Spring Animal Notes

April 9, 2017

My Pilgrim goose, Kay White, sat down on a clutch of nine eggs March 31st. This is the earliest she has ever started brooding. She is six years old and apparently has finally gotten the hang of the process. For her first three springs Kay laid and laid and laid, leaving the growing pile (up to thirty eggs) to get old and cold while she gallivanted happily outside.

This year she began by laying six eggs in the corner of the calf stall. However, when lambing stopped, she abandoned that nest — so challenging having to work around Moxie’s schedule for access! — and laid nine more in the corner of a lamb jug. Then she sat. If all goes well, we should have goslings on May Day.

After his injury last winter, my gander Andy was entirely docile. Though Pilgrim geese are calm by temperament, it was tempting to interpret his quiet submissiveness as gratitude. Thank you for working so hard to save my life! I knew this line of thinking was folly, and at best Andy was simply alarmed by the thought that I might grab him and force a feeding tube down his throat. Still, it made me feel good.

That new docility evaporated the moment Kay began ovulating. Andy was instantly back on patrol, honking and hissing. He snakes his head along the ground, warning me (and any passing chicken) not to approach the royal bedroom. He stands on tiptoe and flaps his wings, showing his might. He keeps a wary eye peeled for suspicious activity at all times.

It can be hard to find the self-control not to kick a goose who is viciously pinching your thigh and beating his wings against your leg. However I remember how much I love the old fool and I recall that it is a temporary madness.

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Last weekend after chores, moving boxes from the mudroom at around 5 PM, I glanced out the windows of the future dining room and saw a coyote at the bottom of the south pasture.

I was startled. I had closed the chickens in only a few minutes before.

I watched as the coyote turned and trotted straight toward the barn.

Of course the electric fences are turned off for the winter and sagging, windblown and loose.

The coyote trotted up onto Allen’s peninsula …

… and then down to investigate the manure pile. In winter I drop our kitchen vegetable scraps there and the occasional frozen, cracked egg. (In summer I put kitchen scraps in the garden compost.)

I have seen coyote tracks around the barn for many years. I always assumed, however, that they were made under cover of darkness. Last summer, it is true, I lost four chickens to a coyote that came right to the barn door. (I have to write about this soon.) I wonder if it was this coyote. Clearly I will want to re-think where I put my broken eggs, among other things.

Still, even in my nagging anxiety I was thrilled to watch him. From the house I will have a fabulous front-row seat on the farm and wildlife action. That thought made me happy.

*    *    *

After our Friday snowstorm, the robins returned to the farm on Monday, April 3. This moment every year is for me, the real harbinger of spring. Of course we will have more cold and messy weather, when they will hop around the dead, icy ground looking miserable. However, the robins are back and that means summer is coming!


A Lucky Moment

November 14, 2016
[Below is an email I wrote to my siblings last Friday night.]

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)

So today, I was tired when I got home from work, headachey; it was grey and spitting snow. I still had so much work to do. As I walked through this house’s dining room to take my briefcase and books upstairs, I glanced out the window at the lake and saw a swan. A huge swan, floating all alone in a flock of Canada geese.

I leave a pair of binoculars and my Sibley bird book, bought with Mom in Florida in 2003, on the dining room side table. I look up the bird. I work through all the identifying marks. Really? A Trumpeter Swan? (Of course I think of E.B. White and The Trumpet of the Swan.) I must be wrong. Trumpeter swans were almost driven extinct in the 20th century.

I write a Facebook message to the well-known Adirondack naturalist, Larry Master. Larry replies, “Trumpeter swans are very uncommon. I’m sure it’s a Whistler swan, but I’ll be come up and look. I’ll be there in half an hour.” Now I’m feeling extremely anxious and guilty. I am probably wrong and this poor guy is going to drive an hour!  I am a dope!

Meanwhile, I myself have to leave for barn chores. I ask Larry to let me know. I hurry through my hour of chores, race home, and Larry is still here, just about to get in his car. Larry is tall and very thin, with a floppy hat. He sees me and throws his arms wide with a huge smile. “It’s a Trumpeter!”  Of course, though I hardly know this man, I race toward him in my ratty, stinking barn clothes, screaming “YAY!” and give him a big hug!

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)

Larry himself is almost stammering, he is so excited. He has never seen a Trumpeter Swan in the Adirondack Park. He has taken photos. He wants permission to come back in the morning, and to bring a birder friend. He would love to have permission to tell all the birders in the Adirondack Park (scores will show up). I tell him it’s fine for him and his one friend, but I’ll have to find out about the rest, due to the house being school property. I promise to let him know in the morning if the Trumpeter is still here.

Through all this all I could think was, “This is a message from Mom.” Lo I am with you always. (I know this is a bit sacrilegious but I truly had tears in my eyes.)

Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)

*    *    *
The Trumpeter swan and the Canada geese were all gone by morning. These beautiful photos were taken by Larry. (He entered the sighting in a national bird database and “our” swan is the easternmost Trumpeter seen in North America this fall.)
I still feel comforted and happy, thinking of my mother.

The Beaver

August 28, 2016

We are living temporarily in this beautiful house at the edge of a lake. I have loved watching the water in all its moods: roiled with whitecaps in a storm, placidly mirroring a blue sky, or locked in ice. Even more I have enjoyed watching the wildlife. Insects and minnows dimpling the surface. Mergansers, ducks, and loons. A snow goose on the lawn. A great blue heron fishing in the shallows. A coyote crossing the thin ice at dawn.

