Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Mayflies, wild black razzies, and the return of the prodigal (?) son.

Last night, as we approached the Salt Fork on the way home from town, we were surprised as a swirling cloud of diaphanous, pale creatures enveloped the car. Mayflies, intent on their annual mating ritual, filled the air where the road drops to cross the river. Females skimmed the surface of the water laying newly fertilized eggs in a frenzied burst of fecundity in this last stage of their year-long lives.

Alex is coming home from New Mexico today! He taught Biology in Gallup over the last school year, and he plans to go back for another year this fall. Just in time for Alex's arrival (and his 30th birthday), the wild black raspberries are ready to pick. I've seen lots of ripening berries on my walks, and I sampled the first of what looks like a bumper crop yesterday afternoon. The flavor is an indescribable concentration of the bright, sweet lushness of late spring in Central Illinois.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thursday night the full moon was brilliant: milk moon, flower moon, corn planting moon. Friday dawned crystal clear and cool, a welcome break from the unseasonable heat and humidity we experienced early last week.

I feel really fortunate that I've had time to observe and appreciate the progression of blooming wildflowers this spring. I saw the first wild petunia on a walk a few days ago, and now there's a large patch of them blooming in the bottomland "prairie." Pale beard tongue is blooming among the fading golden Alexanders, and blue-eyed grass, beautiful and dusky blue, made a brief appearance before Jim mowed the path on Sunday.

Moneywort, which covers the moist areas of the path, is blooming underfoot, and purple rocket is beginning to replace blue phlox and daisy fleabane at the margin where the woods and grass path meet.

The sheep were miserable in the heat, so we moved them into a shady pasture just behind the barn. Andre is lonely now with only Moritz to keep him company.
Andre came to us about 6 weeks ago from Guard Dog Rescue of Iowa, and he is truly a magnificent fellow. He is somewhat shy of us (unless it's storming, and then he wants as much comfort as he can get), and the ewes and lambs literally lay down with him. He takes his job seriously, barking to let us know when 2- or 4-legged intruders approach, and the guineas take shelter inside "his" pasture when threatened by coyotes, which are all to common at the farm this spring. His responsibilities include guarding the guineas. (I was surprised he didn't regard them as tasty morsels!)
At the feeders we've seen red-headed woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches , white-crowned sparrows, indigo buntings, and the usual year-round suspects. The rose-breasted grosbeaks have been in the area for several weeks, now, and last week a determined little male ruby-throated hummingbird faced off with me through the upstairs window demanding nectar. The barn swallows are back, eastern kingbirds and flycatchers are everywhere, and meadow larks are singing from the fence posts. Baltimore orioles, with their melodious songs, are nesting in the tulip trees, and kildeer are calling and teasing the dogs when we walk near the fields. Nighthawks swoop and dive at dusk, their distinctive buzzy call heralding the beginning of summer.

Friday, April 16, 2010

It's been unseasonably warm and dry this April. My early garden sowing is up and growing enthusiastically, and so are the weeds. Yesterday the wind was quite strong, but today it's less so and occasionally a large, fluffy cloud blocks the sun. The thermometer has been flirting with 80 degrees all week.

Something caught my eye while I was working at the computer this afternoon. I looked up in time to see a female pileated woodpecker on the trunk of the tulip tree just outside the window. Her crest was an incredibly brilliant crimson in the early afternoon sun. She was clinging to the side of the tree, and she slowly turned her head all the way around backwards, looked directly at me, and then flew away. I thought I'd heard pileated woodpeckers in the last few days. I hope she has a successful nest this year.

Seeing the woodpecker motivated me to call Sadie and Seamus and head down the hill for a walk along the Salt Fork.Things are changing daily! The bluebells and spring beauties are still rampant in the woods, but the toothwort is gone and the blue phlox is ever more apparent.
 I noticed a tree in flower that I didn't immediately recognize. Beautiful maroon flowers, very similar in conformation to those of a tulip poplar, although hanging pendent from the branches rather than upright. The bark was very smooth, the growth habit spreading, and the trees seemed to be in a colony. It suddenly dawned on me that this is where the paw paws grow! I tasted their sweet, custardy fruit for the first time last year. These blossoms will, with the help of pollinators, beget the fall's fruit!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring is a miracle! Just a few weeks ago we had snow on the ground, and I was writing winter haiku!

The ewes were grazing peacefully this morning while their lambs ran and jumped and whirled in the air all around them like little white dervishes. The gentle wind got them going, dashing first one way, then another, then all of them racing completely around the pasture. They've grown so quickly!

