Wildlife

Newly acquainted pest patrol team

I made a few friends last few weekend!

First is the elusive “Eastern Pretzel Snake”:

In all seriousness, it is an Eastern Milk snake on the verge of shedding its skin. I find milk snakes to be especially pretty but I realize I am in a minority, possibly due to 40+ million years of evolution.

Whether humans are instinctively fearful of of creepy crawlies is an area of active research that has been finding some conflicting results!

Regardless, milk snakes are in the king snake genus meaning their diet includes other snakes, even venomous ones. Logic indicates that those who fear snakes should be internally conflicted at that fact, but phobias rarely allow rational thought; especially if it is literally in our DNA.

Acquaintance 2:

There used to be a large, white and orange-tabby cat that patrolled the barn and surrounding area. I have not seen that individual in some time but now there is this white cat. It appears even larger, but it has fluffier fur so a true size comparison is hard to make.

I’m conflicted about outdoor cats, both domestic and feral. One study estimates 1.4 to 6.9 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals are killed by cats just in the US. Additionally, an increasing amount of video documentation is capturing a sport hunting behavior where cats kill other animals for amusement rather than sustenance.

While I assume feral and strays are most responsible, there are products available to keep domestic pets from contributing to the statistics. Although the product basically makes your cat look like a clown, it is affordable ($10) and fairly effective. This study found effectiveness at reducing bird kills, but not mammals.

 

Mostly because I anticipate lacking the fortitude to address the moral hazard presented by the cat but also because I have no scientific way to measure the effect it has on local wildlife, the cat will remain unmolested and considered a pest suppressant with full awareness that the latter point is likely delusional.

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Wildlife

Made an unexpected critter friend

While canvassing the forest in a grid pattern in search of a wounded deer, I came across this critter:

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I’ve contacted the Virginia Herpetological Society who identified it as an Eastern Box Turtle and urged me to add the encounter to their catalog.

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Wildlife

Photo: Why I love deer hunting

Nothing is a better use of my time than outdoor activities that let me observe the rhythms of flora and fauna as well as the non-biological powers that influence the biological. I love wildlife, nature, forest ecology, and general observation of how those factors respond to human activity in their singular drive to continue existing. Hunting learns me how floral activities change on an annual basis while observing faunal activity at larger scales- from seasonal to day-to-day.

Only the added goal of securing sustainable and renewable food in the forms of fall deer hunting and fall to spring trout fishing is enough motivation to endure sometimes bitter cold everyday before the sun even rises. In the case of the former, it also gets me outside for the final hours of the day. During the rest of the year however, I don’t end up spending as much time outdoors…at least not on as regular of a basis as foraging for fruit (fungal or floral) does not require as specific of timing.

In addition to the lifeforms I target for food, I’ve learned so much about those that I don’t: plants, bugs, mammals, reptiles and different birds from song to raptors to carrion.

What does this all mean? It means my knowledge of climate events and wildlife are limited to fall and spring. It makes me a bit sad that I don’t get to see the world like this at other times of the year:

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Wildlife

My true worst nightmare occured: lost a wounded deer

Decades ago, the state management strategy limited harvest to only antlered deer resulting in a rarity of mature males and leaving the does to be impregnated by yearling bucks that do not yet possess antlers. The resulting gene pool was wildly unpredictable. As the population recovered, does were once again legally harvestable. With better quality meat devoid of testosterone, more bucks survived into their second and third years of life. Now with populations surpassing pre-european settlement of North America, the state management requires does to be harvested before a second buck can be harvested in a season (and 3 of the 5 annual bag limit must be antlerless).

Since the deer population is reaching unhealthy levels, I’ve changed my personal harvest strategy to culling the less genetically desirable males in hopes that in the near future, all mature males will possess antlers that could proudly adorn walls or form knife handles. Before this season, I had seen 2 eight point thus mature males in 14 years of hunting. I’ve seen 4 different mature males this season alone including a massively antlered alpha male.

So for the first time ever, I’ve reneged on my self-imposed rule of not harvesting a genetically desirable male before November so he has a chance to pass his genes along. Thus I sent an arrow at the buck that was (hopefully still is) 2nd in hierarchy. Confirmed directly, I witnessed for the first time an antler-crashing battle for dominance with the alpha male. The loser of that battle is the subject of this post.

