who holds dandelions close to her heart. Actually, I find it a bit disheartening that couples aren’t asked in premarital counseling, “Which is more important to you, John and Rebecca, a field of golden dandelion goodness or to have a dandelion-clean and perfectly green lawn?”

Years ago when my brother, Mark, lived in Omaha, his next door neighbor woman became rather riled over his suspected failure to spray his backyard of the pretty yellow spring flowers. “Mam,” I said, aiming for a spot somewhere on the soft side of her heart, “have you ever heard of this new lawn technique they’re calling ‘naturalizing?’”

This was just enough to stop her rant for a precious moment.
“That’s where you plant native flowers so they will bloom to add interesting color and beauty to an otherwise boring green lawn. That was my dear brother’s intent here with his lawn. Look. You can’t call this a boring lawn.”

She stared at me for a good 45 seconds in what could be generously described as a rage of silence before turning on her heels and stomping off to her house.

Back in the present, a few days ago Rebecca asked, “Have you seen the incredible yellow in the goat pen? The bees are just loving those dandelions.” We have a rich carpet of them.

Between the two of us I’m sure we attended at least three or four meetings this past winter over the crisis facing bees and other pollinators, so we see dandelions as a bridge to our recently planted clover and hopefully the prairie flowers sure to rise in our tillable acres. And, of course, our garden. We hope to have enough blossoms around our little island of pollinator friendliness to withstand the expected GMO corn and soybeans that reportedly carry genes that are causing bee colonies to collapse. In the spirit of marital cohesiveness, I asked her permission before I took my half-cup measuring tin outside to fulfill Joelie’s recipe requirement.

Just a half cup is all you need ... without the green "crowns."

Just a half cup is all you need … without the green “crowns.”

As the cookies were baking Rebecca came inside to say it was hard to see where I’d even picked the blossoms. Our son, Martin, who is here for the month, also came inside to say, “John, I don’t think you even made a dent in the dandelions out there.” Hey, I’m good!

For those just dying for the recipe, here it is: Blend together 1/2 c. butter, 1/2 c. honey, 2 eggs and 1 teaspoon of vanilla, then stir in 1 c. flour, 1 c. dry oatmeal, 1/2 c. dandelion florets pulled or cut from the base of the flower.

Just before adding the flour and oatmeal.

Just before adding the flour and oatmeal.

All ready to drop on the pizza stone!

All ready to drop on the pizza stone!

Bake at 375 on a lightly oiled cookie sheet or pizza stone for 10-15 minutes. I added a cup of chocolate chips just because I could, so I suppose that should read as “optional.”

All baked and ready to eat ... and they were a big hit, even to Martin!

All baked and ready to eat … and they were a big hit, even to Martin!

Yes, they’re rather delicious, though they don’t seem to have the same kick as the old junk dealer’s dandy-line wine. In fact, I think I could eat the whole batch and still drive all the way to Dubuque.

On the Drive Home

Not long after pausing to capture a few images of a Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the shore of Lake Minnewaska, then the painstaking process of following a farmer with a grain drill who insisted on driving down the middle of Highway 28 going through North Morris and forcing oncomers to take the shoulder and the followers to bide time, it was back on the open road once again. Back in the country on the backstretch home, and off to the west, a plume of smoke rose from the prairie.

The Bald Eagle takes off.

The Bald Eagle takes off.

Fire in the prairie this time of year is considered a good thing, a time of renewal. By burning off the thick duff left behind by several seasons of prairie grass thatch, a prairie fire brings potential death to invasive shrubs and trees as well as a lush new birth to the deep rooted native forbs and grasses. A prairie, say many, is forest turned upside down. The vast vegetative portion of the plants are all underground, anchoring ever deeper into the soil profile. The smoke plume reaching into the distant sky brought a smile.

After a weekend conference of Minnesota Master Naturalists at Camp Friendship just outside of Annandale, my thoughts were generally positive from meeting with like-minded, environmentally-friendly peers. This was a nice reprieve from new reports of global warming incidents around the globe. Landslides and flooding in the Balkans. Reports and charts portraying perhaps the warmest December on record worldwide. Wildfires once again ravishing the U.S.’s Southwest, which involved a cousin who was forced to evacuate her home going into the weekend.

