And the Tally Is…

BirdingOver the course of a lifetime, we count any number of things: the number of cars we’ve owned, the dates we’ve had, the hours or minutes left before the end of the work day, the children in a school group we’re chaperoning and on and on and on. This past weekend, we counted birds. And it wasn’t just us, the folks who showed up at The Quarry Farm for this latest event. It was people all across North America and around the world participating in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count.

Cooper's hawk

Cooper’s hawk

Sponsored by the Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, this four-day annual event provides data about bird populations and migration to these giants in ornithological research. For us, the event has provided the opportunity to specifically record some of the birds that live here. The birds spotted and identified included: house sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, gold finches, white-breasted nuthatches, American crows, turkeys, great-horned owls, eastern screech owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, juncos, American robins, Downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, northern cardinals, blue jays, horned larks, starlings, mourning doves, rock doves, brown creepers, Canada geese, mallards, great blue herons, black-capped chicadees, tufted titmice, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and one bird species that, a little over a year ago, perplexed more than a few of us.

Northern shrike

Northern mockingbird

Last year, on our annual Winter Walk, we discovered a vole skewered on a thorn in a hawthorn tree. At the time, none of us were sure how the vole came to be there, though we threw a lot of guesses around and came to the mistaken conclusion that a passing raptor had dropped its dinner and it was inadvertently pinned in the tree. Three seasons later, on yet another walk, a naturalist and amateur ornithologist told us that it was likely the result of a Loggerhead shrike pinioning the vole for later. Well, he was close. One of the birds we discovered on our walk was not the Loggerhead shrike, but the Northern shrike, a close cousin to the Loggerhead.

vole 1Although classified as a songbird, all shrikes share a behavior commonly associated with raptors: that is, they prey on small mammals, lizards and amphibians. Not only do they prey on these small animals, they store them away for later feasting by skewering their prey on thorns. So the cause of our earlier conundrum came clearly into view and was the highlight of our count this year.

It was a good weekend and a stellar bird count. In total, we identified nearly thirty different species of birds. That, and we definitively put to rest the bizarre and somewhat gruesome puzzle of the impaled vole.

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Snow Day

This morning, bands of clouds the color of dust stretched from the horizon to the sky. I know that sounds strange: of course the clouds stretched to the sky. What I mean to say is that the clouds didn’t lay horizontally across the heavens. No. Instead they seemed to start at some point on the horizon and launch themselves into space, like rocket trails or streamers of toilet paper. And when I say that they were the color of dust, I don’t mean gray. They were more beige with a little bit of peach thrown in, somewhere between a very light brown and red. And even though they weren’t red, I couldn’t help but think, “Red sky in morning, sailor take warning.”

As it turns out, that was more than a little melodramatic. But even so, the day had its moments. Every little bit a snow squall would blow through with heavy flakes swirling about making it hard to see, or with small, hard, almost-pellets of snow that would sting your face and hands. And it’s been cold, and growing colder as the day progresses. Thankfully, we held our Backyard Bird Count event (and more about that tomorrow) before the worst of it rolled in. Short, hard snowfalls offer interesting opportunities photographically, so we decided to take a few shots of the animals that live close to the house. These, then, also give us the chance to relate an anecdote or two, to introduce you to some of the animals that live here.

So. Here we go.

Gigi

Gigi

Gigi and Louise are two of four geese that live here on The Quarry Farm. Anne brought them home from Van Buren State Park near Findlay. She was there to give a presentation on water quality and macroinvertebrates about a year and a half ago when the naturalist who organized the event, Natalie Rossman Miller, conscripted Anne in an effort to trap two geese that were dumped at the park. Suffice it to say that, ultimately, they were successful, and Anne brought them here. Gigi is an Embden goose and, despite the name, entirely male (we’re not great at sexing birds at a distance; we once named a rooster Miss Kitty). Louise is an African goose and very much female.

Louise

Louise

These two, along with Henry, the other female goose (I know, I know) on the property, serve as our early warning system. On those occasions when the mail carrier has a package to bring to the house, or American Electric Power has come to read the meter, or someone has simply come to visit, these three make enough noise so that, even in the house we know that we have guests. And if we’re being completely honest, they make enough noise so that our neighbors a quarter of a mile away know that we have guests.

