Monday, September 30, 2013

Prongs and the Chicken Coop

Maybe you remember, Faithful Readers, that we were planning to attempt a chicken coop.  That hasn't been forgotten.  

Apparently, when you are a big old idiot like me, and obstinately determined to renovate an existing structure rather than just buy a nice Amish coop, it takes a lot longer to plan, price and compare materials, forage for usable scraps, scrap your original plan, then hold the second plan, then glean free stuff from the side of the road, and clean that stuff.

So, here is a photo of the old play-set that we'd intended to convert originally.

We figured we clean it up, kill the poison ivy, enclose the main structure, extend the roof down to the balcony area, add a door, a window, and use one of the pre-existing nesting boxes left for us, and we'd be good.  But the roof said otherwise.  See, I love the shingles.  But making a non-leaky roof would have required removing the shingles.  And replacing a roof?  Lazy girl said, not as such.

So, we looked at the other outbuildings.  Country Kitty had told me that all the outbuildings had been used for chickens at some point, but one seemed to be the best choice.  Here is what it looked like before we began.

 There was a lot of work involved, obviously, but the roof only has one leak!  Never mind that the floor was a minefield booby trapped with tunnels dug by Clarence and his entire extended family.  And that a tree was growing almost through the rock foundation.  Or that the back of the building was completely inaccessible due to overgrowth, making the east facing window a complete and utter joke.  Or that the sheer volume of grape vines, wild blackberry, Virginia creeper, and even some poison ivy gave the impression that it was the sole reason the building was still standing.  

Still, it seemed like an easier job to me, to fix an existing chicken coop rather than convert a new building.  So, we began.  We removed all the debris... mostly by transferring it to the other side of the building.  (But we stacked the lumber neatly, and placed the pots carefully on a flat surface.)  After we cleared the floor, we dug it up, filled in Clarence's deepest holes with every big rock we could find, and then leveled it all, raking and removing all the small debris we discovered.

The Husband got out his chainsaw and began removing the worst of the limbs from the tree growing out the foundation.  Armed with a whacking stick (which is different than a web-wand) and a pair of gardening clippers, I began attacking the overgrowth and vines.  I whacked everything in my way with the stick, and clipped only what refused the move.  I truthfully wondered, at the beginning, where one acquires Agent Orange, but then I discovered the true pleasure of the whacking approach.  I highly recommend it to any one in need of some constructive violence.  Upset about creative differences with your spouse?  Not after that!  Frustrated by your child's inability to keep Legos off the floor?  Not now!  Irritated because your hair is growing out and looking less cute than it did even a week ago?  Not even a worry.  (Those are all hypothetical, of course.)

 Anyway, after that, it was cleanup for all the remaining vines clinging, and marveling over the finds.  The skull from a medium sized animal!  An old county road sign.  A license plate from the 1960s.  We made a list of what we needed to plug holes and fill in that blank wall.

Minor cleaning, measuring tapes... and a hugely lucky find of windows and lumber from a free pile at the local farm stand.

I've gleaned some plywood scraps, and have been playing with them, trying to fit them without having to cut much.  (Did I mention I am lazy?)

So, the work is progressing nicely.

But someone is not pleased.   You see, the day before we began clearing, I saw this guy, and watched him wander inside the building.  If you look carefully through the little hatch in the front wall, you will see him. It is his favorite place to spend an afternoon.

This is not creative license.  This is not exaggeration.  He goes in there!  Just yesterday, I was unloading the windows from my truck, making an awful racket, and I opened the top half of the split door and SAW him leaping through the far door to leave.  Look at the bottom right-hand photo in the quad above.  You can see the outline of his body in the dirt.  

Here is what the space looks like after I finished work today.  This photo shows the half the building we are not using.  There is no door attached on that side, so I laid the old door down across the doorway.  Can he still get in if he wants to?  Sure.  But why would he when the path to his favorite nesting area is blocked like this?  

