Archives for posts with tag: birds
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Sandhill Cranes, Yesterday

No Reservations Needed–

A.V. Walters–

Back in my California days, I always wanted to go see the Sandhill Crane migration. There was an area outside of Modesto where the cranes would come and settle for a while each year during their migratory cycle. A couple of friends were also interested—but we never made it happen. One of the three would always have a conflict—and the other two never got it together to do it anyways, or we’d miss out on the limited reservations for crane viewing. Back there, you had to do Sandhill Cranes by appointment.

The cranes are beautiful. They’re a little odd, with a strange whooping type call. I know this because, now, thousands of miles away, the cranes are our neighbors. They live nearby in the cedar swamp between here and the town of Cedar. We can hear their weird yodeling call during the long light of summer evenings. In the late autumn, or early spring, sometimes they’ll fly over to the cornfield adjacent our little apartment, to glean corn bits from the field.

It’s funny how something you failed to pursue in one part of life, actually comes to your doorstep later. We don’t get a whole migrating flock. It seems that our cranes stick around for the winter. Maybe they do a short trip south—but if they do, it’s pretty abbreviated, because we see them so frequently here. I think I prefer just a couple of neighbor cranes to some overwhelming migratory flock. It’s certainly more intimate—and doesn’t require a reservation.

Snow Cranes

Sandhill Cranes, Today

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Autumn Olive…

A.V. Walters —

With olive-like leaves

With olive-like leaves

Also known as Russian Olive, the Autumn Olive is considered a pest species. In the want ads of our local newspaper, guys advertise that they’ll pull it up by its roots, for a fee. Apparently it arrived as a domestic landscaping plant—but escaped into the larger wilds. I don’t know why nobody likes it.

In the spring is has tiny, extremely fragrant, delicate yellow, trumpet–like blooms. Though you have to inspect to see how lovely they are, just walking by smells terrific—like you’d walked into a tropical bouquet. The plant itself is just a shrub, with foliage looking a lot like olive leaves—and so, the name. I suppose some object to the thorns. I haven’t had too much trouble with thorns—even pruning. You just need to be mindful of them to avoid being scratched.

The real surprise is the fruit. It’s ripe in the fall. The plant book describes it as tart, but edible, mostly for migrating birds. I guess I’ll have to leave some for them—I love it. It is a sweet/tart combo that I love. Rick just turns up his nose, thinks I’m crazy. Next year I’ll try making jelly out of it. I think that tartness would be lovely captured in a clear jar of scarlet. I haven’t seen any recipes. Could it be I’m the only one that likes them? (Other than the cedar waxwings.)

But I like the fruit

But I like the fruit

Bugged–

A.V. Walters

My California friends can’t believe that I moved to a place that has snow in the winter and bugs in the summer. I usually put it right back at them—both of those features are a direct result of one thing—we have water.

In California you don’t even need screens on your windows. Sure you’ll get a couple of insects—but because of the long, dry summers there never was a big problem with mosquitoes in the summer (early spring, sometimes, but it never lasted.) In Two Rock, living right next door to a dairy, we had flies and spiders. (There, I was glad for the screens, though, in all honesty, sometimes the dairy smelled so bad you didn’t dare open the windows.) When Californians recoil about insects, they mean one thing—bugs that bite.

We have them here. I know all the jokes—In Michigan, the mosquito is the state bird… Okay, so there are insects; it’s a given. We measure them in seasons. Just now, we’re (hopefully) coming to the end of blackfly season—which is usually June, but running late this year because of the overlong winter. Blackflies are an annoyance in Leelanau. Back in Keweenaw, they are a force of nature. (I always suspected it was why June brides wore veils.) Back home, one’s wardrobe for June activities includes a “bug baffler,” screened headgear that looks like beekeeper’s clothing.

July is the main mosquito month, though Rick and I have already earned our fair share of bites. We insist on being outdoors, even into the evening, and that’ll do it. Mostly we wear hats and we keep moving. In August and September we have an assortment of biting flies—horseflies, deerflies and stableflies. Again, a hat and proper clothing for the outdoors is your best defense. They (the biting flies) aren’t really looking for you (though you’ll do in a pinch.) The worst of it is that they annoy as they buzz in circles around you. As kids, we’d pick ferns to wear on our heads, like some kind of pixie tribe. It kept the biting flies on a farther perimeter and gave us some small measure of control.

