Bees versus Birds

Yesterday, I posted about the House Finches that stopped by to enjoy the fresh fruit I hung in a tree.

I retained a few photos to present in this post, in order to share the talent of one of the finches.

When I first arrived near the apple tree, I noticed dozens of sweat bees on the apple. Clearly, they were indulging in the nectar like juice of the fruits. As I hadn’t yet observed what animals were eating the fruit, the sheer numbers of bees made me wonder if the insects, alone, had been responsible for consuming the apple and orange flesh.

Then, a female House Finch showed up and most of the bees flew off. The brave bees which stuck around soon found that they were no longer welcome on the apple, as the bird felt compelled to pluck off the invaders.

Here’s a short video showing the House Finch’s pluck-n-flick action that seemed mostly successful at freeing up the apple exclusively for her!

An Apple a Day

There’s a apple tree out by the old barn that bears quite a bit of fruit. When they are ripe, I often pluck one off the tree as I am traveling around looking for birds and other wildlife. Last year I noticed that some of the apples were being eaten by an unknown creature. Most folks told me it was probably a squirrel. But, the trail cam revealed that a few different species of birds were taking advantage of the apples; Rose-breasted grosbeaks, House finches, Gray catbirds and the bird that took the biggest bites was a Red-bellied woodpecker.

This year, due to a myriad of events, I wasn’t able to go out before I discovered that all of the apples had been harvested. So, like I did last year after all the natural apples were gone, I hung a few purchased fruits in the tree to attract and feed the birds. This year, I also added sliced oranges. There are a lot of birds traveling through on migration and local birds that intend to remain here all winter are preparing for the cold weather.

The weather has not cooperated, and I’ve been unable to get out to film what has been noshing on the apples I’ve hung. But, I finally got lucky and captured House Finches eating the fruits (both apple and oranges.) The species I caught yesterday, the House Finch, seemed to prefer the apple, but three different birds also took a few bites of the citrus.

Here is a video of a female House Finch. There are still shots below of a couple of females and a male. While I didn’t get good shots of them all, I observed three males and two females. Enjoy!

Rare Find!

After months of not seeing or even hearing birds – at least not at the same level as last year this time – today was a stellar day. I will post some photos of the few other species I saw today, but this post is about the Harris’s Sparrow that showed up in the overgrown weeds near the old barn.

The bird I filmed doesn’t look anything the Harris’s sparrow at the AllAboutBirds guide. In fact, it didn’t look like any species I saw under “Sparrows” at that site. So, I posted to a IL birding group on Facebook for some assistance identifying what I figured was a sparrow – but which one? When I received the response that it was a Harris’s I figured it must be a juvenile, since the photos in the guide show a bird sporting a lovely and very distinctive black head and bib. I did a quick internet search for juvenile Harris’s sparrow images, and I’m pretty sure the person who assisted me from the FB group was right. Like the White-crowned Sparrow youngsters whose brown head markings change to black as they mature, I was able to see images of Harris’s sparrows that looked very much like the bird I filmed.

AllAboutBirds (link posted above) provides a map of the species’s breeding, wintering a migration locations. I’m taking the liberty to provide the species range image here – which, of course belongs to AllAboutBirds:

That is a very small range in which you can find this species!

Here’s some other info about this species that I’m quoting from the AllAboutBirds page on Harris’s Sparrow:

The Harris’s Sparrow is..”North America’s largest sparrow (except for towhees) and the only songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world. In winter it settles in the south-central Great Plains, where it is a backyard favorite. Unfortunately, Harris’s Sparrow populations are declining; its restricted range make it vulnerable to habitat loss on the wintering and breeding grounds.”

Here are some additional images I captured of this lovely bird.

Curiously, as I was snapping photos of this bird that was about 100 feet away settled on an old fence post, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow flew into the shot. The two birds had a “moment” before the WC flew off.

