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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.

Pond Ice and Green Thoughts

February 3rd, 2009

Too busy catching up on projects and activities over the weekend.  Ah, but that’s good right?  The weather can’t make up it’s mind however, swinging from cold to warm days and back again.  I think tonight the low will be around 7 degrees F, but in a couple of days the high will reach well above 50 degrees.  Just maybe this is the last really cold spell for the winter?  The ice will probably be gone in a week or so.  I’ve started making the rounds and pruning a few more trees- and it’s time to prune the apple trees too.  That’ll be a project for this weekend, along with the garden if we have time.

The snow melted off most areas around the property, but the pond is still frozen over.  I was never quite confident enough to walk on the ice beyond the really shallow corners.  I did see some folks ice fishing on a few smaller ponds in the local area.  Our pond is mostly filled from the watershed, with many warmer spots where the groundwater runs off the property- hence the ice along some of the shoreline areas is far too unstable.

I’m not sure if these cracks in the ice go all the way through, but I’m not walking out there to check either!  The snow has melted off, but the ice has gone through several freeze and thaw cycles.

Cracks in pond ice

Here’s where one of the circles in the ice has thawed, with cracks branching out.   The stump was from a hundred year old oak tree that had a rope swing on it from two decades ago.  The tree eventually died and woodpeckers tore it all apart.   I wonder how long it will last…

Hole in the pond ice

It’s not all ice, snow, brown and gray…  I found my little Shortleaf Pine tree the other day- actually there’s two of them.  They were the only two that survived after planting a couple dozen seedlings two years ago.  But this one is doing great, and has started developing branches.  

Shortleaf Pine

Naturally I picked a drought year to attempt planting those seedlings in the spring of 2007.   If I had done the same last year the survival rate would have been much higher.   But I’ve ordered more native plants again- especially smaller shrubs and trees that help local wildlife such as sumac, buttonbush, elderberry, etc.  (I love having elderberry plants around- they’re great for sauce and jelly during the late summer’s harvest!).   The plants will arrive in March or April, and I’ll spend a week or two trying to figure out where to put the seedlings.

I really appreciate Missouri’s State Forest Nursery and the fact that they make native plants available at very fair prices.  It’s almost too easy these days to choose landscaping plants that really don’t belong in many regions across the country.  We may see a plant or shrub we really like but without realizing it we end up spreading invasive species that detract from the biodiversity of the native environment.    I do appreciate new plants and beautiful landscaping, but at least for the fields and forests in Missouri’s rural areas I hope to foster a more natural approach with native plants.  It makes you wonder though- we’ve got non-native Autumnberry trees around that are very invasive, and yet they’ve been here for about a hundred years now.  I’ve got a bunch of them I need to cut back and remove, but at least the Autumnberry fruit is edible and can make decent jelly too.

Snowy Landscapes

January 29th, 2009

What a snowfall we got the other day.  Our thoughts are with all those folks struggling to get their lives back together after the ice storms this week.  Thankfully we only received the white stuff- about 6-8 inches worth.    The kids were out of school for a couple of days, and we enjoyed a chance to spend some time together.     

The Shiba Inu loves to run around in the snow, and has a coat so thick he would be just fine outside all the time.    He’s running through the garden here and likes to look for rabbits and moles. 

Shiba Inu in winter

Speaking of the garden, it’s pretty sad looking.  I’m embarrassed to show how we’ve barely cleaned up last year’s growth.  The next warm spell we get I’m going to head out and clean it up, and topdress the rows with leaves.  It’s time… I’m already imagining tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, peas…

Garden bare in winter

I keep telling myself spring isn’t far off, especially while plowing the gravel drive.  I took half the snow off, but it’s still a few inches deep.  I don’t want to plow too closely or I would scrape away the packed gravel base.  We park one of the cars near the road during snowstorms because it doesn’t drive very well down and up the snow-covered slope.  Hopefully some of this will melt off today.

