Mink

bio_mink

Our trail camera confirms that we’re in mink territory. This photo was taken in mid-August 2012 on the pond bank. Eric saw one mink in the vicinity of the farm several years ago, and we’ve suspected their presence on the farm, but this was the first confirmation.

Minks are predators, eating a wide variety of aquatic and terrestrial prey (according to The Wild Mammals of Missouri) . We hope rodents and rabbits are on their menu when they visit the farm. Minks are one of the most important reasons to keep chickens secure at  night. A tight chicken house is a must, given how small an opening a mink’s long, thin body can get through.

Eight-Spotted Forester Moth

bio_lepidopteran_eight-spotted_forester_mothThis moth posed on the leaf of a sweet potato slip in the greenhouse one morning in late May. This isn’t a species we see often, but its coloration was stunning, so I had to grab the camera. We finally figured out the ID when we spotted a pinned specimen in the collection of the Enns Entomology Museum. For more info on this species, see this post on the MObugs blog.

Striped Skunk

bio_skunkNot what we had in mind for the trap. The animal was released unharmed & without incident.

Skunks are omnivores, with voles listed among the mammals that they’ll eat. That is reason enough for us to value their presence, as long as they otherwise stay out of trouble. As omnivores, they do have the potential to be problematic, as well: They’ll eat berries, and they are capable of preying on chickens and eggs. Skunks are also potential carriers of rabies in Missouri. Fortunately, we have not yet experienced a situation with a problem skunk.

Coyote

The coyote in this trail cam photo was visiting one of the only remaining watering holes in the stream during the drought of 2012.

Coyote populations have varied considerably during our time at Chert Hollow Farm. During our first few years here, coyotes were fairly scarce. The population seems to have spiked in 2011 and remained high into 2012. Perhaps this was a result of a general boom in prey populations following the heavy oak mast of 2010?

As predators, coyotes have the potential to be both beneficial and problematic on the farm. The benefits are mostly from the perspective of vegetables, since coyotes eat critters that eat vegetables, particularly rabbits and rodents, thus helping to keep those populations in check. They are also a potential threat to domestic animals such as goats and chickens, though electric fences, well-maintained infrastructure, and sensible precautions such as locking animals in at night have prevented problems so far.

In late November 2012, someone shot a coyote across our property line without our permission & left it on our land to rot. We do not approve of or appreciate such uncalled for & wasteful killing of predators.

Squash Bug

Squash bugs are one of our more problematic pests of cucurbits, particularly summer and winter squash and (usually to a lesser extent) cucumbers. Damage occurs from direct feeding injury, and in addition, squash bugs can serve as a vector for plant disease. Squash plants often decline rapidly when squash bug populations boom.

This is an adult:

Females lay clusters of eggs on plant leaves, usually on the cucurbit plants where the young will feed. Very recently laid eggs tend to be pale in color, such as these:

Eggs turn to a darker shade of red/brown as they get closer to hatching. Most of the time, eggs are laid on the underside of leaves, as shown here:But sometimes eggs are on the upper leaf surfaces, as shown below on a large squash leaf, which provides a sense of scale. Learning to spot the eggs is useful, because physical removal of the eggs is one of our preferred control options to keep population numbers in check. Eggs are vulnerable because they’re not mobile, and we can systematically work our way through a squash planting looking for and squashing the eggs. Eggs take 10 days +/- to hatch (depending on what source you believe; we don’t have our own data for this).

Here are some nymphs that have just hatched:

After a molt, nymph coloration changes to grey, and several more molts take place before adulthood.

Then as adults, the whole cycle begins again:

During the growing season, we most often find adults hanging out along the base of the main stem of the squash plant, close to where the stem emerges from the ground. Another favorite hideout is on the underside of large squash leaves that are touching the ground. When searching for eggs, we also seek out adults & nymphs and squish those, too. The smell of a squished squash bug is rather unpleasant.

During the winter, we’ve found adults taking shelter in weed piles and straw bales, often in the vicinity of the late summer squash planting.

