Accidental Muskrat

It was lunchtime. I was in the kitchen. Bill went out to empty the compost before making his umptigazillionth ham sandwich ( This is not a man who believes in varying the midday menu.)

“Hey Leslie, come see what’s in the trap!”

A muskrat.

Full grown muskrat - they're smaller than you'd think.

Full grown muskrat - they're smaller than you'd think.

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Seen Any Opossums Lately?

Never thought to record sightings, so cannot absolutely swear, but I’m pretty sure there are more and more ‘possums in the mid Hudson Valley, and I’m convinced it’s Zone Creep, wild animal division.  The opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has always had a wide range and can occasionally be found as far north as Canada, but the place you find most of them is the South, so if they are becoming common here…

Opossums are nocturnal except when extremely hungry, so most of the ones you see are the ones that have had encounters with cars.  But we’ve surprised them many times on evening trips to the compost. And last week right around teatime there was a good sized one in the bee yard, hoovering up the dead bees that get deposited in front of the hives when it’s warm enough for the survivors to clean house.                                                                                                                                  

Opossum eating cake instead of bees (Bill threw some so it would hold still)

Opossum eating cake instead of bees (Bill threw some so it would hold still)

This daylight encounter prompted a bit of research. Turns out opossums have a LOT of fans ( who knew?). Read More…

Skunks: types, habits, spray mechanisms

and a whole lot more are over at the PBS website, where you can see the nifty Nature program Is That Skunk?. We saw it the other night, more or less by accident. All my anecdotal observations confirmed; they’re extremely reluctant to spray ( An Eek of The Week that isn’t). And wait’ll you see the spotted ones – some cute!

Skunk Tracks in the Snow

greeted us when we woke this morning —

no mistaking ’em; skunks’ short legs and long bushy tail create a unique undulating line, stuttering in light snow, smooth as a Japanese brushstroke in deep powder, either way a perfect shadow of their endearing waddle.

skunk tracks in thin snow

skunk tracks in thin snow

I know, I know, a lot of people don’t like them – especially people with dogs. But the problem there is simply that too many dogs don’t know how to back down. Unless you’re threatening the babies or cutting off the line of retreat or otherwise driving the poor thing into a defensive corner a skunk is the most peaceable of creatures. Read More…


No heating season complete without a startup drama, in this case a very loud eek! coming from the woodstove. Bill rescued the source and sent a picture, along with an explanation of why the thing doesn’t look quite right.

immature starling, bound for freedom

immature starling, bound for freedom

“The starling that came down the stovepipe. By spring the white tips on the feathers wear off and the stronger dark fibers (with melanin) give the metallic coloration.”

Wild Turkeys – Thanks but no thanks


Kristi and I are discussing the last bits of putting the garden to bed. We’re wondering about the winter rye, our standard cover crop for the Maine vegetable plots. She planted it 10 days ago but nothing seems to be coming up. Big Mystery. Seed was fresh, there has been rain…


Mystery solved first thing in the morning.  I look out the bedroom window into the rosy dawn and there in the garden is a flock of wild turkeys, busily scratching and eating.

wild turkey dining on rye and clover

wild turkey breakfasting on rye and clover

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The Squirrel Problem

They’re vegetarian rats, basically. Eat bulbs, empty birdfeeders, gnaw through attic walls to make smelly nests, from which they sally forth to eat the insulation from electric wires. Absolute proof – if we needed any – that good looks can get you a pass on a lot of bad behavior. If they had rat tails instead of those bottle brushes and did not have the habit of sitting up and eating with paw-hands, and

baby squirrels at birdfeeder

if the babies weren’t so damn cute, we’d be a lot farther ahead in squirrel eradication.

And don’t talk to me about dispersing seeds. If I find one more “volunteer ” black walnut with a taproot halfway to China…

Right. So what did we do with this little pair, scarcely larger than the violet leaves, happily playing for half an hour oblivious of dangerous humans only 10 feet away? We ooed and ah’d and elbowed each other and I ran out in my nightie to get photographs.