The buck has been named Prongs, and I sure hope he'll keep hanging around the property for another few months.  He'll be welcome in the house, just like the chickens...


Monday, September 23, 2013

Spawn of Turtlezilla

Friday the 13th.  A day of bad luck, and terror by chainsaw.  The world ends, and the unholy creatures crawl out from their lairs to devour the innocent.  Friday the 13th: the day I met Turtlezilla, face to face.  I am grateful that I've lived to tell the tale.

Now, for most of this year, my husband has been setting up his game camera (game cam, for those in the know) all over the farm, just to see what there is and where.  Mostly he was interested in establishing a pattern for the deer over the course of the year.  But one week, way back in May, he set it up down at the pond, just to see what was going on there.

Oh, the goslings were so cute!  Lots of deer, some raccoons, and cute little painted turtles enjoying the sun.  The occasional glimpses of the heron: amazing.  It was also interesting to watch the 4'x8' raft drifting here and there in the pond, tethered by a long rope, but also drifting with the small currents and the wind.

But we also saw this...

What. The. Hell.

It is like a freaking dinosaur crawled out of the ooze and muck from the bottom the pond and ate the world.  This is a snapping turtle, supposedly.  I think it is a radioactive mutation that somehow wound up in a farm in Virginia.

We named it Turtlezilla.  

Turtlezilla quickly became the stuff of legends:
  • "The goslings are gone!  Turtlezilla must have eaten them!"  
  • "Did you hear that big splash?  It must have been Turtlezilla jumping off the raft!" 
  • "No otter this year.  Turtlezilla must have scared them off."  
  • "Wow, the remains of a dead deer.  Turtlezilla must have got him."  
  • "Don't let Amy near the pond!  Turtlezilla might eat her!" 
  • "Don't let the Boy near the pond!  Turtlezilla might eat him!"

The Husband was concerned, obviously, especially when other shots showed more than a few large turtles.  So he emailed the local CPO (Conservation Police Officer, which is code for game warden) with the photo above, asking if he could recommend anyone who deals with turtles.

See, here is the deal about snapping turtles.  They pretty much have no natural predators once they reach a certain size.  And their bites can do severe damage.  They usually only bite humans (or dogs) when they are out of water, and feel threatened.  However, while they are scavengers who will eat plant or animal matter, they are also active hunters, who will dine on other reptiles, fish, birds, and small mammals.  ( Click this link if you want a brief overview of snapping turtles.

And now enters the hero of this story:  Luke Hoge, Turtle Hunter.

Luke showed up and I took him down to the pond.  We explored the paths, and then he set up a handful of traps and promised to come back on Friday.  Friday, the 13th.

I take one to two walks around the property every day.  The first evening of the traps, I could tell immediately that one had caught something.  The bobber, (in this case a gallon size jug) was BOUNCING in the water.  BOUNCING.  

Luke returned on Friday around noon.  I asked if I could tag along when he went to check his traps.  He's a nice, friendly guy, and he seemed pleasantly surprised, if not amused, that I asked, but he was willing enough to have a dumb city girl who wore knee high boots tag along.  I grabbed my phone and took off after his truck.  (And I should note here, and there really isn't an actual road to the pond.  He widened our walking paths beautifully.)

He parked and hauled in the first trap, which was attached to the raft.  Nothing...  He waded out into the pond, armed only with a pair of gloves, and hauled in the second trap.  And I squealed like a little girl.  He'd caught not one, not two, but THREE turtles.  Two HUGE snapping turtles and a painted turtle.

For reference, that itty bitty little painted turtle, was actually about 6 inches long.  The larger of the two snapping turtles was about triple that.  He was two feet,and longer than that when you add in that monster tail and huge snapping beak.  Luke guessed that this guy was probably about 60 years old.  (I have no idea how to tell how old a turtle is.)  The female was maybe 14 inches?  He kept the two snapping turtles and released the poor painted turtle, who was trapped with two hostile animals who could not stop hissing and lunging at each other.