To the west, the plume was getting ever closer and was exhibiting that familiar profile of width. Immediately I had hopes of capturing the crew working a prairie fire photographically.

On a long drive home, the mind wanders … and mine was. Wondering about my cousin and the fate of her home; of a fire of destruction as well as one of renewal. Then other thoughts drifted in … of how our own sons will fare in an ever changing and warming world.

Will the Black Burnerian Warbler still find a home with the change in the biome species?

Will the Black Burnerian Warbler still find a home with the change in the biome species?

Global warming has been a nearly constant conference and meeting agenda item this winter. Seminars and conferences have included the threatened bees and pollinators, and we attended two different presentations by icecap explorer Will Steger. At both he showed the incredible footage from the documentary, “Chasing Ice,” showing a massive ice field suddenly and unexpectedly collapsing that was captured on film by a crew. Indeed, while wildfires threatened my cousin’s California home, news broke that a collapse of massive portions of the Antarctic ice sheet now appears inevitable and could trigger a far higher sea-level rise than once projected — up to 12 feet, or four meters — according to major new studies by University of Washington and NASA researchers.

Those who have read Jon Bowermaster and Steger’s page-turner, “Crossing Antarctica,” will realize that more than half of the book and the issues his team faced on the trip were on the West Antarctic ice sheet — which is about the size of New Mexico and Arizona combined. This won’t happen in my lifetime, since it is estimated to occur over 200 years …  a time span that, interestingly, sparked more thought from the weekend conference, again concerning global climate change.

It was during a keynote address by Dr. Lee Frelich, research associate and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology, that he described the expected changes in the boreal forest biome in Northern Minnesota. At one point he agreed that, yes, the boreal had migrated over time as far south as Tennessee and as deep as the northern wilds of upper Ontario. “Those changes, though,” he explained, “occurred over thousands of years, which geologically are snapshots in time. What we’re seeing now, within a century or two, has not happened so fast in the history of earth.”

Core samples taken from a Siberian lake that offer a portrait of earth over nearly three million years gave proof, he said. Frelich added the forest profile around the Boundary Waters will take on significant change over the next 30 to 50 years and maybe even sooner. “If you want a preview of what the Boundary Waters will look like by 2050, go to Granite Falls along the Minnesota River in the Western Prairie. All along the river you have the same rock formations as you find in the BWCA, and you’ll see a plant profile there now that is very similar to what we’ll see there. Scrub cedar. Burr oak. A dominance of the maple species. Prickly pear in the rock formations.” You could sense an audible murmur as that reality settled around the room.

As I turned south onto a county blacktop off Highway 28, the remembrance of the murmur was lost as the plume of smoke grew ever closer.

“For a scientist,” I remembered him saying, “these are exciting times, for we’re seeing events in our lifetimes that have historically taken thousands if not millions of years to happen. Another drought. Increased instances and severities of windstorms, and the resulting fires will complete the transition. Already the understories of the new forests have taken hold. Drought, wind and fire will bring this succession to life in our lifetimes.” In some areas of Minnesota and Ontario, he predicted, the succession might be only a summer or two in the making … depending on those three climate-driven conditions.

Outcrops and species profile of the Minnesota River valley might be the future BWCA area species profile.

Outcrops and species profile of the Minnesota River valley might be the future BWCA area species profile.

Finally, on the Clinton road, as I drew mental images of Lake One with a Minnesota River plant profile, the prairie fire grew closer and closer, and finally the field appeared. There, south of the highway, a farmer was burning off the last of a wide CRP buffer strip, and was following behind the fire with a huge tiller pulled by a tracked behemoth tractor, turning the newly blackened prairie sod upside down to plant his next crop right to the lip of the drainage ditch.

As the professor said, “In our lifetimes …”


Pushing Too Hard

It has been a long while since there’s been a “She Said” post. Trust me, there are a few drafts in the queue, but this is the season of all-out work. Last Spring, “He Said” and I were still living in my house in Clinton and the focus was almost entirely on getting the house buttoned back up, so we could move in and ultimately have a lovely summer wedding on the farm.

We accomplished all that and more, but the gardens and grounds got short shrift, and there was a pile a mile wide of tasks that got shoved from summer to fall to this spring–which ended up coming cooler and later than any of us would have wished. I keep reminding myself that the place I moved here from was the “banana belt” of South Dakota, and up here we’re about two weeks behind and ten degrees cooler than what I might’ve expected there–if expectations count for anything in our changing climate. From what my former farming partner has said, I got out of there just in time.