Everything about the shot was perfect. He walked into a shooting lane I had previously measured at 15 yards. I waited for him to step forward so his shoulder was not protecting the targeted vital organs. I aimed a bit high to compensate for the vertical angle produced by my treestand. The arrow struck high on the lung penetrating over a foot and should have reached the opposite lung which in turn should have produced as quick and humane of a kill that can be achieved during archery season. The sound of impact indicated a lung or heart shot as did the reaction of the deer: a twisting kick resembling that of a mule. It was a perfect shot confirmed by the video I captured. If I could do everything over again, I would not change a single thing except for not taking the shot at all considering the end result.

Finding the arrow 25 yards away, it was covered in bits of tissue that indicated the shot should be lethal. As it was dropping into the 30’s (Fahrenheit), the track was postponed in case the animal laid down to expire. Turning a 100 yard track into a half mile or more serves no party involved.

After a sleepless night, I set out as soon as the sun came up flagging sign like tracks and blood with trail markers then articles of clothing when the markers were exhausted. At about noon, the trail simply vanished and I turned to my maps to work in a grid pattern canvassing the woods in the direction that the last sign pointed. At about 3 PM when shadows compromised good sunlight, I started to get concerned but kept checking my grid patterns until 9 pm. Finally, I called off the search and ate for the first time that day before collapsing into bed where I sought help on a hunting message board.

At their suggestion, I searched for large game tracking dogs only to find none even remotely close to my area (on a side note, I WILL be training my future herding dog to track so both myself and others in the area don’t have to suffer this same experience). Strangely enough, using dogs in any degree in deer hunting was banned in Virginia until 2013 where they amended the law to allow for use of leashed tracking dogs in large game recovery. Following another tip from the hunting forum I sought any dog, even untrained. After all, dogs have an incredible sense of smell and instinctually love blood. After contacting the local dog agility training facility, to my surprise a lady and her lab were extremely excited to help despite no one knowing of any specific tracking dogs.

Both the dog and the handler were fantastic. The dog took to the trail immediately at the spot where my arrow first hit the deer. Following the flight path that I visually observed at the time of the initial shot gave me confidence the dog was effective. Once we got to the spot where I lost the trail, the dog kept on tracking finding a new spot of blood 50 yards beyond the last I had found. However shortly after, the dog started to get confused and started following the converging and diverging deer trails. Before long, it was clear that the dog was no longer locked into the individual deer I had wounded.

We never found it.

It could have been that I trampled the scent in my grid searching efforts. Over the 36 hours that passed before I brought in the dog, the scent could have dissipated. The deer could have stopped bleeding which I hope is the case as it could bode for the survival of the wounded animal. Other deer could have trampled the sent of the one I wounded. Any combination of the above factors could have contributed.

The handler would not accept any money for her time. However she did say they facility would take organ meats from deer as they plan to use them in training the dogs to track. She explained that dragging and varying the time the meat is in contact with the ground progresses the training.

Its times like these I need to explore why I hunt in the first place. From a previous post of mine:

Finally, If I had to pick a singular activity as my favorite, there is not a shred of doubt that it is deer hunting. Sourcing healthy and clean meat in a humane, sustainable manner is very important to me. Last year I reached 85% of my meat consumption sourced from white tailed deer. That figure of wild game consumption would be 100% if American Buffalo [and Elk] had not been extirpated from the region. Since that is the case, my cattle will fulfil the ecological niche of the extirpated Bison while chickens fill the niche of Buffalo Birds, now called cowbirds since there are no more buffalo. I personally fill the niche of controlling population numbers to ensure species survival/health formerly held by wolves and mountain lions; both of which have also been extirpated.

Even if I killed the deer that I could not recover, it still died with much less suffering than a natural death after leading a much better life, ecologically amongst other factors, than a factory farmed animal. An oft omitted fact is that natural predators eat their prey from the hind end first leaving the prey alive with functioning organs but incapacitated, thus preserving the meat to be consumed over days or even weeks all while the prey is alive.

Animal populations need controlling so diseases like chronic wasting don’t spread through the herd across the country. In addition to the money generated by my hunting, wildlife management agencies don’t need to spend resources culling the animals in a manner that preserves the health of the species. While performing that service for them, I get to harvest clean, healthy meat. In fact, it is the only way I can be 100% confident that the animals I consume lived a healthy life as part of a healthy ecosystem. Barring situations like this, it is also the only way I can assure animals suffered as little as possible in their death. So I will continue to hunt.

If I could take that shot back with the result known, I would immediately. Full confidence that I would not change a single thing about the shot itself is only minorly comforting. It’s hard to accept that the emotional toll this process has taken on me in the last few days is miniscule in the grand scheme of managing the animals in the best interest of the species. Writing this has certainly helped work through those feelings so thank you for reading.

