A Couple of Caterpillars

This has been a good year for butterflies and moths in Maine.  I’ve seen over two dozen monarch butterflies or caterpillars so far.  Much better than a few years ago when there was a dismal year with no sightings!

The other day I found three monarch caterpillars on one well-eaten milkweed plant.  I moved two to a different area that wasn’t being fed on at all.  The little guy above is one of the relocated insects.  It is amazing how fast caterpillars grow!  This one has doubled its size in three days!  I hope to catch one in the chrysalis stage.  I think monarchs have such beautiful chrysalises with the gold colored detailing.

As I was searching for monarchs, I happened upon this beautiful caterpillar.  It is the brown hooded owlet moth.  With such a gorgeous immature stage, one would expect the adult to be stunning.  However, the adult is a fairly drab brown moth with a hump over its head, hence the “hooded” part of the name.  Looks like the species puts all the effort into the caterpillar.

This species is also frequently preyed upon by parasitic flies that lay eggs on the caterpillars.  The developing fly larvae consume the caterpillar.  I hope this caterpillar escapes that fate!  It was happily chomping a golden rod, good job little bug!  We have way too much goldenrod on the farm.


Foster Cat Moon and Kittens

This pretty kitty is Moon, she is a feral cat I am fostering for the Humane Society shelter.  Moon is a very young animal and this is likely her first litter.  She has two adorable babies just 2 weeks old. Because I work socializing the feral and barn cats at the shelter, I met Moon right after she gave birth.  She was living in a small cage to separate her from the other cats.

Moon was certainly hard to approach and having kittens made her even more defensive.  I worked with her for awhile, scratching and stroking her with the long wood dowel I use to touch feral cats.  She stopped her growling and hissing and actually started to rub back and purr.  Under her prickly exterior I could tell there was a gentle, loving cat.

The shelter is pretty much filled to capacity with cats.  Mother cats with litters are usually fostered out to volunteer homes where the babies are raised in a friendly environment.  Poor Moon was too wild to go to a foster home.  The shelter can’t let people take feral cats due to the risk of injury.  Luckily, I am an expert at handling feral cats.  With over 2.5 years of volunteer work at the shelter socializing barn cats, the personnel realized I was up for the job.  I volunteered to give Moon a comfortable room at my house for the duration of raising her babies.

She came home with me today.  At first she was very shy and hid behind the toilet in our upstairs bathroom where she will be living.  Finally I coaxed her into the box with her kittens.  The box is about the size of her cage at the shelter.  I think Moon will be pleased to have so much more room to stretch out.  I plan to socialize her and her kittens so they have chances to find good, indoor homes.  They will be staying with us until the babies are 8 weeks old and ready to leave their mom.  Then Moon will be spayed and made ready for adoption.

I’ve already begun handling the kittens.  Their eyes are just barely open.  They have had minimal human contact.  While mom was distracted I held and patted each of them.  One is black with a bit of white and the other is a yellow tiger.  They both initially hissed and spit at me.  So funny to see such brave ferocity coming from tiny balls of fluff!  By the time the first socializing lesson was finished, both kittens were relaxed, cuddled in my hands asleep.

I love cats and especially adore kittens.  I cherish the opportunity to make a difference for these sweet animals.

Passing of a Rabbit

My beautiful angora buck Marble passed away quietly this morning.  He was eight years old, a venerable age for a rabbit.  I will miss his silly brand of bunny humor, his friendly ways and his thick, lustrous coat of fiber.  I held him in my hand the day he was born, a tiny, warm, pink bundle.

He had been slowing down for the past few weeks and I suspected the end was nearing.  Over a year ago I felt some tumorous nodules on him and it is likely cancer got him in the end, as it does many rabbits.  Nature designed rabbits as prey animals who survive in the wild for just one to three years.  They were not intended to last long enough for cancer to grow.  As they age they are prone to tumors.

Marble spent yesterday outside enjoying a fine May day, eating grass and dozing in the sun.  That is the sort of day he deserved.  He was a wonderful rabbit and an excellent buck, producing several superb litters of fawns.  His last litter is just a month old now, the nicest little bunnies anyone could want.  I plan to keep several of his babies.  His legacy will live on.