I feel very fortunate to have captured this somewhat rare bird – especially for where I live. The guide shows the eastern boundary of it’s migration route along the Mississippi river which is about eighty miles west of us. That wouldn’t seem so far off if I hadn’t looked at what a tiny range this bird has for it’s breeding and wintering grounds. It was a lucky day!

Snow Birds

As the summer avian residents depart for the tropics, it gets very quiet outdoors around here, both in sound (the birds’ songs) and visually. I can move through an area and not scare up a bird.

Just as I am starting to feel a bit depressed about the lack of avian activity, species that I haven’t seen since Spring begin to return. These birds nested and fledged their chicks far to the north, and consider my location (39 deg N latitude) their winter home.

Except for the orange slices I put out for the Orioles’ arrival in Spring and the Hummingbird nectar feeders that I keep filled all summer, I do not offer seed or suet to wild birds in summer. However, just a few days ago, I restocked the platform feeder in the north Pond Meadow to welcome the winter residents after their long migrations from the far north.

One of the first returnees is a true favorite of mine. The White-crowned Sparrow is a distinctive, gregarious little bird.

Yesterday, I captured a couple of these cute sparrows on and around the feeder. The adult birds sport very distinguishing head markings that some people refer to as a bicycle helmet.

The juvenile individuals have a similar marking pattern to the adults. However, they have brown, rather than black stripes over their head. The contrasting bright white along with the black hue develop over time.

These birds are known to scratch (seeds) like a chicken. I caught the behavior in the following photo!

I’m happy to welcome these cuties back for the winter.

Hen of the Woods

We have a great neighbor, Greg. He maintains an incredible garden and generously shares his overflow of juicy and delicious vegetables throughout the summer. Today, he showed up on his ATV (we neighbors live a half mile or farther away from each other) with the back cargo space filled to the brim with wild mushrooms that he harvested off his land. Robert met him out front. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the bounty. Maitake or Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa) grows at the base of oak trees. Greg’s land is heavily wooded, unlike ours. So, I am grateful for his generous spirit.

Greg handed over a large mushroom to Robert, and then pointed to the fifteen or so squirrels that he had also harvested. I would have considered it a compelling challenge to research and then cook up a squirrel. It’s a wild meat I had never eaten before, but am not opposed to it. After all, you never know how a solar flair, global pandemic or man-made event could interrupt our food chain. However, Robert declined the rodent. So, I focused on the fungus!

I was excited to learn how to prepare the Hen of the Woods delicacy. Robert relayed Greg’s suggestion to coat in seasoned flour and deep fry the mushrooms. I thought the recipes that described roasting to be more my style. There were two basic options; long and low at 300 F for about an hour and the option that I chose. It seemed more likely to produce good caramelization and required a 425 F oven for about 25 minutes.

During my quick exploration of internet know-how, I learned that wild mushrooms, especially one with many crevasses like the Maitake, often contain quite a bit of dirt and possibly even insects lurking in their folds. Some sources said to avoid rinsing in water as a means of cleaning the fungus. Yet, other sites stated that a quick soaking in salted water and then sufficient drying could result in a cleaner product. That’s what I chose to do. First, I ripped off about one quarter of the large mushroom. Even though it appeared free of conspicuous debris, I used a large bowl of water to assist in removal of less obvious dregs.

Hand shredding was advised in most of the recipes I reviewed. I followed those directions and tore the cleaned quarter into bite-sized pieces.

Most often the recipes I read suggested coating the mushroom pieces in olive oil and a combination of garlic, thyme and salt. Some included oregano and / or shallots or even diced onion. I went with sea salt, garlic powder and dried thyme for my first attempt at roasting the mushroom.

I mixed the dry ingredients into the olive oil, then added the shredded pieces of mushroom and gave it a good toss.

I spread the mushroom pieces in a single layer on a foil lined baking sheet and put it into a pre-heated 425 F oven. Midway to 25 minutes, I tossed the pieces to keep them from sticking.

Finally, I had to decide when to remove the pan from the oven. I tasted a piece at the 25 minutes point, and found it to be a bit crunchy on the edges and chewy on the inside. I chose to give it an additional 5 minutes.

