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Winter Giving Way to Spring

February 16th, 2009

As winter’s cold has crept back in we’re still feeding the birds and carrying firewood to the stove.  But a few days ago I heard the first Spring Peepers… and they’ve been calling everyday since.   It’s amazing that a tiny frog can make such a loud bird-like call, and they’re the best harbingers of spring that I know.  They usually start calling around mid-to-late February in our area as the sun brings warmer daytime temperatures to shallow water.

After school one day we took a walk in our small patch of forest to see what might be emerging.  I’ve heard that Witch-Hazel is blooming around the area, but we don’t have any that I know of.  They’re neat small trees or shrubs with beautiful yellow fingery flowers.  I think I ordered some from the conservation department, so with any luck after planting this year, we could have a tree or two of our own in a couple years.  I hope to continue to plant many diverse native species, but also to emphasize the one’s that flower at different months so the honey bees will benefit.  Which means we would benefit from the honey too!

On our little hike we discovered some beautiful patches of moss among the leaf litter.  It’s so green and lush and reminds me of stories of fairies, leprechauns and other forest enchantments when I find places like this.  Not to mention how soft it is… usually I try not to walk on the moss and lichens knowing how long it takes for most of them to grow.  But it looks so inviting… on a warm day I could just lay down and take a nap.

Winter moss in the forest

We also saw the bluebirds checking out the nest boxes, and defending them from the sparrows.  I’ll probably try to help the bluebirds by shooing the sparrows away…   I also saw an enormous flock of White-fronted Geese flying high above heading northward.  The Canada Geese are looking for nesting places too.  That afternoon a flock of geese landed on the pond.  I walk toward the pond and most of them fly off… which is okay with me given the amount of you-know-what they leave behind.  Two remained behind to check out the pond… and eventually they flew off too.  I do enjoy it when they visit.

 Canada Geese in February

It’s really fascinating to watch the seasons unfold- literally in the spring of course.  Most of the changes are very subtle, such as flowers that emerge and disappear in a matter of days.   Many changes are more apparent… the pond’s ice is now gone for the year.  It’s nice to see the open water again, and the shadows and reflections. 

Sunset in February at Fox Haven

After a warm day exploring, we finally watch the sun disappear behind the trees. It all looks so peaceful… and then we see something moving on that little stump by the water’s edge.  It’s one of the cats, prowling along the shoreline.

Winter Mysteries and Bee Shadows

January 25th, 2009

Looks like snow in the forecast for tonight or tomorrow…  If it’s going to be winter, I enjoy having some of that white stuff around- especially if the alternative is ice or freezing rain.   Late one afternoon as I walked along the pond dam the Little Bluestem just stood out beautifully against the background of the pond.  Snow flurries in the afternoon covered the ice briefly.

Little Bluestem and snow on pond

The next day was warm enough that the sun begain melting the snow.   I found the footprints of an animal that crossed the ice- they look like coyote or fox tracks, but I don’t really know.   Neat to see however.  I also have to wonder how the fish are doing under the ice?  Maybe if it stays cold enough we could even try ice fishing this year.

Footprints on the ice at Fox Haven

The next day the sun melted the snow off the ice to reveal a marvelous scene.  The thawing and freezing of the ice had created some of the most beautiful designs!  It almost looks like stained glass or something created by man… but only God and nature creates such beautiful scenes as this. 

 Designs in the Ice

It was even warm enough one day for the bees to fly around.  It was weeks since I had seen them, and I always worry that they are getting enough to eat through winter.  Watching them buzz all around the outside of the hive was pretty neat. 

 Bees flying about in January

I had to zoom in on one part of that picture above- I love how that one bee’s shadow is reflected on the white landing board!  Here’s a close-up-

Bee and Shadow © Fox Haven Media 2009

Is that cool or what?  I liked it so much that I cropped just the bee’s shadow and added it to the image rotation of the little pictures by the quotes above.  With cold nights and warming days, we could think about tapping a few maple trees for syrup.  That’s a project for another year, however, and for now we’ll just enjoy getting things done around the house.  I actually cleaned off that workbench in the barn yesterday with a nice fire in the woodstove- first time in several years.  With any luck, this mad streak of productivity will continue for a few months into spring.   Goodness knows it’s time to think about what’s going in the garden this year.