Of course, if you read on to learn the true nature of my personality when it comes to gardens, you’ll see that perhaps the “getting out just in time” comment wasn’t related to the global climate weirding at all. I am glad to see that others have taken over the garden space that once was Flying Tomato Farms–and less glad, though perhaps satisfied in some evil way that others are cursing that gumbo area along the western edge of the gardens that I cursed roundly on more than one occasion.

Listening Stones Farm lost three hens to Marek’s disease earlier this Spring, but it seems like everything has stabilized out in the coop now that the weather has somewhat stabilized. I’m down to eight hens a’ laying, but there are fourteen more pullets plus a young Black Australorp cockerel who’ve taken up residence in the hen house, and we’re getting about half dozen eggs a day–more than we can eat by a good measure, and eventually we’ll be offering eggs for sale rather than simply foisting a dozen upon every unsuspecting visitor.

A little over a week ago we picked up 50 Red Ranger broilers to fatten up over the next couple of months–part of a bulk order with a few friends over on the eastern edge of South Dakota. They (the chickens) are now out in their very own semi-secure quarters in the goat barn, awaiting the time they can set out within the grassy fenced pen to do what their name suggests (range, that is, not practice communism–we haven’t held a HUAC hearing as yet to know their political leanings, but rest assured, we are watching them very, very closely).

Communists? We are watching...

Communists? We are watching…

On an evening earlier this week, when Mr. White was getting ready for his MN Master Naturalist conference this weekend, I started getting anxious about a place to put the tomatoes. I knew where I wanted them, thanks to a brush-and-stump burning project down below the existing raised bed garden that left a small section of the prairie scraped and blackened.

I expressed my anxiety to the Mr., who was attempting to rest in order to get better from our latest plague (this winter and spring have been atrocious), and then I headed outside to pick eggs and survey my intended new garden spot. Heard a machine start, and here he came on the maiden Listening Stones Farm voyage of the 1979 JD 317 garden tractor that a friend recently gifted to us.

He did a couple of passes with me standing by a little disgruntled (My tractor! My garden! Waaah!) before he saw my tractor-tantrum coming on and willingly gave over the seat and went back inside to more fully recuperate. If you have somehow heard that I’m a saint for putting up with Mr. White, you have it exactly wrong. I am a serious pain in the arse when it comes to anything garden related (we can quibble over the other stuff, but in this arena, I humbly acquiesce).

Spent the next hour (or was it two?) cultivating my new garden space, and thinking very seriously that I should have bundled up better. But, you know, how can a gal leave her willing little tractor when it’s doing such a splendid job? Yup. And that’s how JGW got better enough to go on his splendid weekend adventure with the MN Master Naturalists, and I got what I deserved for not taking better care of myself.

I think I’m going to name the tractor Eunice. Or maybe Viola.

At any rate, I’ve been feeling rugged this weekend, though with the weather so perfect and no husband to remind me that resting on occasion and eating regular meals are reasonable things to do, it’s probably a good thing that my body is reining me in a little.

Puttered around with mowing on Friday evening–especially the goat pen where it was getting long (nope, we don’t have goats–the former owners built the pen and barn named for the beasts and we’ve stuck with it), but I avoided a big triangle of dandelions in full bloom and buzzing with early-emerging pollinators.

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

All at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden dandelions!

Saturday I felt the worst and only puttered slowly with broad-forking a bed running parallel to the road and planting with a buffer strip of sunflowers, amaranth, cosmos, zinnias, and broom corn to hopefully shield the tomato garden from spray drift from fields across the road (tomatoes are especially susceptible to herbicides). Moved a few finer-leafed daylilies from the raised bed in which they overwintered to a bed along the sun porch. They, along with several other perennials I’m still trying to figure out a place for, were gifted from Earth-Be-Glad Farm near Lewiston, MN.

Today…more small puttering repotting a bay tree and separating our tomato plants from the ones I’m offering for sale, plus a small amount of mowing that once again confirmed I am a total weenie when it comes to driving a riding mower over uneven ground. I remain convinced that I will tip over and kill myself on every bumpy patch–and we have quite a few of them even after I dumped several wheelbarrows full of sand into the foot-deep ruts where the septic pumper truck got stuck earlier in the week (a kindly neighbor came with his large tractor to pull the guy out).

