Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.



This guy first showed up here at the farm in early September, a cock ring-necked pheasant.  These birds of Asiatic origin are a common introduced species that lives in the wild throughout most of the US.  They are fairly hardy, surviving on the Great Plains and as far into New England as southern Maine.  But, they have never established a presence here in central Maine due to the deep snow and cold.  When a pheasant is seen running loose in this area it is generally due to escape from a breeder or intentional release for hunting purposes.

Mr. Pheasant is a sociable yet wary bird.  He comes out on the lawn when all is quiet.  If a human is spotted, the bird quickly takes cover.  A few days ago on an overcast afternoon he was right outside the house in the yard, not twenty feet from the door.  I snapped a few photos of him.  The bird could see me moving in the window which is why he is watching me in the pictures.  Quickly he determined I was no threat and went back to scrounging in the leaves for whatever a pheasant finds tasty.

If the weather has become warm enough due to climate change from global warming, perhaps this pheasant is part of a scouting party from down south, come to check out the possibilities.  I heard through the grapevine that there are a couple more cock pheasants running free about two miles away.  It seems more likely the birds were released or are escapees.  If they are able to survive the winter in the wild, a pheasant community may develop here.  The birds are great reproducers.  Since they are not native, they will put pressure on the wild turkey and partridge populations for the limited resources.

I suspect Mr. Pheasant will not make it through the winter.  He is showing an interest in my free-range chickens and may be attempting to insinuate himself into the flock, not realizing that involves being around me.  I have considered trapping him and may still try that.  I would like to see him safe for the winter and not the victim of cold and coyotes.

Painted Lady Butterfly

It seems to be a good year at the farm for butterflies.  Little yellow Sulphurs are everywhere.  I have seen several Monarchs.  The past few years, Monarchs were becoming rare sightings.  Perhaps the nationwide attention and emphasis by private individuals on planting milkweed has helped this species.  Another butterfly that sometimes feeds on milkweed is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui.)  This insect has orange wings with black and white markings.  There are four eye spots on the outsides of the bottom wings.

We have a good supply of Painted Ladies this year.  Here at the farm the caterpillars feed on thistle, mallow, milkweed and aster, among other plants.  They are not such specialized feeders as the Monarch, perhaps helping their numbers to stay more plentiful.  The Painted Lady larva need to finish munching on the fall asters soon, turn into butterflies and head south.  The very mild weather we have been experiencing the past week, with near-record warmth, will not continue.  The butterflies migrate all the way to Mexico to over-winter.  They need to get started before the frosts come to Maine.

Already our tree leaves are turning color and beginning to drop.  There has been no frost yet, but the decreasing light has triggered the trees’ autumn show.  As long as the heat continues, the zinnas will bloom in abundance in my vegetable garden.  When frosts hits, they die immediately.  Painted Lady butterflies seem particularly fond of zinna nectar.  I often find several of these insects on the flowers at one time.

Sunday the temperatures soared to near 90F, yesterday we hit 86F at the farm and today promises more of the same.  This is idyllic weather for the two week period that comprises the life span of the adult Painted Lady butterfly.  As they begin their trip south, the insects will continue to feed, mate, lay eggs and die.  The progeny will progress toward warm Mexican winter homes, sustaining the Painted Lady population for another year.

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!)

Phoebe Family

The phoebes are busy with their little family, on top of the floodlight beside our back door.  It is cute and sweet and endearing to have them as tenants, but I sure wish they’d leave already!  So happy to see the young ones nearly fledged.  The Eastern Phoebe is a friendly bird that likes to nest near people.  They build under eaves to protect the nest from rain since the female uses a great quantity of mud for construction.  Nesting close to humans must help protect the young from attack by more shy animals.

Unfortunately, having birds so close to the house makes the cats crazy.  For a good part of the spring, the door must be kept closed or the cats climb the screen trying to catch the birds.  And the birds yell at the cats incessantly.  Keeping the door closed all the time is an inconvenience.  I’d love to open it and let the spring breezes flow through the house.  Since the birds are quite territorial, it is also aggravating to hang up laundry.  The clothes lines are apparently way too close for the birds’ comfort (maybe 15-20 feet away.)  They scold and squawk every time we put out the wash.  Hey, birds, you picked the spot, quit your fussing!

One fall I took down the nest, hoping that would dissuade the birds from returning.  No good.  The female busily built again in the spring.  This year, she tried to nest beside the front door.  Luckily, I caught her early before she did much building and blocked the area.  So she went up back and reused her old nest.

These little flycatchers are nice to have around since they prey on wasps, mosquitoes and black flies.  It’s fun to see the babies up close and to listen to the adults say their name as they call.  You can always spot the phoebe by the way its tail bobs as it perches.  Plus, at our house, it’s the bird yelling at you and swooping close.  The adult sexes appear very similar, although the male is slightly larger and darker than the female.  I believe the male is in the photo on the left.

