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Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Betsey, Hailey, and Cassie planting garlic on Bainbridge Island

23 October 2011

As soon as I rolled onto Day Road Farms on Bainbridge Island, a deer immediately bounded past me, directly into a large market vegetable garden.  Further along the gravel road, a flock of fifty geese foraged for cover crop seeds and blueberries.  A cacophonous murder of crows, several hundred strong, dived into the rows of grapes, plucking forgotten fruit off the vines.

Day Road Farms is a rare example of a combined agricultural property, jointly owned by the city of Bainbridge and several farmers who manage separate parcels of land for various crops:  corn, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, nursery trees, wine grapes, storage crops, and fresh market vegetables.  However, the farm was also host to an abundance of wildlife, to the simultaneous delight and the bane of the organic farmers who worked there.

The crows were such ubiquitous and mischievous denizens that one of the farmers at Day Road Farms named her own farm after the crows’ habit of ostensibly laughing in mockery while pulling garden labels, seed garlic, and cover crop seeds out of the soil.  Like so many other farmers challenged by wildlife, Betsey Wittick of Laughing Crow Farm hired sheepdogs to chase the geese out of her fields, noted the tendency of people to leave the farm gates open, thereby rendering the deer fencing obsolete, and spoke of the challenges posed by the crows, who seemed nearly impossible to outwit.

But unlike most other farmers, who spend as much time talking about pests or their tractors as about their crops, Betsey waxed ecstatic about two other ungulates on the farm:  Red and Abby.  These were her farming partners responsible for the heavy lifting and hard pulling at Laughing Crow Farm.  The two Suffolk Punch draft horses were athletic, heavily muscled, frisky, and bursting with energy.  Although prone to frequent bouts of playful behavior when not harnessed, Red and Abby were gentle and curious around people, eager to approach and investigate new visitors at the farm.

As I listened to Betsey speak passionately about her two young horses, I began to develop a sense for the strong appeal of draft animals to some small farmers.  “Working with draft horses requires you to be completely, 100 percent, in the present.  You can’t be distracted, thinking about bills or next year’s garden, or the horses will know that you’re not in control of the situation and take advantage of it.  I learned this the hard way.  It’s not like driving a tractor where you can zone out and think about other things.  Tractors don’t have a mind of their own.  With horses, as soon as you let your concentration slip, you run the risk of a dangerous situation.”

The zen-like mindset required while driving a team of powerful draft animals, whether horses or oxen, seemed to harken from a simpler era, when soil fertility, water availability, and crop health took precedence over all; a connection between man and beast was forged out of necessity for mutual survival; and internal combustion engines or fossil fuels were as yet unheard of.

The use of draft animals on a farm was historically intended not only to ease the work load for a farmer, but also to increase their self-reliance by providing soil fertility in the form of animal manure, which nowadays is frequently purchased by farmers from distant locations, often in a packaged and pelleted form.  Some farmers even use their draft animals to grow and harvest their own animal feed, using a combination of pasture, hay, and minimal grains to “power” these living tractors, thereby completely severing their ties with the fossil fuel industry.  In addition to serving as a medium for recycling energy (in the form of labor), nutrients, and organic matter through the soil, draft animals also provide that additional perk of being able to reproduce.  As one farmer put it, “A tractor cannot produce another tractor.  But a horse can produce another horse.”

Although draft power had been rapidly pushed aside and largely forgotten in industrialized nations as agriculture became increasingly dependent on cheap petroleum and synthetic fertilizers, the use of draft horses and oxen has seen a resurgence in the past decade, particularly among small organic farms with direct marketing to consumers.  Drawing from the traditional knowledge of animal husbandry, training, and equipment from cultures such as the Amish as well as non-mechanized farmers in the Andes, Sub-Saharan Africa, and southeast Asia, a handful of farms in the U.S. are returning to the roots of their agrarian past.

