Little Green Bugs

Here on the midwestern prairie we have an abundance of many things, insects among them. Some, like bees, are beneficial, some are bothersome (who has any real use for biting flies?) or worse (West Nile anyone? - thanks, mosquitos). And some are just... there.

At least from a human perspective, some bugs are ubiquitous but harmless in a way that just allows them to disappear into the scenery. Or they do until they don’t any more.

This time of year out here we start to get a showing of these little green bugs that I’m sure I must have seen before and just not noticed. But when I started riding my recumbent trike around the countryside I became much more aware of them because they like to mooch rides:

Random passenger

I’ve been riding around the countryside for over a decade, but I only noticed these guys the past couple of years. The noticing seems to accompany the transition to the recumbent trike, and I suspect it’s lower profile riding position is simply bringing me down to a level that makes me a more likely landing spot. In the late summer, depending upon the ride, I can pick up anywhere from one to a half-dozen of these guys across the course of the trip and, once they’ve hopped on they seem content to stay for the entire ride. Or so it appears - I don’t want to seem bug-normative - maybe it’s multiple different little green bugs switching on and off during the ride.

It’s a small event, but like so many things, once you become aware of something you start to see them everywhere. Start considering buying a particular type of car you’ve never really thought about before? Bam - they are now on every highway and in every parking lot you frequent.

And so it is with these little green guys, in particular in the patch of false sunflowers and goldenrod out by our barn.

False patch

I love this area of the yard in late summer. The false sunflowers are an amazing plant in and of themselves - you see them in ditches and off the side of the highway, but you can’t fully appreciate how unbelievably tall they are until you stand right beside them. It’s then that I realize just how initially intimidating the prairie must have been to early settlers - thick swaths of grasses and flowers standing taller than a man.

I’ll wander out there at different times of day to watch the bees moving back and forth between flowers, hoping to perhaps catch a glimpse of a Preying Mantis. But as I’ve been picking up my cycling companions the past couple of years I came to realize that they are here in abundance as well:

Little Green Bugs on Flowers

Little Green Bugs on Flowers

Using the tool at insectidentification.org suggests that these little guys are Pale Green Weevils.

I say "suggests", because much of the online information on the Pale Green Weevil is limited. I suspect that this is because they are small, and fall into that category I described before: just... there.

They feed on the leaves of some species of trees, but apparently don’t do any real damage - they don’t lace the leaves the way a Japanese Beetle will, for example - and, thus, aren’t of any great concern.

I am also using the word "suggests", because the information I’m finding indicates that they are actively feeding in early summer, and I’m seeing them in late August and early September, rolling towards the end of the season. And I’m finding them on false sunflowers and myself, neither of which are mentioned in the habitat and feeding choices of these little dudes. It’s entirely possible that they are something else.

In any case, they are here, keeping me company on the country roadsides as I trundle around. They don’t add much to the conversation, but they aren’t heavy either, so I’m fine to have them along for the ride.

Playing Possum

Some times, when I get up in the wee hours of the morning I find that the dogs have secured some form of treasure. Often these are small treasures in the form of mice and voles. In the springtime the dogs take their toll on the fledglings as well.

And once a year or so this scenario occurs:

Playing with possum

Of course, I went for the artistic soft focus there (yeah - that’s the ticket...), so if it’s unclear, that large white furry blob is a possum. I also really enjoy the long, furtive look the dogs seem to be sharing.

Possums are the type of critter that, until one has the experience, may seem far less prevalent than they really are. I mean sure, you see them as victims of the road from time to time, but they are still pretty rare, right?

And with that, what about that whole "playing possum" thing? That’s probably a myth, don’t you think? No animal would really just lay there to get knocked about, would it? Wouldn't that just get them killed more quickly?

But the thing is, it’s all true. We see them regularly out here, plying their trade in the dark of night. And we see them often enough that I’ve developed a system for helping them out when they venture into the wrong territory.

That system involves a shovel and some leg work.

Fear not - I’m neither hitting them nor burying them with the shovel. Rather, a shovel is a handy way to pick them up but keep them at a safe distance (safe for both of us, I think). And this fella was big enough that I got out the snow shovel:

Possums and snow are both white, so...

I used a second shovel - a spade - to gently slide it into the snow shovel, and then carried it out beyond the dog fence, into a somewhat secluded part of the ditch.

Ditching the possum

The end result is the same - go back and look at that same spot just a little while later and...

No-possum

...The Opossum is now No-possum.

(I’ll pause here for laughter and applause...)

Either they are really good actors, or perhaps my dogs are just naive, but it seems to work for them every time. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a time when I’ve used this system and not come back to find the possum has scoffered off.

Now, all that said, their commitment to the role is not always as solid as one might hope. This particular adventurer reflexively curled up a bit as I slid him on the the shovel. It was subtle, and the dogs didn’t seem to notice, but it definitely happened. And I had one candidate a couple of years ago who we found laying on the front steps. He tolerated all of the investigation and attention of the dogs, but being lifted into the air on the shovel was clearly a bridge too far, and he suddenly got up and tried to run away. I’d been uncertain about its status - living or no - right up until that point.

As I understand it, these rather fearsome looking creatures are harmless at worst, and can be considered beneficial in that they will eat insects and rodents (and to that I say "more power to the possum"). So unlike some of the other critters in our midst, their presence is welcome. At least to me.

The dogs seem to feel otherwise, but until they choose to express their opinion at a more reasonable time of day (I mean, this was really early) I just don’t want to hear it.

Prairie Yard...

This past Sunday I mowed my lawn for the first time of the season.

Now I realize there will be a subset of you out there who, upon realizing that last Sunday was the middle of May, will pronounce me a monster.

Fine. You’re right. While I desperately love that we have a substantial yard, I do not aspire to the tightly manicured green-striped lawn of suburbia. In fact, that’s part of the reason I do not live in suburbia. But beyond that, there is a school of thought that says that it’s better for bees - which are struggling - if we give some time to let the lawn grow.

Of course, that presumes that you are also letting things that flower grow in your yard as well.

Which we do. Trigger alert here for those for whom a yard means an extended stretch of Kentucky bluegrass and nothing else...

Dandelions

The other benefit to letting the yard grow is the view. It’s not strictly a prairie - the grass and flowers certainly aren’t that high - but you do get a crop of at least the ubiquitous dandelions and violets to pose for pictures before the lawn gets sheared.

