Winged Perambulation

There are no two ways about it. Saturday’s Great Backyard Bird Count installment on The Quarry Farm was cold; 0 degrees F cold. Beautiful, with thick frost and snow and blue sky for the walk, but the cold filtered through Thinsulate, wool and whatever else each of us could layer over our pasty winter skins. To quote Jean Shepherd’s Randy, I couldn’t move my arms. But I could move my fingers well enough to record the different species of birds that chattered at us as we hiked the main nature preserve trails.

Our first sighting as a group was of a Downy Woodpecker in the great oak south of Red Fox Cabin. It’s feathers were so fluffed that I was sure it was a Hairy Woodpecker, a larger Downy look-alike that forages along trunks and main branches of large trees. Our frequent-flyer birders Deb Weston and Linda Houshower corrected me. Since I had made the first official recording of the morning–a group of European Starlings who shelter each February and March in the vent above our bathroom shower, I licked my frozen ego and left further identification to the experts. After all, that is one of the things we do here: invite people to share their own areas of expertise with everyone who wants to learn more about the natural world from different perspectives.

Down in the floodplain along Cranberry Run, Brown Creepers and White-breasted Nuthatches circled tree trunks and bobbed in and out of habitat piles created by David Seitz’s ongoing bush honeysuckle and grapevine removal. Bright, berry-red Cardinals chirped and sang. Wild Turkey foot and wing drags crossed the upland path. Woodpeckers left freshly-drilled holes in dead trees for us to find. A Red-bellied Woodpecker who flew above the canopy was one possible culprit. I thought I heard the Red-tailed Hawk that Steve had seen earlier that morning. Instead, it was a sassy Blue Jay mimicking that raptor and everything else his or her big bird brain has mastered.

Thursday birding with Deb and David

Our count from Saturday and another done on Monday is now part of the official GBBC 2020 observation list. Deb and her friend David blazed a birding trail of their own on Thursday. They added their findings to the eBird count. Deb and David will lead the Spring Migration Bird Hike here on April 25.

This morning was a balmy 18 degrees F. The exotic peahens who arrived here recently sat high in a hackberry as the slightly less exotic chickens, donkeys, pigs, goats, geese, ducks, and a llama murmured, snuffled and scuttled from food pellet to seed and hay. The two big birds stared down at me as I left food at the base of their tree, not so much waiting for a chance to eat, but for the frost to melt from the window that they preen in front of as the wilder creatures go about their march to spring.

 

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.).

Raptor Rehabilitation and Release

One of two pre-fledgling turkey vultures surrendered to Black Swamp Raptor Rehab.

This past weekend, we were offered the opportunity to do something a little bit different. As part of our function at The Quarry Farm, we often serve as transporters for several area wildlife rehabilitation centers. Laura Zitzelberger, director of operations at Nature’s Nursery Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation Education, contacted us and asked if we’d serve as courier and chaperone for two pre-fledgling turkey vultures. The barn the two birds were nesting in was destroyed by the storm that tore this area apart in late June. Since then, the birds had been under the care of Diane Myers at Black Swamp Raptor Rehab. Nature’s Nursery had taken in a nestling turkey vulture and were excited at the chance to properly socialize their charge by introducing it to the two birds from Black Swamp.

Despite some rather unsavory habits, turkey vultures are social, intelligent animals (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/id).

The nestling turkey vulture surrendered to Nature’s Nursery.

Sadly, these positive attributes create a challenge for rehabilitators. Imprinting becomes an even more serious concern as their social nature makes them more prone to identifying with their caregivers. This can prove disastrous for any animal and can even prevent their successful release back into the wild. In an effort to offset their natural inclination to bond with their caregivers, the three birds were brought together in the hope that they would bond with each other. Although they can’t be housed together because of a significant difference in age and size, the three birds will be kept adjacent to each other and share a common wall; two on one side, one on the other. It’s hoped that all three birds will benefit from this situation, improving their chances for a successful release.

And speaking of releases, not only did we transport two raptors up, but we also brought one back with us.

Early last autumn, we were called on to pick up a red-tailed hawk in nearby Miller City, Ohio. The bird had been on the ground for a couple of days and the homeowner in whose yard the hawk was sitting had called Nature’s Nursery. We’re not entirely sure what was wrong with the bird, but it was in sorry shape when we arrived. Emaciated and dehydrated, the hawk had no energy to defend itself and we simply walked up to it, wrapped it in a blanket, put it in a carrier and transported it north. After months of exceptional care, the bird’s appearance and attitude had changed drastically and the rehabbers at Nature’s Nursery asked if we’d return her to the county of her birth.

The red-tailed hawk perches shortly after release.

The hawk was slow to realize its situation and initially only flew far enough to perch in the nearest tree. But after a bit and the pestering of several camera-wielding humans, it finally took to wing and flew away and out of sight. I won’t say it was a picture-perfect release, but it certainly was a success.

We hope for the same results for the turkey vultures. When it happens, you’ll be the first to know.