For the past few days I have watched a beaver early every morning. I have been told that if I see a beaver, I should call the neighbor, who will shoot it. I am not sure why. I understand we can’t have beavers on the streams due to flooding. I don’t know what problem beavers pose to this lake.

I have enjoyed watching the beaver swimming strongly by the house, his small brown head at the surface a wedge creating ripples flowing behind him like a cape. Two days ago he swam past in the other direction, towing a young poplar sapling still with leaves.

I haven’t called anyone.


Dear Mom

August 19, 2016

My mother would have been 93 this week. How I miss her. Yet I think of her every day — in many contexts, but none so immediate as when I am observing wildlife.

It is she I think of when I move a young garter snake out of the way of the mower…

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… stop to watch a barn spider catch and wrap a yellow jacket for dinner (a rare circumstance in which I feel sorry for a yellow jacket)…

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… look at baby meadow voles turned up under the water trough, before carefully returning them to the nest …

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… or pause to watch wild turkeys cross the north pasture.

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The ravens, the hawks, the calling loons, the grouse that explode out of the brush, the mergansers feeding in the lake as the last spring snow falls…

“Look, Mom! Look!”

I was so very, very lucky to have a mother who fostered my love of the natural world.


I Missed It

July 10, 2016

Back in April, when I cleaned out all my bird nest boxes for the new year, I was saddened to discover one was filled with mummified corpses of baby tree swallows. What had killed their parents? It was upsetting to realize that last summer I passed this nest box every day while infants were quietly starving to death.

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I hate these little tragedies. However, knowing how common they are in nature gives me a small (very small) measure of philosophical resignation to my own troubles.

In late May, a pair of bluebirds arrived and moved in.

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I watched them as they built their nest, incubated the eggs, and then wore themselves out feeding a squeaking gaggle of demanding babies. (My camera is dead so these photos are taken with Lucy’s hand-me-down iPhone.) Here is the male resting from his labors.

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And here is the female.

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I have lightened this photo taken on a dark day so you can see Mama keeping watch while Papa feeds the children.

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I drove in early one morning and was alarmed to find a raven sitting on the happy home.

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Although I’m always pleased to see ravens, they are predators. I fervently hoped he had not been munching on my bluebird babies. Surely his beak was too big and the gate just a little too far away to give him a boost to the nest box hole.

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I was greatly relieved to look down from the hayloft later and glimpse Papa back on the job.

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Every day as I mowed the fields and mucked the barn, I watched the comings and goings of the dedicated parents. Last weekend a pair of tree swallows cruised by and caused a ruckus, the bluebirds telling them clearly and firmly, no, this house is occupied.

On Friday afternoon, however, I suddenly realized all was quiet. There were no more busy flights in and out of the box. The bluebirds were gone. The babies had fledged and flown the nest.

And I missed it. Rats!

The barnyard feels a little lonelier.


Dodging A Bullet with Bloat

April 22, 2015

Yesterday morning I was pouring a can of grain into the sheep feeder when I looked through the welded wire and saw an upturned udder and legs stiff in the air. Lambs were trampling the body to get to the grain trough. My heart dropped to my shoes.

I can’t take any more deaths, I thought, even as I walked around to the gate to go in and pull out the body and try to figure out what possibly might have happened.

To my enormous relief, when I got to the ewe I found she was still alive but stuck upside down. It was Geranium, one of my nicest ewes, who had evidently lain next to the feeder on a small slope and then, in getting up, accidentally rolled over onto her back and become wedged next to the feeder, unable to move. Sheep on their backs are not only helpless in the face of attack but their rumens stop working and they fill with gas. This is called bloat. Pressure on the heart will then kill the sheep.

With a tremendous heave on her back hooves, I pulled Geranium away from the feeder. She staggered weakly to her feet. Her sides were so distended with gas she looked as if she were carrying quadruplets. With some difficulty I got her into a jug with hay and water, and by the time I had milked and left for work the painful distension was already beginning to deflate. By evening chores Geranium seemed fine and I let her back in with the flock.

Be still my heart.

*    *    *

Checking the barn last night at 9 PM I heard the first wood frogs calling in the farm pond. We are due for snow today and tomorrow but the frogs tell me springtime is here.


Spring is Here

April 17, 2015

Last Sunday, the day after Allen’s memorial, the sun came out and the temperatures rose. For the first time in months I did not have to dig out a drift over the back fence of the barn paddock. Since then the snowpack has ebbed and shrunk — sometimes by a foot overnight! — until now there are only dirty rags of snow in corners of brown, drowned-looking fields, and in the woods. The robins arrived at the farm four days after they first showed up at school. I stopped wearing gloves, and switched my wool hat for a baseball cap. Yesterday it was 18° at morning chores and 66° by evening. The driveway is glistening and rutted with spring mud. Soon buds will flush on the bare trees and the grass will begin to turn green.

But I have felt exhausted and sad and have watched these bright new beginnings with something like bitterness. For months on the telephone Allen would tell me he couldn’t wait for spring. Now spring is here — one week too late — and he isn’t. I know from other losses that this feeling of angry disbelief will ease. But for now everywhere I look there is sadness and a sense of loss. We worked on every inch of this farm together.

Yesterday morning the first tree swallows arrived, scouting for homes. I was late for work but I made myself stop and take five minutes to clean out the six bluebird boxes that are used by both bluebirds and swallows. In one I found a clutch of bluebird eggs that mysteriously failed last summer.

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Now all six boxes are ready for new occupants. As I climbed back into my truck I heard Allen say in my mind, “Good girl.”

The first insects were hatched and buzzing by evening chores.