"I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." ~Wendell Berry

Sunday, April 29, 2018

View From the Porch - The Fish Thief

For the last few days, my colony has been under siege by a female Cooper's hawk and a smaller hawk - not sure if it's a Sharpie or a small male Cooper's hawk. Nevertheless it was a beautiful day complete with boathorns, setting up / relocating decoys, filling bird feeders and nest checks. No eggs yet, thankfully!
Feeling very accomplished, Bob and I relaxed on the back porch to watch the martins and listen for the dreaded "alarm system" indicating the hawk was back. Bob saw it first circling over the pond and said, "is that the @$!? hawk coming back again"? Some martins and tree swallows did seem alarmed by the presence of this guy.
Me: "No, that's too big for a Cooper's hawk".  And within 3 seconds, the large raptor folded its wings back and dove toward the pond.  Pulling up at the last second with feet outstretched, it still splashed into the water and flopped around for 3-4 seconds, before finally becoming airborne again.  We watched in amazement - me squealing in delight, as it displayed its catch to us, departing southward. But the fun wasn't over yet. Suddenly we noticed and identified a large eagle rapidly approaching from the east - straight-lined flying, hellbent and focused on catching the first raptor - later identified as an Osprey.  The eagle looked like an F-18 as he zeroed in on the Osprey.  That guy had just stolen food from the eagle's territory and it was not going to be allowed to get away with it!
Oh and me without a video or picture camera.
As the eagle closed the distance rapidly, the Osprey tried to circle to evade, but finally gave up its precious catch, dropping it in our neighbor's hayfield. The eagle broke off its attack and quickly dove to the ground to claim the large bass.
I managed to sprint indoors to grab my binoculars. When I managed to finally get the Osprey into focus, I found there were actually two of them slowly beginning to ascend again and moving away.
I searched the skies and identified a juvenile eagle coming in from the east as well...apparently still following its parents and learning the skills required for hunting.
This morning, I wasn't even entertaining the thought of the Osprey pair returning, when suddenly I spotted it beginning a slow circle of our pond again. Silly me, STILL with no movie camera. Hey, THIS time I am going to capture it on video.  Unfortunately, my excitement caused me to fat-finger, thumb and push all the wrong buttons at the wrong time and this is all I captured.  At least I have proof this time.

I'm going to have a hard time accomplishing everything I had planned for the day today, while I'm running in & out of the house trying to see if they are back.
Oh, and how many fish do Osprey eat everyday?
Check out the video below - not the best, but I'll keep practicing.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Eggs Already?

No, we don't have purple martin eggs yet, but we do have other eggs being laid here already!  The weather is so weird, it's easy to forget that it's only April 20th. On the other hand, it's ONLY April 20th!  Bob had been spotting a pair of Canadian Geese on our pond for over a week now. I'm not particularly fond of Canadian Geese - there's nothing special about them - they're everywhere and they are so messy!  In my most self-assured voice, I told him surely, they'll be moving on.  Tonight, as we drove around the property and then the pond on our 4-wheelers, a female goose took off honking wildly.
As I scanned the bank, I saw why she was acting so alarmed and suddenly, in a blink, my indifference to geese turned into endearment.
She has 5 eggs softly nestled in a downy feather cup she has created on the bank of the pond and I'm pretty sure she didn't count on having such a nosy neighbor. I studied the site and oriented myself so I could figure out from where I could observe her in the future while standing at a safe distance on our porch. I noticed one egg in the water and I felt a bit bad.  I don't know if she accidentally kicked the egg out when I drove up, or if it had been discarded before I even got there.

I made a decision not to try to rescue the egg as I had no idea how geese will react when you fuss around their nests and I figured the cold water had already ruined it.
Ma and Pa stayed in the next field over, watching me from a distance.
After what seemed like hours, (it was really only about 20-25 minutes), they both returned to the pond and she made her way up the bank, re-positioned herself on the nest and settled in for the night, while dad quietly paddled around to make sure the area was once again safe for his little family. 
On my way back to the house, I stopped to check on our Killdeer nest - 3 eggs have now become 4. There are 2 things that always amaze me about Killdeer - one is HOW do they get away with not being caught at night by snakes and owls?  The second is, HOW does she manage to keep those eggs so warm at night with such cold weather here right now?  It has been getting as low as mid-20's lately.
I did some quick research and found that goose eggs can take as long as 28-35 days to incubate. Of course I don't know how long those eggs have been there, so I'll have to keep a daily watch on them, if I want to see the kids hatch. Regardless of my lack of interest in geese, I am now excited about having baby goslings swimming around my pond. Ma and Pa had better get used to me hanging around - it's the price every living thing must pay while living here at Gobbler's Knob.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Of Missouri Sunsets, Spring and Purple Martins