Some of these farmers are motivated to trade the tractor for the yoke by the economics of rapidly rising petroleum prices and the looming specter of “peak oil”, seeking to minimize their farming expenses through increased self-reliance.  Others recognize the need to ween agriculture from fossil fuels if we are ever to achieve local food security and climate stability, especially considering the volatility of oil politics and the fact that agriculture is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (after transportation).  Many also contend correctly that truly sustainable food production, by definition, cannot rely upon non-renewable resources.  But most, in my experience, have sought primarily to preserve an intimate and ancient connection to the land that cannot be replicated behind the wheel of a tractor.

Betsey at Laughing Crow Farm resonates with all of the reasons listed above, but emphasizes that to be a successful teamster, you must first and foremost connect with the animal.  As another farmer once told me, “There are many great ethical and environmental reasons to work with draft animals, but in the end, none of these will help when it comes down to the actual work. You ultimately have to really want to work with the animal and step into their world.  It takes a huge daily commitment to another living being, and a willingness and ability to see the world through their eyes, to think like the horse or ox.”  One can see the vital importance of Betsey’s close relationship to her horses when she steps behind the reins or engages in a quick training session.

Although she considers herself a novice at working with draft horses, Betsey is an expert at growing root and storage crops.  Through over two decades of careful variety trials and selection, organic soil building, and seed saving, Betsey has carved out a niche in her local market by producing some of the largest, most diverse, and flavorful potatoes, onions, and garlic in the Puget Sound.

As we pushed 9,000 cloves of garlic seed into the soft, loamy soil, dozens of crows flocked to the nearby trees, laughing as they watched our planting routine.  Occasionally, one would drop down to the soil and pick at a label marking a row.  Betsey later expressed her admiration of the crows’ intelligence to me, despite their seemingly adversarial behaviors.  “I sometimes think of them as laughing because they have achieved a higher level of enlightenment, as I struggle with trying to do too much instead of enjoying the moment.”

In other words, as the ancient proverb says, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”  It struck me how relevant this sage advice may be for farmers today, especially as our means of waging chemical warfare against pests are met with the rapid evolution of resistance by weeds, insects, and diseases, while simultaneously threatening the safety of our food and the health of our environment.  As she dug furrows for garlic seed, Betsey explained to me how scientists discovered that some traditional cultures began to experience malnutrition following the introduction of pesticides to their farms, presumably because the people were no longer ingesting highly nutritious, protein-rich insects with their meals.

I raked the soil over the garlic cloves and listened to the crows communicating in their mysterious language amidst the treetops, watching and waiting.  I realized, as Betsey had suggested, that a greater challenge with organic farming than the myriad “pests” we encounter may be our own tendency to overwork and forget to be in the present, as equal participants in the ecological dance of life.  Although they may not always see eye-to-eye, the crows, the geese, the deer, Betsey and her horses are all integral and closely interacting members of the same ecosystem, cohabiting a common land, striving to eat and not be eaten, and trying to strike a balance between cooperation and competition upon a shared resource.

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Oxbow Farm

For the past two months, I have been working at the Oxbow Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Environment, nestled within the Snoqualmie River Valley floodplain between Seattle and the Cascades. This organic farm works at the vital intersection between organic agriculture and environmental conservation, feeding several hundred people in the greater Seattle area while engaging in active habitat restoration and education programs along the Snoqualmie River. Needless to say, a tremendous diversity and abundance of wildlife inhabits the farm, ranging from furtive coyotes and bears, to majestic eagles, hawks, and falcons, to cacophonous flocks of songbirds and waterfowl. Recently, the Coho Salmon (and the tail end of the Chinook Salmon run) have been heading upstream to spawn.  We’ve been catching glimpses of them jumping in the river, presumably to either knock parasites from their bodies or loosen eggs in preparation for spawning.