Bridge Grafting Rodent Damage Part II

A couple weeks ago I blogged about the extensive damage done to our trees this past winter by an overpopulation of rodents.  A couple dozen apple trees and several ornamentals were chewed extensively.  Some were girdled.  To save the girdled trees, an emergency repair of grafting is attempted.  If the graft takes, the tree will be able to send nutrients back into the roots so the plant can survive.  Without help, trees that have had all the bark removed around the trunk almost always die.

In a normal winter, there is some rodent damage, especially to young trees.  That’s why I protect young trunks with tree guards.  By the time fruit trees reach forty-plus years old, rodents do not usually cause severe destruction as they gnaw on the inner bark to survive.  A little gnawing can be healed.  This last winter there were so many rodents, especially voles, present in the fields and orchards that they were forced to forage in unusual places to find enough food to survive.  Here is a somewhat grisly photo of a vole the cats killed.  The silly thing wandered into the cats’ outdoor cage.  These vermin are the main culprits in tree destruction.  They have rectangular shaped bodies with short legs, lots of teeth and stubby tails.  Voles can grow up to six inches long or more, not including the tail.

To perform the life-savings grafts, it is important to harvest a bunch of one-year-old scion growth from the same species and preferably the same tree as the one being grafted.  The scions are collected in early spring while they are still dormant.  They are closely wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge until grafting time.  When the trees begin to bud and sap is flowing, the bark loosens and can easily be slipped free of the trunk.  Budding time is when grafting is done.

When I collected the scions I also applied wound spray to the poor girdled trees to help preserve moisture, which is why the gnawed area is black.  Using a stout blade, I cut two parallel incisions into the bark above and below the injury.  The blade is used to gently work the bark away from the trunk, exposing fresh wood.  A flap of bark is left to protect the grafting sites.  A scion is selected and trimmed to the proper length.  Both ends are shaped to slightly sharpen and form a smooth surface of fresh wood.

The graft is inserted into the bark flaps of the tree, assuring the freshly cut surfaces press against one another and the tip points upward. Then I use a staple gun with 1/2″ staples to secure the graft to the tree and hold the bark flaps in place.  Over time the staples will rust and dissolve, leaving the graft to grow unimpeded.

I give the grafted scion a test tug to be sure it is held tightly.  The scion is placed with a slight outward bend so it can move with the swaying of the tree trunk as the wind blows.  This will help the graft to stay in place.  Then I thoroughly coat the entire repair including the scion with wound spray to seal out insects and disease and seal in moisture.  Any good tree wound spray will work for this procedure, I am not endorsing a particular brand.  I used up five cans of spray this spring.

These major injuries that remove the tree’s link between the roots and leaves require many grafts placed around the trunk to repair.  They can be placed every 2″-3″.  With so much work to do, the most grafts I managed to place on a tree were six.  If they take and the trees hold in there, I can add more this fall or next year.

As the grafted scion grows into the tree, it will gradually enlarge.  I’m hoping the tree will also grow bark to help cover the wounds.  Some of the damaged trees may not survive.  The rodents actually dug down to the roots and chewed the bark off the roots.  There is not much I can do to prevent or repair that damage.

A little research reveals that orchardists have success repelling rodents and rabbits by painting the entire part of the trunk and even the lower limbs that are buried in the snow or within easy reach of rabbits in winter.  So far I have not encountered any rabbit problems.  I plan to coat the tree trunks with white latex paint prior to this fall.  Maybe that will slow down the gnawing critters.

New Rabbit Fawns

Moonstone, my angora doe, had babies one week ago on 4/28/18. Six healthy, bouncing little ones make a nest-full.  The dad, Marble, is now 7 years old and still doing his job well.  Three appear to be albino, or pure white and their eyes will be red.  The other three are colored!  The darkest will likely be sable, the brownish one chocolate, but the grayish one is a new color for me.  It will be very interesting to see how the coat matures.

Mom is taking excellent care of her little ones.  They are plump and robust.  The eyes are still sealed shut, although I think their ears are opening.  They seem to be able to hear me when I get close.  They certainly can smell me.

Mama rabbit is doing well.  She is eating and drinking copiously to make the milk her fawns require.  The dandelions and grass have greened just in time to give her plenty of nutrients for rich milk.  I have to keep her well supplied with greens, food and water.

