GRAPE PICKING

Tomorrow Liz, Felicia and I are meeting early to pick grapes at an undisclosed location – Texas mustang grapes. We will then make juice in Liz’s new juice boiling gizmo and then jelly. Liz did this last year – half of that jelly is in the fridge to have on my morning toast. Despite this evening’s heat and heaviness, I am looking forward to the morning sorta-cool, walking in grass picking fruit with friends.*****
Well. My fantasy of a fruit-picking idyll in the wildwood was just that – fantasy. The wildwood part, at any rate. Liz had said we would pick near the entrance to one of the parks and then go the the tractor store if we needed to. We go by the park but there were not many grapes ripe enough, so we head for the tractor store.
I thought we were getting tools or something but Liz was talking about picking grapes there – grapevines grow thickly along the embankment between the delivery drive and the next block of businesses.
She just parks her car there in the drive and we take turns holding down branches while she cuts them with her telescoping lopper. Several 18 wheelers pulled in with their deliveries and pay us no attention other than friendly waves. It’s true – if you don’t behave furtively and act as though you have every right to be somewhere, people tend to assume that you do. Felicia, Hispanic and dark-skinned, jokes that since we have a Mexican, people think we are a landscape crew.
We fill Liz’s trunk with branches dripping with grapes, drive to her house and work in her driveway getting the grapes off branches and into buckets. Inside, we boil them down into juice, make some jelly and each go home with a quart of additional juice and grapes. I am making kvass with some of the grapes and boil the rest into more juice to freeze for later use.
Just before bed, Liz sends a photo of herself making a mustang grape martini. Whenever she asks me to do something with her, I will say YES!!!!

Migration Continues

At our regular walk at a county park, we got the highest count ever – 50 species. And that is without any woodpeckers or hawks. It was a great day despite the rain. You never know with birds – sometimes on days like that you see nothing, and sometimes on what seems to be a perfect day, nobody is seen.

We got a Cassin’s vireo, which is very unusual for this area. I didn’t put it on the official list as I didn’t see it and it would be difficult to defend, but others did. We also got several chestnut-sided warblers, another species that usually takes a more easterly route, who were hanging with a large feeding group of yellow warblers. And the yellow warblers were in large numbers, not the usual two or three that we see.

Get outside!

Feral Hogs

About the only thing we hate in this area as much as uncontrolled Ashe Juniper is feral hogs. They are large, aggressive and prolific. If surprised, they will charge – 50 to 200 pounds of angry wild animal. They root up under trees for insects and destroy any saplings that have escaped over-browse by the deer. They root up the riparian areas, destroying those delicate ecosystems and fill the streams with their fecal matter. Right now we have so much damage and presumably ecoli contamination that I am hesitant to let my little grandson play in our section of creek. What good is it having a creek if your grandchildren can’t play in it?

So we are at war. Specifically, Hubby is at war with them, and I am his loyal supporter. He has pored over articles from agrilife extension. He has gone to all-day workshops. It is a good use of his deep focus and somewhat obsessive tendencies. To be effective, one has to get the entire sounder, a family unit of one or two sows and their offspring, and a dominant boar – anywhere from a dozen to two dozen pigs. No small task.

For years, we have had game cameras on our various deer feeders to monitor who is coming and when. He has taken careful notice of what hogs are coming to which feeder and when and has hunted accordingly. He is a good fit for hog hunting because he is a night owl – hogs mostly feed at night – and he can watch movies on his phone in the blind while waiting for his victims. But this is somewhat hit and miss (we aren’t even considering that hogs might have gone unnoticed when he has been engrossed with movies). Hogs are smart, smarter than porpoises, with intelligence that is close to that of humans. They easily become trap-wise. They remember which feeders had gunshots. They can see and hear us long before we see or hear them, and have a keen sense of smell. So the odds are stacked in their favor.

