Lilacs Don’t Last Forever

When Grandma Daisy came to the Farm as a bride in the decade before World War I, she planted lilac bushes. She was the daughter of a Civil War veteran who had homesteaded along the Creek about five miles upstream and new her father-in-law had homesteaded here at about the same time. Although the old farmer liked to garden, he was pretty certain that the lilac bushes wouldn’t grow well. But, she was determined to have lilacs and hauled pails of water during the dry years to keep them alive. And, the bushes did so well that they almost grew into small trees.

She planted several small clusters of lilac bushes that have bloomed every spring since then. The photo on the left shows one clump that has a pretty good crop of the distinctive-smelling flowers this year. But if you go around to the end of the stand, you can see that not all parts are equally healthy. There are some spots that don’t have flowers and in some places there aren’t even any leaves. That’s shown in the photo on the right.

Not all of the lilac bushes have purple blossoms. There’s one that’s all white and it seems to be in pretty good shape this year. However, another cluster barely has any flowers at all. This small, lonely “bouquet” is surrounded by some leaves that seem to be curled. It looks like something isn’t right in this clump.

The largest bunch that Grandma Daisy planted was along the east side of the yard behind the original farmhouse. There is, without question, a part of this line of lilacs that is dying. There are no flowers and the leaves are so thin that you can see right through to the pasture beyond. In other years the green and purple wall was solid. At the south end where there are no leaves, the gnarled and twisted trunks are stark and naked. The lilacs are dead. Can this seasoned old lilac wood be used to make anything useful, other than memories?

At the north end of the line behind the farmhouse, the leaves are so thin that the old outhouse is no longer hidden. After more than a century, the lilacs that Grandma Daisy planted as a young bride are dead and dying. In the photo on the right, there still are plenty of green leaves in this group out along the driveway, but there are no flowers. The bushes are clustered around the base of hackberry trees that are even older. Many of the shrubs and trees planted in the first two generations are gone.

Lilacs are often associated with death and loss. Think about Walt Whitman’s poem commemorating Lincoln’s death, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”. We’ve often used lilacs to decorate family graves for Memorial Day when the season produced a good crop of flowers. But, now it looks like the lilacs themselves are dying.

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End of the Orchard

Many of the old homesteaded farms along Kanaranzi Creek had an orchard. Margaret has relatives living on one about five miles upstream that was originally named Orchard Farm, but I don’t think any of the original trees still survive. That’s pretty much also true on Lone Tree Farm.

This is the only apple tree left in our orchard when it was in full bloom earlier this spring. In this long shot, the box elder tree to the right has plenty of leaves already, but the hackberry to the left still has not yet put out any. The small trees in the middle are chokecherries. The sole surviving apple tree looks pretty good in the closer photo on the right.

Unfortunately, other perspectives on this whitney crabapple tree show that the blossoms aren’t very uniform or thick. The view toward the north end of the old orchard is on the left and the view toward the south end is on the right. It looks like this last apple tree is dying. There were several other varieties bearing fruit when we were kids, including a winter greening and a yellow delicious that we called “sheep nose”. But, all of those old trees are gone.

The buds in the left photo and the spindly trees in the right one are all that remains of the thicket of chokecherries that used to line the eastern edge of the orchard. Like the lilacs, only a few are left. Now the “orchard” has been converted into a paddock for the first cow-calf pairs that are brought in during the early spring.

This apple tree is in the backyard of the old farmhouse and is the last one that one of my uncles gave the Folks. There are lots of dead branches so this may be one of the last seasons that it’ll bear fruit. He had gifted them others, but they’ve lived out their life and like the trees in the old orchard are dead and gone. We think that this is a Cortland apple tree and at least one of the others was probably a wealthy. These are all old varieties. The red blossoms in the photo on the right are part of an ornamental crab that was planted in memory of Mom’s mother. Mom was concerned that it wouldn’t grow and it wouldn’t be a fitting tribute, but it’s done better than some of the other old trees.

We’re approaching a time when there won’t be an apple tree on Lone Tree Farm that’s bearing fruit. The trees planted by the homesteaders in the old orchard are all gone and the trees planted by the grandchildren of the homesteaders are going soon. It will be the end of an era.