While heading out to harvest basil earlier this week, I spotted a bald eagle perched right along the edge of the Snoqualmie River directly across from me (Oxbow Farm borders the river).  It flew downriver a ways and then doubled back to perch in a tree along the edge of the farm.  I couldn’t tell what the eagle was doing along the river, as it startled and flew as soon as I stopped for a better look.  On my way back from harvesting, a tiny songbird darted overhead, chasing what appeared to be a falcon, probably a peregrine.  The peregrine and songbird engaged in some impressive maneuvers as the songbird harassed the peregrine, which evaded the tiny mobbing songbird with amazing agility. After swerving back and forth overhead across the farm, they hit a tree line and the falcon suddenly braked and swooped upwards.  In the next instant, it reversed direction and dove at the songbird, turning the tables and engaging its own aggressive pursuit of the small bird.  Shortly after, they disappeared behind the tree line, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see who won this aerial contest of speed and agility.

On a more melancholy note, yesterday I observed one of most somber avian behaviors I have ever witnessed.  During the summer, we had a huge abundance of Canada geese on the farm.  They flocked back and forth to and from various waterways in large V-formations daily.  I always love watching them fly overhead, especially when they perform barrel rolls to drop altitude rapidly in preparation for a landing.  Most of them, I suspect, have already begun their autumn migration southward, and the sound of their calls have become increasingly rare.  But yesterday, I, for the first time ever in my life, observed a single lone goose flying overhead.  I have never seen this before:  a goose without its flock.  Unlike the geese flying in flocks, whose flight is very direct, focused, and rapid, and whose calls are quick and excited, this one flew much more slowly.  It was constantly searching back and forth with its head, looking frantically in all directions and honking in what I interpreted to be an apprehensive call.  It almost sounded desperate in its search for others.  For such a gregarious animal, it seemed utterly alone.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a strong sense of loneliness before from a wild animal.  It reminded me of the immeasurable importance of social relationships for gregarious animals.

My own time spent working at Oxbow Farm has been highlighted by incredibly positive social relationships with my co-workers, a group of energetic young farmers exuding unmatched enthusiasm for their challenging trade, with perpetual encouragement and mutual support for one another.  The most valuable lessons I have learned from my experience at Oxbow Farm have less to do with how to properly care for soil, nurture crops, and sell produce, than with that lone goose I watched flying, lost and bewildered, overhead:  community matters.  Farming is as much about growing and fostering healthy connections with other human beings as it is about fostering living soil and growing healthy food.

I sincerely hope that goose found the community it was searching for.  Thank you Oxbow Farm, for helping me to find my own.

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(Continued from Farming Lessons Learned Today, 04 June 2010)

When I first heard Pica scream, my initial reaction (since it was a single brief shriek), was that she had been stung by a bee of some sort.  She often wanders over to the pigpen where she feasts on rotten food scraps left over from last year (disgusting dog), and last year there was a very active yellowjacket nest there.  So I put down my trellising line and walked over there casually, expecting to find her running towards me with her tail tucked, perhaps in need of some Benadryl to alleviate an allergic reaction.  Instead, I came face-to-face with a large, lab-sized coyote (i.e., similar in size to Chestnut).  It turned briefly and ran a few yards, then stopped and looked back at me, wary but not at all afraid.  My immediate reaction was of course that it had caught Pica, but I saw nothing in its mouth.  I was struck at the same time by a deep fascination with the animal that was casually trotting away from me through the forest.

I ran to where the coyote was initially standing, expecting to find her remains but I found no trace whatsoever.  Meanwhile, the coyote was making its way towards our field.  I badly wanted to follow it; it was the first coyote I had seen in Maine, despite hearing their haunting songs frequently and being as close to within 10 meters of a pack without seeing a single animal through the shadows (in contrast, I had seen many coyotes in Santa Barbara and even been surrounded by a pack once while taking the dogs for a walk in the foothills).  The coyotes in Maine have been incredibly elusive and ostensibly shy; their scat and tracks appear frequently on our forest trails and their howls, yips, and cries often wake us in the middle of the night.  So I was torn between tracking the coyote and hunting for Pica.  If Pica had been eaten, what could I do about it anyway?  But to see a coyote up close and track it through the forest:  that’s a rare experience.  In the end, my better sense won out.

I began to scour the place for any signs of Pica or a struggle, while yelling Pica’s name.  Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I returned to the driveway to find her there, cowering and emotionally scarred it seemed, but physically intact and unharmed.

