Hidden away in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the family farm can be exhausting at its worst and magical at its best. Plenty of hard work awaits those who tend its chores and care for its animals, yet the surroundings provide ample nature in which to wallow, not to mention the resident population of family critters who offer up joys beyond compare.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are ubiquitous around Big Cypress Bayou in all but the cold months. Mom keeps several feeders available for them, each carefully and diligently supplied with sugar water, and so the hummingbirds come year after year, their antics providing hours of entertainment.
In fact, Mom often stands outside holding one of the feeders right next to her face. As soon as the birds realize she’s not a threat, they begin visiting, buzzing around her head and brushing her cheeks with their wings. It’s more than fantastic, more than beautiful; it’s divine to see.
Even the cows enjoy roaming from pasture to pasture, some fields cloaked by dense woodlands drawing a barrier around them and others set within those very same woodlands. A serenity befalls the place no matter where one looks.
When calves are about, fun spills over the grass like so much rich honey. Large enough to hurt you if they ran you down, these little guys spring and leap in ways that puppies and kittens would envy, and it doesn’t hurt that the mothers always have a fresh drink of milk with them at all times. It can get pretty hot in Texas, so a bit of play is always followed by a rapid search for and happy reunion with mom—then a tasty bit of nourishment and energy for more play.
Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) dance in the main yard, flitting about with abandon as though they had not a care in the world. They appreciate this place. At times the yard reminds me of a field of waltzing flames as a dozen or more of these butterflies converge.
The farm boasts a magnificent insect population that ranges from giant moths to giant beetles, from katydids and grasshoppers to spiders and wasps. The air is often filled with dragonflies and butterflies, and with leaping grasshoppers and katydids, not to mention the chorus of a thousand species. Only in winter do these sights and sounds disappear, a lonely echo creating a void they once filled and will fill again.
Purple bindweed (a.k.a. cotton morning glories; Ipomoea trichocarpa) offers up perfume and lavender beauty, flowers fully open in acceptance of morning sunshine. Like so many other wildflowers, this stunning plant, considered a weed by so many, grows readily along paths and trails running throughout the farm. There can never be too much life here.
Wild berries grow on the hillside in a pool of varied briers, grasses and flowers. Dense woodlands stretch across rolling hills with pine, hickory, oak, ash, dogwood and magnolia trees defining the landscape, each skirted with an assortment of brush sometimes too thick for the average walk. Cypress grows along the bayou and its tributaries. Just north of the only natural lake in all of Texas, the area gives rise to springs and marshes that dot the landscape like a patchwork of wonders. In fact, no one has been able to count the number of springs on the farm because they are so numerous.
Then there are the treats, the special goodies that deserve kisses—even if from a cow. Always listening for Mom’s voice, these domestic giants lavish themselves in the affection and care they receive. In fact, they call out to her—rather loudly, I might add—if they believe she’s late to visit.
But Mom is not the only one who enjoys such special attention. Dad happens to be the person who gives them maple, a sweet, delectable goody for which they mob him like children begging for candy. He’s forced to push and shove his way through a herd of drooling mouths and suppliant scroungers desperate to smell the scent and taste the flavor of nutritious yet obviously addictive syrup applied generously to hay.
And the looks of wanting mixed with cuteness as bovines beg and plead for just one more taste of heaven leaves us simple humans laughing with pure delight. They know a good thing and waste no time putting on the Oliver act: “Please, may I have some more?”
Joining the various farm animals is a contingent of wildlife. Nesting in an old can wired to the utility shed because their house had been invaded by wasps, eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) rear their young with a diligence all of us at the farm notice. Both mother and father spend their days bringing food to always hungry, always talkative young hiding away until it’s their time to fledge. One need only walk out the side door to see this spectacle across the main yard.
Meanwhile, male brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) gather atop a pine tree to plan their day. Looking for mates and planning nest invasions undoubtedly requires a group effort. Along with these avians can be found a litany of birdwatching gifts, from egrets to cardinals to flycatchers to hawks to owls to a plethora of winged beasts both great and small. It’s not uncommon to see vultures flying low overhead as a hawk circles in the clouds. The fact that Mom provides food for many bird species helps draw them in like clockwork, various groups and individuals visiting the feeders throughout the day as though scheduled in shifts to arrive and depart at preset times.
Those who don’t indulge in such handouts still surround the farm as they live out their lives in a vast wilderness that reaches through four states. One need only stop, look and listen to enjoy a dynamic show of feathers. And if the local population isn’t enough, my parents have a close friend who happens to lead the local bird banding efforts. What might only be an unidentified shadow seen peripherally at other times suddenly rears up as large as life when a beautiful morning is spent identifying, cataloging, banding and enjoying the always surprising abundance of these creatures.
[To be continued…]