The latest workshop had tips about hog bait. Hubby currently has a metal garbage can filled with deer corn, a dash of Mrs. Butterworth’s Pancake Syrup (not diet), diesel fuel and table scraps. Makes me feel better for not composting. Even some of my failed carrot kraut and bread dough can go into the mix, since the whole mess ferments in the heat.

Hubby has his eye on a particular trap that consists of moveable panels, cameras, and an system that connects to one’s phone so the hunter knows when to go out. It has a gate that lowers by remote control when the entire sounder is in the pen. Hubby has gotten the phone and the connection package to see how well it works before shelling out for the rest of the equipment.

The fence around our house is made of 6” hog paneling. The nearest blind is 50 yards behind the house. Hubby cleared out a wide swath through the grass so that he can shoot from the safety of the back yard. This isn’t laziness – were he foolish enough to walk to the blind to shoot, he would either scare them off or they would charge him. Even though we no longer carry life insurance on him, I am not yet ready to see him go.

The set up was easy (we are both notoriously poor at anything electronic). Only one call to the manufacturer to straighten things out. So he sat in bed watching movies and monitoring activity at the feeder. I sat on the back porch, dozing and reading. Sometime after midnight, the silence of the pitch blackness was shattered by what sounded like a cannon. The dogs leapt from sleeping beside me to curling around my head and whimpering. I ran into the house, calling for Hubby but he was nowhere. Moments later, he ran into the house.

Success! While watching Netflix, he got a message that a hog was at the feeder. He pulled on his bathrobe, grabbed his gun and got a perfect head shot of the hog. Pork is on the menu!

Will Bird for Food

On the antelope horn milkweed above, look carefully at about 8:00 on the bloom to see a tiny butterfly, I believe a juniper mestra.

Birding has taken a new wrinkle. Have been leading the bird censuses at the county parks for several years, with a great deal of help from my friends. It is truly a collaborative effort, and I have learned much from them.

Recently, Liz helped our friend Prudence put up several nest boxes and coached her on how to monitor them and record the results. Pru and her husband are putting their property under a wildlife management evaluation, as our property is. She would like to do a monthly bird census and asked me to come up and help her. I leapt at the chance. So early this week I drove through a very dense fog up to her place in the next county. She, her husband and I trekked around in the fog and got a decent list – Usual Suspects. The overwintering birds are mostly gone and the colorful summer residents are mostly not up from South and Central America yet. And the fog was no help – I got most of them by ear and gave them some tricks to remember the sounds by – especially for a very noisy white-eyed vireo (Quick! Get me a beer, chick!) who followed us around.

Their property includes a bit of woodland with some fabulous heritage oaks, an old agricultural field, river frontage and a folly. Yes, a folly! Per dictionary.com,

Architecture. a whimsical or extravagant structure built to serve as a conversation piece, lend interest to a view, commemorate a person or event, etc.: found especially in England in the 18th century.

Their folly is a small squat brick structure and currently houses a decaying deer head that, once clean (Pru is hoping fire ants will find it and hurry the process), will be a decorative feature in their garden. The folly is clearly old – what an odd thing to find on a property in Texas!

By the end of our three hour walk, the fog suddenly cleared to reveal a cloudless blue sky. Pru’s husband looked through his binoculars towards the center of an oak tree and announced, “There is our owl.” I thought he was kidding, but there in a clear patch sat a great horned owl, grooming. Several times it looked directly at us and the face was unnervingly feline. Pru got some pictures before it flew off.

My payment (I would do this for the sheer joy of birding and spending time with a friend) was lunch at a cafe in their little town. Great culmination to a super morning.

Then my friend Sophie asked me to help her bird a property. Her little town has approved the building of a new subdivision. The developers had to set aside a couple hundred acres as….I want to say appeasement, which captures the spirit the action but is not the legal term.