Violets and dandelions

But there are limits. I waited long enough that Rosie seemed to be a little perplexed at what I was up to...

Rosie, watchful

Of course, by this point, Calamity could also be in the picture - with her short little cattledog legs, I’m not sure she can see out over the standing grass.

And ultimately, as you are working your way through the taller portions you realize why people started cutting grass. In addition to the occasional opportunistic tree that tries to take root, there are also a small assortment of rodents that scurry away as the mower approaches. There are actual, practical purposes to this activity besides ensuring that your dog doesn’t get lost.

I think we’d reached that limit.

Yeah - it’s a little long...

Snow Days

Our encounter with the Polar Vortex out here on the prairie the week before last offered some opportunities. Since it was preceded by significant snowfall, the combination of cold, wind, and snow made travel out of the home challenging at best, dangerous a worst. In some senses of the word, we were effectively trapped at home.

But another way to look at that is that we got the adult version of one of those things that kids long to hear in the short-day season: snow day!

Last Monday we had some continuation of the struggles with drifting and getting stuck that were chronicled here recently. In this case I ended up leaving a car at the end of the driveway because the volume of drifting in front of the garage was beyond the little vehicle’s capacity to clear, and dealing with it in the dark was competing poorly with the idea of sitting on the couch watching TV.

The following morning though, the snow offering up some time, and the day offering up sunlight and brilliant blue skies to combat the single digit temps and negative wind chillls, it offered a much more attractive option. I needed to get the car in the garage, and besides - I wasn’t likely to get any other exercise, so the snow and shovel could be my equivalent of the gym (isn’t that sort of how CrossFit works? I’m not sure - I may not have a compete understanding of that...).

So I pulled on some (several) layers, and the dogs and I went out to tackle the drift.

Now there are certainly animals that struggle in the snow and the cold - a Chihuahua would be miserable in weather like this (or, frankly, probably anything below 40°). But one does get some perspective when one sees this:

Calamity pic

Calamity close up

That is our Blue Heeler, Calamity Jane, rolling in the snow. Because, you know, the air isn’t cold enough on its own - she also wants the white stuff all over her.

And so, with her help, I gathered up my shovel and started throwing some flakes around.

Yup. That’s what we call snow shoveling around these parts: throwing flakes. Doesn’t everyone?

Anyone?

Anyone...?

Uh - anyway... I didn’t have the foresight to get a decent picture of the drift before I started, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say it was monumental. It took me a solid hour to clear a space in the driveway as wide as the garage door, which was my goal - wanted to be able to move both cars if needed. When I was done this is what it looked like:

Garage pile

And this is the pile of snow I created with my shoveling efforts.

Erin’s snow pile

Ok - technically a part of that pile - the part in the back - is from my cousin Glen clearing the entire driveway the day before, but the part in the front is mine.

Erin’s actual snow pile... ...

Ok - if I’m being entirely honest, the top few inches or so of that second pile is mine. But that’s still a lot of snow, and I worked really hard. Shut up!

So maybe this is more true

Erin’s actual, actual snow pile

At any rate, it was clear, and I was able to go get the car and pull it in.

Feeling buoyed by my accomplishment, I walked down to the end of the driveway to see how much work that would be to clear. I mean, at this point I’m a snow moving monster - you saw the mountain I created (err - added to) above, right?

So when I got there what I found was this:

End of driveway

And as I stood and looked at this, leaning against the handle of my shovel, out there in the open wind coming off the field to the west, my hand - in the glove that I’d been wearing while shoveling for the past hour - began to freeze and hurt. And I thought "well, that’s probably enough shoveling for today".

And I went inside and had a cup of coffee. For three consecutive days.

Wascally...

Quite a while back we noticed that we had rabbits living on the outer edges of the yard.

This was a delightful change because, although we are in a considerably rural location, we have a limited variety of actual wildlife we encounter at the homestead proper. We have birds, of course, and certainly have had our issues with trash pandas and the smaller members of the rodent sect, but the more common, semi-benign outdoor companions like squirrels and rabbits have largely been absent. We know they are out here - I routinely see them on my rides through the countryside - but they hadn’t been on the property. This is why that initial rabbit sighting was such a treat.

We still see them periodically, and over the past several months I’ve seen them run across the front yard - this usually as I’m pulling out of the driveway. Across the front yard seems somewhat unusual, since that’s dog territory. Our earlier sightings of our leporid friends saw them on the outer edge of the property - outside of, or at least within a short running distance of, that line. But the front yard is solidly within the canine zone.

And then the other day I saw this in the snow:

Rabbit tracks out the window

rabbit track

rabbit track out the window annotated

Rabbit track annotated

It’s hard to tell from the initial shot, being directly overhead, but this track is within 10-15’ of the house.

Dog territory

This would not only be within canine territory, but a considerable distance from the boundary line. There are a couple of bushes nearby - lilac and mock orange - which could potentially provide some cover, but otherwise it’s a long run to escape from interested dogs.

And then, the other morning, I looked out the window at the back stairwell and saw this:

There are actually two rabbits there. The one is easy to discern because it is moving, the other is a gray lump to the left side of the screen at the beginning. This is on the opposite side of the house from the rabbit track, and again well within the dog fence. The dogs were actually inside at the time I took this - I believe I was on my way down to let them out - so that might be why they were so bold. But it seems pretty risky territory regardless.

This probably seems, to the average suburbanite, a pretty banal thing to be excited about. But as I noted, it’s been a long time in coming. These farm homes are little islands of horticultural variety in a sea of monoculture. If the "island" loses its variety of critters, it seems difficult to get them back.

Now - will I be as excited to see the rabbits if (when?) they, say, start digging in our garden? Possibly not. But that actually seems a pretty reasonable thing to have to deal with out here on the prairie, so excited or not, it just feels more right.

Cat and Mouse

So there I was, yesterday morning, having a private moment in the bathroom. Then I heard a sliding and a clacking of sharp little claws, and a quiet "thud" on the door.

A second later the mouse ran out from under the door.

Under these circumstances one has to make a decision. I was in a compromising position, of course, but the earliness of the hour virtually ensured that I was likely to be unobserved. And I had to think and act quickly. So I did what I think most would under the circumstances:

I opened the door.

The cat came skittering in through the doorway and immediately located the mouse, who (of course) immediately ran behind the decorative storage lockers we have in the bathroom.


