Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Turkey Nest

It’s turkey mating season and male Wild Turkeys have been gobbling and displaying for several weeks.  Preferred display sites are those areas of low growing ground cover.  At Blue Jay Barrens, a choice location is the level lawn behind the house.

The whole purpose of the display is to impress a hen enough that she allows the male to approach and mate.  A nesting hen typically visits with a male in the early morning and then sneaks off to lay one egg in her nest.

I was walking along the field trail yesterday morning when I spotted a small cedar showing itself in the Indian Grass.  I always carry a pair of hand pruners on my belt, so I headed out into the field to cut the unwanted cedar.

As I approached, I noticed a dark shape at the base of the cedar.  I quickly backed away a few steps and stopped.

Hidden in the grass was a nesting turkey.  Old books will tell you that turkeys nest in the woods, usually beside a fallen tree trunk.  Blue Jay Barrens has dozens of fallen trees, but none with an accompanying turkey nest.  The most common place to find a turkey nest seems to be in a tall grass field, usually beside a small shrub.

I left the turkey undisturbed and then returned to the nest site later in the day.  As I had hoped, the hen had laid her daily egg and was away from the nest.

The light tan coloration of the eggs allows them to blend well with the dried grass stalks.

The base of the nest is constructed of strands of dried Indian Grass.  There is enough of a base to keep the eggs slightly elevated above the ground.  I hope this was enough to keep them high and dry during last night’s two inch rainfall.

Fifteen eggs is a pretty large clutch size.  This hen should begin incubating soon, unless there’s more than one hen involved.  In some cases, multiple hens will lay eggs in a shared nest site.  I’m not sure how the incubation duties are decided in a situation like that.  At any rate, there should be a batch of young turkeys joining the flock in about four weeks.  I’ll stay away until then and hope the incubation goes well.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Flowering Shrubs

Two weeks ago we had snow on the ground.  Since then we’ve had several days that have reached 80 degrees and the plants are working hard to make up for lost time. I was out yesterday checking on the progress of the flowering shrubs.  Fragrant Sumac usually begins the show and attracts a wide variety of pollinators.  This year is a slightly different scenario.  The sumac is blooming later than usual and several other shrubs have developed competing blooms.

Redbud has reached its peak bloom.  I can’t remember ever seeing the Redbuds go so quickly from bare branch to full flower.

Viburnums are keeping pace with the others.  We haven’t had much in the way of cold nights to slow these guys down.

Sassafras seemed to go from bud to bloom in just a couple of days. 

Wild Plum is making a marvelous showing.  Development of fruit still depends on weather conditions yet to come.

Shrubs along this field edge are entering their third year without any competition from invasive exotics.  They are doing a nice job of filling in the holes left behind when the Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose were removed.

Shrubs are a primary nectar source for many of the early butterflies and visiting the blooming shrubs is the easiest way to spot a few of the rarer butterfly species.  In a typical year the blooming periods of the various shrub species are slightly staggered.  This tends to concentrate the butterflies onto one species at a time.  With this year’s smorgasbord of blooms, the butterflies are more widely scattered.  Many of the flowering shrubs have now grown to a quite respectable height, so besides being spread out, the butterflies are high above my head.  This Henry’s Elfin is a species that deposits its eggs on the flowers of the Redbud.  I saw several high in the tops of the Redbuds, but none came within range of a decent photograph.

The most common small butterfly species is currently the Spring Azure.  I found these everywhere I walked, but they couldn’t manage to stay on a shrub flower long enough for me to get a photo.

This was the problem.  Juvenal’s Dusky Wings had claimed territories on every shrub around the edge of the field and were chasing away the Spring Azures whenever they came near.

Bumble Bees were taking advantage of the abundant flowers.  Princeton University Press just released the new Bumble Bees of North America Identification Guide and I thought I would do some work on Bumble Bee identification this summer.  The guide is full of great information, but it seems that many Bumble Bee species have a wide variation in color patterns and several common species share similar patterns, so simple visual observations may prove unsatisfactory for identification purposes.  I’ll give it a try anyhow.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Vegetable Garden Distractions

I’ve been interested in vegetable gardening for most of my life and have had some type of garden every year since I was eight years old.  Maintaining a vegetable garden is an activity that my wife says makes me appear more normal in the eyes of the general public.  It gives me a second topic besides the weather of which I have an interest and which I might discuss with others while creating idle conversation at social events.  I’ve learned that most people can only stand a few minutes of weather talk and generally have no interest in my thoughts about managing land for native ecosystems.  Talking about gardening gives me something to do besides reading a book or standing alone glaring at anyone who comes near.  This pleases my wife and gives the illusion that I’m having a good time.

My garden is located in the lower portion of a field drain where eroded soil was trapped behind an elevated farm lane.  This was the only place I could find with soil deep enough to securely anchor fence posts.  People sometimes question why I carved my garden out of a nice prairie field.  In this situation there was no prairie when I created the garden.  At that time, the field was all oat stubble, remnants of the last grain crop to be grown there.  The garden was long established by the time the prairie came in.