Having adequate rainfall means we have bugs. Having bugs means we have birds, so don’t wish your bugs away so quickly. We have amazing birds. The air here is, more often than not, filled with birdsong. We live outside the town of Cedar. That’s a polite way to say “swamp.” It’s located in a low-lying area and, like any wetland, rich in biodiversity. Bugs.

We try to get some kind of exercise, every day. Right now we get it primarily through working on the property. We’re doing site prep—and in the summer heat and humidity, it can be grueling. If that wasn’t enough, we often go for a walk around the block at the end of the day. “Around the block” is a three-mile loop. The bottom third of that loop runs adjacent the swamp. It’s probably crazy to go walking there at the buggiest time of the day—but it’s cool, and, if you keep moving, you can escape without being bitten. We went for one of our walks the other night, right at dusk. It’s a great way to unwind— to talk about the day’s events and connect with your surroundings. We were just getting to the swamp section when I first saw them. At first, I thought it was a bit of trash, maybe a scrap of Mylar, catching the fading light. When I saw it again, I realized—fireflies! Even though I grew up in the Great Lakes region, I’d never seen them before. Once you look, suddenly they are everywhere–a profusion of flashes, shining at you in an orchestrated mid-summer display of sparkles. Some, in mid-flight, look like three-dimensional punctuation, illuminated ellipses. Rick was amazed—both at the tremendous surprise of nature, and that we were seeing it, together, both for the first time.

You won’t see them from a passing car. You have to be out with them, at the right time of day and, at risk from the rest of the insect kingdom. But, it’s well worth it. It leaves you breathless, awestruck and feeling almost childlike. This will do for our July fireworks display.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

In California, they’ve had the warmest winter on record and the third driest. My California friends have raved about the weather (even while admitting that the drought is a problem. But hey, if you’re going to have a weather calamity, you might as well enjoy it!) Knowing I’m a gardener, they’ve sent photos of Spring, to tempt me from here, under my blanket of snow. Late rains finally brought the green back into the hills of Two Rock, and that’s good for—emus!

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

Yes, Emus! Back on the farm, Elmer’s daughter is raising four emu chicks. She wants them to be guards for her organic duck operation. The emus we reared last year are a little skittish around the ducks—and there were some duck injuries when raucous ducks agitated their delicate emu sensibilities. Ducks were stepped on. The solution is emus who have been raised with ducks. So that’s what Deb is doing.

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

So, our teen emus, Kelvin and Gatsby, will be stuck with sheep duty. That’s not such a bad gig, more turf, more freedom, better view. Nice work, if you can get it.

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

After some early garage and barn living, (Deb is not so crazy, as we were, to keep emus indoors) the new babies are settling in nicely.

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

Now, they stay with the ducks. Not that they socialize, but they are comfortable sharing space. Right now the emu babes are about the same size as the ducks. In the future, the emus will shoot up, no doubt surprising the ducks! They’ll serve as their guardians from predators. The teen emus were doing okay at the guardian job; during their tenure the duck losses stopped. Coyotes, foxes, and even hawks were discouraged by the emu presence. However, it wasn’t working because the emus themselves were injuring the ducks. Clumsy emus.

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

It’s nice to hear how things are back on the farm. We’re biding our time, waiting for the snow to melt. Then things will get very busy around here.

Emu Huddle--For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emu Huddle–For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

The Other Side of Winter

A.V. Walters

I get comments, (mostly by email) from friends and family when I post a blog. They’re usually supportive but, occasionally, they’re smart-assed. There was a range of comments on my last post. Apparently everyone wants to know–how are these two transplants doing with winter? It makes me wonder if bets have been placed. One friend thanked me for posting a positive perspective on the season. This is, after all, one of the most intense winters in decades (which is why everyone is so curious as to how Rick and I will handle it. Of course, to us, it’s all new.) My sister set me straight.