Winter Sun and Fun in the Barn

January 13th, 2009

A beautiful sunny day, but cold!  And it’s going to be colder for the next few days.  I’ve been asking for snow, and look!  We actually got enough flurries to dust the ice on the pond.   I like how the trees stand as gray sentinels on the hillside- in summer you can’t see this corner of the pond very well because of all the leaves on the trees.

Fox Haven Pond in winter

The long range weather forecast doesn’t have any snow it in this month- will we go all winter with that one small snowstorm in December? 

Worked in the barn yesterday with the woodstove going- I’ve used it a couple times, but this was the first time I’ve kept it going for such a long time and it was pretty nice.  Why didn’t I put the stove in last year!?!   I had it piled in a corner, but didn’t find the “gumption” to tackle it until last fall.  I’m so glad I did- outdoor temperatures were in the high 30’s yesterday and the barn warmed up to around 50+ and a lot warmer near the stove.  That’s enough to fiddle comfortably with a host of things that need cleaned up.  In the afternoon the boy came home from school and did his homework while laying on cardboard near the stove.  He thought it was fun, and enjoyed the warmth.    

Staying warm by the woodstove

(The picture above was a little fuzzy in the darker light, so I applied some “watercolor” filtering to it.)   But working inside the barn gave me time to move some work lights around in preparation for cleaning up the work bench.  I’m embarrased to say I’ve put it off for almost 3 years!  I use it alot,  it’s just that tools and small items come and go from the bench top and it’s a disorganized mess.  And since it’s an outdoor barn/equipment shed, there’s always a lot of dust and grime.  Maybe, just maybe I’ll get started on that soon.  

But the main area inside of the barn is a different story… I’ve got that somewhat organized to maximize use of the space, and I like to keep the floors swept regularly.  It always feels so much better to keep things in order, and clean up the dust.  With tractors and mowers, dust and grass clippings are a way of life.  Our real work bench is closer to the house in the garage, and it’s in a lot better shape.  Still has a lot of junk piled around it, but at least it’s organized junk if there is such a thing!

More Than Words

January 8th, 2009

What else can be said about a beautiful sunset?  It’s an experience, peaceful and calming…  moments lived and remembered along with the sunsets of our past.   Words are not enough. 

Winter sunset in Missouri

First Snow Comes

November 30th, 2008

A magical day… we awakened to a blanket of snowfall, the wet but gentle kind that hangs on the trees in still air.  It’s not often we have such snow in November… a fitting day indeed on the last day of the month.  It’s beautiful though- and so peaceful.  We’re a few weeks from winter yet, but it’s still a wonderland.  Seems there are few mornings as quiet and still as that after a night of snowfall.   

The snow was falling gently at dawn, the landscape covered in gray and white.

November snow in Missouri

I left the camera in the barn and walked through a shallow layer of snow with the dogs running all around.  The yellow lab just loves snow- he was a puppy his first winter and thinks that snow means playtime.  He danced all around waiting for me to throw the snowball, then plowed through the snow looking everywhere… but he never finds it, and looks at me with furrowed brow waiting for the next one.

Falling Leaves, Conservation Thoughts

November 7th, 2008

Windy and cold!  The weather has turned, and it’s surely November.  The leaves are blowing off the trees and changing the previously green landscape to brown everywhere.  A literal carpet of leaves.  Soon it will be time to rake and mulch, and the leaves will disappear.  But first there’s a really big pile of leaves to be made out there waiting for people to jump into it!

Carpet of leaves in November

And the leaves are blowing into the water too… I am always amazed how many leaves accumulate in the pond.  How long do they take to decompose?  Do they pile up on the bottom year after year?  Who knows… but they seem to disappear in a matter of weeks.

Leaves in the pond

But weeks is all we have to really work on outside projects before the winter cold sets in.  Not that I don’t work outside in winter, but it’s a little harder to work with metal, tools and other such things in 20 degree temperatures.  I’ll admit it, I think it’s just more fun (and comfortable) to work on things when the weather’s nice.  I think the real issue is that I love being outside.  So when it’s really cold, I don’t get out as much.   Which is a bit of a contradiction, because I just love the snow.  Or maybe I love looking at the snow.  Well the boy won’t let me off the hook so easily this year, and I’m sure I’ll be out tromping around with him soon!

