Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Turkeys, Turkeys Everywhere!

A few weeks ago as I was getting my workday underway, I got an excited call from Janet. She and the kids had just been leaving the house and spotted something along the driveway that they just had to share. A pair of turkeys had crossed the driveway in front of them. To their delight, the adults were followed by a fuzzy little crowd of ten poults bobbing across the drive behind them.

As the days have passed since, they regularly tell me of seeing this little family beneath the pine trees along the drive. I have mentioned it to a few neighbors and it seems from their responses that turkeys have not been common here in the past. People seem excited that they are hearing of turkeys appearing with greater frequency and our account only adds to the evidence.

This morning I received yet another excited call. This time I was amazed to hear that in addition to greeting the original twelve birds, they had driven just a little further up the drive and observed a second group of turkeys with three adults and even more poults than the first!

I have to admit that I'm surprised our little woods at the front of our property is big enough for that many turkeys. I also know that the same area supports ring-necked pheasants because I have heard the cocks calling there a number of times. I know that my eventual addition of cattle to that area of the property will remove some of the underbrush that makes this area so attractive. Hopefully they will be able to relocate to another area of the farm or into the game preserve just across the road.
Turkey photo: Jon Sullivan

Acrobatic Air Show

Sunset is my favorite time of day. The long shadows and yellowing light signal that the work of the day is drawing to an end, whether you are ready or not. The countryside takes on a dream-like quality as the sky puts on a dazzling and fleeting display.

I glance to the horizon as I scurry about to put away tools or push myself to get just a little further on a project before it becomes too dim to see. At times the sights overwhelm even my desire to get one more thing accomplished and I rush into the house to retrieve whomever is at hand to join me in the front yard to watch the last of the light show.

During the summer evenings, the colorful skies serve as a backdrop for a display of beauty and skill by our resident barn swallows. Their flight paths take them in swinging arcs over our heads as they turn to make yet another pass low to the ground above our hayfield. Their graceful acrobatics are so pleasant to watch as they dart back and forth across the meadows scooping insects from the air in their beaks. How they can see the insects at that speed and in that dim light is beyond me.

To my pleasant surprise, I have discovered that I have the ability to schedule a command performance by large numbers of these aerial artists whenever I wish. The simple act of firing up my tractor and beginning to mow the hayfield brings them from far and wide at any time of day. As I make my way back and forth across the field, I can watch several dozen swallows zip through the air at daredevil speeds. As they swoop and glide, it is as if I were watching warplanes reenacting a dogfight from the best seat in the house.

I have yet to drive into any trees as a result of my swallow-watching but a careful observer may note that my mowing cuts tend to meander a bit more than they should. To me, the flight of these little acrobats is no less captivating and graceful than a pod of dolphins playing in the surf.

Photo by IanF, http://www.birdforum.net/

Green Eyes In The Dark

Yesterday was a very pleasant day weather-wise. It was cool and breezy with a solid cloud cover that kept the roasting sun at bay. I spent much of the late evening with hoe in hand trying to make gains in my struggle with the weeds in the garden. As the light grew increasingly dim, Aidan returned to notify me for the third time that it was time to come in and read his bedtime story.

Making my gradual way to the house, I stopped by the coop to bed down the chickens for the evening. They came out of their huddle in the corner to accept my offering of feed and fresh water with appreciative little honks. I counted them, said goodnight and closed the door behind me.

I found the house pleasantly dark and quiet. Freya had gone to bed early and Aidan was sitting in his bed awaiting my arrival. I stopped by to briefly check in with Janet who was comfortably curled up with a book in the bedroom. She was enjoying the stillness and the cool night air that came in through her open window. She was in the final few pages of a very long read but patiently endured my interruption to receive a good-night kiss.

I retrieved a chair from the kitchen and sat down next to Aidan's bed to pick up the story of Tom Sawyer where we had left it the night before. Tom was taking advantage of a surprise visit from a local dignitary to his bible study class to force his teacher to present him with an award for memorizing verses that he hadn't earned. He was smitten with the visiting judge's daughter and was trying to make a good impression. The judge was unknowingly praising the badly behaved boy as "a fine young man". Tom was on the verge of getting caught in the lie by being asked to recite when our story was interrupted by a call from Janet's room.