 

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Bees, Forestry, Silvopasture and Agroforestry, Wildlife

Farm overview of my favorite time of year: Fall

Fall has always been my absolute favorite time of year. If it were socially acceptable, I’d disappear into the mountains until the amazing holidays promised by that fall fell upon us.

The first signs of autumn are the “THUNK, THUD, THUD” that occur roughly every few minutes or so as the walnuts fall from the trees. Following a windy day, I can fill a 5 gallon bucket with walnuts in about 2 minutes. After removing the husks, they are used to tan deer capes ensuring minimal waste when I kill the animal. Similarly, most tree crops are harvested in the fall including most pome and stone fruits as well as almost all nuts. Fall is when my foraging skills are best utilized mostly because my knowledge of trees is much greater than that of fungi and herbaceous plants. Plus I can plant garlic, salad greens and my favorite brassicas into the garden.

Second, the morning cadence of sounds shifts. Instead of songbirds chirping their morning wake up alarm, migrating birds dominate with a more steady and droning rhythm that closely resembles the sound of rain falling on the metal roof. Every day this week I awoke thinking more rain was falling.

Thirdly comes the autumn favorite of everyone: vegetative changes as plants harvest back mobile nutrients in preparation to winter. Black gums and sourwoods seem to catch on fire turning a ruby red followed by similar colors in maples and viburnums. Walnuts then turn gold then lose their leaves all in one swift action. White ashes usually turn yellow with a few extraordinary specimens turning burgundy. Elms (well… hackberries in my case), birches, hickories and beeches turn a similar gold. Lastly, the oaks will turn a rich, deep burgundy that signals peak autumn color season. Similarly, the undergrowth and herbaceous plants die back for the year making outdoor adventures all the more fun and accessible.

Fourthly, fall seasonal beers are my favorite as long as some balanced specimens survive the craft scene’s gold rush to put out the most heavily spiced, bitter or over the top beers. Similarly, autumn contains my favorite holidays either celebrating harvest or appealing to my morbid curiosities.

Most favorably, bugs start dwindling! ***

Finally, If I had to pick a singular activity as my favorite, there is not a shred of doubt that it is deer hunting. Sourcing healthy and clean meat in a humane, sustainable manner is very important to me. Last year I reached 85% of my meat consumption sourced from white tailed deer. That figure of wild game consumption would be 100% if American Buffalo had not been extirpated from the region. Since that is the case, my cattle will fulfil the ecological niche of the extirpated Bison while chickens fill the niche of Buffalo Birds, now called cowbirds since there are no more buffalo. I personally fill the niche of controlling population numbers to ensure species survival/health formerly held by wolves and mountain lions; both of which have also been extirpated.

Bam… You just learned why I hunt and why I farm in one, uncharacteristically concise paragraph!

***I have to qualify the bugs statement after this year. Those in power in our society will never cease to amaze me at their sheer stupidity or stubbornness or greed in globalization that is destroying our natural resources. They haven’t learned from chestnut blight, dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer, thousand cankers disease, white pine blister rust, hemlock wooly adelgid, Ailanthus aka Tree of Heaven infestations, Royal Paulownia infestations, kudzu and wisteria infestations, Autumn Olive, asian citrus psyllid that could end citrus production in Florida, mimosa trees, japanese beetle, stinkbugs, avian flus and many many more.

Holy moley the bane of my existence is out in force this year: brown marmorated stink bugs. I get swarmed by these pests constantly while deer hunting. Last night I was drawing my bow on a mature buck when one landed on my nose and one on my thumb. I’ve even taken videos in my treestand of the pests with their thunderous and clumsy flying skills. I know they are harmless to my person and I even have zero fear of bugs with a fearsome reputation, but try to sit still and not startle a herd of deer when what sounds like a cargo plane [or less hyperbolic: a hornet) flies into your face! If I have to find a silver lining, it would have to be the constant scent cover provided by these foul pests. Furthermore, there is a new biting stink bug invasion on the horizon following the spread of a [surprise surprise!] another invasive species. 😦

Similarly, my bees are complete assholes now. Sorry for the language, but there is no getting around it. Understandably, they are in full defensive mode to protect their vital winter stores which is a great and beneficial behavioral habit. However, this also means they shoot at my protected face like bullets and have taken to following me and my truck hundreds of yards away from the hive constantly trying to sting which prevents me from being able to de-suit! Luckily, I really only have to feed them until it gets cold which is not invasive to the hive. Once it gets colder, I’ll put some newspaper in the hive, give them a pile of granulated sugar to munch on, then seal the hive up for the winter and hope for the best until spring.

