The Vixen and The Queen

IMG_8241_edited-1Our resident fox has five kits. Their den is in an acre of woods abutting our land and is visible from our southern windows. At first we saw the vixen–a gorgeous creature–going regularly to a spot by a stone wall. Eventually we started to see other movement in there–small gray animals, looking rather squirrel-like. Out came the binoculars, which revealed some kits.


This isn’t the den, it’s in our orchard-to-be

We’ve been spying on them since. The vixen spies on us, too, keeping a careful watch when we are working in the yard. IMG_7933
She seems to be gone for hours sometimes, presumably hunting, and when she returns the kits all come running. She nurses, grooms them, and lets them explore the surroundings, herding them back if they go too far. IMG_8080One morning, we watched her hunt in the long grass where our orchard will be. IMG_8089She caught a squirrel and some smaller rodents–voles, I suspect. IMG_8012Foxes are considered beneficial here for tick reduction because they kill many of the tick-carrying rodents. No one in the immediate neighborhood has any chickens, so the fox is quite welcome. Apparently this acre of woods has had a fox den for at least a few years. The kits, of course, are ridiculously adorable. They are turning from gray to red and getting bolder. IMG_8256
Lucky for me, they’ve been providing entertainment because I twisted my ankle a few days ago. I was in apple mode at the time, focusing on learning all I can for rehabilitating our old apple trees and creating a new orchard. I had just been to a grafting workshop where we learned whip & tongue grafting.


This was our example of a proper cut. You can see the cut back “tongue” if you look carefully.

Apple seeds, like people, are unique and different from their parent trees, so grafting is necessary to reproduce specific apple varieties. Whip grafting involves attaching an apple root stock to a scion–last year’s branch growth from the desired variety–by cutting both quite precisely with a very, very sharp knife. IMG_8450Needless to say, learning was messy. 20160409_124420.jpgI was pretty good at making the initial cut, but had a terrible time cutting the tongue properly. It got a little bloody. Nevertheless, I went home with eight newly grafted old apple varieties, with wonderful names such as Blue Permain, Yellow Transparent, Rhode Island Greening, Northern Spy, and Cox’s Orange Pippin. If half of them make it, I’ll be lucky.20160409_132501
My other orcharding activity, pruning, resulted in the sprained ankle. Nothing exciting, I just hopped off the apple ladder into a hole and the damage was done. I have a tendency to sprain my ankle at really bad times (twice while on vacation in Hawaii). This time was no exception because the bees were arriving in two days. Fortunately, I know the sprained ankle routine. I iced it, wrapped it, elevated it, watched the foxes, and recovered remarkably quickly (which I attribute to yoga). IMG_8068
That brings us to the queen. She is here, along with the rest of the bees, although she likely is still caged. I ordered a package of bees from a wonderful local apiary, where I had taken beekeeping classes. They picked up a trailer load of packaged bees in Georgia and arrived in Maine with them on Saturday. Each package had 3 pounds of bees and a caged queen.  George had been working on the hive area and it was ready for bees.


We took down a low-hanging branch from a cherry that was shading the hive too much. The flies and a moth gorged on the sap.


IMG_7858We picked up our bees and brought them home.  There are many ways to hive bees, depending on the hives and personal preference. IMG_8145We’re newbies (or newbeeks, in beekeeper slang), so don’t even pretend to be knowledgeable.  But, here’s what we did.  I lightly sprayed the bees with sugar syrup. IMG_8147I removed the can of feeding syrup from the package and then the queen’s cage. She is surrounded by bees here, so you can’t see her. IMG_8162There is a bit of “candy” in the lower third of the queen cage, which the bees are supposed to eat through to get to the queen and release her. That process gives them time to get used to the queen (so they won’t kill her). I gently poked a hole in the candy with a nail (easier said than done) and placed the cage on a frame in the hive. IMG_8158Then I thumped the package on the ground to get the bees in one corner and dumped them in the hive. IMG_8166A bit more thumping, shaking, and dumping and most were out. IMG_8171Then I very gently, without squishing any bees (I think) put the remaining frames in the hive. IMG_8174IMG_8179We gently brushed the bees off the top and, with George’s help (thus, no photos) slid the feeder on and put the quilt and roof on. Success! IMG_8195Blooms have barely started here, so the bees will need to be fed sugar syrup for the next few weeks. I will check the hive on Tuesday to see if the queen has made it out of her cage. In the meantime, the bees appear to be doing well. IMG_8268I find them mesmerizing.
IMG_7887.jpgFinally, the Tom turkey put on quite a display last week, presenting his rear to us from every angleIMG_7900IMG_7898


Zoe presented her belly.


