A Silliness Compendium

It’s been a busy few weeks here at the Abbey. Just when you thought the silliness levels couldn’t get any higher around here, they did!

First, we celebrated Easter:

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“Who on earth laid THOSE?”

Then, we indulged our Walter Mitty-esque daydreams:

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“Here’s the Smilodon waiting to ambush the giant sloth . . .”

We brought camouflage to a level of performance art:

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Which is the ball of yarn, and which is Linus?

We vowed revenge on the stupid human who made us wear this ridiculous piece of protective clothing:

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“I know you’re saying it’s to protect my neck from being pecked, but I know humiliation when I see it.”

*(Yes, that is a hand-knitted neck protector. I have officially made my first piece of chicken clothing. She kept it on for all of 5 minutes.)

We learned how to play tether ball with a head of lettuce:

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“Heads up, Sally!”

We discovered the best seat in the house:

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“Sorry, Shatner. The Starship Enterprise has nothing on this.”

Even the wildlife got in on the act:

 

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Yes, those are deer playing on piles of dirt.

There’s quite a lot to catch you up on: Octopus and other aquarium encounters! Chicken politics! BOBCAT PHOTOS!!!!!! Stay tuned!

 

Monday Morning Visitor

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Saber-tooths in action.

Ah, Monday, when the hubbub of the weekend subsides and the house is quiet. It’s the perfect time for some animal watching, and today didn’t disappoint. I was about to go downstairs when DH whispered to me and beckoned me to the landing. I saw Linus in full saber-toothed cat mode, staring hard out the window. Then I saw our visitor: a wild turkey hen! She and Linus were having a staring contest, but my movement on the landing caught her eye and she backed off a bit. Cookies joined us on the landing to see what was going on, and when he noticed her he went into saber-toothed cat mode too. Never mind that the potential prey is about five times his height . . .

20160314_110926-1.jpgWe watched her as she strutted along the patio and the side garden, pausing here and there to nibble something but mostly seeming as if she were waiting for somebody. It’s kind of strange to see a turkey on her own since usually they stick together in flocks, especially at this time of year when breeding season is nigh. In the past we have seen flocks of over twenty turkeys in the back yard, sometimes with four males displaying (and the ladies ignoring their efforts). One even displayed at me through the back door once — I guess I make an attractive turkey. But over the past year we haven’t seen them as frequently; perhaps the increased coyote (and bobcat!) presence has induced them to shift their base of operations. I miss them and was happy to see this one back and doing her thing.

I went back into the kitchen for some coffee and, a few minutes later, my eye was drawn to the back door again:

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“Excuse me, is there room in your organization for a turkey?”

Could you resist this face?? I wonder if she would come in if I left the back door open, though having a panicked turkey in the living room probably isn’t a good idea — that wingspan is pretty huge. DH thinks perhaps someone has been feeding her, and the temptation to do so is certainly there. Unfortunately all my suitable turkey treats are in the barn,  though I think I see a small cup of cracked corn being set aside in the house in case she returns. Perhaps also Cookies had a chance to explain how things work here at the Abbey:

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“Of course we have room for a turkey. Let me give you a tip on how things work around here: if you keep showing up and being cute, they’ll let you inside.”

EDITED TO ADD: After I published this post, I went back downstairs and the turkey was still there; she ended up spending about two hours hanging out on the back doorstep, and even came and tapped on the window of our back deck. Every so often the cats would go to the door and have a look at her. At one point while we were eating lunch in the kitchen, we heard Linus making little trilling/chirping sounds that we have not heard him make before; it sounded very much like the soft trilling that turkeys make to each other as the flock moves along foraging. I know some cats chirp when they are viewing potential prey from inside the house, but I have watched Linus hungrily watch chipmunks and birds from the window many times before and he has not chirped while doing so; moreover, jokes about being a saber-toothed cat aside, Linus knows very well that an adult turkey is not prey for him. To us, it really seemed as if Linus were trying to communicate with the turkey. He certainly would be familiar with them from his outside days. It was pretty amazing to hear, and I’d love to try to record it if it happens again. Who knew that we had a tri-lingual cat??