After a few days of cold, wet miserable weather - including SNOW, I decided to go outside the last few evenings to check on my purple martin population and observe them as they rain down from the sky at dusk.  On Monday night, my camera battery died pretty quickly.  Just swell. But Tuesday night, I was re-charged and prepared.  Only I really wasn't prepared for what Mother Nature has been up to the last few days.
After last year's drama of having to deal with a lot-more-than-usual hawk attacks (8-10 per day - we think a male & female Cooper's hawk) we removed a few more trees this past winter.  So far, this has been a huge improvement...(knocking on wood).
The guidelines for attracting martins state that you need 40' of open space around your colony, but there are many other factors involved in that, not only for attracting, but also keeping them safe.  Even though they were 150' away, the hawks were using the cedar trees as cover and coming up the East side low & fast behind them, then launching surprise attacks on my new fledges. So, in the end, the trees had to go.
Still, I'm engaging every tool in my arsenal to fight back against any hawk attacks, including my little 'winged orcas' and bird-feeding stations surrounding my colony on all sides, setup halfway between the woods and the gourd racks.
My "Winged Orcas"

In my particular case, the noise from my colony attracts hawks, more than any birds at a bird feeder.
The birds at the East feeding station were on duty, doing their part. They work-for-food...notice I didn't say, "for free", but since chicken scratch is only $7.50 a bag at our local MFA, let's just call them, "cheap labor" and "free decoys".
The birds at the West feeding station were also on duty - same labor prices.  When I'm out & about with my martins, I keep one eye on these feeding stations so I can gauge whether a predator is nearby.
While waiting for the martins to return, I made a video of my little winged orcas (tree swallows) and all the other bird activity around my site. I was surprised at how many birds I could hear on the video when I played it back on my computer. I had only been 'listening' for alarm calls while outside and didn't really realize how many birds have already arrived this spring!
Take a listen - how many birds can you identify by their calls in the below video? I'll give you a hint - there are NO English house sparrows or starlings!

At 7:08 PM a small group of eight martins started circling the gourd racks. By 7:24 PM - still only seeing 8 martins, I thought I may have been off by a factor of 12 when I had informed a fellow purple martin landlord that I thought I had approximately 100 martins here now.
But at 7:31 PM, it started raining martins from the sky and I had to force myself to turn off the video camera periodically as I tried to keep watch for any approaching hawks and enjoy the show at the same time.  And wow, WHAT a show - a brilliant sunset AND over 100 purple martins!  I had such a delightful evening.
The sound in the video below is just as I heard it - no enhancements have been made. I did have to blend multiple videos together, as I had to frequently turn it off and on, so I could walk around and continue to monitor for hawks. To enjoy the video below, click on the YouTube icon and open in full-screen mode.

I love these evenings - partly cloudy paired with the setting sun causing these rapidly changing colors, along with loud, raucous purple martin chatter and no hawks. Good night, my lovelies! Tomorrow is another day!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Don't Blink

For the last 8 weeks, I have been seeing 15 to 20 crows around Gobbler's Knob. For awhile, they were just 'noise' in the background that I could hear on my frequent ventures outside.
But, as I sat in my office one morning I saw a buzzard flying in from the North, bobbing up and down and weaving as if he / she were drunk.  It was weaving and coming in so low in fact, I thought it was going to crash into my office window. Hot on its tail were my murder of crows.
A few days later, Bob was taking Nikki for a walk around the property. The Great Horned Owl flushed and flew a couple hundred feet into a nearby tree, with the crows in pursuit, constantly cawing and harassing her.  At that point, it dawned on me I should figure out how I could use these noisy, wonderful troublemakers to my advantage.  It has been amusing to watch them chase the Red Tails, Northern Harriers, Cooper's, and the Red-Shouldered hawks as they hunt across the fields. Unfortunately, it always seemed to be happening when I am without one of my cameras.
So, to keep the crows around and the owls distracted, the south east field is now prepped to draw  their attention away from my purple martins.  We scattered over 35 lbs of chicken scratch (containing cracked corn and milo) here - what doesn't get eaten will grow...and that's ok too.
 We even provided private, reserved perching for our GHO and our Barred owl.