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Asparagus for Breakfast

A couple of weeks ago we had asparagus with creamed eggs on toast for a Springtime Sunday morning breakfast. It was the same day that the church we “Zoom” to, had their first service in the sanctuary after a “Sabbath” period of fourteen months. So, this celebration was not only for Spring but also for the progressive dial back on COVID. And, we celebrated with wild asparagus!

Here’s our breakfast plate of celebration. Asparagus grows wild at the Creek and in the ditches along the Stateline. For generations our family has picked these first veggies of early Spring, but there’s always been competition. We get “rustlers” who poach the patches along the gravel road. They come driving delivery trucks, pickups, cars, and all terrain vehicles. Dad used to talk about putting up a sign that said: ”This ditch has been sprayed. Help yourself!” But, he never did. The photo on the right shows how the sprouts vary from clump to clump. The purple tops are from a patch that is between two patches with green tops.

We have fewer problems with asparagus rustlers these days because we have moved the harvest from the road ditch to along the sides of our driveway. The purple-topped plants are marked in the first photo and the neighboring green-topped bunch is shown in the second one. In addition to differences in color, the two bunches have plants of different diameters; the purple ones are fatter and the green ones are more skinny. We didn’t plant these clusters of wild asparagus, but Margaret does clear and maintain them for maximum productivity.

The patch shown in the left photo is her latest expansion. Again, it’s a wild plant that’s established and then she cleans up around it. That encourages it to expand and her systematic picking helps maintain the harvest all spring. This particular patch is located near our house where our two grandsons had a building project. The structure was called “Castle Blue” (named for the blue tarp used for the roof), but it’s gone now and the boys are now teenagers. The photo on the right shows our first meal of fresh asparagus from earlier in the month. The Folks always steamed it, but we’ve also had it pan-fried, oven roasted, and charcoal grilled.

Here’s another Springtime treat that we usually have at about the same time as the asparagus. I’ve heard it called “pie plant” but it’s all rhubarb to us and we generally have jam rather than pie. This is another local food plant that goes back several generations, but is still used and enjoyed today.

Here are two more local editable plants. We don’t do anything with the gooseberries that will eventually grow from the blossoms on the left, but we do know people who enjoy them. On the hand, apples have a long history on this homestead and on many others along Kanaranzi Creek. This old tree is one of the last ones we’ve got and each year the crop is more limited.

And finally, here’s a native prairie plant that provided fruit for both the Euro-American settlers and the Native Americans. These blossoms are on some of the last surviving chokecherry trees on the Farm. Chokecherries aren’t for everybody, but Margaret’s Dad used eat a whole mouth-full at a time. Although we’ve never used them, they can make some damn fine jelly. This blog doesn’t often do product endorsements, but the Red Lake Band of the Chippewa sells some really good chokecherry jelly. They’ve also got great maple syrup and wild rice. You can order online and here’s the link: https://redlakenationfoods.com/ 

Please support this Native American entrepreneurial enterprise. Celebrate Spring!

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Manure, Varmints, and Bugs

One good thing about grazing cattle is that they fertilize as they harvest the grass. When they’re confined in a barn or shed or cattle yard, bedding has to be hauled in and spread around. And then, the manure has to be loaded up and spread out in a field. So the whole process of grazing, feeds the soil as well as feeding the cattle. “The small underground livestock (soil microbes) are fed by the large above ground livestock,” as grazing advocates like to say.

This is a pair of pies from late last season. The pictures were taken earlier this year and about the only thing that’s happened is that they’ve dried out. Not much biologic activity above or below ground during the dormant winter months.

But in the early spring things start to happen. The grass is getting green and varmints are going after bugs. These cow pies have been tipped over by someone looking for something to eat…maybe a skunk or a raccoon or a woodchuck? Down in the pasture, even “varmints” have a job to do that fits into Nature’s overall system. They break up the hard manure and make it easier for the nutrients to be released.

But, homeowners aren’t always enthused about varmints hunting bugs in their yard. These divots in the house lawn are probably dug by the same critters that were flipping pies in the pasture. However, in a manicured lawn we’re encouraged to spray poison to kill the grubs and then shoot the “varmint” who’s trying to dig them up. Seems confusing and counter-intuitive, but it reflects the dominating approach that many people take toward Nature’s systems. 