A fellow master naturalist, she convinced the homeowners association to let her do surveys of birds, butterflies and natural features before doing any development of trails, etc. so they know what they have before they change it. We hoped to find golden cheeked warblers, an endangered bird that breeds only in this area of Texas. In the entire world. We didn’t find any this trip, but certainly the habitat is right, and the neighboring property has them. We walked the perimeter of the property, following hot pink stakes to make sure we didn’t trespass. Around here, countryfolk tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

We GPS-ed some sites that have potentially interesting geological features for our geology pal. Got a survey of the birds that were there – similarly a between seasons Usual Suspects list. Sophie noted the plants she could ID and likewise butterflies and moths. Neither of us have any expertise in those areas, especially me, but we have master naturalist buddies who do and will be delighted to walk a property and identify things. Becoming a master naturalist has changed my life – I don’t know much about anything but birds, but the program has put me in touch with people who are knowledgeable in all sorts of areas. I am spurred to tackle butterfly identification – they are so lovely to look at.

Again, a gorgeous spring day hiking with a friend, followed by lunch at a new-to-me Tex-Mex place. Sophie insisted on paying. I tried their enchiladas de mole and they were among the best I’ve ever had, and not just because I was hungry enough to eat my own leg!

Day at the Natural Area

In addition to managing our place for wildlife, both Hubby and I volunteer at a local state natural area, not yet open to the public. It is in the process of conducting various studies – plant, wildlife, geological, archeological in order to see what is there, and thus what where and what kind of development can take place. I help with the bird surveys, he has helped with the geologic surveys and now is in charge of the hog management team. Watch this space for an upcoming post on feral hogs on our property and more details.

One component of hog management is securing the fences in order to exclude the hogs. With 29 miles of fence-line, this is a huge and likely never-ending task. But, as the gentle dripping of water weareth away stone, one does a bit at a time. His team is identifying areas with hog damage and then repairing adjacent fencing, rather than attempting the whole thing at once.

Thus, we found ourselves out there the other day to survey an area already identified as damaged with fence in need of repair to see how to get fencing material out there with an ATV (nothing heavier than a four-person ATV is allowed, in order to save wear and tear on the roads).

Not only was it a glorious day, no other teams were on the property, so we had the entire nearly 4000 acres to ourselves. We picked up disks from the relevant game camera to look at interlopers later, then headed on out to the corner of the property in question. Sadly, the ATV makes too much noise to see any birds other than soaring raptors, though there were plenty of those – both species of vulture, some ravens, a red-tailed hawk. We made a note to take ear protection next time.

Once we stopped, it was lunchtime. We had sandwiches and blond brownies. This gave enough time for the effects of the noise of the ATV to wear off, and I heard the pre-nuptial cry of a golden-cheeked warbler. The males are just up from Central America and are establishing territory before the females come up. Marked the location with my new GPS app to send to the leader of the team documenting Golden Cheeked Warblers.

It was a bit of a hike down a steep, gravel covered slope (even with trekking poles, I landed on my lardy butt once), across a run-off and up another slope. The area is marked with extensive hog trails, all coming to a head at the intersection of the two fences. Part of the problem is that the fence ends at a huge boulder and is not secured, leaving a gap of about a foot. Enough large rocks are around that the gap can likely be plugged up with them, followed by repair of the bottom edge of the fence where the hogs have snouted up openings. The area is also home to at least 50 empty tequila bottles, so unless they are pre 1967, they are not considered archaeological and can be removed.

We took a slightly different route back to the ATV, hoping to find a flatter way to make it easier to carry fencing materials, but there is no way around it – there is a dropoff that must be crossed. At the top of the drop off, Hubby found an area littered with chert. Being high and overlooking a water source, it likely was a place for Native Americans to sit and work on arrowheads. We took photos and noted the location with GPS for the archaeology team leader.

On the way back to HQ, a monarch butterfly, first of the season, flew right in front of us for several yards, begging to be identified. I dutifully reported it to Journey North and the team leader for the butterfly surveys.

Not a bad day – besides the pleasure of one another’s company in a breath-taking location in perfect weather, we got to document an endangered species, a new site of (minor) archaeological interest and the first monarch of the season.

Get outside!