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First Snow of Winter. Always a Thump on the Side of the Head.

Yesterday was almost 9C and lightly raining so I went to sleep lulled by the promise of continued gentle autumn, perhaps even green grass right up the the holidays.

  Ha!

Awoke to white on the ground and white all around.  The first snow of  the season had arrived as a smug reminder from Jack Frost of what the weather imps are planning to brew up. What’s more, the county salt truck with the big snowplow already bolted on, has just rumbled past, spraying down slippery spots on the road.

First light snow on farm fields

First dusting of white on the empty fields.

Oh, it’s not far below freezing and the sun will no doubt melt the white away before lunch time. The forecast says it will be as much as 9C above on again, a clear attempt to lure us back into a state of foolish delusion.  Then, ka-blamm, a big freeze will hit to turn the soft ground to rock and send foolishly lingering wild geese skidding idiotically across ice on the pond.

Now all the jobs to be got done before winter loom up.  I didn’t do them earlier because it was too hot.  Or too windy.  Or too damp.  Or too nice to bother with  jobs. Now it’s cold and inconvenient to open up the well to see that well heater still works, haul the battery out of the lawn tractor, battle the certain rush to get vehicle rustproofing done, bring out the chain saw to trim back the  tree branches that blocking the view, tarp the woodpiles, put garden tools away, retrieve the hummingbird feeder, etc. etc.  Pleasant procrastination always has its price.

Bird tracks in snow.

The birds have been her already looking for a handout.

Snow is a reminder to stock up on bird seed. The pesky, marauding raccoons go topid for the winter, I hope.  Which means the birds finally have a chance at food before the feeder is rifled by the ring-tailed thieves. Got to stuff back the insulation the cats have ripped out in search of mice.  Got to find and sweep up the dehydrated corpses of mice who made the mistake of trying to move in for the winter.  Put my trusty bicycle to rest and get out the walking poles for snowy roadside hike which will be the winter form of minimum exercise. I might even contemplate having another go at the cross country skis which stranded me in a slippery hollow last year or the bear paw snowshoes hanging so ornamentally on the basement wall.

There will be coyote, wolf, deer, rabbit and all sorts of smaller tracks to scout for winter snow is like a newspaper reporting all the animal business that took place when I wasn’t looking. Sometimes there are so many coyote tracks they must have been having a dance party.  Yet another smart reason for my kitties to live indoors.

So now the sun is out, the white vanishing away like dew and the insidious call of procrastination has begun to whisper. I’ll ignore it this time. The snow will be back.  And I like to avoid shivering as much as I can.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Praying Mantids Take to the Road. Are They Suicidal or Giddy from Romance?

Usually, it’s very hard to find a praying mantis. These majestic insect predators camouflage themselves so skillfully you can stare and stare and never notice them.  You’d swear they were just twigs until one condescends to move. To come upon one once or twice a summer is a true privilege.

Um, which way to the off ramp?

Now, on my autumn bike ride, I find them standing in the road. Last ride, I counted six.  Four, of course, were flattened.  The other two seemed casually  waiting around for the speeding tires to take them out.

So would could lure them from the safety of bushes out onto the suicide strip?

Perhaps a real suicide wish, instant death on the pavement rather than a slow freeze in the coming cold.

They look to me more like large females slowed by abdomens swollen with eggs waiting to be laid. They’re probably judgement impaired by the giddy euphoria of just biting off the head of their mate. Apparently, losing his head makes the male mate more wildly when the impediment of a brain is efficiently removed.

Big mamma (I think) back in the long grass where she belongs.

It’s the eggs that survive the winter in a sturdy egg case, not the mantids (plural of mantis for you spelling spotters). Of course you can keep a praying mantis indoors as a pet if you are willing to mist it daily for moisture and keep up the live cricket supply so it can hunt and dine gruesomely before your eyes.

I bike around the dead ones, help the live ones across and hope I’m doing my bit to increase the hordes of new mantids hatching in the spring. How else do I get to stare and stare and pat myself on the back when I manage to spot one out in the greenery munching down a grasshopper and dreaming of headless romance.

