One of these things is….

…not like the other!

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Guessing that black hen that sneaked in with the Rhode Island Reds must be Ameracauna. A green egg in the box was completely unexpected!

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Spring: About darned time!

After the most lingering winter in recent history, spring seems to have suddenly arrived in New England. Snow one day, spring the next, like a magician’s trick. It’s a good thing, too…one more snowfall and the population of our small town may have gone stark raving mad!

I’m a bit of a slow-goer when it comes to projects. The word “dabbler” is quite apt in my case, I move in fits and starts. But the spring projects are starting. The farm insurance was put into place last fall with the intent of boosting our chicken population and reestablishing honey bees on the farm.

Last fall, I acquired three rare heritage Barnvelders–two hens and a roo. My friend Beth hatched some out for herself and some for me, with the intent of helping preserve the breed. This is a friendly, medium-sized breed, brown with a little green sheen in color, that lays very dark brown eggs. The roos are supposed to get along with other roos, but the one here (as of yet un-named) would stupidly like to take on Mr. Big the enormous Orpington. Silly boy.

Yesterday, we acquired four new Rhode Island Red hens from a gal who was moving and needed to re-home her hand-raised chickens. It is pretty amazing how tame these hens are–I’m able to simply reach down and pick them up. Guess my lot has gone a bit wild! The new hens joined Mr. Big’s mixed flock last night in the hen house, and today the lot of them went outside to the chicken yard: 9 hens and Mr. Big. It was such a pleasure seeing the RIRs immediately take to the new space, scratching in the leaves and picking at grass. They also enjoyed what I suspect was their first dirt bath, often diving in underneath Mr. Big who scratches out the best bathing areas.

On the bee front, an order for two new hives was placed last week. Two old hives are standing ready to receive their new occupants, former mouse, wax moth and paper wasps being evicted. As much as I hate mice in the hives, seeing those little eyes staring up at me from the nests does make me pause….for about 5 seconds. They they’re OUT. Hoping the weather remains nice so the boxes can be repainted.

Dad has been down a couple of times in the last week, also, tackling his own projects. We attended a lecture on helping native bees a few months ago, and frankly it has both of us fired up. He mowed the bluebird hill and sowed white clover seed. The days of a mono-culture lawn are long over. Actually, there are several patches of wild flowers in our lawns, providing early blooms for native and honey bees alike. The early crocuses are up near the honey bee hives, which someone else’s bees are thoroughly enjoying. Soon, the little purple flowers in the side lawn will be up–tiny hyacinths? I’ll have to identify them one of these days.

American Dagger Moth Caterpillar

Here’s another beautiful case of chemical warfare in every-day nature. The American Dagger Moth caterpillar, an exceptionally large, fuzzy bright yellow caterpillar with black “lashes”, about 2-1/2″ long. Apparently eats tree leaves (ash and alder among them). The bright yellow hairs can cause skin irritation.

Amercian Dagger Moth caterpillar

I found this guy storming through the lawn this morning. Typical for me, I had no idea he was a chemical-warfare bug and immediately picked him up. Also, I “saved” him by putting him in the flower garden, where there is nothing he likes to eat.

The American Dagger Moth is one of those large flat gray moths that hangs out on your screen at night. Apparently, it uses up all it’s color as a caterpillar.

Springtime swarm

Here is a beautiful swarm, newly exited from the colony. After the queen is satisfied that her full retinue has joined her, she follows her scouts to new digs.

Nature follows a cycle. And about this time each year, the honey bee population naturally divides and looks for new digs by swarming. Swarming is a natural part of the honeybee reproduction cycle. Healthy colonies that have weathered the winter and outgrown their quarter begin developing new queens in queen cells–long, downward-pointing cells with a generous lining of royal jelly, the food required to grow an ordinary worker egg into a new queen.

When the new queens are about to emerge from their sealed cells, the old queen and about half of the workers gorge themselves on honey. The old queen then flies out of the hive, settling on a post, tree limb, car bumper–anything convenient–and waits for half of the colony to join her. The remaining bees will continue on with their new, young queen.

If you know what to look for, a swarm can be anticipated. One of our colonies had been so successful over the winter and spring as to completely run out of space for honey and brood. It built several queen cells along the bottom of some frames, and in that location they’re called “swarm cells”. Sometimes a swarm can be circumvented by splitting the hive into two, but this queen was so successful, we wanted to preserve her genes to start new hives. We added two new supers, giving them lots of extra room. And the day before the swarm, I also extracted three frames with queen cells to start two nucs and re-queen weak hive that may have lost its queen. Would it be enough to keep the queen happy? Apparently not. A routine (and fortunate!) visit to the bee yard yielded this lovely sight.

As the empty nucs had been occupied the day before, there was no more woodenware hanging around. I dug around in a pile of wood and struck gold: a bottom board and a cover. Then, I stole one of the “empty” supers (no brood, just some honey) to make a single-super hive. Propping the makeshift hive up to the swarm, the swarm found it promising enough for a look-see. Bee house hunting!

The scout bees begin to investigate the empty box. The queen–a beautiful golden Carniolan–remained on the post with her entourage.

The queen accepts the hive and enters, leaving the rest of the swarm to make their way in.

Success! The queen accepts the new hive and enters the hive, leaving only the stragglers to enter. Once the lid was on, bees began appearing at the front entrance, raising their bums and fanning pheromone signals to the bee yard: this is OUR house, and only family may enter!

