Reality Ranching August 2016
What a roller coaster weather ride we have had in our little corner of Kansas this spring and summer! We had flooding rains in May only to have Mother Nature turn the tap off for the entire month of June. June was also very hot with several 100 plus degree days that caused the big bluestem grass in our pastures to stop growing and begin to yellow in color in what should be the prime grass month in the Flint Hills. Corn, beans and milo gamely hung on (how I don’t know) and when a storm system blew through the first week of July providing the parched earth with a much-needed drink, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from our shoulders.
Within two days of this wonderful rain, the pastures turned green again and the crops were noticeably taller. However, the heat came back with a vengeance and we suffered days of searing heat often accompanied by strong winds that felt as though you were in the middle of a blast furnace. Soon the pastures were again looking weary while the cattle found relief in the shade of trees or by immersing themselves in the stock ponds. We had two rains just a couple of days apart the third week of July along with a drop in temperature which raised everyone’s spirits. We knew it wouldn’t last and sure enough the heat and humidity returned with a vengeance but again we were saved by rains in August. Things really look good now especially for this time of year. Just goes to show you can never out guess what Kansas weather will bring.
I have often come home from various travels somewhat disappointed with the bird life and wildlife that seems thin compared to what we have on the ranch. One day in early June as I was listening to various bird songs drifting through the open windows of the house, I decided to walk the perimeter of our “yard” and make a list of the birds I saw or heard.
Stepping out the back door my first bird sighting was a squadron of barn swallows diving, swooping, banking, and doing loop-de-loops( well not really but I think they could if they wanted to) in pursuit of flying insects too small for human eyes to see. The reason for the bird’s frenzied pursuit of this prey is that they have mud nests in the rafters of our barns full of hungry youngsters. As I move into the yard, some of the bug-hunting parents decide I am a threat and begin dive bombing me, uttering angry bird expletives, warning me to not go near their precious broods.
Turning the corner of the house I peer up into the solo mud nest that is glued to the side of our house and find the single Eastern Phoebe chick peering back at me. The adult Phoebes managed to lay claim to this barn swallow nest before the rightful owners/builders of the nest took up residence. From here I look over at the hummingbird feeder where a pair of the speedy birds is taking turns sipping the sugar-water. Well, they aren’t really taking turns as one hummingbird will chase its competitor away and dash back for a quick sip, until the other winged bullet returns and chases the dining bird away so it can get a quick meal. There are four feeding stations at the feeder but the two contentious birds can’t stand to share the feeder. What a waste of energy!!
I wander over to the cattle corral that borders the south end of our yard where a bluebird house is attached to the fence. A male Eastern Bluebird is sitting on the fence, his blue feathers glowing in the sunlight. I’m pretty sure his mate is brooding eggs in the wooden house. Near the bluebird house are a clump of cedar and oak trees and a male Cardinal is belting out his territorial song as Chickadees insert their “namesake” chorus into the Cardinals boisterous singing.
Walking towards our shop/garage I find Brown-headed cowbird perching on the electric lines in another of our cow lots. I don’t care much for cowbirds as they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests leaving the rearing of their young to whatever bird is unfortunate enough to have their nests hijacked by the lazy louts. Even worse the young cowbirds will often push their step chicks out of the nest to their death. I guess the one interesting fact to this weird habit is that once the young cowbirds leave the foster parents nest the youngsters join up with their own kind without a second look back at the birds that worked so hard to raise them.
I hear a Baltimore oriole singing (it is one of my favorite bird songs) in the towering hackberry tree that stands near the shop. As I am looking for the bright orange and black bird, I spy a Robin sitting on its nest that is well situated on one of the trees sturdy branches. Cool, I had no idea that this robin’s nest was here. I do find the Oriole and watch the bird for a bit as it rustles through the leaves of the hackberry in search of bugs and worms.
I move on to the grove of walnut trees near the western border of our yard. A Red-bellied Woodpecker is pounding with brain-rattling intensity on a dead limb in one of the walnut trees but decides to fly away upon my intrusion. Walking along the wire fence I arrive at a dead tree and I am surprised to find a Nighthawk doing his best to melt into one of the lifeless limbs in order to hide from me. The camouflage of these birds really is incredible as their mottled pattern blends into the bark of the tree. It is just a bit unusual to find a nighthawk this close to the house.
