Winter Fun at Redbay Farm…Trail building, Wildlife Habitat Improvement and Timber Stand Improvement

Logs_2

Me sitting on a pile of mushroom logs.

Winter is a wonderful time of year here at Redbay Farm and La Casita.  The weather is cool and the forest is dormant.  It is a great time for trail building, brush pile construction and timber stand improvement.

Trail building: I am planning to open my trails to guests who stay at La Casita this time next year (2017).  The trails will be open for bird watching and nature observation.  There are over two miles of trails that crisscross our roughly 40 acres of forest

A trail at Redbay Farm

A trail at Redbay Farm

 
  • Some of the trails are over 20 years old. Some are brand new. The trails are about 6 foot wide which allows easy single file walking without being in the brush. Trails mitigate but do not eliminate the need to take precautions for chiggers and ticks.
  • The terrain is relatively flat and the trails will allow visitors to experience various habitats to include high pocosinloblolly pine forestpine hardwood forest, succession forest and even a couple of acres of near climax forest (90 to 100 years
    tulippolar

    A flower from a mature tulip poplar

    old). Due to the wet nature of some parts of our forest rubber boots are required especially during the winter months.

  • If you want to learn more about the various stages of forest succession I recommend this article on forest succession from physicalgeography.net .

Brush piles: Brush piles are a byproduct of trail maintenance and timber stand improvement. Actually, a brush pile is a type of wildlife habitat you can build in your own backyard even in a suburban environment.   Learn how to build your own wildlife habitat brush pile by reading this article from the Humane Society of the US and watch the accompanying video. 

  • Simply crisscross your larger pieces of trimmings from pruning and keep adding layers until you have a pile that is a few feet in diameter and two or three feet tall.
  • A brush pile will create small shelter habitat which will attract sparrows, amphibians, box turtles and small mammals like rabbits and chipmunks. Build your brush pile away from your home but within view so that you can observe the attracted wildlife.
Timber stand improvement: Developing marketable wood products requires management. Timber stand improvement (TSI).  

After

After Timber Stand Improvement (TSI)

  • Before

    Before TSI

    TSI is a multi generational project.  The results of my efforts may not be realized until my grand children are my age.

  • TSI involves removal of diseased/malformed trees and thinning of trees to encourage the growth remaining trees.
  • The primary TSI focus at Redbay Farm is loblolly pine production.
  • Some byproducts of TSI are firewood, charcoal, mushroom
    woodpile2

    Firewood

    logs, poles and small saw logs.

That’s it in a nutshell on trail building, building brush piles and timber stand improvement. Winter is a great time to create habitat, explore forests and make forest improvements.  I hope you have as much fun exploring your local forests and improving wildlife habitat as I do!

 

 

Tips to Protect Your Chickens!

About 10 years ago I bought a little house in a development that adjoins my 38 acre forested property called Redbay Farm.  One day my Dad asked if I wanted some

Our first chickens

chickens.  I said yes.  Thus began my often times painful journey in raising chickens. The crux of this article is to provide information that will help new chicken owners from repeating the many mistakes I made.  The number one point I’d like to make is that If you don’t protect your chickens your chicken coop will become a predator buffet.

Protecting your chickens is a full time 24/7 365 day a year job.  There are no exceptions. Sure you might get away with leaving the coop open for maybe a night, or two or even a week or more but soon enough a predator will be dining on your chickens.  I have lost chickens to raccoon, opossums, foxes, owls, hawks, snakes and probably coyotes (yes, we have coyotes in Swansboro).  These predators are common in almost every suburban, urban and country setting.  For example, coyotes have even been seen in Manhattan. The predators are always watching and waiting for a delicious chicken dinner.

