Today’s “Quarry Farm Fridays with the Bluffton Public Library” featured North America’s marsupial. Angus the Virginia Opossum is our resident education ambassador for his kind.
May 9 is the biggest day in birding this year. As it’s just 9:30 p.m., it still “is” even though the wind tonight is wild and wooly and no self-respecting owl is going to land in the bowed cottonwood outside the window before midnight.
I don’t know birds. Rather, I have met a few and we got along well. I could pick them out in a crowd. But I don’t recognize many wild birds by call or even by sight unless they are posing neatly at eye level. For the blessed luck and good of all, Deb Weston is a frequent Quarry Farm flyer who helps us see beyond the cardinals, chickadees and house finches at the bird feeders and into the high canopy for warblers, kinglets and other birds who are presently passing through these parts.
Not that there is anything less than splendid about the birds we are most familiar with. Deb shared a stunning shot of a fluorescent-beaked female cardinal gathering nesting material from a clutch of honey locust thorns. On the same day, however, she photographed a black-throated blue warbler perched on a rope of grapevine. Along the way, she digitized an orchard oriole singing it’s heart out and a mourning cloak butterfly. Because butterflies are seemingly as confused by climate change as humans are, they are arriving here or emerging from their winter quarters with no food in sight. When Deb shared the butterfly photo, it was a sight for sore eyes.
Just as nature around the world is reveling in the cleaner air and water that’s a result of human lockdown, wild things are going about their business unimpeded here in the Back 40. On Friday night a small group of Girl Scouts spread out along the trails to earn their trailblazing badges. As they climbed out of the Riley Creek floodplain toward the grass prairie, two large fluffy feathered great horned owl fledglings bobbed in a black walnut at eye level. Their parent murmured a short distance away, waiting for us to move along our earthbound way.
As Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton so eloquently said regarding the present pandemic, we humans are waking up to life. While we blink sleep from our eyes, life goes on around us.
Here on The Quarry Farm, bush honeysuckle whacking is a means to social-distance ourselves during Ohio’s StayHome proclamation. At this pace we may see the forest for the invasive trees this year. As David Seitz works his way south from the old stone quarry, Paul Nusbaum is clearing A new walking trail to skirt the ancient homestead well, Riley Creek, and the Bottom’s rich vernal pools. That area is a quiet shelter for migrating songbirds. As I took out my own pandemic fear and frustration on bush honeysuckle and a [gasp/horror/curses] privet I found at the northern-most point of the nature preserve, a Black and White Warbler eyeballed me from the top of a small maple. My camera and phone sat safely at home on the kitchen counter so the only image I can share with you is a description of a dainty bird, striped black and white from beak to tail.
The aforementioned lack of camera is the lead in to the story that I saved for sharing on a rainy day. Thunder rolls outside today and heavy downpours turning clear Cranberry Run the creamy brown of the surrounding fields, so here goes. I present to you a tale filled with suspense, partial nudity and a happy ending.
It was a dark and cloudy Wednesday night. Somewhere in the darkness, a domestic fowl uttered a strangled cry. Fergus the Tree Walker Coonhound scrambled to his feet, baying all the way down the stairs. I stumbled along behind, forgetting my eyeglasses on the nightstand. Fergus blew out the front door and down the driveway. Quinn Fox wove through the hound’s floppy Muppet feet, emerging through the tangle with Gerald the Rooster in her jaws. I screeched at her to “drop it!” She did! Fearing the worst, I carried a limp Gerald into the house. He had a heartbeat, so I left him in the bathroom basin and ran back outside, trading Fergus for Cady the Pitbull because Cady is quieter at 2:00 a.m. than an excited hound dog. My Steven was now in the fray, tracking Quinn with the flashlight app on his cell.
I was in a shortie. Steve wore a t-shirt and boxers. Our shoes and my eyesight were in the house. It was maybe 40 degrees on March 25 in Northwest Ohio.
We took turns going back inside to grab shoes, jackets and cheddar cheese. After much fun and games on Quinn’s part, the little red streak took refuge under the front porch. Steve shown light under the deck while I crawled under, cheese in my cold little fist. Since Quinn likes cheese and there is no soft pillow under the porch, she was ripe for reclamation. Once she was back in the warm house with Fergus and Cady, Steve spotted a wet mound of gray fur at the point of the Fergus/Quinn collision. A young Virginia Opossum lay there. Its tongue lolled on the grass and its legs curled in little clawed fists. We stared at it in the beam of the cell light, surmising that the marsupial had probably climbed up in the roosting box shared by Gerald and Arthur and startled Gerald into mad flight. While we watched, the dead creature blinked. Steve carried him/her down the hill and into the woods.
