Make Way for Ducks

Sunday, March 13th, 2016

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We’ve been seeing wood ducks regularly all week, but we hadn’t seen any mallards until this morning.  Migratory fowl are always interesting, and welcome, but we didn’t realize there was going to be trouble.  I blame it on the female mallard.  She hopped up on an old cherry tree, half submerged along one side of the pond, and started letting it all hang out. She was primping, preening, and working those duck breasts big time.

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I should start at the beginning.  Today was a very typical rainy spring day. One you might say it was a perfect day for ducks.  After .33” of rain, on top of sodden ground, the pond was slowly taking on a light brown stain as silty water flowed in from the sandstone falls further upstream.  The ducks had begun arriving early , apparently not aware of the change in clocks last night.  We hadn’t seen more than 4 at a time this year, but this morning, we had at least 3 pair of wood ducks, floating, paddling, dabbling, and then grazing on the far side of the pond dam.  And then a pair of mallards arrived.

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The hen quickly perched herself on the cherry branch, and started putting it on—or taking it off, as the case may be. Its hard to tell with ducks.  Either way, she put on show for the lads, stretching, and contorting, doing a Daisy Duck dance for the drakes.  The wood ducks all pointed themselves towards that end of the pond and started paddling over to the perch.  A wood duck hen made a small commotion at the opposite end of the branch, but a drake pushed her out of the way.

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Another wood duck drake swam around the corner while the first one perched himself on the same branch, and started edging sideways closer towards the larger mallard hen.  Several curious female wood ducks floated around, apparently curious.  At this point, I should point out that while there are significant aesthetic differences between the two species, the plumbing is relatively compatible.   It turns out that duck crossbreeding is a recognized problem, at least from the point of view of the wildlife managers.

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One particular drake was having none of it. He sped across the pond and, in his own duckish way, Donald made it clear to the other males that he had first dibs (dabs?) on Daisy.

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With an open beak, some stretching of the neck, and a beady eyed staredown, the mallard called fowl, and the smaller woodies retreated.

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This left the mallard couple alone together on the preferred perch.  The drake stood half in the water, not looking at the hen, but perhaps communicating his feelings.  The 3 pair of wood ducks continued to hover around in the water, approaching several times, and then retreating after a gesture from the mallard male.

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Perhaps the mallards were embarrassed, or maybe this just isn’t a completely comfortable spot for ducks who prefer avoiding trees. Once the female had finished drying and combing her feathers, they took off, leaving the pond to the wood ducks.

Making A Splash

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

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After 2 years of debate, Elizabeth and I finally decided to take the irrevocable step of hiring Marvin the Yodeling Yoder to remove 6 of the maple trees between cabin and pond.  Arriving for an initial consultation, Marv admitted that he’d never dropped such large trees into a body of water before, but after considering the logistics, he started to exhibit some enthusiasm.  Even in a lifetime of tree felling, I assume that there are always new challenges.

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A couple weeks later, on a lovely spring Friday, Marvin’s driver delivered him, a suite of Stihl chainsaws, and a JD tractor. Elizabeth, my parents, and I all pulled up chairs and cameras, and prepared to enjoy the show.  Marvin loves to yodel after dropping each tree, which is always a treat.  Combined with the added excitement of the big splashes, tidal waves, and the added complication of aquatic extraction, it was the most fun I’d had since the day all the cement trucks arrived to pour the foundation walls.

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Its no small matter to end a life that has lasted longer than my own, even it if is just a tree, and there’s no going back.  The tumbling trees in the first two images can also be seen 4 decades earlier, at center left above, a November 1976 shot showing the excavation of the pond (dozers are digging the dam in the background).  Checking several stumps, I was able to count 60 about rings, representing a relatively short but eventful life for a sugar maple.

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As shown in the somewhat cluttered Spring 2013 view, It was apparent as soon as we moved into the cabin that we’d eventually take down more trees.  The inconvenience of fishing them out of the pond was only part of our hesitation, though.  The development of a woodland, even one that has been thoroughly pawed over for 150 years, raises aesthetic questions about our relationship to the land, and practical issues about ongoing maintenance.

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The improved view above also includes a slice of lawn 2.0, a recently top-soiled, graded, and fertilized area of turf that now requires the regular ministrations of a used Lawn-Boy, courtesy of the Amish wizards at Charm Engine. Elizabeth has taken the weed eater to the tree-free slope between house and pond several times this year, and I’ve gingerly explored the adjoining slopes with tractor and brush hog.  While we love being close to nature, there’s an appeal in conquering it, too. It isn’t a question of whether more trees will come down and more petroleum-enabled mowing will take place. Its only a question of how far civilization spreads.