This is a scene, the type of which plays itself over and over again across time in our old house. The building is, functionally, a web of open passageways from the perspective of a rodent looking to come in from the winter cold. What looks to you and I like a solid wall made of wood and plaster or brick looks to mousy eyes like a piece of Swiss cheese. So, as the temperature drops, in they come.

Now, our issues with these tiny furry friends has lessened over the years with the help of commercial pest control. Still, the numbers never seem to drop to an absolute zero. And while this is somewhat to the dismay of the human inhabitants of our home, the feline crew seems to prefer the non-zero situation.

The tense and tenuous relationship between cat and mouse is a story as old as time - they say that the ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in part because they kept the rodents from overwhelming their grain stores and protected them from other pests. That relationship has persisted over time, and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries have also valued feline companionship for the purposes of vermin maintenance.

Within our own home the rodent control team consists of two players - Malcolm and Inara. Malcolm is a largish gray cat with green eyes who would seem to be a Russian Blue but for two tiny bits of white - one on his chest and the other on his tail. He has a delightful, chirping meow. He’s a beefy, strong cat. You can feel the muscle when you pick him up. A natural athelete, he is able to gain the top of our refrigerator with a leap from ground.

Inara is a tortoiseshell with yellow eyes. She is noticeably smaller and more slight than Malcolm, skittish and shy with most members of the family. She has a squeaking meow that is sometimes hard to detect and never pleasant. She is rarely seen to leap, and instead must climb our tall cat tree with claws and effort.

And so of course, who would you expect to have come skittering in to that bathroom? The Adonis, the cat-equivalent of the football player, the track god?

It was Inara.

As is so frequently the case in my experience with cats over the years, it’s the lady who does all the work. Inara parks herself at key points in the home and sits patiently and listens, waiting for the thing she hears behind the wall to peek a whisker out in the open.

Ideally, once that whisker shows, we as the cat owners (owned?) would like to be able to say that the rodent invader is dispatched quickly and efficiently. Those of you with previous cat experience will know this is absolutely not the case. Rather, from the cat’s perspective the catching of the mouse is just the first step in what is about to become an event of extended rodential torture that would make the writers at the Geneva convention add another passage to the rule book if they were to see it.

Apparently the mouse must be made to feel that it has a chance to escape, over and over again, just to discover that there, once again, is a swiping paw to block the way. Periodically one can hear the plaintive squeaks for help that indicate the trial is not yet complete. And apparently there are moments when it has become clear that the current venue is no longer the correct one - that the dining room isn’t the right place any more, and the mouse must be moved to, say, the living room. And so the cat is seen carrying the mouse in that characteristic heads-up position. At these moments the mouse is still and quiet and you think "it’s all over".

Nope - I don’t know why they remain still in that position - if it were me, I’d like to think that I’d be like John McClane surrounded by thieves in Nakatomi Plaza doing everything I could to get free. But no, they hang, still, perhaps hoping that, if they are just quiet enough, the cat will forget they are there... in the cat’s mouth.

This is clear, of course, because once they get to the living room and drop their rodent captive, he starts to move again.

Although he is clearly not in charge of the mousing situation, Malcolm does attempt to cooperate. It would be wrong to describe them as team players - it’s more like rivals working coincidentally towards the same goal. And now might be the right time to mention that we know he can jump to the top of the refrigerator because we feed him up there. We have to because, if we do not, Inara eats all of this big, beautiful athelete’s food.

So you can imagine how well his attempts to participate work most of the time.

There was an event once, several months ago, where he finally got so frustrated that he reached over, picked up the mouse, and simply ate it. If you are picturing the kid who shoves the entire ice cream cone in his mouth so his older brother cannot take it you are right on track.


Yesterday morning, during our bathroom adventure, I was able to move the locker so that Inara could access her prize and scurry with it back out of the bathroom. I’d like to say that I know what happened next, but I had to leave, and so have only the memory of feline and mouse silhouettes against the light of the front hallway to finish that event for me. Sometimes we find the mice later, deposited in delightful locations, once they have lost their interest to the cats due to the no-longer-breathingness they have attained.

Our ancestors valued their feline companions for the perceived assistance in pest control, and understandably so. I’m not certain that, in our situation they truly make much of a difference. The mouse sightings dropped precipitously once we contracted with pest management services. For a while we had a batch of cats outdoors on duty, but honestly our dogs seem to catch more vermin than the cat crew ever did (and the dogs are merciless on that score). But it’s possible that our ancestors also delighted in the joy cats do seem to take in their assigned duties. Setting aside the ultimate outcome, watching a cat diligently at work with a mouse is a little like watching Norm Abrams put together a chair on New Yankee Workshop... in an era absent television and video games a mousing cat would likely be (and indeed, is) quite entertaining.

Mystery Nest

So this showed up in the yard the other day:

Nest

Bird nests showing up on the ground in our yard is not an uncommon occurrence. The wind out here is such we fairly routinely come across one or another on the ground. On very windy spring days it’s not uncommon to find multiple nests, and a little later in the season a bad storm can also result in multiple hatchlings finding their unfortunate end in the same fashion. It’s wonderful to be out in nature, but she does sometimes remind you that she’s often unkind.

Most of the nests we see, however, are the typical "cup" style - those that look like a little bowl that you’d keep something in (gee, like, I dunno - eggs maybe?). But this one is different. It’s larger than the others, and the hole that you see in it is the entrance. It’s composed primarily of grass, though there’s also a bit of synthetic stuffing (undoubtedly gleaned from one of the dog’s less-than-fortunate stuffed toys or beds).

Usually, when I find such things I will spend some time on the interwebs trying to sort out the details. In this case, I’d like to know what type of bird would have made this.

Unfortunately, an internet search on this topic thus far provides primarily information on what you need to know to identify a bird nest - e.g. shape, size, composition materials. I can find multiple sites that tell you those are the important, relevant pieces of information. And then none of them tell you anything about which birds go with which types of nest.

So today I live with a mystery. Anyone out there know what type of bird matches this nest?

Tiny Groves

This past weekend was Homecoming for Mendota - spirit week at the high school, the football game Friday night, the dance on Saturday. When I was growing up the Homecoming dance was always sort of semi-formal - you dressed up in something different than your other dance outfits - e.g. one might eschew parachute pants in favor of a Miami Vice jacket and dress pants - but it wasn’t a formal occasion. Formal wear was reserved for prom.