As far as we know, the opossum is fine. Quinn, Fergus and Cady are fine. Gerald was standing in the basin by 2:10 and is fine. That bird has the nine lives of a cat. We figure that, between picking fights with Arthur, predator encounters and a past life as a cockfighting rooster, he’s depleted his store of vivacity by at least half. Steve and I, however, ran through any amount of dignity we ever had long ago.
Earlier this month, friend Kathy Doty taught me how to spot the difference between male and female Monarch butterflies. Visually, it’s really not that different than humans. I kept hearing that little girl who was a YouTube sensation several years back, her sing-song show-and-tell voice explaining to her classmates, “Boys have theses, see.” I’ve sat through a lot of PowerPoint presentations about Monarchs. I know the right way to hold them as you apply a tracking tag prior to release. But no one has every told me who has what. Kathy also displayed a young Praying Mantis and a viable Swallowtail chrysalis, anchored in place by one tiny gossamer lasso of swallowtail thread. She spotted both eggs and caterpillars in the Red Fox Cabin gardens. The sightings never cease to thrill.
Several days later, a steady stream of visitors to Summer 2019 Family Day watched monarchs, bumblebees and more dragonflies than I have seen since the June 2012 floor wax discharge decimated the variety of dragonfly nymphs one could sample in Riley Creek. It was hot, hot, hot in the sun. Steady breeze and ice water kept those of us anchored to the ground cool enough to take pleasure in flighted creatures who have the wherewithal to catch thermals.
With double-digit degrees less outside, Deb Weston walked the trails with her Debbie and a camera on Thursday. They spotted an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly, a female Baltimore Oriole, a Painted Lady butterfly, a Monarch, and two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, birds I haven’t seen since I picked wild raspberries along the cut-off oxbow to sell at Andy’s IGA in Pandora.
I could wax on. How about I share Deb’s photos instead?
At the start of the 2000s, after we breached the wave of Y2K and its potential mania, we weathered another onslaught. Well, we did, but not everyone made it through the ride. The farm animal sanctuary was not even a thought and wildlife rehabilitation training was still a phone call away. Instead, we planted 100 trees. Because the trees were small and the ground was traditionally a farmfield, a passerby in his cups mowed all but three of the grassed-in trees down. So we let the turf grow, transplanting native grasses like big bluestem, little bluestem, and switchgrass, all grown and gifted to us by Dennis Seitz. These, as well as wild asters and milkweeds, were slowly outpacing invasives like Canadian thistle. In the meantime, flocks of goldfinches cheered among the purple tops.
The pace wasn’t fast enough. One day, a township trustee arrived with a brushhog. He mowed through the thistle, Steve ran ahead of the blades. Praying mantis, adults and nymphs, clung to his hair, shirt and forearms. He stood in front of the driver, held his mantis-covered-arms aloft, saying, “See this? This is what you are doing.” With one tree still standing, insects and songbirds scattered, the tractor left. One neighbor asked us how this could have happened, here in America. It can and it did and we all lost.
That was 20 years ago. “Drift Zone” signs populate the neighboring fields. Local nurseries carrying various types of milkweed—and people are planting them. Several neighbors grow almost-acres of native grasses, wildflowers and Canada thistles poke their spiky heads up here and there as the natives are allowed to reestablish. Even so, anger still festers in me, 20 years after we were made to stand by and suffer a fool’s errand. Few mantids have turned their mystic heads my way since then and the goldfinches are still shy.
Today, my mother sent me two photos. A garter snake was soaking up rays on a weeping spruce at Red Fox Cabin this morning. It’s safe on its sunny bed, free from hungry chickens at our end and away from the road’s racing vehicles. The other photo is a mantis nymph, its image captured by Beth Scheckelhoff of Ohio State University’s Putnam County Extension. She saw a lot of mantid nymphs in the gardens above Cranberry Run. This makes me happy—even feel forgiving—though I’ll never forget.
This weekend is the 22nd Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, four days when, world-wide, people peer through binoculars and add apps to their phones (speaking from personal habit) to help them identify what birds are at their feeders or watering troughs from February 16-18, 2019. I can hear European starlings above our bathroom ceiling, so we started the count right off with that species. We really need to fix the cover on that vent.
