Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ducks Unlimited

The next morning I again was fortunate to have warblers come to my call.  These fellows were kind enough to pose for a moment before flitting off into the trees.

Subsequent visits to warbler territory have yielded no more close encounters.  I think the time for staking out territory and choosing mates may be over for this year.  There were other birds to see, though…BIG ones.  As I was crossing the mountain I heard a cacophony of calls that I recognized as coming from Canada geese.  These big birds aren’t strangers to the farm; a flock of them have taken up permanent residence just over the ridge to the east in German Valley.  

Eager to see what the geese were discussing so raucously, I put the dogs in a down-stay and crept forward.  The geese had done a fly-by, then settled in the upper reaches of our lower stock pond.  I eased forward, trying to stay hidden but still looking for an opening for a photo.  There were two pairs of Canadians swimming back and forth, calling loudly.  I don’t know if they were discussing where to make a nest or whose territory it would be.  I managed to get off a couple of shots before Kota broke her stay and came to investigate.

They were off in a flurry of wings and water, apparently deciding this was not the place for them.  They were beautiful, though, and I hope they will come back.

I am also pleased to see that our red-tailed hawks have apparently welcomed chicks.  A couple of weeks ago, I saw this one perched in a tree a couple of hundred yards or so from the nest.

And earlier this week, Mrs. Hawk was perched on the edge of her next instead of sitting in it.  I assume this means she is watching over her new family.

The farm is beautiful right now.  The tanks are almost full; the foxglove are coming out,

and the bluebonnets are in full bloom.

I convinced the Bagley Pack to pose for their annual portrait.  Colt and Rue were happy to oblige, but Kota was a little miffed at having to stop her morning’s hunt.  She alternated between being bored to tears,

and too regal to bother with such things!

She was in a slightly better mood for her Easter portrait, but not much.

We have been busy with other things, though.  Rue, Colt and I attended a duck-herding clinic at Destiny Farm near Bertram.  “Ducks?”, Herding DUCKS?” you may say.  Yes, it’s true.  Herding ducks is an official sport, sanctioned by the American Kennel Club, and perhaps other organizations.  I have never worked a dog on ducks, but it was great fun and something I’ll do again.  You can see by the photo below that the dogs were most enthusiastic.

Colt is no stranger to ducks.  In his previous life as Shertom’s Colt, he earned his duck-herding championships and hasn’t forgotten how to do it. 

Rue, on the other hand had never seen ducks in a herding setting.  All things considered, I thought she did well.  No ducks were damaged, and thankfully she quickly figured out she was supposed to move them in response to my commands, not eat them.  

And here are a couple of our friends trying their hands (or paws) at the sport.  In addition to border collies, there was a puli and a Swedish vallhund.  The puli is an Hungarian herding dog known for its long, corded coat.  The short-legged vallhund comes from…you guessed it…Sweden, and was bred to work cattle.

But that wasn’t the last of our herding experiences.  In early April, Rue and I participated in the annual Highland Games Stock Dog Trial in Helotes (just outside San Antonio).  Our performance was less than stellar, but we had a great time in spite of the unseasonably bitter weather.  (I’ll bet this spectator was sorry he was wearing a kilt!) 

Here are a few shots of our friends and their dogs working the sheep (who were less than enthusiastic about the whole thing).  

I had a great time, in spite of the fact that Rue and I did not have a qualifying run.  Besides spending time with friends and watching some great handlers and dogs work, I got to spend time with our long-time friend, Keyes Hudson.  As he has in the past, Keyes was kind enough to put Rue and me up for the night.  It was good to catch up on each other's news and share some great Mexican food.  Here's our semi-annual selfie.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Bird in the Bush

When we were at the farm last weekend, I picked up my camera and long lens and set out in hopes of capturing of one of spring’s most iconic and elusive images…the golden-cheeked warbler.  Each year in mid- to late-march, our warblers return to their home on the north side of our juniper and oak-covered “mountain,” after spending the winter in Mexico and Central America.  

These tiny (4 1/2 - 5 inches long), colorful birds are very special to us here in Central Texas, because they nest nowhere else in the world.  Their range and total population are small, and they are listed as endangered.  In the wild, they can be hard to spot because of their size as well as their rapid movements, not to mention that they require a very specific habitat and you have to go where they are.  Golden-cheeked warblers breed primarily on north-facing hillsides and slopes in woods of mature Ashe juniper (we call them cedars) interspersed with deciduous trees such as oak, walnut, pecan and hackberry.  We are truly blessed because the eastern side of our property is ideal golden-cheeked habitat.

These diminutive warblers are called “faithful to site” in that they return to the previous year’s breeding territory.  For a few weeks each March and April, we can hear their distinctive calls as they establish their territories and perform their courtship rituals.  Their song isn’t particularly melodious, but it is easy to recognize once you have heard it.  One source describes it as “buzzy zee, zoo, zeedee, zeep.”  Another says it sounds like “bzzzz, layzeee, dayzeee.”  I guess you’ll just have to decide for yourself; my best description is bzzzy,  bzzzy, bzzzy, tzweet.

At any rate, last week I listened and listened as I walked our mountain trails, but I heard no warblers.  Today was another story!  Soon after the dogs and I reached the top of the mountain, I heard one of the males calling.   I waited, but he didn’t come near.  Then I grabbed my phone and pulled up the Audubon app.  It has beautiful images and, even better, recordings of bird songs.  I tried playing a couple of the warbler songs, but no luck.  My bird had other things on its mind.  