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There’s a reason that country people usually don’t build their houses in the middle of the woods, and it involves more than the soothing satisfaction of surrounding yourself with a putting green. Besides the annual summer millipede plague, and a ceaseless series of teething rodents, the trees represent a potential threat to the cabin. As we learned this week, when the wind is strong enough, falling trees don’t feel compelled to obey the law of gravity.  A nocturnal snotbuster of a storm this week brought down a dead tree, taking out the Internet dish. Marvin had offered to take that one down too, but I enjoyed seeing the woodpeckers and assumed that it when it did fall, it would be in the opposite direction.

Something Fishy This Way Comes

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Stocking the Pond

Before our early celebration of Thanksgiving, the JP Boyeas and JG Heisers took a trip to Fenders Fish Farm to cash in my birthday gift certificate from Kirk. Having already established that the bass were successfully repopulating themselves, and suffering from no shortage of panfish, Kirk and I consulted with the staff on other varieties that might be tastier and meatier, settling on 20 yellow perch and 6 channel cats.

Stocking the Pond

In an ideal world, the pond owner would gently introduce the new inhabitants by gradually letting the oxygenated bag of fish slowly reach the pond’s temperature. Having little patience for that chilly game, we unceremoniously dumped them directly into the water, where they evinced little initial enthusiasm for exploration. At least we didn’t see any little perch or catfish corpses floating on top of the pond, and given that we splurged on larger fish, I don’t think we have any bass big enough to eat them. Absent any excessive attention from herons or kingfishers, the assumption is that most of these will grow up to be dinner sized.  Neither of those species will successfully reproduce in such a small pond. They will quickly  grow, and die off within 5 years, so the plan is to actually catch them and eat them. Although we stocked them at least twice before, I’m not sure I ever caught a perch in the pond.

Stocking the Pond

Several times over the last 40 years we’ve made the trip to Fenders to buy a pair of small cats, which quickly grew into the largest fish in the pond, providing some entertainment in springtime evenings as they swim around on top of the pond (probably getting in the mood to lay eggs that would immediately hatch into bass and bluegill food). I only caught a cat once, and assuming it was heavier than my ultralight line test, I pulled him up onto the sandy part of the bank, naively thinking I could pick him up by the lower jaw like a largemouth. A bass will immediately give up once you’ve got them by the chin, but the catfish just bit me on the hand. Such man vs fish incidents usually result in a muddy me, holding up a somewhat disgruntled fish for a photo. The last time, the catfish won.  I figure I’ve got 4 years and 6 chances this time around to learn how to skin the things.

Fall Down at the Hollow

Monday, October 17th, 2011

I literally cannot remember the last time I visited Heiser Hollow in the Fall. I know I was there in 1983, but I don’t remember when I was last in our woods during when the leaves were in color.

I spent a day in Cinncinnati for business last week, so instead of flying back to Virginia, I rented a car and drove to the Hollow to meet up with Elizabeth. It was a beautiful trip across Knox and Coshocton counties, with a bright blue sky and late afternoon sun lighting up the leaves.

It was amazingly hot, and rainy, when we started this cabin project in July.  3 months later, it is starting to get chilly (and it is still rainy). The days are getting shorter, but at least the mosquitoes are mostly gone.  Flocks of starlings blow through periodically, buzzards and hawks are still hunting, the bluejays are screaming, and sometimes you can hear the pileated woodpeckers.  The owl is still hooting at night.

One night after work, I gathered walnuts in the valley.  The walnut crop varies from year to year, and in spite of an appalling population of bag worms, this year was a bumper crop for walnuts.  I collected two buckets full, hauled them up to the motor home, ground the husks off with my boot, and put them into a mouse free area to dry.  If I have the patience  to crack them open this winter, and pick the nuts out, then maybe we can bake my grandmother’s ice box cookies in the cabin.  Its a bland kind of butter cookie, but they taste great with the strong flavor of American walnut.

[If you want to see all the entries for the cabin, they start here. The next Building the Cabin entry is Pouring the basement floor.]

The Best Hollow Day Ever

Monday, July 20th, 2009

_MG_5387.jpgLast Saturday was one of the best days I’ve ever had at the Hollow.