Last Friday, Mar. 23rd, I had counted 18 purple martins when they came in for the evening.  This past Saturday however, there was a noticeable difference in their chatter & activities and I watched my gourd racks as purple martins rained down from the sky. It was windy and 65 degrees. This video was taken around 11 AM - there are a lot in the air behind me as I was filming them coming in and claiming their gourds....and the way they navigate the owl cages - they've obviously been here before.
(click on the video below, then the "YouTube" link to embiggen the screen)

As I stood outside Saturday evening, Mar. 24th, I expected to count 18-20 again. At first, I only counted 12 returning home as the sun began to set and I thought the rest had either moved on, or I had been mistaken on Friday. As the sky darkened though, I heard martins behind me and above - seeming to suddenly materialize out of the clouds. I spun round & round, trying to spot and count them, as more small groups appeared from every direction. Way up high, a familiar shape circled the quarter moon. By the time every martin had descended and was safely tucked in a gourd, I had counted 35 martins.  Yes, 35 martins.  On March 24th. The only year that number was exceeded was in 2014 - and that ended up being a horrible year where I had to feed them ... a LOT.  In fact, here are my counts from previous years:
  • March 26, 2008 - 1 ASY male purple martin arrived
  • March 24, 2009 - 1 ASY male & 1 ASY female arrived
  • March 15, 2010 - 1 ASY female martin arrived (by 3/24 - there were 4 here)
  • March 7, 2011 - 1 ASY female martin arrived (by 3/24 - there were 12 here)
  • March 13, 2012 - 2 ASY male martins arrived (by 3/24 - there were 24 here)
  • March 9, 2013 - 1 ASY female arrived (by 3/24 - there were 22 here)
  • March 10, 2014 - 1 ASY male arrived (by 3/24 - there were 100 - 110 here)
  • March 15, 2015 - 1 ASY male arrived
  • February 28, 2016 - 1 ASY female arrived (by 3/24 - there were 25-30 here)
  • March 4, 2017 - 1 ASY female and male arrived (by 3/24 - there were 25-30 here)
  • February 19, 2018 - 1 ASY male arrived (by 3/24- there are 35+ here)
I currently have 5000 crickets in the freezer and I'm really hoping I don't have to use them this year. At the very least, it's starting to look like it's going to be another interesting year.

Much to my delight, I received another visit from my Barred Owl (who has NOT been spotted attacking my purple martin racks) on March 28th at 10:15 AM. I can't help myself - I could watch her all day.  This nestbox is less than 150' from my office window and wouldn't ya know it - she always shows up when I'm on a work conference call.

I can't help but wonder how any of my cavity-nesters - bluebirds, chickadees, tufted titmice, or tree swallows would ever feel comfortable using this nestbox for the season. Yet, I've never seen her chasing any of my birds - in fact, the purple martins were out chattering on the racks on the opposite side of the house at the same time this video was taken. When the GHO was spotted during daylight a few days ago, the first sign that a predator was around was the loud warning calls of the Cardinals and Blue Jays that were flitting about where she had decided to roost.  Oddly enough, those same birds do not seem to react in the same manner when the Barred owl is around. Since I've seen her on this post a lot using it as a hunting perch, she must be having success to keep coming back to it. I was actually happy to see her.  I had read that GHOs would either kill or drive a Barred owl out of its territory, so I was glad to see she was still alive.  As I frequently discover, the 'rules' don't always apply here at Gobbler's Knob.
The New England Asters, Bee Balm and other native wildflowers are starting to sprout in my garden already. The dandelions and Bradford pear trees are blooming and providing some much-needed food for the honey bee hive I found in my wood duck box.
All the signs are clear - so, come on Spring - the martins are ready, the plants are ready and now I'm ready - let's get to it!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Purple Martins Arrive in Southern Missouri

I thought the wind and my husband were trying to trick me.  But sure enough, on 2-19-2018, I spotted my first purple martin of the season, circling the 4 gourds I had put out just that day.

After 2 days, I never heard or saw him again.
Then suddenly, on 2-27-2018, another male showed up with a female.  I wasn't sure if it was the same male that had left to find a mate, or a different pair.  Nevertheless, they are here!  Time to deploy your housing.
Happy Purple Martin Season, fellow Missourians!