Saturday morning, two Debs, one Maya, one Terry and one Mandy joined in The Quarry Farm count. At 8:08 a.m. we headed across the footbridge to listen and look for what birds would venture out with us into the cold. Not many, as it turned out. Red-bellied woodpeckers hammered in the north along Riley Creek. Horned larks chimed in the field. White-breasted nuthatches scolded. We saw or heard a downy woodpecker, two goldfinches, robins, a male cardinal, bluejays and two Canada geese.
The air was heavy with impending snow. We kept out toes moving and warm by exploring for nonfeathered treasures. There were tracks frozen in the floodplain, reminders of floodwaters that covered it earlier in the week. Fungi bracketed trees and downed limbs. Puddles were flash-frozen in rings as waters receded. Mandy spotted a cocoon of some kind that we have yet to identify but is probably this. And Laura was thrilled to see that the Indian hemp, also commonly called dogbane, has spread in the back 10.
The promised snow falls in icy pellets. A crow flew over this morning, calling as he scouted, his caws echoing in the cold sky. There isn’t much movement otherwise. I sit at the sewing machine, securing goat coat straps in place. S’more ditched his yesterday during an hour or two of warm sun. Now he is piled under straw in Sophie’s barn. From my perch at the sewing machine, I can watch for birds. The winter is frighteningly in need of visitors.
We’ll listen for owls tonight. Until then, the hot chocolate and tea are warm and plentiful for watching whomever flies.
A dozen squash and a bag of apples are all that remain from the December windfall from Hoehns Orchard. The fruits flash froze in the bed of the Ranger yesterday. They’ll thaw this weekend as temperatures jump from this morning’s -8°F to 52°F on Monday. Buddy and Lucy will love their sweet squashy pudding. Tonight, the geese will scavenge for apple bits after the pigs shred the applesicles.
Everyone made it through Wednesday’s -40°F windchill, at least everyone in the farm animal sanctuary. There were tracks leading up the path from Cranberry Run, so some of the wild things are beginning to emerge from the deep freeze. Here’s hoping some of the bush honeysuckle in the hedgerow weren’t so lucky.
We were—lucky, that is. A friend in Minneapolis says it’s still -21°F there on Day 2 of Invasion Polar Vortex, windchill notwithstanding. Mosaic the Llama’s dreamy eyelashes are dripping rather than hanging and she is out of the barn and staring at the mass of singing starlings that shelter in the pines.
We were lucky, counting all toes, fingers, nostrils and ears as healthy and whole. We weathered this bout with fractured weather patterns. As we hung blankets in the archway of Nemo’s and Carlton’s shed, packed straw into the barns and latched the doors Tuesday night, it wasn’t the plunging temps and 30 mph wind that scared us. It was what the wind was packing.
For 36-hours, the wind bore a topsoil blown from tilled fields to the west, a haze so thick that it coated trees, cars and ground with a gray film. Rays of Wednesday sunrise shown amber. Even with wind chill warnings outside, our boots left muddy tracks in the foyer. I wiped brown frost from the skin left exposed by my face mask. Snow and rain are predicted to wash down hill and stream this weekend.
Friend Kim called the film of topsoil on my car “cancer dirt”. She wasn’t being funny. Neither am I when I say I think I know what ash from nuclear fallout looks like. Why do we insist on taking everyone else with us?
The bowl is full. Not just halfway filled, either. After a New Year’s Eve drenching, the old quarry, its drainage channels and Cranberry Run are Lake Quarry Farm. Up above along the ridges, there are enough puddles that the geese haven’t the need to wander down the paths to take a swim in the pool.
The rain swale beside the cabin is full again, having done its job diverting one and a third inches of downpour from under the historic floorboards. Two white tails flashed behind the east-facing porch; hooves crashed through the brush as deer stranded on the Ridge sought cover. Rifle season”s good and gone so their secret is safe.
Last night’s ball didn’t drop around here. It blew from West to east which is probably why the water isn’t still deeper. All the bird nesting boxes are back up on their posts and the Christmas ladder is back up on the deck. Wintery mix is in the forecast, just enough (fingers-crossed) to wash the mud off its steps so it can be stored away, but not enough to keep the donkeys, goats and pigs from enjoying the windfall from Hoen’s Orchard. The llamas, who normally scoff at anything not hay or sweet feed, have set a place at the juicy table of apples and squash.
Happy New Year, wherever it takes you. Maybe it will be lead you here in 364 days or less.
Qarie Marshall offered a sunny weather radio forecast for Thursday—“Turkey Day.” I’m counting on Aunt Paula’s cheesecake and Mom’s mashed red potatoes, with the ruby skins liberally integrated.