The results were truly delicious. Most pieces were crunchy almost all the way through. The larger pieces had a bit more chew in the center. Every piece was very flavorful and while Robert and I at them as a stand-alone snack, I could see them as a great topper to a burger or as a compliment to a charcuterie type spread.

Thank-you, Greg! I look forward to possibly pan/skillet frying the next batch.

I’m no Spring-chicken. But, I relish the opportunity to try new things – and a “Hen of the Woods” was a wonderful way to keep this old bird spry. It’s fun to learn, especially when the endeavor ends up with such a delectable treat!

Cattails & Blackbirds

Sometimes the backdrop for a photo is as pleasing as the actual subject. I feel that way about these photos of a female Red-winged blackbird that flew into the stand of cattails near the west end of our pond.

Cattails are synonymous to swampy wetlands. Early season lemon-green shoots announce the beginning of Spring then eventually fade to sedge-brown, twisted leaves that embrace the cocoa colored flower spikes that truly appear more “cat tail” than blossom. The dried flowers slowly disperses their seeds during winter’s wrath, and springtime’s blustering winds. I have seen birds tugging the spent cattail fibers from it’s stalk to line their nests that cradle their precious eggs.

I love the way that this lovely bird clings to the mature cattails as she preens her new feathers – well readied for the cold weather of winter.

Service Dog T.E.A.C.H. Course

In the past I have posted videos of dogs we had in for our Custom Training. Here is one of those videos:

Along with our Custom Service Dog Training, we offer a program referred to as T.E.A.C.H. (Train & Educate A Canine Helper.) It’s a professionally guided – owner trained course. The dog remains with its owner the entire training duration. The owner-handler attends three weekends of instruction separated by several weeks when s/he works at home with the dog both on the tasks that the dog will perform to mitigate the handler’s disability as well as social compliance / high standard obedience which allows the dog and handler team to negotiate public places without being a nuisance to others. On the final day of the last weekend, we offer the Public Access Test. It demonstrates that the handler-dog team meet the ADA’s standards when they move through public places.

This past weekend, we held the final weekend of our Summer T.E.A.C.H. course. Below are a couple of videos of Nick (a disabled veteran) and his dog Skipper, who attended the class. Skipper has been trained to alert to and interrupt Nick’s episodes/ medical events.

The first two videos are a demonstration of off-leash heeling and the “leash drop” exercise of our Public Access Test.

This next video is the “dropped food” distraction which is part of the overall Restaurant Visit exercise. A “helper” (Robert, my husband, who was conducting the Public Access Test) drops food near close to Skipper after Nick commanded him to remain in a down position. The dog must not trigger on the food. Skipper is a small dog and can be more concerned about falling objects than a larger dog. Nick has done a great job training Skipper to have the confidence required of a Service Dog, despite his small stature. Nick’s medical events typically happen when he is sleeping. When Skipper interrupts Nick’s episodes, he climbs on Nick’s chest and licks his face. Skipper’s size is very advantageous, in this regard.

Along with the Restaurant visit, there are many elements to the Public Access Test, including negotiating through a department store, moving through a busy parking lot, working outdoors in a park-like setting (including any distractions like squirrels, kids on bikes, strollers, joggers, other dogs etc…), acting mannerly when a friendly stranger meets and pets the dog, and loading and unloading safely from a vehicle. Nick and Skipper passed their Public Access Test with flying colors!

Good Job, Nick and Skipper!

Old Guy Pelican

I’ve been away from this Blog for a while. I was preparing for and then participating in our 20 year anniversary trip to the panhandle of Florida. While on vacation, I wasn’t able to capture as many images as I had expected – mostly due to an outrageous hotel issue that isn’t worth mentioning.

However, Robert and I did get the chance to travel down the exceedingly long Pier at Pensacola Beach, Florida where I encountered a big, old bird. Just as we were walking past this Brown Pelican, a woman who had been fishing off the pier, approached him. “Here, you go Old Man,” she said as she offered him a fish. I got the sense that this bird was well known by the locals.

