violet jelly, Mother’s Day and a walk in the woods

Violets We’re always looking for a reason to celebrate, here on The Quarry Farm, teasing out any excuse to pull together with friends and family for food and song and conversation, but particularly food. Today, we didn’t need to look far; Mother’s Day is a perennial favorite. So we set up camp in the Seitz Pavilion, the shelter house on the north end of the cabin grounds, and laid out the spread ‘til the tables groaned. There were cold-cuts and salads and chips and dips and condiments, but for the Seitz family, the meal is what you have to wade through in order to get to dessert. Never was there a single family with so many talented bakers. Today’s menu included strawberry cake and rhubarb, cherry and black raspberry pies. Here, then, was one of the many faces of bliss.

When we were done, Anne and I took a short walk back on the quarry so that Anne could pick violets. For the past several years, we’ve made it a habit to make violet jelly and this year is no exception. I hobbled along behind, determined to work off some of the weight I’d just packed on. And while Anne worked, I played, taking quick photographs of anything I found myself looking at.

Painted TurtlesThe quarry itself is one of my favorite places. It rarely fails to offer up something worth watching, a moment worth recording. Painted turtles, sunning themselves on a log, sat still jFrogust long enough for a single image capture. Ranging along the shore, a solitary sandpiper picked its careful way around the quarry while a pair of wood ducks coursed nervously back and forth. A green frog, or possibly a bullfrog, just barely broke the water’s surface, .

While any body of water is tantalizing, moving water is even more so. Cranberry Run, the stream that courses through the Riffleproperty that makes up The Quarry Farm, is a source of constant fascination. At what we commonly call the ford, a partially burned log was caught up in the rocks that create a riffle there. While we didn’t bother looking, there are undoubtedly any number of aquatic insects and other macroinvertebrates sheltering beneath it and the stones that the Little Cranberry swirls over.

There are paths cut through the woods that make up The Quarry Farm. What was once pasture land for dairy cows has worked Virginia creeperits way through a succession of stages that have brought it to its present state, something that is more and more resembling the temperate, hardwood rain forest it once was. Where there were once scrub trees, shrubs and bushes there are now primarily sugar maple trees and black walnuts. Virginia creeper and poison ivy climbs these trees, using the bark as a lattice and creating a curtain of green and red.

Just slightly off the beaten path is the area we call the Cut Off. Sometime in the 1950s, in an effort to move water more quickly away from agricultural land, area waterways were straightened, or “ditched,” as was more commonly said. What is now the Cut Marsh MarigoldOff was an ox bow in Cranberry Run. The county simply recoursed the stream and blocked off the oxbow, isolating it from the stream. Even so, the Cut Off is an aquatic habitat on its own. The tile from a nearby field empties into the old ox bow and keeps it hydrated for most if not all of the year. Here there are all manner of plants and animals that survive despite the damage done to Cranberry Run. Dutchman’s britches and may apples grow along side ramps. Recently, after a trip north to a nursery that offers only native species, Anne returned with a sampling of marsh marigolds that she planted near the water and in a swale that helps to feed the Cut Off. We were pleased to find them thriving.

Jack In the PulpitWhat we didn’t photograph was at least as exciting: a rufus-sided towhee, a common yellow warbler and a black-throated green warbler. There were dragonflies and turtles and dozens upon dozens of plants, some flowering some not, that are only now gaining a toe-hold here on the quarry, plants that we’ve talked about transplanting here that have, instead, and thankfully, arrived on their own. Plants like wild ginger and dragon’s tongue, jack-in-the-pulpit and bloodroot. The plants and animals that make their homes here are, like the stream that runs through The Quarry Farm and the face of the land itself, constantly changing, Even so, it allows for a familiarity that breeds comfort. For that, we are forever grateful and excited by the new challenges and opportunities that every day presents.

Wood Ducks

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 shrike

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.