Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wet Weather is For the Birds!


It’s been a really cold and wet spring here in NW PA. In a way, that has been great, because I have not had to do much mowing and yard work. But my gardens are kind of hung up, too. All the leaves are on the trees about halfway out, and they’re just kind of hanging there, waiting for it to get warmer. My early plants like spinach and radishes are about the same. I read all these things about spinach being a cool weather crop and how you can’t grow it later in the spring, but I’m going to have to make a note in my garden book about this one, because I thinking I’d be having spinach salad and spinach quiche and all good things like that if we’d had a few days where the temperature got over fifty degrees.

I have my main vegetable garden turned over, but the lower one is at a standstill because it is too wet. Even if you have a tiller or a plow, you should not work muddy soil and you should not even think about working a garden patch with standing water. It destroys the soil structure and causes all sorts of problems. You can’t put seed in standing water anyway, it might as well just rest some more. Around here, direct seeding doesn’t happen until after Memorial Day. Tilling and plowing is a different matter, though, and tilling time, according to my grandmother, is when the dogwoods are blooming. Luckily, this year, the dogwood flowers are in refrigeration mode, the same as everything else. All blooming trees keep blooming and blooming, which is a good thing, because the cold, wet weather is keeping the pollinators from getting out and about. The bumblebees are plugging away, but the little sweat bees and other things like that are nowhere to be seen. A couple years ago, we lost a lot of songbirds because a late frost killed off all the bugs.

The birds don’t seem to be having a hard time this year, though. I keep reading stories about the different problems birds are having with pesticides and cats and disruptions in migratory routes, but I’m not seeing the results of that here. I would guess that bird populations really started to go up a lot about fifteen years ago. I’ve always spent time outside and one of my prized possessions is an old Roger Tory Peterson bird book I got at a yardsale when I was about ten. Roger Tory Peterson is a local person who actually got his artistic start painting pretty things on furniture in the factories in Jamestown, NY, and I’m partial to that book.

Anyway, when we had our previous couple dogs, we were lucky enough to live right on the edge of town and had miles of farm fields and logging roads to walk with them. When they were a couple years old, I really started to lose them a lot walking in the field, and it was because the volume of bird noise had gone up so much just in the space of a few years that I couldn’t hear them moving through the long grass anymore. After that, I started to notice birds of prey in increasing numbers and I would say that I have not noticed a significant overall drop in bird numbers since then.

Right now, I’m playing around with submitting bird species counts and observations to, which I am too lazy to make a link to. It’s called Cut and paste. Which is a project to track numbers of birds. It’s kind of fun, because you can have your data sent to you through email and keep and eye on everything you’ve seen. Scientific bird people use the counts submitted from all over to find trends in population and migratory patterns. It also just takes a little bit even on my slow, slow phone lines. I’m incredibly biased towards stuff that doesn’t require you to have broadband or even normal dial up. And I actively hate You Tube, because on all the news sites and entertainment sites that I usually browse for headlines, they used to have transcripts or descriptions of what went on in an interview on some cable TV show or other and now they just say: “Look at this Video!” So, like everything else, instead of an advance or innovation making people more creative or more informed, it has just made people lazier. Just what we needed.

Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed sitting by the window and making lists of the different kinds of birds I see. I’m still feeding birds, which I know I shouldn’t be, but I do like to watch. And I’m extra lucky because of the pond, so I get water birds as visitors really often. I saw a female common merganser last week. A pair of solitary sandpipers hung around for a week or so, though I figure they’re long gone now, as they generally breed up in Canada. A Great Blue Heron has made several pitstops in the shallow end of the pond over the last week or so. There are actually a pair of them which I see flying over every few days. They are big birds. When they fly in pairs, they go so close together that the legs of the one in front are overlapping the body of the one in back. When they take off they seem a little clumsy, but on the ground, they are really impressive. I know they are taller than I am when they have their heads up. When nothing spooks them, and they get a chance to fish, they are better than TV. They take a step about every five minutes or so and go down into the water very slowly. Then they hold their heads down, and after a while, they go so quick and grab out a fish. It’s amazing to have something like that going on right out the back window.

