Wednesday, June 29, 2016


June is all about thunderstorms and flowers. With all the hay under cover, except that which is on the wagon with the borked wheel, the boss just spent the week mostly storing it. It is a slow process, as he has a lot of leftover misery from his injuries, but good Lord willing it will be done by the time it dries up enough to mow more. It is hard to watch him struggle to do stuff, but he is a tough cookie and will get 'er done.

We sure had some gully washers over the past couple of days and a little bit of wind and lightning too. So far no harm done. The gardens are drinking it all are the weeds. I will sure be busy when it dries out.

Our beloved blue invader, chicory, has come into bloom at least a week early. Normally I can count on it for my Independence Day birthday, but this year it is raring to go.

Bird activity is slowing down in a big way. I actually got a little bored doing my daily assessment of what's happening on the Long Lawn and environs yesterday. Not much around but our trio of common warblers, a scattering of sparrows, robins, starlings, and the ubiquitous Cedar Waxwings. Been a long time since I've seen an ooh-ah bird and we are missing some common regulars so far, such as American Woodcock and Great Crested Flycatcher.....

Beating the catbirds at their own game

That being said, pretty much everybody that is around is working on a second...or maybe third...brood. Serendipitously, a gentleman who reads the Farm Side and enjoys the bird columns particularly, stopped by and got to see the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird fly his mating loop-de-loops right in front of the porch....something I have only ever seen twice now.

Good deal!

I don't often do this

But here is a favorite Farm Side from earlier this year: (You can read the Farm Side every week in the Amsterdam Recorder Weekender edition.)

A skeptical eyebrow of moon looks down on all the green at daybreak. Just weeks ago all was cold and quiet. Now riotous growth offers welcome to all manner of summer visitors.

One of our favorites, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, arrived on the 14th of May, tattered and ever so tame. Every feather was ragged and she was clearly as empty as a just-rung bell. She sat on the string on the porch, hunched and humbled, barely able to fly.

Every few minutes she would flutter over to the feeder and drink and drink, clinging to the edge on nearly vestigial feet. Thanks to a friend who lives near the Schoharie, whose birds arrive just days before ours every year, we knew to expect her. The sugar water (plain with no red dye thank you, one part sugar to four parts water, and fresh every couple of days) was waiting.

The next night hard cold hit. We figured she would be done for. Such a tiny heartbeat, after such a long voyage. How could it not be stilled by bitter temperatures and vicious winds?

She and her bright emerald, ruby, and silver partner lived through the cold snap though. They visit every day to partake. However, somehow, after arriving with a full fan of tail feathers, albeit badly rumpled, she now has only two.

I often consider these tiny, tyrannical birds (they weigh about as much as a penny) and marvel at how they manage to return year after year to fly tame in human gardens and sip all day from feeders designed and maintained by us. They travel so very far, coming here from Central America, often across the Gulf of Mexico. They make the ocean trip, five-hundred miles or so, in non-stop flight. It takes them less than 24 hours as a rule, and they cannot, of course, land or rest over the open, wind-tossed water. No wonder ours looked tattered.

After that gigantic leap of flight, they head north to brighten summer days, about 20 miles at a time, feeding as they come.

Strangely, what with their barely-functional feet, they are scientifically related to swifts. We have those too now, Chimney Swifts, nesting in the unused chimney next to the kitchen. Even in the hours around dusk they can be heard gently twittering to each other in there. We like them quite a lot.

So much has changed since the cold evaporated. As the sun goes down, you can smell something blooming, faintly lemon against the freshening air. Goldfinches stay all winter, snuggled up in drab brown feathers. Now their bright yellows are only rivaled by the other yellow birds of summer, Yellow Warblers.

Yellow warblers are yellow. (Well, duh.) Not the screaming neon yellow of the finches, but rather a rich, buttery color, much enhanced by thin red stripes across the breasts of the males. They sing all day, bragging about how very fine they are, “Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweeter sweet.” We watched one, of an afternoon, sitting comfortable on an ash twig and darting out, just inches, into a swarm of bright-winged gnats, nipping up a couple every trip. It must have eaten fifty or so while we observed.

Let’s see now. At least a dozen pairs of YEWAs times fifty bugs in five minutes. Seems like good company to have in your back yard.

We had some mystery birds show up this spring too, although we soon found out that they had been spotted here before. An insistent call, kind of like snee, snee, snee, sneeze, came from several different box elder trees around the yard. I simply could not find anything that matched, so I made a short video with sound and posted it to a bird group.

American Redstart. Huh, we saw some last year, out in the old horse pasture, but they sure didn’t nest within a couple dozen feet of the house. Of course after the ID was made we spot them every day now. The drab females, kind of olive with yellow flashes at wing and tail, spend hours gathering spider webs and cottonwood fluff, evidently to line their nests.

How convenient that the cottonwoods are just beginning to shed the seeds that gave them their name. A few thousand of them clogging a screen or draping over the garden pond do look a bit like cotton don’t they?

It is perhaps not too surprising that this small farm offers a home or handy stopping place to so many species of birds. Grassland farming, such as is practiced in Upstate NY, is kind to birds, whether those of forest, fields, or edges. Habitat loss is perhaps the single biggest factor in the rapid decline of many once-common species. How many of us grew up to the monotonous all night song of the Whippoorwill? How many have you heard lately? For me it has been over thirty years since I have seen or heard one, despite the many nights they kept me awake when I was younger. It is a common trend.

At this date, not quite half way through the year, we have counted sixty-two different species of birds on our land. They range from House Sparrows and European Starlings, neither of which is particularly welcome, to a Cerulean Warbler, quite a rare little creature, spotted ironically on Global Big Day, when birders across the entire world were out counting birds. (Alan and I spotted 42 species that day.)

In 2015 we found 82 species on this little place. Whether we will meet or surpass that depends on many factors, but clearly the open land dotted with woods and water that makes up this region is welcoming to many birds.

Come late summer, when the hummingbirds begin their reverse journey and the winter sparrows head down from the tundra, I hope we will be sending out many more individuals than arrived here this spring. Some birds, particularly robins, are on their second broods already.

Conservation is an unsung aspect of grassland farming that happens every day.  

Soggy Tufted Titmice

Monday, June 27, 2016

When the Elevator Doesn't

Go all the way to the top.

Or when the third bale of hay that the boss throws on it breaks when it hits the beginning of the cross mow. Plugs everything in sight and sucks in three or four more bales in the process. 

Then none of the elevators go anywhere.

We spend longer than it would take to unload THREE wagons unplugging and repairing....

You might as well stay calm and farm on. It's just part of the job. 

I was filled with admiration for the poor boss climbing up and down and trying to be patient with his amateur help. He got a little cranky, but not too bad.

Me, I followed him around, trying to be helpful, and stood in the driveway with one plug in one hand and one plug in the other, waiting for the call to turn the cross mow on or off.

A couple of Red-eyed Vireos sang in the box elders. Mosquitoes buzzed me, drilling for the ruby ichor the could find behind my ears.

It wasn't really all that much fun, but we did get it fixed, we did get the hay unloaded, and we beat the rain. I beat the catbirds to a few almost ripe blackcaps too, so all is good with me. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Happy Birthday

To the older of my duo of handsome brothers. Good men, both. They both do things for people and care for people routinely, not because they expect thanks or reward, but because that is how they are wired. This one makes great music as well.

Been lucky that way. When they passed out little brothers I was first in line for the top of the line.

Happy birthday, Michael. Hope it is a wonderful one.