A Bird Tale

Every year barn swallows make their nests in the rafters of our barn.  Usually there are two pairs.  The first, and likely older, more experienced pair raised a nice brood in the nest they made several years ago, attached to a rafter about a foot below the ceiling.  The babies are grown and the family has left the area.  The second pair built their nest of mud, moss, chicken feathers and horse hair on a rafter so that it sat only six inches or so below the metal roof.

The last few days have been scorchers with temperatures in the mid-90sF.  On the second day of the heat wave, Friday, my husband found a baby swallow on the barn floor.  We got a ladder, I climbed up and put the little one back with its siblings.  I counted five or six babies without getting too close.  Their heads were drooping down out of the nest and they were panting.  It was so hot up under that roof with the midday sun blazing down.

The next day everyone was in the nest and seemed fine.  It was another very hot day and we went away to the lake.  That evening the nest was still full.  Then yesterday morning, with temperatures once again in the mid 90sF, I went to check and see if any babies had fallen from the nest.  Disaster.  I found three dead babies on the floor and two on death’s doorstep.  If there was a sixth one, I never saw it.  Apparently the little ones had thrown themselves from the nest because it was just too hot.  The parents were not around.

I gathered up the dead babies for burial, so sad.  They were already well feathered, maybe 10-12 days old.  The two living birds could not lift their heads or make a sound.  I took down the death nest, put it in an old stainless dog bowl, popped the babies in and carried them in the house.

One bird was more aware than the other.  I carefully opened both beaks and dribbled in water with a pipette.  The alert one drank right away.  The bad-off one made some weak swallowing motions, but much of the liquid dribbled back out.  By this time baby one was making little beeping sounds.  I covered the babies with some downy chicken feathers from the nest, put the bowl in a box to keep the birds warm and went in search of bugs.

Here on the farm, we have a plentiful supply of insects, especially the biting kind.  I quickly discovered that when you need to catch a bunch of bugs, they are easy to see, but hard to grab.  Finally I went out to where the horses were grazing.  Soon I had a good supply of deer flies, horse flies and face flies.

More than half-an-hour had elapsed since I’d left the babies.  They were more alert.  The stronger one was gaping its mouth for food as soon as it heard me.  The other one could at least lift its head.  To open the mouth of the weak bird, I very gently pressed on both corners of the beak until it opened wide enough to fit the pipette tip.  Soon it was swallowing well and I started feeding it insects, too.  I began playing parent bird, catching flying insects and pushing them in gaping mouths.  After a few mouthfuls, the little birds wriggled their hind ends over the edge of the nest to defecate.  Then I knew they were fully hydrated.

I caught several dozen bugs that were flying around the horses.  It took thirty minutes to get eight or ten insects.  Those patient horses saw so much of me they started ignoring me as I came across the field to them with my fish net for trapping flies and tin can for holding them.

Between hourly feedings, I left the babies to rest in their box.  As soon as they heard me coming, the babies would start in with their little beeping cries and mouths wide open for food.  All afternoon and evening through the ninety degree heat I caught and fed bugs.  I developed a true understanding of what parent barn swallows have to do.  By night time, both babies were quite strong and taking food and water well.  They only ate a few bugs and a sip of water at each feeding before falling fast asleep.  The cats were fascinated by the babies’ cries, of course.  Cary in particular wanted to see all about what was going on.

After it got dark and I couldn’t catch flies, I rehydrated some of the freeze-dried mealworms I keep for the chickens.  Dipping them in plain yogurt made them more nutritious, and the birds gobbled them right up.  Finally at 10:30 I tucked the babies away for the night.

This morning the little swallows were hungry at five and ate several good feedings of mealworms in yogurt chased down with water before nine o’clock.  They were both raising their heads and begging for food.  We had noticed the parent birds hanging around so I decided to try reintroducing the babies.  I made a little shelf on a rafter about two feet from the old nest site that was a foot below the ceiling with a wood board above it to protect from the hot roof.  Then I set the bowl with the nest on the rafter and duct taped it to the wood to make sure it was secure.

I hid around the corner, watching to see if the adults would find the babies.  They flew in the barn in no time.  As soon as the little ones heard their parents, they started beeping.  The chorus of warbles and chirps that came from the adults was a sound to warm any parent’s heart.  The swallows were so excited and overjoyed to hear their babies.  Quickly, they found the new nest spot.  They scoped it out carefully, then mama bird scooted in to see the babies, followed by papa.  What a racket!  They were one happy family.