This has changed somewhat over the few years since my Homecoming days, and now the dance has taken on a more formal bent. This means fancy dress and pictures.

A popular spot for the pictures portion of the activity has been Mendota Lake Park, which offers large old trees to pose in front of, and bridges to pose upon. This has reached a point at which people are waiting in line for turns at specific spots to get their snaps taken.

Our family crew and their friends independently elected to avoid the crowd and have their pictures taken out here, at the Homestead.

This surprised me a bit - from my perspective our yard is nothing terribly special from a picturesque point of view. In fact, thinking about it from that perspective mostly makes me consider the efforts to tame encroaching nature and my relative failures in that respect. But when I asked LB and Malte about it, they pointed out that greenery and large old trees were key, and we have both in abundance. LB also casually pointed out that it would be great for pictures if the tree swing could be repaired, which put that on my mental list.

I realized, thinking about this, that they were absolutely correct. One of the beautiful things about the old farmhouses here in Illinois is the lots upon which they sit. Illinois was primarily prairie, of course, before European settlers came, with stands of trees in occasional groves that followed closely along the streams. The early settlers lived in those groves and, as they moved out to farm the prairie, efforts were made to make their homesteads mirror the preferred qualities of those groves - which is to say that they planted trees.

We continue to have some trees on the property that can be seen in pictures from decades ago. Consider this pic, which I believe is at least 50 years old:

B9425323-935D-4CE6-8C9D-9D9C4D60E87E.jpg

There are a couple of trees in particular that can be seen there that can still be seen today:

old trees

They are still in this picture from 2009:

Still there

And they are still there today, though the one on the right has clearly seen better days:

Still there still

Or consider these two old soldiers, fir trees that were originally part of a longer tree line:

Old Soldiers

These are tall trees - I have to stand way back from them to get the taller of the two entirely in the frame, which is why it is good of the dogs to help by providing scale.

The smaller of the two also helpfully offers up a branch for the aforementioned swing:

Swinging puppies

Of course we all know that trees live a long time. Still, an old tree is often a beautiful thing. These tiny groves dot the rural countryside here, but they are slowly diminishing. The upside is that I do see land where people are actively planting tree lines around their homes as windbreaks and/or installing the next generation’s tiny groves of deciduous trees. The irony to this is that I virtually always see that around the rate newer country homes.

Summer Visitors

There are a lot of little benefits to rural life in the midwest, kind one of them is the abundance of wildlife we get the opportunity to experience.

Yes - this may seem an odd statement - isn’t even the rural territory of Illinois largely tamed? It is true that we don’t have to fear wandering grizzly bears or marauding packs of wolves (though wolves aren’t really the danger that children’s stories would suggest), but we certainly do have a variety of other critters, including coyotes, foxes, and an array of marsupials and large rodentia, not to mention the f&%king raccoons...

But mid- to late summer here also offers an explosion in activity of the insect variety. Some of this is less than desirable, of course - it’s amazing how quickly after cracking open a beer the picnic bugs arrive, for example. But then there are the moths and butterflies.

Between the agriculture around us, and the array of things we allow to grow in and on the borders of the property, butterflies seem to find our little homestead a fine place to hang out.

I’ve discussed this tangentially before, but spying multiple examples of this little guy brought it to the forefront.

fuzzy little guy

It’s a curious looking little fella, and when I see things like this I find, more often than not, I want to know what it is. When I was younger, of course, that would require a trip to the encyclopedia set and/or the library, all assuming that a) I would remember to look it up once the opportunity presented itself; and 2) that I would accurately remember the thing that I’d seen days (or possibly weeks) before well enough to match what I was seeking.

Of course, the naturalists of the 1800’s would simply have sketched themselves a drawing of the thing they’d seen in their notebooks. This makes me think, nowadays, how nice it must have been to have the time to sit there and sketch things into one’s notebook. It also makes me wonder what became of all of the naturalists out there who were poor artists. Were they shamed by their peers? Or did the Royal Society require them to be able to pass a drawing test before allowing them to join? "Why I’m sorry old chap, but if you cannot accurately render Tippy the Turtle, it strains the mind to consider what would occur if you attempted to represent a tortoise in the Galapagos..."

Instead of consulting with my tweedy colleagues in the smoke-filled gentleman’s chambers at the Royal Society or combing through their notebooks, I was able to look the little guy on the grill up on the North American Caterpillar Identification site (how cool is it that such a thing exists?).

A little scrolling there finds that it is the caterpillar guise of the White-Marked Tussock Moth. If that doesn’t sound like a familiar species it may be because, like a child star, the stand-out part of this critter’s existence is in its youth. For Orgyia leucostigma adult life is one of blending into the background like a desk worker wearing khakis and a polo. Adult males are gray and black in a fashion that suggests they are moths we’ve all seen time and time again, paying them no attention except perhaps to be irritated by them. The females get the real short end of the stick, however, as they don’t grow wings strong enough to fly - they live their lives in and around their cocoon.

They are a small part of the array around us, of course. Yet, they do help to remind how much there is to see here, even within our own little wild space.

The Little Things

Evening’s Entertainment

There are little moments in life that can be close to perfect. This is one of them.

There are trade offs to rural living, to be sure - it takes time in the car to get to anything, and sometimes the weather makes getting anywhere impossible. But then it offers the opportunity to sit outside, in front of a fire, enjoying nothing but the sounds of nature, the company of good dogs, and a crackling fire.

The Coleman outdoor fireplace I’m sitting in front of was something we had when we lived in the city. On occasion we’d light it up and enjoy a bit of a fire. But while the crackling was still there, the sounds of crickets and tree frogs were eclipsed by the noise of cars driving by, neighbors arguing, and the general drone of mechanical equipment from houses that were, at best, 30 feet away.

Our old house, ultimately, is a huge project. I know, in these quiet moments, that we’ll likely never complete everything we’d like to accomplish here. But when it offers these moments I realize that’s really ok.

Milkweed

I’ll admit that the combination of a schedule with limited free time and a yard that is about two acres in size makes it difficult to keep up with more than only the most rudimentary tending. This means that I am often fighting a less than decisive battle against enemies such as burdock, lambs quarter, and the hated Chinese mulberry. Depending upon which point in the summer one views the yard, the state of my struggle can be more or less evident.

