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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.

 

The County Fair, Covid Style

With all gathering events pretty well shut down this year, the county fair seemed likely to also take a miss. However, the fair has been going since 1836, through wars and pestilence, and was not about to be stopped now by some pesky virus. This year’s version, health conscious, was strictly drive through.

The vehicle line up went on and on.

With no one allowed out of their vehicle, the fair displays were lined up along the track in front of the historic exhibition stand.  The county heeded the call.  Cars were lined up along the road to the entrance.  Slowly, they tootled in, past the line up of proudly shined up vintage tractors, farm machinery and classic autos.  

Vintage tractor with covid-proof driver.

Next was the food court where mini donuts and other goodies awaited along with a free chocolate milk and a milk calendar.  Those who weren’t hungry could pull ahead and drive on to the cattle barn where calves, goats and chickens sat fenced  beside the route for the delight of children.  One could stop and look as long as one wished.

For the enjoyment of youngsters, calves are almost within reach.

After the livestock, cars continued on right into the cattle barn which had been converted into a venue to show off quilts, jams, children’s art work, giant pumpkins and all sorts of county vegetables.

The country quilters are the best. And prize-winning preserve makers too.

A much truncated fair, to be sure, but one that keeps the tradition going without break.  We did without the midway, the tractor pull, the horse shows and the best dog in costume competition. So this year there was no admission, only a donation at the end if one were so inclined.  Everyone was. The donation bucket did very well and the county fair beat covid to soldier on for yet another season.

Big Mama Spider Visits All Day

I glanced out the window and saw a big dark shape on the outside.  A shape with lots of legs.  On trotting outside to have a look, I saw a huge brown spider in the corner of the window.  This spider showed no fear of me and no inclination to go scurrying off to hide. Beside the spider was a large white egg sac firmly attached to the glass.  Brown spider seemed to be standing guard.

Since I know little about spiders, I ran to look up what could be so big and so fearless.  It turns out that my spider was a wolf spider. And, scary as she looked, the info said she was quite harmless, though she could bite handily if threatened. She is called a wolf spider  because wolf spiders don’t catch their prey in webs.  They run it down just like a hunting wolf.

Tiny, barely visible spiders, perhaps her children enjoying a picnic, circled in red.

However, it also said that wolf spiders attach their egg sac to themselves and tote it underneath their abdomen until the eggs hatch.  Then, ever maternal, they carry their babies around on their back for weeks until they are big enough to fend for themselves.

So, I don’t think she was protecting that egg sac on the window.   I think she might have been chowing down on the contents.  Visible around her were a number of tiny spiders, probably her young, and perhaps she had arranged a holiday picnic. 

She hung about all day, only seeking the shadows when the late, hot afternoon sun  struck the glass. She had no web to go home to as wolf spiders do not spin webs. Ever solitary, they hunt alone, using all of their keen eight eyes, two of them very large, to spot the insects she loves to eat. When living around houses and barns, she helps take care of annoying insect populations.

My spider has about 200 assorted cousins on the continent. Some wander continually, some keep to their territory, some live in burrows, some climb trees, some actively hunt, some just wait to pounce when an unwary bug strolls by. They all rely on their excellent camouflage to keep out of sight.

Beautiful camouflage, all the better for a lurking hunter.

 

Of course life is not all nocturnal partying and juicy beetles for my wolf spider.  For all her size, shelow on the food chain and provides a tasty snack for birds, lizards and hungry rodents. My wolf spider was gone the next day. Hope she is happily hunting and not a part of someone else’s dinner.

 

 

Young Red Squirrels. Free Roaming Cuteness

Okay, they are adorable so I have to write about them and show my pictures. For a few days in the spring, three young red squirrels made my deck their playground. They were so inexperienced, they did not yet have the sense to be afraid of humans or humans with cameras. They chased each other about, raced through the mock orange bush and took naps on the sunny railing. I have no idea where their parents were and why they were allowed to run so heedlessly loose in a dangerous world.

Mmmmm, snacks are good here.

They tried the peanut feeder but it is so hedged round with defenses that they had to give up. They had not yet worked out how to slurp the nectar from the hummingbird feeder so they settled on the oriole’s orange. They munched that down with gusto and ran off with the rind. I have given up on other kinds of feeders due to the incursions of the black squirrels. An upside down plastic bowl as a baffle on a pole may defeat the small chipmunks and red squirrels but the black squirrels just leap over it and greedily stuff themselves as fast as they can.

Making off with a big prize. Note the long sharp toes for climbing.

Red squirrels eat mostly nuts and seed but they will also chow down on about anything else handy such as fruit, berries, mushrooms, buds, flowers, leaves, birds’ eggs even other baby animals. Whatever birds will eat, they will happily share. The hardy little creatures are spread all across the centre of the continent from Alaska to the Atlantic. In the great northern forests, they live on spruce cones, creating large middens of empty husks below the tree where they reside

Nap time in the sun.

The female is fertile for only one day and will venture out of her territory to find a date. In this, she has no problem and may party with over a dozen fellows just to make sure of her family. Babies, usually three or four, are born blind and hairless in a nest of grass and leaves high in a tree. They emerge from the nest in about six weeks to start exploring. Perhaps the mama of these three was glad for a little peace and quiet at home.

This orange is delicious. Do you have any sunflower seeds or peanuts for dessert?

My visitors looked about half grown and full of vim and vigor. After about three days, when they had exhausted my treat supply, they disappeared. I hope the little creatures made it across the big open yard to the safety of the woods. They need to enjoy life while they can since they are a favourite menu item for the local carnivores. Only about 20% survive until the age of one. If they manage that, they might last about three years. The ripest old age for a red squirrel is eight. Good luck to them all. I also hope they forget that my bird feeders may eventually be refilled.