 

Bob’s Your Uncle

The Abbey has a new denizen! Well, not exactly new, since we first made his acquaintance just under a year ago, but he and others of his kind have recently been making appearances at the Abbey and its environs. Four clues to who it is: (1) It is grey-brown with spots and tufted ears; (2) it is shy and secretive; (3) it is an apex predator; and (4) it’s a member of an animal family whom we at the Abbey adore. Did you guess bobcat? Go you!

We first met the bobcat last April, when I happened to catch some motion out of the corner of my eye as we were sitting down to dinner. I looked up and saw something large strutting through the field behind the house that was about coyote sized but didn’t move like a coyote. Moreover, I could see that it had a short tail. Bobcat? Lynx? Around here? In a flurry, DH, DS, and visiting DG (Dear Grandpa) hightailed it outside with the camera to see if they could catch a better glimpse. In a flurry, I hightailed it out to the chickens to put them back inside the barn in case our guest was hungry. Meanwhile, DH, DS, and DG got another good look at, and received a good look by, the bobcat over in the field. By the time they reached the field it was going over a little bridge, and when it heard them it turned to appraise them. They could clearly see its white chest and cheek tufts, and when it turned away again they saw the short tail. It was completely unafraid, as befits its feline nature. When we regrouped we were all very excited, but that was that was it as far as any further sightings, until two weeks ago.  Again, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye, and there padding along the top of a stone wall was the bobcat. DS and I watched it from the windows as DH, in a flurry, hightailed it outside with the camera. Alas, it was gone, but our excitement had returned in full force.

The first order of business was to get the game camera set up. We stationed it so that it had a view of the stone wall, which we knew to be a favorite predator highway before the second bobcat sighting. We even put out an old piece of liver to sweeten the enticement to pose. Alas, we need to make adjustments to the camera’s shutter speed because something with a large, furry behind ate the liver but managed to evade more specific photographic capture. (We think it was the raccoon from the previous post.) We did, however, get some pretty hilarious rodent photobombs:

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“I am a noble beast, too!”

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“You were perhaps expecting a bobcat? Sucker!”

We also caught a coyote, exiting right (stupid shutter speed):

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“Here’s my gorgeous tail! Take that, BOBcat!”

The second order of business was to do some further research about bobcats. One thing we learned is that bobcats pick certain trees to scratch as both a territory marker and also just to keep their claws in shape, so I went out to take a look. I found this:

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It’s a bit hard to tell in the photo, but there are vertical grooves in the wood, unlike where a buck would rub his antlers, which tends to leave smooth wood. So, this may be a scratching post, or it may not.

We then moved the camera to another known wildlife crossing point and put out more bait. Again, thanks to shutter speed issues we don’t know who made the bait disappear completely despite a roaring rain storm. We did, however, capture another coyote exiting right, and another indignant deer:

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Our lack of sightings was partially made up for, however, by what seems to have been a very loud bobcat sound in the woods the other evening, during DS’s bedtime. Bobcats are most famous for the sound that males make when they’re arguing about breeding rights — people say it sounds like a human screaming — but they also growl and make other assorted noises. What we heard was very much like the sound at 16 seconds in to this recording (click the link, scroll down to the first of two audio files embedded in the page).

So that is where our current attempts to “capture” our new resident stand. Hopefully a rejiggered camera will bring some success and we can get a nice mug shot of a furry bobcat face. Meanwhile, Cookies has something to say about my attempts at making contact with his wild cousin:

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“You went bobcat hunting and didn’t bring me along as translator????”