And a Porcupine in a Pear Tree

This would not make a great Christmas present, but it’s what you get here at Phoenix Farm:  a porcupine in a pear tree.  This little guy is quite young, still growing its big quills.  There have been several porcupines feeding on the fruit dropping from trees in our orchards.  Most of the critters stick to the apple trees.  This one is braver.  The pear trees are the closest to the house.  Pears must be really delicious for the porcupine to risk contact with humans and dogs to feast on the fruit.

Porcupines remind me of sloths.  They seem almost in slow motion most of the time.  Their eyesight is poor, as well.  It is no wonder so many dogs go to the vet to have quills removed.  The only defenses these animals have are quills and the ability to slowly climb trees.  Every time I take the dogs out in the orchard I have to check for porkies on the ground.  Often, there is one sitting and munching fruit.  I talk loudly, sometimes have to clap to be heard, and the rodent ambles to a tree then hauls itself ten to fifteen feet up where it sits and peeks down at intruders.

Here is the working end of the rodent, the back end and tail.  Porcupines lash their tails to implant quills.  Older porcupines have backs bristling with long whitish quills.  When I worked as a vet tech, I spent many hours removing quills from the mouths of hapless dogs.  Sometimes we’d see the same dogs two or three times in a row, and they still didn’t learn to leave the porkies alone.

So far this fall our dog Max has gotten a few quills in his nose while trying to smell a bristling rodent.  Luckily, they were easy for us to pull out. I’ve seen dogs with hundreds of quills embedded in their mouths.  They need to be put under anesthesia to remove the quills in a time consuming operation that can get quite expensive.  One vet I worked with used to joke that he kept a porcupine ranch and released a new batch whenever he needed extra cash flow.

If you have a fruit orchard and find piles of chewed up fruit chunks lying around, you have a porcupine at work.  How the rodents get any sort of nutrition out of their method of consuming fruit is beyond me.  They seem to just enjoy slicing the fruit into piles.  Maybe they are after the juice?  The fruit wasps (at right center above) appreciate the porcupine’s work.  The wasps have been gorging themselves on pears until they fall into stupors, too full to fly away.

This has been such a good fruit year that even after I’ve harvested all we need, there is still plenty on the trees and ground for the wildlife.  The fruit attracts deer, bears, coyotes, turkeys, various rodents and several species of song birds.  And I must not forget how my flock of chickens hurries to eat under the trees every day when they are released to free range.  The abundance is short-lived.  In a few weeks all the fallen fruit will be consumed.  It’s nice that I never have to rake drops in the orchard.


Little Fat Red Caterpillar

On August 20, my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary with a hike at Dodge Point Reserve in Newcastle, ME.  Previously I blogged about this place, a wonderful spot for getting away from it all.  The land was once a tree farm and has an abundance of old growth oak trees.

As we walked along through the forest, we noticed that something was hitting the leaf litter on the floor.  It sounded like rain.  The weather was bright, sunny and around 85F, not a rain cloud in sight.  After searching for a while to find the cause of the pitter patter, I realized it must be droppings from caterpillars munching on the plethora of oak leaves above our heads.  We were both amazed at the vast number of insects that must be at work up there to produce a constant rain of droppings.

After walking a bit farther, I came across this bright, plump bug on the path.  I took photos since I’d never seen a caterpillar like this before.  After some poking around on the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, the identification was fairly certain.  The little blob is Heterocampa umbrata, or the White-Blotched Heterocampa.  Apparently they come in red or green versions.  The peculiar long face and funny beady eyes are the best identification.  This species feeds on–oak leaves.  I assume the pink spud dropped to the forest floor to prepare for pupation since it appears well grown.  It will hatch out as a rather drab moth.  All the looks are in the caterpillar stage, for sure.

Here’s a link to the butterflies and moths website:

Cranes in Maine

Yesterday my husband and I were driving home from the coast.  We were between Sheepscot and Whitefield, towns well inland, when I saw a pair of big birds standing in a field of high grass near the road.  They were sandhill cranes.  We did not stop to take a photo so I borrowed one from Pixnio.  The cranes I saw looked quite similar to this pair.  I don’t know if they were greater or lesser sandhills.  It was extremely surprising to me to see these birds in Maine since I thought they only lived far west of us.

The birds were quite tall, over 3 feet, and a dusky brown color with some gray.  They were standing facing one another less than a foot apart, beaks lowered, like they were staring in each other’s eyes.  They may have been a mated pair or even rivals looking for a fight.  I wish now we had stopped and watched them for a bit.

A little research reveals that within the past twenty years, these cranes have moved into Maine during the summer to breed.  Last year I thought I saw a crane hunting at our pond one day, but it left quickly and I didn’t get a good look at it.  I figured it was really a great blue heron, although my eyes told me it looked like a crane.  Now I know I saw a crane!