#redsquirrels #birdfeeders #squirrels

It’s Turtle Time. Where are the Turtles???

It’s that time of the year when turtles lay their eggs. For this they seek a good gravelly place to dig a hole where they deposit their eggs and cover them over until they hatch. They will go on long marches to find just the right place. Both sexes will go in search of new territory or another wetland.

I’m used to seeing lots of turtles on this journey, especially snapping turtles. I live on the edge of a marsh where these turtles imitate underwater rocks and then snatch their unsuspecting prey as it swims by. At nesting time, these turtles leave the water, make the long, laborious climb up the treed hill and into the fields. To get to the fields, they must cross the road and that’s where they are seen making their slow, purposeful way across.

Daring death to get across the road. This snapping turtle is probably thirty years old with years of reproduction ahead — if it can survive the traffic.

Far too many do not survive the trip. They are hit either accidentally or deliberately for there are still drivers who enjoy targeting turtles with their vehicles. There is a whole other cadre of folks who will stop to help a turtle across, making sure it is in the direction they turtle was walking. Turtles set back on the wrong side of the road will just start across again.

Some turtles love the gravel road shoulders and will dig their nests right there. Should the nest manage to escape the attentions of skunks and raccoons, the hatching babies have much reduced chances of making it across the road toward the marsh alive.

In the past few years, I have seen fewer and fewer turtles. Last year only one. This year, so far, only one, a large snapping turtle heading for the pond. This dearth of turtles is most disturbing for it is mostly the females that make the march. Road deaths have so drastically reduced the females that the ratio of females to males in some species is one female for every twelve males.

Tiny hatching from a roadside nest that didn’t even survive it’s first foot of road pavement.

Turtles are slow but long lived. A snapping turtle may survive for a hundred years. Females, of various species, take eight to 20 years before they are mature enough to produce eggs. In the wild, they can afford this leisure because adult mortality rate is so low. Add humans, add roads, habitat loss and civilization, then slow reproduction becomes a big handicap. Perhaps a fatal one.

However, spring isn’t over yet. As I bike along my stretch of marsh front, I’ll keep watch for turtles venturing onto the dangerous pavements. Traffic will stop if it has to. I’ll dodge the big snapper’s hiss and snapping jaws, shove it gingerly across and hope against shaky hope that it gets another fifty years.

What Grows in My Yard? Only Tough as Nails Survivors

It’s spring, season of gardening hope. Grass pushes up, green and lush, the trees put out their odd little blossoms and action stirs in the flower beds. The urge comes on to rush to the garden centre, come home laden with pots of bedding plants and fistfuls of seed envelopes sporting bright photos of all the blooms and veggies that will overflow in abundance.

Ha!

I have long ago finished being fooled by these false promises. My soil consists mostly of shale gravel with a little dirt in between. The region has the second lowest rainfall in the province and the only source of water is a rural well not designed for mass watering.

After watching cheery little sprouts from the garden centre start out gamely and then collapse from heat and drought, I gave up such cruelty and decided to let nature do what it would. So the yard sports local wiregrass that can stand whatever the season throws. In drought, it simply dies down into a crisp brown mat that becomes a fire hazard and appears as dead as it can possibly be. But give it a sprinkle of rain and up come new blades and the land blushes green again. You can’t kill county grass.

Blue devil or vipers bugloss happily growing up through drought dried up grass.

The other survivors are the orange day lilies that decorate roadsides and provide a thick green border round the house. They smother weeds and defy drought with tuberous roots storing their own water. Other kinds of day lilies lack that fortitude but the orange sort are indomitable.

The young sugar maple I planted years ago put out new shoots each year trying to grow a few more feet, all in vain. Inevitably, the shoots would die off and the tree remained the same dwarf size. One dry year, it turned brown all over and gave up the ghost. Only it’s stump remains.

Opportunistic red cedar tree springing up uninvited among the orange day lilies.

However, nearby, there is a big Manitoba maple that has stood there ever since I can remember. It sports a massive trunk, a great crown of leaves that never turn yellow no matter how bad the drought. Much maligned as a weed tree, this rugged species springs up unwanted along fences, in waste lots and even thrusts vigorously through the cracks between pavement and wall. My tree, sitting on bedrock a foot or so below, has put out a far ranging lateral root system and may even has been lucky enough to find a crack in the limestone, letting it send a shoot down 120 feet, the depth of the well, to where water might be found. It is kindred in spirit to the scrappy red cedars which take so enthusiastically to poor soil and jeer, like hardened gang members, at more civilized breeds gasping for moisture.

Oddly, peonies can take the worst and still produce lush blooms. Also yucca, which I thought was a southern desert inhabitant, stays green and puts out tall, impressive stalks of creamy blossoms against a backdrop of brown grass. No matter how dry and hot, blue devil, or viper’s bugloss (wonderful name), thrusts up out of the dormant lawn, ready to stab anything that dares touch its blue flower stalks. In the flower bed, gold and pink yarrow still have enough wild yarrow in them to stay alive no matter what.

Hardy lilacs stand up toany kind of season, long outlasting the pioneers who planted them.

And, of course, there are the ubiquitous lilacs, lining the roadsides, filling the air with heady perfume in the spring, surviving and spreading a century after the homesteaders who planted them are long gone.

So every spring I pass up the garden centres, wishing best of luck to all the geraniums, marigolds, impatiens, zinnias and nasturtiums on their way to pleasant new homes. By not buying them myself, I am sparing their lives. Among my orange lilies, yuccas and yarrow, I’ll do just fine.