IMG_7687After March’s spring tease, April was a reality check. My dreams of early gardening died a nasty death. The ground froze. It snowed. More than once. It iced. It rained. The wind blew from the north, the west, and now the southeast, a ferocious force here on our hillside. We now are under a high wind and flood warning. Fortunately, we are too high for floods, but the wind is making the house talk.  I’m hoping we don’t lose power before I finish this post.


A goldfinch transitioning from winter to summer plumage.

Although we have not been able to do much work outside, we have been well-occupied. I’ve been taking beekeeping and orcharding classes and keep starting seeds (they are taking over).  George built a hive stand, tung-oiled the bee hive, and moved compost over to our new raised bed sites. We just started pruning when the frigid weather hit. IMG_7743
As the weather forced us inside, the wildlife came out to play. Our wild turkey crew, hugely adult now, have been regularly cruising the yard and back woods. They scratched, scratched for what was left of the shriveled apples on the ground and were herded around like a harem by the Tom turkey. IMG_7707He strutted and puffed along behind his ladies.IMG_7712.jpg Until the truck distracted him.  He did not know what to make of the other Tom he saw in the bumper. IMG_7678.jpgPuzzled at first, he peered from below, above, and to the side. When it didn’t go away, he started attacking his reflection. Silly boy.IMG_7699.jpg
One afternoon when flocks of robins were wheeling around the house, we heard a massive thump as a bird hit our sliding glass doors. We don’t get many bird hits on our windows, perhaps because we don’t have many trees or feeders close against the house. This one, though, was a doozy. It was a Hairy Woodpecker, his body lying nearby on the lawn with a wing awkwardly outstretched. He appeared to be very dead. George and I gave him up for gone, agreeing that we would put the body in the woods as soon as we went outside.
Surprisingly, about fifteen minutes later, the given-up-for-dead one was sitting up and looking around. In another ten minutes or so, he flew up to the nearby pine that has our bird feeders and suet.


He looks a little roughed up, but not bad for one who looked grave-ready ten minutes earlier.

And this was the really fascinating thing–he rubbed his head thoroughly, up, down, and sideways on the branch in front of him, as if giving himself a head massage or trying to ease the pain. I’ve never seen a bird do that before. Then he stopped, sat quietly for a time, flew to the suet, had a good feed, and flew off. He’s been fine since. I suspect that any bird other than a woodpecker wouldn’t have survived such a hard hit. Woodpeckers skulls have evolved to cushion the pounding that their brains take when they drill away at trees. Apparently hardheadedness has some advantages. I’m glad this one made it.


Our tulips are suffering with the crazy weather. This one looks okay.


But many look worse for the wear.

During our tempestuous weather, we had one good cool, windless day for burning. George, with Zoe’s company, burned several huge brush piles in preparation for stump and rock clearing. IMG_7431George has been busy since fall clearing brush and cutting trees in the area below our lawn. He is clearing back to a curve of ancient apple trees. IMG_7783We will have our garden beds and a sitting area in the cleared space. We don’t have the equipment to pull the stumps and big rocks, however, so hired someone to bring in a little backhoe to do the job. Maine’s glacial hills are rock strewn and ours is no exception.IMG_7720
A day and half with the backhoe and the big rocks and stumps were out.


Looks a bit moonscape-ish.


The rocks are endless.  Dig some out, and the frost brings new ones up.  IMG_7790And we’re talking rocks of substance, not little nubbly things.  IMG_7792We have some new stone walls in the making. I am in awe of the early settlers who cleared these Maine woods.


This old stone wall is the back border of our property. No back hoes used for this one.

How they got those rocks and stumps pulled without modern machinery, is mind-boggling to me. IMG_7786So much work to clear fields. And when farmers moved West after the Civil War, the fields grew up so quickly again.IMG_7528
Our land was pasture not too many years ago, but has grown up again. I took a walk around it last week to see if we had any skunk cabbage in our low area, or any other surprises–I was hoping for lady slippers. I didn’t find either, but found plenty of interesting fungi and bark. IMG_7531IMG_7456IMG_7606IMG_7590IMG_7535.jpgIMG_7616.jpg
Aside from the turkeys, the foxes also have become very active again. We suspect they may have a den near our side yard. They come and go over to an old stone wall at all times of the day. Zoe sniffs with great interest and barks in that direction. She’s not a barker, so something has her attention. Perhaps we’ll see fox kits again this spring.IMG_7797.jpg