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Rodent Adventure

I was mending some clothes and the cat was driving me crazing digging under the couch cushions.  Then I heard a squeak.  That could only mean one thing:  Kai had brought in a rodent and decided to play catch and release in the livingroom.  I lifted the couch cushion expecting to find a hapless mouse and discovered a chipmunk instead!

The critter took one look at the cat and me and shot out of the couch, across the room with Kai in hot pursuit, and under the buffet.  Now Kai and his brother Cary were both interested in capturing the escaped trophy.  I pulled out the bottom drawer of the buffet.  The chipmunk was hiding beneath a cupboard section that apparently had a space big enough to allow the rodent to evade the groping paws of two cats.  There was another squeak and a flurry of scrabbling as the rodent eluded capture again.

At this point I opened the cat flap wide, opened the door to the woodshed and braced the front door open a couple inches, hoping that if the little creature got loose again, it might make a break for daylight.

After a few minutes the cats began sniffing around the large, heavy desk for our computer.  There is about 4″ clearance from the wall.  I got a flashlight and spotted the poor chipmunk, cowering in the very dusty corner.  I put on welding gloves and got my largest fish tank net.  With help from the cats to keep the rodent cornered, I worked it into the net and pulled it out from behind the desk.

Just when I thought the ordeal of the rodent was over, it wriggled free and dashed for the light of the open woodshed door.  By the time I got out to the shed, the chipmunk had climbed the screen and was trying to figure out how to go outside.  I spoke quietly to it and inched to the door handle.  When I swung the door open, the chipmunk flung itself from a six foot height to bounce off the side of the house and slide down into the grass.  That was the last I saw of it.

I’m really hoping the cat didn’t puncture it too badly with his teeth when he caught it.  Cats have mouths full of bacteria that are lethal to rodents when injected into bite wounds.  If the little chipmunk were not so silly as to walk into the cats’ outdoor cage, it would never have been caught in the first place.  Phew, that was enough excitement for one day!

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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.


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.

Pheasant

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.