Deer and duck season have arrived in Missouri, and it’s time to think about putting some meat in the freezer.  I only went out a couple times last year and the freezer stayed empty, at least of wild game.  Contrary to popular belief, hunting wild deer is not easy for most people, especially if you don’t have private land to hunt on.  Most of us hunt public lands, along with a lot of other folks of course.   Also it’s not really a shooting gallery out there, again contrary to that portrayed in the media.  I’ve only seen one or two other hunters when I hike back on public lands, and most of the time you only catch a glimpse of a deer or deer sign such as tracks, etc.  I’ve taken one deer in three years; poor hunting by some standards perhaps. 

Those hunting on private lands usually have more success simply due to less competition. It helps to scout early and by placing deer stands or blinds in strategic locations.   In most states there are strict regulations for what sex of deer may be taken, usually by county, and other strict regulations for the type of hunting method used such as archery, blackpowder or modern rifle.  Bow hunting season is the longest, and it’s the most challenging method of hunting because your effective range is limited to about 30 yards.  It’s very difficult to stay quiet enough, still enough, and not “smelly” so that a deer comes within 30 yards! 

Blackpowder or muzzleloader hunting is also a little longer of a season since you manually load your powder and shot, and have just one chance to shoot accurately.  It’s like musket hunting in the era of Daniel Boone.   Rifle season offers perhaps the best chance to take a deer at farther ranges of course, but the season itself is only 10 days long each year.  Most hunters try their luck during that 10 day period, and that is also when the most deer are taken each year.

Do I hunt here at Fox Haven?  I would, but we only have a few acres of “huntable” land really.   Deer transit our properly usually at night when you’re not allowed to hunt (hunting after dark or with lights is called “poaching”!).  I do have my eyes open for a transient deer that loves to rub his antlers on my trees.  One of our last remaining maple trees- planted two years ago with the young boy, was stripped of it’s bark last week.  I should have covered or protected it earlier- as I’m trying to do with the apple trees.  But I put up a little wire around it for now, and we’ll see if it can still grow with half it’s bark missing.  I’d like to find that deer though…

Maple tree bark stripped by deer antlers

I’m a little more determined this year, and maybe I’ll be more successful on the public lands I hunt.  If I do well I know a couple of families that really could use the food.   We have a wonderful “Share the Harvest” program in Missouri where deer meat (venison) is donated to many charitable organizations that need the food.  In 2007 over 5,500 hunters donated more than 260,000 pounds of venison!  This is not only helpful for the charities that receive the food, but it’s also a vital management tool:

“The Share the Harvest Program is extremely useful in the Conservation Department™s management of Missouri™s deer population.  The Department works with the Conservation Federation to target areas with high deer numbers by increasing local processing-cost incentives and Share the Harvest promotional campaigns. This results in an increased harvest in areas where deer populations are high.”

So why manage deer populations?  Primarily for health and safety- both of the deer and especially for people!   In the late 1990’s statistics showed more than 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year, resulting in more than 29,000 injuries and over $1 billion dollars of insurance claims.  I’m sure it’s higher today.   And where there are deer, there are deer ticks which may carry Lyme (or other) disease, a rapidly growing and debilitating disease in the nation.  The damage to agriculture from deer is also in the billions of dollars, and many urban communities are struggling to balance public appreciation for deer as wildlife with the damage and risk that is also present to the community.  

On balance, hunting is one of the best methods for controlling deer populations, and offers benefits in many different ways.  Harvesting deer not only provides food for many purposes, but the money from licensing and training requirements benefits many different conservation and natural resource programs.  In the duck hunting arena, the nation has benefitted immensely from wild land preservation and conservation initiatives to help waterfowl populations.  Too successful in some areas as we’ve seen with Canada and other geese populations.  But as the interface between human populations and wildlife grows closer through the years, we’ll need to ensure sound conservation practices are in place to manage the inevitable conflicting resource needs.

