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!

Turtle Defenders Spring into High Alert

We’ve been rained on, soaked and flooded, but this is only happy weather to the local turtles.  They have family on their minds and about now is when they haul themselves out of lakes and creeks and ponds to seek a place to lay their eggs.  Dry land is what they need and they will crawl up impossible embankments, trek over rough pastures and, most dangerous of all, cross roads.

Each season, I see the casualties.  The ones who could not lumber fast enough, who weren’t big enough to be seen in time, who tried the road after dark or who were victims of deliberate vehicular turtlecide.

Snapping turtles particularly like the gravelly shoulders of roads in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs. A slow, laborious process, often sadly fatal when the prehistoric creatures meet a barreling SUV with an oblivious driver.

Snapping turtles don’t reproduce until they are almost twenty. They can live up to 70 years. If you kill one on the road, you’ve punched a big hole in the species.

However, the turtle defenders are on the job.  That’s anyone who stops to help a turtle across the road. And Dave of wildlife rescue, who will come any time, day or night, to save a turtle. Turtles are his passion, and he can provide an instant half hour lecture on species at risk and how the loss of any female–they’re the ones crossing the road–is a major blow to the survival of her kind.

So this year the folks have outdone themselves and erected a huge sign next to my fence, begging folks not run over the turtles. I sure hope it works. I’ll be on turtle watch too.  The egg-laying ladies deserve every protection we can muster.

And, everyone, please watch where you are driving in turtle season. The turtles depend on YOU to give them a miss.

Outrage of the Homeless Swallows. Where’s Our Condo!

It’s all my fault.  I wasn’t paying attention.  So when the weather finally warms up enough for me to step out into the yard without shivering or sinking in the mud, I am assaulted by outraged shrieks.  On the clothesline sit a pair of barn swallows, the first I’ve seen this season, making as much din as they could.  And  glaring at me.

What?  What?  What did I do?

The rickety birdhouse they love so much.

Then it struck me.  They were homeless.  They had flown all the way back from South America, only to find their chosen residence missing. No wonder they were in a fury.

“Sorry, sorry,” I told them.  “I’ll get on it right away.”

Despite the huge old barn right beside them, full of fine places to nest, this pair of barn swallows is fixated on a ramshackle old birdhouse acquired at a yard sale and hung out on the clothesline pole. It is painted watery white and, due to someone’s sense of whimsy, built in the shape of a washing machine, front loading door, dials and all.  In the fall, I clean out the nest debris and put the thing away in the shed. It wouldn’t  survive the winter outside on its own.

I had slothfully neglected to put it out again  before the pair arrived.

After checking that the bottom I nailed back on last year was still holding, I brought the washing machine birdhouse out, climbed up on the cement and hung it, by its bit of rusty wire, onto the equally rusty hook on the pole.  Immediately, the shrieking ceased.  The pair did a pleased pirouette in the air and flew straight to the entrance hole to check that all the modern conveniences were still there. Speedy possession is all important. I’m sure they can’t forget that disastrous time the house wrens beat them to it.

Last year’s babies resting between flying lessons.

So now they’re flying happily back and forth, working out the decor, planning the nursery. There’ll be no more shrieking at me until there are eggs and babies.  Then I become the hulking ogre that must be driven off and dive bombed every time I try to water my tomato plants. One day, there’ll be a row of little swallows teetering on the railing and struggling with crash landings while the anxious parents work on the flying lessons.

Then goodbye with firm instructions to make sure the beloved budget condo holds together to live another spring.

Sure thing, feathered ma’am and sir.



Return of the Sandhill Cranes. Giants in My Pasture

I looked out and there they were, the pair of sandhill cranes who have taken to hanging out in my neck of the woods for the past couple of years. They belong to the long list of creatures I have never seen before recent times, joining great white egrets, greater yellowlegs, fishers, eagles, swans, turkey vultures, coyotes, wolves, deer and beavers.  Also black flies. Let’s not forget black flies. None of these inhabited the landscape of my childhood when the land was plowed, mowed and cleared. With the abandonment of poor farmland to red cedars and the wind, mother nature has been busily repopulating the place with all her favorites.

Giving me the skeptical red eye.