 

 

Dead Frog Alley: Biking the Splatter Road.

Biking on country roads requires a certain ability to stare straight ahead, steadfastly ignoring the  prompts of one’s peripheral vision.  This, unless you are  turkey vulture, is the only way to sail past the assorted road kill ornamenting the route.  Unless you navigate a fixed route regularly, you may not realize how much carnage goes on along our roads.

On my own two mile stretch there are, just today, two dead raccoons, two headless water snakes, one flat black squirrel and countless frogs.

The frogs are a special circumstance, a result of our recent heavy rain.  There is something about a ripping downpour that brings out frogs by the horde to leap about on the road with wild abandon.  Like the froggy version of Singin’ in the Rain. This, of course, results in a froggy massacre that leaves little bodies on the shoulder and mere pale streaks on the paving to indicate former amphibians. City drivers can freak out in a  when suddenly faced with a rain lashed highway full of still hopping, squished and about to be squished frogs under that driver’s tires.

The carnage changes with the seasons.  In the spring, it is the garter snakes emerging from hibernation and crossing the road to summer hangouts.  Then there are the turtles making their ponderous way up from the marsh and across the road to lay their eggs, some deliberately hit by the depraved behind the wheel.  Saddest are the big snappers, probably thirty or forty years old, easily seen but struck down anyway. In the fall it’s black and orange woolly bear caterpillars attracted to the fatal warmth and smoothness of the asphalt.  And the snakes again, heading back to their hibernation dens and probably slowed by cool weather. 

There are the chipmunks, the bunnies, the squirrels, the skunks and even the odd fox, who regularly bite the dust. If only they wouldn’t change their minds just before they reach safety. Raccoons seem especially clueless though so many get killed on the roads that you’d think the road foolish genetic strains would be depleted by now, leaving only the ones who wily enough to survive.

But perhaps even raccoons are not as suicidal as all the birds that insist on darting across, only a couple of feet off the road, in front of a speeding vehicle.  Robins and blackbirds love to do this and often pay dearly.  Meanwhile crows, who regularly play chicken with traffic in search of snacks on the asphalt, never seem to get killed.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dead crow even on the fastest highways.  Not for nothing are they deemed among the brainiest of avians.

Animals are not equipped by nature to judge the unnatural speeds of metal monsters hurtling toward them, often behind blinding headlights. In winter, with so many little creatures in hibernation, things are much better, except for the bunnies and deer.  I have come across a deer in two pieces, well gnawed by coyotes.  Thankfully, the road crews (bless the brave shovel guys) will clean up the big stuff. As for the continual spattering of small stuff, I just stare straight ahead and keep pedaling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs in Costume. Fancy Chickens. Giant Vegetables. It’s Fall Fair Time Again.

Tiny rider’s chances in the timed obstacle course depend on how fast dad can run.

Our local fair is one of the best. It’s been going since 1836 so it’s had a lot of practice. Once a year, dietary contraints do not exist.  One is free to fill up on candy floss, ketchup covered sausages, funnel cakes, pizza, deep fried pickles and Mars bars, hot donuts crunchy with apple cinnamon sugar and chocolate ice cream.

Yes, it’s a quilt. Our local stitchers are prime!

Fueled with these delights, one can take in the miniature horse show, baby ducks, the karaoke corner and the rows of antique tractors.  The arena becomes a temple of county handwork. Magnificent quilts, unbelievably intricate fretsaw creations, entries from all the old age homes fill one end. The hockey rink hosts tables of fruits and vegetables, including the competitive giants.  Entries in the baking contest are all safely behind glass. Local artists vie for Artist of the Year award. Round the edges the Air Cadets and such optimistically hand out brochures. 

Kids can enter the dog show with prizes for longest ears, shortest ears, biggest, smallest and best costume. No cares about pedigree here.

Fancy chicken shows off it’s fluffiness.

Creative veggies make a horse.

Big tractor presents its tough face to farming challenges.

Beyond the arena is the horse show ring where kids on ponies trot through their paces and big horses gallop an obstacle course for the best times. Keep going and you hit the cattle barn where earnest 4H kids lead their carefully curried heifers and steers they’ve raised around the ring for judges approval.