Autumn Change

October 31st, 2008

Beacon of color,
A Maple, standing alone-
Change in the forest.

Maple in Autumn in Missouri

Autumn Days of Color and Light

October 28th, 2008

Well let me just try this again.  After losing an almost finished post (don’t ask…) I’m feeling a little less creative today!  Mostly because I’ve been a little under the weather.  Turned the corner though and we had a cold one last night.  Scrambled to finish up some chores and winterizing.  Tractor battery went dead in the middle of moving a pile of bark…. half a day later it was back in the barn.  Down to less than 29 degrees for half the night and it snapped all the tomatoes and other annuals.   But the darn flies and grasshoppers are still around.  They must have some type of short-term antifreeze in their blood or something.  But the sun came out and the day warmed up nicely, especially with a wood fire in the stove.

Just after sunrise on the way back from school- the Autumn color is highlighted over the Oaks, Maples and Hickories.

Colorful Autumn in Missouri

The landscape is beautiful and the temperatures just right for getting things taken care of outdoors. It’s even supposed to be 70 degrees F on Thursday.   We’re right about at the peak of the fall leaf color changes this week.  Even though the wind has been very strong and lots of leaves are flying around, most of them are still on the trees.  Not for long… Soon it will be time for our annual Leaf Pile Party!  

 But yesterday I discovered that if the boy and I are sitting on the ground collecting hickory nuts, the yellow lab wants to find some too…  Ooof!

Yellow Labrador Retriever playing

Of course, after he knocked me over it was much easier to look up into the canopy of the Oak tree above.  Isn’t it beautiful?

Looking up at Oak Tree in Autumn

Then the Basset Hound comes along and wonders what all the fuss is about… and he’s looking for a little attention too.  Watch out, that nose is dangerous!

Basset Hound nosing around

But {sigh…} afternoons in Autumn are wonderful. 

Sunlight on the water in Autumn

Colorful Fun in the Fall Season

October 18th, 2008

We spent a nice day enjoying the fall weather and visiting a local pumpkin farm.  The kids love the activities, while the adults enjoy watching the kids.  Some sweet funnel cake was very nice, but if you see a sign for home-made rootbeer or something, don’t do it!  It sounded good, but it was really awful.  Their “rootbeer” tasted like soapy water without carbonation… and they probably didn’t clean the bottles properly, blech!  We stopped somewhere else later on and I had to drink a real rootbeer so that it didn’t ruin my appreciation of a good one.  I think that first one is embeded in my taste memory though.  But it was good to see folks out driving around the countryside (and lower gas prices certainly helped). 

Bought a bottle of BBQ sauce from a young entreprenuer who had a booth set up.  He said it’s a little tougher this year, but sales are going fine.  He was very upbeat about his prospects and said that when people talk about the economy and the hard times we’re having he said, “If this is bad, I’d sure like to see what good is!”  I thought that was great perspective in light of the emotions flying around these days. 

It was nice to see some Autumn color too. We’re still probably a week away from the peak of the season here, but the leaves are beautiful.   

Colorful Autumn sunset in Missouri 

And the roses are blooming again!  We’ve been fortunate that the frost has not arrived yet- apparently much of the eastern U.S. will see frost in the next couple of days.  We still have a few outdoor projects to take care of with winterizing equipment and protecting various plants.  Even the tomatoes and beans are still producing, but not for much longer.  For now we can enjoy the weather and the beauty of the flowers and leaves.

Roses blooming in Autumn

We were working outside the other day and the boy yelled, “Daddy, Come here!” He said he had a surprise for me, and showed me his discovery of this wild mushroom in a place we never expected.  We see so many different types of mushrooms and fungi that it’s hard to identify them all.  They only come up for a day or two and are gone.