Only the female builds the nest and she is quite a little architect.  She piles on clay mud and lines the nest with soft moss and fluff the dogs shed.  Both parents struggle to catch enough bugs to feed everyone.  While the babies grow, the parents spend the entire day catching insects and bringing them to the nest.  The bad news about phoebes is they like to have two broods per year.  So the tantalizing of cats and annoying of humans will likely continue here for at least another month.

One Lucky Duck

This morning while I was doing chores I heard a loud, insistent peeping cry coming from the area of an apple orchard about 150 ft from the barn.  Just two days ago I put the newest chick hatch in the barn and the babies are now 10 days old.  Fearing one had somehow gotten out and been chased, as any mother would, I went searching for the baby.  Closing in on the peeping brought me to an area of grass up to 3 ft high, part of the hayfield.  As I got near, the calling stopped.

I stood for a bit and heard the cries again, coming from the grass.  So I searched all through the tall grass making mother hen noises, but the baby didn’t respond.  I stopped and waited.  Tiny muted peeps sounded very near.  Finally I found the source, hidden in the grass.  A baby duck!

What in the world is a tiny duckling doing so far from any water?  There was no mother duck in sight or earshot.  The baby appeared perfectly healthy with no sign of injury.  It was a strong, active bird, taking every opportunity to try and slip from my hand.  This duckling was too young to survive on its own.  It didn’t even have any feathers, only down.

Before calling the wildlife rehabilitators, I decided to investigate on my own.  The nearest water was our farm pond, about 300 ft away.  I had seen ducks there during the spring, but had never seen a hen with a brood in our pond at any time.  This seemed unlikely since the pond is only 1/6 acre, not very large.  

Cradling the duckling, I hiked to the pond.  All appeared quiet.  The only birds in evidence were a pair of very angry red-winged blackbirds loudly scolding.  I was undoubtedly getting far too close to their nest hidden among the cattails.  Suddenly there was movement in the flotsam on the far side of the pond.  Then a hen mallard duck and her brood emerged from the weeds.  What do you know?!  A family of ducks was calling our pond home!

Careful to move slowly and not frighten the ducks, I carried the baby to a spot close to its mother and released it.  The duckling practically flew across the surface of the water, it swam so fast, peeping all the while for mama.  And mother duck called back with a low quacking.  Soon the family was reunited.  That baby was one lucky duck!

The best explanation I can find for having a duckling so far from its mother was that a predator, likely a bird such as a hawk or raven, picked the baby up off the pond.  Using the same survival skills it demonstrated while I was restraining it, the baby may have played dead causing the predator to relax its grip.  The little duck could then twist and slip from the predator’s talons to drop into the tall grass.  Far from mom and the pond.

The duckling is one of many wild birds that I have saved from imminent death over the years.  It has been my privilege to also rescue an owl, a bald eagle, a hummingbird and several song birds. I’m delighted to have wild ducks live at our pond.  What fun it will be to watch them grow and to share the sight with my granddaughters!  I was thinking of taking my kayak out in the pond for a paddle, but I guess that will have to wait.

Requiem for a Rooster


The last few days have been an adventure for the chickens and me.  On Dec 30, I went into the chicken barn to find two dead fowl.  One was a lovely black hen and the other was my best silver splash rooster.  It was easy to see what happened from the tiny neck wounds.  We had a weasel.  Outside in the fresh snow around the barn (we had received about 16″ overnight,) were the tracks of the tiny predator.  It hopped across the top of the deep snow right in the barn door and then squeezed through the chicken wire into the pen.  The weasel must have grabbed the hen and the rooster went to defend her.  This is the first time a weasel has ever bothered my birds.

Weasels are tenacious little killers.  They latch onto the throat with a massive grip that is not dislodged by the frantic thrashing of the victim.  The strangle hold subdues even a large, strong bird like a goose in a couple minutes or less.  Often a weasel will kill more than one animal, almost as though it were sport.  Because the prey was too large to pull back through the wire, my beautiful chickens were left dead on the floor.  So sad for me.

I only had thirteen hens, my breeders overwintering to produce spring chicks, and two roosters.  The lost rooster was gorgeous.  I found the two pictures of him that I’ve posted.  One was taken when he was a very young bird and the other when he matured.  In both photos he is in the back so it is hard to see just how attractive a rooster he was.a2

Unlike a regular silver color rooster, this one was splashed with lots of white.  He had luxuriant muffs and beard, the feathering around his head.  He was also the dominant rooster, yet a gentle soul peacefully coexisting with the other males.  The ladies all loved him.  And so did I.  Now I have to find a way to dispose of his body in two feet of snow and with the ground frozen.  So aggravating.  And devastating since I planned to use him as my main breeding rooster.