The most effective means that I have found for protecting chickens is a chicken tractor made with a hardware cloth enclosed chicken run and a secure nesting/roosting area. The chicken tractor gives the chickens a semblance of free range living.  To remain effective and for hygiene, the chicken tractor must be moved regularly. Moving a chicken tractor around everyday is a chore that requires discipline and time. Chicken tractors are a great tool for raising chickens in a suburban yard or garden.  I still have the old “doghouse chicken tractor” I made several years ago.  I never lost a chicken that has stayed inside this nice secure chicken tractor. The doghouse is long gone and is replaced by a little chicken house made of plastic barrel pieces, trash can pieces and some scrap tin. You can purchase expensive versions of this type of chicken tractor or make one yourself. The key feature of the doghouse chicken tractor are hardware cloth which even keeps snakes out and a small roosting/nesting area suitable for about two regular sized hens.  Chicken tractos are only good for level ground otherwise there

Dog House Chicken Tractor

will be large gaps under the rails which will allow predator access.  If you do want to make a “doghouse chicken tractor” just visit my chicken tractor page which also has a materials list and plan I put together years ago.

The next level for raising chickens is the chicken coop with an attached run.  Most folks who have more than one or two hens probably gravitate toward a chicken coop with a run that is permanently sited in their yard or garden. Since chickens don’t enjoy being cooped up even with a nice run or even in a chicken tractor most chicken owners are inclined to let the chickens free range at least a little bit before sundown.  This is great for the chickens and the owner because the chickens become somewhat self sufficient and really help to keep insect control around the yard. But, letting chickens free range is dangerous for the chickens.

If you are not going to keep your chickens locked up in a chicken tractor or secured in their coop you need to be aware of the different ways chickens are susceptible to being eaten. I’ve put together four scenarios based on personal experience that will give you an idea of what can happen.

Scenario one: “Look at the chickens going after the bugs in the yard.” said my wife.  “That hen is so cute!”, she said as we shared a bottle of wine on the patio.  Later that night we heard chickens making all kinds of racket.  I ran out to the coop with a flashlight. I had left the door open on the coop.  There on the ground, laying headless, was the cute little hen. I got to sleep on the couch.

Lesson  #1 – Always shut and lock the door of the coop.

Scenario two: I put together a makeshift chicken pen for the chickens using a dog kennel with a tarp over the top held down with bungee cords.  Inside the dog kennel was a small chicken house.  It was a bit difficult to access the nest for egg collection but other than that the improvised chicken pen seemed to work ok protecting the chickens from hawks and other predators.  One night as we slept soundly a raccoon family climbed the chain linked fence and worked their way under the tarp into the pen. All of the chickens were dead.  I slept on the couch again.

Lesson #2 – Build a secure coop.

Scenario Three: We were eating Thanksgiving dinner.  We looked outside and found that a hawk was also celebrating Thanksgiving by eating one of our pullets! It seems cockrells are just not as tasty. Ah, Thanksgiving day memories.

Lesson #3 – Protect chickens from hawks and owls (yes, I have also lost chickens to Great Horned owls)

Rat snake eating a baby squirrel.

Rat snake (AKA chicken snake) eating a baby squirrel.

Scenario Four: I went to the coop to take a look at our young chickens.  Of course all of the cockrells are accounted for…but the one pullet was now a lump in a snakes belly. Chickens attract some varieties of snakes.  My career raising chickens was beginning to look more dubious by the day.

Lesson #4 – Young chickens require protection from snakes

Integrating the my lessons learned into your chicken defenses

Aerial photo of Redbay Farm and La Casita

Upper Left hand corner shows Redbay Farm and La Casita

If you are new to raising chickens I recommend that you carefully plan how you are going to secure and protect your flock.  If you already own chickens you might find some of my recommendations helpful to mitigate any predator problems you might have. As you plan your chicken defenses evaluate what predators and pest will be trying to eat your chickens. The list varies by geography.  Here in NC our main predators are raccoon, opossums, hawks (various types and at various times of years), Great Horned owls, foxes (red and gray), domestic dogs, bobcats and rat snakes (commonly called chicken snakes).  You can do a search for the internet for how to identify the predators in your area…better yet go talk to some folks who raise chickens in your local area. Predator activity can vary greatly from location to location.  My chicken coop is surrounded by over 100 acres of forest and swamp habitat…perfect habitat for a thriving predator population. In the aerial photo above, you’ll find La Casita and Redbay Farm in the upper left hand corner. As you can see our place is nearly surrounded by forest.  Our chickens are kept behind La Casita.  If you live in the city or suburbia then your predator population may not be as active or as large as it is here at Redbay Farm and La Casita. What ever your situation try to follow my painfully learned chicken protection tips. I think you will dramatically minimize the possibility that predators will kill your hens. My chicken protection tips follow:

Tip # 1 – Build or buy a Strong Coop with fully enclosed run AND install an Automatic Door (This is the minimum your chickens deserve)

This could be a chicken tractor or permanently sited coop.  It is very likely are not going to keep your chickens cooped up at all times so you’ll need to build or buy a strong predator proof Chickenhousecollagecoop. My predator resistant coop has a covered run (protection from hawks/owls) and is surrounded by electric fence. I installed an automatic door for the chickens.  No matter how diligent you are you or someone in your family will forget to close the chicken coop door for the night. I strongly recommend an automatic light actuated door for your stationary coop or chicken tractor. I purchased a VSB  Electronic Door Keeper on Amazon. The device costs about $240.  Sounds like a lot money but the cost to replace a laying hen is about $20 dollars and a predator can wipe Covered chicken runout your whole flock in one night. The door is powered by 4 AA batteries. The collage shows my coop.  The vents at the top of the coop are secured with hardware cloth. Also, I also have electric fencing on the outside of my coop as an added incentive for predators to not mess with my chickens. The electric fencing on the coop is secondary to the electric fence on the perimeter of the field where I let my chickens “free range”.  My combination chicken coop and goat shed won’t win any beauty contest but it is very effective doing the job of protecting my chickens.

Tip # 2 – Fence the Perimeter of the Area Where Your Chickens will Range

Good fences help keep predators out.  Chickens that free range in an unfenced area are just fast food for predators. Permanent non electrified fencing is merely a Billyjungle gym for most predators.  A raccoon or opossum will climb almost any fence with ease.  Snakes will go through most yard fences.  Foxes (gray foxes will climb), coyotes and other predators will go under the fence.  Perimeter fences are inconsequential to hawks and owls.  In a suburban or city setting a yard fence will help to keep your chickens safe from domestic dogs.

The best fencing option I can recommend for the perimeter of  a yard or garden is an electric fence about 4 inches off of the ground with another strand at about 12 inches and another at about 24 to 36 inches.  I use an intermittent pulsing electric fence since I have lost chickens to a continuously pulsing electric fence in the past.  Pulsing electric fences shock the predator and create a psychological barrier.  An electric fence, if you can install one, will be a great step forward in saving chickens. Please check with your HOA, town or city to ensure that you can have an electric fence.  If you can that is great and you’ll have a ring of defense around your chicken coop.  Make sure your neighbors know you have an electric fence.  You don’t want them to be shocked when they find out about your new electric fence.

Grazing behind La Casita

The goats and chickens at the back yard fence of La Casita

Pulsing electric fences are of little danger to people.  In fact I have had guests staying at La Casita accidentally touch my well marked electric fence.  I have been shocked on more times than I can count. If you have an electric fence you will get shocked. You’ll find the shock of the electric fence is much more invigorating than a cup of coffee! It is unpleasant but if intermittent the danger to you or your animals is low.  If you install an electric fence install it right.  Visit my Electric Fence Installation page for installation tips. Correct installation is very important. Additionally, an electric fence requires line maintenance.  I walk my roughly quarter mile of electric fence every couple of weeks checking for breaks, limbs lying on the line and to trim grass/weeds.  Many fence controllers or fencers have an indicator to show if the fence is shorted out.  My fence controller is a Fi-shock 1000SX AC current powered 20 mile fence controller. I have a backup 12 volt battery powered DC fencer just in case of an extended power outage.