But though there are many weeds against which I battle, the one which gets a complete pass from me is milkweed.

milkweed in the yard

milkweed in the flower bed

This is not because they are a thing of great visual appeal in and of themselves. While not unattractive in the way that a burdock or lambs quarter is, (and they do flower, though not in a particularly showy fashion), they have things going for them that the others simply do not.

The flowers are a food source for bees and similar pollinators and, given that we are in an era of decline for honeybees, it seems reasonable to lean towards maintaining things that support them (we grow other flowers as well, and don’t treat for things like dandelions). But the chief benefit is, of course, that these plants are a food source for Monarch Butterfly caterpillars.

When we first moved back here one of the things that surprised me were the sheer volume of butterflies, monarch and otherwise, that we had in the summer. These range from your basic butter-pats to a variety of multi-colored visitors.

They are painfully difficult to get good pictures of, but very occasionally I get lucky.

Painted Lady

This one, a type which I see often, appears to be a painted lady according to this Insect Identification website. The site indicates that painted lady caterpillars preferred foods are thistles, and that they "also eat the leaves of mallows, hollyhock and burdock plants". We don’t see much by way of hollyhocks, but thistles, mallows, and the hateful burdock are certainly plentiful in the area.

As for the Monarch’s themselves and their relationship with the milkweed, I was lucky enough to catch a couple of shots of (what I believe are) Monarch caterpillars in action the other day:

Monarch Caterpillar

Monarch Caterpillar under leaf

The milkweeds are also home to a variety of other critters. I can frequently spot Milkweed Beetles, a critter that looks a little like a giant, misshapen ladybug, and which I’d neither seen nor heard of before till moving back out here.

Milkweed Beetle

Milkweed Beetles Mating

(Of course, I assume that what is going on in the second picture is that the beetle on bottom is sick, and the one on top is trying to help her get to the hospital...)

I’ve seen spiders hiding in between the closely gathered top leaves and, unfortunately, have also found batches of earwigs. On at least one occasion the spider and the earwigs were in the same general area, which gives me a tiny bit of hope (there are few animals or insects that I truly dislike, but earwigs are definitely on that list).

This process of exploration and discovery often helps to soothe, at least for a little while, the frustration of trying (and failing) to keep up with the tending of the big yard. There are amazing and interesting things to see around each corner, and under every leaf.

Unusual Visitor

The week of Valentine’s Day this year we had an unusual visitor in our neighborhood. The first time I saw it I wasn’t sure about what I was looking at. It was from a distance, out in the field a hundred yards or more from the car. Still, one it took off and flew away I was pretty sure...

Eagle?

Part of the uncertainty upon the first sighting is that we routinely see birds of prey - hawks and falcons - out here on the prairie. This wasn’t always so. Growing up out here in the 1970’s seeing a hawk was a rare and special event - I can vividly remember my mother’s excitement when she would point them out. I continue to share that excitement when I see them now, and I get to share it far more frequently than when I was young. Thanks, undoubtedly, to the efforts of the EPA restricting the use of DDT, one can now routinely see a hawk sitting atop a telephone pole or a fence post, or soaring overhead. It’s not uncommon to hear their shrieking calls when one is outside on a summer’s day.

This visitor looked to be different, both in size and with respect to coloration, but it was far in the distance that first day. The second sighting, however, a day or so later, was more clear. It was in the same area, again starting in the field. But then it took flight and flew ahead of me for nearly a mile, staying close to the road. At that point I was certain, but given the choice between enjoying the view or trying to stop and get a photo, I opted for the view.

MLW was with me in the car for the third sighting however, and the visitor cooperated by remaining on the ground long enough for her to get these pictures:

Yup - that’s an Eagle all right

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Thing is, while we see hawks and falcons and vultures on a regular basis, I have never seen a bald eagle out here. Certainly I did not see them when I was younger, when they were on the endangered species list, but they’ve been absent for the nearly 10 years we’ve been back out here as well. Absent, that is, until two weeks ago.

According to Wikipedia (which is never wrong), the open prairie really isn’t the bald eagle’s ideal habitat. Rather, they prefer large bodies of open water and old-growth trees. We certainly have creeks and ponds, but these are small and disparate, so it’s not surprising they aren’t regular visitors. This makes one wonder why this particular specimen was hanging out in our area (assuming, of course, that it was the same eagle at each sighting). Was it just passing through, or have the populations along major waterways finally grown enough that they are venturing out?

Hard to say. While we had three sightings within the week of Valentine’s day, it’s now been over a week since the last viewing. I’ll be keeping an eye out, though, hoping to catch it again.

Paths in the Snow

When we get a real snowfall it visually changes the landscape around us. Physical markers disappear, changes in the topography are erased. Driving down the road after a heavy, accumulating snowfall finds the demarcation between the edge of the road and the sharp drop off of the ditch now invisible, suggesting a wide, flat expanse from road to field that is present at no other time.

The sights of this moment will also change as the wind picks up, blowing the snow into drifting patterns that shift as the strength and direction of the wind ebbs and flows. In other times of year what we see varies with the season - the buds of spring, the verdant hues of summer, the colors of fall - but no other time of year is so dynamic as winter with real snow.

The weather changes the landscape, and then we follow behind and change it again to suit our needs. As we venture out, we cut our paths through the snow to allow our footfall, and the wheels of our vehicles easier transit. These, again, offer an ephemeral visual change seen only now, only in the moment.

For our human purpose, we may make large changes to the winter landscape - clearing out the driveway:

Large Paths

Or smaller ones to make moving about the yard easier:

small paths and Calamity Jane

But we humans aren’t the only ones who need to find the way through the snow. Here, Calamity Jane is content to use the path I’ve shoveled, but she has other places to be, other things to see, than I. For those purposes she - who patrols the property tirelessly - has forged her own trails:

CJ Trail

This is the type of path you get from a canine with six inch legs who is nonetheless not to be swayed from her self-appointed duties. And, other members of the canine contingent - who may not, themselves, be quite so motivated - do appreciate the benefit of her efforts:

Freyja, you lazy slug...

And all of these things are self-evident as you see them. But then, on occasion, you encounter other, less typical pathways or tracks through the snow:

Bouncy Marks

For perspective, it’s helpful to know that this shot is taken from an upstairs window, some 20’ above, and at least 20’ out from the closest marks. There is real space between each track - at least a foot on some cases, certainly more in others. This leaves one to wonder what exotic creature has ventured into the yard to take such strides...