The first sandhill cranes were spotted in Maine in 1999.  Since then sightings have increased and breeding pairs have been found.  The birds breed May-July.  The pair I saw could be summer residents or just passing through on the beginning of their long flight south to spend the winter in the southwestern US or Mexico.

It is unknown if the birds once populated Maine and just died off due to human pressure, or if sandhill cranes are moving into new territory.  There are no reliable historic records of sandhill cranes in Maine.  It may be that the global warming trend is making our chill northern state attractive to cranes.  In this state we do have lots of wetland and farmland, the birds preferred habitat.  I hope one or two or even a whole flock land here at our farm pond so I can get a good look at them and maybe even some pictures.

Big Day In The Barn

Today is a big day in the barn!  The baby barn swallows are leaving the nest.  Mom and dad swallow have been working their feathered butts off catching enough bugs to sustain themselves and five babies.  We have a lot of bugs.  They must catch tons of mosquitoes and black flies.  The birds did a good job because all the babies are grown and ready to spread their wings.  In the above photo, the nest, made of dried clay and lined with hay and chicken feathers, sits on a support just under the ceiling of our hay barn.  Two babies have flown about five feet to rest on an electric cord.  One baby is off the nest and sitting on the support.  Two babies peek from the nest.

Here are mom, dad and one baby.  The parents continuously fly in and out of the barn, bringing food for their huge babies and giving encouraging chirps to the young ones.  Probably telling them all about how to use their wings and what to watch out for.  The parents also screech and dive-bomb any threats to the nest, such as a farmer trying to do chores.

The barn swallows have nested in our barn for as long as it’s been there.  I recall climbing up to peek in their nests as a child.  Every spring we go through the exciting (and harrowing for the parents) day when the young ones leave the nest.  After this first brood is out, the pair will start another clutch of eggs.  They like to do two hatches each year.  The second one tends to run into haying season.  We have to use special care not to interfere with the birds as we bring the hay crop in the barn.

The parents will spend several days teaching the babies to fly and catch insects.  Then the babies disappear for hours on end, feeding themselves and exploring.  Mom and dad start the second hatch.  The first babies return regularly to visit and sleep around the barn area at night.  When the second hatch leaves the nest, all the barn swallows hang around for awhile.  There is a veritable swarm of birds swooping and chattering over the barnyard.  Before long the nip in the air at night signals time to fly south.  Usually by the beginning of September the barn swallows have left for lower latitudes.

This year we only have one pair nesting in the barn.  Sometimes we have two or more!  The daily scolding and swooping of the parents can really get on a person’s nerves when all they are trying to do is feed chickens and rabbits, not molest swallow nests.  But, we put up with their foolishness just to be able to share the excitement of a day like today.

Baby Nectarine

Anyone with an orchard full of nectarines, please have patience with me.  This is my first nectarine.  These trees are not common in the northern clime of central Maine.  My baby nectarine has now survived four winters and appears to be thriving.  This is the first year it’s had flowers.  The variety is from Stark Bros, a Stark Crimson Gold, self-pollinating, heat tolerant, cold hardy and ripening fruit in July.  I can hardly wait to eat them!

The tree is about eight to nine feet tall.  The branches are covered with blooms.  Not sure how many of these will turn to fruit.  I suspect the fruit may require thinning. It is especially hard on a young tree to have a heavy fruit burden.The blossoms are large and have a light musk scent.  I thought they’d smell like apple flowers, but no.  Such a gorgeous pink display for the orchard!  This tree is attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds.  Soon the pears, apples, cherries and blueberries will all be in full bloom, plenty of food for hummingbirds. I stopped providing sugar feeders for hummingbirds due to the threat of the feeders becoming infected with fungus that can kill the birds.  If feeders aren’t cleaned religiously they can get contaminated.  I realized I couldn’t keep up with the necessary cleaning schedule.  Luckily, there is a good natural food supply for the birds here at the farm.

Home For Phoebes

Phoebes are friendly song birds who like to nest close to humans.  Perhaps they discovered that they can take advantage of the fear we instill in other birds to protect their nests and young.  They risk choosing the wrong humans when they build so close, but it must work for them because they continue to do it.  This particular pair of phoebes has built a nest for several years on the yard light beside one of our doors.

While it was sweet to have baby phoebes so close, having the birds there became a problem.  The constant fluttering as they came and went from the nest to feed the young attracted the attention of our six house cats.  The cats would climb the screen door trying to catch the birds.  When I found the screen partially dislodged and within seconds of allowing the cats out, I knew we had to keep the door closed.  Then the cats proceeded to climb the curtain over the window in the door.  I had to take the curtain down.  Very aggravating, especially since I’d like to leave the door open on nice days to cool the house and catch the breeze.

