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Little Things on a Walk

I set out on a walk to check milkweeds for monarch butterflies.  Sadly, I found no evidence of monarchs on that walk, but there were many small and interesting things to see.  Milkweed is home to more than just monarchs.

The back side of the dam for our farm pond is filled with milkweed.  There is not much evidence of the leaves being eaten, so there are not too many caterpillars munching milkweed.  I did see a Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillar. I have spotted several monarch butterflies here at the farm this year.  A much better tally than just a few years ago when  I saw none.  Yesterday I watched a monarch flitting around the milkweed so will hunt today for any eggs that may have been laid.

Our farm is overrun by little orange snails.  These first showed up here about ten years ago.  They were brought into the pond by wild ducks and other waterfowl, I assume.  Since then they have spread and become a veritable pestilence.  There were many snails eating milkweed.

I interrupted a wasp couple in the middle of insect lovemaking.  So I guess this photo is x rated?  The wasps demonstrate sexual dimorphism, a difference in size based on gender.  The miniature male is carried around by the female as he does his fertilizing job.

A tiny tree frog, half the length of my thumb, hid in the leaves of a milkweed.  These tree frogs are abundant this year.  Perhaps that is due to the large amount of rain we have received.  Several times I’ve seen baby tree frogs clinging to the outside of our house windows in the evening.  They stare in at us as we stare at them.

There was a most unusual black and white ladybug-type beetle on the milkweed.  I have tried to identify this beetle.  There are so many varieties of ladybugs that I haven’t found this particular one.  I think it is rather striking.

Also found several Reticulated Netwinged beetles.  They look almost like butterflies, but their antennas give away their identity.  These beetles are unusual in that their larvae will band together in huge masses.  The adults are able to excrete defensive chemicals that discourage predators.

Wild honeybee on thistle bloom

Milkweed, golden rod and thistle grow well together, maybe because they are about the same height.  The golden rod were in full bloom and attracting an army of insects.  I saw wild honeybees, bumble bees, wasps and tiny beetles feeding on the golden nectar.  In some places the wild bee population is threatened by whatever is killing the domestic honeybees.  It appears there are no problems with the wild bees here at the farm.  Perhaps having an organic operation is the secret to healthy bees (and other insects!)

Baby Eggs

Here are some of the first eggs laid by my silver splash Ameraucana pullets from the Jan hatch.  The baby eggs are always the best color.  Some of the eggs look big, but this is just a trick of the camera.  They are all small to medium grade sized eggs.

I knew the young hens were ready to lay and have been trying to keep them in the pen during the morning to encourage laying in the nest boxes.  So far they have deposited 4 or 5 on the floor.  For the past few days I’ve been placing hens in nest boxes to show them where to lay.  One hen in particular has found a way to escape the pen.  She is always hanging around waiting to be let back in when I go out to do morning chores.  Today I started to get suspicious about her early morning activities.

Sure enough, after a long search through the hedges and bushes, I found her stolen nest.  There were about two dozen baby eggs deposited there.  I suspect she and her sisters have been using the nest.  So today I will put a new net over the chicken pen to stop the birds from flying out and hiding their eggs.  The pullet in the front of the photo below is the main culprit.  Such naughty little birds!  

 

Solstice Babies

The last brood of chicks for the year hatched yesterday, on the Solstice.  Twenty out of twenty-one developed eggs hatched, a 95% hatch rate. I’m very pleased.  These babies are so cute, active and inquisitive, nice little Silver Ameraucanas.

It’s great to have the hatching done for the year.  No more worry about the power failing, the equipment malfunctioning or needing to add water every day for humidity.  Now I just have to get these little ones through their first week and out in the barn.  Chicks in the house is fun for the first couple days then the smell and dust and cleaning get old quickly.

It is entertaining to watch their antics as the chicks explore and learn.  They are very unsteady on their legs the first couple days, tripping, tumbling, rolling about and staggering off out of control in odd directions.  Quickly, they discover how to control their bodies.  By the end of the first week the birds are getting tiny wing feathers and taking very short flights in the box.  That signals time for the brood to move to a larger cage in the barn.  They can practice flying where there is plenty of room to move.

Before long these twenty will join their older siblings free-ranging around the barnyard.  The second and third hatches total thirty-nine chicks.  The babies of differing ages have blended together all by themselves into a flock.  The older ones seem to delight in leading the younger chicks to all the fascinating corners they have found in the yard.  I’m certain that within three weeks this third hatch will swell the flock’s numbers into an impressive gang of chicks.