While we’re on the subject of geese, here’s Johnny. Johnny is a Canada goose. He was found oiled in Lima, Ohio. A local veterinarian took him on, cleaned him up and treated him for about a month before calling Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education. Over the course of that time, Johnny imprinted on humans.

Johnny

Johnny

In addition to that setback, Johnny also has a congenital wing defect; his left wrist never developed properly and consequently the end of his wing protrudes at a right angle to the rest of his body, precluding any possibility of flight. In Johnny’s plus column, however, is one of the sweetest dispositions of any animal, anywhere. This bird just doesn’t know the meaning of ill-tempered. When we pull into the drive, he greets us with a honk characteristic of all Canada geese, then rises up and beats his wings.

Little Red

Little Red

Nearly a month ago, we were provided with the opportunity to expand our flock of chickens.  A local farmer received an unexpected bonus shipment of pullets that increased his flock beyond his capacity to safely maintain. We took on fourteen of the hens, the most the farmer would allow us to acquire. In the overcrowded conditions to which the birds were temporarily subjected, they inflicted no small degree of damage to one another. Feathers were pulled loose until many of the birds were half-plucked. Their skin was raw and sore and, in some cases, infected. Despite our best efforts, four of the hens died. But, being the kind of people who believe that the glass is half full, ten survived and are thriving. One of them, a Rhode Island Red, is particularly friendly. She’s the first to bound out of the coop each morning and will run across the yard to greet us when we arrive back home. We call her Little Red.

(from left) Buddy, Marsh and S'more

(from left) Buddy, Marsh and S’more

Finally, at least for the purposes of this post, there are the boys: Buddy, Marsh and S’more. Marsh and S’more, two Nigerian Dwarf goats, came to us first, arriving in July of 2o11. They came to us from a family in Cincinnati. Although the family loved them their two large dogs didn’t and made life miserable for the brothers. In seeking a home for them, they contacted the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and through them, us. Buddy, a miniature donkey, came from closer to home. A Putnam County couple kept Buddy as a companion for their horse. When it became too difficult for them to continue caring for the horse, they found it a new home. Sadly, the people who took the horse weren’t interested in Buddy. According to his old family, without companionship, Buddy began to waste away. They contacted us and Marsh and S’more became Buddy’s new buddies. And while they get along phenomenally, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have issues. Jonelle Meyer, a young woman who volunteers here at The Quarry Farm, recently told us of one such incident. As she was currying Buddy, the goats kept wandering up looking for attention. Buddy grew increasingly impatient with this until finally, when S’more refused to take the hint, he reached out, took the brush from Jonelle’s hand, smacked S’more in the face with the brush, then returned it to Jonelle so she could get back to what was really important: taking care of him.

Name that Bird

There were undoubtedly many photos taken of this morning’s glorious sunrise over Northwest Ohio. I have seen a few already. However, none can compare to the west-to-east view of the Quarry Farm above the oxbow wetland. That’s the cut-off for those of you who are old friends and frequent wild raspberry scavengers.

November 19, 2012, from a vantage point west of the sun and east of the moon

Can you guess which silhouette is not like the other? Here are a couple of close-ups to assist.

Closer and closest

Made My Day

Even though there are over 25 species of salamanders native to Ohio, and we should be able to find them under practically every rock, rotting log and leaf pile, we frequently don’t in much of Northwest Ohio. And that’s why we’re so excited that Quarry Farm friend, volunteer and advisor Alaina Brinkman Siefker shared this photo today. She captured this little guy’s image in the Quarry Farm north floodplain, aka “Coburn’s Bottom”, this past Sunday. This animal looks to be a Jefferson or Blue-spotted salamander, or a hybridization of those two species.

Salamanders, frogs and other amphibians usually require both aquatic and terrestrial habitats. They are born in water, develop and move onto land. Talk about your primordial creature. Much of their natural habitat has been destroyed. Not just around here, but all over the world. And if that habitat hasn’t been wiped away, it has been disturbed or chemically altered. Top that off with an impaired atmosphere and you get severely declining amphibian populations.