Plowing snow on gravel drive

But I just love how the landscape looks when covered in snow.  Maybe it even keeps the bees a little warmer?  Who knows, but in about a month it will be time for the queen bee to start producing a lot more baby bees.  Oh, if you’re wondering- the beehives are black looking because I wrapped them with black-painted insulation for warmth. 

Some people debate whether you should wrap hives in winter in the midwest.  Some believe it makes them too warm and hence they could be more active and eat more their winter stores of honey.  I like to think it helps them stay warmer, using less of their own metabolic energy to stay warm comparatively, and hence eating less of their stored honey over time.  I’m sure there are a lot more opinions and research out there… I’m a new beekeeper and still learning.  But this winter has been colder than normal for us, and I’m glad I wrapped them up. Hopefully they make it to late winter when I’ll start feeding and the cycle will begin again.

Winter landscape and bee hives

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.

Running Through Bluestem

January 17th, 2009

Well the blast of colder weather is giving way to normal winter temps.  I love being outside and training with a little snowfall on the ground.  There was a couple hours of flurries, just enough to brighten the landscape.  It looked like a big snowstorm was coming, but after a while the snow dwindled to tiny flakes again.  The Little Bluestem around the field really brightens the view. 

Falling snow across field of Little Bluestem

The Bluestem also makes for great hiding places.  Yesterday I went out for some training with the yellow lab- it was a cold, breezy 11 degrees F, but he had a grand time, and I did too. He’s been cooped up inside (with the rest of us!) for too long,  and was getting antsy.   They’re such strong, muscular animals that they really need exercise, and he loves running in the field. 

Yellow Labrador Retriever training in winter field

 The orange colored “dummies” I throw for him are difficult to find sometimes, but he has an amazing ability to figure out where they are even if I don’t help direct him.  Sometimes I’ll have him sit at the edge of the field while I meander through it, dropping training dummies in various places so that he doesn’t see.  Then I’ll come back and send him off in one direction to look for them- he’ll start a search pattern like he’s running in the above picture, and use his nose to find them.  We are not at the point where he will follow my hand signals, but he will come back towards me with a certain whistle, and then head out again on command. Eventually he finds them all.  The big pup runs back with such enthusiasm! 

 2-year old Yellow Lab retrieving

Today is bright and sunny, and my younger brother is in town.  He came back from the middle east last month, and has taken time to see the family members- he looks really good! 

Frozen Ice Circles on the Pond

January 15th, 2009

The cold has arrived, waking this morning to sub-zero temperatures.  Our friends to the north must really be in the grip of this Arctic blast of air- we don’t usually see it this cold in winter.  The kids are totally bundled up for school, and don’t get to play outside in this weather.  Because of the wind chill, quite a few school districts have cancelled classes today.   This makes 20-30 degrees F seem almost balmy by comparison!  I remember as a kid we used to play outside in the snow all day long no matter how cold it was.  If we got a little wet, we’d come in for a change of clothes and some hot chocolate- but then right back outside!  We even went snow camping and backpacking in winter when I was in high school.   I spent some time flying around the Alaskan peninsula in winter years ago too.  That was really cold- we’d wear special suits in case something happened, but to most folks up there this is just a way of life. 

The pond ice has been interesting this week- it almost looks like we’ve had alien visitors making circles in the ice.  I’ve wondered before about why these circles form- any guesses?  Only thing I can think of is that there are warmer upwelling currents of water somehow.    This first picture was from yesterday afternoon.

Frozen circles in the pond ice

This morning they are even more frozen looking, and wider in many areas.  While I was gazing at the pond I heard several sharp hollow sounding expansion noises from the ice- “k-k-eeowp!” is the closest I can think of for how it sounded, but I was amazed how loud they were. I imagine the folks way up north and along the Great Lakes hear such noises all the time.