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

Houseplants become deck plants in the summer.

It’s hard to slow down even being ill when it’s spring and you can finally get going on the pile a mile wide of projects. T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruellest month, but really it’s May–the month that everyone up here is really yearning for in the depths of winter…when it’s really and truly spring and the weather is so fine and suddenly all the projects of the past six months are falling upon your shoulders if only you were well enough and there were enough sunny days to accomplish them….

There aren’t enough sunny days or hours within all the days of the month, even if they were sunny, to accomplish all one dreams about doing in the first deliriously warm weeks of the spring. Best to just recognize the limitations of one’s capacity and also the importance of taking time for pure enjoyment–of listening to the birds, dozing with the windows wide, and spending time with loved ones over a glass of wine in the gilded evening light.





Freeze Warnings

Over the past few hours we have frantically put ourselves on the front lines in the battle against a red alert freeze warning. Our main concern is the new batch of broilers we just had moved outside into the goat barn. Only a week old, the 51 chicks had already become crowded in the horse trough we use as a brooder.

Using old sleeping bags, we covered as much of the 6 ft. by 8 ft. dog kennel as possible. As we moved plants inside we discussed our efforts with hopes that the covering along with the lights will be sufficient for the chicks to survive. In all, a snow fence was affixed to the dog kennel, and then she attached galvanized roofing panels to the outside of that, and then the blankets and sleeping bags were draped over the whole thing to try to keep them warmth through the night.

Despite the concern and worry, Rebecca came back to the house from her garden in complete ecstasy. Once again her little jewels, tiny yellow warblers, were there to keep her company. The warblers, with their intense hyper activity, rarely stay put for long, and she said her efforts to capture images of the little birds with her phone were nearly impossible.
Since I am still smarting from not having my camera on the listening bench in the pathway through the grove a couple of weeks ago, I eagerly volunteered to bring my camera to the garden to see if I would have any luck. She was right. The warblers dart here and there, one second on the frame of a raised bed, the next on a cattle panel, then off to the edge of the prairie. We counted three. Perhaps there were more. Their name tags, if they wore them, were much too small to read!

For a half hour we sat in the lowering sun to watch as they flew in and away. Rebecca was nearly mesmerized. As much as I love our life on the farm, my love pales in comparison to hers. Warbler sightings and accompaniment are part of that love she has for the farm. I captured a nice picture of her as she sat watching the warblers.

Rebecca watches the warblers at the foot of her garden.

Rebecca watches the warblers at the foot of her garden.

For me, it was almost as comical as if I were doing a Whack-A-Mole. “Oh, there’s one!” she’d say. “Oops.”

Living jewels are indeed fleeting.

“Oh, look! By the bale!” Bingo.

By the bale.

By the bale.

Fortunately the warbler bounced from in front of the bale to the lower frame of a raised bed, then skirted that more deftly than an acrobat can balance on a thin train rail. It skittered along to hop onto some of her cattle fencing. Another warbler swept in, and a third … which took a perch on the erected fence panel itself — gave us a fine show. Her garden jewels were shining all over the place.

Like all good shows, this one had to come to an end. We headed back to the house excited about our short adventure, although about halfway there thoughts of the impending freeze warning emerged.

Despite the dire possibilities, I had to smile. Are we becoming farmers? People who cannot have a conversation without worry creeping in? Years ago I did a story on a woman farmer near Gluek for the sole purpose of portraying a happy farmer. I hadn’t known her for very long, yet her conversations were constantly filled with wonder, fine accomplishments of simple tasks, descriptions of her growing crops, and usually concluding with a report of riding around her farm on her horse as a sunset approached. Every conversation was somehow positive.
And here we are on our own farm facing a freeze warning. When we go to bed tonight I’m sure we’ll both think of the chicks spending their first night in the “wilds” of the goat barn, huddled beneath lamps inside a large dog kennel covered with old sleeping bags to hopefully retain the heat. Yes, there is that. I’m also guessing we’ll both have smiles, too, as we recapture those precious moments in the garden with Rebecca’s jewels … those beautiful little yellow warblers!