I continued my walk, and took the trail from the top into the area we call Warbler Canyon.  Sure enough, only 50 yards or so down the trail, I heard more warbler calls.  Again I pulled out my cell phone and played the first warbler song.  The recording lasts only about 10 seconds, and before it was done, there he was, perched right above me, singing his heart out.  He was sooooo close! 

As is often the case, it was easy to see the bird, but very hard to get a clear shot…especially since I was looking almost straight up and there were leaves and branches in the way.

Then he moved higher up in the tree and looked directly at me.  

I guess I wasn't too scary, because he then gave me some beautiful, clear shots as he continued to sing, warning that other bird to stay out of his territory and away from his lady warbler. 

It was a morning to remember, and I'll be back tomorrow.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Easing into Spring

Finally!  We appear to be easing into spring.  We have at last had several days of warmer weather that coincided with our schedules and allowed us to spend almost a week at the farm catching up on our chores.  We have cleaned up a bit from the construction of our flagstone patio and walkways.  Now, our front walk extends around both sides of the house, allowing us and our four-legged companions to stay out of the mud.  (well, mostly)

John’s BBQ pits have their own walkways and pads.

Colin from Dig This nursery and garden shop in Hamilton came out and trimmed up the big live oak tree east of the house.  I should have taken a “before” photo; the limbs almost touched the ground, and we were terrified that a strong wind or ice storm would do significant damage to our tree.  Now it looks magnificent, and provides a great place for our swing.

The dogs have their favorite spots on the patio, and we have arranged furniture to take advantage of the views across the pasture to the creek and stock pond. 

It has been a big project, but well worth the effort.  Now we move on to adding grass to cover some of the bare spots and reworking the flower beds.  

The last month has seen 4+ inches of rain, which was badly needed.  Here is a photo of our lower stock pond taken in mid-February.  You can see a couple of feet of bare dirt above the water level.

And here is a shot taken this weekend.  The pond is now full and running around the spillway.  Look out, bass, here we come!

Strangely, the upper tank did not catch much water from the recent rains.  Its primary water source is a tributary of Neils Creek instead of runoff.  It is still very low and a concern if we do not get good rains this spring.

We can only speculate that the lower pond is receiving more water than usual because of the clearing we have done over the last couple of years.  There are now many fewer cedar trees to take up the rain that falls on the mountain to our west and on the flats adjacent to the pond. 

The recent rains filled up more than just the lower stock pond.  When we arrived, the area under the corn feeder had been turned into a feral hog spa.  They had even tried hard to dig up the T-post on the right side of the photo which holds our game camera.  I just wish I had turned it on prior to their arrival so I could see them taking mud baths.

There are other signs of spring, as well.  John found a new red-tailed hawk’s nest in the top of a big elm tree east of the creek.  We’ll be watching over the next couple of months to see if we can spot the hawklets when they hatch.

The tree plums are blooming, and promise a good crop if we don’t get a late freeze.  These plums are hard and very tart…not good for snacking, but they make killer jellies and jams.

Our new calf is thriving, and we expect he will have a brother or sister by our next visit.

The pasture grass, while still showing its winter colors, has a flush of green at its base and beside the road.

And, then there was the unmistakable sign of spring that we could hear as well as see...a flock of sandhill craned sailing over, calling as they went.

On Saturday, it was warm and dry enough for the dogs to have bones outside.  Kota always takes her bone away and buries it, then returns to see if she can snatch one from Colt or Rue.  

Her strategy is to stand beside whoever's bone she covets and bark until it is abandoned.   Rue was having none of it, and continued chewing happily in spite of all the noise.

Kota's behavior brings back fond memories.  Feathers, Kota's immediate predecessor, employed a similar strategy.  Her ploy consisted of running to the edge of the yard, barking furiously as if to scare off an intruder.  When the other dogs ran to help her, she quickly circled back to claim one of the bones they had left.  It was a better strategy than Kota's and almost always resulted in Feathers getting the bone she wanted. (And they say dogs can't think!)

Sunday, March 4, 2018


This winter, the weather has been colder (but unfortunately not wetter).  Even the doves in the Spanish oak puffed up and looked for a bit of sun to warm up.

In spite of the cold temperatures, there has been a lot going on at the farm.  Several weeks ago the fence builders finished the new hay pen, replacing the one that was torn down when the neighbor’s angus bull jumped the fence to do battle with Dude.  This enclosure is made of barbed wire and should better protect the hay bales.

Our neighbor to the south (the one with the unruly bull) is putting in a high fence around his 300-acre property so he can raise trophy whitetail deer for people to shoot.  I can’t imagine how you can raise captive animals on a small property (which will require feeding them), shoot them and call it sport, but then we only take deer for meat, not to hang their heads on the wall.  

But the big project we just finished is the installation of a flagstone patio off the back porch of the farm house.  A couple of years ago we had a flagstone walk laid from the parking area to our front door.

The new stone work covers a section of the yard which to date has only seen hardwood mulch (wonderful until the dogs carry it inside on their coats) and grass burrs (terrible in all instances), and of course, mud.  There are also flagstone walks around both sides of the house from front to back.  Here is what the yard looked like at the beginning of the project.

Ricky French and his crew did an outstanding job, and now that the stone work is complete and we’ll be finishing up, rearranging furniture, replanting flower beds, etc.

There will be more photos to come when we’re done…stay tuned.

Other recent events include the capture of this handsome buck's image on the game camera,

Visits to our stock ponds by a variety of duck species,

and the birth of B1's new bull calf born on or about Valentine's Day.

We look forward to welcoming his brothers and sisters in the next several weeks.