Sandhill cranes are among the most impressive around here. Africa may have its ostriches and Australia their emus but we have sandhill cranes.  Standing three to five feet tall, with an over five foot wingspan, they can pretty well look you in the eye should they care to. Yet, despite their size, they are hard to spot, even standing just over the fence in the field across the road.  Their brownish gray plumage blends in perfectly with the brown fields and you don’t know they are there until a part of the field starts moving or you catch a flash of the scarlet mask across their face. Mostly, it’s their trilling call that gives the away.

They generally ignore people and traffic as being beneath their majestic notice.  They spend an hour or two out in the field, plunging their powerful beaks into the earth, in search, I’m told, of succulent roots to devour.  Looks to me like a lot of dirt goes with that snack. They also eat just about anything else from grain, berries, nuts, mice, snakes and frogs and even nestling birds. Not at all picky about the menu. Not wise to go near them if you are little and juicy. Only the largest predators will have a go at a full grown sandhill crane and they are apt to get their skull pierced for their trouble. 

Sandhill cranes digging for roots.

Digging for roots with their powerful beaks.

The cranes in the field had a third one with them last year so I assume junior has spent the requisite year with mama and papa and is now off partying with some freewheeling flock of similar juveniles. No need to think of a mate or household duties until five or six years have passed. Since they can live more than twenty years and mate for life, they may need to spend a little time picking out a truly simpatico partner.

After a lazy winter in Texas or Florida, sandhill cranes are said to return to the same place, even the same nest each season. Their most common place of choice is up above the tree line in the tundra so why they this pick this neighbourhood I can’t imagine unless it’s the roasting summers and proclivity for drought.

I hope my pair plan on new chicks this season. I’ll be watching to see who shows up with them in the pasture when the babies are old enough to fly.

First Killdeer Today. Noisy Arrival of Spring

Some people wait for the robins, some for the red winged blackbirds, some for the first turkey vultures wheeling about in the sky.  I know it is spring when the first killdeer shows up in my field.  You can’t miss the killdeers.  They are about as noisy as they come. Even their latin name, charadrius vociferus, means noisy yellowish bird. Their cries sound like thin metal ringing off sharper metal as they make it exceedingly clear just who they are.  “Killdeer, Killdeer, Killdeer,” they shout over and over just in case anyone  is slow in picking up the message.  You know they are here the minute they arrive because they wing around making a great fuss about everything they see.  Not only do they scold us for letting the neighbourhood go to pot while they were away wintering in Mexico, they complain about the crows presuming to strut about their territory and ragged, chewed down state of state of last year’s dead grass which is supposed to provide cover for them.

Mother killdeer trying to lure me away by pretending she is wounded. Quite an act!

Killdeers are the only bird I know that flies about clamorously during the day and then stays awake at night to argue with its neighbours.  How often have I woken up to a great commotion among the kildeers shrieking at one another at two in the morning.  You’d think nothing less than an invading velocaraptor would cause such an uproar, yet its just a bunch of killdeers having a spat.  Or perhaps a budget meeting killdeer style.

Find the birdie. A killdeer blending in.

I’ve always been fond of the killdeers.  Easy to hear, hard to see.  They’re listed as a shore bird, a medium sized plover that ought to be splashing about in the shallows in search of whatever shore birds eat.  Instead, my killdeers frequent the most drought stricken fields and nest in the driest of gravel with no water in sight.  Their own housekeeping is scant.  They hardly bother with a nest; just find a convenient hollow and wriggle their butts into it.  They lay speckled eggs that merge with surroundings  and the brown and white camouflage of the bird itself makes it blend so well you could almost step on one before noticing it was there.  Newly hatched babies don’t get to laze about this sketchy home.  They arrive with long gangly legs and have to take to the field right away, probably expected to scrounge their own dinners.

Tiny killdeer chick trying not to be seen.

As a child, I became quite expert at finding the almost invisible nests and chicks due mother killdeer’s somewhat backfiring defense strategy.  When I got anywhere near her eggs or babies, she would plunge to the ground in front of me, fling herself on her side and flap frantically about as though disabled by broken wings.  All the while, of course, screeching at the top of her lungs.  If I were a fox, I might fall for this seeming easy snack.  Precocious little me figured out reverse psychology and moved carefully in the opposite direction.  Sure enough there would be the speckled eggs nestled in their little dip or the killdeer chicks instinctively frozen into tiny stripped fluff balls hiding in the grass.

So another season has begun. Robins and blackbirds may trill and warble but the killdeers will pierce our ears with no uncertain news that they are the ones now in possession of the pasture and the gravel cuts.  Noisy, undisputed birdie bosses. 