Ice circles frozen in the pond

I can’t help but wonder how the plants, trees and bees will do in this cold?  It’s part of nature’s cycle to be sure, and if we’re lucky- maybe some of those ticks and chiggers won’t hatch next year!?  I tried to help the bees out last week by putting a foam insulated sheet just under the lid, but above the inner cover.  I cut a hole in it for ventilation- but I had noticed a little moisture under the top wood/metal cover, and moisture is not good for bees.  The bees are so snuggly warm inside their hive that condensation can form just under the top wood/metal cover due to much colder outside air.  Hopefully with a little extra insulation on top of their hive, there won’t be such a cold/warm contrast at the top, and it will prevent condensation from taking place.

Spent some time in the barn this morning and got a fire going just to see how it would affect the inside temperatures.  The outdoor air was around 0-5 degrees F, and after a couple hours the barn showed just above 32 degrees inside.   Still kind of chilly- the stove would probably have to run all day to make much difference, especially since it’s just a metal, uninsulated building.  So I’ll just use it during those times when the outdoor temperature is between about 25 degrees and 40 degrees- and then the stove should warm up the inside of the barn nicely. I hope you are staying warm!

On a personal note, I didn’t write yesterday but it was my Dad’s birthday- he passed away four years ago and I seem to think of these special days more now than I ever did before.  We had a lovely dinner with the young boy’s “Memaw” to celebrate the day, and it was a lot of fun. 

Painting the Pond

December 28th, 2008

These last few days have been uncharacteristically warm… and wet.  So much of the midwest has shifted from frozen to heavy rain, and people are worried about flooding again. I hope it’s not as bad as last year for so many folks.  The pond is so full it’s pouring out the spillway- something it usually does only in late spring.  The warmer, heavy rain coming into the pond from the watershed brought muddy discoloration from the runoff.  It mixed slowly throughout the day, and there was a sharp angle to the two types of mixing water.  Could that be because of different temperatures?  The pond had just barely thawed from being frozen the day before.  It looked interesting, whatever the reason- and I don’t think I’ve seen it quite like that before.   It only lasted for the day and is gone now.

Rainfall mixing into the pond in winter

After last night it looks like the rain has finally stopped and we should have a few nice days of sunny weather to dry out.   And the good news with all the rain is that the roof doesn’t leak with the new wood stove chimney.  Yipee!   The bad news is that we had so much rain that it leaked around the outside of the barn and into the front entrance getting the floor wet.  Boo!  Glad I raised the woodstove on bricks. I think I’ll need to grade the soil lower around the barn when it gets a little warmer to help keep the water from coming in off the hillsides.

It was so warm on Friday that I saw a few bees milling about outside the hives- although it was windy and they were getting blown about quite a bit.  While carrying wood to the house, I found one clinging to a small piece of wood.  We carried it back to one of the hives.  Maybe they’ll have a chance to stretch their wings a bit more this week.

Christmas was very nice, and gave us a chance to visit with family.  One of the family members is just 3 years old, and is the center of attention.  Our young one is about five years older, and gave the little one a prized “stick horse” riding pony, complete with “neighing” sounds when you press its ear.  The smile on the 3-year olds face was priceless… he “rode” it around the room, and when they left, kept it hugged tightly to his chest on the way out.  It’s nice to see joy on the face of a child.

The Days Grow Shorter

December 11th, 2008

I’ve been wondering where the day has gone of late.  Sometimes we really get warmed up with a few things and the next thing you know it’s already late afternoon, with the sun fading quickly, beautifully, behind the trees. 

Sunset in December in Missouri

It’s just that time of year of course, but it feels like the day goes so fast.  I guess they do really, and we’re getting close to the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere. Today we’ll have nine hours and fifty-one minutes of official daylight.  I do love the holiday season, but I must say I look forward to the days getting a little longer again too.

Cold, Icy and… Birdy?

