Sunday, July 26, 2015

North American Butterfly Count

The Crozet Team on the hunt
Yesterday thirty nature lovers broke into 3 teams to participate in the annual North American Butterfly Count for Albemarle County. Taking 4 hours in temps reaching 90 degrees each team covered a different area of the county to record each species of butterfly spotted. I was on the Crozet area team with 12 others.

This spider web was hanging over a creek.
Most of those participating are Virginia Master Naturalists (I sadly am not one) so going out into nature with such a broad knowledge base is quite fun. Plants, birds, and insects can readily be identified. You can't help but encounter other interesting things along the way.

Orange Sulphur Butterfly in purple Knapweed.
Several weeks ago the Ivy Creek Nature Center Education Room was packed with enthused nature lovers to be trained in butterfly identification. The program was prepared by Nancy Weiss and Terri Keffert of the Rivanna Master Naturalists. This was the first part of preparation to participate in today's count.

A Viceroy, sadly not a Monarch, but still exciting to see
The final numbers have yet to be tallied but hundreds of butterflies were spotted. It sounds like an easy task to identify a particular butterfly but many butterflies mimic each other to resemble bad tasting species. It takes a trained eye often looking through a good set of binoculars in order to accurately id. The topside and underside of one butterfly can be very different which also makes things complicated. Sometimes it comes down to just how the butterfly flies or what is referred to the flight pattern. There are around 20,000 butterfly species on our planet but luckily in Albemarle County Virginia there are "only" about 70.

Spicebush Swallowtail
You may wonder why the count is necessary, other than it's just plain interesting and fun to do... it can be a barometer of the health of the area. There is a lot of talk of the decline of bees but we need to remember that many other insects pollinate such as butterflies and moths. Butterflies are also a major part of the food chain being a main food for birds when in the caterpillar stage. Habitat loss, pesticide usage, and climate change can impact butterfly numbers killing off species. Twenty are on the current endangered list.

Deep in the wildflowers in Old Trail
The count was great fun and I was so fortunate to be able to participate. Several area residents came over to ask what in the world we were doing poking around in the brush as if we were trying to find something elusive. Fortunately this year there was plenty of action but sadly, we never saw a Monarch.

Mushrooms growing near a creek
You can help by not using toxic chemicals and by growing native plants which often provide food for caterpillars and attract adult butterflies. Each year I add more and more native plants (in part thanks to the Native Plant Society annual plant sale) and my yard has been a butterfly bonanza this year!

Lovely wildflowers and pond in Crozet
Often we do not understand the relationship between one species and another until we study it. We see a plant that has chewed leaves and think our plant is doomed when often it's just part of the normal course of things. The worm eats the leaves but turns into a beautiful butterfly that turns around and pollinates the plant it chewed.



Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Keeping Chickens Entertained

Big Red and Iris enjoying a drink together
Chickens are constantly on a treasure hunt trying to find the best snack or perch. How do you keep chickens entertained and happy. I can't imagine caging up chickens without access to GRASS. Predators are always a concern but chickens are curious by nature and will thrive if allowed some roam time digging and running.

The following tips will keep chickens occupied. 

Kids playhouse on top of Subaru heading for chickens.
Haul in something for them to climb on. We found a kids playhouse on freecycle and strapped it to the top of our Subaru. They love perching on it after a rain to preen their feathers high off the wet ground. From time to time I bring in some shovels of dirt and toss in the floor of the house - all sorts of near invisible little snacks for them to dine on inside dirt!
Janie our biggest chicken and the leader.

Daily snacks. Each morning I juice oranges and share one half with seven chickens. Too much citrus can give them runny poo so don't overdo it. Also, it's been said crushed seeds and rind are not good for them, fortunately, when you juice, the seeds come out and they only want the interior fiber so all is good. I spear it so it doesn't turn upside down. Little ants and critters crawl in the cup, a chicken delight.

Forage for goodies on your property. Bring 'em some garden worms, cutworms, lettuce, dandelion leaves, raspberries, mulberries, blueberries, or strawberries (if they ignore berries, it's because they are too hard, so squish them and they will come running). They don't always have access to fresh greens in their run so I go and collect a little of this and that for them.