Researchers consider amphibian populations an indicator of overall environmental health. The salamander that Alaina and her family saw this weekend tells us that we are doing something right around here. Next spring, look for announcements for the First Annual Quarry Farm Salamander Count.

For more about Ohio’s salamander populations and monitoring program, visit http://www.ohioamphibians.com/salamanders/Salamanders.html.

A Shoot, a Release and a Puzzle Solved

As the woods back on the quarry develops, the trees that make the forest are changing. Where there were hawthorne and honeylocust and hackberry, now sugar maples are the prevailing tree. In autumn, these maples provide the brilliant bursts of color that make New England the tourist destination that it is. What better time, then, for The Quarry Farm’s third photo shoot and nature walk?

For those of you that missed it – and you did indeed miss it; it was yesterday – it was just about as good a day as we could have asked for: warm, but not too warm; slightly overcast, but just enough so that it enhanced the lighting for photography; and breezy but not windy. Diane Myers, the rehabilitator behind Black Swamp Raptor Rehabilitation, came for the second time and brought a trio of birds. Included in the mix were a screech owl, a short-eared owl and a barred owl. These birds are permanent residents at her facility and as such are more accustomed to people than their wild counterparts, making image captures a whole lot easier.  The shooting of the birds went as expected, with Diane setting up shop on the grounds near Red Fox Cabin, leashing the birds to tree limb perches so as to increase the impression of a more natural environment. As a bonus, Diane also brought along two rehabilitated birds for release, a red-tailed hawk and a screech owl. In addition to the birds, aquatic macroinvertebrates were on hand, as well as a juvenile Virginia opossum.

The walk back onto the quarry proper was beautiful, but uneventful. We did, however, have a mystery resolved. While on last winter’s photo shoot and walk, we discovered a vole skewered in a hawthorne tree. There was a lot of conjecture at the time as to how the vole could have come to such a state and we settled on the idea that something most likely stashed it there. Well, we were right. According to Dr. Biehl, a naturalist and falconer who was along for this fall’s walk, the vole was stashed there by a loggerhead shrike (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/loggerhead_shrike/id.).

Crow’s Work Is Never Done

This morning Steve was unable to locate Blackie the American Crow’s food dish. Through no fault of Blackie’s, certainly, as his roommate Jo is the crow with the mostest if she has any say.

I took fresh bowls of water in and tried my hand at locating the missing dish. I got down on my hands and knees and looked under the couch, table, cages and under newspaper before giving up. As I cleaned the old newspaper out from the cages, Jo perched on my back for a bit and jumped off when I turned to Blackie. Jo skittered around behind me. When I turned around to leave the room, there sat the missing dish on the floor in front of me.

Crows vocalize at ranges that we can’t always hear. I’m pretty sure that Jo’s subsonic chuckle followed me out the door. Typical.

Being outsmarted by Jo is a frequent occurrence. Not as common are these special events. Come one, come all to:

Talking Turkey

Five wild turkeys ambled through our yard today, not two hundred feet from our home. We frequently hear them in the morning back on the quarry and occasionally see them in the evening, well behind our house, roosting in the cottonwood and walnut trees. They’ve never come this close before, though, and even though I know that they’re simply wandering to and from the soy bean fields across the road and so are likely to pass close by either here or Red Fox Cabin, it still caused me a bit of concern. I worried that they were becoming less wary, less concerned about our presence and, by association, the presence of other people, as well. I worried about the upcoming turkey season and how they’d prove easy targets if they were comfortable around us.

I worried, that is, until I tried to get a photo.

