Killdeer, the Harbingers of Spring

In Whispers From the Past, Charles receives a letter from Emily, wherein she calls the Killdeers, the harbingers of spring. In southeast Idaho, the ground nesting Killdeer arrive in the early spring, and usually race around for a week or two before establishing their nests.

We have one pair that have nested in our pasture for the past several years. They typically lay their eggs  before the nights rise above freezing. This presents a problem as we usually start irrigating as much as several weeks before their eggs hatch. The concern is that the cold water and the freezing temperatures may drive the brooding Killdeer from her/his nest.

Killdeer nest marked by post
The hidden nest is marked by the steel post, top and right of center.
Close up of Killdeer nest
Close up of the clutch of four Killdeer eggs. The cow pie nest is largely hidden by sticks the parents have brought in to better camouflage the nest.

So far, we have always managed to keep enough water off the nesting site to allow the parents to hatch the chicks. This year was a little different in that we have had a late spring, and an unusually heavy rainfall for May. The temperatures have been steadfastly cool, but the nights have been generally above freezing.

Each day as I have moved my pipe, the Killdeers have done their best to lead me away from their nest. After locating the clutch, I marked the nest so I wouldn’t accidentally step on it. Over the past few weeks, I have watched with interest as the four mottled eggs have lain in their hollowed out cow pie, awaiting the emergence of the chicks.

Killdeer chicks shortly after hatching
The Killdeer chicks as I found them in the early morning.

This morning, when I went out to move and start my pipe, the Killdeers were exceptionally agitated. I checked the nest and found four tiny balls of fuzz, hunkered down and dong their best to play dead. Their tiny bodies moved in rhythm with their breathing, and some of them had their eyes open, but otherwise they were completely immobile.

Killdeer chicks just before they left the nest
The Killdeer chicks just before they left the nest. The two on the right had already been wandering. I caught them and returned them to the nest so I could take one more quick family picture. Note the white ruff on the back of the chick’s head. Not sure if this is an indicator of sex or not. The other three don’t have the white ruff.

By early afternoon the chicks were moving, and by mid to late afternoon they had left their nest and were following their parents out into the great wide world. I didn’t get any pictures of them standing, but about two-thirds of their height is in their long, gangly legs.

My experience with the Killdeer this spring reminded me of a spring about forty years ago. I was out in the field doing tractor work. I was driving along minding my own business when a motion near my front tire caught my attention. It took me a few seconds to identify it as a Killdeer attacking the tire, but as soon as I did, I immediately slammed on the brakes. The Killdeer continued to attack the tire until I climbed down from the cab to see what in the world had the bird so upset. The Killdeer immediately reverted to her normal behavior and tried leading me away. There, no more than twelve inches in front of the tire, was the nest.

I backed up, swung the tractor wide enough to miss the nest, and went back to working the field. That is the one and only time I have ever seen or heard of a Killdeer attacking to defend her/his nest, rather than doing the wounded bird impersonation in an attempt to lead the intruder away from its nest.

Now that the babies are safely out of the nest, I can turn the cattle into the north pasture and get back to work.

Until next time …

My Daily Battle With Interruptions

As hard as it is, I have to come clean. It has been three weeks now since I’ve written a single word. As an author, that is not acceptable. I have a ton of reasons, but ultimately they are nothing more than excuses for why I haven’t been doing what I should have been doing.

I have been editing Chet Zero, (the prequel to the series), as well as applying some advance reader edits that have come in on Chet III. I have also put in some significant hours working with my illustrator on the covers for both of the pending releases. That accounts for perhaps a third of my available hours.

“So what have I been doing with the rest of my time?” you ask.

I was afraid you would …

The fact is, springtime in Idaho, on an acreage that’s too small to farm but too large to plant in lawn, can be a real time sink. In the past few weeks my wife and I had to lay out the irrigation pipe and prep the system. After getting it fired up, we found the pump was noisy and we had to pull the motor and take it in to have the bearings replaced and a snake removed. (True story, the little beggar crawled in there where it was nice and warm and then couldn’t figure out how to get himself back out through the screen I put on to keep him out in the first place.)

This morning the cattleman who rents my pasture brought down a dozen head of mixed stock. That required putting up a “conditioning corral” for the first 24 hours, then extending it out for another 24 hours, before turning the cattle into the pasture with the hope they won’t go through the electric fence that encloses the pasture. I hate chasing them through the fields and the neighbors yards almost as much as my wife does. (I do my best to teach them to respect the electric fence and my bride allows me to use them as biological lawn mowers, rather than having to spend hours on my tractor each week, pulling my rotary mower back and forth across the pasture.)

I’ve also been dealing with a septic system blockage, taking down some trees the porcupines have girdled, and cleaning up after the beaver that have been feasting on our younger trees. For those of you who wonder if I really know anything about running a chainsaw, splitting wood, or working cattle, you are welcome to come by and help out for a spell. (I’m all about giving people the opportunity to make up their own minds about such questions.)

Anyway, even though I’m a writer, enough with the words. Here are a few pictures of the latest herd of cattle to come to our bovine bread and breakfast.

Conditioning-Corral-05-14-2015The temporary corral has an electric fence wire strung a few feet inside the fence panels. As the cattle graze on the grass they inevitably bump up against the fence. The panels keep them from escaping if they decide to tear down the electric fence as they are fleeing its bite. (By the way, that’s a real, freshly planted Idaho potato field in the background.)

Cow eating DandelionsWhile many of the cattle avoided eating the dandelions, the brown cross in the center of the picture went out of her way to slurp them up. Apparently she likes ‘bitter herbs.’

Although I didn’t have a way to capture video, I did take a sequence of pictures as one of the cattle got introduced to the electric fence.

Cow reaching under electric fenceThe old adage that ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ is certainly true, at least for the Angus in the background. See how it’s sizing up the grass?

Cow reaching under electric fenceNow comes the reach, complete with it’s tongue stretching out just as it’s neck comes in contact with the fence. See how the wire is raised slightly?

Cow shocked by electric fenceAnd the vanishing act. After being shocked, the Angus jumps back into the protection of the herd so quickly that the red heifer in front has barely changed her position. Not so with the red steer in the background. He is startled by the hasty retreat of the Angus and is clearly showing his surprise. Think I’m overstating the case? Check out the closeup below.

Startled CowHunched back, ears up, wide eyes, the red steer is frightened by the extreme reaction of the Angus and is ready to bolt as soon as he decides where the threat is coming from. As Charles teaches David, watch a cow and they will almost always communicate their intentions before they act.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this totally non-writing focused post, and if you haven’t, thank you for indulging me as I’ve gotten my long overdue cattle fix.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes in the coming days to indulge in something you enjoy.

Until next time …