And then one realizes: this is what the snow looks like after an Australian Shepard has bounded through like Pepe LePew chasing his true love (of the moment), refusing the indignity of simply barreling down the snow in front of her in favor of what must seem, at least in the moment, a far more elegant solution.

Historical Detritus

Our Homestead is old, but it is not now, and has never been, a museum. Throughout the course of its existence it has either served as a home, or sat empty, unused. This applies to the house itself, as well as to the property and it’s outbuildings.

The old barn on the property is nearly as old as the house itself, and it appears to have originally been built as an animal barn, with stalls for horses that include feeding troughs and the like. As time has gone on, the need for this type of structure has waned, and it has been put to other purposes - grain storage, general storage, and, apparently, raccoon sanctuary.

In these transitions, however, no one has bothered to remove or relocate the remnants of the prior usages. Hanging in the barn have been old bits of horse tack - various leather strappings and mechanisms designed for hitching horses up to wagons and similar devices.

I’d like to say that I know this because I’ve seen such items hanging in the barn and, to a certain degree this is true. However, it turns out that we have another, far more eager group of historical archeologists living on the property:

Our dogs.

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Over the years that we have lived here they have pulled out of the barn more bits of animal tack than I can ever recall seeing in there myself - the experience of finding yet another such item laying in the yard is a little like watching a slow motion clown car performance.

While I’d like to think that they are interested in sharing these historical discoveries with the rest of the family, I should note that most of these items have leather strapping attached to them, and I suspect it is this which actually gains the interest of our canine contingent. Still, they also have buckles and other metal components as well, which inevitably show up elsewhere in the yard (a delightful thing to encounter with a lawn mower, let me tell you).

The supply of these items surely must end at some point, and then we will no longer have these educational encounters with history. Until then, it does lend a reminder of the fact that it really hasn’t been that long since people used animals, rather than tractors, to plow the fields and get their product to market.

Of Shed Roofs and Holes...

For the past couple of years we’ve had a very large hole in the roof of our shed.

Hole in Roof

It was there for the hole winter

Like most rural residential properties in Illinois, we have outbuildings in addition to the house itself. Like most such properties of similar age to ours - that is to say, 150+ years of age - those buildings vary considerably in terms of condition.

I’ve written before about the old barn, which is slightly younger than the house itself. It was in a state of decay when I wrote that, and it continues to insist on embracing entropy. In addition to the barn, we have two other outbuildings - a small garage, and the aforementioned shed.

The garage is a smallish building - probably technically a car-and-a-half in size - into which we manage to stuff our two, smallish Honda Fits. This is an exercise in automotive yoga, involving parking one of the two cars - mine - so closely to the wall of the building that it is physically impossible for a human being to enter the vehicle from the passenger side. Prospective passengers - my wife and child primarily - must wait outside the building while I back out before they can enter the vehicle. This mostly works out fine - I almost never fail to stop and let them in, virtually never drive off having forgotten them...

Despite its smallishness, the garage also does the heavy lifting of housing most of the things we care about enough to care for them but, you know, not enough to bring them into the house. The cars, the bikes, spare lumber, dog food, and so on.

The shed is a much larger building. It is a pole structure, sided in corrugated steel. Growing up out here we called these "machine sheds" or, sometimes, "Morton Buildings". "Morton" is a brand name, suffering here in the Midwest the same fate as "Xerox" and "Kleenex" have nationwide. There is nothing on the building to indicate that it was manufactured by the Morton company and yet, on multiple occasions I’ve been heard to utter than name in relation to it. More recently, however, I’m sure much to the relief of Morton Buildings, Inc., I’ve just been referring to it as "the f&%king shed".

And this takes us to where we started: there was a hole in the roof of the shed.

While the majority of the building - both sides and roof - is covered in corrugated steel, it did feature skylights made of translucent fiberglass. I wouldn't have actually known they were made of fiberglass, but Mother Nature felt it important to educate me, and so chose to rip one of the panels off in a windstorm, providing me the opportunity for close inspection of pieces of it down on the ground.

Now, I’m all for gaining knowledge, and I don’t want to seem unappreciative, but this lesson had a rather permanent effect upon the weather-tightness of the building. Perhaps Mother Nature could, in future, email me a link to a Wikipedia entry or something...

The process for addressing this took longer than one - particularly if one is me - might have expected. First up was a call to the insurance company in hopes that repairs to the building might be covered. Unfortunately, they pronounced the repair costs to be below our deductible, and drove off with their checkbook secure and unmolested.

Not expensive enough for the insurance company isn’t the same as inexpensive, however. Given this, and given the fact that most of our items of value were already stored in the garage (even with a roof fully sealed against the elements, the dirt floor of the shed is not ideal for longevity of stored items), we moved the few other items in there away from under the roof opening and started to save up.

Once we were ready to get the roof repaired, early exploration of this found a new area of concern. As I mentioned, there is no indication on the building to suggest that it is a Morton Shed and, in fact, no indication on it (that I can find) of its manufacturer at all.

And - not only am I unaware of the make of the building, but I’m also unsure of its age. I know that it was not there when I was little, and that it had appeared at some point between when I moved away and when I returned. The progression of years is such that this seems to encompass but the briefest period of time, but reality insists that it covers a span of at least 15 years, if not closer to twenty.

I am not always a fan of reality.

This wouldn't seem much of an issue to the casual observer, but it turns out that corrugated steel siding comes in multiple, subtlety different shapes and designs. What this means is that matching the pattern on the building becomes a challenge. The pattern on our shed looks like this:

Shed Pattern

When first informed of this issue I thought perhaps of repurposing sections of siding that appeared on the old barn. Two different types of siding had been added there over the years, likely in both cases to better seal it up against the elements and extend its lifespan.

The Barn white siding

The Barn steel siding

However, given the barn’s decaying state and, perhaps more importantly, it’s ongoing engagement in providing aid and comfort to the enemy, I would have been willing to repurpose those sections. And you’d think, being on the same property and all, that they’d perhaps be the same type of siding...

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. And of course, by "you", here, I mean "me".

Shed again

Barn White up close

Barn steel up close

If you look up close and personal at those pictures you’ll see that the patterns do not match. Whether this reflects a different era of product, different style, different manufacturer, or all three remains a mystery, but they are, in fact, different nonetheless.