Bah, Humbug.

We all know the metal baffle does nothing. Taking down the feeder just sets them into the borders to nibble new buds. Any suggestions?

New Fawn

Bill happened into it when he was out fishing near Esopus creek, famous among fishermen for trout and among foodies for one of America’s most delicious apples, the Esopus Spitzenburg (frequently lauded by Thomas Jefferson), about which more some other time.

He was walking through the woods back to his car and there it was, barely dry and still wobbling. It went to ground immediately. The doe was in the underbrush, snorting. He could have picked it up and carried it away, thereby saving somebody else’s garden a lot of trouble, but of course he didn’t.

newborn fawn

Bill Bakaitis

Newborn fawn in the woods on public land. The blue paint on the tree is a forest service mark: “this one is to be cut down.”

The Bears and the Bees

It has been several years since bears first came through our yard, knocking down the birdfeeders and leaving unmistakably bearlike deposits to corroborate the neighbors’ sightings: a mother and 2 cubs. The beehives remained untouched so we remained unconcerned, even though we should have known better.

As summers passed and nothing else happened, we stayed (relatively) unconcerned, even though Dan right down the road reported several ursine visits that played hell with his hives.

This year, the Dan reports were scary: a mom and cubs and a singleton, presumably male. In the yard. In the hives. On his porch.

The view through Dan's sunroom window

Dan Connors

View through Dan’s sunroom window

When he chased the solo in his car, lights flashing and horn honking, it retreated to the edge of the woods. When he backed up it emerged, more or less thumbing its snout.

 black bear in the distance

Dan Connors 

And Then it came for us

As Bill wrote to a friend on the 6th of May:

“This morning we awoke to find our beehives and bird feeders all torn asunder.  I had just spent $170 for 2 packages of new bees and they had just released the queens and were just getting settled in their new homes when this happened.

I spent the day rebuilding the hives and installing an electric fence around the hives.  If you hang some bacon on the wires, so we hear, the bears wrap their tongue and lips around it and get a good jolt.. We are eagerly awaiting their shocking bellows.

A mother and two cubs and another solo have been raising havoc in the neighborhood.  DEC said that, since the bees are livestock, I can shoot the bears.  They will give me a permit for and provide me with, rubber buckshot if I wish.  They would also like to come and grab these animals so for to give them a collar…  Once they have good data to justify a hunting season they will allow hunting for them in this county.

In 1990 there were @ 400 bears in the Catskills (across the river). By 2005 the population had grown to 4,000 to 5,000.  @ 500 were taken there last fall….” 

 So far Bill’s fence has not been challenged – or at least we have heard no bellows and the bacon appears undisturbed. (More points for crow smarts? They are expert compost-pickers, ever alert for a bit of protein, but they haven’t come near those wires, even though they should be immune.)

Here are the fence details Bill sent to Dan, should you wish to build a solar powered electric bear deterrent around anything:

“ I went ahead with the more expensive unit (Zareba SP10). It also happened to be just about whatCornell and Bee Culture (via Cornell apiarist) recommend. It puts out just about 5,000 volts and 0.17 joules.

It is good to see it snapping sparks for @ 3/16 inch over the raindrops!!! 

I strung my wires alternating hot (+) and ground (-) with the lowest wire 6″ above the ground and the top wire ground (-) for lightning protection.   Since I used steel posts the ground wires are wrapped directly onto the posts.  I used 12 gauge copper jump wire to connect the hot wires as well as for the lead from the controller. I suspect I could make a slight improvement if I grounded the unit to the steel posts as well as the usual ground rods.


Bees and Honey


The well furnished home food garden has always and still should include at least one hive of honeybees. But this is easier said than done, so learning that bees were part of Bill’s dowry may have been the thing that clinched the deal, back when we were courting. Fast forward 16 honeyed years: I’m writing a N.Y. Times bee story and in the course of research discover – who knew? – that this little insect may well be the canary in the agricultural coal mine.