Tip #3 – Use Visual deterrents, alarms and provide good cover:

streamer

Close up of the scare tape. Note the duct tape used for reinforcement

The last recommendation is to utilize visual deterrents and audible alarms.  Visual deterrents are overhead streamers, pulsing lights and perhaps a predator decoy (owl decoys seem to work for some people).  I use a streamer made by predator guard that is suspended on a cord about 8 ft high between my shed and coop and the coop and a tree. I place about a 3 to 5 ft long streamer about every 2 or 3 paces along the overhead cord. The purpose of the string of streamers is to physically block flying predators and confuse them with reflections and noise.  I use Predatorguard “Scare Tape” which is a foil product that makes a lot of noise, reflects a lot of light and moves easily in the wind.

Predatorguard Deterrent Light

Predatorguard Deterrent Light at work

Predator Guard Scare Tape streamers

Streamers made with Predator Guard Scare Tape strung between buildings and trees.

For nighttime defense I use solar powered Predatorguard Deterrent Lights which flash a pair of red “eyes” intermittently throughout the night.  I place these on the coop. One up high to deter owls and one down low to deter four legged predators.  Lastly, I keep a rooster.  My rooster, One Eyed Willy is the survivor of a coop attack by a raccoon.  Despite being blind in one eye he is alert and devoted to keeping his 11 girls safe.  If anything looks out of place he sounds the alarm and the hens run for cover. The hens stay close to treed areas, under equipment, under their coop, or under the shed when resting or taking a dust bath.  My coop was intentionally built elevated to provide a hiding place for my hens in addition to being a great place for a dust bath or resting out of the hot sun.

hens at dragonfly pond

My flock of chickens at Dragonfly pond behind La Casita

Another physical deterrent and alarm you may want to consider are crows.  Crows will drive off hawks and Great Horned owls.  If you have crows in your area and you raise chickens thing carefully before trying to drive them off.  While the crows may eat some pecans, corn or even raid bird nests for eggs and chicks (even in the hen house) I believe that generally their faults are outweighed by there predator deterrent benefits.  Put a little corn out for the crows every once in a while.  They are great watchers, alarms and will drive off a hawk or owl.

Enjoy your flock!

I hope my tips have been useful to both current and future chicken keepers.  So, far after several months of operation I have lost 1 bantam hen to a hawk.  After which I put up the scare tape streamers.  Since then each morning after the door of the coop opens One Eyed Willy leads his girls out to forage.  I enjoy watching them in the morning as I drink my coffee.  As I watch I know that just outside the wire of the electric fence the predators are watching and waiting!  The job of protecting chickens is never done.  Good luck protecting your flock!

All the Best,

Jim Hamrick

Next Article: Making Your Own Charcoal

Dragonflies for Mosquito Control

***Update…with the threat of the Zika virus looming any natural method for keeping the mosquito population in check should be considered as a first choice.  Consider attracting dragonflies and damselflies to your yard and garden.  Additionally, enhance the habitat for small birds and consider fish ponds.  Make sure gutters are clean and the yard is picked up so that no water is collected for mosquito breeding.  Mosquito borne illnesses are serious business and the Zika virus is just the newest illness on the block.***

A decade ago I started a dragonfly pond behind the home we now call La Casita. My inspiration for building a dragonfly pond came from an observation I made one day while working to clear my lot.  I happened on a swarm of termites flying up from a rotting log. I was marveling at the swarm of termites flying up and out of the ground when all of the

dragonfly

Common Green Darner

sudden right in front of my face flew a dragonfly.  I stood motionless and watched as large common green darners flew back and forth mere inches from my face snatching the swarming termites and gobbling them up in mid-flight.  It was as if the eagles had arrived to battle the forces of darkness in Lord of the Rings. At that moment I became a friend of dragonflies.

Why not be friendly to a beautiful creature that eats all sorts of malevolent airborne pestilence…what’s not to like? Here are some quick dragonfly facts collected from the internet in various locations.  Dragonflies….