Leave some tall grass around the fence perimeter.
Tall grass & old roof panel, perfect for movable SHADE
One of our best predator defenses is the tall grass that has grown into the base of our fence. It is near 
impenetrable. We've spotted black Ratsnakes taking care of a mouse in the tall perimeter grass. Chickens love to jump up and eat the grass seed that has been allowed to mature. They also love to scratch and claw in the tall grass. We don't weed eat around our fence and trying to get the fence out is near impossible. We've never had anything more than a mouse tunnel its way in.

Make sure you have a soft dirt area in the shade where they can take dust baths. They like loose soil, leaves, or even wood chips. This is a chickens FAVORITE daily activity! Something as simple as digging a hole and mixing in wood chips or leaves will create a bath area that will be fought over!

Movable expansion pen, predator proof we hope.
Enclose a grassy area with a movable pen safe for them to patrol and hang out without fear of predators. My husband lets the chickens out of their coop at 7 am when he goes to work. I wanted them to safely have access to grass before I wake up several hours later. Coyote prowl until 9 am and Hawks are always out and about. I no longer sleep with one eye open from 7 - 9 am.

Old shutters provide light but tons of SHADE & dust bathing.
Section off fence areas and open them as the day progresses. My chickens are enclosed in their "safe zone" most of the day and when I am not home. Around 3 pm they are let out into the broader fenced area until they go up to roost. They love getting out where they can run and flap their wings, flying all about and enjoying breezes. Chickens tend to rest in the shade midday under the coop from 11 - 3 so there is no need for them to have free roam access as a predator could get them.

Provide them with shade zones. We hinged together two old shutters to create a place where they can dust bathe and hide out during the hot summers and even when it snows.

Pool noodles are not just for pools!
Perches, perches and more perches. I was looking for a low perch for my young chickens and decided a soft log might be the ticket. I stuck a bamboo rod through the center of a pool noodle. They LOVE it.
Your chickens will be safer, happier and you too will enjoy watching them have fun!


Saturday, May 23, 2015

The new Chickens have Arrived - Name that Chicken

New chicks!
Several days ago we received a wonderful gift of 6, 6 week old chickens hand raised by my neighbors. If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you might remember that we fostered 6 chickens for our neighbors when they temporarily relocated to Hawaii for 3 years. We loved our little flock and as the time passed we lost 4 from natural causes.

Moltie from my prior flock, always on the go & into something

When my neighbors returned, we gave them back their 2 remaining White Leghorns. My favorite chicken, Little Moltie, was one of the survivors. When we acquired the chickens they were 3 years old. Now, they are nearly 7. It's amazing to think they have lived this long. Apparently they have decided to kick back in gear and actually lay an egg nearly every day! It's very rare for a chicken to continue laying at this age. They are very happy and free range among lots of trees and leaves. I believe all the nutrients they scavange from nature has helped bring this along.

This is a no kill zone people - says Big Red
On industrial farms chickens are culled at 18 months when they first molt and egg production temporarily stops. It's cheaper to buy another set of pullets (young chickens) than to wait for them to begin laying again. Chickens can lay for many many years if free ranged and allowed to live a life naturally, as intended.

Chicks finally roosting, sleeping soundly.
So what's new on Forsythia Hill... Janie (Dominique), Iris (Welsummer), Cleopatra (Red Dorking), Big Red (Rhode Island Red), Raven (Australorp), plus one unnamed (Buckeye). I really wanted a mix of breeds to see how they differ in laying and in personality. Janie is the leader of the pack, Big Red is the sweetie, Raven is the smartest, Cleopatra is the prettiest, and little Iris is the baby. She is often heard crying if anyone is strays from the flock she SHRIEKS... come back, don't stray, you might not find your way!

Janie, don't mess with me chickens or else!
A small flock requires a secure space for roosting at night and ranging during the day. There are many predators; foxes, hawks, raccoons, opossum, & dogs (to name a few). Chickens are just plain fun but like any pet be prepared for some work and expense to feed and care for them. If you are outside often and can provide an entertaining space for them and socialization you will get the most from your flock (more about how to keep your chickens busy throughout the day in a future blog post).

I need a name please
Name my chicken! One last chicken needs a NAME. She is unusual in that she has 5 toes. Most chicken breeds have 4. She is identical in coloring to Cleopatra but they are different breeds. Please post your suggestion on my blog.


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