Here’s some nice fresh manure from this spring grazing season. Varmints aren’t the only ones collecting food from around the cow pies. Birds are busy too, so there’s bird poop on the cow poop in the photo on the left. And, if you look really close you can see the flies on the pie in the right photo.

The flies are really easier to see on this left photo and the right photo shows the results of their work. Flies do cause some animal health issues, but they’re also important in breaking up the manure. Their larvae drill down in to make holes to help release the nutrients that feed the soil microbes. I once did some biologic soil sampling that “demonstrated” the links between big cows and tiny soil microbe communities. I’ll have to share that someday. Grazing cattle are a good example of “recycling” and of the “circular economy” in Nature’s systems.

In the meantime, all this talk about manure reminds of a story that I once heard about a regional poet who used to visit nursing homes in southwestern Minnesota to read his free verse poetry. Although his work was published extensively and regarded highly in academic circles, when a little old lady was asked how she liked the poetry, she said: “Sh*t, sh*t, it’s all sh*t.” And, so is this post! Happy Spring!

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Hattie Shurr: Homesteading Artist

Great-grandma Hattie Shurr was an artist and also one tough woman. She’s the one who wouldn’t go back to “civilization” when the family first arrived with three children under the age of four. They found a rusted stove and the pile of lumber that Great-grandpa John had left on the homestead site earlier in the spring of 1870. He was all for turning around going back, but she resisted. So, they stayed and made a home for their family.

Raising a family that eventually included nine kids and doing all the work that was required to survive on a prairie homestead didn’t leave a lot of time for painting landscapes. But, we think when they retired around 1900 she started turning out sketches and paintings and sharing them with family, friends, and neighbors. This is a bookmark she gave to a neighbor who lived “up the Creek” from the homestead. It’s unique because there’s a picture on both the front and back.

She only did landscapes. At least we don’t have any portraits that we know she did. None of her art is signed or dated. We only know that it’s her work because of the family traditions. That’s why I’m speculating that she did most of the pictures after they retired and moved off the Farm.

In addition, her landscapes all have a civilized and settled look that probably did not come from any area around the Farm. Most look more like upstate New York where she grew up. Makes you wonder what she really thought about the life of a homesteader out in the wide prairie. Maybe she missed the scenes from her childhood?

Almost all of her pictures have trees in them. That would fit with nostalgia for the wooded country back in “civilized” New York. Most of the watercolors and pastel drawings are more light colored and open. The oil paintings tend to be more dark and have an almost foreboding aspect. Maybe not all of her memories of back east are happy ones?

Pastel “crayons” from the early 1900s.

According to our family tradition, this is Great-grandma Hattie’s box of pastels. It’s remarkable that they’ve survived all the generations of curious kids! By the time I got the box it was a “keepsake” so it’s been easier to protect them by simply hiding them from the last couple of generations.

This post again has the benefit of Margaret’s photography and I’m grateful. As I explained last week, I will continue to share the links to this blog on Facebook (in spite of my reservations about their algorithms). If you’d rather have an email notice, you can sign up for one by clicking the “follow” icon in the Word Press post, if you can find it! It shows in the lower right only when you scroll up toward the top. The appearance of the icon seems to be different depending on the age and/or setting on your computer.

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Waiting for Plum Blossoms

The plan originally was to be in Colorado right now visiting family that we haven’t seen in about eight months. That’s why there’s been a gap in this blog recently. However, events intervened and schedules got complicated, so the trip has been postponed for later in the month. There is an upside, though: we’ll be here on the Farm when the wild plums start blooming.

“Mother” plum tree and her “babies” that are hard to see.

Last summer there was a blog post (you can find it here) about “mother trees” on the prairie that included a picture of this “family” with the mother and babies labeled. This spring the mom is in bloom and the little ones have new leaves. So the exclusion fence put up last year did help to protect them. The article posted last July speculated about age structure within the plum thickets and had pictures of the bigger, older trees in the middle and small young ones out at the margins. One of my friends, who had a long career in health care, raised a question about clusters of thickets being “related”. She suggested that some DNA testing would probably tell the story, but I don’t know how much that would cost. 