In the end, I’ll happily take the bad with the good. For the bad, the USDA has put its top minds on the stinkbug issue and has even identified an attractant. In regards to my bees, their defensiveness helps ensure that they can defend the hive from invading robber bees. Plus I have some of my favorite beers to knock back and calm the nerves after the peace of deer hunting is compromised by stink bugs!

 

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Wildlife

My wildlife food plot

Maybe it is a romantic notion but I feel with a combination of population control (either natural or hunting/trapping) and providing wildlife with adequate food resources not directly associated with human activity, the greatest possible harmony between humans and wild animals is achieved. That is why I hope allowing numerous brush piles on the edges of the farm will provide habitat for small mammals in turn keeping the wild predators like foxes, coyotes and racoons content and away from my future livestock. I also hope to keep the deer nourished (and not by my tree seedlings!) through winter while supplementing their diet in the spring and summer to keep the doe’s producing quality milk for the fawns. Sometimes natural cycles lead to a food scarcity so providing wildlife with food plots will help them survive and keep deer/rabbits/etc. from doing any more damage to my mulberry and other tree seedlings. The phrase I used “not directly associated with human activity” simply means I will provide some cultivated plants for them to browse like normal rather than setting up a feed trough full of corn.

So I planted a wildlife plot and figure my process could use some critiquing or possibly help others. Full disclosure, I plan to hunt on this so the intentions of the fall plot are not 100% pure!

Crop Planning

Look at most expensive retail wildlife food plot seed mixtures and you will likely find at least 50% grass seeds. My my dad bought one to try out that was 85% ryegrass! Attempting to prove my point, I went on amazon only to find that zero food plot mixes list seed proportions. Upon reflection, I think it may be a Virginia-specific state regulation because all the retail plot seed bags in stores have the seed proportions listed on a sticker seemingly placed haphazardly on the bag as an afterthought.

I decided to make my own mix. My plot covered about 6,000 square feet. My dad’s plot up the hill was 10,000 square feet and used bags of commercial seed mix plus some barley with my extra mix filling in the rest. The amount of seed I used is likely overkill, but efficiency is less important at the scale I’m working.

I’m not sure how to accurately represent proportions so I provided percentages by weight and by number of seeds.

Plant Weight
of seed
Used
Seeds per
Pound
Approximate
Seed Used
Percentage by Seed Weight Percentage
by Number of Seed
Buckwheat 0.5 14000 7000 4 0.714285714
Forage Turnips 1 220000 220000 8 22.44897959
Crimson Clover 5 120000 600000 40 61.2244898
Austrian winter peas 5 1600 8000 40 0.816326531
Rape 1 145000 145000 8 14.79591837
Total 12.5 —– 980000 100 100

Buckwheat was simply a nurse crop used in place of grain as I figured I would eek out a bit more nectar until frost.

Forage turnips and rape (canola) are both nutritious annual brassicas that exists only as a forage crop. Any tubers formed by the former will break down releasing mineralized nutrients as well as void cavities in the soil serving as aeration. From hence forth “brassicas” will refer to the turnips and the rape because in all honesty…I can’t tell the plants apart!

Crimson is winter hardy clover variety that is a nutritious nitrogen fixer meaning it will feed the deer as well as the soil. It blooms in the spring after the first trees of the season finish but before white clover begins so the plants that survive browsing and trampling will provide vital early season nectar to both my honeybees and the native pollinators.

Austrian winter peas are a winter-hardy field pea and an overall interesting plant. In addition to the wildlife plot, they will also be grown in my garden beds over winter. Growth continues down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12 degrees C). While I doubt any fruit (peas) will be produced, they are nutritious salad green to be enjoyed humans and wildlife alike. As a member of the Fabaceae family, these too fix nitrogen but at 1/8 the rate of crimson clover according to very brief research.

Amazon was actually the cheapest source I found for the peas. Everything else was sourced from Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Additionally, the plot is located directly adjacent to a grove of ~20 persimmon trees, so it is clearly not the only food source for wildlife!

Site preparation

Weeks prior, I took a soil sample while indicated the soils were slightly alkaline but not enough to warrant any additional action. At least not this year.