I imagine she was at the pigpen, saw the coyote heading in her direction, yelped out of fear and ran away as fast as she could on her three legs, before the coyote even realized what she was.  Coyotes are incredibly intelligent and premeditating hunters; the coyote was likely after the decaying pig head still in the pigshed and was not in a hunting or pursuing mode of behavior.  Like (good) human hunters, they probably don’t attack potential prey frivolously but rather engage in very well planned and intentional hunts with sophisticated social stalking and attacking behaviors.  If they encounter prey when not in “hunting” mode, they probably generally ignore it, as it is not worth the additional energy expenditure to incur that added risk of a failed hunt.  I can only guess this means that the coyote didn’t realize Pica was missing a leg.

The coyote (presumably the same one I ran into yesterday) was in our back field almost all day today, feeding on something in the grass and forbs.  At first I thought it might be eating wild strawberries (our own berries are beginning to ripen and are falling prey to a pesky chipmunk and slugs), but the wild ones aren’t ripe yet.  The coyote seemed either very distracted or bold, allowing me to walk out onto the porch and watch it in plain sight.  It was so consumed by whatever prey it was pursuing in the field that it appeared to pay no attention to the audibly clucking and crowing chickens a few hundred feet away.

Brent and I investigated the area this evening after the coyote departed, saw many tracks and trodden upon patches of grass, found some fur, and some scat that suggested it might be eating seeds of some sort.

The photo was taken through a spotting scope; you can barely see the trunk of our maple tree that we planted at our wedding just to the right and above/behind the coyote.  The coyote had brilliant yellow eyes and a white and black crescent stripe arching across its back, as well as a distinctive black stripe along its tail.  I have no idea whether it was a male or female, but Brent said he saw the coyote early in the morning a couple of days ago with a companion — perhaps a mated pair, or two young males that recently left their pack?

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Tracks in the Snow

13 February 2011

The winters in Maine are often portrayed as harsh, silent, and foreboding, in which only the hardiest animals venture outdoors and the rest fly south to milder climes or hibernate within insulated dens and burrows.  However, in what may otherwise be considered a desolate, lifeless, snow-covered landscape, subtle signs abound of bustling activity throughout the winter wilderness.  Wildlife tracks are Nature’s encoded flight recorders:  black boxes in the form of animal prints that contain detailed information about the movements, behaviors, and identification of even the most secretive animals.

I spent some of my free time this past winter roaming our forest after the frequent snowstorms (that is, once the driveway had been shoveled clean).  Alone in the forest, silent in the depth of the cold winter, I would carefully scan the fresh powder for any signs of wildlife trails.  Once I encountered an animal track, I would identify and follow the prints in an attempt to assess the animal’s movements and possible behaviors.

Here’s a list of some of the animals whose tracks I found, identified, and followed:

  • coyote
  • fox
  • marten
  • weasel?
  • raccoon
  • deer
  • red squirrel
  • chipmunk
  • deer mouse
  • porcupine
  • turkey
  • crow or raven
  • owl?

The most remarkable and fascinating of these tracks belonged to the porcupine.  On one particular occasion, in mid-February, I noticed some porcupine tracks, which are very distinctive, meandering through our forest and onto our driveway, where they abruptly terminated at the base of a large pine tree.  Peering up into the tree’s canopy, the large ball of spines was visibly perched upon a bow 50 feet overhead.  The porcupine remained in the tree for a couple of days, changing branches at least once or twice, before descending.  He (she?) then lumbered up the driveway, plowing determinedly through the deep snow and leaving a wide, sweeping path marking his trail.  I marveled at the manner in which the porcupine appeared to put his head down and charge forward resolutely, irrespective of potential barriers or obstacles, deviating from his course only after apparently bumping into a tree or other obstacle, which he would steer around before resuming his original compass heading.  He continued across the garden, behind the barn, through the forest, and off to another large pine tree nearly a quarter mile away from the first and immediately bordering our neighbor’s yard, littered with various pieces of old, derelict machinery and decommissioned farm equipment.  He stayed up this tree for another two days, very visibly perched high in the tree.