And here I was learning so much about the diversity both within the world of corrugated steel siding, and within the bounds of my very property. The nature of these lessons were such that, while I originally thought them visited upon me by a gracious, if heavy handed Mother Nature, I found myself now wondering if they were not perhaps the work of the old gods brought over by my ancestors, perhaps the whim of Loki peeking thru...

Ultimately I was pleased to find at there is a way to cover the opening with a newer roof panel that does not match, exactly, but which will function to keep the elements out regardless. In fact, this could be done using new translucent panels that continued to function as skylights, but were not made of the fiberglass material that tends to become brittle over time, and do things like break off in the wind.

The shed guys came out and repaired the roof this past week, leaving it looking a little different, but now sealed - at least at the top - from the elements.

All sealed up

Late Summer Oasis

The Stand

At one corner of the property we have a stand of tall plants primarily dominated by goldenrod and false sunflowers. When I first started taking pictures of the stand, it was with the thought that I would research and write a piece about the plants themselves, in a vein similar to the one about Chicory a short while back.

I enjoy learning about the things around us, especially about the things that are ubiquitous in a way that we often take them for granted. In many respects we think of these as ditch weeds, things that grow in areas that we do not tend and likely don't care much about.

Goldenrod is everywhere in the Midwest in late summer, and sometimes blamed for allergy flare-ups. Still, according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong) this is an error of association - ragweed is in bloom at the same time, and can be readily and more appropriately assigned that blame (f&%king ragweed!).

I remember the Goldenrod from childhood. The false sunflowers I do not, though that could simply be due to fuzzy memory or a childhood lack of attentiveness. They are also everywhere now, blooming along the roadside. And I should note that I believe these are false sunflowers - a bit of research makes me question that a bit. Multiple sources indicate that these plants grow anywhere from 16" to 59" tall. I think we can all agree that a five foot tall plant is a respectable height, but here's the thing - I'm about 5'8" tall, and I was standing up straight when I took this picture:

too tall?

...and this picture:

these are very tall plants

As you can tell from the angle of the shot, I'm looking up at these plants as I take the pictures. They are easily six foot tall, if not a bit taller. So, either these are a different type of plant, or my internet sources, including Wikipedia, have inaccurate or incomplete information about the growth range for these guys.


Like I said, I started out approaching this with the intent of writing a piece about these plants. Then I got in close to the stand for more pictures...

Now, before we moved out to The Homestead I had grown a small garden of native wildflowers, so the fact that there were bees buzzing about didn't entirely surprise me, but the sheer volume of them did.

Bee on Goldenrod

This batch of late summer blooms is one of many across the countryside, but most, like ours, are little islands, oases in what must otherwise seem a floral desert to our bee friends. I know that the potential for getting stung can frighten some people when they come across something like this. Still, I, and I suspect many people with gardening experience, have typically found that the bees are content to tolerate your presence as long as you aren't disturbing them. As my Grandma Marie would often be heard to say "if you don't bother them, they won't bother you".

And speaking of bothering them, I also came across this fine specimen:

Mantis Lunch

I've always known that their name, while referencing an appearance that suggests penitence, also reflected a predatory nature. Still, I've rarely ever seen them in person, and certainly never seen them in action. Given the decline in bees that has been going on, I briefly considered trying to free the victim - he was still moving. But nature is as nature does, and the mantis would undoubtedly catch another.

Ultimately, what I love about areas like this is that they become their very own ecosystems. The bees and other small insects are there, of course, and the presence of the mantis shows that they, and likely other critters are also about, preying on the pollinators. There is something pleasant and peaceful about having something like this, right there, nearby.

Critter Patrol

When one gets a dog, one anticipates many of the features that accompany such an animal. They offer affection and companionship. They provide warning of new arrivals and intruders (albeit at their discretion). One thing I didn't expect, even with a lifetime of dog experience, was the level of vermin management that our canine team offers - indeed, seems to revel in.

We've detailed some of our issues with the Trash Pandas here, including the roles the dogs have played (and frankly, which we wish they would not play) in rounding them up. But the pest management goes much further than that - our furry exterminators offer more comprehensive services.

It is not at all uncommon for us to find, typically in the grass by the patio and back step, one or more recently dispatched members of the family rodentia, as well as the odd North American marsupial and periodic avian remains. To date, the list of gifts we have been left include:

  • House mice
  • Deer mice
  • Opossums
  • Shrews (I originally had moles on the list, but Wikipedia now has me convinced that what the dogs have caught were actually shrews)
  • Rats
  • Raccoons
  • Various and sundry birds

We have rabbits at the edges of the property - relatively recent additions. Thus far the dogs don't appear to have caught any of them, though it's not for lack of trying. There are no squirrels in our vicinity, but I'm sure they would be a target as well.

For the first few years at the Homestead we had a contingent of outdoor cats, brought in with the explicit intention of pest management. They were a fine batch of felines, as far as it goes, but at this point it's fairly clear that our canine crew is far more effective - perhaps because the cats didn't always see the need to quickly finish their prey off. The dogs are, however, perhaps less discriminating about what they eliminate - the birds are not pests, and possums are not problematic.

All of which brings me to the event that made me think of sitting and writing this post. Almost every morning, when I get up to make my coffee, Calamity comes to the back step to greet me through the window. And when she came to see me this morning this is the view that greeted me:

Calamity Back step

Because of the color of her fur you have to look closely to see it, but sure enough, she has a bird in her mouth.

Calamity the bird hunter

Bird Circled

And one might think: "okay, but she probably found that dead somewhere - a dog can't catch a bird". And that might be true for this particular bird - I can't say. But I can say that I've watched both Rosie and Calamity run into flocks of birds on the ground and scoop up individual birds as they start to take flight. And to be clear, I'm not looking to encourage this - we don't see the birds as pests to manage - but it is both surprising and impressive to see.

When I was very young we had a dog - a male rat terrier named Gladys (thanks Mom) who would routinely bring captured mice to the back step. This sort of thing is common for terriers, as I understand it, but our dogs are not terriers - they are herding dogs.

And they apparently like to herd a variety of critters right off this mortal coil...

All-Too Invisible Fence

I do not usually mow the lawn - often this is a task that others either enjoy (MLW) or have inflicted upon them (LB), but I decided to give it a go today. One of the things I decided I was going to do with my mowing adventure was really cut in close to the edge of the property and trim back some of the tall stuff that tends to grow along the field.