However, maybe the blossoms would come out at different times and that might reflect “families”? So, last week I walked through the main complex of plum thickets and took some photos of blossoms in different individual clumps and in different parts of single thickets. As you can see from this pair of pictures, the differences seem pretty subtle, but they do look real. The post last year also generated some discussions with people involved in prairie restoration projects. That included comments about how plum thickets could be “regenerated” and encouraged to expand by using fire or trimming to boost new growth. However, there was also some discussion of limiting the spread of plum thickets or even eliminating them completely to allow native prairie grasses to expand.

Here’s another pair of pictures from different thickets. Maybe the differences are even more subtle than in the previous pair? The discussions with prairie “enthusiasts” (and yes, there really are people who get excited abut the prairie!) also raised an issue about why wild plums are important components of prairie landscapes. One person pointed out that their blossoms early in the season are significant for pollinators like bees and butterflies. Another wondered if the roots of plum trees pulled up moisture and nutrients from the deep subsoil that could assist other plants. The roots also help to stabilize eroding banks along a stream and the thickets provide food and cover for wildlife. And, then of course there are the things that are important for humans like wild plum jam or jelly and shade for livestock.

Margaret took these photos and the next pair, the day after we had 90-degree temperatures this past weekend. The blossom photos earlier in this post were from several days before that. The flowers really opened a lot in the heat and there are differences visible within and between thickets. The photo on the left shows a single thicket that’s fairly uniform. The photo on the right has some areas where the blossoms don’t show so thick and white. Do those areas separate different “family units” with different mother trees within the thicket?

Differences within a big thicket are shown even better in this photo on the left. And, the one on the right shows an isolated thicket that doesn’t have the extensive flowers that are in the very first of Margaret’s pictures. (She’s got a good eye for composition and her photo records are much better than my attempts were! It’s really hard to catch the subtle differences.) Of course, the differences in blossoming could be due to differences in moisture or topography or soil or access to sunshine. BUT, maybe the blossoms are marking or distinguishing unique family groups clustered around individual mother trees. This speculation about matriarchs and their broods does risk putting an anthropomorphic spin on the interpretations, but it also makes a pretty cool story. And, it could all be tested with specific observations, if there were any incentive to spend the money.

This morning there was the threat of a cold and wet wind that could damage the blossoms. The last several mornings, temperatures have been at or below freezing. It’s happened other years. A late frost or other wintery weather can mess up our plans to make plum jelly, but the thickets continue to survive. There are stories in our family about people coming out from town to pick plums back before the turn of the twentieth century. So, these wild plum thickets have lived here on the banks of Kanaranzi Creek for many generations. With or without the nurturing mother trees, hopefully the thickets will continue to survive and thrive.

I plan to continue sharing the link to this blog on Facebook, but I’m never clear on who sees it or when. Facebook’s protocols and priorities are mysterious (or scary?). So, if you want to get an email notice when there’s a new post about Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek, you can do that by clicking the “Follow” icon. The only trouble is: it’s really hard to find! There’s a bar menu that’s displayed in the lower right, but only when you scroll up toward the top of the page. AND, you have to click the three dots at the end of this bar in order to find the “Follow” option. Good luck if you really want to follow the blog, in spite of the confusion provided by Facebook and WordPress. As always, weekly posts will alternate between natural history/science and human history/archaeology.

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Oxbow Evolution

We had a rain event last week that gave us about one and three quarter inches over three days and it brought up water levels in the Creek. Although the water in the channel was about a foot and a half higher than it was last fall, it dropped back lower in another couple of days. Last year was dry compared to the two previous years; even the ground water table has gotten lower. So, the habitats for plants and animals have really changed a lot from the record wet years in 2018 and 2019; even last spring there was still water in the oxbow.

When a channel meander broke through back in 2014, the cutoff formed an oxbow that’s been a busy place. When the habitat changed from open channel to wetland and pond, the plants and animals adjusted accordingly. Now, the wetland and pond are totally dry and the higher Creek levels didn’t even help. The water would have to be about three feet higher in order to flood into the oxbow and restore the wetland and pond. So, the changes from channel to wetland/pond have now progressed to mud flats and grassed areas.

