Monday, August 15, 2016

Wild Neighbors: Deer at the Ranch

My best deer image: a very nice-looking buck poses
When I bought Rancho San Benito early last year, I was told that there is an abundance of deer in the area. One of the primary reasons for buying the property was to have a quiet place where I can spend time closer to the natural world, so the fact that larger wild animals live there was an indicator that the ranch property was good spot for me.

 However, after several months of part-time work on the ranch a cast-off antler, which I picked up and put on a windowsill at the house, was as close as I'd gotten to seeing one of these beautiful animals.

So, inspired by interesting images captured by a cousin of mine in Washington State, and with his advice, last fall I invested in a motion-activated trail camera, of the type used by hunters to watch for game and property owners to monitor activity in remote areas.

I strapped the camera to trees along likely trails and in clearings starting last September, and eagerly visited to switch out the memory card and view my "captures." For several months I got interesting images of a variety of birds and small animals, and lots of pictures of leaves and branches being tossed by windstorms, but nothing of deer.

I was beginning to think that the stories of deer were false, when suddenly in January they started showing up in my pictures. The buck pictured above was the first good image I got, and this was in February. In the same location, a few days later, I captured the image below.

A doe forages in a clearing
 I have wondered why at least four months passed before I started getting pictures of deer. I am not sure, but it must have to to with their movements and the availability of food in the environment. I began to get the deer images after the dry season was in full swing, when much of the lush vegetation had withered and leaves had fallen. I assume deer forage more widely and take greater chances moving into open areas when food is scarce. It also could be that they are just more easy to see when vegetation is sparse.

The camera documented this pair of Yucatan Jays harassing a doe

"Hi there!" This doe got a good close look at the camera

I still have not seen a live deer on the ranch property, but as I spend more time out there, and as I learn more about their habits (with the help of the camera), I expect to do so.

I've gotten more interesting shots of other wild neighbors on the ranch with the motion-activated camera. I'll share them in a future post.


Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Dry Season in the Country



In tropical Yucatán, if there is a season that resembles autumn in the north, this is it. Late winter and spring on the Peninsula is the dry season. Rain is slight and the otherwise lush, nearly-impenetrable vegetation in natural areas gives way for a few hot, dry months. Herbs, grasses and other small plants wither to nothing and many bushes and trees drop their leaves.

Out at the ranch, the opening of spaces and the extra light reaching the ground offer me a chance to see things that are hard to discern at other times. The rest of the year, shade and thick green curtains of vines and brush block the view more than few feet beyond either side of the road and trails.

Since this is my first dry season on this land, I am using the time to take a close look around. I took an hour's hike on one of the trails to the back of the property last week. I was able peer into areas normally hidden from view, and observe the wider contours of the property. This helps me plan construction and irrigation projects that I will be working on later.

I've surveyed and opened access to a nice high spot that may prove to be my home site and cleared trash and rubble from around the existing house. I also have taken a good look at the old orchard to figure out where I can best plant fruit trees, keeping in mind gravity-fed irrigation from a central water storage tank next to the well.

The openness right now also allows me to appreciate other things close up, things I might miss in the rainy season. For instance, this chaká (gumbo limbo) tree, is not so easily noticed the rest of the year. I took a moment to admire its green trunk and contrasting papery copper-colored bark.


I also noticed this tiny fungus growing on a rotting, fallen branch.



The walk took me around a meandering loop that ended back at my work area, the former orchard near the corral and well. It looks very different right now, too, both due to the dry weather and our efforts to clear space for spring planting. I am starting to save stout hardwood branches for fence posts, a few of which which can be seen leaning against the wall. I am not sure when I'll need them, but certainly they will be useful at some point.

I also am saving longer sections for use as roof beams on a later project. I'll post about that soon.



Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Ceiba


Last week when I arrived at Rancho San Benito after a five-day absence, I was presented with bouquets of flowers.

This is the ceiba, sacred tree of the Maya people, also known as the kapok tree. This example grows smack dab in the middle of the stone-walled corral.