Back in October of 2015 I relayed a situation in which my cousin had inadvertently cut our invisible fence line. After this event I had put in several steel fence posts as markers to provide reference points for him, and for myself, indicating where the fence wire was. I thought myself pretty clever for doing so and, in fact, my cousin hasn't encountered the fence since.

What I didn't anticipate is that I might later be a victim of my own cleverness and drive over one of those fence posts in my effort to trim close to the edge of the property. I was fortunate, however, to only roll over it with a tire as opposed to the more serious problem of hitting it with the blades (did I mention that I do not usually mow...?).

I chalked this up to life experience and largely forgot about it until LB fed the dogs and said "the alarm on the invisible fence is going off".

I'm not sure the swearing was out loud, but the volume of it in my head was considerable.

It could be worse, though. I had a rough idea of where I thought it was (around the aforementioned fence post), and I had purchased a kit to help find breaks in the fencing during the adventure in October of '15.

So I gathered up the items from the basement shelves and got to work. As I started the process of searching I became aware of a couple of things:

  • All of those teachers in elementary school who accused me of not reading all the way through the directions before starting a task were a pain in my ass. And, incidentally, they may have been right; and
  • I get very crabby when I think I'm winding things up for the day and a new problem pops up.

That second item isn't really a revelation, per se, as much as it is a periodic reminder.

At any rate, I gathered up my cheapie radio and telescoping handle and walked out to the area I thought the damage was, only to find it was doing nothing but bringing in local radio stations. I messed around with this for a little bit before finally admitting that it was at least remotely possible that I'd forgotten how the procedure all works since my single experience with it 20 months ago.

Turns out there are several additional pieces of paraphernalia, and some additional setup, that is required before you can detect your break in the fence. It also turns out, oddly enough, that all of those additional pieces were sitting on the shelf right next to where I'd retrieved the first couple of pieces. Who would have guessed?

As I noted back when, the repairs are fairly simple once the break is located and uncovered. Today's repairs, though, were somewhat complicated by the extensive colony of ants that had apparently made their home somewhere in the vicinity of my damaged wire. They were not shy about making their objections known:

unhappy ants

For the record, they were not just crawling, but also biting. As it all went on I'm sure I appeared the monster, since many of them would end up returning home on their shields...

It's all better now, though, assuming there is not some giant ant overlord coming for revenge...

Out in the Cold

I said last time that I delight in the midwestern winter, even when I'm entering it after a week in the tropics.

Fortunately, life out at the Homestead offers plenty of opportunities to spend that time outside in the snow. On our first full day back from vacation there were a handful of activities that I tackled, all part and parcel of time on the prairie.

Since we missed the first snow of the season I hadn't thought yet about picking up salt for the sidewalk. This fact was provided as a near miss at a painful reminder as I felt my feet move out from under me when I took my first steps out the back door. It was added to the list of things to pick up as I ran my errands.

But when I returned from those my primary chore - which I'd frankly left a bit for want of time to address it - was upon me. A little longer ago than I care to admit MLW sent me a text to let me know that a rather large section of the fir tree next to the back door had broken off and fallen to the sidewalk.

Limb Down!

One of the things I've had to teach myself about living out here is that it is often better to leave a project - at least one that isn't an emergency - to a time when one can handle it properly. As it stands, with the declining daylight hours I typically leave in darkness, and in darkness I return... The limb had fallen near the sidewalk, but it wasn't in the way of anything, and it was too large for me to simply pull over to the brush pile; it would need to be cut up. But this meant that I'd be working on it in the snow.

Given the size of the limb, and in the interest of efficiency and practicality, I made a suggestion to MLW:

E: Hey, you know, what do you think about just using that fallen limb as our Christmas tree this year?

MLW: ...

E: Hey honey - I said I thought maybe we could use that fallen limb as our Christmas tree.

MLW: Yeah - I heard you the first time.

It appears she was, shall we say, less than interested in that option.

So I gathered up some of my yard weaponry and prepared for battle.

Yard Weapons

I used my implements of destruction and was able to get it into small pieces fairly quickly. I keep thinking that I should get a chainsaw - there are enough downed limbs and weed trees to justify such a tool. But there is something especially satisfying about taking apart a limb like this with an axe. A few well-aimed swings can separate things into manageable pieces, and it's hard not to feel like you've accomplished something when you're done.

Once cut up, though, the pieces still had to be hauled off to the brush pile. Given that Freyja was hanging about and "helping", I tried to elicit her assistance:

E: Hey Freyja, you like to haul wood about. How about you carry these on over to the brush pile.

F: ...

E: Really - come on - you're big and strong. It'll be a good workout for you.

F: ...

Freyja is not interested

So, yeah, disappointed for the second time of the afternoon, I hauled it all off for future burning.

Anytime I do something like this, outside, in the wintery weather, it reminds me how quickly one warms up if one is actively working in the cold. I started up bundled up against the cold, but before I got halfway through I was loosening buttons and unzipping things to get relief from the heat. It's mother nature's little gift.

Burdock

If you have spent any time exploring unmanicured areas in northern Illinois you have undoubtedly encountered Burdock.

The Wikipedia entry for Burdock describes its role as a food item in Asian countries and as the inspiration for Velcro, which is all well and good. What Wikipedia fails to do is to accurately describe this plant as a hateful, invasive weed that is designed to wreak havoc on the coat of medium to long-furred canines passing by.

It's slightly possible that I have not been as diligent as I could have been at trimming around the old barn. One consequence of this oversight seems to be that of allowing a burgeoning colony of Burdock to grow in and around that area. What's more, if I wasn't aware of my lawn care failings of my own accord, Rosie, our border collie/Australian shepherd mix has been helpfully making me aware.

I need to do some further research here, but based upon our recent experiences, it seems quite possible that border collies and Australian shepherds were selectively bred as Burdock seed distribution devices.

Sometimes you can catch the seed pods shortly after they have attached, at which point they can be removed fairly easily. However, miss a day or two of grooming, or fail to detect the presence of one of these things during a grooming session, and it can work it's way into a mat of fur that seems to require divine intervention (or scissors) to remove.

It appears that it could certainly be worse than we have it here, as a quick google image search confirms. Still, this fact does not prevent this plant's placement on my "I wonder if extinction is always a bad thing" list.