Mystery Peas

Finished planting the garden late last week, just before two days of heavy rain.  I’ve put carrots, wax beans, indian corn, beets, field and mini pumpkins, head lettuce, basil, sunflowers, zinnias, bachelor buttons and tomatoes in the ground.  Also, an interesting experiment I’m calling mystery peas.  These are some of a five pound bag of organic whole green peas I bought last winter for sprouting.  Actually, I just soak the peas to rehydrate and eat them raw on salads.  I love the taste of raw peas and in the winter it’s hard to find them.  Soaked dried peas taste almost the same as fresh ones.

On a whim, in the middle of May I grabbed a couple handfuls and with the help of my 5-yr-old granddaughter Lia, planted the peas in a row.  I have no idea what variety they are.  Could be something that isn’t even designed for our short northern growing season.  We will find out.  They are all sprouted and starting to grow.  Usually it is good to plant peas in late April to early May since they like cooler weather, but mid-May is good enough, especially in Maine.  Two nights ago the temps got down to 40.  Brr.  The last few days have been cool, cloudy and damp.

Whole dried peas are usually made into soup, pease porridge or mushy peas, or sprouted.  I tried sprouting peas during the winter.  Pea spouts are great on salad and sandwiches.  They are expensive to buy, so I thought I’d do my own.

I learned that for me, sprouting peas is not worth the effort.  The seeds are sprouted either without soil, which involves keeping them damp in a plastic container and shaking them twice a day, or they are placed in soil and allowed to grow until a good cutting height is reached.  I tried the no soil method.  I ended up with spouts that tasted like roots since they all still had roots.  Pea roots have an earthy flavor, even if they’ve never touched soil.  Not the taste for me.  I’m using up the rest of the 5 pound bag by soaking them overnight in the fridge and eating raw.  Maybe I’ll make some mushy peas, those are good.

While I was checking the progress of the peas, I also discovered the lettuce has just sprouted.  Tiny baby leaves are popping out all over!  And I spotted a couple volunteer cucurbits, no idea what they are.  The sprouts are in the area where field pumpkins grew last year, so I’m hoping that’s what they are.  If the volunteers are some sort of gourd, they could ruin the pumpkins by cross-breeding.  Since I’m adventurous, I’ll leave those sprouts to see how they develop.

There are also volunteer sunflowers where sunflowers grew last year.  With great care, I rototilled around them this spring and now have three well-started plants.  Their parents were yellow-flowered so I imagine they will be as well.

This year I planted six Early Girl tomatoes.  Before long they will grow into a tomato jungle and take over their area of the garden.  They will need to share some room with the mini-pumpkins and the lettuce in the lower corner.  I grew corn in this area the last couple years.  It’s time to move the corn to a new spot to prevent smut from developing.  Smut is a fungus that infects corn, turning the ears into corn-shaped mushrooms.  The best way to avoid smut is to rotate the crop to fresh ground each year.  I also discovered that planting beets where they will be shaded from the hot afternoon sun by the corn greatly improves the quality of the beets.  The leaves stay tender longer for use as beet greens and the beets don’t become woody.

Now all we need is ample rain and some warm, sunny days.  I know that’s asking for a lot.  Hope springs eternal in the gardener’s heart.

Hiking to the Bowl at Acadia National Park

The Bowl from the top of Enoch Mountain

Spring is right around the corner, (and through 2 feet of snow here in Maine) bringing with it dreams of hiking the many beautiful trails of Acadia.  A special little gem well worth the walk is The Bowl, a small pond near The Beehive on the east side of the Park.  The Beehive is a round, rocky little mountain that can be viewed to the north from Sand Beach.

Memorizing the trail to The Bowl (it’s a straight line)

The trailhead for The Beehive and The Bowl starts almost across the road from the entrance to Sand Beach.  On any hot day, one lane of the one-way road will be choked with overflow parking for the beach.  On a quiet day, you can park in the beach lot and walk up to the trailhead.  The entire hike is about one-and-a-half miles, maybe two.  Unfortunately, at the beginning it is rather rough and steep going.  The woods is filled with piles of granite boulders that tumbled off The Beehive.  The trail leads over and through the boulder field.  After a way the trek becomes less challenging, more like a quiet walk in the woods.  It is all uphill, but not at too difficult an incline.

Rough beginning to the Beehive/Bowl trail

A few hundred feet along the path, there is an intersection, take the left trail to The Bowl.  The thick woods filled with shadows, quiet rustling in the undergrowth, birdsong and the whispering of leaves in the sea breeze is a welcome cool spot on a summer day.  Just about the time you wonder how long a half-mile can be, you come out at the prettiest little pond.  On the northeast it is steeply flanked by the low Enoch Mountain.