I'd expected to see ceiba flowers this week because on my last visit, the buds on its branches were obvious. Not having lived near one of these trees, I hadn't quite expected this sort of show.

After admiring the glowing pink of the blossoms in the warm morning sunshine, I noticed the number of birds. Among others, I counted three hummingbirds in the tree at once and a pair of Altamira Orioles. A squirrel cuckoo, with its earthy-red body, flashy fan-tail and characteristic squirrel-like hopping behavior, was lurking nearby. The usual crowd, mainly jays, big-beaked Groove-billed Anis, blackbirds, grackles and a variety of other birds I still cannot identify, foraged among the blossoms as well.

But the most impressive visitors to the ceiba were the bees. Thousands of bees. They were busy going about their business, and the loudness of the hum was startling. As I stood beneath the tree, what was even more fascinating was the quality of the sound, which seemed to be everywhere. It was directionless and enveloping, as if the atmosphere itself was humming and vibrating.

I went about my work, carrying buckets of water for thirsty coconuts and lemon trees and packing compost and leaf mulch around their trunks to help the roots stay moist in this rainless season. I checked the plum trees, which budded last week and also are in flower now, and they're doing fine. I cleaned out the one-room house near the corral, which needs a new roof, door and some structural repairs before I can move in. The cleanup is in preparation for measuring and a full inspection prior to starting that project some time this spring.

Then, after the twenty-minute walk back into the village, the afternoon's agenda consisted of lunch with neighbors and a siesta.

That's pretty much how the days go around here right now.



Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Hummingbird Showed Me

Old wild plum (ciruela) trees at Rancho San Benito

I have not been terribly productive at the ranch for a couple of weeks. The truck is in the shop for engine work, so I've been making weekly ranch visits by taking a two-hour bus ride to the pueblo and walking from the house I rent there out to the property. This means that I can't bring tools and materials, so on my visits to Rancho San Benito work is limited to planting, weeding, watering and other small projects.

Without the chainsaw and other larger implements, I work quietly and take it easy. While buckets fill with water I sit by the well and wait. I have plenty of time for observation and learning, which is one of the important reasons for having the ranch in the first place.

I was taking a coffee break late Thursday morning, seated under the oak tree that shades the well, when the sun was dimmed by gathering grey clouds. Soon I was feeling cool northerly gusts and bathed in misty drizzle. The morning had been hot, so I was a little surprised by the abrupt change in the weather. I started to think about getting my things together for a quick walk back to the pueblo, if necessary, glad that I had a large plastic garbage bag that would serve as an emergency raincoat if things got worse.

But coffee comes first, so I relaxed for another moment. Savoring the hot drink, I watched the changing weather through the branches of two wild ciruela (plum) trees, leaves fallen for the winter dry season, when my eye caught a tiny movement. What I thought at first was a moth turned out to be a hummingbird, a colibrí, nervously flitting amongst the twigs. The strangeness of this scene was heightened by the ominous conditions. What on earth was the tiny creature doing in a barren tree in such weather?

As the little bird continued busily my curiosity strengthened. Finally the hummingbird rested for a minute on a wind-buffeted branch. It then made a beeline for shelter in the thick brush.


I walked over to the trees, still unable to perceive what had attracted the bird's interest. It wasn't until I bent down a low branch and looked carefully that I saw what inspired the hummingbird's attention. Tiny purple buds, which must have popped out overnight, covered the branches. These trees lose their leaves in December, then flower and produce fruit before new leaves appear in spring. I guess the little bird was anticipating the readiness of the first sweet ciruela flowers in coming weeks.

If I'd been working in my accustomed way, it's likely I would have missed this. I am glad I had the time to notice what the hummingbird had to show me.

Meanwhile, I'll have to be more patient than the bird, since the fruit won't be ready until late April or early May. There are plenty of other things to learn about and to keep me busy until then.



Text and images copyright 2016 by Marc Olson