Wild Mushroom

But the Woolly Bear caterpillars are everywhere right now! These caterpillars are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, and are seen crossing roads in October.  Folklore says the width of the middle brown band can forecast winter weather.  A wide brown band means it’ll be a cold one…  I’m not sure if this is very wide but it feels like we’ll have a cold winter this year for some reason.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Bucking a Tree and Chain Saw Safety – Part II

October 16th, 2008

The wood cutting theme has continued over the past few days, and between cutting grass and fixing machinery, my bones are feeling the effects.  Good to get the exercise but it’s more of a psychological relief to clean up a couple of downed trees and get the wood ready for winter.  The young boy has been a big help too, but on weekdays we have breakfast together and then I get him off to school before heading outside.  The dogs are company of sorts, but not much help!  There’s so much more that would be nice to do, but you make progress where you can and come to some type of balance with nature’s energy and all the other stuff on the list inside and outside the house.

I was putting on my safety chaps the other day and I got to thinking (yes, it happens sometimes).  I realized that if I’m going to write about cutting firewood and using a chainsaw (see part I here), then I should probably talk about a few safety issues.

Bucking, or cutting up an oak log

While mulling this over and bucking that log pulled out from the pond, I managed to pinch the saw.  Meaning that the chainsaw was stuck in the cut I was making (that’s why it’s sticking out from the log in the picture above).  Those cuts do not go all the way through the log.  They’re about 80% through, then the log is turned, and the final cuts are made to free the sections. Part of the log is under compression because of the slope of the land.

When cutting, you have to watch carefully for movement, be patient and not try to do everything at once.  Sometimes you have to pull the saw out a little faster when you sense or notice changes.  But sometimes the wood pinches the saw very quickly.  If the saw gets hung or stuck, the best thing to do is nothing!  Shut it off, step back and look at the situation.  Better a broken saw than a broken something else.

Log peavey to roll over oak log

In this case, I used a log peavey and rolled the log enough to free the saw blade.   If I had been a little smarter, I would have used the peavey earlier, and shortened the log to prevent such compression and pinching.  But everyone does it their own way.

Oak log cut in rounds

So I’m not going to talk about how to use a chainsaw, since there’s many sites that talk about using one safely.  OSHA has some excellent information about logging operations, and this site shows how to fell a tree using a chainsaw.  And if you read this site, you may never want to try using a chain saw at all:

“If you place your hands on a chain saw, you must keep in mind that it is like grabbing a hand grenade without a pin in it. It is very likely to go off in your face. From the moment that you take it out of storage to the time that it goes back to the same place, you can be hurt by either it, or by whatever you will be cutting.”

“The chain saw is the most dangerous hand tool that can be purchased on the open market. It requires no license and no training to own or operate it. “Most chain saw accidents are preventable. The only answer to reducing these accidents is proper training and knowledge with a lot of time using a saw – which is experience. You can gain experience the hard way and have the scars to prove it or you can do a little preventative reading.” –  Carl Smith, fifth generation logger and chain saw expert.

What I do want to mention involves the basic safety gear.  I strongly believe in the “accidents are preventable” mantra, and reading whatever I can to learn.  A chainsaw is one of those things that takes practice and as cited most folks learn by experience.

The way I see it, using a chainsaw could be a little like driving a motorcycle naked… It gathers your full attention (and everyone elses), you better not make a mistake, and you feel every bump along the way.   And no, I haven’t learned that by experience.

 Chain saw safety gear

I have learned that when using a chainsaw, you need to stay focused and very deliberate or a moment’s inattention can really hurt something.   So what do I do before I start the motor?  I always check to make sure I’m properly dressed, no loose clothing and that I’m phyically prepared for the work. Most importantly, the chainsaw must be in good working condition, with a sharp and correctly fitted chain.    Here’s my safety gear list:

  • Gloves:  Non-slip and cut resistant preferred.  Gloves are important to help grip and avoid the wear and tear, splinters and pinching that happens frequently when cutting wood.  They shouldn’t be too thick because you still need to “feel” the chainsaw properly when using it.
  • Steel-toed Boots:  Essential.  I can’t tell you how many times a large chunk of wood has fallen or rolled on my foot.  Those steel toes are worth every penny, especially if the chainsaw blade hits your toe.
  • Safety Chaps or Bibs:  Also essential.  These fit like leather chaps but are there in case the chainsaw blade slips and cuts toward your leg.  If the chainsaw blade hits the chaps, the material is designed to stop the blade, or at least slow it down greatly. It tangles up the chain blade with some type of fiber, but meanwhile the blade doesn’t cut through into your leg.  I’ve never cut into my chaps before, but sometimes the chainsaw seems close- and I’m glad to be wearing them.
  • Safety glasses:  Also essential.  When you use a chainsaw the wood chips and dust fly everywhere.  Never know if something’s going to hit your eye, so it’s another thing that I’m glad to wear.
  • Hearing protection:  Chainsaws are loud!  Foam earplugs help a lot, but should also be worn with some good “mouse ears” to cover your ears.
  • Hard hat/Integrated face mask:  Depending upon the type of use for your chainsaw, a hard hat and facemask may be necessary.  Branches swing and fall from many directions, and a hard hat can save your life.
  • Log Peavey or Cant Hook:  This tool is like a big hook on a wooden pole.  It is very helpful to move and roll over logs and cut sections.  I think it’s a safety item as well because it allows you to safely roll a larger log, and to brace it for cutting or on slopes.
  • Pre-mixed fuel and chain lubricant:  Chainsaw gas tanks are small, and require frequent filling- which helps keep the saw light when using it.  But plan to have extra fuel on hand so you won’t need to take shortcuts or try to hurry.  Don’t fill the tank when they’re hot!  Needing to refill the tank actually gives you time to catch your breath and take a 15 minute break.  And when you fill the gas tank, you can also top off the chain lubricant which is essential for smooth operation.  Check the chain tension at the same time. Sometimes they work very loose and you don’t even realize it.

One other big point:  Take your time and be aware of your surroundings.  As you go along cutting or delimbing a tree, and work towards “bucking” the larger parts into sections, it’s very easy to have a huge mess of branches and cut logs laying around.  What’s the biggest safety hazard now?   That’s right… your work area.

You may think everything is going just fine, but then you step on a little round branch and your foot goes out from under you.  Don’t want that to happen.  So when you take breaks to fill the gas tank on the saw, use that time to clean up the work area around the place you’ll be cutting.  It’s peace of mind and a good habit to get into.   Otherwise, read and heed the safety intructions for using the chainsaw!

 Moving oak tree rounds in tractor loader bucket

Those are the core essentials for safety…  Did I miss anything else?   Oh… all the cut wood needs to be moved somewhere else right?  You’ll be doing a lot of lifting and a tractor or truck bed helps a lot.  Lift with the legs and not the back ’cause “The job ain’t over ’till it’s over.”   Eventually you’ll have a nice pile of wood ready to split.

Pile of oak tree rounds ready for splitting

Then it’s time for the axe, maul and wedges, or a good hydraulic splitter.    If firewood is an important part of your home heating in winter, then investing in a hydraulic splitter could be helpful.  After using one this year I’ve found it works about four times faster than I can with a maul.  Not only that, it splits the really difficult joints much more easily than possible by hand.  This angle joint was split in half, and then into four good-sized pieces of firewood.

Splitting oak rounds

But the splitter is no picnic either; you still have to lift and position a lot of wood.  You’ll get a good workout either way, but the hydraulic splitter makes it a much faster process.

For now there’s a few other trees that need cut down and cut up. This hickory tree blew over in another windstorm, and it blocks a small area of grass I like to keep cut (actually it’s  on the way to the boy’s secret spot, so I need to do something about it!).  I haven’t decided quite how to “buck” it yet, and the fact that it sits higher makes it a little more dangerous.  Any ideas?

Hickory tree blown over in windstorm

And just so you don’t think I go around cutting up all the trees here’s a couple of other pictures.  This little oak tree is a Mossy Cup or Overcup Oak.  The young boy and I found the acorns under an enormous, very old tree in the county and brought them here to plant on our property two or three years ago.  Two of them sprouted and this little tree is doing well!  Who knows, maybe when the boy grows up he’ll see a beautiful oak tree, or someone else will be sitting under this tree a hundred years from now.

Mossy cup or Overcup oak tree growing from acorn

And at the end of the day it helps to look at the landscape and appreciate the beauty of the living trees around us.  I hope these continue to stand strong and tall for generations to come.

Autumn evening at Fox Haven Pond

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