It didn’t start that way. I woke up to a gray and damp day, and by mid-morning, it had started to rain. It wasn’t enough rain to even start refilling the pond, and it petered out. By noon, it had become a lovely, breezy summer day, with temperatures in the low 70s, a blue sky with puffy white clouds, and just enough breeze to be refreshing. It was delicious weather–there is no other way to describe it.

I’d been skunked during the last couple of trips to the Hollow, and last July was an angling dud. This trip, they were biting better, and I got a bit more adventurous in trying out some different lures. Although it was a sunny day, which often seems to discourage our fish, this turned into a day of incredible fishing. After catching a dozen or so bluegills off the dam, I decided to try my luck at the relatively new section of pond that had excavated in the back a few years ago. I loaded up all three fishing rods, putting a small surface popper on the ultralight spinner (with a clear plastic float to give it enough weight to cast), a small jig on the second rod, and the biggest jig I’ve got on the third rod.

I sat on a large boulder that our Amish excavator had placed on the edge of the back 1/3 of the pond, and started casting towards the other hillside, about 30′ across the pond. I caught pan fish on each of the first 5 casts. Noticing that one of those lunker bass was lurking in that section of the pond, I tried the big jig. A large plastic minnow with a single hook and a lead head for weight, the jig was too heavy for the ultralight spin cast rod & reel I tied it onto (I was too lazy to untie whatever was on the medium weight spin cast rod & reel). I cast it across the pond, narrowly missing a fallen tree and the far shore, and started reeling it in. Wham! A bass latched onto it before I’d reeled it in more than 10′. The largemouth don’t really put up a fight like the bluegills and sunfish, but still, catching a 3 pounder in your own pond is a thrill. I wasn’t sure if the 4# test line would pull him out of the water, so I landed him on the shore, grabbed him by the lower lip, and after I finished admiring him, he went back–hopefully to raise up a brood of bass like they did last year.

The beautiful breezy weather meant that it was a perfect day for inner tubing. Admittedly, the pond can get…well, not scummy, but still kinda messy, with an oily film full of dead bug bits, pollen, and whatever comes from the pond up, and the trees down. The best floating requires a light breeze to send the floating film to the far side of the pond, and discourage horse flies. Elizabeth and Kirk, who unfortunately were not with me, are a lot less keen on the organic swimming pool, but this weather would have been perfect for them. I floated around for a while on one of the floats that Steve Towne and I bought 10 years ago when we spent a weekend at the Hollow with our boys (perhaps fitting for the news of that week, the floats are purple, and are labeled ‘Thriller’). I did a bit of swimming, and then dried off to go for a walk to some of the spots I don’t regularly visit.

The western slope of the Hollow was planted with white pine, maybe about 50 years ago. It used to be an intimate little pine grove, with several inches of fallen needles and a lovely Christmasy fragrance. The trees got bigger, and some of them are at least 60′ high and almost 2′ across at the base (log cabin?). We should have thinned the trees, which are too close together, and now sort of messy, but it is still a breezy and relative open part of the Hollow. On days like last Saturday, it has a distinct and pleasant pine smell. Walking through the pines to the southern property line and the upper meadow, I found a sycamore tree that I didn’t know about, bringing the total to 5.

After dad and I cleared the downed tree and stump a couple days earlier, we were able to bush hog the upper meadow, which is a bright but cool and breezy spot. The clearing has been there as long as we own the Hollow, and we’ve been mowing it, on and off, for at least 20 years. There have probably been raspberries all along, but I never really noticed them until the last few years. It seems like the number of berry thickets has increased significantly over the last few years. Certainly the big ice storm and last year’s ‘tornado’ opened up a lot of the forest floor to sunlight, but that doesn’t really explain why the periphery of this clearing should so many more raspberry bushes than it ever has had in the past. I’d been watching the berries ripen all week, and had picked enough to share with my parents a couple days earlier. Saturday, the berries were finally coming into their own. I picked and ate a couple handfuls, and then walked down the trail that we’d cleared.

I finished my walk in the SE corner of the Hollow, going back to investigate whatever animals were living in the ‘cave’. As documented in the previous post, this turned out to be a pair of very large vulture chicks (and presumably their parents). One of the properties near the Hollow used to be called Buzzard Rock, and I thought I’d seen turkey vultures descending into the trees in that part of the Hollow, but I’d never found a nesting site before. That was pretty cool.

We took an evening trip to Coshocton to have a steak dinner with Mom’s cousins, who live in town.  After a very quiet week,  all the frogs in the pond finally started singing, so after a memorable day of simple pleasures, I fell asleep to an amphibious chorus.