The garden is maintained in raised beds.  Through the summer I fill the trenches between beds with whatever organic matter I have at hand, mostly mower clippings.  Each fall I till the trenches and scoop the half composted organic matter to the top of the beds.  Worms and other organisms work on the organic matter over the winter and the beds are ready to receive seed in the spring.  Onions, peas and potatoes are currently growing.  Row cover was placed over the peas to protect them from some predicted cold temperatures.  They made it through a couple of 20 degree nights with no damage.

But there are other things going on in the garden that easily take my attention away from the vegetables.  Several native prairie species are grown here for seed production.  The natives are not as well behaved as the vegetables.  These Prairie Dock will not stay confined to a bed and are continually increasing their territory.

The organic mix atop the beds seems ideal for germination of Prairie Dock seed.  I’ve decided to limit the Prairie Dock to one bed and they’ve just about taken that.

Clumps of False Gromwell last for three to five years before dieing.  In that time they produce huge quantities of seed.  Some of that seed manages to germinate and initiate growth of another clump.  False Gromwell are always in the garden, but their location is constantly changing.

Butterflyweed has claimed a three by three foot section at the end of one bed.  It came in as a volunteer and I let it stay.  That was about fifteen years ago.  Since then it has attracted swarms of interesting insects to the garden.  For the past three years it has hosted the caterpillars of the Unexpected Tiger Moth, an Ohio rarity.  The garden keeps losing ground to natives, but there’s still plenty of space for vegetables.

The cedar fence posts around the garden continue to expand their collection of interesting lichens.  It doesn’t take much for the lichens to distract me from my gardening chores.  I have yet to take the time for any serious lichen studies, but when I get around to it, there should be plenty of lichens here to get me started.

I am serenaded constantly while in the garden.  This Song Sparrow nests in an ornamental juniper that is kept in the garden just because birds nest in it.  It was planted there as a seedling 28 years ago along with several others that were intended for landscaping in front of the house, but it was not used.  Instead of getting rid of it, I left it there in case one of the junipers in the yard failed to grow.  By the time it became obvious that it wasn’t needed for landscaping, it had become a favorite nesting site of Song Sparrows, Catbirds and Cardinals.

Although not as melodious as the Song Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrows call out their territorial warnings from perches in the tall Indian Grass surrounding the garden.  Since these birds return here every year and I hear them calling well into summer, I’m assuming that they are nesting.  It’s hard enough to see these birds in the field.  It would just be dumb luck if I ever encountered one of their nests.

A Burrowing Wolf Spider has claimed a territory near the Butterflyweed.  The burrow should be safe from disturbance in this location, so I will have time to coax the spider out for some photographs.

While on my knees looking at the spider hole, I glanced beneath the Song Sparrow’s juniper and saw this garter snake.  I think the garden is an appropriate place for this snake since, as a kid, I used to think their proper name was Gardener Snake.  This one kept doing strange gyrations with its tongue as though trying to convey a message in snake semaphore.  Maybe the message came through, because I suddenly thought of something I should be doing.  That’s how most of my garden forays progress; distracted by the native plants, distracted by the birds, distracted by the bugs and gone.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Removing Field Trees

My last bit of maintenance work to do on the open fields was to cut and stump spray larger trees that are trying to take hold.  Smaller specimens were cut and sprayed as I mowed last fall.  I thought I would get better results if the larger ones were left until they began their spring growth.  Buds have now swelled and leaves are beginning to unfurl, so I’ve begun to systematically remove the remainder of the trees that I have determined should not be allowed to grow in the field.  There’s nothing horrible about these trees.  They are native species that are quite desirable in other locations.  It’s just that the field is managed for sun loving prairie type grasses and forbs and the trees don’t fit that mix.

Not every tree gets cut.  I’m still maintaining a scattering of White Flowering Dogwood, various oak species and a couple of Virginia Pine.  Everything else goes and some of those have gotten rather large. 

The after view.  The trees that are left are spaced far enough apart to allow sunlight to reach the ground on all sides.

Red Maple quickly invaded this area of moister soil in one of the field swales.  The most aggressive field invaders are those species with light seeds that are carried by the wind.  Their seed can easily cover a field in a single season.  Heavy seeded trees often depend on animals such as squirrels of Blue Jays that bury the seeds in open fields as a future food source. Unclaimed acorns become the oaks I am encouraging.

The larger Red Maples have been taken care of, but treatment of new seedlings will be an annual event for several more years before the stand is finally obliterated.

The cut material was removed from the field and stacked atop one of the existing brush piles.  Larger trees are broken down last and the trunks used to weigh down the pile of springy branches.  Brush piles in this condition are much favored by House Wrens as nesting sites.