The oxbow has a series of specific parts that we’re going to tour through to show the latest changes. The “upstream plug” is sediment deposited when water from the channel flows into the meander. It’s gotten to be so high that plants have established a footing. Last year’s brown grass now extends across the mouth of the oxbow and this season’s new green vegetation is starting to grow out into the mud flat. Looking the other direction into the wetland, it’s all dried up wetland bottom with mud cracks where there used to be water. The area of brown grass in the middle was an “island” last year and this is the area where rare cricket frogs and Topeka Shiners hung out. There’s no place for them this year unless water levels come up a lot and the oxbow is flooded again.

The pond at the north end is usually relatively isolated from the wetland to the south, but not now. What was once under water is now all black and cracked mud. The slight line in the mud right below the brown vegetation marks a former water level in the pond. It held water later than the wetland last fall because the pond tapped into a groundwater aquifer and that supported the higher water levels longer. The yellow arrows point to dead clams/bivalves that lived along the edge of the pond. That photo also shows a close up of the desiccation cracks that form when the mud dries out. Things have changed a lot in the old pond basin.

Originally the pond was connected to the main part of the Creek through a “tie channel” that let water in or out depending on the relative levels in the pond and main channel. But, not these days! Last year, grass totally took over and this season’s new green grass is already established where there once was water. Closer to the main channel, the “downstream plug” is completely grassed over, but it does have a small grove eroded when the water was slightly higher. However, like the upstream plug this pile of sediment at the downstream end of the oxbow has grown high enough to make it hard to get water in to or out of the abandoned meander. Once the vegetation is established, it acts as a baffle that slows down any channel water that comes in. That means the dirt carried by the water will be deposited and the oxbow will become even more isolated from the water in the main channel.

The state and federal agencies that have been monitoring landscape changes, fish, and frogs will probably not be doing much in the oxbow this year. The habitats have adjusted from open channel to wetland and pond to dry grassed areas. In a similar way, the human institutions have changed too. The agency that oversees the measurement of stream conditions (including my observations at the Stateline Bridge) in Minnesota is understaffed, so the start of this year’s season of citizen monitoring will be delayed. Change happens.

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Landmark Legends

When our homesteading family built their first home (a log-lined dugout in the side of a hill) in the nineteenth century 150 years ago, it was located near a big old tree that stood alone on the prairie. That “Lone Tree” gave the Farm its name and is an important part of our family tradition. But, that tree also seemed to provide subject material for local journalists and historians who were subsequently weaving the American “Legend” during the twentieth century.

A friend recently shared an article from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that she found while doing research for the Rock County Historical Society. It includes this picture of my grandpa (namesake) standing in front of the Lone Tree. The article also describes the fall of the old dead tree and outlines several of the myths surrounding it. The date on the Sioux Falls newspaper article is September 3, 1930; the local Ellsworth News, which could provide more specific details, had the exact time as a Tuesday noon at 12:10. “The ‘Lone Tree,’ long a familiar object and landmark on the landscape of Kanaranzi township, has surrendered to the ravages of time and crashed into the Kanaranzi Creek from its site on the south bank of the stream. The tree—a majestic cottonwood—stood alone on the Minnesota side of the Iowa-Minnesota state line. The crash brought the George Shurr family from the dinner table and they found the big tree shattered into hundreds of pieces and scattered in the stream over which it had stood so majestically for more than 100 years.” Dad confirmed that the family actually did hear the noise.

View from the north, circa 1910.

The newspaper accounts are rooted in the language of the standard American Mythology and actually add to the foundations of the legend. “The lone tree has had its mark in history. Fifty years ago when the first settlers pioneers trekked into the wilds of southwestern Minnesota, this gnarled giant cottonwood stood on the bank of the then broad stream known as the Kanaranzi creek. No other trees dotted these virgin prairies and for a distance of from five to ten miles in every direction the lone tree loomed as a guide post to all incoming settlers.” Our family matriarch, who had emigrated from Wales as a child, did an oil painting of this view of the Lone Tree sometime in the 1920s.

View from the west in 1922.

