Fun with Fowl

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I’m the queen of the chickens, says this Ameraucana hen!

I’ve recently been put in charge of chicken feeding on the weekends, so I’m spending more time than I used to around our flock. They are a very happy bunch, and I got a request for more information on them, so I thought I’d share some of their antics and such.

History of the flock

When I first came to the ranch, our Wild Type neighbors had just a few chickens, who lived in an interesting coop made by Ralph the neighbor. The coop is next to the old cabin, so the residents of the cabin “get” to listen to chickens all day.

Later, the neighbors bought a dozen chicks and raised them. I can’t remember what breed they were, but I think they all produced brown eggs. But, disaster stuck.  All the chickens but a couple disappeared one day! We still don’t know if it was some bad animal or bad people.

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Front and center is Buckbeak, the senior rooster of the bunch.

After a while, we got a dozen Brown Sex Links from Ideal Poultry, which is actually a local Cameron, Texas business. These chickens have a weird name, but are pretty, lay brown eggs, and are friendly. The hens are dark red and the roostes are white, which you can see on Buckbeak, above. They also bought some black meat. Originally they had planned to share them with a friend, but we ended up with all of them. So, we had a lot of chickens.

It turned out that the “all female” chickens turned out to have a lot of roosters in them, so we kept all the hens. The black ones laid fine eggs, just not as strong as the red ones. All the future roosters other than Buckbeak became dinner. Our chicken keepers at the time, Cathy and Kayla, liked to name the chickens, so we inherited some names!

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Urban Hawk Update

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One of two angry birds that was encouraging this young hawk to go away (note its shadow on the building). Fuzzy iPhone picture!

A while back, I shared photos of a big hawk nest on the building next to my Austin work, and later I found another nest in a large oak tree in front of the building.

I thought you might like to see how those babies are doing. I guess at least one clutch of them hasn’t completely fledged yet, since I keep seeing small hawks flying around the building.

The resident birds are not happy, especially the mockingbirds, who, as we know, are busy raising their babes right now. There were actually two birds going after this poor youth.

I’ve seen at least two others flying around in the past week. I’m pretty sure these are the ones from the big tree, and the ones from the building have long since flown off to establish their own territories. (I do see birds by the nest still, but apparently they usually have just one clutch a year).

Nature sure helps when there’s chaos around you. I’m really glad to have birds and trees and random animals to enjoy wherever I am. We even have some wrens and tufted titmice coming to our bird bath at the Bobcat Lair house in Austin (I will try to get some photos). Remember, when times are tough, breathe, and notice what’s around you. It helps to see the big picture.

Tomorrow I’ll write about picking wild grapes. Adventures in foraging!

New Avian Friends?

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Hmm, why was this nest so easy to see?

Hi folks. Sorry for the inadvertent hiatus; I had some technical and scheduling difficulties, but I am back now. I’ve been thinking a lot about birds, so I’ll just share a bit about what’s going on with them here, and write more later! More posts! Yay!

Nests, Part 1

This week I came across more bird nests, including the one in the photo above. It’s a very small nest, though you can’t tell that in the photo, with such pretty little eggs in it. I spotted it while riding my horse, Apache, around a hay pasture we usually don’t ride in.

It was really easy to see the nest, which had me confused. Don’t birds who nest on the ground usually hide the nests? As “Patchy” plodded around the field one more time, I realized what had happened: our ranch helper had mowed a path around the edges of the pasture so my neighbor and I could ride. The mower probably went over the nest, didn’t harm it, but DID reveal it. The rest of the pasture has lush grass about a foot high.

Anyway, I am sad that these eggs probably won’t make it, but I know we have plenty of sparrows here, so plenty of nests. By the way, I’m pretty sure these are lark sparrow eggs. We have plenty of those, plus savannah sparrows, and house sparrows (around the houses).

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I Saw What?

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Look at that nice, round hole. There’s a red-bellied woodpecker in there!

It’s been a busy few days of observation here at the Hermits’ Rest. It’s hard to say which of the things I’ve seen has been more interesting to me!

The nest

The first thing I found has been intriguing me for a few weeks. I kept seeing a red-bellied woodpecker on a short tree stump on our property, right next to the road. I figured out why on Thursday when I was driving home and saw the bird entering a hole in the stump. I realized it must be a nest, so next time I drove by I stopped, and I could see “someone” in there, but it doesn’t show up in the photo (sigh, I realize a lovely woodpecker would have made the picture more exciting).

Next time I drove by to show my friends and spouse, and the woodpecker wasn’t home, but there was a beautiful hawk watching us from the next dead tree (which is still there because it was home to last year’s woodpeckers).

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The hawk at the top of the dead tree seems to be watching that nest.

That sure teaches us to make sure to keep some of the dead and downed trees around! They make nice homes for beautiful nature friends.

The butterflies

This time of year there are a lot of butterflies around, especially the frittilaries. I got this nice photo of a variegated frittilary this weekend.

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This variegated fritillary looks like a stained glass window.

