Sharing the Land
Wildlife and agriculture sharing the land can be spectacular and burdensome.
Story by Steve Kandra. Photos by Larry Turner.
The roar of the wings and the cackling calls are deafening as the salt-and-pepper mix of snow and white-front geese rise from the alfalfa field. Tens of thousands of birds fresh from the rice fields of the Sacramento River Valley are foraging their way north to Arctic nesting grounds.
The Kandra farm is located next to the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge in the Upper Klamath Basin, on the border of Oregon and California. These are irrigated lands of the now famous Klamath Project. We no longer measure the seasons by positions of the sun; the seasons are now defined by which species of wildlife is sharing the farmstead this day.
The spring waterfowl migration is becoming more spectacular, and burdensome, every year. Some wildlife guests are polite and share quite nicely; others sweep in like locusts and consume everything green and growing, then leave abruptly, but never soon enough. The Arctic nesters are the latter; rude and persistent, they stay most of the month of April foraging on my alfalfa fields. The resident Canada geese are the first to nest and there are little “honkers” scampering back and forth from canals to fields before the other geese head north. The cinnamon teal and mallards are already pairing up and there will be little ducks in the drain ditch by the end of May.
The mule deer herd gets bigger every year. They migrate vertically, up on Sheepy Ridge in the late winter and early spring, and down into the farm fields in time to drop fawns the first of June. The fawns learn that farm activity and swimming the canal will keep the cougars at a safe distance.
The cattail rushes and willows welcome blackbirds and thrushes. The fields are full of larks and sparrows, for insects are the predominant species there. Every power pole or irrigation pivot tower is a roost for a raptor just waiting for the foolish rodent scampering from run to run. The summer air is full of swifts and swallows, deftly plucking insects out of the swarm of twilight. Red-tail hawks have built a nest in the lofty poplar at the end of the lane, as they have done for all the years that I can remember.
There are freshwater mussel shells on the levee road left by a quartet of rampaging otters that use the canals as convenient passages to mischief. Herons, great blue and white, stalk the waterway edges for amphibians that create a twilight peeping roar. The curlews and ibis wade through irrigated pastures, tipping cow pies for hidden treats. The canals and drains and the practical function of irrigation provides a bounty of habitat and food.
For the gulls and terns the sound of a diesel tractor engine starting is a dinner gong. Swathing hay into windrows rudely exposes thousands of voles to the gregarious gulls as they hover inches away from the machinery. The gulls practice aerial theft of food from each other and loudly gloat over every morsel. Songbirds sweep in to pick through all the insects thrashed out onto the ground. Crows march like monarchs through the other birds picking and choosing what can’t escape.
The Kandra family has been farming in the Klamath Basin since 1911. Through depression and drought the family persists. Farming is not an occupation for the timid. If you have any soul you will recognize that the soil begets most of creation and all of civilization. It is sad and disturbing that the urban dweller disconnects from the reality of fertile earth. How soon we lose appreciation for those who steward the land, becoming ignorant minds not encumbered by hungry stomachs.
Early summer and this year’s crop of goslings already show their distinct cheek patches. A redhead duck hen shepherds a successful clutch of 14 ducklings. A great start, but I know that by the end of the summer predators will pick off at least half of the brood. Teal and mallard ducklings fill the drains and canals. In about 60 days they will be practicing flight and, by October, ready to migrate.
The den of coyotes up the hill must have a lot of mouths to feed this year. The parents are active in the fields and watercourse edges even during the daylight. The coyotes know that the night baling of hay will flush out the voles, and follow close enough to the lighted machinery to keep the springer spaniel, sharing the tractor seat, on edge. Out of the darkness owls will flash into our lighted nighttime bubble as they, too, take a trophy vole or two. A weasel peeks into my open pickup door, taking measure of the dozing Labrador retriever. Ornery enough to be successful in the battle, but unable to haul the trophy home, the aggressive little predator moves on.
Labor Day usually marks the beginning of the white-front geese return migration from the north. The little herd of mule deer bucks have brushed off most of the antler velvet, but the little spotted fawns still treat them like cousins instead of future suitors or rivals. Family units of ducks, sensing the need to move south, begin in earnest to forage grain field edges. If the combine doesn’t arrive soon, there will be little to harvest.
This 530-acre farm will produce about three million pounds of premium alfalfa, 1.5 million pounds of potatoes, 2.7 million pounds of onions, 460,000 pounds of wheat, 300,000 pounds of barley, six to 10 mule deer fawns, 100 honkers, about 200 ducks (five or six species), and uncountable tons of voles for coyotes, eagles, and hawks. The wildlife will consume or destroy about $25,000 of commodities.
As the fall harvest begins, the migrating hoards glean through the fields. Along with the grains and forage, the small potatoes are also consumed by geese and deer. The days grow short and the weather rough. Most of the birds that can migrate are gone, but there are always a few that are spent before they can reach warmer climates. They become the victims of predators and raptors. Nothing ever grows old, and nothing is wasted. Piles of feathers dot the fields.
As freezeup occurs, the swans congregate on the open waters, their trumpeting calls filling the valley. A few remaining geese become trapped in the quickly forming ice and become captive meals for eagles and coyotes. The deer also figure out that the plastic snow fence barrier will not keep them out of the hay barn when the winter snows fall. The deer nose through the haystack and browse out the very best hay—a new marketing standard—mule deer select! The voles happily tunnel and multiply under the protective blanket of snow.
The seasons of life will be renewed shortly. Just as they have for a hundred generations, wildlife continues on the farm.
Steve Kandra is a rancher and farmer, Larry Turner is a world-class photographer. They enjoy the birds and wildlife and neighbor in south central Oregon.
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