When you’ve checked out the fancy fowls in the poultry barn, you can hit the midway, try to win a stuffed tiger, fly to the sky in Pharaoh’s Fury, eat a sno cone, join the washroom line up. If you still have energy left, you can take in the demolition derby from the fair’s original exhibition stand, enjoy the wrestling show or rock the night away to the evening’s entertainers.

Wheeee!

Simple to say, a good time was had by all. We’re already looking forward to next year. 

When Vimy Came to Visit

Vimy biplane replica touching down in our little airport.

At first, you could hardly make them out. Then three little dots grew in the sky.  The dots resolved into three ancient looking biplanes flying slowly toward us, engines droning throatily in the air.

Shouts went up, ranks of cameras swung to catch the moment, the three biplanes made a stately pass overhead, turned to do it again, then, one by one, touched down on the runway of our little local airport.

Hurrahs went up. Ghosts from the past were honouring us with  visit.

Motor is open for all to see.

The three biplanes are replicas of warplanes flown in the First World War. After hitching a ride in modern cargo aircraft, they made a emotional flypast at the Vimy memorial in France this summer to comemmorate the 100th anniversary of the battle for the high ground of Vimy Ridge that cost Canada so dearly. Now they were flying across the country at about the same speed as you could drive a car.

Flying goggles having a rest.

A peep inside the cockpit.

As soon as they lined up, the crowd swarmed them, peering into the open cockpits, staring into the engines behind the propeller, peppering the pilots with questions.

Quaint, slow and small as the aircraft look, they were killers in WWI. After overcoming skepticism about what possible use these newfangled toys could be, early planes proved themselves by bringing back vital recconnaisance. The next step was pilots tossing down hand grenades and dropping small bombs since the planes could carry very little.

Hanger at camp built to train pilots in World War II

Air to air combat began with pilots shooting pistols at each other and mostly hitting nothing. Then an enterprising French airman took a machine gun up and aerial warfare truly begun. Especially when they figured out how to fire the machine gun without also shredding the propeller.

The stop to visit us was entirely appropriate since our well preserved military camp was hurriedly built as a place to train pilots for World War II. It still has the watchtower against saboteurs, a great hanger now used by the flying club and rows of rickety barracks cabin where Commonwealth trainees must have frozen when the wind howled through in the winter.

Bye, bye Vimy stalwarts. Good luck too.

Our visitors stayed for two hours at our before taking off again for their next stop which would take four hours, at their unhurried pace, in the air. Goodbye Vimy.  Wouldn’t it be splendid to also say goodbye to war.

Tall Ships Make Me Feel Short

Climbing about the rigging, agile as squirrels.

I’m a sucker for sailing ships.  Not puny yachts and weekend sailboats, but the real thing.  Mighty ships from another era with masts and sails that dare the deeps before the wind and storm. So when the tall ships stopped at the nearby town of Bath, I was right there to swarm aboard and pretend I was Jane Tar.

Only a fraction of the complicated ropes everywhere on a sailing vessel.

One thing you don’t realize until you get up close is that these ships are big. A great mass sitting in the water of planking, hatches, towering masts and furled sails. You can get a little seasick just from touring them at the dock.  How, you wonder, do they ever  control all this out on the open sea?

Below decks, bend over and watch your skull.

The country’s tallest ship was there, the Empire Sandy, which slipped off to thrill a crowd of passengers with a three hour cruise.  On the practically windless day, the sails were set to give them their money’s worth. Dozens of eager faces grinned over the rail, dreaming they were pirates.

At the dock, I toured a replica Great Lakes schooner which the captain told me had to be reproduced by diving on wrecks to figure out how to put the gear together. The surprise was going below and discovering that the ship, below decks, could only navigated bent over or you risked your skull on a beam. How did they escape brain damage lurching about under here on a storm?

A couple of soldiers from the war of 1812.

The same with an even bigger ship, a black painted brigantine with masts thicker than a body and neck cramping space below. All the meals for the crew were cooked on a wood burning stove with the pipe thrusting up through the deck to let out the smoke. The stove top sported railing to keep the pots in place against the roll of the waves. Fire hazard was all I could think on a plunging ship wooden ship full of flammable  help and tar.