I removed the bodies of the chickens I’d raised from eggs and placed them on the floor outside the pen.  If something wasn’t done to stop the slaughter, I could lose all my flock to the villain.  I started worrying about how to protect the birds.  A couple hours later alarm calls began sounding from the barn.  Hurrying down the snowy path, I crept into the barn and there was the weasel.  It had returned to feed on my dead chickens.  When it saw me, the weasel scattered.  In a cloud of rage, I dug out my only trap, an ancient leg hold variety left over from my brother’s trapping days 40 years ago.  It was designed to hold foxes.  I hoped the powerful jaws would get a chance to dispatch the little chicken murderer with a quick snap to the neck.  I set the trap and laid it between the bodies on the floor.

That night the chickens went voluntarily to their safest roost, an enclosed space I use for segregating birds.  Securing the door with layers of fine mesh chicken wire, I closed my diminished flock in the small space.  A dedicated weasel could dig under the wall and get in with some effort.  I hoped the fresh kill would keep the weasel busy.  The next morning the chickens all wanted out of the confining pen.  The dead birds and trap had not been disturbed.

This continued for two more nights.  The chickens instinctively went where they felt safe at night.  The trap was undisturbed.  Then yesterday morning when I went in the barn door:  victory!  There was a small, white creature with beady black eyes staring back at me.  It tried to run, but couldn’t.  The trap held it by the right front leg, high up at the top of the humerus.  As I approached, the chicken murderer became frantic, struggling to escape.  I grabbed a sturdy club for the final coup.  The weasel froze and watched me.  I got a good look at those big ferret eyes, the tiny little white ears so cute and rounded, the pleading expression, almost as though the animal knew what came next.  I couldn’t do it.  I was too weak to crush the skull of the little white murderer.

So I got a cat carrier and made a loop out of baling twine.  I worked the loop over the weasel’s head to act as a leash.  Weasels are vicious.  Teeth are their weapon and they brandish them, waiting for the right moment to sink them in deep.  I gave the weasel a stick to chew on so I could step on the trap to open the jaws.  It latched onto the stick, but let go in favor of my boot.  After several minutes struggle I pulled my boot out of the weasel grip.  I was left with puncture marks in my nice LL Bean Bob chore packs.  Such power compressed in a small package was amazing.  No wonder birds haven’t got a chance.

Finally, I maneuvered the tiny wild ferret out of the trap and into the cat carrier.  The skin where the trap held the animal was badly abraded, but not an open wound.  The weasel put no weight on the leg and I feared it was broken.  Such a large trap was designed for thicker bones.  I had hoped the critter would have been quickly killed by the trap instead of maimed.

I gazed into the carrier and the weasel looked back.  It was fairly terrified.  It pushed under the newspaper lining and watched me with huge dark eyes.  It also emitted the odor of weasel, not such a fine cocktail of musky scent very reminiscent of its ferret kin.  I decided to bring the weasel in from the cold, give it food and water and see if it started to use the leg.  After a few days, it might actually recover and I could release it far away.  The weasel was settled comfortably in the bathroom and it went to sleep.

Quickly I realized it was illegal to hold onto wildlife.  I called the game warden.  He said he would contact a local wildlife rehabilitator to see if they wanted to take the creature.  Turns out they did want to try and help the weasel.  So I drove 45 minutes to South China to the Wildlife Rescue people.  They assured me this was not the first weasel they’d wrangled.  One of the specialists put on gloves and proceeded to try and extract the weasel from the carrier.  The chicken murderer was not going to come easily, launching itself repeatedly at the man’s hand as he tried to subdue the animal.  Little weasel managed to find a hole in one glove and bit the rehabber’s thumb.  Luckily, wildlife specialists get their rabies vaccinations so he was not in mortal danger.

He got a good grip on the weasel, removed it from the carrier and restrained it to look at the wound.  The skin was not broken.  The upper leg was swollen.  It was impossible to tell if the bone was broken.  I smoothed anti-bacterial salve on the trap burn and the weasel went in a new cage with an old blanket to tunnel in for comfort.  The rehabber said they’d give the weasel a few days to see if it resumed use of the limb.  Because the sturdy little animals are so muscular, lithe and athletic, it is possible this weasel could survive just fine in the wild with only three legs.

I left a donation to help purchase weasel food (frozen mice) and was glad to leave the creature in skilled, if bitten, hands.  Maybe I’ll call later to see how Mr. Weasel is doing.  In the meantime, I salvaged 42 eggs from the refrigerator and set them in the incubator.  It is very early in the year to hatch chicks, but my only hope for preserving the genes of my best rooster.  Hens carry sperm in them for up to 10 days after being fertilized so the eggs I collected after the rooster’s death could still hold his DNA.  My fingers are crossed.  If any babies do hatch, there will be the new problem of how to deal with chicks in the house in the middle of winter.  That is for a later blog.