In addition to settlers, all of the characters that are usually part of the standard  “textbook histories” are mentioned in the articles. That includes Indians: “In its shade was buried an early trapper; within its scope of view the prairie wilderness has passed from the hunting grounds of the Indians into the grasp of civilization and progress.” The tree supposedly had bullets embedded when Indians killed the trapper. The narratives also include outlaws: “Local historians claim the lone tree sheltered the notorious Jesse and Frank James and the Younger brothers in the days following the now famous Northfield bank robbery.” This photo of the Lone Tree was used to do an oil painting in 1978 by a family friend who emigrated from China by way of Viet Nam.

View from the east in 1928.

One of the stories written by E. E. Lovrien, who was the editor of the Ellsworth News, described a unique interaction between settlers and Indians. In contrast with the standard narratives, there was cooperation instead of fighting: “Once again, within the shadow of the Lone Tree a number of pioneer settlers came across a huge elk, dropping from shear exhaustion. They struck him a blow on the head and had hardly cut his throat when a Winnebago Indian came up. The Winnebago stated his case quickly and right to the point. The elk originally had been the game of a Sioux, who had gone for a companion. The Winnebago had stepped in and pursued the elk for a day and a night. He was now in enemy territory and the white men were welcome to the meat if they would only give him the head. He was given the trophy and lost no time in leaving the land of the Sioux behind him.” A fictionalized version of this story is included in the Ellsworth Centennial Volume and was probably written by George P. Heikes.

View from the south in 1930.

It was a big tree and it was apparently a “famous” tree, but in the end it died and fell into the Creek: “Split from top to bottom in its crash from the upper bank, the tree in death disclosed what was never suspected by anyone familiar with its history. Instead of being only one tree its wreck discloses it was a joint tree formed by the intergrowth of two separate seeds. Five feet in diameter at its base, it was supported by side roots measuring a foot across. Two years ago the passing of this monster tree was indicated when leaves and shoots failed to put forth and during these two years it has stood a grim caricature of its former greatness.” The still-standing dead tree is shown in the previous photo from 1928.

There’s a children’s book called “The Tree on the Trail” by Holling C. Holling that tells a story that’s very similar to our Lone Tree, except that it’s located in Kansas. Written in 1942, this book lays out all of the elements of the American Myth in a way that’s very much like the newspaper accounts of our Lone Tree written a few years earlier. These views through the prism of the dominant white culture all conform to the basic assumptions that underlie the great American Myth. That includes the old accounts of the Lone Tree that named our family farm.

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Big Birds Along the Creek

They aren’t yellow and they’re not as big as Big Bird on Sesame Street, but eagles and Canadian Geese are both big birds for the prairie! Most of the birds returning this spring are much smaller and most are very noisy like the geese. However, we do hear an eagle call occasionally.

Margaret took this photo earlier this winter when we first started seeing a lot of eagles. That included several days when we had “double eagles” (a.k.a. two eagles in one tree); during the first ten days of December, we had 13 sightings. It seemed like they’d fly northeast up the Creek in the morning and come back down the Creek in the afternoon. They were probably headed back downstream to permanent nesting areas along the Rock River. Sometimes they’d stop in our big old cottonwood tree and as the warm winter got closer to springtime, we started seeing them a lot more often.

March must be good for eagles! There are many online “eagle cams” watching eggs and tracking specific individuals. Search Google for one near you. I had a friend recommend the Raptor Resource Project near Decorah, Iowa, and this route map is an example of their work. They’ve tracked birds for some pretty impressive distances along the Mississippi and points north. It shows that the banded birds like to follow big streams and that matches our eagles’ behavior along the much smaller Kanaranzi Creek.

This bar graph shows our eagle sightings along the Creek since the first of the year. It was slow and steady from January 1 to March 1 because we had 16 sightings over the 60-day period. Then on March 4 and 5 there were 10 separate “sightings”! That included two times when there were four of them in the Eagle Tree…two adults and two immature ones without white heads and tails. Then there was a conspicuous dry spell with only a couple of sightings. That’s when the geese took over the pasture.

When the geese moved in and started shopping for nesting sites, things got really noisy. That happens pretty much every year, but I wonder if the racket drove the eagles away this year? I suppose goose eggs might be eagle food, but it’ll probably be awhile before that delicacy is available. In the meantime, could the adult geese be prey for eagles? They’re both big birds. I would think that the eagles might prefer to have a dead goose carcass for lunch rather than tackle a big old mad, live goose!