Janet asked, "Did you put the chickens away?". I replied that I had. Then she said, "I just heard a really strange noise coming from the coop." "It sounds like something is killing the chickens!"

I raced around the house preparing to head out to investigate. I flipped on the outside floodlights in the hope that it would discourage whatever was out there until I could get my shoes on. I grabbed my LED headlamp and burst out of the front door. As I rounded the corner of the house the coop came into view in the white-grey light of the floods. I could see nothing out of the ordinary but I grabbed a weeding hoe from the shed just in case.

About halfway to the gate of the coop I was collected enough to finally turn on my headlamp. It is a little marvel that puts out a surprisingly bright white light. I sped along the edge of the garden toward the coop and scanned the area with my light. It was then that I caught sight of something that stopped me in my tracks.

About thirty yards to my left the fencing of the chicken enclosure turns a corner toward the woods. Next to that corner was a large pair of bright green eyes looking directly at me. They were wide-set and triangular, clearly belonging to something fairly large. They were very still as the creature watched to see what I was going to do.

I resolved to scare it off, whatever it was. With a rising sense of indignant rage that this thing would dare invade our tranquil little farm I began running down the fence row toward where it was standing. The ground there is very rough with leftover ruts from the spring plowing and before long I had tripped and sprawled to the ground.

I quickly jumped up and resumed my pursuit. With a half roar, half growl emanating from my throat I charged through the weeds to the property line. A quick scan ahead showed me that my quarry had fled across our neighbors field and had paused at the safety of the treeline to stare back at me with those bright green eyes once again.

I continued my growling pursuit, running as fast as I could across the recently mown hayfield to where it had been standing. Arriving at the spot, I checked my pace and stood barking a threat into the dark of the forest. I could hear it crashing through the brush, moving in an arc away from me through the woods toward the southeast. After a short walk into the woods and a bit more growling and waving my hoe in caveman fashion, I convinced myself that it was gone.

I returned to the coop and verified that the birds were all healthy and safe. I'm pretty confident that no predator can get to them once they are closed inside, but I just wanted to check to be sure. They were stirred up by all of the commotion but otherwise unharmed.

After I returned to the house, I spent some time exploring the Internet for any clues to the identity of our invader. My assumption had been that I was chasing a coyote and the websites confirmed that their eyes shine green-gold at night. One other possibility came to light as well that I admit was a bit of a surprise. According to several conservation groups researching the subject, we have a sizable population of cougars in the state. For example, click here. According to them, cougars have been spotted all around our area including a sighting only ten miles away two weeks ago.

I know that coyote is the far more likely culprit. We know that they live near us and they are certainly more plentiful. At the same time, when I think back to the sight of those ghostly green eyes I find myself not so sure. The placement of the eyes seems very broad, suggesting a large, wide head. The eyes were also rather triangular in shape, definitely suggesting something more feline to me.

I'm sure I'll never know. I went out this morning in search of tracks but found nothing remarkable. If nothing else we can just chalk it up as another exciting adventure here on our little farm.

Mysterious Tracks!

A few nights ago the quiet of our home was suddenly shattered by an eruption of barking from the front room. The children had just gone to bed and I was in the back of the house having a conversation with Janet. Aidan came running down the hall with alarm in his voice telling me the obvious fact that "The dogs are barking!!" The commotion even stirred Freya from her bed who came out to follow me down the hall to see what was going on.

In our old house in Ypsilanti, the barking of the dogs was a nuisance noise that elicited little more reaction from the rest of the family than a half-hearted scolding to "Be Quiet!" from elsewhere in the house. The world outside our home was a busy place with families walking their dogs and mailmen cutting through the yard on the way to our porch. Finn and Sirona would spend much of their time gazing out the front window or "dog television" and rarely let anyone pass by without a giving out a bark or two.