Friday, February 2, 2018

All Hail the Predators of Winter

When it comes to spotting the apex predators, we have had a wonderful winter. This is why I love it here so much. When your own heartbeat seems to keep pace with rhythms around you, the joy of it all is hard to describe.
I had been catching brief glimpses of this Barred Owl every morning since mid-December. But, not being a morning person, I struggled to remind myself every morning, "check the tree limbs, before you turn on your office lights". I had managed to catch a video of her on one of the bluebird boxes that I could view from my office window:

So, it was such a raw and pure delight when, on the afternoon of Jan. 5th, Bob & Nikki decided I needed to go for a walk. Mid-way through our walk, we both realized we had left our phones at home. "Of course!", I said to myself. "This means we will see something wonderful and not be able to take a picture"!
And with that self-fulfilling prophecy thrown out to the Universe, that is EXACTLY what happened. As we rounded a corner on the northwest edge of the property, Nikki flushed our Barred Owl out of the fallen leaf litter. And she flew about 30' from us and landed on a limb only 10' off the ground. As I huffed and puffed, running to the house to fetch my camera, I thought, "she'll be gone when I return". But she wasn't.

She graced me with her presence for over 30 minutes - as I snapped over a hundred photos and finally remembered to turn on the video function of my camera. Seriously, I am in love. What a gorgeous, magical, mysterious creature! She has been frequenting all the bird houses and low tree limbs in the northern half of the property, using them as hunting perches.
I have seen her every day, sometimes more than once a day, perching on the Bluebird box.  This will not go over well with the local Gobbler's Knob Community Housing Authority when nesting season starts, if she is still here.  I suspect the Tufted Titmice, Chickadees and Bluebirds will be complaining the loudest.
She started to look bored and sleepy when I finally activated the video function of my camera.

Yesterday, as I watched over my bird feeders, I noticed a very small, but Kestrel-sized hawk landing on the feeder supports. As I filmed it, I realized it was a Sharp-shinned hawk - very small, but very deadly.  Ok, but move on by end of February, Buster!
Then today, as I stared out my window at the clearing fog and the gathering clouds and watched the leaves blow in the increasing winds, I noticed 2 'different' larger-than-buzzards birds, soaring above the Northern Tier.  By the time I retrieved my movie camera and card, they had circled toward the neighbor's 200 acres, but it was clear - the mated pair of Bald Eagles from Montauk were soaring around, searching for food. *STAY OUT OF MY POND*!!
It is so exciting to read the eagles' numbers are rebounding: http://krcgtv.com/news/local/rebound-of-the-bald-eagle-a-mid-missouri-camera-lens
I so admire the Predators of Winter - they are bold, brave and determined in their hunt. They are exposed for all to see and admire. They don't have the luxury of hiding in trees covered with leaves as others do during the summer.  The Predators of Winter have to be strong, stealthy and quick if they want to eat and survive and I have a front row seat where I can see it all.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Hidden Secrets of Leaves

The trees are shaking off the last of their dead leaves in preparation for winter. We usually gather them by the wheelbarrow loads and dump them in the raised garden beds and the compost pile, turning everything under so they can help improve the soil for next year's harvest.
As I've written about before, the transition to Fall is my favorite time of year. I think part of my love for Fall is due to the decline in the tick and chigger populations.
Our favorite resident female squirrel (whom we've named, "Olivia") has been a frequent visitor in this part of the Savanna - now we know why. With the leaves gone, we can see her new nest at the top of this oak tree. Unfortunately for her, the Great Horned owl has also found her nest. Several weeks ago, around 11 PM, I was out with Nikki and suddenly the GHO flew out of the dead tree to the right of Olivia's nest, sending more dead limbs crashing to the ground. We've seen Olivia since then, so I'm hoping she has decided to nest somewhere else.

