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The Cranes of Wild Winter

Well, it’s January in Canada, full winter, and the family of sandhill cranes that nest in the pond are still here!  Sandhill cranes are migratory.  According to the bird info, cranes in this region ought to have flown off to Florida long ago. These ones must have missed the memo.

Three day blizzard with 90 kph winds and fiercely blowing snow. How did the cranes live through this?

Most surprising, they have just weathered the worst blizzard Ontario has had since 1977.  A three day extravaganza with blowing snow, winds howling up to 90 kph and snow drifting to shoulder height. All the roads were closed because the snowplows couldn’t cope.  Electricity failed. Nothing ventured out until the wild weather finally calmed down and people could dig their way into daylight.

The morning after the winds died down. Massive drifts and ground covered with snow

With the pond frozen solid, I can’t imagine how the cranes rode out this vicious wintry blast.  They must have huddled together somewhere without food for the better part of a week.  All the hungry small birds swarmed the bird feeders the moment the wind died back.

After a few days of above freezing temperatures melted much of the snow, the cranes appeared foraging as usual. What a hardy lot!

All sensible migratory birds should have been long gone. Even when, after the blizzard, the temperature took a sudden turn upward and hung at 5 to 7 degrees Celcius, making the snow begin a rapid melt.  Large swathes of bare ground began to emerge.  And, as soon the pasture grass was clear, there were the three cranes, poking about as though it were a summer day looking no worse for the wear.

How I would like to know how and where they huddled during the blizzard, not getting their long legs frozen off.  Another avian mystery. With at least two more hard months of winter ahead, I will be very curious about whether they care to weather more storms or finally hear the sunny climes of Florida calling to join their relatives where the living is easy and snow unknown. 

 

Looking at Little Things

This month our camera club challenge was macro photos, taking close ups of  small things outdoors. It can be tricky to do as close up photos tend to have a narrow depth of field, meaning that only part of something is in focus. A bee’s eye is looks at you sharply but its yellow rear end remains a blur.

I was bit dismayed to discover that those brilliantly clear scientific photos of insects, etc. are created from dozens of photos, each with a different body part in focus.  The photos are then combined on a computer and, presto, a completely sharp result. 

Of course, for this to work, the insect has to be dead and professionally cleaned. Can’t have it wriggling or smirched with dust while its portrait is being taken. All this is far beyond me.  I just aimed my trusty little Sony up close, cropped out the extras and served up the result.

House mouse making a run for it after being freed outside behind the barn.

 

Salamanders found underneath the wood chopping block. They escape very fast.

Could be a magic shell hidden in the gravel. The elves inside refuse to come out.

This bull tab of a crushed roadside can has long since transferred its power to some long ago buzzed up driver slurping behind the wheel.

Look at me dance! Caterpillar with lots of feet shows off its fancy moves.
Insects having a pollen party on a wild daisy.
Hairy fellow on the march. Don’t touch.

Trench in the Snow: A Mystery

On my daily hike, I came upon a track in the snow I had never seen before.  It was more like a trench than a track and gave me pause.  Could there be an anaconda slithering about in winter?  Or some scary beast dragging home its kill.

Places where the creature stopped sliding on its belly and took a leap.

 

The track came from the far frozen beaver pond, across the pasture, through the fence and across the road.  Bravely, I followed it right to the edge of the escarpment where, without hesitation, it plunged straight down the precipitous slope.  If I went any further, it would be a high speed luge ride interrupted by several tree trunks all the way down to the marsh.

There was nothing for it but to consult my nearest nature guru who looked at my photo and laughed.  It is an otter, he told me. They slide on their bellies in the snow. They are pretty fast sliders.  Hence the trench.

Otter enjoying the snow. Photo from Wikipedia.

 

That was a relief.  Now I must speculate that the otter had been spending its winter in the beaver pond and decided on a change of scene.  Perhaps it had eaten all the fish under the ice and was moving on to better hunting in the marsh.  Perhaps it had to leave home because mama was about to produce a new family of kits and kicked it out.  Since otters like to be social, it might be hoping it could find some new pals down among the reeds.

I’ll keep watch for it when I cross the little bridge over the marsh creek and also see whether it left any relatives behind at the beaver pond. And I wonder what kind of truce they have with the beavers and muskrats there.