I didn’t have my camera ready, so these are not the best shots, and the late afternoon sun was back-lighting the bird. But, he seemed like an old soul worthy of sharing.

Guarding Breeds as Service Dogs

On occasion I receive an inquiry from someone who is interested in one of the guarding breeds as her future Service Dog.  Guardian breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, Mastiff, Anatolian Shepherd or Kuvasz are quite different from most other breeds that are designed to hunt, in some way.  Terriers, hounds, sporting dogs and herding dogs have a similar motivating force which causes them to move out and away to pursue quarry to catch, kill, retrieve or contain and control.  On the contrary, the guarding breeds have very little desire to leave the home turf, castle or farm or flock.  They stay connected with their home base and dedicate most of their resources to detecting threats, and barking the threat away.  If the threat enters their home base boundaries, then the dog can be ferocious and attack the intruder. 

There are individuals who read that description and think that a guarding breed is exactly what they have been wanting to help mitigate their symptoms.  However, personal protection is outside of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) definition of a Service Dog.  Guarding breeds are not well designed for Service Dog work.

To understand why I strongly recommend against selecting a guarding breed as a Service Dog, an understanding of the breeds’ basic motivation must be weighed against the qualities that make great Service Dogs.  Even seeing- eye dogs, that help a blind person negotiate through life, are never truly in charge.  They are working for a benevolent leader who is calling the shots.  To be successfully paired with a Service Dog, the individual must assume the helm, maintain the proper relationship with the dog, practice skills and reinforce social compliance so that the dog can work autonomously when necessary without taking over the relationship. 

An example in the human world is the difference between a manager and someone who works for him.  The CEO in a pharmaceutical company doesn’t have to be a scientist, marketing expert or quality assurance specialist.  He may not have the education to develop a new treatment for cancer, but he must know how to lead the people who do the specific jobs towards that goal.  If he goes on vacation, the people who report to him continue to perform their jobs because they respect the rank structure in the company and they accept their position.  In exchange, they receive wages.  If they make mistakes, their manager must be fair, but deliver consequences.   Most human-dog relationship can be sustained in a similar manner.

Retrievers, herding dogs and many other working breeds are able to assimilate into normal human society with relative ease.  They hunt, herd or pull wagons for a human authority figure.  The can be taught to exist within specific boundaries and they are motivated to work for or with a human.  But the guarding breeds are highly independent, self-thinkers that are not extremely motivated to be obedient to authority.  To understand this, one needs only recognize that many of the livestock guarding breeds were developed to remain with the flock (goat, sheep, poultry) alone, sometimes for months.  The shepherd moved the livestock to lush pastures (perhaps up a mountain) for an entire summer and only brought the flock back home during winter months.  There were no self-feeders for the guarding dogs.  They needed to fend for themselves, yet stay close to the flock scanning for predators.  They tend to be very vocal (barking frequently when on duty) and they can be active at night because that is when most threats to their charges might invade.  [the header photo is our Great Pyrnees, Clara, with our flock of sheep – back when we had sheep!]

The guarding breeds are not driven to please the way that a herding or retrieving dog is.  They are satisfied with their own capacity to make sound decisions regarding the property or animals that they are destined to protect.  For that reason, they are often considered stubborn. 

Our Great Pyrnees, Clara and “her” cat

They are highly perceptive, which may seem like a good thing if you want your dog to perceive your shifts from normal (seizure, panic attack, PTSD flashback) and help you through that condition.  Unfortunately, they are not as likely to use their wonderful detection prowess to evaluate the status of their owner as much as other perceived threats in the environment.  They react when they feel that something is not normal.  A guarding breed can trigger when the dog senses a person’s fear.  Here’s an example:

The Service Dog handler has asked her dog to assume a down position next to her chair in a waiting room.

A person walks into the room, sees the dog’s massive size and is surprised and a little afraid.  That causes him to projects an off-kilter “energy” that dogs can detect.