 

Camera Obscura

After years of examining footprints in the snow, listening to sounds in the night, and catching fleeting glimpses, we at the Abbey finally got our act together and put out our game camera to get actual pictures of all the other creatures who live here with us. The game camera is one of the best inventions since sliced bread. Using motion sensing technology and an infrared light, this solid, waterproof camera can be set up in the woods and programmed to take still or moving pictures, which are date and time stamped (you can even record the phase of the moon!) and recorded on an SD card. When you’re ready to view the pictures, you pop out the SD card and upload them onto a computer and don’t have to move the camera. They have been absolutely huge in wildlife research because they are non-intrusive and help avoid — to a certain extent — the Heisenberg principle. For wildlife lovers like the Abbey denizens, it’s a great way to see what everyone is getting up to out there where we can’t see.

Our first two nights yielded some hilarious photos. First, a herd of deer demanded to know what on earth this thing was that had been left on the side of their road:

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“WTH is that thing???”

We also got a pretty neat action shot of the deer:

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Finally, we made the night of a raccoon who ate the liver we had left out in the hopes of enticing one of the numerous coyotes to the camera:

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“Liver nomnomnom.”

(Note the white dots on the ground in front of the raccoon: they are freeze-dried raw duck cat food that Cookies and Linus refused to touch. The raccoon didn’t touch them either. That must be some pretty unappetizing cat food if even a raccoon won’t eat it.)

I absolutely love the shot of the deer checking out the camera. Deer have a reputation for being sort of stupid but they are actually quite intelligent and curious. The woods are their home and they know every inch of it, so something new needs to be inspected, for safety’s sake at the very least. It’s also great to have the observed become the observers. (The raccoon was too excited about the liver to notice the camera or care, which is probably a good thing since those dexterous little hands could easily dismantle it if the raccoon were so inclined.)

Since it is going to be arctically cold here the next few days we will have to bring the camera in for a bit, but we’ll see what we get when we move it to a new position next week. Stay tuned!

Watch This Space!

This is no ordinary pile of dirt.

This is no ordinary pile of dirt.

It’s a quiet, rainy night here at the Abbey. Chickens are tucked up on their roost, heads nestled in soft feathers. Cats are being silly, wrestling and charging around after eating their final meal of the day. And out in the darkness, in the gravelly dirt of one of the pastures, some baby box turtles are incubating. We saw Mama Turtle excavating a nest hole with her hind legs a few evenings ago. We had guests for dinner and everyone had trooped out to see the chickens, the garden, and whether there were any massive snakes under the manure pile. Unfortunately for poor Mama Turtle, the line of trooping involved everyone walking right past the quiet spot she had chosen in the field. After exclaiming over her work we all gave her a respectful distance, though by then she must have been wondering why she had decided to lay in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. When I returned the next morning, only the faintest pile of disturbed dirt indicated where the nest is located. Guess we won’t be mowing this pasture for at least 70 days (approximate length of incubation, though this varies widely). We are definitely going to set up the game camera when the time approaches.

Does it get much cuter than a newly-hatched box turtle? No, it does not.

Does it get much cuter than a newly-hatched box turtle? No, it does not.

Mama Turtle.

I’m pretty sure this is Mama Turtle.

Meanwhile, check out these photos of a box turtle hatchling from a few years ago, plus his mama. Mama Turtle laid her eggs right near the chickens’ run. She lingered there for a few days after I saw her scratching out the nest. Our old flock was in residence then, and when I went out in the evenings to close their stall door it would seem to me as if Mama Turtle were hanging out chatting with Dreamer, my chicken BFF and guardian angel (more on Dreamer forthcoming). One rainy morning about 3 months later, I happened to look down as I walked out to the barn and narrowly missed stepping on this little guy. I can’t believe I even noticed him in the first place, and I wonder what became of his siblings, assuming they hatched (box turtles have a very high egg and nestling mortality rate, which doesn’t surprise me, given the totally random places I’ve now seen them lay). So I anticipate much insane cuteness when this new clutch hatches. Fingers crossed for them!

