Tiny Dinosaurs (Six on Saturday #60–October 17, 2020)

Pollo and Kylling 2
Kylling and Pollo look for grubs in a rotten log.

For the past two years, Youngest Offspring has been arguing in favor of backyard chickens, and her long campaign has finally been successful. My garden project this summer was building a coop and run next to my greenhouse, and on September 24, three pullets from a local farm moved in.

1. The coop

Coop-front
The chicken “barn quilt” was painted by my wife. Access port for the nest box is visible at right.

Since we have never kept chickens before, it took us a long time to decide exactly what to do about a coop. We considered various prefabricated coops but eventually decided to build our own. I purchased plans for the Basic Coop from TheGardenCoop.com but modified them to make the coop slightly taller and 3′ x 4′ instead of 3′ x 3′. This made the materials somewhat more expensive, but should allow us to keep up to five birds.

Coop-back

2. The run

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The run is about 10’ x 20’, half covered with transparent corrugated polycarbonate and half open to the elements. I built a rough perch from the trunk of a young black tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) and threw in some rotten logs for scratching and grub hunting purposes.

3. Security

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anti-predator apron around the perimeter of the run.

We decided not to allow the chickens free range in the garden, because of the danger from predators. The birds are basically Youngest Offspring’s pets, so we want to protect them as well as we can. Raccoons are probably the biggest threat, but other predators in our area include foxes, coyotes, dogs, cats, skunks, opossums, hawks, and owls. There’s an outside chance of weasels or bobcats, or perhaps a mink following the creek up from the Eno River. Rat snakes probably aren’t a threat to adult chickens, so I’m not worried about excluding them—we’ll just remove any egg raiders we find.

At night, the chickens are confined to the coop, which will hopefully exclude nocturnal predators. For maximum ventilation without sacrificing security, the coop has a ceiling of heavy galvanized hardware cloth topped with corrugated polycarbonate. The large cleanout door and small door connecting to the coop are both secured with swivel hasps. I use carabiners to “lock” the hasps at night, because they’re easier to remove than padlocks but hopefully will be too difficult for dexterous little raccoon paws

The sides of the run are welded wire fence, and the part that doesn’t have a roof is covered with chicken wire to keep out hawks. Around the perimeter, we placed a horizontal apron of the same fencing material. When hidden beneath mulch it will hopefully slow down any dogs or other diurnal predators that try to dig under the fence.

So, fingers crossed. I hope we haven’t set up a buffet with free chicken dinners.

4-6. The girls

Hanchen
Hänchen

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Pollo (left) and Kylling

Hähnchen is supposed to be an Ameraucana, but the farm said it is possible she is an “Easter Egger” (Ameraucana hybrid). Pollo is a cuckoo Marans. Kylling is a Red Star. In November they will be joined by a barred Plymouth Rock and an Easter Egger. Youngest Offspring has reserved the names Frango and Kuritsa.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Nest raider

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A somewhat disgruntled young black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)

For the past five or six years, a pair of eastern phoebes have built their nest on a small ledge under the roof of our front porch.  Eight feet off the ground and close to humans, this would seem an excellent place to avoid predators.  Most years, they successfully raise a brood of chicks who, by the time they are ready to fly away, look far too large for the little moss-lined nest.

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A successful brood in 2016

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“Hey! Move over!”

This year, they were not so lucky.  Opening the blind on our glass front door one morning last week, my wife was startled to see that a young black rat snake had located the nest.  It had wedged itself into the small crevice between a support post and gutter downspout and was slowly inching towards the chicks while the parent birds fluttered frantically from perch to perch.  Rat snakes, despite their name, do not specialize in preying on rodents.  They are climbers par excellence and enthusiastically raid nests for eggs and chicks.

nest-raider1

I removed the intrepid hunter and carried it to an old wood pile at the back of our house.  I thought that there would be plenty of rodents or lizards there to distract the snake.  It seems that the snake was determined, though.  The next morning, the nest was empty.  The parent birds hung around the garden for a few hours and then disappeared.  I wonder if they will be back next year.

The Maw of Doom

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The last thing a caterpillar sees

Youngest offspring and I found a nest of newly hatched Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) in one of my hanging baskets.  When we made clicking noises, they opened wide for dinner.

