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.

The Big Thaw. When We Should Be Shivering

It’s February. 

We had snow, we had ice, we had wind and now, suddenly the temperature has shot up.  Nine degrees Celsius, 11C, now 14C. It might as well be April. In a week going from bucking the car through snow to slopping through puddles and squidgy soft mud.  The maple syrup has started running early so we have to make sure not to miss Maple in the County, the weekend we can all stuff ourselves at the sugar shacks with pancakes and sausages slathered with as much maple syrup and butter as we can load on.

One week covered with ice and snow.

The geese are flying north in squadrons and now there is a contingent standing around on the slushy pond ice  in the field hoping for a swim which might come sooner than they think.  Another band has landed in the pasture nearby, poking hopefully about for something green to devour. Robins are appearing, though there hardy sorts that stay around all winter, eating seeds and berries instead of unreachable frozen worms. The squirrels are getting frisky, chasing each other from tree to tree probably in romantic pursuit. Indoors, the cats have also started galloping about and pressing their little wistful faces against the glass doors wishing they could go out.  I wish they could too but there are fishers, hawks, foxes, coyotes, wolves, even a pair of eagles  not to mention the road zooming with speed demon, cat squishing drivers. It’s hungry season out there.  To stay alive, they stay inside.

Next week its balmy time. Snow all gone. Temperature masquerading as April.

Disappearing roadside snowbanks reveal the things tossed from cars including coffee cups, beer cans and booze bottles.  The entomologists tell us that the insects parading up the window panes are here to stay. The first of the spandex clad cyclists have already flashed past, their bikes out of storage, their ambitions brightly on view.

But, it’s still February! Traditionally, the coldest days of the summer are in this month, into the minus 20sC. We supposed to be worrying about our wells freezing and our mailboxes buried in snow. Some of the best logging has been in March when winter thick ice supports skidders in all the swampy places.  Yet folks are out in shorts and running shoes. 

Just a whim of mother nature?  Or climate change?  Hmmmmm…..


New England Vampire Panic, A Tale We Can’t Pass Up

A poke through the internet looking up, say, best prices on a vampire killing kit for a safe vacation, lets one stumble upon the most curious information.  This time about  the great New England vampire panic of the 1800s.

Vampirish beliefs have been around since the dawn of time and New England did not escape. It wasn’t the Bram Stoker cloaked figures sucking blood from jugulars that manifested. A more amorphous belief took hold, a conviction that some of the dead were not quite dead. Somehow the dearly departed were sticking around to suck life out of the living. 

And they had to be stopped.

At the time, this was a perfectly logical response to the outbreaks of tuberculosis that laid waste to whole families and communities once it got going.

Tuberculosis was known as consumption, a particularly apt name for a mysterious ailment that literally consumed a victim. One member of a healthy, active family would suddenly begin to weaken and, over period of agonized, hope in assorted ineffective “cures”, the person would become emaciated and finally die.  After a while another member of the family would similarly sicken and fade away. Then another and another. No treatment, including sugar water, bites from rattlesnakes and lots of horseback riding, had any effect.

So what was causing folks to waste away so alarmingly.  Could it be that those who had gone before were in some mysterious way still lingering to leach life from those still alive?

It was as good an explanation as any other.

The idea took hold.  Panic arose to make sure those in the graveyard were really dead and not rising to mooch vigor from their above ground fellows. The accepted method was to exhume the body and employ various squelching methods ranging from flipping the corpse upside down,beheading, binding with thorns.  Poplar was ripping out the heart, if the corpse still had one, and burning it, sometimes as a public spectacle.  Inhaling the smoke of the burning heart was supposed to be a cure.

Often the people doing the exhuming and corpse scrambling would be the actual family and friends of the deceased. That could only mean true desperation to escape a dread disease. Though this was often done on the sly, there are thought to be hundreds of cases scattered about New England as folks did their best to protect health and safety just as we do today.

Sufferers had to wait for a real cure until the nineteen forties.

Read all the details in the terrific article in the Smithsonian magazine.

Then just check to make sure your own life essence isn’t being surreptitiously slurped up when you aren’t paying attention.









Positively the Last Word About the Road. Until Spring.

Orange anchor bags of sand left on the verge.