We took a walk at noon today, the dogs and I. It's sunny and dry; the wind is blowing gently, and the air is soft and warm. We could have flown a kite in the field today (I dream of flying one later), but once we reach the bottomland, the trees block the wind and it feels almost hot.

The early woodland flowers are in full bloom! Bluebells are a gently moving sea of blue under the trees along the river. In the open areas, spring beauties are so thick we seem to be walking through snowdrifts of pinkish white flowers. Buttercups stand above their dense green foliage, and delicate toothwort nod gently  here and there among the spring beauties and buttercups.

We gradually walk up a gentle, south-facing slope covered with a turf of trout lily about to bloom, thick leaves mottled green and brown, . Here and there, at the base of certain hardwoods, are large colonies of mayapple with trillium scattered throughout. Red trillium (trillium recurvatum) are tall and elegant with flowers the color of a rich Bordeaux.The leaves of bloodroot, blossoms two or three days gone, are at the base of many of the trees, and a first for me--several jack-in-the-pulpits have unfurled and risen among the mayapples.

As we walk through the upland forest, spring beauties carpet the ground, smooth Solomon's seal is scattered generously throughout, and we even spot a few rue anemones. Lots of gooseberry, black raspberry, and blackberry canes promise sweet fruit for those who would dare their thorns, and we see tall blue phlox as we leave the woods for home.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Shepherd's Diary for March

Sunday, March 7, 2010
With Ken and Neil helping wrangle, I sheared 7 of my 10 sheep. Took all day and wore me out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Still really sore . . .

Saturday, March 13, 2010
Sheared two large, flighty ewes with help of friends (Ken and Neil knew better). Still averaging 50 minutes per sheep Maybe next year I will start sooner and do a reasonable number each day. (Probably not)

Sunday, March 14, 2010
Ryan Craig sheared the very large, struggling ram in 10 minutes.I have a long way to go . . .

Saturday, March 20, 2010
Ken discovered three little lambs (Edina) in the barn while I was teaching class in Decatur. Two rams and one ewe. He got them settled in a pen before I got home.

Monday, March 22
Doris lambed overnight. One very pretty ewe-lamb.
Sindy lambed outside at noon while I was watching from the house. Two nice rams. She rejected them, so I'm bottle-feeding them. They are the best two-ram-lamb welcoming committee I could imagine!!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Bernice had twins in the barn at 10:30 am. Two rams. They have good bloodlines, and I'm hoping they  grow up to be breeding rams. Blackie had a ewe and a ram at the entrance to the barn just before 5 pm. With the other sheep coming in for dinner, it was a rodeo getting her and the lambs into a pen. She's a great first-time mom.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Two more to lamb, Ursula will be soon and Rose might be late April or even later if she lambs at all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The first lambs of the season arrived on Saturday, March 20. Mom and babies are happy, healthy, and the lambs are growing like weeds!!

Friday, March 12, 2010

How the world has changed in just 10 days! We had several warmish, sunny days, and then on Wednesday the temperature reached the mid 60s. The farm is muddy, and the chickens are wearing huge mud-galoshes. They are eating less, laying fewer eggs, and their feathers are becoming thin and ratty; the spring molt is imminent. I sheared most of the ewes on Sunday, and I could feel a wave of heat rise from each one as I removed their heavy, woolly coats. Some are very heavy with lambs and milk and will give birth within a week or 10 days; some will lamb closer to mid-April.

I've encountered other evidence of spring's nascence. Late Wednesday night I returned from a workday in Chicago. As I dragged my sleepy self out of the car and toward the house, I heard peepers!! The tiny frogs sound like a myriad of children clicking the little noisemakers we used to win at primary school carnivals. The frogs will yammer out their desires with surprisingly loud voices day and night for several weeks. Under the influence of the peepers, I looked up and noticed old friends Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cassiopeia high in the sky. These constellations accompany me on my nightly journeys regardless of the season, whereas Orion and the Pleides (Seven Sisters), still apparent but low on the horizon, will soon give way to the stars of summer.

Thursday morning, on the way to the barn, I noticed several bunches of crocuses on the south side of the house, little spots of white, purple, and yellow in the drab, dead-grass brown of the dormant lawn. Here and there the leaves of tulips, jonquils, and daffodils were beginning to push through the wet soil, and the little, green, fuzzy rosettes by the front porch will soon be tall, elegant oriental poppies. Even the air felt different: softer, fresher, kinder.