The most common invading tree is the Tuliptree.  It takes only a few years for this species to go from a seedling to a three inch diameter tree.  The smaller the tree, the easier it is to cut and treat, so the fields should be checked for new sprouts each year.  That means I have to allow time for maintenance.  Every time I do something new, it adds another item to my maintenance list.  Eventually I reach a point where I don’t have time to do all of the maintenance, let alone do anything new.  That’s why I’m now dealing with larger sized trees in this field.  I knew years ago, when these trees were just seedlings, that they should be cut, but at the time, I was busy doing something else that I considered to be of greater importance.  That is called management and management is what I do at Blue Jay Barrens.

Now I have a field dominated by prairie grasses and forbs that contains a scattering of White Flowering Dogwood and Oaks.  I’ll do what maintenance I can here, but I most likely won’t do any major work in this field until the next time the invading trees reach a point that they can no longer be ignored.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rodent Cache

One of the previous owner’s last activities prior to my purchasing Blue Jay Barrens was a harvest of large Eastern Red Cedar logs.  As a result, there are numerous short lengths of tree trunk that were discarded after the log was trimmed to marketable length.  Being highly resistant to decomposition, cedar logs remain on the ground for a long time.  The younger wood near the outside of the log is the first to break down, giving a good foundation for mosses and other small plants to take hold.

The side of the log in contact with the soil breaks down much more rapidly.  Eventually, the most rot resistant portion of the log, the heartwood, is left in contact with the ground.  As microorganisms work on the organic matter in the soil beneath the log, the volume of material reduces.  In dry upland areas, it is not uncommon for the underside of these logs to lose contact with the soil.  Air freely flows beneath the log and the log acts as a roof protecting a dry environment.

That’s the case here.  A dry cavity has formed that was used by a small rodent to cache a supply of food items. 

I’m guessing the owner of this stored food was a White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus.  I once maintained a captive White-footed Mouse for almost three years and periodically fed it mealworms, crickets and grasshoppers.  If given more than it could consume, the mouse would eat the heads from the excess insects and store the bodies for later.  This headless grasshopper is exactly what my pet used to produce.  Besides that, the White-footed Mouse is extremely common here.

Included in the debris were several scraps of bright, blue-green exoskeletons.

There were enough body parts to account for at least three of these insects.  The various parts reminded me of what was left behind when my pet mouse ate crickets.  Large cricket bodies were routinely butchered and the soft insides eaten along with the smaller legs.  Thorax and abdomen exoskeletons plus the wings and wing covers remained.

The insect in question seems to be a Southern Green Stink Bug, a common non-native garden pest.  I find a few of these on my tomatoes and squash every year.  It’s always nice to see a native species reducing the numbers of a non-native, but I doubt that a little mouse predation will have an impact on the bug population.

Monday, April 14, 2014


I’ve been noticing a lot of fresh digging in the yard and fields, so I decided to set one of the live traps and see what has been foraging during the nighttime hours.  It was no surprise to have the first capture be a Opossum.  Opossums are quick to enter a baited trap and after making a meal of the bait, settle down to await the door to be opened.  If you set your trap in the same location several nights in a row, the Opossums will sometimes make the trap a regular stop in their foraging pattern.

The bald patches around the eyes identified this individual as one I have been seeing regularly in the evenings.  Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other Ohio mammal.  Add some hisses and a low growl and this animal can put on quite a threatening display.  It seldom bites, but I would rather not be the recipient of one of those rare attacks.

There are five toes on each foot and each toe, except the inside toe of the hind foot, has a well developed claw.  The claws are super tools for digging up grubs, worms and any other tasty morsels.  They also aid in climbing.

The tail is definitely rat-like with its scaly, naked appearance.  The tip of the tail appears to have been lost.  Damage to ears and tails from freezing temperatures is common.  Considering the many nights of subzero temperatures we experienced this winter, I’m surprised that this guy isn’t showing more damage.

One of my reasons for capturing these animals is to see what they are carrying in the way of an external parasite load.  Ticks find the Opossum quite attractive and I often find dozens of ticks around the ears and neck.  We usually have active ticks as soon as the temperature hits 70 degrees and we’ve had several days of temperatures in that range.  So far this year, I’ve seen no ticks and the Opossum seemed tick free.  I hope that’s a sign that it’s going to be a light tick year.

When caught in the open, a Opossum usually becomes immobile and waits for danger to go away.  If it appears safe to do so, the Opossum will begin to move slowly away.  Often it will rock forwards and backwards as if mimicking a small shrub being blown by the wind.  I had to back off about 40 feet before this guy began to move.

Once they reach some cover they pick up the pace.

After going about 60 feet through the tall grass, the Opossum broke into the open and raced along the tire tracks left by the electric contractors who installed new wire and poles last fall.  At the intersection of the old fence line, the Opossum took a quick turn and disappeared into a brush pile.  I imagine I’ll probably see him in the yard again this evening.