The next morning, the porcupine crossed our neighbor’s yard and proceeded to leave the most awkward, confusing, and humorous tracks I’d ever witnessed.  After passing about 50 feet from the tree directly into our neighbor’s yard, he encountered (or perhaps collided with) an old piece of farm equipment and abruptly turned around 180 degrees, heading away from the obstacle and back towards the forest for several feet.  He then looped around towards his original direction and summarily ran into the same piece of equipment, performing the same maneuver (the “double 180”) in an attempt to skirt the obstacle and resume his original path.  He repeated this maneuver several times after running into various pieces of tractor equipment that presented a veritable obstacle course of metallic barriers to navigate.  Ultimately, his tracks formed an exaggerated, high-amplitude sine curve, his path resembling Percival’s meandering quest for the Holy Grail (in which he was told to “just follow the sun” regardless of the time of day).  The porcupine eventually skirted all of the obstacles and successfully crossed the neighbor’s yard before wandering back into the forest, where they converged with some coyote tracks that were headed in the opposite direction.

Whereas the porcupine’s tracks provided a clear detailed story, transparently betraying the animal’s movements, location, behavior, and identity, other tracks pose an intriguing and often frustrating mystery to be unraveled only by the most determined and astute observers.  I was skiing around the pond at Featherfoot Farm in Aurora last weekend and came across some very interesting markings in the snow in several different spots.  The first tracks I encountered belonged to a fox that crossed the pond and headed into the forest.  But the next set of markings had no clear beginning or end.  It was a large swath of snow about 1 meter by 4 meters that had been ruffled in an indistinct pattern.  Along the edges however, were two marks that bore the distinct shapes of primary and secondary feathers lining a medium-sized wing, probably belonging to a raven or a large crow.  The sheer size of the scuffle that must have occurred suggested that perhaps two birds were fighting over something on the pond.  Further along the lake, another bird had landed and taken off, leaving its own wing marks imprinted in the snow.

Just as dusk was settling over the pond, I had reached the far edge near a point called “Lunch Rock” that we would often swim to in the summer.  Right along the edge of the pond were the crystal clear, unmarred, and perfectly clean imprints of two wings and a tail, with a wingspan of approximately 1 meter.  Directly between the two wings and in front of the tail were two parallel foot strikes, with the talons shaped in a pattern somewhat between an hourglass and a wine glass.  Immediately in front of these talon strikes, were two more identical, side-by-side prints.  The just off to the right and in front of this second pair of prints was a small spot of disturbed snow that was dusted with a thin coating of red powder:  blood.  Past this mark, there were four or five more footprints with the same hourglass pattern, except this time the footprints were alternating in a walking pattern, rather than hopping side-by-side.  The footprints terminated at a spot where the snow was ruffled indistinctly in a roughly circular shape.  And from there the prints disappeared.  There were absolutely no prints leading in to the melee, and none leading out from it.  My suspicion:  an owl that caught a rodent, which was either tunneling underneath the snow or was light enough to walk upon the icy crust on the surface without leaving obvious prints.

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I went running at dusk with Cassie and Misha at the Bangor City Forest last night.  Running at dusk at the City Forest is always an adventure as I often encounter unsuspecting crepuscular wildlife browsing in the middle of the more remote sections of trail long after other hikers have left the park.  It is not uncommon to turn a corner or crest a hill in the trail and come face-to-face with a deer (or two), a grouse, or a rabbit, which immediately startle and take flight to escape the bipedal primate and his pack of domesticated wolves.

Last night, while traversing the northern part of the forest on the Rabbit Trail, which is the trail farthest from any parking lot (about 3 miles away) and therefore the least traveled, I came across a porcupine, a common denizen of the forest that we had encountered in the past.  Misha loves to chase small brown mammals and based on past experiences, I don’t think she can tell the difference between a groundhog (good idea to chase – especially from our gardens), a fisher (bad idea), and a porcupine (very bad idea).  She had been stuck by a porcupine’s quills in the past, but I don’t think the memory of that experience would deter her from the momentary delight of a good chase (on a related note:  Chestnut has been sprayed by skunks on three separate occasions, indicating his inability or unwillingness to learn valuable lessons from his past foibles).