I guess my warm and fuzzy “snow dusting” blogs are pissing her off. She lives waaay up north, and they’ve had so much snow, that they’re running out of places to put the stuff. My mom reports that the snow banks are between 10 and 12 feet high. My mom is delighted; but she’s not doing the plowing. For many, they have to get up early to deal with the snow before they go put in a full day at work. For my sister, Kelly, lately that’s been three or four hours of extra work each day, hand shoveling out her entry and the path to her chicken coop. Today she was especially heroic—she snow-shoed over to my mother’s satellite dish, to clear it, so my mom could get reception. (Poor mum, last night she missed Downton Abbey!) Kelly’s husband also puts in several hours each day with the plow—besides their home and store, he keeps a number of other families clear.

Kelly is not alone in her frustration. She runs the town’s general store, so she hears about it from everyone. Over the weekend a colorful, but not particularly volatile local came into the store, stomping the snow from his boots and railing, “I’ve had it. Snow just isn’t fun anymore! I’d suck someone’s cock if the bastard would just blow out my driveway!” He hand-shovels, and has run out of places to put the snow. Now, he’s loading it into a wheelbarrow, then carting it across the highway, where he shovels it again, mostly up over the existing banks and into the woods. He hopes the Road Commission doesn’t notice that some of it strays onto the highway. (You’re not supposed to shovel your snow into the roadway, though the plows feel free to fill your driveway with road snow.) Keweenaw County checked in earlier this week at 167 inches for the season, and that was before the most recent foot, or so. I guess this all helps to keep the northerners fit.

So here I am, singing the praises of the beauty of winter. Add to that, I work from home—I don’t need to shovel out everyday—and Rick has taken up most of that duty, in any event. My family and I talk, everyday. Discussions about the weather are sometimes charged. There’s a fierce one-upsmanship to even the most casual comparisons. My mother called first thing this morning, and demanded to know, “What’s your temperature?!” (“Oh, hi mom. It’s 9.”) “Yeah, well it’s minus 7, here. Visibility is so low, I can’t see the mountain!” Really, it’s much milder here; I can’t compete.

Yesterday, my brother called to warn me about “wind chill.” (We’ve actually had a Wind Chill Warning.) We’re in a cold snap—it’ll put us in the single digits and negatives for the better part of the week. Really, though I’ve been in California for thirty-five years, I didn’t slip into a coma. I do remember wind chill. It seems that everywhere, but here, it is really snowing. My brother (a few hours south of us) has seen 14 inches in the last two days. My mother (well north of us) has seen even more. Us? A dusting, maybe five inches over the past four days, barely enough to shovel every day. Today, we are seeing the beginnings of the “big storm”. We check the radar by keeping an eye on the weather websites.

Critters here are challenged, too. It’s tough when, everyday, you have to dig deeper for your food supply. The last two nights, rabbits have come to clean up what’s left of the birdseed we threw out for our jays, juncos and chickadees. We get squirrels, too, and that makes me nervous. The squirrels can get into the engine compartment of your car. Sometimes they’ll even eat the insulation on the wiring. I mentioned it to Rick, who noticed that the squirrels seemed particularly interested in hanging out under and around his truck. (He went out to check the engine compartment—just to make sure there weren’t any rodent condos going in. Believe me; you don’t want to tangle with squirrel HOAs!)

Inside, (though I don’t think it’s any gotten any colder) the cat has taken to snuggling up all day on the electric baseboard heater. It hasn’t the charm of a good woodstove, that’s for sure. It’s a little pathetic, but we all do what we can.

Our local papers are full of weather reports and snow records, too. Our year-end snow count topped 100 inches. The local Meteorologist promised that the colder temperatures would slow the snow. Also, he points out, if the Lake freezes over, it will lessen the “Lake Effect” snow. If the Lake freezes over? Look at a map. See how big Lake Michigan is? They don’t call it a Great Lake for nothing. When a Great Lake hits 90% ice cover, it’s said to have “frozen over.” (Normal winters usually see a 50% cover.) How often does a freeze over happen? Well, in the last 110 years, only four times (1904, 1976-1978.) His report is otherwise scientifically problematic, saying (and I quote), “Northern Michigan only gets 140 to 150 inches of snow each year. We’ve already had 100 inches, so that leaves January, February and March to get an additional 50 inches.” What? So, if we reach our statistical norm, someone’s going to turn off the snow?