 

Some Fave Photo Fun in 2021

Trolling through my photos from the recent past, I came upon some favourites, either direct from the camera or played with via Photoshop, an endlessly entertaining tool.  Let’s have a look at a few.

I learned how to fake looking at a scene through a glass ball. If it were a genuine crystal ball, the scene inside would be upside down through some mysterious magic of real glass. Someone in optics might know how that works.

 

Two of the turkey vultures who like to sit in the barn roof. Sometimes there are six or seven of them. This pair checks me out for possible food value. They are almost big enough to carry me off.

 

The once loved old house is abandoned and the lady who lived there long buried. Yet she can’t bear to have her flowers neglected. Her ghost faithfully makes sure they still bloom.

 

Trying out a little Gothic moodiness on a curve in the road. It definitely needs a dark, sinister figure flitting across in a cloak.

 

A bit of surreal colour floating over the stormy sky. Is it modern art? You decide.

 

Some trees along the fence line take a fantastic flight into a troubled sky. Hope they survive the journey.

 

I just wanted to see what I could do with a squirrel and a bottle. Put them into panic mode, apparently.

 

Rascal caught in the act of draining the hummingbird feeder. Raccoons, squirrels and chipmunks slurp up the nectar like tipsy boozers madly hooked on the sugar high.

Trying Out Miniature Photography

Our photo club sets new challenges every month with the goal of pushing our skills.  Last month it was trying out tabletop or miniature photography, also an excuse to stay inside in nasty weather.  I had never done this before nor did I have any knowledge of proper lighting, right shutter speed and a dozen other necessaries for success.  Nevertheless, I gamely set about gathering assorted props from around the house and setting up on a table. Here are my first attempts at this specialized art.

I began with a minimalist effort, a small statue with a desk light behind it. I’m hoping it might pass for high art, ha ha.Next I found a straw figure and decided she was the Fish Goddess worshiped by pair of wooden mannequins. She is suitable pleased about their adoration.  Perhaps she will give them her fish.

After the goddess, I tried an old bath towel with a couple of toy gazelles. I slipped an evening sky behind them and called it “Sunset on the Veldt”.

Growing bolder, I found a couple of novelty bird houses the birds would have nothing to do with and tucked a miniature car between them. Add some dark trees behind and presto, a scene from “The Grapes of Wrath”. 

These successes occasioned a party.  With help of an empty wine bottle and some fuzzy friends, I constructed a more grown up version of the “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”.

To do this right really requires a mini studio complete with studio lights and lots room to move around it.  Also lots of imagination and that photographer’s best friend, Photoshop. Then you get to play All Powerful with worlds, okay toys, at your mercy. A very sweet ego boost– so long as you don’t look up.

The Inhabited Woodpile

My winter wood has arrived, cut, split and ready for the stove. Three cords to add my my part fourth cord left over from last year.  A cord of wood, for those who don’t know, measures 4 x 4 x8 feet in volume.  Wood provides my  winter heat. It takes about four cords to get through the cold season steadily feeding the roaring fire. Each block, solid and heavy, also provides a weight lifting workout whenever moved

The wood is dropped in the yard in a heap waiting to be stacked and covered with a tarp. While it sits there, the heap quickly becomes home to all sorts of little creatures who seek the safe dark spaces within. Ideal refuge, they think, from the dangers of the open world and unaware of how soon the haven will be dismantled.

Mouse giving me the stink eye for having to move out and start over this late in the year,

So, when I start picking up the wood to stack it, I uncover the miniature wildlife community that is busily establishing itself. Mice have already begun carrying in dry grass to build a cosy winter nest. Chipmunks bolt headlong across the grass for the safety of the bushes. Fat black crickets chirp in outrage and flee my giant shoes. Shiny brown earwigs with their pincer tails, prolific this year, scurry in droves deeper into the pile.

Salamander found hiding under a block of wood.

Wood that lies directly on the ground has its own fan club. Lift one up and discover it has been sheltering pink  earthworms, pale slugs and shiny brown millipedes that coil up instantly when touched.  And it’s not long before I uncover a salamander, dark, not even six inches long, with its four tiny legs and big eyes staring up at me. Sensitive to light and movement, it will skitter away as fast as its can in search of another block of wood to slide under. In the wild, dead logs provide winter shelter for such creatures, saving them underneath from deadly cold outside. This one has made an unfortunate mistake.

