Continuing with trying to catch up the blog from last year, we bring you a cautionary tale about expecting the unexpected.
European starlings can easily reach plague proportions on a farm. They are precocious and prolific breeders and can produce multiple clutches per year. They eat anything they can get their beaks on, they aren't shy around people or activity and they are cavity nesters so their chicks are more protected from predators and environment then other birds. Populations build quickly. And the more numerous they are the more creative they become in finding nesting sites. We've had them plug chimneys, grain elevators, downspouts, the eaves of buildings, the elevators of corn pickers and the horns of forage choppers with nesting material.
Last summer Andy climbed on one of the tractors to start it and nearly had a heart attack when a starling flew into his face from a narrow gap next to the throttle lever on the dashboard. The tractor had been idle for a few days....
Removing the hood over the engine revealed what the bird had been up to - nest building way up toward the nose of the tractor.
In just a few days the starling had investigated and found the spot acceptable despite the smell of diesel and oil and metal, dragged all the material in for the nest and laid a clutch of eggs. Thankfully they had not hatched so we weren't faced with a quandary of what to do with live chicks.
Quite the feat - the gap it entered is just to the left of the levers with knobs and the route goes behind the dials, then up and along the length of the tractor, under the metal arch that holds the hood rigid and to a void. How many trips did it take to fill the space with enough material to make the nest?
Andy was in up to his elbow clearing it and took a good peck basket of dry grass and twigs out of the gap. You could hardly ask for more combustible material.
Disaster averted, thankfully. I wonder if the insurance agents have heard 'fire from bird nest' before?
Poor neglected blog. Why haven't I posted? No valid excuse like a long illness or sinister reason like being in jail. Summer just got real busy and I fell out of the habit and so here we are - months of things to catch up on. Although I didn't blog, I did take pictures so if I can remember what they are........
First up - Julie and I trekked to Kentucky to visit thecrazysheeplady at Equinox Farm. It's a vacation for us although our 'men folk' back home have extra work with our various creatures. Maybe the resultant peace and quiet is a good trade off for them. ;-)
This was the maiden voyage for my new truck! The big Dodge was retired and traded in on this new Toyota Tacoma. This seems to be the only brand and model on the face of the Earth with a manual transmission, four wheel drive and a six foot bed. We've never had a Toyota but was willing to try. As I write this five months after the purchase I can say that we're hugely impressed and very happy with this vehicle. And Andy was NOT happy with this picture - the angle makes him look like a bent old man and that ain't the case. ;-)
Kentucky was plenty hot which suited me just fine. One of the fun (for me) things we did was put on bee suits and check on the health of neighbor Stella's beehive.
Miss Stella, surveying the situation
Someone else was keeping a close eye on the goings-on, too. You never can tell when something might need to be herded on a moment's notice.
Julie took pictures with my camera so there aren't any close-ups, but basically the hive was OK except for an infestation of tiny, tiny ants under the lid of the beehive and the bees were really angry about it.
After Sara took the lid off we could see the ants and brushed off as many as we could find on the underside of the lid and the top edge of the frame. They seemed to only be under the lid, not down inside the hive. The bees calmed down a good bit after that.
We took the upper box off and set it aside as not much was going on there. The next level down had some frames with honey.
The bees seemed busy and present in good quantity. Sara felt things were going well in the hive and we put everything back together. I found it very interesting and something that would be fun to do.....someday when I don't have fifty other fun things pending. ;-)
We spent some time refining Sara's monarch butterfly nursery set up, collecting more caterpillars from the wild, releasing butterflies that had hatched (The proper term for that is 'eclosed'. There, that's a thing you know now.) and trying to take pictures of the stages along the way. She put up several really good pictures on her blog.
Poor Kate found it dreadfully boring.
It did rain off and on most days so setting the adult butterflies free was dependent on when the sun came out. The sheep didn't care for the rain either and most of the flock spent a lot of time in the barn under the big fans but Rocky and Jared, two retired (and neutered) breeding rams originally from our farm, didn't care if they got wet and were often the only two sheep out grazing.
When we did get an opportunity to let butterflies go, they usually went up into a tree to rest and adjust to their new reality. One has to wonder whether they remember being a caterpillar and have to wrap their mind around now being different than they were. Or maybe they don't remember what happened to them two seconds ago and suffer no existential crisis over their changed condition. They do remember how to get back to where they hatched after wintering in Mexico..... Hmm, so many mysteries.
We had the good fortune to visit when Sara and Stella were celebrating their birthdays (momentous numbers for both) and so naturally there had to be a party. And because the forecast was for rain it was planned for the barn.
"A party?? Gladys, that usually means cookies!"
"Did somebody say 'cookies' ?
"Cookies? Meh. I do not care for cookies."
"But Cheerios........if there were to be Cheerios.......... "
"Um, I like cookies AND Cheerios. Just so you know."
