Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bird Watching

Last spring we were excited to have a pair of turkey vultures, more commonly known as buzzards, nesting in an old deer blind.  Unfortunately, some predator (likely a raccoon) was able to get into the blind and destroy the eggs before they hatched.  This year, the same buzzard is trying again.  She has taken over the deer blind and has deposited two duck-sized eggs on the floor.  It's not much of a nest, but it's roomy and dry.  What more could a buzzard want, except maybe road kill?

When we were at the farm last week, she was on her nest when I climbed up to have a peek.  She hissed at me a couple of times, then hopped to the windowsill and soared away.  We hope that this year’s nesting will be more successful, and will keep you posted.

But buzzards aren’t the only birds we’ve been watching.  Last week, Owlivia, our eastern screech owl, spent several days sitting in the oak trees in our backyard keeping watch on the owl house where her owlet(s) were preparing to fledge.  Often she watched as we went about our chores and yard work, 

sometimes with great interest.

Other days she spent much of her time napping.

We had hoped to see the babies sitting in the door of the owl house as we did last year.  We knew they were almost ready to leave the nest, because Owlivia and her mate, Owliver, kept calling to them from the trees.  Unfortunately, the little ones (they are all named Chicklet), stayed inside until time to fly.  We only know that they had gone because Owlivia left as well.  We will look forward to seeing them next winter when they set up housekeeping again.

We have also had tufted titmouse nests in the bird house on the back deck, and a nest of bewick’s wrens on the upstairs deck.  The upstairs nest is right outside  my study, and the entrance faces the house, so I’ve had a great view of the rearing of these babies.

Both mom and dad wren share the feeding chores.  I don’t know which is which, but you can see that one has a dark patch on his/her rump and the other does not.  Both are diligent, though, and bring all sorts of tasty treats for the youngsters. 

This one for a moment looked satisfied, but turns out that wasn’t the case.  I don’t think they ever fill up.

But it sure makes for great bird watching!

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Snake in the Grass

After a week at home in Austin, mostly watching it rain, we are back at the farm.  This morning, John mounted the skid steer and began cutting cedar while the dogs and I took a walk.  My brother, Allan, mowed the roads on this side of the creek where it wasn’t too wet.  However, grass, weeds and flowers in most of the pastures are thigh-high, encroaching on my waist in some places.  It’s certainly taller than a dog in a lot of areas.

We stopped to visit our cattle as they lounged in the grass.  (They have so much grass to eat that it seems they lounge most of the time.)  Dude, our sweet, gentle Hereford bull, eyed me with a quizzical expression, while very pregnant B6 rested and chewed her cud.  

Wise B4 with the luminous brown eyes let me come almost close enough to touch her…but not quite.  

And our newest herd member, nameless though “Freckles” seems appropriate, rested between his mom and aunties.  The dogs waited quietly a few yards away, and earned “good dog” praise for holding their stays.  

We continued our morning excursion past the stock tank and up the far side of the creek.  As always, my senses were on high alert for snakes in the tall grass.  The warm weather has brought then out of their dens, and sent them in search of rodents in the pastures and along the rocky hillsides.  We saw a four-foot rat snake in one of the trees near our house the last time we were here.  And, only a little over a week ago, some men cutting cedar posts killed a rattlesnake on the road near my brother’s house.  

In the high grass, however, a snake is hard to see, and harder to identify.  So, I was listening for them as much as I was watching.  

Speaking of listening, when you think about it, it’s amazing how many different sounds a person can be aware of at the same time.  Just this morning, the pasture orchestra consisted of three or four painted buntings calling from treetops on either side of me, cardinals and wrens chirping in the bushes, a cacophony of frogs in the stock tanks and creek, turkeys gobbling in the distance, cicadas and other insects, the rumble of the skid steer on the hill and the swish of dog bodies plowing through the high grass.  How the brain can decipher and process all those different sounds simultaneously is mind-boggling.  (But I guess the mind can’t be boggled if it can do all that deciphering.  It is a puzzlement, though.)