I thought I was finished with the road paving project but I’ll have to mention those annoying little leftovers after the road was paved. The dump truck came, the crew marched along picking up the road markers, the construction signs and the bright turquoise portable toilet. Done, I thought, but no.  A hike down the paved stretch turns up all sort of things they missed.  The grass yielded up a abandoned spray can full of bright orange paint.  Orange bags of sand for anchoring signs lie on the road verges.  The stakes first driven in by the roadside with mysterious numbers written on them remain at their intervals, some now suffering from the snowplow.

Among the odder items is a cardboard box containing asphalt that turned rock hard as soon as it cooled. This box, like a gift, has been left by my fence with its inflexible contents, so far impervious to rain and snow and wind.  Perhaps, in time, the cardboard will crumble away, leaving me with a tidy black square to decorate my roadside and puzzle passersby.  The fresh gravel shoulders laid down so neatly are being scattered in broad sprays by the snowplow. Perhaps that’s how road shoulders get smoothed out.  Some leftovers are big misses, such as entire constructions signs complete with metal frames and legs.  Perhaps they’ll wonder why their sign count is short back at the storage sheds.

Measuring stake snowplow casualty.

This is just a little chuckle about a certain lack of tidiness generated by the paving project.  The worst leftover, of course, is the roughly patched paving mistakes we have to bump over until they come, as they say, to put in another surface layer in the spring.

All of this finally prompted a brief internet inquiry into how hot mix asphalt is created.  Very carefully, I take it.  The mix is 95% gravel, rock, recycled old paving, etc. and 5% crude oil byproduct. It must mixed and heated to exactly the right temperature at the plant to move easily through the paving machines and flatten smoothly under the rollers before it hardens.  The temperature has to be correctly calculated according to the season and the distance the trucks have to travel to the paving site.  Too cold or too hot and there will be too little or too much air in the pavement, causing the pavement to buckle or break.  Nor can there be any water in the mix. Imagine miscalculating time and having the stuff harden in the truck.

Box of asphalt by the fence. Very odd.

I had no idea paving was such a tricky process. Now I truly sympathize with whoever cleans out the paving machines at the end of the day and can certainly forgive a little untidiness as the crews thankfully go home from a job a lot more complicated than it looks.

Road Paving Finished at Last. For Now.

Paving mistakes. Patched for the winter.

After the pavement in front of the house was done, the machines disappeared far down the road and busied themselves on a stretch out of my sight.  Finally hiked down after the crews had gone home.  Ooooh, the paving machine had gone off its game for a quarter mile.  Heavy tires had sunk through the fresh asphalt.  The crew had been busy all day filling in ruts and scrambling to fix the damage. A series of long, lumpy patches marred the velvety smoothness of the new pavement. The illusion of perfection was broken, drivers shook as tires bumped and rumbled over the rough edges.

However, my section is lovely. And the next step was installing a shoulder band of crushed gravel to exact width and depth so as to look like fine grey edging on a handsome evening cloak.  Unfortunately, I was in town for the day and missed seeing how they got it all so precise.  I also wondered why random daubs of white paint appeared down the centre of the road as though someone had dashed along with a paintbrush flicking paint as they ran. 

Turned out, the daubs were but guides for the strange machine that appeared next.  A workman in hard hat and boots drove along the middle of the road in what was looked very much like a motorized scooter.  This scooter was escorted by a pickup truck warning off traffic.  As this little contraption putted along, a small spray head sprayed yellow paint in a solid yellow line.  The spray head followed the white daubs, covering them over and only showing a slight wobble a the skilled driver kept to the daubs.

Refilling the little yellow stripe machine.

So, with the flourish of the yellow stripe, the road was done for the year.  I knew that when, at last, a dump trunk showed up to collect all the road warning markers and, the final confirmation, a fellow loaded the portable toilet onto a pickup and drove off along the new road complete with yellow line, neat gravel shoulders and smooth, smooth driving.  Left behind are only the stakes driven in at intervals with their mysterious numbers, a couple of cardboard boxes containing, of all things, leftover rock hard asphalt. 

Oh, and and the jarring, disfiguring patches.

No worries, the road men say.  They intend to return next year and cover all flaws with a whole new layer of paving.  Can’t wait!

Glorious yellow stripe. Brand new pavement too. Zowee!

Bye, bye visiting toilet. See you next year.