December 5th, 2008

I’ve never seen the pond frozen this early in December before.  January and February are the coldest months for us, but waking up to about 16 degrees this morning was downright chilly.  The jet stream is so far south that we’re getting a good bit of that Canadian air this month.  There’s a reason I don’t live in Canada in the winter… I can only imagine how much colder it is up there!

Ice on the pond in December

So there I am, after the morning routine and getting the boy off to school, finally sitting down with a cup of coffee.  My reverie was short-lived, nearly spilling the coffee all over myself after a loud “Whump!” on the window behind me.  I looked out to see a dazed female Cardinal sitting below the window, her head slowly nodding with eyes closed.   I hoped she was not permanently injured, but I also knew she would either die by a) freezing to death after going into shock from the impact in such cold weather, or b) become breakfast for our wandering cat Princess.

So out I go, picking her up and taking her to the porch which was a little warmer at 40 degrees.  I set her down in the sunshine and left her alone for an hour, head still nodding with eyes closed.  But it’s the season for miracles and when I came back later she was alert and eyeing me suspiciously. 

 Female Cardinal

I figured she’d be okay then but went to pick her up and make sure… Zoom!  around the room she goes.  She wasn’t quite ready to acquiesce to such human manhandling.  But after a few flutterings at the window and much pecking at me with that orange beak I finally had her, and took her out to the bird feeder where she promptly flew off to a nearby tree.   I imagine she’ll have a sore neck for a few days, but hopefully she’ll make it.

It’s a too common theme at this time of year with birds flying into windows.  There was another Cardinal in the House one time, but it was a he, near-death, and after spending a night with us, he surprised me by his resilience.  I was even more surprised writing about Nuthatch Nuttiness…  somehow the outdoor world, birds and flying has always been part of my life.  I even worked at the World Bird Sanctuary for a time in my youth, helping to rehabilitate raptors. But that’s another story.

Moments in Autumn, at Dawn

November 16th, 2008

We’ve settled in to that late autumn weather pattern with cold nights and mild days.  Which means gathering wood and sitting around a warm fire on those chilly evenings.   I always feel like this is my favorite season, and I’m not sure why.  All the seasons are wonderful, but there’s something about a crisp fall day that I just love.  The run of holidays and special times that brings promise and hope, or maybe the lead in to a new year. But it’s more than that.

I’m finally feeling human again, and made it outside for a bit this morning to join the ritual of the fall hunt.  It was a quiet, blue sky dawn, just below freezing with the wind rustling gently through the trees.  A few birds darted here and there, and the gray squirrels chased each other, prancing about in the trees.  And then, about 200 yards off, my heart quickened as I saw the breakup of tawny brown feet moving slowly between the trees.  It disappeared for a short time, only to reappear farther off, and there against the backdrop of sky I saw, for a moment, the shadowed silhouette of a majestic buck standing tall against the light of dawn.  It moved off with a determined pace in search of a doe, and I wished it well…  

Missouri oak hickory forest in November

Well, I also wished it would come back towards where I was…  But it was not to be and I enjoyed another hour of a peaceful morning in the forest.   It was a moment of joy, of excitement, of peace, of beauty.   And that for me is the greater part of the autumn season.  It doesn’t matter whether I succeed or not, because I’m already part of the day, part of the whole, and where I want to be.  Eventually, if I am lucky or determined enough, or perhaps both, I may also join the harvest and have meat in the freezer for the winter. 

Do you have a favorite season?   Or some part of the season that awakens something within?  Of course to have a favorite season means you are somewhat familiar with the seasons themselves, either far enough north or south in the world’s hemispheres to experience such change.  Many prefer to live where it’s warmer or moderate all year round, and the seasons are marked more by the school year or the type of sports or festivals taking place.  Maybe the “rainy season” is the biggest change for the year?   

For now I need the seasons in my life; to feel the changes taking place, and experience the dramatic swings in temperature, plant growth, cloud and snow.  This morning I felt so alive as my fingers and cheeks grew cold, the squirrels danced, and the light shimmered through the trees.  I hope I always feel that way.

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