These are scary creatures!  Their beaks were lethal looking.  Their claws were over an inch!  And they were fearless.  Luke had to keep twisting to avoid their head and the nails.  He let me snap the pictures, and then he tossed them into the back of his truck.

Luke checked the last trap.  Two more big snapping turtles, a male and a female.  The male was not quite as large as the first guy, maybe 2-3 inches shorter.  The female was the smallest of the four.  Luke estimated her at around 9-10 inches.  They were tossed into the truck as well.

As Luke began to pack his equipment, I asked a ton of questions, which he was willing enough to answer.  Turtles have to be a minimum of 11 inches to harvest for meat.  (He planned to re-locate the smallest female.)  The oldest turtle he's ever harvested was about a 150 years old.  (Wow.)  He says they taste kinda like the dark meat on a turkey.  The hatchlings (which are vulnerable to predators) are about the size of a quarter, and they have a 10-20% survival rate.  He also said that if the turtle is in the water, there is usually no danger.  They'll mostly just slink down into the mud and keep their distance from humans and dogs.

As we finished talking, we heard an odd sound.  I followed Luke to the back of his truck, and I kid you not... One of the males was making a break for it.  He'd managed to climb up the tailgate and was preparing to jump.  

We stood back and just watched.  (Seriously, did you click on the first link?  Look at the picture of that beak, the claws.)  He jumped, tumbled over, and began making a run for the pond.  (Well, as fast as he could.  He IS still just a turtle).  Luke grabbed his tail and got him back in the truck.

So, the temperatures are already declining, and yet Luke managed to capture four good-size snapping turtles in just under 48 hours.  He believes that we've got a great habitat for them, and we are sure to have more adults.  The pond is just under a half-acre, so it is possible, especially with several other ponds nearby.

Now, I have spent a lot of time comparing the photos.  Granted, I never did get a tape-measure out while Luke had them here.  And I only have that one grainy game-cam photo of Turtlezilla.  But, based on the dimensions of that raft, and some measuring of the original images, I think the big guy we caught is not Turtlezilla.  I don't think Luke caught him.  I think Turtlezilla is still there.  

We haven't seen the last of Turtlezilla.  And he knows we came after him.

[Acknowledgment:  Notes were taken during my interview of Luke Hoge, but I was standing out next to a pond, typing his answers into my Crackberry.  I attempted to double check what I recorded by verifying information on the web, and I feel reasonably confident that I relayed the information he gave me correctly.  BUT.  If I didn't, then the mistakes are all mine, and not Luke's.  Same goes with the measurements.  I tried to record what he told me, but I may have screwed those up as well.  If any of you are super computer nerds and want access to the original images so you can prove me wrong, then leave a comment.  Lastly, Luke was amazingly polite and also pretty damn funny.  I would happily recommend him to any locals who suspect they have a snapping turtle problem.  If you would like his contact information, then contact me.  Here is a video of him working his magic.]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I Am Clarence

Hi.  My name is Clarence.  I own a farm in Virginia.  I'm a big guy.  How big, you say?  Well, the other day, I was sitting on the compost heap, and I heard a human, a female human, scream, "Holey S**t!  There's a bear cub over there!"

That's an odd human.  She comes out to feed me from a ceramic bucket, but it is never the same food.  I like the slightly rotten tomatoes.  I ignore the crumpled egg shells, and am not fond of the coffee grounds.  One day she gave me a whole head of slimy lettuce.  I just sat basking in the sun and nibbled it from the leaves all the way down to the stem.  Yum.  The best was when she tossed out two overripe spaghetti squashes.  I am ashamed to admit, I devoured them both at one sitting.

As I was saying, that human, she is odd.  She wears a funny leaf or something over her head, sometimes brown, sometimes, black, and sometimes blue and green.  And she wears these weird rubbery things on her feet.  Those look like they'd be tough to chew.  And, though she comes out to feed me every day or so, other times I hear her calling the black furry barking dog to chase me.