Honeybees don’t get much press compared to, say, petroleum, but their pollination services are just as crucial as fuel and fertilizer to about 15 billion dollars a year in crops, from almonds and alfalfa to sunflower seeds. More bees are needed in each place than any one place could provide, so tens of thousands of hives get loaded on trucks, taken to fields or orchards in bloom, then packed up again and hauled elsewhere.

These migratory honeybees are essential to agribusiness monocropping, which could not exist if it had to depend on local pollinators. That’s why the bees have been getting their 15 minutes of fame* – a mysterious affliction called CCD ( colony collapse disorder) has destroyed so many colonies it’s threatening a major industry. Farmers are paying much higher prices for hive rental while also worrying there may be shortages that can’t be overcome, even with expensive imports.

More than you really want to know is posted, with running updates at beeculture.com, but the very short version is:

*CCD probably isn’t new; reports of similar, albeit far smaller, epidemics go back at least as far as 1898.

* CCD is almost surely not one disease or pest or insecticide but rather some unknown combo thereof that exploits the weakness of bees stressed by profoundly unnatural ways of being kept and used. No study has yet revealed a single insult that is/was the tipping point. Each time a likely culprit is fingered, further investigation confirms that it is at best only part of the puzzle.

* Domestic honeybees are livestock: living creatures raised and used by humans. What do we know about them compared to what we know about chickens and cows? Zilch. What are we likely to learn soon? Also zilch, in part because there is no massive bee industry to lobby for public funds or undertake its own research.

The internet allows posts like this to go on at enormous length, but that doesn’t mean they should, so here are a few visuals from our own

Home Grown Honey Harvest, October 7, 2007

Bill checks to see if there’s any honey in the frame ( a pre-built foundation for the bees to start from).

I always thought smoke made the bees think the hive was on fire, so they were too busy worrying about the house to sting anybody. Beekeepers just say it calms them, with the same result.

They don’t stay calm long; you have to extract the honey someplace they can’t get to, in this case the barn.

This is Bill’s honey extractor, a galvanized antique called the Root Novice. Modern extractors are steel or plastic and this is probably the place to say that honey is more or less self-sterilizing. It’s so sweet bacteria can’t grow in it and so low in water content yeasts won’t grow either. The reason you can’t give it to babies is that it can contain spores of anaerobic bacteria like botulism. The acid in all human digestive systems that process solid food prevents those spores from growing, but new people who still drink all their nourishment don’t have that protection.

After each cell is filled with honey, the bees cap it with a wax lid. You have to slice off the lids (with a wicked sharp, thin-bladed knife) before you can extract the honey.

Bees gather honey from one source at a time. If you want to name the honey for its source – check out the list at honeylocator.com – you have to harvest it before the bees move on. The dark patch looks sort of like buckwheat but I’m sure it’s not. Doesn’t matter, whatever it is will just add complexity to this year’s vintage.

Frames are held upright by arms in the extractor. Turn the crank and the arms whirl around, flinging the honey out by centrifugal force, same as in a salad spinner.

Honey isn’t the only thing that gets flung; the colander catches things like stray bits of wax and the occasional unfortunate bee that didn’t respond to the smoke.

After collection, the honey is poured into sterilized jars. Over the next couple of weeks, any tiny impurities rise and form a thin layer at the top. For gift-giving, we take the layer off. For us, we just leave it as an extra seal until we want to use the honey.

Before the equipment is washed and stored, it’s put outdoors for the bees to clean. They will retrieve almost all of the honey to add to their winter stores.

* Fifteen minutes seems to be about right. Bees are as gone from the headlines as they are from all those dead hives. Tune in next February for a brief flare-up, when almond orchards will need a surge from an army so grievously depleted it may not have enough troops.