Carolina wrens are notorious for building nests in inappropriate places.  I have found nests under the lid of our barbecue grill and, repeatedly, in open bags of potting soil.  In comparison, a hanging basket is a surprisingly good choice, even if the chicks run the risk of being flooded whenever I water the plants.

The chick’s mouth kind of reminds me of a Pleurothallis flower.

Houston: Brazos Bend State Park

gator

This week we traveled to see family in Houston.  While there, we visited two places that may be of interest to readers of this blog:  Brazos Bend State Park and Mercer Botanic Garden.

Brazos Bend State Park is a 4897-acre park on the banks of the Brazos River in rural Fort Bend County, about 45 miles from downtown Houston.  It contains prairie, bottomland forest, and various wetlands, and it is one of my favorite places to visit in the Houston area because of its varied wildlife.

The primary appeal of Brazos Bend–at least for our family–is the large population of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).  On a warm summer day, they are everywhere.

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Be careful if you decide to sit on a log.

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And pay attention if you go down to the water’s edge.

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Don’t dabble your fingers or toes in the duckweed.

In the winter, we sometimes don’t see any, but this week was hot (95 F) and very, very humid–perfect weather for gator viewing.  The kids stopped counting at thirty.

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The rangers recommend that visitors stay 30 feet away from alligators.  That can be difficult when they park themselves beside the trail.

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Discretion is the better part of valor, and it is usually best to turn down another trail. Nevertheless, some people get a bit too close:

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I prefer to trust in a good zoom lens.

In addition to the alligators, there is a lot of other wildlife in Brazos Bend.  On past visits, we have seen armadillos and feral pigs, but this year all of our sightings were in and around the water.  We saw three red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) laying eggs and a fourth lumbering across the path, probably on its way to build a nest or returning to the water after finishing.  We didn’t bother to count the turtles in the water.

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Red-eared slider on her nest.

There were also a wide variety of water birds, including:

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Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)

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Common gallinule (Gallinula galeata)

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A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) who looks as though it is up to no good.

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Green heron (Butorides virescens).  There were also a number of little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), but none held still for a photograph..

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Great egret (Ardea alba)

Anhinga
A bedraggled anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) drying itself after a swim.

Just about the only animals we saw that weren’t aquatic or semi-aquatic were the golden silk spiders (Nephila clavipes) that had spun their webs along (or across) the trail in wooded areas.

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We also saw some of the same animals a little closer to home.  One morning, I strolled down to the spillway near my parents’ house, where the neighborhood lake drains into Oyster Creek.  A handsome family of black-bellied whistling ducks was sheltering on top of the spillway.

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Mama duck was keeping all of the ducklings tucked under her wings, probably because several herons were skulking nearby, ostensibly fishing but probably keeping an eye open for stray ducklings.

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Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)

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Black-crowned night heron

The herons flew away, complaining loudly, when eldest offspring and I walked down to see what we could see in the creek, and as soon as they were gone, mama duck let the babies out.

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That’s probably enough photographs for one post.  I’ll save Mercer Botanic Garden for another day.

Spiders of autumn

Argiope aurantia
Argiope aurantia

A sign that we are definitely in late summer, inching inexorably towards autumn:  yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) have started to spin their webs among the flower beds.  Every year, they seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere, but I suppose they have been present all spring and summer and have finally become large enough for me to notice.  They are still not full size and will grow noticeably bigger and fatter in the next month.

They seem to love to spin their webs in the lantana bushes, where they capture many butterflies.

Sometimes they catch bigger prey.

One morning last September, I noticed that the cats were intent on something squeaking pathetically in a large Lantana ‘Miss Huff’.  It was a hummingbird trapped in the web of a very large garden spider.   In this somewhat blurry photo, the spider is at the top of the frame, slowly descending her web towards the trapped bird.

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Where is Bilbo Baggins wielding Sting when you need him?

At first I thought that I was too late and the bird had already been bitten, because when I pulled it from the web, it just lay quivering in the palm of my hand.

hummingbird-web2

I was trying to decide if I needed to administer the coup de grâce, when I realized that the bird was immobilized by a few strands of almost invisible spider silk.  After I carefully removed the threads from its wings and tail, it sat up in my hand and then zoomed away into the trees.

If you have a strong stomach, a web search will turn up photos of less fortunate hummers, so if you have a hummingbird feeder or plants that attract them, it might be a good idea to relocate garden spiders that build their webs to close to the flight paths.