Thursday, 25 August 2016

Lawn Service

We finally received some much needed rain, bringing an end to months of oppressive heat and severe drought. Our brittle lawns no longer crackle under foot and the air has a wonderful, freshly laundered fragrance. 

Starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds have vacated these summer breeding grounds and are now further south. Among our remaining birds is a colourful woodpecker, the Northern Flicker. Over the past few weeks, a female of the yellow-shafted variety has been providing me with a complimentary lawn service of pest control and soil aeration.

Bill deep in my patchy lawn, she probes for edibles.

You can see why this flicker is the yellow-shafted version.

She pulls out an item that might be a spider.

A quick check for danger before resuming her treasure hunt.

Jackpot! A plump and juicy grub. Sweet!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Summer Sweets

A few days ago I pulled some honey from my hives. This early harvest was quite mild, in fact wine tasters would likely pronounce it "lacking in character". Still, an early sweet treat that when drizzled over a small dish of salted peanuts makes a very satisfying snack. 

A jar of early honey becomes an amber jewel.

Two little fliers zoom in on a freshly filled nectar feeder.

Sugar water drips do not go to waste.

I like to train my binoculars on the edge of the hay field at the back of our property.

This coyote was focused on something to the south and ignored me completely.

Among the many joys of summer are fresh and cheerful bouquets.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Jimmy or Jenny?

I have quite a soft spot for skunks. Their black and white coat is elegant haute couture. They help keep rodent populations in check and you have to admire their natural ability to use 'bear spray' if threatened. Skunks and I have shared many walkabouts and I must say, they have been nothing but polite to me. My cat, Ellie Mae, prefers them to other cats.

When I was about five, I saw my first litter of baby skunks tottering behind their foraging mother and was forever smitten by their cuteness. As children, we thoroughly enjoyed the series of fictional animal adventure books by Thornton W. Burgess. One of these was titled 'The Adventures Of Jimmy Skunk'. Consequently, we tend to label each skunk we see with the nickname of Jimmy.

Early some mornings, I spy my resident Jimmy stopping by a little pond for a drink before denning up for the day. I notice that the animal has a bulge that could either be a full stomach or a baby bump. Perhaps 'Jenny' would be a more appropriate name. 

Jimmy skunk takes an early morning drink from my backyard tub.

He seems to check for edibles that might live around the water.

Could that be a baby bump or just a well fed stomach?

A few years ago, I had fun sculpting this little character from polymer clay.


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Ol' MacDonald ...

... E-I-E-I-O.

We have farmer neighbours whose family name is MacDonald. But these days, the lyrics from the famous old children's song wouldn't describe their farm. No 'oink, oink' or 'cluck, cluck'. They have only one species of farm animal and that is dairy cows. Lots of them!

They raise pure bred Holstein cattle and the milk cows have recently moved into a brand new dairy barn. One of the owners kindly gave me a tour of their new building. I was gob-smacked at the level of automation.

The new, ultra-modern barn has two robotic milking stations, each capable of milking seventy-five cows several times a day or night. The robots keep track of precise data including volume and quality of the milk each cow produces and her daily weight. The cows voluntarily enter the milking station for a tasty treat, dispensed if they are due to be milked. Each cow wears an electronic tag, enabling the milking station to recognize her. If a scan of her ID tag indicates the cow is due to be milked, a yummy feed reward is dispensed in an amount customized to her production data. The robot then cleans her teats, attaches the milk cups and milking commences. If the cow is not due to be milked, no treat is given and the gates open to release her.

Not only is the milking chore fully automated but so is feeding, stable cleaning and even grooming. Not for the first time, I wonder "How can the future possibly improve on this?"

At most farms, there is the occasional sound of a cow bawling. During my visit to this particular farm, I heard not a moo from the herd. They were content. And why not? They walk on rubber flooring and bed down on dry sand. They were relaxed and friendly, well fed, nicely groomed and content to enjoy their pampered modern lives.


The feed mixture smelled wonderful. These cows seem to agree.

A cow enjoys her dairy ration while being automatically milked.

View from the milking station.

Milk collection unit.

Dairyman Shawn, chats as his robotic feed mill distributes cattle feed.

The milk cows are free to feed whenever they want.

Newly freshened and about to freshen cows lounge nearby.

The cows choose to lie down on beds of sand.

Throughout the barn are automatic grooming brushes.

Some of this year's future dairy stars.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Buzz'n And Flutter'n

I'm continuing to monitor my honey bees with the sugar shake mite count. So far, I have found zero mites. July and August is the time when mites reach their highest levels, concurrent with the peak volume of honey bee brood cells that varroa mites reproduce in. I'll continue regular mite sampling checks until the hives are wrapped for the winter.

But I noticed that the great majority of returning worker bees are favouring the top entrance over the bottom board entrance. And traffic jams were occurring during peak foraging hours. So I gave each top box an additional two entrances. Bee traffic is flowing much better now.