Life on the farm is another situation entirely. The dogs still look out of the window but the green world outside rarely presents anything worthy of comment. Occasionally Finn will alert us to the passing of our little deer herd but usually his barking is an indication that somebody is coming up the driveway.

On this particular evening, his barking was especially insistent. I looked out the front window but saw no cars nor people. With Freya cautiously in tow, I walked out into the front yard and shined a flashlight into the dark. In the hope of stirring some movement and probably a tiny bit to settle my own nerves, I shouted a warning "Hah!". After a few more minutes of looking around, I concluded that whatever had peaked Finn's interest had moved on. We returned to the house and our evening went on as before.

Around two-o-clock in the morning, we were again disturbed by frantic barking from the living room. As far as I know nobody else stirred but I rocketed out of bed to investigate. This time I found Finn standing at the back window barking and growling excitedly. I grabbed a flashlight and a dog leash and we headed out to have a closer look.

Immediately upon passing through the doorway into the cool night air, Finn puffed himself up with all of the hairs on his back and neck bristling. Clearly on the trail of something, he sniffed the air and pulled on his lead. We raced across the yard toward the chicken coop while I encouraged him to "show me what's out here boy!".

We searched around coop, we headed a little way into the woods and we circled the house. All the while Finn sniffed excitedly at everything. In the end we failed to track down or scare up anything. I found myself wishing that he could talk and could tell me what it was that he was smelling.

The next morning, I was going through my usual chicken-feeding routine before heading off to work. I had pretty much forgotten about the adventure of the previous night until I approached our shed in the backyard. I found that our nocturnal visitor had chewed a big hole in a fifty pound bag of chicken feed and had spilled much of the contents on the shed floor. I moved the remaining feed into a trashcan as I should have done from the start and cleaned up the mess.

At the end of the day, Aidan and I were working on the garden when we discovered a couple sets of tracks in the mud near the shed. I retrieved one of our field guides to animal tracks and we sat down to determine the identity of our visitor. Right away I could see that two very different animals had been there.

One set of tracks were easy to identify as raccoon. This was pretty much what I had expected since neighbors had been warning me that the raccoons could be a nuisance. The second set of tracks, however, proved to be a bigger identification challenge.

The field guide that I was using was meant to cover the eastern half of the country so I knew it would include some animals that didn't live in our area. As I scanned back and forth through the pages, one particular animal stood out as the best match for the tracks. I would look at the track and tell myself that it was the best match but that it had to be something else.

I methodically worked from one animal to the next and made certain that there were no other matches. It was too big for a skunk. It had too many toes to be a fox or large cat. The clear separation of the toes from the central pads and the close placement of toes ruled out raccoon. The deep claw marks ruled out a number of other possibilities.

In the end I had no option left but to return to the original track that seemed improbable, that of the badger. Unsure if it was even possible, I consulted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website. To my surprise, it told me that badgers are indeed in our area although they are rare.

Weighing all that I have seen, I have concluded that the raccoon was the culprit who was disturbing our sleep. A little more observation around our home led me to the discovery that an old bird-feeder had been knocked off of the deck railing just outside of our back sliding door. I imagine that he was after the bird seed inside and the resulting crash alerted Finn to his presence.

Thanks to the racoon's clumsiness, Finn and I had a few minutes of adventure during the night. More importantly, he raised our level of curiosity and observation of our surroundings which led directly to the discovery of our more rare visitor, the badger.

First Thing Planted In The Garden?......Eggs!

Two evenings ago, Sean, Freya and I headed out to the coop to put the chickens in for the night. I had asked them to join me in preparation for an upcoming evening when I would not be home. I wanted to show them how to round up all of the flock and get them safely closed indoors before dark for fear of predators.

This is an easy task for the bulk of the birds as simple bribery with a little chicken feed is very effective. Unfortunately, there are always a few stragglers who seem to prefer taking their chances with the coyotes. If you make the mistake of trying to grab them, they will happily lead you on a wild chicken-chase that will leave you flustered and empty-handed. I have found that the best remedy is to patiently wait by the coop door until the desire to be in the evening pileup with the rest of the flock overrides their thoughts of freedom and independence. One by one they eventually poke their heads around the corner and cautiously make their way to the door to be let in.

