Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

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A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

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The cranes are here!

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There are so many benefits to living where we do now, including but not limited to lots of fresh, local fruit in the summer. But just now, coming off a long, dark winter, we’re most excited to see one of the true harbingers of spring: the greater sandhill crane on its annual migration between New Mexico and the Yellowstone ecosystem (northern Idaho and Montana).

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Greater sandhill cranes are big, gorgeous, elegant birds; adults stand about four feet tall and have a six-foot wingspan. They’re most easily recognized by their sooty gray coloring and the red patches on their eyes and head, and that they flock by the thousands. Their plumage can take on a rusty red sheen, because they often preen by rubbing their feathers with iron-rich mud.

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In Colorado, a flock of about twenty thousand birds gathers in February and March in the San Luis Valley, where they rest and forage before heading further north. About five thousand of these birds then make their way straight over Delta County, where we live, often stopping at Fruitgrowers’ Reservoir just to the east of our farm.

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Greater sandhill cranes are the oldest birds still living today; fossil records from two and a half million years ago indicate that they’ve changed hardly at all. Rock art and other artifacts in the San Luis Valley show that cranes have been important to the region’s people for as long humans have inhabited the area. Their annual migration is a sure sign that we’ve survived another winter, and spring is on its way.

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Sandhill cranes sleep in shallow, calm water to keep themselves safe from predators, so a reservoir like Fruitgrowers’ is a perfect stopover location. These birds are opportunistic feeders; they most often eat plants and grains, but they’ll also feast on invertebrates and small mammals, if available. The Western Slope and the San Luis Valley offer thousands of acres of fallow cornfields in which to forage.

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The cranes are most active at dawn and dusk when they “commute” to and from their daytime feeding grounds. The population along the Platte River in Nebraska is so large – half a million birds – that the cranes’ noise can drown out normal conversation. Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call, and the birds can frequently be heard even when they can’t be seen. The cranes are often spotted along the same transitory route in fall, but they rarely stop over in Delta County. Local experts believe this is because the reservoir is dry in the autumn, so there is no place to for the birds to sleep safely.

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Although sandhill cranes aren’t quite as demonstrative as the famous dancing prairie chicken, the birds will perform for their prospective mate. Sandhill cranes mate for life and can live up to twenty years, a remarkable lifespan for a wild bird. These cranes don’t nest here in Colorado but instead lay their eggs up north; the female typically lays two eggs and the male guards the nest. It takes a month for the eggs to hatch and two months for the chicks to reach maturity, although only one chick usually survives.

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We are thrilled to share space with these magnificent birds, and we look forward to their migration every spring.

P.S. If you’re interested in seeing the cranes in huge numbers, the two best locations are Monte Vista in southern Colorado and along the Platte River in central Nebraska. Both are definitely worth the trip!

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Farm update: February 18

Despite the snow on the ground, spring is in the air. We’re entering the freeze-thaw cycle (also known as mud season) and our quarter-mile driveway is the worse for it, but all around us, things seem to be softening and readying for growth. We’re excited for spring, friends. This winter has offered much more moisture than last year’s punishing drought, and we’re looking forward to seeing how our fields regenerate once the snows have disappeared for good.

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One of our favorite winter activities has been watching for wildlife across our land; the persistent snow has made tracks easy to see. We’ve spotted coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, ground squirrels and of course our nemesis, deer. We are trying hard to learn this land, to know what lives here now and what was here before us so we can figure out how to best live in harmony.

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A helpful guide to Quiet Farm wildlife

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Lots of people move out to the country to escape from society and get closer to nature. (We did.) This is all well and good, but more often than not that human-wildlife interface becomes difficult for both sides. On the Front Range, for example, dozens of black bears are killed by wildlife officials every year because they show little or no fear of humans and are regularly caught breaking into homes and businesses to scavenge for food. Many more are hit by cars. Mostly, this is because we continue to encroach on the bears’ territory, and because ignorant humans continue to place unsecured trash in places where the bears can access it.

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Here on Quiet Farm, then, one of our biggest challenges will be how to live in harmony with our local wildlife, rather than against them. For us, deer pressure will absolutely be the largest issue we face. There are thousands of deer in the nearby area, both whitetail and mule; we’re also surrounded on three sides by apple orchards, which attract deer and lots of other creatures who love fresh, crunchy apples, too. As we plan our vegetable beds for next season we’re still debating how best to protect those vegetables from the deer; these animals can do thousands of dollars of damage in one hungry night and we have no interest in opening an all-you-can-eat salad bar.

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