As Fall transitions into Winter, it also provides me with the opportunity to cut back limbs on trees that were allowing the hawks to hide their approaches and attacks on my martins. Apparently though, not only some limbs, but some more trees have got to go, before my martins return in March.
The hawks used this corridor to come bulleting through and surprise my colony.  (the closest tree in front is 150' from my colony)
This winter, it will be a massacre where the trees are concerned. We had a tough end of season with a male Sharpie and a female Cooper's that paired up and wreaked havoc on my colony. As much as I love my martins, I was glad to see the last of them leave in August so I didn't have to watch the onslaught.
Bob and I watched helplessly as martins were snagged in mid-flight, until we put up these barriers to help deter and re-route the hawks.
I hate cutting down trees.  It just feels so wrong. But, if my colony is going to survive and thrive, I need to make some sacrifices.  It always makes me feel guilty when I do it, as I know the resident wildlife are using the trees to raise their young.
As the trees, bushes, blackberries, multi-flora rose and the other varieties of shrubs we have here have shaken off their summer and fall colors, I have started to feel a bit better about the decision to take out some trees.  To my delight, I have found that many more birds are using the dense cover provided by the leaves and brambles, than I originally thought.
In this thicket north of my house, of blackberries, multi-flora rose and buck brush, I had to look 3 times to verify the nest in the middle of the thicket.
(to enlarge the photo, simply click on it).
Check out how well hidden this nest was - dead center of the photo.
Without the benefit of having eggs in the nest, it's always been difficult for me to ID nests, unless they're as obvious as a tree swallow or other cavity-nesting bird.  I believe this one is a robin's nest.
Nest #1 (zoomed in photo of the nest in the thicket above). It seems to have a combination of small twigs and grass.
Updated: a purple martin friend suggested "Mockingbird" nest. I fully agree!
In a nearby thicket to the northwest composed mostly of smooth sumac sprouts, another secret is revealed. This one is a small cup.  This nest is formed out of grass and leaves, so perhaps a bluebird nest?
 A zoomed in photo of the nest above.
Nest #2, formed out of grass & leaves. Updated! A purple martin friend suggests this is probably a field sparrow nest!
Only 75 feet south of Nest #2, I find Nest #3.  Another small cup nest, formed out of fine grasses and leaves too. It is fun to think about all the little birds I see flitting in & out of these thickets and how amused they must have been during the summer, as I passed by, knowing what secrets they're hiding from me, just a few feet away.
Nest #3, also formed out of fine grasses and leaves.
Following the trails we have on our 23 acres, I find Nest #4 another 100 feet south. Smaller than the first ones, but also built out of fine grasses.
Nest #4 - formed out of fine grass.

A closeup of the cup of Nest #4.
Bob found Nest #5 which was so well hidden inside this cluster of multi-flora rose and tree limbs, that I had a hard time photographing it. But still I managed to get 3 pictures, even though I needed to stop and extract thorns and wipe away some blood afterwards.  How do these little birds do it? This nest is much different than the others - a neat little tunnel formed in the middle of a tightly wound cluster of moss.  Chickadee or tufted titmouse maybe?  Either way, a very smart and wily architect - she put a nice roof over her babies' heads too!
Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss.

Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss- a little different view.

Nest #5 - nest composed of tightly wound moss
Out in the middle of the south field, tightly wound in the branches of this smooth sumac sprout, is Nest #6. It's so small...I'm guessing a hummingbird nest?  What do you think?
Nest #6
This one is very much a masterpiece, built to withstand the wind and rain, tightly secured to its supporting branches.
Nest #6 - view from the top.
Finally, in the far south of the property, we find 3 more nests. Nest #7 was firmly stationed against this tree trunk on top of criss-crossing brambles and limbs, with what looked like bits of mud, grasses and small, fine twigs. Another robin?
Nest #7 - a bit of mud, grass and small twigs in this one.
I had to laugh at all the pictures I took of the birds' nests - almost every one of them has a stem showing in the picture with buck brush berries on them. Buck brush is one of the main staples of food here in winter, so if the kiddos hatched in these nests are seed eaters, they should be doing quite well right now!
Nest #8 - 100% built out of the native grasses in that area.
Nest #8 - I give up - ideas?
Nest #9 was found among a persimmon & plum tree grove that we've allowed to grow. Another one built out of grasses & fine twigs. Seems too small for a robin.
Nest #9 - grasses & small twigs.

I was able to find 4 more nests, but they were so deeply buried in the thickets it was difficult to get a good picture. Given the multiple predators and issues I have to deal with with my purple martins, it makes me wonder how so many of these nests actually produce surviving nestlings. Seeing the numbers of birds here on Gobbler's Knob indicates they are at least somewhat successful though.
I love surprises and I love that the birds are able to keep their secrets during the summer.  But in Fall & Winter, I get a peek into what they did during the summer and imagine all the little stories that were going on, right underneath my nose - well, underneath the leaves at least.