Here’s a picture of lunch counter for eagles and coyotes (and maybe mountain lions?). This hog barn is built on the site of an old homestead near where Dad and his sister went to country school back in the 1920s. That farmer was reported to have a stuffed eagle sitting on the piano in his parlor. The bird was shot when it was supposedly stealing chickens. Since this hog barn was built about ten years ago, both coyotes and eagles have helped to clean up the piles of dead pigs before the rendering truck makes it’s rounds hauling off the bodies.

Over the years, eagles have survived the threat of getting shot as chicken thieves. But in the 1950s and 1960s, populations dropped off dramatically because DDT made their eggshells fragile. By the early 2000s the ban on DDT had allowed eagle populations to recover and in the last decade or so it has grown significantly. There is, however, a new threat. A neurological disease associated with bacteria on an invasive aquatic weed is killing eagles and other birds. So, the challenges that eagles have experienced have evolved from being physically shot to being poisoned by chemical contaminants to being infected by a microbial menace. We’re really lucky to be able to see any of these iconic birds flying along the Creek and stopping for a rest in the big cottonwood tree.

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Visitation

Last week on the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, it was crisp and clear but warm enough for me to have coffee on the porch. One nice thing about a taste of spring….no bugs yet. So I’m sitting in a daze that caffeine hasn’t yet cured, when all of a sudden I hear this deep-throated snarl! I thought at first that it might be farm machinery off on some neighbor’s farmyard. It sorta sounded like metal getting dragged over concrete or rubbing against other metal.

Then I heard the scream! I’ve heard an otherwise voiceless rabbit, scream in fear or pain and I found examples on You Tube to help confirm the idea. After that brief and piercing scream the deep base growl continued for what seemed like a long time. Did it also seem like it was a contented growl? Did I just hear a mountain lion kill a rabbit right below the bluff beyond our backyard? Now, I’m in full “adventure” mode!

Mountain lion tracks along the Rock River.

Over the years there have been lots of reports of mountain lion sightings in our general area. Usually it’s in the next county and usually there aren’t very many trail cam photos. But, several years ago one of our neighbors found these tracks along the Rock River about three miles west of our place. They look pretty authentic to me and they are probably the most direct evidence that we have had of a mountain lion fairly close to the Farm…. until the morning after St. Patrick’s Day!

I reported my suspicions to Margaret at breakfast but she didn’t seem too concerned about my plans to go looking for evidence of the kill. Old guys need something to occupy their retirement days, after all. So, I went off looking for distinctive tracks or some dramatic spread of crimson snow that might mark the kill site. I also thought about the new calves that were cavorting around a paddock near our house and recalled the stories about pets at risk from mountain lions in Colorado. Remember that witch’s line from The Wizard of Oz “….and your little dog too”?

Well, I did find some tracks but they were probably made by a coyote or a raccoon. The only red thing that I saw was a piece of wild plum wood in the Creek that had been stripped of the bark by a beaver. No bloody snow with gray rabbit fur spread around. So, there wasn’t much direct support for my mountain lion speculation.

I don’t mind losing a few bunnies. They’re usually busy grazing on our landscape plants and pooping on the porch all winter. In fact, that’s one reason I like to have coyotes along the Kanaranzi Creek: they help to control the varmint population. Contrary to popular misconceptions, coyotes don’t pose much of a direct risk to calves. Here’s a link to a blog post by a prairie ecologist in Nebraska that describes all the good things that coyotes can do.

Coyotes and mountain lions are pretty much at the pinnacle of the predator “pecking order”. I know that we routinely have coyotes in the Creek pasture, but if it was a coyote growling that I heard on the porch the morning after St. Patrick’s Day, it was a BFC…. A Big Fricking Coyote!

Sunset over the State Line on the vernal equinox.

And, there’s one final thing to point out. This “visitation” was just a few days before the vernal equinox, the astronomical first day of spring. There are a lot of folklore traditions that say strange things happen around this time of change. For example the east-facing headstones in the cemetery on the hill two miles west of the Farm, light up with bright sunrise reflections on the mornings around the first day of spring. And, the sun sets exactly where the State Line crosses that hilltop because it’s due west of us. Margaret caught this photo at precisely the right time and it’s emblematic of all of the “magic” that’s intrinsic in Nature this time of year.

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