It was Anne who first spotted them and pointed them out to me. They were walking down a path along the tree line that separates the farm part of The Quarry Farm from the nature preserve side. I grabbed my camera and headed out to where Anne had last seen them. I moved to the far side of the tree line and worked my way up the path on the other side, then down the path on our side of the trees. Then up again. Then down. You’re looking at every photo I was able to get. You see them, right? The photographs, here between the lines of black and white text? Yeah, neither do I. That’s because I couldn’t get any. I can’t say that I didn’t see them. I did, at least in bits and pieces: the glide of a blue-gray head; a bronze-feathered body slipping through brush; a quick flash of red from a wattle. But that was all I got, quick glimpses. They ran me round and round an area about the size of an American football field, always on the other side of the field and always virtually concealed in thick scrub. So, no worries about their growing comfortable with humans. And no photos, either, not of turkeys anyway. But, since a picture paints a thousand words, here’s a shot from the winter before last.

It is autumn, though, and there are plenty of other animals moving about. In the back field, a leopard frog boasted better than average camouflage. If it hadn’t jumped, I never would have seen it. In the woods, the last of summer’s dragonflies are torpid with the cold, allowing for some pretty extreme close-ups. Closer to home, in the crabapple tree some thirty feet from our front door, a wheel bug traveled leaf to leaf, hunting an increasingly rare meal.

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Looking for White Cat

We’ve been busy here. You’ve been busy there, wherever your ‘there’ may be. So much going on that, like me, you are in danger of missing the gold-tinged greens and amethysts of ebbing August, at least as it is here on the Quarry Farm.

I did almost miss it. We have caught a smattering of the sunsets, the kind that include that frosted-animal-cookie pink. But any noticing has been as we walked past a window or distributed hay to Buddy, Marsh and S’more or put the hens to bed. Then one of us left a door unhinged enough that Beatrice opened the front door and let the cat out.

Although we do have several cats, it was White Cat that slipped out. White Cat is deaf as are many white male cats. While there are plenty of dashing, flying and sparkly sorts of things in the outside to entertain a house cat, there are even more along Cranberry Run and in a 50-acre woods that will feast on feline. One that can’t hear a predator approach is especially vulnerable. So we looked high and low for White Cat. And as we did, we caught late summer.

Wild plums ripen

The wild plums are ripening on the nature preserve. Some hang at eye level beside the rich yellow Jerusalem artichokes and purple ironweed on the stream bank. Most plums are rose gold, but some are beginning to flush to mauve. For the first time, Steve will be able to make wild plum preserves to sell at the Quarry Farm table at the Farmer’s Market. (Warning: shameless plug for funding ahead.) Reserve your jar now through the Gift Shop!

Jewelweed, nature’s cure for the maddening itch imposed by poison ivy, is in bloom in the floodplain. The algae growth that plagues Cranberry Run, as well as most of Northwest Ohio’s waterways, is camouflaged by shimmers of sunlight that ignite the riffles. Higher up, the sun itself glows through the tired summer leaves, although the sunlight is cooling from the white hot of June and July. Better and better.

Bushel gourd on the vine

Down low, bushel gourds swell under huge vine leaves. Recent rains have brought on a good crop. The leaves have already been used this summer in a stepping stone workshop. More will be made before the vines wither in frost. The chickens and Johnny the Canada goose find this ground-level search fascinating, especially since disturbed vines yield fat, juicy crickets.

Wounded White Cat and Birdy nose

Even lower, under Buddy’s barn, White Cat is found. The roosters knew he was there; it just took the obtuse humans two days to figure it out. He has earned himself a gash under one eye and a limp, injuries probably inflicted by Buddy. Back in the house, White Cat is thoroughly sniffed before he settles himself in for a good grooming. Outside, the finches and field mice can peacefully ready themselves for the cold months. We will remember to notice.

It’s the little things (that show you care)

Here on the farm sanctuary of the Quarry Farm, you all know by now that we have chickens. Of those chickens, four are roosters. One rooster, Sid, doesn’t count because he is fancy and that keeps him docile and slow-moving. Bernie, Jeff and Ralph are birds of a different feather altogether.

These three probable Rhode Island Reds have three different origins that shall remain a mystery to us. But all three will live their lives together in the paddock with Buddy the miniature donkey and Nigerian dwarf goats S’more and Marsh. Sid has the roam of the rest of the place where he is tolerated by the hens who can easily out-manuever  him. The three other roosters have an easy truce between themselves as long as the hens keep out of the paddock. And when no one is in there with Mr. Shovel.