I elected to plant the plot at the end of August with at least a 20% chance of rain in 11 of the next 14 days. At the time of planning, I really only relied on the forecast for the next week and we all know how accurate rain forecasts are even days ahead. Do your best and leave the rest at the mercy of mother nature.

First I mowed the pasture as low as I possibly could. Then I borrowed my uncle’s one pass disking machine that lightly plows with serrated disks up front then breaks up the clumps with the smooth rear disks. The O-ring on a hydraulic hose blew out leading to an unplanned overseeding of my pasture road with clover.

 

Planting

I mixed the buckwheat, rape, turnips and austrian winter peas together in a bucket, then broadcast them using a shoulder slung broadcaster (like this one).

Then I mustered my best impression of a draft horse and drug a short length of scrap chain link fence across the soil to partially cover the seeds. I weighted it down with a scrap length of 4×4. Please accept my utmost apology for not documenting this photographically…I will do so next year!

Finally, I broadcast the clover on top of the finished soil.

Mulching

I lightly mulched the entire food plot with about 10% of a 1200 pound round bale of ancient hay I found in the loft of the barn. The reasons for mulching are numerous:

  • Hopefully cover any exposed seeds that were not covered by the fence-dragging. Many seeds require dark to germinate
  • Related to above: hide seeds from the eyes of hungry songbirds
  • Shade the soil from the august sun
  • Lessen evaporation after rains increasing water retention of the soil
  • Add some organic matter when it breaks down in the future
  • Prevent rain and wind from whisking away my bare, disturbed soil

Pictures:

2 days passed between hauling loads of mulching hay out to the plot. Of course the buckwheat had already germinated as well as some of the brassicas:

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I can’t tell the difference between turnips and rape as they are so closely related. But at least everything is represented in this image! Clover has its renowned three leaves but are growing very low and require some hunting in this image. Brassicas are the jagged-leaved plants like the one just to the right of center in the bottom of the image. Austrian winter peas are just to the left of the brassica and look like clover except the three leaves are more pale and fleshy; almost succulent looking. Most of the initial buckwheat sprouts were killed in the lack of rainfall, but the late germinators and stunted survivors are still apparent. You can also see the new pasture grasses sending up young blades since I only disked and didn’t kill them.

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And the entire plot in all of its glory.

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Future Considerations

There are a few things I would consider doing differently.

Spreading some sulphur to bring my alkaline soil (Thanks limestone!) down to neutral pH or just below.

Spread some composted manure on the site (more on this later).

To ensure a throughout vegetation kill, I would consider covering the planned plot with a black tarp, rotating every few days until the entirety of the plot has been killed.

Without a seed drill, I would likely still need to disk to break up the hardpan.

However I have a different idea I may try. August and September is usually the perfect time to spread manure as it has been composting in the manure pack since winter and the vegetation is still actively growing. Maybe I could use a combination of tarp smothering, light scratching of soil with the fence contraption to open small spots of soil to take seed, then using the composted manure as a mulch to cover the seeds that need dark in order to germinate. I will certainly try this in at least a small area next year.

Lastly, when I have livestock, pigs could be put on the plot site with electric fencing. If left on long enough they will get bored having eaten all the vegetation and begin to root for…well…roots! They could be my method of light soil disturbance. Seed could be directly broadcast followed by a finishing pass with the fence then mulch of some sort. Alternatively, chickens could be used in the same manner, or even after the pigs. Checkout any backyard chicken forum and within a few clicks, you’ll see someone’s yard entirely denuded of vegetation by running either too many chickens or unmanaged (ie: rotational access) chickens. Like I always say, why work when the animals will be happy to do it for you?

Conclusion

So far, the brassicas and winter peas are kicking everything’s ass in terms of germination speed and growth. Unsurprisingly, the brassicas are more numerous as they make up 75% of the seeds in the mixture. Austrian winter peas are showing the most growth overall. The buckwheat is sparse and seemingly unnecessary as a nurse, but it could be the week without rain hindering their numbers or growth rate. Considering nectar and soil conditioning properties alone, buckwheat will likely be included every year. Clover is there, just with extremely tiny and low growing leaves so far. Honestly at this point I am perfectly happy with my seed mix design though depending on winter performance, I may beef up the proportion of winter peas.

I’ve been using the process of planning and executing the wildlife plot as a way to conduct a small scale experiment of using alternative methods to raise food or feed without (or reduced) use of machinery, soil amendments, tilling and herbicides. Recommendations, experiences or any thoughts you may have are greatly encouraged! And it is not too late to plant your own plot!

 

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