A Welcoming Home

From the corner of the eye I caught the flash of pure bright brown. Off to the right, across from the garden. It came while awaiting for the bucket of smelly fish fertilizer to fill with water; a mixture we were sloshing into the holes we dug for the new trees and shrubs we were planting in the grove and in strategic spots of our prairie. Yes, said Rebecca, she had seen it, too. Brown Thrashers.

We had a pair in the very southwest corner of the grove last summer. We had concerns that with our cleaning of all the buckthorn and brush from the grove over the late fall and early winter that we had fiddled too much with their habitat. So seeing the vivid brown and those long tails, and for her, hearing their song, was wonderful. Over a thousand variations of the song, according to our field guide.

Now, we await the Orioles. Friends have made reports of arrivals further down the river valley, and someone said just this morning that a pair had arrived at her home along the lake. Maybe we’re next.

Living in the flyway has many rewards, and not just in waving at those traveling through. We also rejoice in those who are returning home. Like the Brown Thrashers and colorful Orioles.

A duck in flight in the wetland.

A duck in flight in the wetland.

A huge exciting moment for us came early Saturday morning while we stood in the kitchen sharing a quiet time over coffee and tea. Up in one of the woodpecker trees was a huge dun-colored blob, which sent me running for the binoculars. Meanwhile a second, more colorful mate appeared. Wood Ducks! Oh, what a close and wonderful view through the binoculars! With close proximity to two wetlands, one of our initial hopes was that we would have Wood Ducks in our grove. As we watched, the pair made a very determined and thorough investigation of trees offering possibilities, and yes, we have several.

First one would hop from one canopy to next, soon followed by the mate. As they would stand in the tree we marveled at their dexterity, of how well they stood with webbed feet. Then they would check out another. This continued for about a half hour. Maybe longer. Rebecca and I were anxious and curious. In my limited real estate searches, I doubt if I’ve ever scoured a potential neighborhood more passionately. Our weekend guests soon joined us at our big, kitchen sink window to watch the pair, although I doubt they shared our excitement.

Then, as suddenly as the ducks arrived, they departed. In our search of the grove since it looks as though we won’t be sharing our neighborhood that we now share with Yellow and Golden Winged Warblers, Red Bellied Woodpeckers and any number of other song birds. Apparently we lack enough oak trees and their favored diet of acorns. Fortunately bur oaks were among the trees we planted.

A flushed Red-Winged Blackbird in the Clinton Prairie.

A flushed Red-Winged Blackbird in the Clinton Prairie.

Up in the wetlands we flushed a murder of Yellow Headed Blackbirds that burst from the cattails almost as a feathered bouquet of glorious yellow. Around them the Red-winged males were staunch in defense of their individual territories. Nesting will be happening soon. Same with the paired Canada Geese, who have staked their select corners of wetlands and cozy river bends, and are surely tending nests by now.

Look closely and you can see the owlet.

Look closely and you can see the owlet.

In the river valley we’ve noted heads bobbing in the nests of Bald Eagles, and was fortunate to have been guided to the nest of a Great Horned Owl. If one looks very closely at my photograph, you can see the well camouflaged owlet nestled inside the nest.

Our sky still has flocks of ducks flying between the wetlands, but the huge vees of geese have moved on up the flyway. Those vees have been replaced by the ballet beauty of flocks of White Pelicans. We often share our first glass of evening wine on our small deck hopeful of witnessing those magical moments of flight when the pelicans become nearly invisible before turning as a group in a contrasting flash of white against a deep blue sky.

In the nearby prairies we hear the “barks” of Pheasants, and Wild Turkeys are strutting in display. Trying to capture a display has been almost cartoonish. On two different early mornings I passed strutting turkeys in full display just down the road, and both times I was without a camera. On Earth Day morning, though, when a fog hovered over the wetlands and in the river valley, I was finally able to capture an image of two toms just over a ridge as they tried to woo nearby hens.

Two toms in a strut-off on a nearby rise.

Two toms in a strut-off on a nearby rise.

All of which signals that, yes, spring has finally arrived. Even our acrobatic Barn Swallows have returned, which are more of a joy in flight than in how they leave the inside of our barn! We all have faults, which are mostly disregarded when you’re welcoming home members of nature’s family.