Last fall I decided the nest had to move.  During the winter I searched until I found this solid aluminum shower shelf.  It was under $7 with shipping.   In March I secured it to the house under the eaves far enough from the door so the cats would no longer see the birds.  Then I blocked off the area over the lights to prevent the birds from building there.  Phoebes build a large, heavy nest using clay mud.  They line it with soft moss, grass, hair and feathers.  This complicated nest takes a lot of effort so the birds return every year to the same nest, repairing it when necessary.

I didn’t want to destroy all their work.  I moved the nest to the new shelf.  It would be interesting to see if the birds accepted the new location of their nest, built a new nest or went off somewhere else to live.  In early April the birds came back.  It seemed to ruffle their feathers to find the nest moved.  After a bit I noticed them hanging around the new location.  Then late last week I found  mother phoebe on the nest.

It’s wonderful to have the birds nearby and still be able to keep the door open.  Phoebes like to have two broods per year so they hang around for most of the summer.  I will enjoy watching the baby birds grow up without worrying about the cats tearing the door apart.

Monarch Chrysalises

This morning I was stacking wood from a large pile that was split during the summer. The pile was about five feet high before I started, and fifteen feet wide, at least.  It is made up mostly of oak and apple wood that has aged for a year.  I was just working along, grabbing pieces of firewood and stacking them in neat rows on top of pallets, when I turned over a stick of wood and nearly crushed a monarch butterfly chrysalis.

All summer I’ve been scouring milkweed plants in search of monarch caterpillars, eggs and chrysalises.  I’ve had plenty of luck with finding the caterpillars, but no eggs or pupae.  So I was greatly surprised to find this green case just lying in the woodpile!  Dumb luck saved the insect from destruction.  At any moment the stick of wood could have rolled or been jammed into other hunks of wood.

I checked the chrysalis carefully and found no evidence of damage.  Since the woodpile is not a safe place for baby caterpillars, I wedged the stick of wood in the branches of a crabapple tree.  There the butterfly will be out danger and protected from rain.  Then I returned to stacking wood, thinking what an unusual find I’d just made.

About ten minutes later it happened all over again!  I came much closer to squishing the second chrysalis.  Just a whim of fate lay between life and destruction for the baby caterpillar as I grabbed several sticks of wood and tossed them together to make an armload.  Once again I checked the pupa and found no damage.  So I carried the second over to join its brother in the crabapple.

Both caterpillars chose to pupate in close proximity within the woodpile.  For the rest of the morning I used greater care when moving the wood, especially in that area.  No more monarchs were found.  As I finish stacking the pile, I will be on the lookout for any more silly monarchs!

This species truly has the most beautiful chrysalis.  It really looks like metallic gold dotted around the ends.  Why nature expends energy to create a beautiful exoskeleton for a pupating insect is beyond me.  It must serve some evolutionary advantage or it wouldn’t exist.

The caterpillars in these chrysalises are still in the early stages of metamorphosis.  They need ten to fifteen days to change, depending on the weather.  The warmer it is, the quicker they develop.  Temperatures are forecast for the 60sF-70sF during the day and no cooler than the mid-40sF at night for the next ten days.  The baby insects should be able to grow.  They will need to move out of this region quickly and head south.  The frosts are on the way!

To form the chrysalis, a fully grown caterpillar seeks out a sheltered spot and hangs upside down by its two hind-most legs.  It spins a small anchor of silk to keep it hanging securely.  Then it sheds its skin to reveal the green exoskeleton.  As the butterfly develops, the chrysalis will turn transparent and the lovely colors of the monarch wings will be visible within.  Here is an adult monarch I saw recently in a butterfly garden on Mt. Desert Island.

I’m hoping the insects continue to develop and I’m able to get some photos of the transparent stage and of the emergence of the butterfly.  I’ve read they emerge mid-morning on a warm day.  So, I will keep a close eye on these baby butterflies.


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.

August Garden Tour

The garden is in full swing and I’m barely keeping ahead of it, especially the wax beans.  The weather has been in the 90sF and 90%+ humidity for days on end.  It is hard for me to work outside in such hot weather due to breathing difficulties with asthma.  The weeds keep right on growing.  After the thunderstorms finish tonight, we are supposed to have at least three days of temps in the 70s-low 80s and much lower humidity.  I’m so looking forward to that!  Hope to get my garden in shape then.