And ropes?  Well, ropes were everywhere. Thick ones, thicker ones, coiled ones, stretched ones and spare ones. Very clear where the term “learning the ropes” came from. True sailors have to have enormous webs of rope inside their heads.

Big and small, sail moves them all.

A schooner features in my sequel to The Tomorrow Country, so the chance of a bit of research was terrific. I was free to imagine the howl of the wind and the plunge of the bow into smashing waves. Also to glimpse the discomfort and the danger. The romance of a sailing ship is alluring on paper, but not so much in the teeth of a gale with only your wits and a death grip on the wheel to keep you off the rocks. Who can forget the dramatic sinking of the HMS Bounty replica in Hurricane Sandy and the dangerous Coast Guard rescue operation that required. I enjoyed the eye-opening expedition into the bowels of vessels that are now mostly training boats and nostalgic curiosities. When I sail, I’ll choose a ship with a big engine and plenty of standing room below.

 

Thistles: Toughest Thugs of the Weed World, Able to Repel Norse Invaders

July is the month when suddenly, thistles are higher than your head and they rip holes in your arm when you try to pass. There are plenty of thistle varieties but I am talking about the Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) which also has other descriptive names such as “stinger needles”, “cursed thistle”, “creeping thistle” and “lettuce from hell”.  To call it the Canada thistle is a misnomer and a slight on Canada’s reputation.  Like the dandelion and so many of our other weeds, the “lettuce from hell”, is an import from Europe which took hold, probably with the first sack of grain off the first sailing ship, and won’t let go.

Heavily armed with needle-sharp spines.

Centuries of hostility have helped the thistle to evolve into an almost invincible warrior.  It is perennial so it never dies.  It blooms and produces seeds nonstop from June until the frost kills it.  When cut down, it blithely springs up again twice as vigorous.  Its fluffy seeds float lightly through the air to start new colonies long distances away.  Roots snake out twenty feet, sprouting little new plants all along the way.  And don’t even think that digging the thistle out of the ground will stop it.  Each tiny, broken fragment of root left behind will regenerate into a new plant to more than replace the uprooted parent.

Nope. Won’t eat ’em. No thorny thistles for me! Bet the goats won’t touch them either.

No animal will eat the thistle for it is covered with razor sharp spines on   stem and leaves. Spines penetrate clothes and even shoes to plunge sharp needles into flesh, maddeningly painful until you find and extract them one by one.

Goldfinch in courting splendor, waiting for thistles to go to seed so he can feast and start a family.

So how’s a besieged soul to prevent the monsters from taking over the land? You used to be able to spray them with handy dandy herbicides from the hardware store but bans, something about cleaning drinking water, now prohibit that.  You get a big fat fine if you’re not spaying poison ivy or other plant that is actually poisonous.  There are nifty agricultural sprays but suppliers won’t sell them to civilians, only certified pesticide handlers. The organic folk say to spray them with a planet-loving mix of vinegar, salt and dish soap which will kill in twenty-four hours. 

Ha! Vinegar makes thistles laugh and get even greener.

Thistles do have one fan, the goldfinch.  These little yellow birds love to devour thistle seeds and even put off their nesting until they can line their nests with thistledown. Cleverly, they create a soft home from the thorniest of farmland bullies.

Royal emblem of Scotland. The thistle.

Royal emblem of Scotland, thorns and all. From Wikipedia Commons

And the thistle managed to make itself the national emblem of Scotland because it once saved the land from Norwegian invaders.  Legend has it that a Norse army, creeping in the surprise the Scots, stepped on thistles and yelped in pain. The sleeping Scots awoke and promptly defeated the attackers, saving the day. In 1687, King James III instituted the Most Noble and Most Ancient Order of the Thistle to honour outstanding contributors to the nation.

Perhaps there should also be an award for outstanding invader. The thistle would win, spines down.

 

 

 

 

 

Sandhill Cranes Present New Baby. Guess They’ll Stay a While.