When I added a box to each hive, I used thawed frames of honey near the box sides and empty frames for new comb and brood in the center portion. Some of the honey was dripping a bit and the sweet scent lured a hummingbird. She spend a few minutes searching for the source, then gave up and returned to the flowers.

My honey bees are making good use of the two additional entrances.

A hummingbird is drawn to the sweet scent of newly added honey frames.

The nest of Yellowthroat warblers now contains three newly hatched babies (all legitimate, not a cowbird among them). They are growing incredibly fast, thanks to their devoted parents. In only a couple of days their tiny naked wings have sprouted pin feathers. The parents seem to have gotten used to my occasional and brief inquisitive visits and only issue token scoldings.

Only days old, these Yellowthroat warbler babies are growing remarkably fast.

A tree swallow delivering food to his youngsters.

Feral Ginger Thomas is not chatting but licking his lips after a hearty meal.


Monday, 6 June 2016

Egg Fraud

The gooseberry bushes, planted decades ago by my parents, have become badly overgrown with grass and weedy shrubs. A couple of days ago I made a mental note to bring out my pruning sheers and tidy up the mess. But just as I eyed a honeysuckle plant that would be on the hit list, I noticed that it held a dainty little nest, containing two delicate eggs. It belonged to a pair of Yellowthroat warblers. She flew off the nest and then scolded me from a nearby branch. Trimming will have to wait until the nesting season is over.

 A female Yellowthroat warbler waits for me to leave before returning to her nest.

Her tidy little nest held two dainty and speckled eggs.

A male Yellowthroat warbler challenges his reflection in my window.

This afternoon I noticed that the Yellowthroat nest now has four eggs. But something is not quite right about the clutch. One egg is noticably bigger than the others and patterned a little differently. It belongs to a Brown-headed cowbird. Bad news for the Yellowthroats! The illegitimate cowbird egg means almost certain death for the warbler young.


Three Yellowthroat warbler eggs and one Brown-headed Cowbird egg.

Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of over 200 bird species, sneaking in at daybreak and quickly depositing an egg as well as throwing out an egg belonging to the host. Red-winged blackbirds are capable of raising both their own young as well as that of the cowbird, but this is seldom the case of the smaller host birds.

Each female cowbird is capable of laying dozens of eggs per season. She never builds a nest or cares for her young. No Mother's Day cards for her!

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Morning Walkabout

This morning I took a wander back our field lane to the far reaches of the property. Not only for the much needed exercise and to fill my lungs with the sweet air of June, but to see what wildlife is up and about at 6:00 am.

Bird activity was fairly quiet, which I suspect is due to their having already nested and not wishing to draw attention to their sites. Raiding crows, grackles and jays are always on the lookout for tasty eggs or nestlings and as the day progresses, outrage of defense and of offence increases.

Beside my house and at the top of a tall pine tree, is a nest of crows. The young, already the size of their parents, sit near the nest and squawk out demands for food. As their parents fly in and out on groceries runs, they are harrassed by smaller birds who fear their own young will be on the menu.

By the afternoon, robins sound random but urgent alarms of "Cat! cat! cat!" Sometimes peaceful and sometimes mayhem, these days of summer roll on.

The morning sun paints a dappled effect on our tree-lined lane.

Instead of their traditional elm, this year's oriole nest is built in an ash tree.

An eastern phoebe watches for flying insects. Including my honey bees.

Under the front porch awning, a robin broods her eggs.

These four young robins are about to leave their nest, built in a tractor shed.



In mid-May I picked up my two new colonies of honey bees.  They have now settled in and are increasing their populations nicely. This week I tested one of the hives for mite levels with the sugar shake method. No mites were found. In a few weeks I'll test the other colony. After last year's disastrous loss of all my bees, I'm now a bit paranoid.

Instead of feeding the new colonies sugar syrup, I gave them inverted jars of crystallized honey. It seems to be appreciated.


My two new honey bee colonies seem to be thriving.

As the day warms up, their foraging activities increase.

Worker bees rush home with water, nectar and various colours of pollen.

They have consumed almost half a jar of last year's honey.

Like tiny window washers, these girls clean up their side of the glass.




Monday, 16 May 2016

A Bit Of The Grape

This morning is blustery and cold in my neck of the woods. In fact, snow flurries have been reported in the Ottawa area. I'm not bothered about low temperatures. Simply adding a layer or two of extra clothing solves that problem. But high winds make me prefer to putter about indoors. One of these putterings produced new jelly feeding trays for my Baltimore Oriole guests. The bottle caps were just too small so I replaced them with honey sample cups.

This afternoon I'll be picking up two new honey bee nucleus colonies from local bee breeder and provincial bee inspector, Brent Halsall. It will be so good to see and hear honey bees once again foraging among the flowers.  

A male Baltimore Oriole enjoying the refurbished grape jelly tray.

This female Baltimore Oriole also appreciates a bit of the grape.

"Oh waitress, same again here please!"

Nesting above my deck, I hope the robins won't scold when I relax there.

A wild turkey takes a stroll in our field laneway. Perhaps shopping for a nest site?

Jimmy skunk made a rare daytime appearance when he smelled roast chicken.