This weekend I was choosing photos for a presentation I will be giving in May at the Natural Lands Trust Native Plant Sale: I’ll be talking about the native plant garden in the barnyard at Crow’s Nest. Looking at the pictures, I was stunned by how green and beautiful the world can be; then I looked out the window at the gray sky and brown grass and dead stems of perennials.
Then today I saw red-wing blackbirds in the cattails. I am reassured that spring will come again soon.
Today I traveled to some other protected lands in the area to prepare a pasture for use this spring. Cows will be used to “flash graze” a meadow to improve wildlife habitat, but they will also need the high-quality pasture I was mowing. Flash grazing is introducing cows to a pasture for a very short time, so that they consume some kinds of vegetation but not everything they eventually would.
We chose today because the ground can be soft and we needed a late-winter day when it would be frozen hard—under 20 degrees—so that the tractor would leave no ruts. Of course, this also makes for a refreshing ride on the open tractor, especially on the seven-mile ride over. Yes, that was me riding up the shoulder of Route 23 at rush hour; thank you to the commuters who all passed me courteously!
But now I know first-hand why, when farmland begins to disappear from an area, it no longer remains economical for the remaining farmers who have to make use of widely scattered fields: you can’t spend too much time driving a tractor up and down the highway before it becomes inefficient.
In preparation for the Owl Prowl this weekend (sorry, the event is filled), I decided to see if I could get an owl to respond to a call or to a recording of their call. This is a technique I use very rarely, because I don’t want to harass the wildlife here, but use very sparingly for educational purposes. (Using tapes is illegal in many places, including national parks, and should not be done anywhere during breeding season, or for endangered species anytime. See Patricia and Clay Sutton’s excellent book, How to Spot an Owl, [1994: Chapters Publishing] for more details.)
I called a couple times, and then knelt down on the ground to play a recording of an Eastern screech owl (Otus asio) from Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs (1997: Time Warner Audio Books). “This will never work,” I thought as I listened, “There’s Lang Elliot’s narration before every bird’s vocalization.” About that moment something that felt like a branch whomped me on the back of the head, and I looked up in time to see something fly past me and land in a nearby branch. I shined my red-light flashlight, and found myself looking at a screech owl watching me. I didn’t linger, because I didn’t want to alarm the owl. It was probably defending its territory.
Even if an owl doesn’t show up on the hike, the owl prowl includes a dinner, owl-related games and crafts, and an opportunity (after dinner) to dissect owl pellets—the hair and bones of prey an owl coughs up—to see what kinds of creatures’ bones we can identify in an owl’s diet.
I’ve spent some time over the last couple weeks doing some winter pruning of landscape trees and shrubs. Winter is a good time to prune, since the structure of deciduous plants is more apparent without the leaves. I don’t prune for the sake of pruning; I don’t think plants need it except for specific landscape objectives—mainly to make the tree or shrub more attractive.
I prune to remove dead branches, and crossing or rubbing branches that would eventually cause more dead branches. In some cases more open structure improves air flow and can improve the health of the tree. Multi-stem shrubs I rejuvenate by cutting off a fraction of the oldest canes just above the ground. The redosier dogwood, for example, has much prettier red twigs on younger growth, so I try to keep the shrub from having too much old wood.
Finally, pruning small branches now can prevent problems later on, by directing growth in a different direction or by removing weak crotches. But a given species is going to grow to be what it wants to be, and I won’t try to use pruning to change that.
As I was walking up the Spruce Trail yesterday afternoon, the crows were making quite a racket in the spruce plantation that we call the Dark Habitat.So, it didn’t surprise me when a great-horned owl flew off, with the crows in hot pursuit.As the sounds of the chase faded, another great-horned owl flew out of the other side of the Dark Habitat.Of course, the crows were all gone, so this owl flew off unbothered.
I have seen a lot of owls and hawks being harried by crows.But this was the first time I had ever seen another escape the area “below the radar”.It made me wonder if there was a nest in the spruces and if the one owl had drawn away the crows’ attention on purpose.
Owls are likely nesting now.Owls and other predators tend to have their young as winter subsides.That is when most prey species are just beginning to breed.The timing allows young owls, hawks, and foxes to start their hunting lessons just as an abundance of baby rabbits, groundhogs and birds come on the scene.
Diversion is a pretty common technique for birds like killdeer, ovenbirds and turkeys.These ground nesting birds will feign a broken wing when a predator gets too close to the nest.The predator follows the “easy meal” for a distance, and suddenly the bird recovers and flies away.
So was this a variation of “the ol’ broken wing trick”?I don’t know, but I will definitely be watching more closely when the crows raise a ruckus.
A cool night followed by a warm day brings the maple trees to life on the Preserve. I’ve learned more that I cared to know about maple syrup this winter. Syrup, like many agricultural enterprises, is completely dependent on the weather. The warm mid-winter respite in late January was tragic for maple sap. All 30 of January’s gallons spoiled in two days! February’s consistent (but cold) weather has been a welcome change. Nearly a gallon of sap is pouring out of the taps every day. If your eyesight is keen, you might find one of the many maple sap jugs tucked quietly in the woods – but be careful not to disturb the process.
This March, maple syrup is on the menu at the Stroud Preserve. If you’re interested in attending a members-only Maple Sap Boiling contact our Membership Department at (610) 353-5640. I hope to see you there.
The winter season of events at the preserve is in full swing. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this week we held sessions of WebWalkers, Spiderlings, and Story & Craft Time. We’ve had some good weather, even with snow, to get out and enjoy the preserve. (And if the weather isn’t so good, we usually go out anyway!)
Here kids investigate holes excavated by a pileated woodpecker.
And these kids are playing a favorite game, ‘sardines.’
It’s funny how snow can re-prioritize your work life. Last week we were mowing meadows, cutting hazard trees, and preparing a fire break for a future prescribed burn. This week, well, we’re wading around in knee-deep snow with fewer options. Even monitoring conservation easements can’t be done in snow this deep—we can get around in it but the snow hides too much.
There are lots of other things to do, though. It is time to prepare the budget for next year, and plan summer camp, and attend some land management training.
I enjoy the snow plowing that the storm brings; it satisfies my childlike desire to use a machine for earthmoving without the environmental consequences of disturbing actual soil. Or at least much of it, since the snow plow does gouge the gravel and occasionally the lawn. But I dislike that so much work goes into something so ephemeral. The benefit of the cleared parking lot and walkways is lost as soon as the snow melts.
Everyone has been commenting about how mild this winter has been. It has been, at least recently. But there seems to be mass amnesia about the cold spell and two weeks of deep snow cover we had in December. It really was 2 degrees F then, relatively cold for these parts.
It was quite a chore getting it all plowed. I worked all day Sunday and finally cleared the parking lot at 10 a.m. today. Because of the sunshine, the parking lot is already clean and dry. Sunnyside Road is also fine. So, if you stayed home from work, bring your snowshoes up to Mariton for a walk.