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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

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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.

Monarch Butterfly Spotted!

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So excited to see a Monarch butterfly today!  I was mowing in the horse pasture and this one stayed around feeding from the golden rod flowers.  It waited five minutes while I climbed off the tractor and went to the house for my camera so I could get a shot.  Soon after I took this photo, the butterfly flew high in the air and left the area.

Growing up on the farm, these butterflies were common.  You could find a cocoon and admire the gold beading around the edges.  Or watch a brightly striped caterpillar devour milkweed leaves. In recent years my sightings have dwindled.  Last year I didn’t spot any Monarchs.  I am hoping this sighting is a sign they are returning to us.  I’ve been cultivating wild milkweed the past few years so the caterpillars will have plenty of food if adults arrive to lay eggs.g3

I’ve also sold milkweed seeds all over the country for a token cost to encourage others to plant milkweed for the insects.  The Butterflies and Moths of North America website keeps a record of insect sightings.  It is encouraging to see so many Monarch views recorded.  I submitted my sighting so there will be one recorded for Somerset County in Maine.

Here is a link to the Monarch butterfly page on that website to view the map and table of sightings: Butterflies and Moths of North America

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A monarch butterfly visited today, too!  This one was on the butterfly bush by our front door.  Maybe the same insect as yesterday?  Who knows?  I hope not.  I wish there are many monarchs flying around the farm!  I wanted this one to spread its wings so I could photograph the tops, but it didn’t cooperate.b2b1

 

Woods Funk Solved, I Think

My last blog post was about an awful smell in the woods and how its source was a mystery.  I think the mystery is solved.  I did a thorough search in the smelly area with my neighbor who is a hunter and has smelled bear.  We didn’t find any sign of bear and he said the odor didn’t smell like bear to him.  He had no idea what it was.

Finally, I got through to the game warden today after several days of phone tag.  His best guess was porcupine.  He said walking in the woods he has come across a nasty stink and thought, yuck, what is that.  Then he saw it was a porcupine.

Apparently, not only do these rodents have long quills for defense, they also can emit a strong, foul odor when disturbed.  It may serve as a warning to a predator to leave them alone.  So the creatures have the capacity to be really odiferous.

The warden said it is most likely a family has taken up residence in the dead pine tree.  They are all stinking away and are up in the air so the smell can travel farther.  This makes sense to me.

There is certainly plenty of porcupine sign in the area:  tree bark gnawings, diggings around tree bases and piles of stool under some hemlocks.  They seem to favor hemlock bark for food.  So, although I have not climbed up in the giant dead pine to see for sure, it sounds fairly likely that the stinky creature in the woods is a bunch of porcupines.

It seems odd to me that I’ve never smelled this before.  I’ve seen several porcupines in trees and walking in the woods.  The critters used to come in my barn and gnaw on the wall boards.  A really big one raided my corn patch for several weeks one year.  I’ve even been very close to them at the vet clinic where I worked because we provided services for a wildlife rescue facility.  I guess none of these porkies were scared enough to let off their stink.

Now that we know what we are probably dealing with, we’ll be careful to keep the dogs near when we walk in that part of the woods.  There’s not much that is less fun than pulling quills out of a dog’s face.

The Funk In The Woods

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There is a funk in the woods.  By that I don’t mean some groovy tune, I mean it smells.  Stinks.  Like a hairy, hygienically-challenged creature is in there.  If you walk across the field and down the hill to enter the woods at what looks like a dark opening in the left center of the photo above, you come nose to odor with the creature.

I have lived on this farm and traveled the woods for forty-seven years and never smelled this before.  The aroma is like sour den:  animal sweat and glands and warmth with a little spit and urine mixed in for good measure.  It is so strong, it permeates about 200 square feet of woodland.  The smell has been in this area since early spring, April or so.  On still days it hangs in the air so you must hold your breath as you pass by or be nasally assaulted.

We have been scratching our heads and querying our friends and neighbors, trying to understand the funk.  I even have a call in to the game warden.  Maybe he will get back to me about the “animal smell” in my woods, right after he wraps up the latest poaching ring.