  • Are among the first winged insects known to have existed.  Some fossilized remains have been found of dragonflies with two foot wing spans! (how big were the mosquitoes?)
  • Belong to the order Odonata which means “toothed one” in Greek because dragonflies have serrated teeth.
  • Eat almost anything in their during their larvae stage when they live in water…mosquito larvae, other insects, fish, tadpoles and they are even cannibals.
  • Are amazing fliers…they do everything on wing except rest.  As when I observed the Green Darners they eat mid-flight.  While flying a dragonfly catches its prey with its feet and then eats the prey mid-flight. Dragonflies only eat while flying. If a dragonfly can’t fly it will starve.
  •   A dragonflies head is almost all eye.  With their amazing vision they can see almost everywhere except right behind them.
  • (A.K.A. mosquito hawks) are serious mosquito eater…one dragonfly can eat up to hundreds of mosquitoes per day!

Are you interested in witnessing the effectiveness of dragonflies?  Try this.  Find a lawn chair.  Find an area where dragonflies can be seen darting about next to a pond, in a park…where ever.  Don’t put on any mosquito repellent (be advised that mosquitoes do carry diseases but you’re a risk taker…right?).  Now, take your lawn chair and find a nice sunny spot and sit perfectly still.  Wait.  I bet that in a bit you’ll notice a dragonfly or two that keeps flying around you.  Guess what?  You have your own personal natural mosquito defense system coming to your rescue.  As the dragonfly flits back and forth it is eating mosquitoes and gnats that are attracted to you.  There is no better mosquito repellent.  However, some of us are more susceptible to mosquitoes.  I just recently had one guest who was eaten up with mosquitoes but no one else in the family was.  Hmmm…I found this interesting article on WebMD, “Are You a Mosquito Magnet?”, which indicates that about 10% of the population is very very attractive to mosquitoes. If you are a “mosquito magnet” and you are visiting La Casita please bring the bug spray that you like to use.  But just think how much worse it could be without the dragonflies!

I use dragonflies and their smaller cousins, damselflies, as a pretty effective natural biological mosquito control.  The focal point for this mosquito and gnat defense is Dragonfly Pond which is about 50 yards from La Casita in the pasture.  At La Casita except on the coldest days of winter on a bright sunny warm day you’ll see dragonflies.  In the summer you’ll see squadrons of my friends flitting back and forth through the yard and gardens.  The result? Even in the evenings on the back porch at La Casita it is rare to see many mosquitoes.  But as mentioned in the previous paragraph if you are a “mosiquito magnet” then I guess mosquitoes will run through any defenses to get to you.  Sorry.

Are you interested in having your own squadrons of dragonflies and or damselflies protecting your back yard?  If your answer is yes there are two options you can explore. You can build a dragonfly pond or even scale down and make a damselfly habitat. First, let’s explore building a dragonfly pond.  Step one is determining the dimensions of the pond you want to build. The ideal dragonfly pond is at least 20′ (~6 meters) in diameter and at least 2′ (~.75 meters) deep and has sloping sides. Visit this “How to Build a Dragonfly Pond” article for additional instructions.

To construct my dragonfly pond I used my two wheel drive Farmtrac 60 tractor, a plow, my front end loader and a pond scoop.  You tractor driving types will know what kind of equipment I’m talking about.  If you aren’t a farmer or don’t have access to heavy equipment you may

need to scale back the size of your pond but don’t worry, there are other options available to you. If you don’t have room or equipment to build a dragonfly pond why not build a barrel pond to attract dragonflies, damselflies and other creatures. 

farmtrac1

Dragonfly Pond after construction.

Anyway, during the droughts we had in North Carolina a few years ago I first plowed the sunny low area where I wanted to dig my pond. Then I followed that step and dug out the loosened soil with my front end loader and pond scoop.  I kept repeating these steps until I had created a pond that is about 20′ (~6 meters) x 30′ (~9 meters) and 4′ (~1.2 meters) deep.  I have clay subsoil so I simply kept driving my tractor through the dry pond to create a natural pond liner.  Since completion the pond has never completely dried up.  My homes all drain into the pond so each rainfall helps keep the water level sustained. Bull rushes and other aquatic plants naturally began to grow on the banks of the pond.  Mosquito fish were introduced during a flood.  To jump start the pond I put some pond water and mud in the pond (contains bacteria, larvae and eggs of pond life). Frogs found and love the pond as does Mango the snapping turtle (the turtle loves mango peels) and innumerable crayfish.  The pond may not look like much but it is teeming with life.  In the spring and summer the frogs singing is amazing!