We’re lucky. Nestled next to the lake like this, we get the snow, but not so much of the cold. Inland areas can get bitterly cold. And, we have great winter gear. My oldest sister abandoned the state a couple of years ago, saying she never wanted to be cold again. When we decided to move east, she gave us all her winter gear—coats, hats, scarves and mittens by the bin-full. (We’ve got so much down, we’re up!) We have no excuse for being cold, or for staying in. In fact, as soon as I finish this, Rick and I are headed off for a walk. We thought we’d go take a look and see what the Lake is doing.

At Home, With The Royals

A.V. Walters

Of our five emu chicks, two were adopted by a fancy, Napa Valley vineyard/winery. Those two little emus had been our favorites, the ones we named C3 and Sleepy. Their royal gig was to serve as guardian and companion animals in the vineyard’s menagerie. This place was not just a grape-growing operation, it was a full-blown winery castle. Castello di Amerosa is a noted tourist attraction between St. Helena and Calistoga.  They were adopted out as little bitty guys, in full baby-emu plumage. We wistfully watched them go off to a royal life at the castle, pleased that they’d fared so well.

Do you remember me?

Do you remember me?

We always intended to visit. After all, how often does one get to see a full-sized medieval castle? (Really, check it out; it is really quite impressive— www.castellodiamorosa.com) As the time drew short for our own departure to the east, we finally decided to make the trip to see how our little, feathered, former wards were doing. We emailed our contact, Carlos, and asked if we could visit. He was thrilled, sent us photos and directions. But, the photos puzzled us—the Royal Emus were blonds! (What do they say? You can never be too thin or too blond?) Really, what could explain how different these emus were from their plebian siblings?

Castello Di Amerosa

Castello Di Amerosa

As we drove up the winding drive, the castle (and it really is a castle) peaked above the hill. We parked in the lot, and walked over to take a look at the grape vine encircled castle, complete with a moat and drawbridge. Carlos soon found us and brought us over to the area of the grounds with the emus. Along the way, he introduced his other charges—geese, guinea hens, goats, sheep, peacocks, and a wide variety of chickens. Finally, there they were, the emus. Blond.

Blonds?

Blonds?

It wasn’t just the photos, these emus were decidedly lighter in color than their parents or siblings, back on the farm. We scratched our heads. While the emus didn’t recognize us, they clearly related to us as folks who know and handle emus. (Besides, we brought apple treats!) They let us rub the fronts of their necks and feel their feathers. And, therein was the secret…the feathers were brittle, bleached out and broken. Something was clearly wrong.

Where did they get those white knickers?

Where did they get those white knickers?

The kings and royals of yesteryear often suffered different ailments from the mundane health-hazards of the surrounding, peasant populations. Like modern folk everywhere, the Royals of the past suffered from diseases of excess—gout, heart disease, obesity. We decided to ask what it was these emus had been eating.

Sure enough, it turned out that they’d been feeding the emus the same special-mix they had for the peacocks. But, peacocks are seed-eaters and Emus are grazers. Their enclosure was too small to provide a normal, grass-eating diet. (And, like teenagers everywhere, they’ll gladly take the fast-food, rather than seek out the best nutritional options.) Emus need a feed mix that has a high proportion of roughage and greens. These royal emus had a diet that was too rich in calories and not high enough in essential vitamins and minerals.

We pointed it out to Carlos, the damaged, brittle feathers and explained. Nodding, he agreed and assured us he’d get the proper emu feed the very next day. And, not a moment too soon—those emus will need to rebuild their feathers to stay warm this coming winter.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

A little snack of delicious grape leaves.

Our visit was a complete success. We did look at the castle, a bit, but most of our time was spent with The Royal Emus.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Emus wandering off to their royal duties.