Unfortunately Mr. Shovel must make an appearance every morning in order to remove the donkey, goat and rooster leavings from the previous day. Bernie, the original rooster, does not care for Mr. Shovel. Nor does he particularly care for the person who is wielding Mr. Shovel.

If you have ever been spurred by a full-grown rooster, you know it results in white-hot searing pain that bleeds like nobody’s business. The kick that accompanies the spur usually leaves bruises. I myself actually suffered my first severe ankle sprain after a confrontation with Bernie. Since chicken dinner is not on the menu here on the farm sanctuary (so don’t even go there) I have learned: A) not to wear bright red around Bernie; B) keep Mr. Shovel between myself and Bernie; C) make sure Ralph is keeping an eye on Bernie.

At first Bernie was very friendly, but sometime during the course of the second year he became aggressive, mostly with me. Steven claims it is because I wore a bright red rain jacket around him. The jacket went to Goodwill, but Bernie still came after me every time my back was turned. So Bernie was banished to the paddock so he wouldn’t go after anyone else. That helped until he took a dislike to Mr. Shovel. Enter Ralph.

Ralph came to live with us about two years after Bernie did. He was adopted with a group of hens, all unwanted by an Allen County landowner. So as to give the hens here a relatively stress-free existence, we put Ralph in the paddock, too. Ralph and Bernie duked it out for a while and Ralph came out on top. Jeff joined the fray some time later the same summer. Ralph remained the dominant rooster, so much so that Bernie’s comb diminished and he became quite tame. For about a season.

This spring, Bernie again decided that I am not to be trusted and indeed am to be chucked out of the paddock at every opportunity. But Ralph doesn’t feel that way. My little red-combed savior will keep himself between Bernie and me, even driving Bernie off to the far corner of the paddock. Ralph will also break up private trysts between Jeff and a hen named Barbara, but that’s a different story.

Just a few minutes ago, Ralph came to my rescue again. After posting this, I am going to take him a slice of yellow squash.

By the way, the photo of the horned worm has nothing to do with this story. Steve took this last week as these voracious creatures were being hand-eradicated from the tomato patch at Red Fox Cabin. I just thought it was a cool shot.

A Swift Release

Sunset from The Quarry Farm.

This has been a strange year, a difficult year, in some respects. An overabundance of spring rain gave way to summer drought and a flurry of fierce storms. The storms, in particular, have proven hard on the living and arguably hardest on the birds. Strong winds shredded trees and the nests to which they offered insufficient protection. For many wildlife rehabbers in the area, the storms brought a rain of orphaned and abandoned birds. This past weekend, Natalie Miller, education and rehabilitation specialist with Nature’s Nursery, brought two of these foundlings to The Quarry Farm. The birds were chimney swifts and they are a welcome addition to the fauna here.

One of two chimney swifts brought to Red Fox Cabin for release.

Chimney swifts (http://www.chimneyswifts.org/) are insectivores. Incredibly fast flyers, hence their name, they wheel about as sunset approaches, snatching meals of flying insects. And, again as their name suggests, they nest in chimneys, such as the one at Red Fox Cabin. Finding established populations of chimney swifts is becoming increasingly difficult. Abandoned or rarely used chimneys, the kinds of places where swifts can set up house unmolested, are rare. So it was worth the hour-long trip south to release these birds here, where others of their kind can help them learn the skills they’ll need to survive.

Red Fox Cabin

We took both birds out to the cabin just about mid-evening. Although there was no immediate sign of the resident swifts, they’re a common sight here. As it turns out, we only released one of the birds (the video of that release accompanies this post; don’t blink or you’ll miss it). As the released bird swept up and over the tree line along the road, five of the Red Fox Cabin swifts flew in from over the quarry and herded the newest member of their flock away from the soy bean field and back to The Quarry Farm. As for the second swift, it still needs a little more care, a bit more time to grow, before it’s ready for release. For now, it’s in the capable hands of Rita Seitz, and probably will be for at least another week. When the time comes for it to join the others, we’ll be sure to let you know.