A cold front went through last night, so it is cooler today and raining lightly. I can see the woodland by the river from my window. The monotonous gray brown of the tree tops is broken occasionally by the yellow green of the willows' upper branches and the crowns of the maples and silvermaples, reddish with swollen buds. The promise of fecundity is on the pear, and the tiny seedlings by the window and beginnings of green in the herb garden presage savory summer meals.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The days are warmer and longer now (in the upper 30s, lower 40s), and the nights are warmer (high 20s). The forecast calls for "continued moderation" this week, a cautious way to say, "Spring is here!"

The sheep are kind of soggy, and two of the Shetland cross ewes are shedding their wool, which means the quality of what's left of their fleeces will be very low. I'm looking forward to beginning the process of shearing on Sunday.

We took the dogs on a long walk last Sunday. Near a dense patch of brush by a rushing creek we heard the first red-winged blackbirds calling, their songs disguised by the cacophony of winter-bird calls. Ken attends to and sorts sound as part of his being, and he was the first to recognize the male's loud, gurgling conk-a-reeeee. When we stopped to listen, we could hear the female's sputtering chatter in the background, uttered just as the male call began (Birdjam,

This morning early the dogs and I walked on the flood plain along the river. There are still patches of ice and old snow, and the night's low temperature made for stiff mud and easy walking. The sky was overcast and a few birds were evident, mostly woodpeckers, sparrows, and cardinals;  we didn't hear the conk-a-reeeee of a red-winged blackbird. As we climbed the last hill toward home, a lone Canadian goose, honking, flew overhead headed southwest, and then a single snow goose, northbound, passed just above the trees, honking in a higher pitch. The time to find nesting grounds and mates is upon them all.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spring is apparent in every corner of our farm. The light is more direct, and the air is warmer as the sun moves north. The woods are full of woodpeckers calling and drumming, fashioning new homes, and choosing mates. On our morning walks, the snow is crusted from daytime melting, and exposed patches of grass and soil grow larger every day. The days are longer, the buds are swelling, and one sunny afternoon I caught the scent of fresh earth on a soft breeze. The ewes are rounder now, in their last trimester, and Rose is not so quick to kick up her heels. Lambing should begin March 20th.

Sometimes the realities of farming can be difficult to negotiate. This month I had to buy more hay, which prompted a decision I'd been avoiding. After I paid for the hay, I called the livestock buyer and told him we had two lambs ready for market. I sheared them before he picked them up, and it broke my heart to watch my naked and shivering firstborns leave our farm. Even though it's another step toward  financial stability, I felt we did something that day that cannot now be undone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

This afternoon it's snowing, windy, and cold (17 degrees). The ewes are quietly finishing their hay in the barn; Moritz and the yearlings are out in the east pasture sifting through the snow for the last crumbs of their lunch. With their long woolly coats, the sheep are impervious to the inclement weather.

They are eager see me and friendly at this time of year. Blackie jumps up on the feeder and loudly greets me at the door when I walk into the barn. Moritz, pushy at most other times of year, follows quietly when I take the grain out to fill the pans, and Rose, my favorite ewe, comes begging for sweet feed whenever I walk into the pasture. The ewes are nearing their third trimester and hungry all the time; the lambs they carry are beginning to make significant energy demands as they grow to term.

Most of the chickens are inside the chateau this afternoon. I cleared a path for them in the snow this morning so they would come out and scratch for their grain. They didn't stay out long--they went right back inside once they'd had their fill. The hens don't seem to like cold feet or walking around in the snow, although the rooster doesn't seem to care. Surprisingly, they're still laying fairly well. We average about 8 eggs per day, but it is far from consistent. Some days we get as few as 3 and others as many as 14.

The amorous hoo-hoos have subsided, and I'm hoping the owl hen is still setting on her eggs in the red-tailed hawk's nest at the edge of the bottomland. The dogs and I took a walk last week and spooked her off the nest before we realized she was there. We occasionally hear a hoot or two late at night, so I'm hopeful that she returned to her nest.

We've had a lot of snow this winter, and more than once walking with the dogs in the woods I've recalled Robert Frost's poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

The snow is swirling and drifting in front of the wind. It's time to start supper, feed the stock, and welcome a quiet evening in front of the fire.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bubo Virginianus part 2

Ken went out this evening to close the chicken-house doors and interrupted owl courtship. One of the owls was sitting in the pear tree, between the house and the chicken yard, and a second owl flew near the pear tree. Ken stopped, and the owl in the tree joined the the second owl in a slow, graceful airborne dance. They saw him and flew into the pines north of the house and then deep into the forest toward the Salt Fork.

The owl children should hatch about the first of March. They'll walk around the branches outside the nest in early April, and they'll make their first flight during the first week of May.