In the next two to four days the baby rabbits will open their eyes.  Then mama will be in trouble!  The fawns will follow her off the nest and try to sneak a milk snack whenever she sits still.  Until they learn to behave, she will be hopping around a lot to get away from them.  Rabbits only allow the babies to nurse once per day.  The milk is so nutritious that once a day is enough to grow a rabbit.  When the eyes open and the fawns begin to move around the cage, they start to nibble on hay, greens and pelleted food to supplement the milk.  Little rabbits grow very fast.Moonstone

Chick Hatch 4/29/18

The first hatch of 2018 completed yesterday, 25 out of 28 Silver and Silver x Black Ameraucana chicks hatched from my Brinsea Ovation Eco 28 incubator.  These little guys are one day old and seem very healthy.  This is a rare moment where everyone is resting in a big, fluffy chick mass.  They are very busy and bright-eyed, already eating and drinking.

The incubator is cleaned and warming up for the second set. I hope to have 28 more eggs started this evening. All the eggs from the first set were fertile and grew to term. Not sure why three didn’t hatch. The babies may have had some trouble getting to the air sac. The eggs didn’t even pip so the babies died during the transition time when they put their beak into the air sac and start breathing. Sad, but part of nature. Still, an 89% hatch and 100% fertility rate are excellent for me.

The hatch rate is such an improvement over the styrofoam Hovabator incubators of the past. I would consider myself lucky to get a 50% hatch rate then.  The Brinsea was certainly worth the price!

Rodent Damage

All indications are that the field vole and mouse population here at the farm was very high last fall.  The past few years must have provided very good breeding conditions for the vermin.  I have never seen such extensive rodent damage.  The little critters were just trying to live through the harsh winter, but their survival attempts resulted in significant losses for us.

During the deep snows, voles and field mice survive by burrowing out small holes for dens and lining them with grass.  Then, when they are hungry the creatures come up to the surface of the ground under the snow and tunnel.  Some tunnels are still evident in the melting snow above.  The rodents eat grass and chew the bark off any edible tree or bush encountered.  This spring’s receding snow reveals an extensive network of tunnels and bark chewed off at least three dozen apple trees in the orchards.  The vermin also entirely devoured my baby pink magnolia and one tiny apricot.

Since I know rodents do this sort of damage, every fall I place plastic tree guards around the trunks of susceptible young trees.  All the trees I guarded are undamaged.  The damage is unexpectedly heavy.  Usually mature trees are barely touched, if at all.  I’ve had a magnolia for years and it was never chewed.  The little apricot was in its second winter.  The year before last no rodents bothered it.  During this winter, two of my young hazelnut trees were also chewed, a first for me.  And, a fifteen year old maple on the lawn was girdled!

Girdling is the big problem.  If the bark is removed completely around the trunk of the tree, the nutrients produced by the leaves can not go back into the roots.  The tree will die after a couple years.  Twelve apples and the maple were girdled.  I don’t want to lose the trees, if possible, so this year I’m learning a new skill called bridge grafting.  This method has the potential to save the trees by grafting a small limb over the wound to carry nutrients to the roots, bridging the gap.

The small branches, called scions, are gathered early in the spring before budding begins.  I have collected a good supply of scions about the thickness of a pencil.  The best scions are one-year shoots and should be the same species as the tree being grafted.  It’s great to collect scions from the actual tree.  The scions are wrapped in plastic to preserve moisture and stored in the refrigerator until the time is right for grafting.

Now I’m just waiting for the proper time to bridge graft.  To protect the trees from dehydrating while we wait, I’ve covered all the gnawed damage with tree wound sealer. Bridge grafting is best done in the spring when the trees are budding.  During budding the trunk is full of moisture and the bark becomes loose.  It can be slipped away from the trunk.  Scions are cut in a specific manner and inserted under the bark.  The wound is covered with pruning sealer.

If everything goes well, by fall the tree will have accepted the graft and grow together with it sufficiently to allow the flow of nutrients essential for survival.  After a few years, the tree will produce new bark to cover the wound and the grafts grow into the tree.  I will blog again with photos of the grafting process once I begin the work.