I’ve always felt chuffed when the sandhill cranes deign to visit.  Until a couple of years ago, I’d never even seen one.  Then, one day, these majestic birds, almost five feet high, were strolling about my pasture, probing the ground with their powerful beaks and surveying the landscape as though they owned it.

Since it would be weeks between their visits, I figured my field was low on their restaurant list. But this week, they sauntered out with a new addition.  A fuzzy yellow chick that hardly came up to their knees.  That means they nested around my pond.  And they won’t be going anywhere until junior shoots up another three feet, gets some feathers and learns to fly.

Unlike herons, who build a crazy stick nest high in the treetops, sandhill cranes nest on the ground, liking marshes, bogs and small wetlands  for the purpose.  They build up a large mound of marshy vegetation and lay one to three eggs which they sit on for about a month.  The result is a leggy chick covered in yellow fuzz, who can leave the nest within the day and even swim should the water round the nest prove too deep for wading.

Safe at the feet of big mamma crane.

I don’t know where my cranes spend the night and I hope they don’t have to cross beaks with the tough swan family who regard the pond waters as all theirs. The chick will get bigger every day, speeding toward adult powers though it will stick with mom and dad all through the winter, spent lolling about in Florida, before tagging back to Canada with them in the spring.  Only then will the chick think about life on the solo. That means three or four years partying before eying a mate of its own.

I expect lots of visits from the crane chick this summer, poking about in the grass, gobbling down tidbits mom digs up and drops in front of it. I’ll watch it grow up, I’ll watch it leave, one chilly day, for the balmy south. But maybe, just maybe it will be the first crane that thinks of my pond as truly home.

Slow Turtles Vs Fast, Mean Vandals

The animosity is hard to believe.  After all, who would hold a grudge against a turtle.  When wildlife rescuers told me that some people deliberately steer to hit turtles trying to cross the road, I didn’t believe them. Then they paid to put up a large sign across from the house during the season when turtles come up out of the marshes to lay their eggs, often crossing a road to do it.

Vandalized sign with “DON’T” removed.

The sign read, “Please don’t run over the turtles. May be species at risk,” all in big white and orange unmissable letters.  Turtle species are at risk because it is the females that get killed on the roads, throwing the male/female ratio into wild imbalance. As turtles do everything slowly, a female snapping turtle can be almost twenty before she gets around to laying some eggs.

So I returned from town one morning to discover some vandal, who must have thought it a great laugh, had pried off the firmly nailed down letters of the word “Don’t”. The sign now read “Please run over the turtles. May be species at risk.” They went to considerable trouble to pull off this prank for they had to stop in a country road, visible to all passing traffic and watchful eyes in houses nearby.

I can always used a helping hand so I don’t go extinct. Yeah, I’m talking to you.

No one caught the culprit.  The turtle expert sighed and told me this is just one more incident. He had, at his own expense, put up sturdy metal signs bolted to poles and found the bolts cut with bolt cutters just to destroy or steal the signs. He was surprised my sign lasted so long in one piece.

So the sign people have hauled the sign away again and the turtles are left to take their chances on the road without any protection.

Another petty triumph for human maliciousness?  Not if you stop and help a turtle out of danger anyway.

 

 

 

The Lush and Grassless Pasture. Nothing for the Cattle to Eat

Last year’s drought killed grass.

Last summer was a record drought.  We’ve had them before but not as bad.  The entire pasture turned brown and crisp, common enough when rain gets scarce.  Yet never have I seen this temporary die back actually kill the grass. 

Grass did not come back. Nothing to eat here.

This spring, when we had rain and rain and everything sprang up thick and green, so did the pasture. Only not with grass.  The rich sweep of green that appears to be a bovine’s dream, is really masses of shepherd’s purse, thistles, swale and melange of other things cattle won’t eat.

So the herd is roaming the acres finding what they can, looking puzzled by the lushness that comes up to their knees. We cross our fingers that the wild growth of non edibles is only natures first stage of drought recovery and the grass is just waiting underground to gather more strength.

Canada geese and babies stuff themselves every day.

The wild geese seem to love the field though. They spend all day with their babies out grazing and napping. A good omen.  Let’s hope!