The guarding dog instinctively perceives that the approaching person is not acting ‘normal.’  So, he lets out an initial, soft “woof.”   It is a very common behavior of guarding breeds.

The stranger hears the woof and his fears are heightened.  Again, that fear is projected as “energy” that the dog can perceive.

The dog evaluates the stranger as a threat and he stands up and let’s out another “woof.”  Guarding breeds are independent, self-thinkers and are confident in their natural ability to evaluate very subtle shifts in the environment.

The Service Dog handler is caught off guard by the dog’s initial woof, and the dog perceives her energy shift from calm-relaxed, to alert or worried.  The handler’s energy shift reinforces the dog’s initial perception that the approaching person is, indeed, a threat.  If his owner is anxious, the dog may believe it is due to the approaching person.

The handler becomes concerned when her dogs breaks the down-stay command, and stands up.  She knows that the person is not a threat.  He is, in fact, her doctor or a friend.  So, she cannot understand why her dog is acting aggressively.  She may worry that there is something wrong with her dog.   Her initial anxiety snowballs when the dog barks again, and pulls on the leash.  After all, such a massive dog is very difficult to control if it doesn’t remains obedient and compliant.  Feeling that she cannot control the situation, the handler’s apprehension intensifies.  Feeling that his handler is worried about the approaching individual makes the dog believe that he must take control of the threat. 

Having worked with many Mastiff-type breeds and also having owned Great Pyrenees that were employed as flock guardians on my ranch, I have a keen respect for their natural talents.  They are wonderful dogs that are equipped with a special set of skills that make them exceptional workers.  But, in my opinion, they are not well suited for Service Dog work.  Most Service Dog handlers need the dog to be perceptive of their shifts from normal, or their physical or psychiatric needs.   The dog needs to have a very strong capacity to demonstrate obedience to authority – even when the handler is not able to act as a strong leader for the dog.  There are many other breeds that are better equipped for that work.  And, it must be said that most of the guarding breeds fall into the “giant” size category.   That sized dog can be very cumbersome in many locations, including school classrooms, public transportation and restaurants.  If you ever plan to fly with your dog, an airline cannot safety permit a giant sized dog in the cabin of the aircraft, and your dog will be stowed below.

While I would consider any breed as a possible Service Dog, the challenges that some breeds may continually place on their disabled handlers is often the deal-breaker. All breeds have their endearing and useful traits. But, they are not all equal with regards to performing the work of a Service Dog.

..Then Autumn Slowly Glides In

I live where seasons are distinct and vibrant. Winter is introduced by shortened days that beg for hearty soups and the annual search for mittens and wool hats. Just as the gray, dreary days begin to consume winter’s snowy enchantment, Spring arrives with tender budding of crocus and daffodils as it explodes into the lushness of regrowth. Summer slithers into Spring until its intense heat leaves no memory of the refreshing revitalization of April. And then… Autumn slowly glides in with the hint of of chilly evenings and dry air and brilliant blue skies dabbled with billowing clouds.

Autumn is definitely my favorite season. Although it was nearly ninety degrees yesterday, a cold front arrived overnight bringing the crispness that is the cornerstone of pumpkins and apple cider.

Here are some of the first hints of the change of season that I’ve captured recently.

At the edge of our land, large stands of corn are beginning to dry and announce their crop.

The pear trees in our young orchard have produced fruit for the first time.

Goldenrod, a vibrant yellow wild flower, has burst into bloom attracting many nectar seeking insects. It looks like some of them are not just on a hunt for food!

A lovely moth (which I was not able to identify), is taking advantage of nectar from an autumn blooming wild flower. I believe this is White snakeroot. Check out the big, green eyes on that moth!

I found these next couple of pictures to be an interesting example of how images burned into our brains from social media can transfer over to our view of the natural world. My first thought when I looked at these files (since I don’t often see the little details of insects when I am filming) was, “Hey, check out how the moth has two body guards!” Don’t judge me – I’m just sharing my first impression.

Dried wild flowers are consuming the landscape as Autumn slowly glides in. I love this time of year.