As the dogs and I made our way across the pasture on the far side of the creek, I saw movement in the grass just in front of me.  My mind immediately registered “SNAKE!”  I stopped, and so did the snake.  I couldn’t see it clearly, so I picked up a nearby branch and parted the grass to try to identify it.  It was quickly apparent from the distinctive pattern and the rattles on its tail that I was looking at a three-foot diamondback rattlesnake. 

I don’t think he was particularly worried about me.  It was only when I parted the grass with my stick that he coiled and began to “sing.”  Those rattles have an unmistakable sound.  Once you hear it, you will never forget it.  I don’t think this snake was especially concerned, though.  He just remained coiled in the grass, his black, forked tongue darting in and out between his scaly snake lips, and his rattles (the blur just to the left of his head) singing.  Even when I moved the grass aside to get a photo, he never struck.  John thinks he was not more aggressive because the temperature was only 78 degrees and the snake was still somewhat cool.  He thinks it would have been much more assertive had the temperature been warmer.  I don’t care why he was so calm, I’m just glad the dogs and I didn’t step on him.  Thank you, God!

The dogs’ behavior was puzzling, though.  All three have been through snake-avoidance training, and they refused to come anywhere near a rattlesnake when we went for a snake-avoidance refresher course.  I expected them to react strongly when they heard the snake rattle or when they scented it.  This morning, however, they showed no interest in the snake nor did they show any fear.  When I stopped to look at it, they turned and came back to me, but stopped on command and held their stays until released.  Colt did cock his head and look in the direction of the snake, but then showed no more interest in it.  They could certainly hear it rattling, but it didn’t seem to bother them.  Perhaps they knew it was too far away to reach them.  Who knows?  I just hope this is the first and last rattlesnake we see this year.

Friday, May 20, 2016

More Rain and Green Grape Pie!

We spent much of the last couple of weeks at the farm.  Not much cedar clearing got done, though, because of the amount of rain that fell.  Sometimes it came down by the bucketfuls, sometimes it just drizzled, but we’ve promised never to complain when it rains.  As in this photo, you can almost always see a rainbow, and if you can't see it, you know it's there somewhere.

The dogs don’t complain, either (except when it thunders, of course).  The stock tanks are still full, and there is standing water many places in the pastures.

Kota and Colt love swimming and fetching sticks in the ponds, and Rue relishes her time splashing along the shore.  And, they all love racing through the standing water.

The turkeys visited and entertained us each morning, and when we went for walks we could hear the painted buntings singing from the top of almost every tree.  The bluebonnets are gone, now, and other wildflowers have taken their place.  They are mostly small, sometimes an inch or less in diameter.  And if you look closely, many times there are teeny-tiny insects searching for nectar among their petals.

We always eat well at the farm.  (Duh!  John loves to cook and as many of you know, he’s oh-so-good at it.)  This trip was no exception, but this time I also got gold stars for my contribution.  When we were growing up, my mother always cooked fantastic meals, most of them “from scratch” and many from produce grown in our own garden.  She also made jams and jellies from the wild plums that grow at the farm, and sometimes a very special dessert, green grape pie!  These were always special treats, because the main ingredients are only available for a short time…and we had to pick them. 

But I digress.  This trip, the wild mustang grapes for green grape pie had just reached the optimum size.  They can’t be mature, because the seeds will be too hard, so catching them at the proper size is a requirement.  In the photo below, you can see the green-gray leaves of the grape vines blanketing the other vegetation on the tank dam.

And, nestled among the leaves I found these beauties.  

Fighting my way through the brush and briars (being careful to watch for snakes), I picked about 3-4 cups of grapes.  That was just enough for a scrumptious deep-dish green grape pie.  Served warm, topped with vanilla ice cream, it was heavenly.  Sorry, no photos of the finished product.  Cousin Kathy and Eric helped John and me inhale it in a heartbeat.  I will, however, share a favorite photo of my mother slicing one of her pies.  

You can tell by her concentration that this is serious business.  And those pies were just as good as they look.  Thanks, Mother, for passing along your knowledge and expertise along with your love.  We miss you.