Having completed the task, we closed the gate and started walking around the end of the newly plowed garden and toward the house. Glancing at the soil in the sunset gloom, my mind registered that something seemed out of place. There was a large dark patch in the otherwise dried out soil just a few feet from the edge of the garden. We walked over to the spot and found a very large snapping turtle partially dug into the dirt. It had a shell that had to be at least 17 inches in diameter.

After the initial excitement, we retrieved one of our field guides to verify the species. The book said that the female turtles would leave their watery haunts in June and lay their eggs in sandy soil. We let her go about her business undisturbed and resolved to mark the spot with stakes so that we wouldn't harm the eggs. According to the book, she will have laid between 10 and 96 eggs about six inches beneath the surface. They will remain there until hatching in 55 to 125 days.

It would be amazing to see them dig their way out of the soil but I suppose our chances of being there to see it are slim. In any case, she added a little excitement to our evening and served as a reminder of the wild animals that share our farm as well.

Screaming Peepers!

When we were in the process of buying our farm I had the opportunity to meet the former owners and get a little tour. I recall that they mentioned that the frogs in the pond next to the house could be very loud. They told me that we would have to keep the windows closed if we wanted to get any sleep. I remember thinking to myself, "Yeah right, you obviously aren't nature lovers like we are!"

Now that we are living here I may have to recant. The weather hasn't gotten quite warm enough yet to tempt us to leave the windows open at night, but I have to admit that the peepers are extremely loud! It is so noisy out there that you can tell when anybody opens a door from anywhere in the house.

I made a little video here to demonstrate. Take note of the sound level in the house before I open the door.

Annoying The Cranes

By far, the largest bird to return to the farm this spring has been the Sandhill Cranes. They are common in this area for some reason. I remember the first time I came upon one after moving to Michigan and being awestruck by their sheer size and prehistoric sounding calls. They are four foot tall and have a seven foot wingspan.

They are a common sight at this time of year in our front yard and fields around the house. They stalk along on their stilt legs looking like Jim Henson creations. Much to the irritation of the nesting geese, they also wade around in the pond looking for fish.

I made this video in an attempt to show how large they are and how amazing they sound. They don't seem to have much fear of us and generally go about their business as long as we keep a respectful distance. I deliberately annoyed them by walking slowly in their direction so they would move and fly away. Please excuse the shaky camera work!


What Is That Crazy Noise?!?


I am a night owl and don't require as much sleep as the rest of the family. Most nights will find me knocking around the house until 2 or 3am. At a little after midnight a few weeks ago I walked out into the dark to retrieve something from my car. As I approached the vehicle a sudden explosion of unfamiliar noise stopped me in my tracks.

Hopefully if you click on the link above you can hear what I did. It is a crazy collection of high-pitched wailing, wavering howls and barks. It sounded as if somebody was torturing a large number of puppies nearby. It was very loud and seemed to be coming from the wooded area across the road to the west of our farm. It sounded as if it would have taken at least ten individual animals to make that much racket.

Since that night I have figured out that the noise comes from our apparently sizable population of coyotes. Most evenings, I can walk out on the deck and listen to them howling back and forth. On the occasions when they gather together for a group howl, as I had heard that first evening, it can be amazingly loud. Now that I know what to listen for, I can hear them in our closed up house, even over the furnace and whatever other noises are around me.

I imagine that we are destined for a rocky relationship in the future as we fill our farm with tasty treats such as chickens, ducks, turkeys, calves and goat kids. It has me thinking about strong fences and even worrying about our dogs a little. I would think they would avoid a scrap with Finn, our 90lb yellow lab. Sirona, on the other hand, is a frail and elderly 40 lbs that would probably be much more tempting.


Wildlife Page

Be sure to take a peek at the new "Wildlife" page that I created this evening. You can reach it from the home page by clicking on the "Tour the Farm" link.
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