"I'm not really sure if I want you to throw me a party."
"Wait - what do you mean the party's NOT for me? It should be."
The party was grand, with lots of food and friends and cake. It did rain so being in the barn was smart although Gladys went to bed before it ended.
By the time Sara gave everyone a last scritch before bed the clouds had rolled back to show a full moon.
"I'm in bed and I'm not getting up, even for scritches."
"Did somebody say 'scritches'?"
Everybody who wanted petting got some quality time.
Woody came from our farm and spent some time with me getting reacquainted.
Talk about leaving an impression on someone. He was damp, leaned against me and left this pattern on my jeans.
Jared has revealed himself as a lover at heart and seeks attention when ever possible. The photo is unfortunately blurry but it shows his sweet nature. I'm so glad he and so many others have landed with Sara.
The next day was sunny. And hot. And humid. These butterflies were 'mud-puddling' at the foot of Stella's driveway. There's a monarch - maybe one that Sara raised.
And this pretty one was by itself.
We took Stella on a little tour in The Unit to check the cattle behind her property, look at some barn renovations and just see what the neighbors were up to. ;-)
The neighbor's horse enjoyed some watermelon rind from Julie as a treat.
The cattle were about as comfortable as anyone could be. All they lacked were beach chairs and a cooler of adult beverages.
On the way back Sara stopped to snap the farm from the perspective of Stella's yard. We'll call this 'Girl with camera looking home'.
All too soon it was time to head back to New York. One last breakfast on the porch with everyone. (Dreadful picture through the screen door, but that's Tilly, Comby and Gladys companionably sharing kibble).
It's that time of year around here - Monarch butterflies are in the air although not in the numbers I remember from years ago. Their population has been in decline for some time and apparently there are people - legions of them - who work to help Nature by raising the caterpillars and releasing the adult butterflies. My friend Amy the Fibergoddess from Stone Edge Fibers collects young ones and raises them every year and she inspired me to do the same. (She also pointed me to a great facebook group - Raising Monarch Butterflies.)
We have an abundance of milkweed and it's actually an invasive weed that farmers try to keep out of their crops. Not only does it spread by the pretty, fluffy parachute-like seeds that the wind carries but roots send up new shoots and can remain viable underground even after some herbicides have been used in an area. We see it growing on the edges of fields and in fence rows and have several large islands of it that have sprung back with vigor in alfalfa that was cut in June.
Mortality in the caterpillars in the wild is pretty high. Despite being nasty tasting, which is supposed to discourage birds, they are preyed on by other insects and are subject to viral and bacterial diseases just like all other living things. Caterpillars fend for themselves so taking them from the wild and raising them to adulthood doesn't interfere with any family/pack/flock social structure.
I carried a small Tupperware container with me while walking Holly and found several to adopt! The bigger ones were set up in an empty plastic dog biscuit container with the lid altered to have mesh on top. I broke the tops out of some plants in the field and stood them upright in the container. Everyone seemed very content.
I also found an egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. They are very small - the size of a grain of salt but smooth and barrel shaped. I put the leaf and a couple very small caterpillars (cats, as the 'professionals' call them) in a Tupperware container with the lid snapped on. Opening it a few times a day gives the littlest ones sufficient fresh air and also keeps the humidity up for them. In just a couple of days the egg hatched. That's the newly hatched 'cat', on the leaf below 'Liberty'.
I put the containers on the sill of a north facing window. They need light but I didn't want to put them in direct sunlight. At night they go into the breezeway which is a secure 'cat free' zone (Real cats!) so mayhem doesn't occur. I put sticky notes on the lids to remind myself how many residents each container holds.
It didn't take but a couple of days and the largest ones were looking for a spot to make a chrysalis. I moved them to a larger container with mesh over the top. They promptly crawled up there and made the change. Tactical error on my part - now it's hard to move the mesh top without disturbing them. Live and learn.
As other cats matured and started looking for a place to make the change I let them stay in the container they were housed in until they picked a leaf to stick to. Then I plucked the leaf and clipped it to a bare branch I had set in the big container.
Once they pick their spot and make a "J" I'm certain they will stay put and change.
By this morning I was up to ten chrysalis in the big tub and the very first, oldest one (about 2 weeks old at this point - note to self, keep better track of how many days the various stages take) had turned clear and I could see the black and orange of body and wings, albeit all scrunched up. By afternoon the butterfly was out!
After letting it rest and stretch I moved it - him, it's a male - to a goldenglow blossom to finish his butterfly exercises.
At the moment I have nine more in chrysalis, three mid-sized cats and three eggs that I just found today. Reading some of the facebook posts about things that can go wrong with them is dismaying but so far they all seem to be developing normally and it's satisfying to see the milkweed leaves being devoured and the caterpillars growing. I can manage a seasonal increase in the livestock around here when there's a happy set-you-free ending! And maybe it will help them recover just a little.