Owls use the nests of other birds, and I've seen two or three hawks' nests in the trees on the west edge of the farm. Perhaps we'll see the screechy little owl children as they grow up and learn to hunt. We heard them last year, but we were never able to see them.
Bubo Virginianus
Great Horned Owl

Last night we were awakened by owls calling back and forth. The dogs barked, the guineas squawked from inside the chicken house, but the rooster did not say a word. After 30 minutes or so, the dogs and guineas settled down, and we went back to sleep.

The owls were still calling this morning, and after Ken went to work, I finally saw one of them . . . and then two more.

It's gray and cold today, the trees are black against the gray white of the snow and sky, and the wind is still. Hoo, hoo-oo, hoo hoo: the music of this morning continues as I type.

When I saw him, the owl was perched in a tall honey locust just north of the chicken house, leaning forward and shifting his tail and wings every time he called. The white feathers at his throat puffed out with each hoot. He flew closer to the house and swooped upward to perch at the very tip top of the spruce that's four feet from the north wall of the chicken house. "His" attention was focused to the south, and he continued to hoot every minute or so. I shifted my binoculars to follow his gaze and saw a second owl sitting halfway up an osage orange on the south edge of the clearing, calling back to him. And then behind "her," hitherto unseen, another owl took off and flew south into the forest.

I watched for several minutes, and then the crows moved in and mobbed the first owl until he took refuge in the pines north of the house. The cawing crows followed him and continued harassing him. I looked to the south, and the second owl had moved. She continued to return his calls, but I could not locate her.

I can still hear him nearby, late in the morning, hooting and pining, dodging crows, and hoping for a mate.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's always about the weather this time of year in Central Illinois . . .

We haven't seen the sun for at least two weeks, and everyone's mood seems to be affected. Last week it was gray, cold, and damp, and the week before the temps were hovering around zero with ice, snow, and leaden skies. Perfect weather for a bout of cabin fever. Today, however, snow is falling lightly and persistently, and we've been promised a modest accumulation followed by a little sunshine!

The sheep are spending more time outside than they did when the temps were lingering around zero. The ram is in with the feeder lambs and getting fat, and the new lambs should start to arrive by mid March. I'm hoping to have everyone sheared by then--by someone other than me! We're going through more hay than I expected this year, so it might be time to start thinking about taking the feeder lambs over to Allen's.

I met the Craigs last week; they raise very nice Corriedales about 10 miles north of us. Ryan cares for and shows the sheep, and his dad, Gary, does livestock and other types of trading. Gary deals with several Amish families around Arthur, and he could probably help me find someone to shear, build fences, and put a loft in the barn.

I've just finished my first spinning commission. I spun enough yarn for a sweater in exchange for processed wool (not money), but it's a start. Nancy will get a pretty, bulky sweater in charcoal and white if she can find someone to knit it for her. She also gave me a very small spinning wheel. Her father made it for her, but she said she always felt it was too small. It's very nicely made, and it's particularly good for spinning cotton, but it has a problem with the axle that causes a slight bump every revolution of the wheel.

I was at the coop on Saturday, and ran into Rachel, Micah, and Kerianne. They came out to look at the farm last summer and expressed an interest in helping me process wool. Rachel followed up our chance meeting with an email, and we decided to get together here for a day of washing, carding, dyeing, and spinning wool in February. It will be fun to have their help, company, and creativity as we finish up last year's clip.

A quick update on Gracie: Gracie went to Guardian dog rescue about three weeks ago. She's already been promised to a family, who will take her through her canine good citizen and have her evaluated by the National Therapy Dog Association as a therapy dog. She will also get to work at the local nursing home at which her new owner works. Gracie, I'm sure, will excel at obedience and therapy work, and will love all the attention and working around people. What a nice ending for Gracie's Seven Sisters Farm saga.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

We're having the first real winter in East Central Illinois in many years. Since New Year's Eve, the lows have been around zero at night and highs around 10 or 12 during the day. Brrr! This old farmhouse is hard to heat when it's so cold.

The sheep, well protected by their wool, are happy, and I'm thankful that we don't lamb early. This weather would make for lambsicles! The chickens are still laying, but they spend much more time in the chateau, and if I don't gather eggs twice a day, we lose some to freezing.

Gracie is still here, although I will be delivering her to Guardian Dog Rescue in St. Louis so they can re-educate her as a livestock guardian. I have also applied to adopt a trained adult male from the same organization. I hope it works out; I would like to become more competent in the management and training of these wonderful dogs!

It's beautiful in spite of the cold, clear and sunny during the day, and the night sky is bursting with stars. According to Ed Kieser, the AM580 meteorologist, we are in for several more inches of snow by Thursday night, which will be followed by 30 mph winds and more arctic temps. Thursday might be a great day to ski!