An Hour On the Quarry

We, here at The Quarry Farm, have the great good fortune of living on a piece of land that provides a host of possibilities. Because of the forward thinking of a few remarkable people (and here I’m going to name names: Carl Seitz, Joyce Seitz, Gerald Coburn and Laura Coburn), we have houses and gardens and driveways and such. But we also have an area that, for the past 40 years at any rate, has had the opportunity to go Nature’s way.

For me, there’s a definite split, a line where domestic ends and wild begins. Here is where we keep the chickens, chase the pig, run the dogs, elude the duck and other happy little domestic activities. There is where the wild things are. Here: yard. There: not yard. It’s a convenient line, too, because it’s visible: a strip of trees that divides here and there. I include the line itself, the trees, in the there category, as part of the wild area of the Quarry Farm. From the tree line on is where Nature looms. That’s where Cranberry Run snakes through the property, where the turkeys make themselves known with gobbles and great splay-footed tracks, where great blue herons heave themselves from the water with complaining voices that Hollywood stole for Jurassic Park, where the occasional coyote howls and the foxes yip and the tree frogs sing and the squirrels, raccoons and skunks argue amongst themselves and with anyone or anything else that happens to grab their attention. It’s loud, it’s messy, it’s chaotic and it is absolutely beautiful. It’s a place I love to go. And today, in a very small way, I’m going to share. I set myself a challenge, gave myself one hour to walk along and across the stream, past the quarry and through the trees to the big field, then loop back along the path, across the stream and home again. In that time and along that walk, I took photographs. Fifty-nine photographs, to be precise. I’m not going to burden you with all of them, but I do want to share a few. And it all started in the tree line.

My first photo op fell into the “well, you just don’t see that every day” category. Before passing from here to there, I paused to try and get a shot of a widow skimmer dragonfly. While in the process of completely failing to do that, I heard a rustling in the grass in the treeline. Rabbit, I thought. Then rethought, because I heard a bit of scrabbling as it ran up a tree. Squirrel, then. Nope. I’d heard of groundhogs climbing trees, but that was the first time I’d ever seen it up close and personal. It was a juvenile and had obviously found something tasty (as evidenced by the leaf dangling from the corner of its mouth) that drew it just a little too far from a bolt hole. When it realized that I was coming in its direction, it took the best avenue of escape open to it. Up.

I was pleased to find that the wood duck who had nested on the quarry was still in place along with her brood of four ducklings. They’re skittish birds, quick to run at the first sign of possible trouble. As I came up on them, mother went one way and the four little ones, another. Even so, I caught a quick glimpse of them as they fled across the duck weed. The little ones have grown enough so that they are nearly fully feathered. Their wings whickered as they half-flew, half-ran across the water.

Although it was hot today – temperatures here were pushing 90 degrees – the main trail leading to the big back field was relatively cool. Over the course of the past four decades, the property surrounding the quarry has undergone significant changes. In many places, scrub and thick undergrowth is giving way to hard woods: in most cases, sugar maple trees. Where a relatively short time ago jersey cows grazed, there is now a full-blown second-stage forest. This year in particular, with its mild winter and wet spring, seems to have fostered growth. The trees form a canopy that filters the sun, dappling the ground with shifting patterns of light.

The big back field is nearly as varied in its habitats as the whole of the property. The greatest part of the eleven acres could easily be considered meadow, though there are, spotted here and there, scrub trees and brush. It is surrounded on all four sides by verdant growth: the forest that is the bulk of The Quarry Farm. Black raspberry and blackberry brambles tangle at the edges with wild rose and grape vines reaching out from the woods. On this particular day, a red-tailed hawk spun about the field in ever-widening circles. She screamed as she flew, though I’m not sure why. Maybe calling to a mate or to young offspring in nearby trees, or possibly just announcing her presence.

It’s a source of pride for us that we have such a healthy macroinvertebrate population on the property. This time of year, we see all manner of dragonflies and damselflies.

Twelve-spotted skimmer

They swarm up and down the stream, hunting, procreating and laying eggs, and they teem in the back field where there are plenty of prey species for them to feed on. While there are all manner of stories suggesting that dragonflies and damselflies are a nuisance, possibly even life-threatening, they are simply not true.

Bluet damselfly on rose cane

The fact is that these members of the order Odonata are some of the most beneficial insects out there, eating their weight every day in mosquitoes, midges and other annoying insects.

Ebony jewelwing damselfy

I was fascinated by them as a child, though I rarely had the opportunity to see them.

Now, generally beginning in late April, I go for a walk and there they are. When I see them, I can’t help but think of how cartographers, when they were filling in uncharted areas on maps, would write, Here Be Dragons. And they were probably right.

So there it is. One hour on the quarry. But you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s not necessary to limit yourself to two-dimensions. Contact us and make an appointment to see it in 3D. We’re not only happy to show it to you, but, in many ways, doing precisely that is who we are and certainly what we do. Contact us. Please. We’re counting on it.

Bluet damselfly hovering over Cranberry Run