I thought she was amusing at first, the human.  Once, I was watching one of my females with our twins, and the human started barking at them.  Seriously.  She barked, and she sounded fierce.  My family scattered, and the human's companions all laughed.  Now that the human has her dog here all the time, I know who she learned from.  I didn't think humans were smart enough to learn animal languages.

I have tunnels everywhere.  I have quite a network, although my favorite door is in that compost heap.  But the human and her male seem intent on finding me.  They actually set up a camera to try to find me.  Ha!  As if they could find my holes.  You can only find one of my holes if you step in one, but more on that later.  The camera.  They set it up all over my farm.  At first, I carefully sneaked under the camera and ate the female's vegetables.  That game got old.  So then, I decided to just ignore it, and go about my business as usual.

One day, as the camera was making those tiny little noises, snapping me as I walked by, it hit me.  Maybe it would be more fun to photo bomb the camera.  So, I took a big bite of leaf, stood up on my back legs, and started chewing.  I did it a couple of times.  I wanted to show it my bum, but I am too short.  But that gave me the next idea.  I could get my animal friends to photo-bomb as well!  Whenever I saw the camera, I would tell everyone where it was!  What a great idea!  We got to work.

Yeah, good times.  The buck tried to do the photo bomb, but he wound up mooning the camera instead.  Show-off.

However, all good things come to an end.  The female got her male to set up a gun and shoot it.  He shot at paper, which I think is pretty odd, but I know what happens next.

So, I laid a trap.  In one of my outbuildings, I have an old network of holes and tunnels coming up into the floor.  The female was in there, and I watched her carefully step around the holes.  Then she left to go investigate the outside walls--I think she was considering the building for a chicken-coop.  While she was gone, I connected two holes together just for her...inches under the ground.  I mean, why else would I dig such a shallow tunnel?

Sure enough, she came back.  She stepped around the big holes by the door, and then moved to step between the two connected ones.  One foot down, and the tunnel collapsed, and she screamed as her foot sank into the dirt.  She jumped away, screaming as she ran out.

I just about died laughing.  I wonder what else I can do to provoke that noise again.

I am Clarence.  I am a groundhog.  I am legion.

Monday, September 9, 2013

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Before, from the study
It all began with a rose.

The garden just beyond the morning room windows was teaming with plant life, intended and otherwise.  I gazed many times upon the plants and weeds, wondering which was which, but was too busy to get my gloves and boots on and haul myself outdoors.  After all, there were still boxes to unpack, furniture to arrange, and laundry to be washed, folded, and ironed.

The point is that weeding that garden was on the To-Do list, but way at the bottom.  And well, I like to think that green is green, and flowers are flowers.

And then I noticed a pink flower.  It was a rosebud.  I thought, I would love to smell that rose.  After all, Country Kitty wouldn't have planted a modern rose that smells only of the pesticides and fertilizers required to keep it alive.  I decided to go take a look.

The path was no more.  There was waist-high grass and weeds, and some odd flowering plants that were eye-level.  I had no idea what they were, but they were keeping me from the rose.  Defeated, I walked away.  That rose preyed on my mind, however.  What would it smell like?  What would it look like when it opened?  Would it hang around for awhile?

That evening, at dinner, we repeated the increasingly familiar pattern of my son talking too much to eat the food while it was still warm, and then refusing to eat.  It is frustrating, and nothing seems to avoid it other than giving him pizza or hot dogs or hamburgers.  Which I refuse to cook special for him.  So, I was getting increasingly impatient; and, I happened to look over his shoulder and see the pink rosebud peeping through the weeds.

I stood up, and calmly excused myself.  I put away my dinner things, stepped into my garden shoes, pulled on my hat and garden gloves, and blundered in.