The cold weather has not stopped ay of the birds from breeding. There are egg shells everywhere, and every tree is full of peeping little chicks. I’ve already seen fledgeling mourning doves and robins and the cattails in the pond are full of redwing blackbird nests. The redwing blackbirds, I never thought of as watery kind of birds, but they also dive against the pond for bugs like sparrows and bats do. My favorite birds are bobolinks. They nest in the hayfields and have the best song. It sounds like a computer printout on a low budget TV show from the ‘60’s. It is definitely not tree cutting time or even time to limb the trees we cut in the smaller stand of pines over the winter. Last year around this time, I accidentally went over a nest of sparrows on the ground clearing a sunflower patch in the long grass, so it is actually too late to break any ground or clear any of the overgrown places too.

I did feel the other day like I was going to be the victim of a reenactment of “The Birds” when I got too close to what must be about ten robins’ nests in a patch of cedars and spruces at the edge of the yard. Lots and lots of very large very ornery birds came out of the trees and flew around in a not nice way. Birds get really strange and aggressive during the breeding and nesting seasons.

There is actually a theory that the true story of bird attacks which inspired the creepy Hitchcock movie was caused by birds eating toxic algae that washed up on the beaches of California. That story has given me lots of motivation to keep the goat water trough clean. I got a new stock tank for them last year, and it seems like to grows algae a lot faster than the washtub I watered them out of before. I keep emptying it and scrubbing it, though. I can just imagine “The Goats.”

On the goat front, things are finally moving along to replace their very pathetic shed. I went to the sawmill, very impressively reconstructed from the pile of boards and the field of mud which it was in January! and put in an order which was finished a day or two later. So, I have to borrow my uncle’s truck and it is time for another adventure in hauling very soon. This weekend, the weather is supposed to be nice, so I went shopping and bought some chicken legs which I will use to lure my family over on Saturday or Sunday to help with the “goat shed raising.”

Of all the pets we have right now, the goats are a combination of the easiest and the hardest. For a farm pet, I totally recommend goats, even over chickens. You can buy a goat for next to nothing. You can feed them for next to nothing. They can’t bite. (Only have teeth on the bottom.) They are cute, and if you handle them a lot while young they are very friendly. I’ve been thumped by them before when they barged through somewhere I was standing, but they have never actually tried to butt me. I’ve heard a lot of things about how goats are stinky. I have neutered male goats, and they smell really sweet.

Drawbacks of goats are they are escape artists. They will get out of any fence. Ours just climb right over the top of the wire fence. the really naughty one will hang there for going on minutes until he can just make one more rung. A friend of ours hates goats for just that reason. She suggests as an escape-proof goat solution, use razor wire like at a prison and then a shotgun if any make it over. She is a funny lady.

When goats get out, they will go for your favorite flowers and trees. Lots of people get goats to keep down weeds and help clear fields. You would have to have dozens of goats for that, even in a small yard. They are not focused, and they will eat where you want for a few minutes before wandering away and destroying the asparagus patch or stripping the bark off that tree you got as a wedding present or just deciding they aren’t hungry anymore. My goats love to loiter on the porch, pull down windchimes and kick over flowerpots. They’re like bad kids! They are also fools for tomatoes. A white angora goat with a tomato smile is kind of funny/kind of scary.

They are pretty stupid. No matter how many times I’ve handled the goats, they still think you are going to kill them when it is time to trim hooves or shear. Wrestling them to the ground and doing any work on them has never gotten any easier. This year, I tricked my sister’s husband, who is in law enforcement, into helping with their hooves and with shearing, and we had a relatively easy time of it because he is trained in positional asphyxiation techniques. It is less mean than it sounds. He wasn’t choking the goats. They were choking themselves!

Other than hoof and hair time, though the goats need very little care, and they are funny, personable little creatures. And hopefully they will not butt their new shed into tiny pieces like they are with the old one!

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