A note: A lot of people panic when they find a swarm in their yard, thinking the bees are about to invade. But really, they’re just waiting for the whole gang to arrive before they move on. Additionally, the bees are pretty well sated on honey, and they have no home to protect, so they are less likely to sting you. This swarm was so gentle, they didn’t deliver a single sting in the entire process of hiving and moving them to their new location. If you find a swarm in your yard, don’t bother to call the exterminator: just wait. It’ll most likely depart within a few hours. Better yet, make a bee keeper’s day and call him to collect them for his bee yard! It’s fascinating to watch, and a great lesson in nature for the kids.

Snappers!

How in the world did this little guy get all the waaaaaaaay up the hill, between the pool and the house? Quite the trek for a 5″ baby!

Take the freakin' picture already.

This is a common snapping turtle, starting on his second season. And guess what? Even with all the prehistoric defences, they pee on you when they’re scared.

Wish I could have gotten a picture of him more emerged from his shell. So cool–the overlapping armor on the legs, the spikes on the tail, the sharp claws, the maw of it’s beak! Gotta watch your fingers with these guys–that beak, striking with the speed of a rattlesnake and with some serious power behind it–can do some major damage. A medium-sized snapper would have no problem taking off a finger or two if it were threatened. Generally, they’re shy and would rather not encounter a human, but they will protect themselves.

Snappers are slow-movers on land but great in the water. Omnivorous, they eat fish and other aquatic animals,  and also all sorts of greens. Clutches number about 20 eggs, and lifespan in the wild can go into the 30’s.

Dad put this little guy in a bucket with a little water (figured he might be thirsty) and released him out in the wilderness, off the property.

Wikipedia says these don’t make good pets. (Gee, really?) To learn more about snappers, here’s a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Snapping_Turtle

The latest project: moving the day lilies

My grandmother was really into day lilies. When she started nearing 100 and didn’t have the energy to garden quite as much, she let some of her beds in the yard go and The Boys (meaning her very adult sons) moved her beloved day lilies into the vegetable garden for easier care.

Now Dad would actually like to grow veggies in that garden again, so the intention is to move at least some of the around 70 varieties in the veggie garden to other places in the yard. I should note: not all of her varieties are in the veggie garden. I’m guessing we have about 100 varieties from her collection remaining.

Here’s my latest project: re-establishing the flower beds by the low rock wall. The garden used to be on both sides of the rock wall, with a walking path through the center, but the thought of weeding all that square footage makes me shudder. I don’t know how she found the energy. As it is, Dad and I tilled up the soil, and I’ve been moving day lilies, bee balm, peonies, phlox and iris from the veggie garden to this location.

Most of the tags have aged beyond recognition or been lost, but I’m hoping this year to be able to document the flowers and identify some of them.

Friends have been coming over for the past several years to take divisions of what they like. Even now, with only a little bit of green and no hint of flowers, it’s easy to tell which are the most admired: the clumps are tiny! The less-preferred varieties have huge clumps. I’ve taken to carving off a smaller sample and throwing the remaining tubers down the hill, some of the mounds are so big. You can see from the photo–there’s no way all of the lilies are going to fit in these beds!

But I think Dad will be happy–plenty of room for tomatoes, peas, squash, peppers and Brussels sprouts this year, and I may get a nice-sized bed of Yellow Finns in, too.

 

Wildlife’s calendar follows Mother Nature’s lead

This winter was extraordinarily mild. After the freak October nor’easter, our snowfall was almost unmeasurable, resulting in all sorts of affects on different flora and fauna.

For some, the mild winter was a real life-saver. For example, this was the year that the different oak varieties simultaneously took a break from acorn production. Under normal weather conditions (meaning snowfall in New England) this would lead to massive die-offs in populations dependent on acorns (i.e., deer and squirrels) and the predators that prey on them. This winter’s mild weather and lack of snow kept other food sources accessible.

However, the mild weather also triggered early spring cycles–too early? We can see this in our honey bees. In the autumn, the hive population changes–drones are evicted, the queen’s egg-laying slows, and longer-lived winter bees whose sole job is tending the hive emerge. Warm weather triggers egg production, which requires lots of stored honey and pollen. If the stores are used up before a new food source arrives, the hive starves. This winter, three of our four hives wintered well, but the fourth is so light I could easily pick it up.

Sweet red-tailed hawk fledgling. She flew a little unsteadily, but her landing ability was questionable. She then cried for her parents. They must have been near, because the crows decided not to hang around!

Here’s another result of the mild winter: the April 3 appearance of a newly-fledged red-tailed hawk. She flew a little unsteadily, but her landing ability was questionable. She then cried for her parents. They must have been near, because the crows decided not to hang around!

According to the Connecticut Wildlife website, red-tailed hawks usually begin fledging in mid- to late-May, meaning this chick’s egg was laid more than a month ahead of schedule!

In New England red-tailed hawks breed beginning in about March. A male and female pair will perfom aerial acrobatics as a form of courtship. The two hawks mate for life, although if one dies the other will seek another mate. They use the same nesting areas for years. They can build new nests out of sticks or repair existing ones, and prefer to nest high, around 50 or 60 feet above the ground, in tall trees or on cliffs. 1 to 4 eggs are laid in late March or April. The male will do some of the incubation, but mostly feeds the female while she sits on the nest. Both care for the chicks which hatch out after about 33 days. The baby hawks can fly in 43 to 48 days. Their parents teach them hunting skills and they become independent after about 2 months. The lifespan of red-tailed hawls is about 13 to 20 years in the wild.