There are numerous methods for digging ponds and techniques for lining the pond so that it holds water.  What ever method you use remember for a dragonfly pond you want to site it in a sunny area, it should have sloping sides and it should be at least two feet deep. I recommend you consider diverting the water from the roof of your home to the pond. This way you’ll not only be keeping your pond full but you’ll be helping to control suburban water run off which is a contributor to the pollution of our waterways.  Your dragonfly pond could sit adjacent to a wetland bog/rain garden that is flooded during periods of heavy rainfall. The picture titled “How does a rain garden work” is from The Tipp of the Mitt Watershed website Rain Gardens page.

chickens at dragonfly pond

Our flock of chickens at Dragonfly pond

A dragonfly pond is more than just a bare pond…it is a habitat.  To optimize the environment for dragonflies you need vertical plants or poles for dragonflies to roost, different colored stones or logs for dragonflies (they are cold blooded creatures) to sit and warm themselves and nearby bushes/grasses for insect habitat.  Ideally your little pond will, like mine, become a magnet for wildlife that will attract the flying jewels we call dragonflies and damselflies.  Attracting dragonflies for mosquito control may not be 100% effective but believe me dragonflies make a big difference in how much you will enjoy your yard.  So, make a dragonfly habitat, keep some mosquito repellent around for the 10% of people who are mosquito magnets and enjoy watching your new friends as the fly through air eating hundreds of insects which would like to be eating you! Please remember that dragonflies are only one aspect of controlling mosquitoes.  Another key part of your anti-mosquito regime is to keep you yard and garden sanitary. Don’t forget to make sure gutters don’t hold any standing water, that you keep the bird bath water changed and that you make sure there are no other places which hold standing water in which mosquitoes can breed.  Dragonflies, damselfies and eliminating standing water are just the tip of the iceberg for mosquito control.  I recommend reading this Mother Earth News article, “How to Keep Mosquitoes Away” by Barbara Pleasant, to learn about a broad array of things that can be done to mitigate the dangers of mosquitoes. Here at La Casita and Redbay Farm we have instituted many of the ideas mentioned in the article.

I wish you the best of luck with your project and hope that in the near future you can sit on your own back porch and watch the acrobatics of dragonflies as they make your yard and garden a more enjoyable place to be.

References:

McGuigan, Tony – Ribbit’s Time of Year

Miller, Elizabeth – Mosquitoes Have Natural Enemies: Some Predators work Better than Others for Mosquito Control

Pleasant, Babara – Mother Earth News, How to Keep Mosqitoes Away

Orkin article – Mosquito Predators

Smithsonian.com – 14 Fun Facts about Dragonflies

Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council – Rain Gardens

WebMD – Are You a Mosquito Magnet?

Wikihow.com – How to Attract Dragonflies

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Carolina Anole

A male Carolina Anole on the back porch at Redbay Cottage.

Info on the Carolina Anole from  Galveston Texas Master Gardnersgreenanole

“When male anoles are feeling particularly aggressive, they threaten by opening and closing their large, red dewlap at will. This colorful display is typically reserved for defending territory against other male anoles or trying to entice females. Although anoles attempt to stay hidden most of the time, both from their prey and their predators, the males certainly take a lot of chances.

This gesture, by male anoles, is often accompanied by the lizards antics of bobbing up and down sort of like doing push-ups. The lizard is only trying to look tough its harmless and actually can be quite fun to watch, especially when you know how beneficial it is, dining on a variety of insects from your garden.”

Kids that stay at La Casita love to catch these guys.