Wait a minute! Why is there a bull in the little brome field? The culprit turns out to be the young bull we had put with a small group of heifers yesterday. We had turned the cattle on this brome patch and then opened the gate that leads into the pasture. When Paul saw the cattle grazing in the pasture later in the day he shut the gate. I interrupt my bird watching to inform Paul that we need to put the bull back out into the pasture with his herd, (evidently the yearling bull wasn’t too impressed with his harem), and then find out where the breach in the fence is that allowed the bull to get back into the brome patch. The silly bull decides he doesn’t want to be herded to the gate, so Paul goes into the pasture and calls out to the black heifers. Since the young heifers have been accustomed to being fed grain they come running to the gate in anticipation of receiving a bucket of pellets. Once other bovines are within sight of the silly bull he decides that walking to the other end of the small field is acceptable after all. We shoo him out the gate where he is reunited with his herd. I’m not sure, but I think the heifers would have preferred grain instead of the bull:). Paul and I figure out that the bull did not exit the brome field when the heifers did yesterday and we actually locked him in the brome field by himself overnight! I still saw birds on this unexpected detour including more bluebirds, Tufted Titmice and a wren that was scolding me from the safety of a dense bush.
I wander out by the vegetable garden where a chipping sparrow is hopping around on the ground. I hear a Blue-grey Gnat Catcher talking to itself in the foliage of a nearby tree but I never catch sight of the tiny bird. Leaving the garden area, I go back to our driveway which takes me by the lilac bushes which are filled with English sparrows conversing in their rather tuneless chatter. More barn swallows swoop and dive near the barn where we store mineral and a tractor. Halfway down the gravel drive I hear the nasal honking of a White-breasted Nuthatch as it scurries up and down the trunk and branches of a big old oak tree. I love these busy little birds that are as comfortable going up a tree trunk as they are walking head first down a tree trunk.
When I reach the iron gates at the bottom of our driveway a Red-tailed Hawk takes to the air from its perch at the top of a tree. This hawk has been hanging around in the general vicinity all spring. I’m surprised my yard rabbits haven’t been thinned out by the raptor. Across the road in the pasture I listen as a Dickcissel calls out its name over and over. There is also a Great Crested Flycatcher calling from one of the trees that line our driveway.
I turn around and plod back toward the house where I make another left turn once I reach the border of our front lawn. This road takes me next to the lagoon where I spy another bluebird sitting on the top wire of the fence. There are several crows flying over the treetops near the main creek, their raucous cries piercing the air like arrows. As I walk through an open gate a gorgeous Indigo Bunting flies from its perch, its brilliant blue plumage flashing in the sunlight. Continuing on I walk down to the creek crossing where a Great Blue Heron is standing like a piece of yard art in the water. He gives a hoarse croak of surprise and launches himself out of the creek. With deep, ponderous wing strokes the ancient looking fowl flies off to the south.
Returning to the road I turn right at the gate and walk the grassy path that runs along the creek for a short distance. Our house sits maybe 300 yards north of the path I am on so I consider this part of the house grounds! I don’t see much on this short jaunt although a pair of goldfinch fly out in front of me, the male as bright yellow as a lemon drop. When I reach the cattle lots there is a Killdeer calling out plentifully as it runs around in the south lot. There is no dragging wing display so I don’t think the brown and white bird has a nest. There is also an Eastern Meadowlark sitting atop one of the trees growing in the cow lot, singing at the top of its lungs.
I have circled back to the shop and am walking toward the house when a pair of Purple Martins land on our martin house animatedly conversing with one another. I am delighted to see the Martins who showed up in our yard a few days ago. We have been putting the martin house up for several years now and there have been lookers but no takers. I have high hopes that this pair will decide this is the perfect spot for them and return to rear their young next year. Last but not least as I approach the back door of our house a House Finch is warbling from his perch in our Sycamore tree which puts a smile on my face at the sound of the pretty tune.
So, in forty-five minutes time more or less, I identified twenty-eight species of birds on our property close to the house. I was surprised not to see any Mourning Doves in the yard and I didn’t see or hear a Belted Kingfisher while near the creek. I know I would have seen a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Upland Sandpiper, and Red-winged Blackbirds if I had walked toward the highway once I reached the end of our driveway. Not a bad tally for such a short time! Later, Nancy