But what a lovely surprise came when I was showing some visitors our neighbor’s peack tree! The plum tree, which is finished fruiting but still has its protective net on, had one overripe plum still on it. This had let to a frittilary festival! There were at least a dozen of them flying around and enjoying plum juice. They landed on our heads and hands, making it seem like we were in a butterfly garden in a zoo. What a great experience

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Very happy butterflies enjoying a very ripe plum.

And termites!

That’s right, I am excited about termites. You see, every year we get these interesting tube-like dirt structures on the parts of our property with the heavy clay soil. I always wondered what they were. My spouse said they were made by some kind of termite. I was confused, since they do not appear to be near any wood, which I identify as termite food.

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Some of these tube structures are very large and complex. The termites climb up them and eat the grass inside, in safety, unless someone steps on their feeding structure.

So, when they showed up this year, I took some pictures, and uploaded them to iNaturalist in hopes of finding more information. I couldn’t find anything, though. Luckily, my Master Naturalist colleague, Linda Jo Conn, knew what it was (desert termites) and identified it for me. I was surprised to see very few sightings of Gnathamitermes tubiformans in the database.

Linda Jo referred me to her own observation of this very interesting beneficial termite, and there I found a link to a great article all about these fascinating creatures.  They build walls around food sources like grass blades (out of clay, spit, and such) to protect themselves while they harvest it. So, all those cool tubes I saw were protective tunnels.

They mostly live underground, and according to the article:

“Their tunneling makes soil more porous. which improves the infiltration of rainfall and can improve plant growth in these arid areas.”

McDonald, A.K., Muegge, Mark A., and C. Sansone: Desert Termites Gnathamitermes tubiformans, 2010, Texas AgriLife Extension.

I am now trying to be more careful not to squish them.

Next up are copper lilies and a rare bee.

Cardinal Nest

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Our tenacious native morning glories always make me happy, too. And this is a nicer picture than the one actually on topic for this post.

If you live in the US, you’ve probably seen cardinals (the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis) in your garden, in parks, or in the woods. They are a common bird at feeders, and their coloring makes them easy to spot. Their beautiful songs also pinpoint where you need to look to see them!

The cardinal was my mother’s favorite bird. I can remember sitting on our back porch watching birds at the feeder. My mom told me that if I sat really quietly, “Mama Cardinal” would come right up to us. And she did. Mom liked to point out her pretty coral “lipstick.” I think I know where I got my love for observing birds!

One thing I had not observed until recently was a cardinal nest. I see lots and lots of nests, like wrens, doves, barn swallows, and the big hawks, but I don’t think I ever saw cardinals nesting before (now, I have seen LOTS of juvenile cardinals hanging out with their parents, just not the nests).

So, imagine how happy I was yesterday when I was sitting on the porch at our office in Cameron and saw a “Mama Cardinal” fly to a little tree next to our warehouse. She has a nest! I watched both parents for a while, then went to look at the nest more closely. It’s impressive! There is string and some kind of clothing label in it, but mostly it’s made of sticks and looks almost woven. It’s deep and cup-shaped, not shallow and wide like many other nests I see.

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Honest, the nest is in the center of this photo.

Unfortunately, while it’s easy to see with the eye, it doesn’t photograph very well. And I’m not going to climb up a ladder and bug the birds. I look forward to watching the fledglings flying around in a few weeks.

Guest Observations from California

burrow3After my post about the squirrels last week, my friend Matt Hickner began telling me about his own wildlife experiences at his relatively new home in Bakersfield, California. They don’t have tree squirrels there (not really any trees, as its a desert). But they do have ground squirrels and friends.

Since Matt’s house was recently constructed in a new neighborhood, there are quite a few empty lots nearby, featuring lots of dry grasses and dirt, which give him prime critter viewing opportunities.

A couple of days ago, he posted this on Facebook:

In the vacant lot across from my house are burrows that the local ground squirrels dug. These burrows were also a great temptation for the endangered Western Burrowing Owls to occupy. I can see all of this activity from my home office so I clicked a few pictures of them this morning.

Yes, burrowing owls! I’ve always been fond of those, since they were the mascot of the school my brother and my friend Anita went to (Florida Atlantic University, all the way across the US from Matt).

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Borrowing owl keeping watch.

I checked with my friends at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and sure enough, both those places are year-round burrowing owl habitat. Apparently the eastern burrowing owls have more white spots than the western ones, but they are the same species.

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More Dewberries

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Dewberry sauce with many, many spices and seasonings. It went perfectly with the roast venison.

I hadn’t intended to write up two dewberry posts, but other than a couple of fun bird sightings (dickcissels and Eastern kingbirds!), the dewberries were the nature highlight of the weekend for me.

This week there were way more of them than last week. I picked three quarts in just a five-yard stretch along our arroyo. Some of them were as big as fancy blackberries. They must have liked the rainy winter a lot.

From those berries, I made yet another cobbler, and also a really interesting sauce, from a recipe by Jess Pryles for blackberry sauce. There are many interesting ingredients in that there sauce (star anise, whole cloves). I served it with delicious venison backstrap roast, and both my sister and spouse declared it a gourmet triumph.  I’m glad the neighor recommended this recipe, because just the salt/pepper/nutmeg rub on the beef made it worth checking out. Her new cookbook, Hard Core Carnivore is available now, so check it out (she’s also been on lots of book tours lately).

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