Every day is Turkey Day here. Max the Bronze is the current guardian of the farm animal sanctuary flock. Visitors have frequently lost the contents of their pockets to bronze Buttercup. Their wild relatives sway in summer night breeze, perched high in tree tops like giant fruit. They chortle and murmur in the daytime, hidden from predatory eyes in the thickest thickets. A stray feather occasionally makes its way into the Putnam County Master Gardeners’ pollinator patch.
Saturday, we stretched our legs in thanks for a late morning hike. Elisha broke in a new pair of Trespass boots shipped from the UK. His mom Esther shared her lovely Irish accent and details about the clothing line, including the fact that Trespass makes water-resistant onesies.
Type ‘Ohio’ into the company website’s ‘Find a Store’ widget and you get Galway (eh…only 3,426.94 miles away.) Still, the “No Child Left Inside” movement would benefit from a line of puddle-jumping ware.
So, apparently, would my child. Home on holiday, she took off her rubber knee boots (“They’ll get wet, Mom”) to wade in the chilly quarry wetland with a seine in hand. She caught a sample of snails, a beetle and a fingernail clam for us to see. The clam was the size of the second smallest hiker’s pinkie finger.
The smallest hiker of all slept through the walk, swaddled in his mother’s walking fleece.
The sun brought out the color in what leaves still hung on the trees. We used honeysuckle walking sticks to traverse downed leaf matter. We gathered a few Osage oranges before the ghosts of mammoths could lay claim to them. I thought I saw a shrike in the back 10 acres. Maybe we’ll see his/her larder—voles impaled on hawthorn spikes—during the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count.
We saw tracks. They crossed our path in wallows and licks and fur clinging to branches. There were hoof marks, short and long bird toe prints and thin drag lines. The turkeys left the latter two for us to find, surely watching us from a distance that would keep them whole beyond Thursday’s feast.
The Fall newsletter included a brief about Mister Bill. That isn’t the first time that giant Boer-crossed-with-something (likely giraffe) Billy made The Quarry Farm quarterly news. Several years ago, Doug and Sandy Downing brought Bill here to join the Marsh, S’more and Buddy herd. He was such a huge presence—not just in size but in attitude and personality—that he of the magnificent curled horns was featured in the next newsletter. In the Fall 2018 piece, we talked about his August trip to the Ohio State University Veterinarian Clinic’s Farm Animal Services. The diagnosis was megaesophagus. The muscular tube connecting his throat to his stomach had become enlarged, probably due to an injury. His appetite remained big, but the food wasn’t getting where it was supposed to go. The vet prescribed penicillin injections for aspiration pneumonia and a diet rich in soaked in alfalfa pellets, fed from buckets elevated enough to keep his throat as upright as possible.
Bill took to the increased menu with relish. After a week of antibiotics, he was strong enough to say no way to the syringe. He licked his bucket clean before joining the other goats to nibble tall goldenrod and mulberry leaves in the lowland. But there was more going on inside his barrel chest, after all. Several days ago, Billy couldn’t stand. It took two of us to walk him to a bed under the pines where he could be in shade and good company. Dr. Babbitt was scheduled for a Friday house call. The plan was to fill Bill’s red bucket with taste treats before a final injection and release.
As always, Mister Bill had a mind of his own. Last night, as I was mowing the south paddock, I saw Rowan cross the lawn to Bill, His bucket was a few feet away and his body prostrate. He was panting and panicked. Steve and I sat with him and stroked his long nose until he calmed. Rowan was with him when he died 30 minutes later. He was buried in a 6’ x 10’ grave, a hole that seemed small for such a mountain of a goat. In the end, it was too big for what little remained.
But this story isn’t about us, even though I’ve spent three windy paragraphs about what us humans did during Bill’s end days. It’s what the animals did, what they always do. We only skirt the edges of what it is.
As I sat on the ground with Bill, swatting and spritzing biting flies from his legs and mine, Nemo worried around us. Funny, since Bill’s megaesophagus was probably caused by a winter food skirmish with the huge pig. Last night, Nemo quietly lay down under the pine nearest Bill, even though there were fresh apples just on the other side of the fence. I walked away. Nemo stayed. In ones and twos, the other goats, pigs and donkeys came. Each stood over the body for a bit. Elora bleated. We waited. We buried him, digging the hole just a little deeper to make way for the massive right horn. I looked out the front window after dark and could see S’more and Elora sparring near the bare soil.
Steve said, if he were to write this, he would concentrate on what happened after Mister Bill died. He also said that what did happen was very much like what happened when Marsh died, except this time was quieter. “They fought me when I tried to fill the hole,” he said. That’s because the one who fought most was Mister Bill.