Reunited

A.V. Walters

We ran those two emu generations side by side, in adjacent fields for at least a month, wondering if and when it would be safe to put them together. The emu elders continued to be a bit pissy to the babes, reaching over the fence to nip and thwack them at every opportunity. But, earnest Gatsby wouldn’t give up; he was bound and determined to win those big emus over. When we came into the field to feed the adults, he’d run up to the fence line to greet them, only to be met with a hiss and a peck on the top of his head. We had to wonder, was there any recognition of kinship, at all? Not that I expected much of the Mrs., (After all, female emus have a cut and run approach to parenthood.) But the males are the nurturers, and will even adopt unrelated emu young. And, these were their own babies.

Maybe we waited too long to do the introductions. After all, Gatsby and Kelvin were now emu teens, complete with ‘tude’. (I know a great many parents who’d like to pretend that their teenagers aren’t related!) It wasn’t even essential that there be an emu reunion. Elmer has enough land and enough sheep (on both sides of the main road) to employ separate teams of guardian emus. My concern was that they meet, and be at least civil, so that if Elmer needed to put them together it could be done without fisticuffs.

By late July, the over the fence hostilities had lessened to the point where it was worth a shot. The adults were no longer starving—receiving daily rations with the babes since their move. They’d put a few pounds back on, and were much more relaxed. Still, mom and dad demonstrated clear interest in the lower pasture. You see, the baby emus were in an old orchard and the adults obviously coveted the easy availability of free, seasonal apple treats. Our emus had relaxed and learned, too. At least Gatsby had learned to visit at the fence line, just out of reach. Kelvin appeared to have lost interest in the big emus next door. We decided it was time.

One sunny day, we marched across the farm for the regular emu feeding. After everyone had finished their kibble and the apple treats had been generously distributed, Rick unceremoniously swung open the gate between them. It took a few minutes before they realized what was up.

Gatsby got it first. Emus! His head perked up with the recognition of this momentous change. Then, at full emu speed he headed directly for the grown-up emus.

Fearing violence, Rick and I stepped towards the fray, without any idea of what we’d do if there were an actual emu fight—wave our arms and shout, “Heel emus, heel?” I’ve been in the middle of an emu altercation—limping away with a broken toe, for my trouble, as a result. I had no interest in doing it again. At the last instant, Gatsby veered off and ran circles—what appeared to be joyous circles—around the adults. Emus! Gatsby was in his glory. Since the moment he first caught sight of the adults, he had wanted herd-status. And, here they were, at last!

For their part, the adults, while keeping an eye on that crazy Gatsby, had bigger plans. They headed straight for the apple trees that were now available to them. Kelvin hung back safely, and wisely, on the perimeter. Every now and then, Gatsby would cut a corner too tight and intrude on the personal space of the adults. He was rewarded with hisses and pecks—but, to our relief, no kicking. An emu’s kick is its best defense and offense. And, if an emu starts kicking, things are serious.

Dining in Peace

Dining in Peace

We stuck around for forty minutes, or so. Gatsby was still careening about the pasture. He was the happiest emu I’d ever seen. He’d run in big circles and then come back in to do smaller circles around the huddle of emus, who were quietly munching apples, under the trees. He didn’t even mind when one of the adults would mete out a hiss or nip, asserting who was, after all, in charge of this operation. Gatsby didn’t protest—he clearly wasn’t interested in dominance. He wanted unity.

Finally, after a protracted run, Gatsby quieted down and joined the adults. If he got too close, Mr. and Mrs. were quick to give him a whacking, so he’d temporarily join his sister, who was grazing in wide circles on the edge of the action. Kelvin appeared a little put out. She stayed close, but at a safe range from the group. They didn’t pay her any mind. Her best buddy, Gatsby, had completely thrown her over for the adults. She looked just a little lonely, but that was her choice.

Taking turns as lookout.

Taking turns as lookout.

 

Rick looked at me, “I think our work here is done.” And so it was. It was another step in the direction of emu autonomy. There’s the tug of parenthood, combined with the relief of demonstrated independence.  We stopped and picked some blackberries on our way back down the road.