Garter snake soaking up autumn sunshine atop the pile. It needs to find a snake den soon.

On top of the pile, black and orange woolly bear caterpillars, thickly hairy, march busily along on their inscrutable autumn journeys.  At the very peak, a slender garter snake is stretched out, basking in the last of the year’s hot sunlight.  It will soon have to seek out the winter snake den deep in the limestone rock fissures under my neighbour’s fence post where masses of its fellows ball up together under the snow. Various blocks of wood sport greyish, many-legged wood lice, which, according to Wikipedia, are really crustaceans, working away at the punky parts. They, too, flee at once.

Common wood lice rudely exposed to daylight. They will bolt into darkness as fast as they can,

All of this community gets scattered when I take the wood from the heap to stack up elsewhere.  I know, however, that it will only take a short time before they find the stack and establish themselves again, settling into security — until I started feeding the stack to the wood stove and leaving then all open to the frigid winds once more. Wish I could put up a warning sign: “Lease ends in January. Set up house elsewhere or prepare to flash freeze.”

Saving Our Sick Wild Fox

My neighbours and I first noticed her in winter trotting regularly across the edge of the yard and down into the woods.  She looked bushy-tailed and happy, a member of the neighbourhood. Spring came and she kept up her accustomed route, blithely ignoring us as she went on her way.

Then she began to change.  Her fur fell out, her naked ears grew scabby, crusts formed on her face and her eyes swelled almost shut. Losing weight, it was clear she could no longer hunt. She was too busy trying to scratch away the maddening itch. In the yard, she nosed openly around the bird feeders and fire pit in search of something to eat. We were watching the fox slowly being destroyed by mange.

Losing hair, tormented by mange, our fox stops every few yards to scratch.

Mange is a parasite that burrows into skin, leaving thick gray crusts and making life for the host animal a torment. The Wildlife Centre advised us that animals with mange eventually die of starvation or exposure since they have lost their fur.  We were free to put the fox out of her misery and bury her using gloves and clothes that had to be carefully decontaminated afterward.

Not the news were looking for. We turned to our local animal rescue folks who cheerfully provided another solution: a box of frozen mice laden with anti-mange medication. Feed her these at regular intervals, the said, and the mange will go away.

Sick and unable to hunt, the fox loses all fear of people and hangs about for handouts from kind friends.

It wasn’t hard to feed her the medication. She was now fearless of people and eager for the handouts.  After gulping down the mice, her swollen eyes began to open and the scratching became less frantic.   Slowly, we watched our fox recover. Her hair began to grow back, her range increased again to the woods down the hill and the fields behind the barn.  After a while we would even meet her a couple of miles up the road traveling purposefully along the shoulder. 

Of course she still visits frequently, coming within arm’s reach, lucking out on all the freezer-burned meat being cleaned out from the freezer.  There is no happier creature than a fox trotting down the side of the road with a whole supermarket chicken in its mouth. 

After mange medication, the fox starts getting her fur back, her eyes open and her confidence restored.

Our fox has a way to go to get all her beautiful coat back but she is free of mange and her ears are healing nicely.  As if to say thank you and show she can look after herself just fine, she appeared in the yard with a black squirrel in her mouth, proudly and recently caught. Perhaps she is doing her bit to protect the bird feeders.  We look forward to seeing her in her full winter glory.

The fox in winter with full fur.  We expect to see her like this once again.

Meanwhile, another fox had started coming round, also showing signs of mange. This one bolts fearfully when anyone appears yet it warily slips back, keeping  a safe distance. Our fox must have put out the word that we’re running a mange medic station.

We have a box of medicated mouse frosticles for this one too.

 

 

 

Trying Out Pet Portraiture

If you want experiment with a camera there is usually a pet handy to catch in your lens.  The good natured ones may humour you. The other kind require stealth and surprise.  Wiliness and agility are your friends.  Here are a few of my efforts as I dip into this tricky art.