I steadily filled a garden waste barrel with clover, various weed grasses, and creeping vines.  I cleared area in the dirt around the peonies, the lilies, and the pond grasses. I yanked all sorts of dandelions and crab grasses from the stone path.  It took me forty-five minutes to make the approach to the bush.  I was too tired and sweaty to remember to sniff the rosebud.

Two more weeding sessions.  I had decided that I would clear the entire garden before I enjoyed that rose.  I made four trips to the compost heap.  I discovered that the eye level plant really was an evil weed whose flowers were about to burst like tiny dandelions.  I dodged spider webs, crawling beetles, and about seventy-two thousand gnats.  I surprised the frogs as I cleared around the pond.  I caught a glimpse, after one of the weeding sessions, of a chipmunk exiting the cleared area, his cheeks bulging with seeds.  I replanted the few bulbs I accidentally pulled up, and I mourned the single paper lantern that I unceremoniously yanked out from behind a stone urn, not recognizing what it was before I pulled.

I finally finished.  I circled the garden a few times, pleased with the results, and frankly thinking that, although the garden now looked a bit nude, it was gorgeous. 

I collected my gardening tools, and the few straggles of weeds already drying sadly in the sunlight that I'd missed when clearing the debris.  I made my approach to that glorious pink rosebud which was on the verge of spreading the top petals by now.  I moved closer, breathing the heady aroma of a real rose.  My nose touched the silky petal.  I inhaled deeply.

And then I sniffed a gnat up my nose.

I think the hummingbirds are bloody lucky that their nostrils are so small.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Receiving Guests

Rooms were looking good.  Paths were clear.  Some weeding had been attempted, and yards had been mown.  I was ready to receive guests on the farm.

I didn't grow up in an environment where one entertained.  I hosted my first party ever back in 2003:  a party to celebrate our newly purchased house.  There were a few more there, and after we moved to a much bigger home, I began to entertain semi-often.  I cannot call myself an extraordinary hostess, but I've learned to enjoy planning unusual occasions, arranging decorations, and creating interesting menus.  My Anti-Valentine Play-Reading Party was a huge success, but I guess I outdid myself when I hosted my brother's wedding and reception for over 40 people.  It was semi-casual (for a wedding), but it was a nice affair.  Last year, when we house-sat a townhouse for friends who went to Puerto Rico for a year (just because!), I had to scale down the entertaining.  Other than my son's birthday party, when I squeezed 15 additional people into my living area, I limited myself to no more than three guests.

Now, there is parking, there is plenty of space for entertaining, and I am looking forward to having many a nice party.

So, last week, I thought I would have a few guests:

Friday: one of my girlfriends, who was to bring her twins to play with the Boy.
Saturday: two friends from good old Austin College.
Sunday: the Son of Country Kitty, who grew up here and who I've decided to adopt as my slightly younger brother.

My dear friend from the old neighborhood came over with her kids.  I gave her a tour of the house before we decided to settle in the sun-room.  My son and the twins were upstairs in the "playroom"... which is really a nice den area that has been co-opted by tons of Legos, an old wooden farm, eighteen thousand construction trucks, and three bookshelves full of books.  There is an area for adults to sit, and frankly, with a window unit in that area, it is pleasant.  But three kids spreading out allows little room for two adult women who want to catch up on gossip what's been going on in our lives.

Maybe forty-five minutes later, my husband wandered in and said he'd just had to go upstairs and break up a fight.  Huh?  We'd heard nothing.  Apparently, my son had pitched a fit because I wouldn't let him have his cow-popper (which may be one of the most evil gifts he's ever received), so he went up to the playroom and slammed his door repeatedly.  

Sunroom= cannot hear the rest of the house.  Now I know, and I suspect I'll be spending more time there....

Wine Friend came over with College Friend from Austin.  She has twins also, but they were back in Texas.  We were going to grill burgers, drink wine, and play a board game or two after the Boy was in bed.