Until the cows get here.



Winter’s Last Gossip Columns in the Snow

The coyote or the wolf was here.

We had two day of blizzards, temperatures in the minus double digits and a massive pileup of cars and tractor trailers on the highway due to the vengeful return of winter. Now the sun is out, warming us through the windows and bouncing off the blindingly white snow as though nothing happened.  My passive solar heater is whirring its little heart out, heating up the house to almost balmy.  Seeing the outside temperature creep above freezing I decided to pull on my woollies and hike back to the woods through what may be the last of the winter white.

Walking through snow in the country is like walking over a gossip column.  All the local scoop is there.  I could see where the small birds had landed in search of seeds. The bunnies had cavorted, perhaps in the moonlight, in an opening among the cedars.  Lots of squirrel tracks daringly dashing from tree to tree.  Field mice left tiny trails as they sped from snow tunnel to snow tunnel where they hide, hoping the fox or the owl won’t hear and pounce. Dainty fox tracks show where Madame Red Fur paused and paused again, listening and hoping.

Running stream through the woods. Stay back or cracking ice will dump you in.

Of course, the deer had been out.  Hoof prints across the fields and on both sides of the fences.  A fence is nothing to a deer except an annoying barbed wire obstacle to hop over.  And in among the deer tracks, the canine trails where the coyotes and wolves had been checking out the meal possibilities. Their tracks crisscross the deer prints, both so fresh I have no idea who got there first.

In the woods, the ditch is full and running, making a dark channel through the trees.  Elsewhere, ice spreads among the trunks, frozen enough under the snow that it makes walking through the woods much like a stroll across a table, flat and convenient.  But get too near the running water and you hear the ominous cracking underfoot. Get back or get soaked to the knees is the cheerful message.

In the open pasture, patches of old grass are already starting to show. It’s about the last day, I suspect, the pristine white newspaper will be there to read even for those with no trace of woodcraft. Official spring is a few days away.  The pond will thaw yet again, the ducks will splash down in flocks, and we’ll all become unwilling connoisseurs of sticky mud, wet feet and reappearing roadside trash.

Or we could get another whopping blizzard in April.  Winter hates to leave without a parting blow.



Summer Birds Back in Time for the Deep Freeze

Geese enjoying pond before it froze.

February thawed us out.  The month almost broke records for breaking records. Shorts and patio weather near Valentine’s day. Rain, mud, swelling buds, emerging insects, hints of green grass.  Did it make the summer birds rush back?  Who knows.  Perhaps the first ones seen are the keeners, the jump-the-gun pairs racing north to grab the high end nest sites first. The risk takers who now are trying to figure out how to keep their birdie butts warm in the sudden Arctic blasts.

The big beaver pond in the field, now fully flooded and recovered from last summer’s terrible drought, thawed out obligingly and soon was flocked by Canada geese and mallard ducks.  They swam, the frolicked, they basked along the sunny edges.  The pair of swans showed up again, floating elegantly about, ready to gamble yet again on a nest where they almost all dried up and blew way last year from lack of swimming water and food for their barely surviving brood of four adult-sized cygnets.

Bronzed grackle with the sceptic eye.

On the last day of February,  the red-winged blackbirds showed up, their distinctive trill from the marsh always a confirmation that spring ought to be here.  Also the bronzed grackles, staring at me through the window with their eerie yellow eyes in their blackly iridescent heads. They could easily stand in for the raven in Edgar Allen Poe.  Some robins have been hanging around all winter.  In the warmth of February they began to hop around on the ground soft enough for their favourite meal of earthworms.

Well, March roared in with a hammer of cold.  Down to -20C here by the lake, to -36C farther north in the province. The wide stretch of pond, so beloved by the waterbirds, has frozen into a solid sheet of ice again along with every puddle and roadside ditch.  The bare ground is iron hard, the biting winds sear bare skin make little birdies puff up to twice their size in an effort to keep warm.

The swan are back to try nesting again.

So the geese fly round and round over the pond, squawking and complaining.  The swans have taken off to search for open water out  in Lake Ontario. The robins have retreated into woods hoping some berries are left. The blackbirds cling to dead cattails in the marsh and who knows what the grackles are doing.  Let hope other summer birds, the orioles, the hummingbirds, the killdeers, the thrashers, the grosbeaks and so on are picking up their messages and cannily keeping themselves warm south of the border.