Sydney, rescued as a Romanian street kitten. Sydney has lived in Romania, Kazakhstan, Spain, British Columbia and with me. Her frequent flyer points are impressive. She lost a hind leg to an accident and iffy European vet care. She has now retired to a grand historic home in town where she ambushes chipmunks for fun. She can eat a chipmunk whole, leaving no trace but the tail.

 

Bella, a frequent visitor adopted as a rescue by a friend who thought she was getting a modest Lab cross. Bella turned out to be pure Great Pyrenees Mountain dog with size to match. She takes up the whole couch but gets away with it due to her soulful Hollywood eyes.

 

Bella at leisure on the rug.

 

A frolic in the snow. Bella can knock you down in a single bound if you aren’t ready to dodge.

 

Bella tries out black and white while strolling through the woods.

 

Pair of half grown orange sisters making a cuddle heap on my chair.

 

Round rug, round kitty, round all round.

 

City cat named Sprout soaking up the sunshine in the window over the garden.

 

Glamour shot of my Siamese pal, Rummy. She dreams she is Cleopatra, of course.

 

“Please, please take me home,” begs this little tabby awaiting adoption. She longs for that special someone to look once and fall in love. Then she just might find a forever home before her cute stage passes.

 

 

 

Garter Snake Wake Up Time Again

Spring is truly here when the garter snakes emerge. First the snow melts. Then the sun shines until there are days when one might venture outside without a coat. Blades of new grass poke up, red-winged blackbirds trill in the marsh, killdeers flit noisily about the open fields. When conditions are balmy enough, little heads appear at the bottom of a certain ancient fence post. The garter snakes are coming out of hibernation, or brumation, as it known for reptiles. During brumation, the snakes can go months without food, though they wake up now and then for a drink of water.

First, only a brave little scout comes out to test the warmth and slither back down the hole when evening chill stiffens it. If rain sets in, the heads all vanish back into the underground lair where they spent the winter.  Perhaps the party is still going on down there and they don’t want to leave.

A modest mating ball, indulged in just after the snakes emerge from hibernation.

When the warming sun does come out, they emerge in numbers.  But before they can slither away for a summer of basking and carnivorous buffets, they have to make sure they can reproduce. So when a female coils up on the grass, a crowd of suitors come racing, all hoping to be her lucky choice. The result is a wriggling mass in a kind of reptile ecstasy after which they leave smiling.

In recent years these gatherings nowhere near match the size of the vigorous heaps that used to take place in the long grass on the other side of the post.  Indeed, the number of garter snakes seems to be diminishing and this is not helped by the casualties suffered when trying to cross the road running past their hibernation exit. Let’s hope many may have found a better place to spend the winter, a snake condo in the limestone crevices with several storeys to accommodate the winter congregations.

 

Hungry garter snake chowing down on an unfortunate earthworm which ventured too near the surface.

The newly awakened snakes, providing they survive the road, likely head for the marsh as they like to hang around bodies of water where they can feast on unwary frogs as well as slugs, lizards, earthworms, field mice and about anything else they can overpower.

They don’t lay eggs but give birth live to up to 40 little garter snakes who then have to evade larger predators and immediately fend for themselves. These will spend the summer growing as fast as they can.  Best of luck to the new generation. May they become road savvy, hunt fiercely and multiply with vigorous enthusiasm so they can keep on showing us when spring is here.

 

Spooky Fun with Photoshop

Since it is the scary season, I’ll post the images I created for our photo club’s monthly challenge.  Last month asked for the eerie.  We all had a great time.  Here goes:

Post found behind the barn. The previous users did not clean up after themselves.

 

 

Cattle are a little different after dark. Stay out of the pasture when the sun goes down.

 

After almost two hundred years, the lady got fed up with lying around. Now she’s up to look about her and perhaps buttonhole you for a chat.  Village gravestone and vintage photo (1890) from a yard sale box.

 

Apocalypse Now? Nope, just a local church tower and heap of burning Visa bills helping out with the Fire and Brimstone section.

 

“Hey, freaky dude, you’re not Timmy. Where’s Timmy? I’m not going anywhere without Timmy.”

 

Family quarrel in the woodworking tribe. The uppity chain saw bragged once too often. The axe resorted to the dispersion effect.

 

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