The problem with porcupines, from a dog’s perspective is that they know they are well defended and, when faced with a potential threat, simply expose their tail to the attacker and casually lumber on like a miniature, well-armored tank.  Skunks exhibit more or less the same response.  This behavioral tactic makes it inevitable for a dog in pursuit to catch up to the porcupine, unlike most small brown mammals that Misha persistently chases but never catches (e.g., squirrels and chipmunks being the most common examples).  And so the dog receives her just rewards.  Of course, I would not allow Misha the pleasure of a home surgical procedure to remove the quills (a two-person operation, without anesthetic).  So I sternly yelled at her to “Leave It!” until she relinquished her pursuit.

Proceeding down the trail, I rounded a sharp bend not 200 meters later; in the middle of the path appeared a large black animal, the size of large goat, except much heavier in build.  The animal turned towards me, revealing the large powerful snout and heavy jaw of a bear.  Fearing that Misha and Cassie might reveal a streak of reckless boldness and attempt a suicidal chase of what could only be considered a potential predator (after all, I have seen Misha run “playfully” after an entire pack of coyotes before), I yelled at the dogs, “Wait, leave it, heel,” pulling out every command in the book that might help them to reconsider.  The black bear was clearly disturbed by our presence and turned to face us fully, sniffing the air and eyeing us cautiously, merely 10 meters away.

At that moment, I noticed why she was standing her ground:  a much smaller black bear emerged behind her at the edge of the trail, partially hidden by the brush.  She had a cub!  The urgency of her situation was instantly clarified.  I peeked behind me to check our dogs’ disposition:  they were both dutifully and thankfully maintaining their heel.  I emphatically repeated the commands to the dogs.  Turning back towards the bear, I knew I had to frighten her and her cub off before we could proceed on our run.  I had absolutely no intention of continuing in that direction on the trail, lest we unintentionally place ourselves between the mother and her cub and incur the wrath of a protective mother.  But I also wasn’t about to turn my back to the bear and return from where we came until I knew for certain that she and her cub would not follow us.  Taking a couple of deliberate, assertive steps towards the bears, I yelled loudly “Go away!  Get out of here!”  The cub immediately disappeared into the thick underbrush, but the mother was undeterred.  I could clearly see her massive feet turned inwards and the immense, sharp claws that protruded from her fur.

So, human communication apparently didn’t work.  I thought to myself, let’s try more practical approach.  What would a black bear do if it wanted to establish dominance over another bear and claim a territory?  Opening my arms as wide as I could, standing as tall as possible, I flared my fingers into claws, opened my mouth, and let out a primordial roar.  Taking two more steps towards the bear, I growled again and waved my arms in the air.  The bear conceded her turf, turned slowly away and followed her cub into the underbrush.

Needless to say, we rerouted the remainder of our run that evening through sections of the forest far from the bear and her cub.  As the evening grew darker and shapes and shadows began to take on the appearance of animate creatures in the twilight, I began to imagine bears, wolves, and cougars emerging from the forest, stalking us like deer in the deepening night.  On more than one occasion, I stopped suddenly dead in my tracks as a large shape materialized on the trail, only to discover a trail signpost or bench.  I thought back to all the times I had run these trails in the dead of night without even a headlamp to illuminate the surrounding forest, acutely aware of the possibility of wild predators lurking just beyond the trail.  The similarity to SCUBA diving in dark, shark infested ocean waters, with behemoth leviathans – real or imagined – lurking just beyond the edge of visibility, reminded me with a shock of adrenaline why I loved and craved both of these activities.  I finished the run through an intensifying thunderstorm, soaked by a downpour of rain that spattered through the forest leaves as the sky overhead was periodically illuminated with flashes of lightning.

