Winter at Far West Farm

Posted Thursday January 2, 2020

(From time to time, as seasons change or other noteworthy events occur at our AOK legacy farm in Morris County, I plan to write a blog describing current conditions or interesting happenings.  This is the first of those efforts.) 

The first significant snow of the winter is always a welcome event at Far West Farm, as it provides an opportunity to walk our property to determine what animals are present based on the tracks they’ve left behind.  It also is a good time to see what wintering birds might be on hand—both year-around residents that have moved in from nearby properties, but also others who have flown in from northerly reaches.

While it might seem the only variances from winter to winter are temperature and precipitation, in reality there are many things that play into what species of predators and prey are present in any given winter.  The types of crop residues present, weather in other parts of the country, and availability of weed seeds and animal prey are all factors.

With some of those things in mind, I began walking on our 80-acre parcel that spans Clarks Creek.  I particularly wanted to see whether migratory sparrows were using the 3-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) filter strip that we had planted three years earlier.  A bonus would be finding some pheasants or quail, two species that have rarely been present since the adjacent landowner’s CRP patch was converted to pasture when that CRP contract ended more than a decade ago.

As I walked the straight stretch of grass, mixed forbs and brush along a fence line, the only signs of wildlife were the tracks of two coyotes that had hunted the area.  For the most part, their tracks showed steady progress in a northerly direction.  It quickly became evident why Natural Resource Conservation Services rules mandate that a filter strip be at least 60 feet wide, as the coyotes had worked back and forth across the 60 feet of cover we had provided.  Occasionally, the tracks showed where the coyotes had completed a 10-foot-in-diameter circle as they searched for prey, but not once did I see where they had caught a rodent.  In fact, in walking the three-quarters of a mile length of the filter strip, I saw only one set of mouse tracks.  I did not see a bird, despite passing several promising plum and dogwood thickets.

When I reached Clarks Creek, I saw abundant deer tracks at the edge of the field, which had been planted to soybeans.  Later I would sort out the deer tracks and determine that four deer were involved.  I climbed down to get closer to the beaver dam that constrains the creek at the downstream edge of our property. I found significant removal of small trees, but no beaver tracks in the snow that had fallen five days earlier.  Closer inspection of some intriguing tracks that definitely were not deer and were not spaced like coyote tracks led to discovery of a rounded paw print.  Bobcat!

I made my way along the east side of the field, which lies closer to Clarks Creek.  As I neared the highway, I finally found my first migratory birds, a Harris Sparrow and two Dark-Eyed Juncos.  As I reached my truck, I heard the “yank” call of a White-breasted Nuthatch high up in one of our ancient bur oak trees, the only non-migrant bird of the effort.

I drove two miles north to our other parcel, which for the most part lies along the east side of Clarks Creek. I parked and made my way down a treed hillside towards the first of our three bottoms, which are surrounded on several sides by woods.  I reached a tree line that forms the east edge of the field, the South Bottom.  I was immediately into birds.  The entire length of the brushy edge harbored birds, with Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows, dozens of Harris Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos and two towhees.  I could never get a clear view of the towhees, but one of them appeared to be a hybrid of an Eastern Towhee and a Spotted Towhee. The Harris Sparrows, our largest sparrow, filled the thickets and brush with their melodious bubbling call.  It is easy to see why birders travel to Kansas to add this beautiful bird to their life lists.

As soon as I began walking along the field’s edge I could see bird tracks leading out into the milo stubble.  The birds were present because they like to eat lost milo (grain sorghum) seed.  They had found a natural feeder.  I quickly found where a covey of quail had been making forays from the woody cover out into the field.  At various locations I found tracks of different ages.  Some had been made while it was snowing; others had occurred earlier that day.  A count suggested 13 birds in the covey.  Shortly thereafter, quail exploded out of a plum thicket. 

I completed my survey around the east edge of the field and walked down the lane that serves as a driveway to our various small fields.  I reached the Middle Bottom and walked the edges that separate the two CRP filter strips from more milo stubble.  I saw numerous tracks where small birds had ventured from the protection of the tall grass out into the milo stubble.  I began to see scattered turkey tracks, including some of a large gobbler, but all of the scattered tracks were old and I couldn’t get a count on how many birds might be present.  We don’t usually have turkeys on our property in the winter, but the milo was drawing them in.  

I completed the survey around the edge of the Middle Bottom, seeing the tracks of two possums and one raccoon.  Clearly the raccoons were doing more hibernating than feeding, as I know we have many more coons than the tracks were suggesting.  As I reached the opening to our third (North) bottom, I glimpsed black spots in the distance among the milo stubble.  Eight turkeys were feeding on the waste grain, including two large gobblers.  I decided to survey the North Bottom after the next snow, as it was getting late and I hadn’t packed a lunch.  I also wanted to let the turkeys feed. 

On the way back to the truck I navigated along the edge of another small field of milo.  Deer tracks were everywhere—so many that I couldn’t make an estimate of how many might be feeding.  I also saw more coyote tracks, and some dog tracks from who knows where.  I saw more juncos and then a larger bird track.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, we haven’t had pheasants in recent years on this tract, but a pheasant had clearly made the tracks that meandered in and out among milo stubble and adjacent dogwood thickets. The tracks were relatively small and closely spaced for a pheasant.  I concluded it was likely a hen that had been flushed from neighboring property and had stayed to enjoy our wasted milo.

The day had not yielded any rarities, but it had raised some interesting questions.  The biggest question for me is what are the predators eating this winter?  While I had seen a few rodent tracks and trails on our second parcel, rodent numbers appear to be low.  Were they operating under the snow, rather than out in the open?  Past experience doesn’t convince me that they could operate without leaving any trace.  The other missing element were cottontails.  In more than two miles of walking, I had seen no rabbit tracks.  

I’m looking forward to the next snow so I can survey our North Bottom as well as two other areas that have been dedicated to wildlife.  One of those areas has several large brush piles.  If there are no rabbits around those, their numbers are clearly down.  As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, seasons and years vary.   Having available food, in our case milo stubble, makes a difference, but sometimes mysteries remain.  About five years ago we had a normal winter with available food and no deer; but deer were plentiful the following spring.

 I enjoy seeing deer, but we let hunters pursue them because too many deer can cause problems.  After a bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, contracted from a lone star tick on our farm this past summer, I appreciate more than ever that it’s important to enjoy the good parts of nature and also to know one can have too many of a good thing--in my case deer and the ticks they carry.  

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