Toads are confirmed predators of squash bugs. In late summer of 2012, I watched an American toad eat an adult squash bug. The squash bug virtually crawled across the toad’s nose. The toad seemed to wait for just the right moment, then, gulp, it was gone. Hooray for toads.

Barred Owl

Adult Barred Owls are year-round residents of Chert Hollow Farm. Most frequently we hear their familiar “Who cooks for you; who cooks for you all?”, but occasionally more than one adult will take part in complex “conversations” of cackling hoots. In both 2011 & 2012, we observed a considerable amount of Barred Owl activity in late summer/early fall, including lots of hunting activity in the vegetable growing areas. Observations were common at dusk or even in the middle of the day. Barred Owls hunt critters that are problematic for us such as rabbits and rodents, but they have never expressed interest in eating chickens, so we are extremely happy to have them around.

During a woods walk in late April 2012, a large bird flopping around on the forest floor caught our attention. We took a look at it with binoculars, quickly identified it as a Barred Owl, and started to speculate about why it hadn’t flown away; was it hurt? Taking a closer look, we realized the bird was still fluffy, a good indicator that it was young. The bird must have just fledged from the nest, but it hadn’t yet learned to take flight. Eric stayed in the woods to keep an eye on it, while I ran back to the house for the camera. The bird moved up slope a bit while I was gone. We slowly crept up towards the bird with the camera, and as we got closer it decided its best defense was to remain motionless. Thus, we were able to walk within about 10 feet of it, take a bunch of photos, then back off without it ever twitching. Meanwhile, the parents were hanging around, watching and vocalizing. The vocabulary used for communication with young is very different than the standard “Who cooks for you?” We almost certainly wouldn’t have recognized the sounds as owl sounds if we hadn’t found the young bird first (and if we hadn’t had previous experience of unique avian parental vocalizations in Broad-Winged Hawks and domestic chickens).

 

Humans

While certainly not in “control” of the ecosystem at Chert Hollow Farm, humans do exert a considerable amount of influence on the biota and landscape, particularly with the help of symbiotic species such as the goat (at left, photo below; a male of this post’s featured species is shown at right in the orange hat).

Humans sometimes have a curious means of deciding what species to use to populate certain parts of their landscape. In the photo below, a human is studying paper catalogs to decide which lettuce plants will have an opportunity to express their genes at Chert Hollow Farm.

A number of species consider humans to be a suitable food source, including ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, and more. Humans, in turn, consider a variety of animal species to be suitable food sources, including deer, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, and more.

Rough Green Snake

Rough Green Snakes are present at Chert Hollow Farm but not commonly sighted; they are primarily an Ozark snake and thus we’re toward the northern limit of their range. From 2006 to 2012 we had only 3 observations: one near the vegetable field gate, one seen through binoculars in the talons of a Broad-Winged Hawk, and the one photographed below, which I found on the patio of the house in early October of 2012:

We don’t know whether the infrequent sightings reflects a low population or good camouflage with green vegetation. I almost overlooked even this individual, which stood out like a sore thumb against the concrete backdrop, because my initial impression was that it was a green onion top (& I took a closer look trying to figure out why in the world there was a green onion top on the patio).

Mink

This trail cam photo (taken at the pond during August 2012) confirms that mink have a presence at Chert Hollow Farm. We had suspected this based on one definite sighting in the vicinity a few years ago, combined with the knowledge that they can range widely.

Mink can be vicious predators of chickens, killing numerous birds at a time. A mink is a prime suspect in a chicken massacre that we experienced in our first year raising chickens (before we knew enough to build a sufficiently predator-proof chicken house). Mink can both dig and get through rather small openings, so considerable effort is required to build (& maintain) a mink-proof structure. On the other hand, mink almost certainly do us some good as predators of other problematic critters, such as rodents and rabbits. They’re certainly interesting animals, and we hope that we can do our part to keep them from becoming a problem for our domestic animals so that we can properly appreciate their presence.