On the home front, the coyotes have been very active in the areas around Orizaba Farm lately, serenading us with their haunting, chilling howls and cries almost every night.  The lightning bugs have come and gone, temporarily illuminating the night sky with their flashing bioluminescence that converts our long field into a well-lit runway on a dark new moon night.  The relentless buzzing of cicadas during the daytime heat has since marked the peak of summer.  Wild turkeys regularly forage in our field in the early morning, and a mind-boggling diversity of birds eludes my feeble attempts to identify them by song or shape.  I am certain the exciting wildlife encounters will continue to take us by surprise as we continue to explore the state of Maine and the wilderness of Orizaba Farm.

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04 June 2010

1) If your soil tests indicate that the soil is low in Ca, Mg, and pH (acidic), but high in K, don’t add wood ash, which is a common alkaline liming agent.  Instead, add a dolomitic limestone (CaCO3 and MgCO3) to raise the pH and add Ca and Mg.  Wood ash contains K2CO3, which will cause the potassium levels to rise dramatically, creating an apparent Mg deficiency due to competition for cation exchange at root binding sites.

2) If you sow seeds in a 2-dimensional block (versus in rows), and you space the seeds at half the final spacing in all directions (with the intention of thinning to every other seed), then you will end up thinning approximately three times more seedlings than you originally intended (oops!).  Thinning to 1/2 the original seeds in the linear dimension translates into (1/2)^2 the original seeds, or 1/4, in two dimensions.  Instead, when planting in a block pattern, space rows within the block at the final spacing, but plant seeds within each row at half the final spacing in order to thin half the seedlings later (assuming all germinate, which virtually never happens — hence thinning).

3) If you hear Pica scream from over by the pig shed, and then walk over there to find a coyote, don’t automatically assume she has been eaten, even if it is in your best financial interests.  She may have escaped unscathed somehow, despite her ambulatory impairment (she did).  You however, may not survive your marriage by claiming your wife’s 2nd favorite non-human disappeared without a trace down the gullet of a wild predator.

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Backyard Coyotes

The night before last, Alia and I caught a pack of coyotes singing right outside our back door.  We heard them while sitting on the couch and then snuck quietly outside onto our back porch to try to spot them.  They were hidden in the shadows immediately beneath the porch, some probably not more than 5 or 10 feet away from me.  I could hear them rustling and calling just past the porch slats but could not see them in the dark shadows.  Pica began barking inside and the ones’ nearest us immediately stopped singing and slinked off into the forest.  The others further down the field continued calling for a few seconds but soon disappeared as well.  It was quite eerie to be so close to a pack of coyotes and not be able to see a single one of them.  Alia estimates there were about a dozen of them.

Coyotes have to be one of my favorite mammals.  I (along with our dogs) have had some pretty amazing up-close interactions with them in Santa Barbara, including watching them attempt to bait and hunt our dogs.  We even saw one crossing a major street in Santa Barbara (that was the morning I proposed to Alia underwater at Orizaba).  Although they’re probably about as abundant here as in Santa Barbara, and we’ve been very close to packs singing on our property, we have yet to actually see one here.  For some reason, they seem to be much more timid than in southern California, where they were amazingly bold and unafraid.  Perhaps it’s the hunting culture here; I know it is legal to hunt coyotes and I’m sure they’re well aware of the danger humans pose to them.

Their chorus of coyote howls, yips, and barks here in Maine, though, are far more hauntingly beautiful than in Santa Barbara.  Their songs seem to be more dynamic and coordinated, as if packs are singing together as a choir rather than merely using their calls as communication between distant dogs.  We have heard them sing in an almost orchestrated fashion here, calling like a well composed symphony that built up to an amazing crescendo and then abruptly stopped in complete unison, leaving in their wake an empty, eerie silence in which you could hear a pin drop.  It was spine chilling.  They are quite sophisticated and intelligent animals and I don’t doubt their songs have some deeper cultural significance than we currently understand, or perhaps can ever fully comprehend.

Read this fascinating NPR story for more about coyotes’ adaptability, cunning, and intelligence:
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105385196

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