What once used to be my favorite forest stroll has become a source of dark imaginings.  What animal could make such an effusive stench?  How big is this thing?  Are there, instead, several small ones contributing to the miasma?  Where the heck are they?  No sight or sound of this creature is evident, only the olfactory impression.

It does not smell like skunk.  Not even faintly.  Once I owned a descented ferret, for a short time.  Until my husband said it had to go because it was so whiffy.  The creature in the woods does not smell like a ferret.  I presume a larger member of the weasel family, like a fisher, would have a ferrety fragrance about it.

This reek is a conundrum.  It reminds me the most of dog; long unwashed bedding of a long unwashed dog.  Except more feral.  So maybe this critter is actually a den of coyotes or foxes or even a brush wolf?  When coyotes are around, they can’t help themselves.  They yip and howl on a nightly basis.  You know if there are coyotes.  When foxes move in, they tend to stalk my chickens.  No evidence of this so far, knock on wood.  So maybe it’s a brush wolf?  They are rare, almost fabled, in Maine.  They are big.  I may have seen one, once.  It was taller and longer than my 110 lb German shepherd.

Or is the odiferous thing a bear?  I’ve never smelled a bear.  Research tells me bears are not so foul.  You are more likely to smell the rotting groundhog carcass they have stashed for lunch than to catch the scent of Ursa.  I know there are bears on our farm, their scat turns up on trails sometimes or their handiwork in a torn-apart hornet nest.  Seems like if this were bear fetor, I’d have noticed it in the past.

In the photo above, the dead limbs of a very tall white pine are just visible in the top center right.  They look a bit like antlers jutting up.  This tree is huge, at least seventeen feet in circumference, maybe eighty feet in height.  Several years ago it was struck by lightning and killed.  The towering skeleton of wood is an ideal place for many wild animals to build a home.  The dead tree is central to the area of the funk.  Maybe something moved into the tree this spring?  A huge colony of raccoons?  Could they make this pervasive pong?

Raccoon sign has always been common in our woods.  The banks of the small river running through the farm are riddled with raccoon prints.  I have smelled young raccoons when they were brought into the vet clinic where I used to work.  They were not offensive.  Maybe a big nest of them can become rank?

I have investigated the vicinity of the funk as much as I dare.  If it is a large and dangerous animal, I don’t want to meet it.  From a distance, I can spot no holes or piles of brush that might shelter an animal.  The mystery deepens.  I am reminded of tales told in jest of the skunk ape, a pungent eastern relative of Bigfoot.  As I said, the mind conjures darkly and creatively when there is no easy explanation.

Sure hope the riddle can be solved soon.  Perhaps with the help of the game warden?  Right now we are too cautious to venture into our own woods.  A very sad thing, indeed, to be frightened of a smell.

Pseudoscorpion

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What could this little creature be?  I found it crawling across a ceiling.  Looks like a tick, maybe, or some minute crab.  It is about one-quarter inch long and a fast mover.

Over the years I’ve found several of these in my house, mostly in the library.  I’m sorry to say I killed the first few, before a friend told me what they are.  Pseudoscorpions.  The one pictured is likely a house pseudoscorpion, Chelifer cancroides.  They are members of the spider family.p1

These tiny, alert insects are quite beneficial in the home because they eat various insect pests including mites, springtails, ants, beetle larvae and book lice.  Hence their appearance on our book shelves.  They like humid areas with wood, probably because their prey prefer these places.

Pseudoscorpions are not a danger to humans.  They do have venom, in their large front pincer appendages, but they are too small to pierce our skin.  These spiders are known to hitch rides on larger animals to travel around.

Their lives are quite interesting.  The adults do not have sex in the way we understand.  The male deposits a semen packet in an area he specially prepares then waits until a female is attracted by his sexy scent.  When she arrives, he does a mating dance then guides her to the semen packet where she takes it into her body to fertilize the eggs.  The eggs brood in the mother and the nymphs sometimes ride on her back after they hatch.  The babies go through three molts before reaching adulthood.  The insect’s lifespan is 4-5 years.

Now that I know what these little guys are doing, I welcome them in our book-filled house.  They are performing quite a service for us.