Before dinner, I gave College Friend a tour, and took her to see the garden...which needed to have its paths mowed.  Oops.  So, the garden tour was us walking along the perimeter of the fence, and me pointing and saying stupid things like, "And there are my tomatoes.  I really need to harvest.  And there are my butternut squashes.  I don't know when I get to harvest those."  And so on.

I offered up some appetizers:  a cream-cheese dip whose recipe I'd altered because of allergies.  That came out great.  The home-canned salsa...not so much.  I hadn't sampled this year's batch yet.  L-A-M-E.  My jalapenos were not particularly strong this year, and my tiny little tomatoes dictated that I puree them rather than chop.  Wine Friend and I dug through my (organized, thank you very much) spice cabinet and added about a million powders and seasonings in an attempt to make the salsa acceptable. 

Hamburgers for dinner.  Great.  The meal went nicely (and the wine flowed).  After the meal, we cleaned up a bit and that is when we were supposed to decide on games... except we didn't.  We wound up with a fire pit in the front yard (but not where you could actually see the stars), cigars and more wine, and (I am blushing to admit this) the hostess falling asleep on the couch in the sun-room.  Games were out of my head until the next day.  Embarrassing.

I had promised ribs and home-made ice cream to CK's son.  I struggled to finish thawing the ribs before the time I had to start cooking them.  I succeeded, and they were amazing, if I may brag a bit.  

However... the ice-cream.  See, July 4 dinner here at the farm, I was supposed to make ice-cream.  I had my machine, my special vanilla, the sugar, and left the whole milk and heavy cream at home.  We used the 2% milk on hand, and attempted to experiment by adding whipped butter to thicken it.  Butter-chunk ice-dream is dreadful.  Period.  So, I promised CK's Son that I would provide good ice cream this time, ha ha.

I had the ingredients on hand this time.  However, I had not remembered to put my ice-cream basin in the freezer until the previous day.  And I couldn't find the recipe book anywhere.  Still we made a game attempt...which didn't work, because 24-hours is NOT enough to freeze the basin.  I had to offer chocolate instead.

But, we did play two rounds of croquet, and had a blast.  There were bugs, a storm was forming north of us...and passing north of us, and someone far off was firing off a bazooka or something.  It could have just been an elephant gun.  My husband thought it was probably someone sighting in their rifle for hunting season (which opens next weekend!).  Then the guys sat in the breakfast/morning room and did some computer thing.  I understood the following phrases:  signal strength, wi-fi, passwords, router.  I did the dishes.

After a bit, it was time for the Boy to go to bed.  We were heading upstairs, and thanking CK's Son for visiting, when the Boy suddenly stops and announces that there is a mouse on the stairs.

Here are the reasons it couldn't have been a mouse.  One, the stairs were totally dark, and how could he possibly see a mouse?  Two, mice run away from humans.  Three, why on earth would a mouse be hanging around on the stairs anyway?

We called for light.  It was mouse.  It was cute and furry and too small to jump up from the stair.  He looked as though he was thinking about nesting in my silk dressing gown.  CK's Son trapped it in a plastic storage container (which has been sterilized since).  The Husband took it outside to dispose of it.  CK's Son left, I read to the Boy, and we all settled down.

I wondered how the Husband "disposed" of the mouse.  I mean, Katt is a terrible cat, in that she doesn't hunt.  I didn't think he'd taken it out and shot it since I'd heard no gunshot, and plus it was only slightly larger than my thumb.

Me:  So, what did you do with it?
Him:  I disposed of it.
Me:  Did you kill it?
Him:  No, I took it out into the field.
Me:  You just let it go?
Him:  Sort of.
Me:  What does that mean?
Him: (sheepishly) I threw him.
Me:  Did you pick him up by the tail or something?
Him: (even more sheepishly)  I just threw him from the container.
Me:  (laughing at image of the flying mouse)

I liked having my friends over, because I invited them.  

The mouse?  So not invited.