Enoch Mountain seen across The Bowl

The water is pure, cool, clean and transparent.  The bottom of the pond is lined with sand, large rocks and some mucky mud.  Little fish dart in the shallows.  Out in the center, rippling rings spread from spots where larger fish have broken the surface to nab a fly for lunch.  The trail passes along the southern and eastern side of the pond then up Enoch Mountain.  From the top, the view is spectacular.  What else could it be at Acadia?

After returning to the pond, it is all right to slip off your shoes and dip your hot feet in the water.  The Bowl is not a public water supply protected from contact with humans.  The adventurous hiker might prefer to swing back from The Bowl along the Beehive trail, across the back ridge of the mountain, then down the steep face to return to the trailhead.  I prefer retracing the path I followed in.  It’s all downhill to the road.  My knees are not as fond of mountains as they were in their youth.

Neanderthal Among Us

I’m a little bit Neanderthal

For Christmas my brother gave me a genetic test kit.  You send in a sample to a company and they determine your genetic heritage and health profile.  I carefully followed the directions and dutifully filled the sample tube with saliva.  It took me nearly five minutes to produce enough spit.  That was the most disagreeable part of the test.

Several weeks later the results were posted to my personal site online.  Most of the information was similar to my brother’s and, of course, 50% similar to my mother’s, both family members having completed earlier tests.

There were a couple surprises.  One is that there is no Native American DNA showing up on my father’s side.  The family lore holds that my dad was 1/64th Abanaki.  No such relationship was evident.  On the contrary, the only possible Native American blood came from my mother’s side, and it was merely a trace.  Most likely this DNA came into the family while my mother’s ancestors lived in the Ukraine during the middle of the 1800s.  Someone might have mated with a Russian of Siberian heritage.  My mother’s family is almost exclusively of German ancestry that moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, then onto the plains of America at the turn of the last century.  They were all farmers.

The most surprising revelation to me was the relatively high level of Neanderthal variation in my DNA.  The Neanderthals are often called a species of human that came out of Africa, moved into Europe and went extinct with the advance of modern humans.  Turns out that picture is not as clear as once supposed.  Neanderthal DNA seems to be turning up regularly in individuals of European descent.  My own DNA has 299 variants, greater than 81% of people who have been tested by this company.

Neanderthals can not have been a separate species from human or they would not have been able to interbreed and produce viable offspring.  Neanderthals were actual humans.  Research into their caves and burial sites is showing that these people were not the brutish, stupid cavemen once imagined.  They had sophisticated societies with weaponry and knowledge of animals and plants including medicinal plants.  They cared for their old and infirm.  When an individual died, the others provided a decent burial.  There is also evidence of cannibalism, so I guess not everyone was treated the same.  Perhaps they ate their enemies or their particularly venerated elders?

So DNA testing has shown that Neanderthals did not go extinct, they became us.  Many of us would not exist without their genes.  Somewhere in the dark and misty past, Neanderthals combined with what is considered modern humans to produce us; ultra-modern humans, I suppose.  Or perhaps we are merely glorified cavemen coping in the modern world we have constructed?

Brrr…Blizzard

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Up until now we’ve been lucky here in central Maine to have avoided excessive snowfalls this winter.  Several large storms have hit us, but the precipitation turned to pouring rain.  The nor’easter that started smacking us last night is all snow, pouring snow.  We have blizzard conditions with heavy snow and wind reducing visibility sometimes to only a few feet.

The storm, named Winter Storm Orson by some person at the Weather Channel, started yesterday afternoon and has so far dumped about 18″ of light, fluffy white stuff on us.  Since the system seems stalled in the Gulf of Maine, it continues to coat us at a rate of several inches per hour.  I spent an hour-and-a-half this morning out in the teeth of the storm moving snow out of the driveway with the farm tractor.  Not a fun time.  It’s easier when the tractor can be faced out of the wind, at least.  Otherwise so much snow hits the face that it is blinding and hard to breathe.  I managed to clear a passage through the depths so we can get out in an emergency.

a2Clearing the vehicles will take a few minutes.  They are rapidly disappearing.  Our Subaru Impreza is barely visible in the drifts.  The back door to the house was buried about half-way up and could not be opened.  Luckily we could get the front door open to get around back and shovel.  The snow is above knee-level on me.  I have to wade to get around.

We know for sure this is a big storm because the Post Office and UPS have suspended operations for the day in this area.  If the mail can’t get through, no one can make it.  The road is deserted.  I’m happy people are using their heads and staying home.  The snow piles are so deep on the sides of the road that our mailbox has disappeared.  We are expecting another five solid hours of heavy snow.  Guess I’ll be on the tractor in the driveway again before the day is through.