I’ve just managed to stay ahead of the wax string beans.  So far I’ve canned 6 pints with 6 more to do and another big bag to pick tomorrow.  Beans love hot, humid weather.  The only problem is they can’t be harvested if they are wet.  It causes the beans to get rusty marks on them.  Timing bean harvesting between thunderstorms can be tricky.

I like to place my rows of plantings close enough together so that when they are mature they fill the whole area, choking out weeds.  The plants shade the soil and retain moisture without the need to apply mulch.  Above we see pumpkins on the left, beans in the middle and tomatoes on the right.  There are a few weeds in the tomatoes.  I’ll get rid of those this weekend.

The tomatoes have formed a jungle and are producing more fruit than I can eat.  Soon I will be freezing tomatoes for winter soups.  Fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes right from the garden are so much better than the store-bought variety.  Store tomatoes should be sold under a different name, like cardboard tomatoes.

The indian corn started out slowly this year due to a month of drought in June.  The lack of rain was also hard on the grass.  The hay harvest is poor.  The corn looks better.  Rain, mostly from thunderstorms, has help the plants reach for the sky.  They are about six feet tall and busy tasseling and making ears.  I plant pumpkins as companions for the corn.  The vines run around the stalks where they have plenty of space to spread out.  The large squash leaves shade the ground around the corn, discouraging weeds and helping conserve moisture.  Sunflowers like to grow with the pumpkins as well.

In June I went to a clearance sale at a local greenhouse and saved the last two pots of straight-neck summer squash.  They were very unimpressive, root-bound, yellowed pitiful plants.  I figured, give’em a chance and stuck them in where the carrots failed due to the drought.  In no time they had taken over that spot and are now flexing their leaves over my bed of sweet basil.

From struggling seedlings, the plants have grown into squash making machines.  I pick the squash when it’s very small, about the length of my middle finger, to keep ahead of production.  Small squash are tender and delicious.  Any that get away to grow to monster proportions are fed to the chickens.  They love garden extras, especially squash and tomatoes.

Last year I planted sweet basil near the edge of the garden, right beside the fence.  Something ate all my plants and I never got any basil.  This year I made a bed near the center of the garden.  The basil is growing unmolested and I have harvested a bunch already to dry.  The fresh leaves are also yummy tossed in a salad with tomatoes and summer squash.  The new growth is pinched back by about 6″ or so to encourage branching and prevent the plants from going to flower.  I make bundles using four spears of basil then hang them upside down in a dark, airy room to dry.

This year I again planted the crazy tendril peas.  I didn’t give them any support since they are supposed to hold themselves up with the luxuriant over-growth of tendrils.  It works pretty well.  They do lean over a bit, providing perfect cover for a mouse who is stealing pods and eating my peas before I can pick them.  I guess there’s plenty for everyone.  I’m just worried the rodent will move on to the tomatoes when the peas are gone.  Once I harvest the peas, I’m going to replant carrots in that spot and hope for a fall crop.

By planting sweet peppers in the shade thrown by the corn, the plants get protection from strong sun and the extra moisture they need to perform well.  There will be lots of nice peppers this fall if all goes right.  Last time I got a good pepper harvest, I roasted the excess on the grill, sliced and froze them.  When I needed pepper for topping pizza or tossing in pasta, I just chopped some off the frozen block.  That worked very well, so I plan to do it again this year.

When I was a kid, I did not like chard.  Now I love it!  The drought was tough on chard, but I got several plants that I transplanted to fill out a small row.  They seem to be having a competition to see who can produce the largest leaves.  I particularly like rainbow chard, such a pretty mix of colors when it grows.  

Just for fun and a splash of brightness in the veggie patch, I always grow some flowers.  This year bachelor buttons volunteered from seed dropped last year.  The mass of plants has to be tied up to prevent it flopping into the path and all over the neighboring plants.  These make lovely cut flower bouquets for the table that last over a week.

The zinnias have just started to bloom.  I almost got a picture of a hummingbird on the big red zinnia flower, but I wasn’t quite quick enough.  Hummingbirds also like the sunflowers.  Sometimes when I stand in the garden, the aerial hummingbird battles going on around me make me duck.  The tiny birds are very territorial and don’t like sharing even when there are plenty of flowers to go around.

Female ruby-throated hummingbird on the sunflowers, taken in 2017

This year I planted nasturtiums in the garden for the first time. Some didn’t do well, I suspect the drought got them.  A few have thrived and are producing orange, yellow and red flowers. So pretty. The flowers are supposed to be edible, but I probably will leave them in the garden rather than toss them on a salad.

Now we’ve reached the end of the garden tour.  Time to can some beans!