I, For One, Welcome Our Cephalopod Overlords

Octopus at the Mote Aquarium, Sarasota

Octopus at the Mote Aquarium, Sarasota

Today we discuss a species that, while not in official residence at the Abbey, would be if it were feasible. Not because we don’t have a saltwater tank, because we could certainly set one up, but because it would only escape and wreak havoc. And knowing me, I would facilitate these escapes just to see what kind of havoc would be wreaked. What kind of terrible genius could do this? An octopus, of course.

I was inspired to write about these wonderful invertebrates for whom a backbone would just cramp their style because of a recent article discussing one more of their badass traits. It’s not enough that they have crazy pigmentation cells that allow them to camouflage with ninja-esque ease into any background, avoiding predators or emerging from out of nowhere as their prey’s worst nightmare. Nor is it enough that they use their equally dexterous minds and arms to solve puzzles, find food, use tools, escape through tiny holes, throw out garbage, escape from tanks to wreak havoc, escape from nets to wreak havoc, attack sharks, make underwater films, or try to murder SCUBA divers who have intruded on their world. No, these creatures, along with their cephalopod cousins cuttlefish and squid, apparently use their entire bodies to sense light — i.e., to see. This awesome trait seems to be part of how they are able to be such great camouflage artists and match their bodies to any ridiculous background you can throw at them. They are basically brains covered by an eye, with sharp beaks and eight arms that not only can do amazing things but can regenerate if they are severed or damaged. And they evolved hundreds of millions of years before we noisy, destructive, hairless thumb monkeys did. Who do you think got the short end of Darwin’s stick? Certainly not Lord Cthulhu.

I have had only a few, brief interactions with octopuses. Each left me impressed, but also a little sad since one can just feel their intelligence, and there’s no way life in an aquarium can be that interesting given what they can get up to in the wild. The first interaction was with the octopus in the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. She has a corner tank to herself, from which she can watch people moving between the aquarium’s two main rooms. It was hard to get a read on her — in my experience, octopuses like to keep things close to the vest — but she regarded me regally, partially de-camouflaged to check me out, and then disappeared again into her vantage point. My other interactions have been with two different Pacific Octopuses in the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut. One of these, a “special needs” octopus in that she was missing portions of two of her arms, had come to the aquarium from Seattle. Whatever had happened in this animal’s life had left her very, very frustrated. I believe I saw her for the first time when she had only just arrived and the staff had not quite finished arranging her tank. There were just a few pieces of kelp and a ceramic jar for her to use for cover, but otherwise not much stimulation. She was balled up in an upper corner of the tank, slowly rolling and unrolling one arm. When she sensed me she moved from the corner and came to look at me. I have only seen expressions of helpless fury in a few animals, and this was one of the times. Boredom, loneliness, rage — these emotions were overpowering. I was struck by how completely understimulated she must have been, as well as whatever other stress was carried over from her long trip. On subsequent visits there were more items in the tank for her to work with, like a jar to unscrew for treats, more places to hide, and some “company” in the form of starfish (who don’t strike me as being good company for an octopus). The boredom and rage were still evident, however, and even though she came over to look at me I got the sense she was becoming more withdrawn. After being in residence for over a year (octopuses are not very long lived) she was replaced by another Pacific Octopus. Perhaps having learned from their experience with the first one, the staff seemed to have equipped the second one with more things to do, as well as more starfish for company. When I met Octopus #2, it was relaxing in that same upper corner of the tank and seemed a little more comfortable, though still gave the impression of being bored. When it noticed me it lackadaisically reached for a kelp leaf and began to play peek-a-boo with it, moving it between me and itself and watching me. While it did that, another arm would occasionally reach down and poke a starfish that was stuck to the side of the tank. To me, the poking seemed like a deliberate annoyance — if I were an octopus stuck with a bunch of starfish, I would probably be tempted to mess with them, too, because why not? It will be interesting to see how Octopus #2 is doing next time we visit.

Meanwhile, for an excellent discussion of octopus intelligence by a wonderful writer on animal behavior, check out this article by Sy Montgomery. And know that when our turn as alleged top species is over, the octopus will be laughing at us from the shadows of the sea…