Natural events, June 2016

Mentioned this month: a few flowers, desperate dryness, garlic galore, reptile reproduction, interesting insects, cup plant critters, and fantastic &*#! foxes.

jun_natural_flowersLeft to right: Heartleaf Skullcap (Scutellaria ovata), Ohio horsement (Blephilia ciliata), and Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis).

jun_natural_dry_stream

Weather recap: June was dry, very dry. Our stream demonstrated the extent of the incipient drought, with small remnant pools full of minnows.Things were looking pretty dire on the hot, dry afternoon of June 19, as we’d received 0.15″ of rain total in the prior 23 days; the vegetation was turning crispy, the mud cracks were growing, the landscape was starting to look yellow, and we were deeply worried about repeating the nasty summer of 2012. However, 1.5″ of soaking rain over the next couple of days alleviated immediate concerns. Still, June ended with a total tally of only 1.92″ for the month, leaving the landscape thirsty for more (and oh, did we get it, but the July 2-3 rain that delivered more than the total of May & June combined is a story for next month).

june_natural_fieldHere’s a view of the main vegetable field. We’ve scaled back on the amount of ground in production from our peak a couple of years ago, but there’s still plenty to keep us busy. The foreground shows Trinidad Perfume peppers that we’re growing as a seed crop for Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Other seed crops include cowpeas and beans growing on trellises in the background.

jun_natural_garlicGarlic is still a big crop for us, and we’ll be marketing it again at World Harvest Foods in south Columbia. We’re pleased with the quality of this year’s crop, which comes as a great relief after the abnormally warm winter and early spring. The softneck varieties produced some especially big heads this year. The hardnecks were middle-of-the-road in terms of size, but the quality appears to be excellent. Last year, the torrential June rains meant that harvest was a mess; pulling mud-caked heads out of soggy ground under rot-inducing conditions was no fun. So we’re thankful for the good harvest conditions that resulted from this year’s dry June. Many cart loads and much sorting later, all of the garlic is in and hanging. Hooray. After a few weeks of curing, we expect to start selling by end of July or early August.jun_natural_reptile_nestsJune is a big month for reptilian egg laying. We found some small eggs, probably from a Northern Fence Lizard, in one of our compost piles. I covered them over and put a stake in nearby so we wouldn’t disturb them. They were still there a couple weeks later when I came back with the camera to check on them. I also came across some Five-lined Skink eggs (not pictured) along irrigation drip tape, right where the water comes out. Skink and lizard eggs look similar, but mother skink tends her eggs, while fence lizards do not, so the presence or absence of an adult is a pretty good ID clue.

Just like last year, we were thrilled to observe a Three-toed Box Turtle nesting in our field. On the evening of June 27, as we were weeding the parsnips, Eric found a mother turtle excavating a nest. It was already getting kind of dark, so I didn’t run to grab the camera, but the June 2015 natural events post has photos of the process, which unfolded on a similar time frame. I did get to see 5 eggs drop into the hole, starting around 9:05 p.m. Each egg pops out over the course of only a few of seconds, with a between-egg interval of about a minute. The mosquitoes and darkness finally chased me away. The photo on the right shows the nest the next morning. (Note: We didn’t weed in the immediate vicinity of the nest.)

jun_natural_insectsInsects are diverse and active in June. Clockwise from upper left: Widow Skimmer (female), unidentified bee, unidentified fly, some kind of long-horned beetle (Family Cerambycidae). Center: Firefly. They put on a great show in June, but they’re hard to photograph!

jun_natural_cupplantCup Plant: The ecosystem The next four photo panels all feature the Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a native perennial that grows quite tall and has leaves that hold water along the stem, thus the name. When I took these photos on June 18, we hadn’t had any rain in about two weeks, having tallied 0.02 on June 4. Yet there was still water in the cup, suggesting that the leaves serve as dew collectors. jun_natural_cupplant_insectsVarious insects were active on the plant, including (left) the Four-lined Plant Bug (Poecilocapsus lineatus) and (middle) a leafhopper, probably the Red-banded Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea). On the right: an unidentified ant on the Cup Plant’s square stem.jun_natural_cupplant_insect_signVarious signs of insects were also present, including the leaf mine on the left and the feeding scars from the Four-lined Plant Bug on the right. jun_natural_cupplant_buntingInterestingly, the water seems to be a bit treacherous for insects feeding on the plant. Is this pure accident, or a strategy to lure in predators that might eat the plant’s pests? I don’t know, but I’ve read that various birds will make use of the water to drink or bathe in, so we set up a remote camera to monitor activity. Unfortunately, wind yielded a bunch of junk photos of moving leaves, and rain meant that water was no longer quite so scarce. The only bird the camera documented was this female Indigo Bunting, and it isn’t clear whether she just happened to land there or whether the water was a draw. Regardless, Cup Plant is a neat plant, and one that will be flowering soon with showy yellow blossoms. However, when it finds a spot it likes, it can be a bit aggressive, so think twice before allowing it into a maintained vegetable garden!

jun_natural_fox
Not all news from June was good. We lost our entire adult chicken flock, 7 hens and one rooster, to a predator. We came out one afternoon to find a massacre, with only two living hens to be found. Shamefully, we didn’t have power on their electric net fence, having grown complacent after a long run without predator problems. It’s all too easy to let the summer workload allow good judgement to lapse.

A third hen showed up two days later; catching her was an exercise in understanding how she survived for so long. We thought all we needed to do was get her to the mobile coop, which she would recognize as home. That didn’t work. We offered her food and water, which she went for, but we still couldn’t get anywhere near her. Then she led us on a wild-hen chase that demonstrated good survival tactics for ground-based birds: Run like hell through some open ground, then duck into a thicket and stay still. Dart away when your pursuers aren’t looking or get too close. She led us into poison ivy, brambles, vines, tangles, and thorns, eluding our attempts to catch her for about 45 minutes. We finally used food and water to corner her in a barn, grab her, and reunite her with the other survivors.

A happy ending, right? We thought the coop itself was secure, figuring we wouldn’t range them outside for a while, just move the coop to new ground daily. We pulled the internal ramp up at night, a precaution that had worked every night for the last year and a half, despite our nagging doubts about the couple-inch gap leading from the lower level to the upper level. We went to extra lengths to make sure the coop was on flat ground without gaps below. Alas, a predator tunneled under, squeezed through the gap to the upstairs, and killed the remaining three birds, probably in the early morning hours of June 28.

Was it a fox? The one in the remote camera photo above seems to have taken up residence in an old groundhog hole under our goat barn. Was it a mink that Joanna thought she glimpsed? Or was the “mink” actually the tail of a kit fox that had mostly disappeared into the grass? Predators are a fact of life when raising pastured chickens, and sometimes nature wins.

One thought on “Natural events, June 2016

  1. Your bumble bee is probably Bombus impatiens, the Common Eastern Bumble Bee.