The Hawk building his nest.
Related story: Inviting Native Plant Border, courtesy Daily Press.
The Hertzler farm is a 40 acre farm that was unintentionally developed into a native plant and wildlife refuge. Oliver Hertzler’s care and maintenance of the farm and pastures created this naturalized environment. The farm had previously been one of many dairy farms in the Mennonite community known as “The Colony” in Newport News, Virginia.
At Oliver’s retirement decades ago, he converted the farm to horse boarding to generate income to pay the $25,000 plus annual real estate taxes on the land. The farm is made up of 40 acres of pasture, woodlands and wetlands surrounding a pond. The four pastures are broken up with fencing that host hedgerows full of large mature native plants. Eastern red cedars, blackberry brambles, sassafras trees, oaks, maples, and many others–all providing the essential food and homes for thousands of creatures.
In 2013 the farm was sold to a developer and is slated to be developed into 90 homes. The farm is zoned for residential dwellings as the agriculture zoning was eliminated by the city decades ago which led to the increased and crushing annual real estate tax bill.
I suppose my deep connection with this neighboring farm and all its inhabitants is rooted in the fact that, like the creatures, I’m out there all day most days and we’ve come to know each other pretty well. Not only do foxes, raccoon, deer, geese, ducks, snakes, turtles, hawks, eagles, owls, many amphibians and countless other song birds–including a pack of Eastern Bluebirds call this home, but it is also the home to a very busy raptor nest.
Over the years we have watched in wonder as one of the tall trees surrounding the pond has housed a raptor nests for at least the past 6 years. The first 2 years it was home to red-tailed hawks, then great-horned owls took over for 2 consecutive years and then back to red-tailed hawks–which are currently working on the nest in 2016.
We watch the nest through a scope setup in my home office and can hardly get any work done around here once the babies have hatched and we can see them. In 2014, I was blown away watching the owl sit on her eggs with a crown of snow on her head for days on end. Unimaginable joy came when we saw the first chick’s head bobbing above the rim of the nest.
We’ve watched these birds build and repair the nest from year to year, witnessed their fascinating courting dare devil stunts to impress, and stared in wonder as they shredded a squirrel to be gobbled down by the hungry babies. All, we consider great gifts to have witnessed from a front row seat.
Perhaps the highlights looking back were the encounters we experienced with the juveniles once they left the nest. One set of hawk teenagers would sit on the post around our gardens and watch us work. They would play and bicker and carry on just like siblings do.
One very memorable late night, Babs and I were walking the perimeter of our gardens looking for deer. I suddenly felt the presence of something, stopped, and turned on the flashlight and shone it on the top of the post next to me, perched only 2 feet away was one of the great horned owl teenagers. He looked at us, Babs and I looked at him, and we were all just speechless for a moment. He was a whopper! Babs and I backed away, turned and went into bed feeling like our garden had better protection then we could ever possibly provide.
I don’t know what the destiny of the raptor nest tree is–it is federally protected when active. Or even if the tree is left undisturbed will it still be hospitable to these majestic big birds? Without the surrounding pastures and hedgerows to provide hunting grounds to feed babies, who knows?
While our 2.5 acres property is no replacement for 40 acres of habitat– we are going to do our best to roll out the red carpet for our wildlife friends and make the best of a heartbreaking and environmentally changing situation.
This post Hertzler Farm Going Down: The End of a Wildlife Era first appeared on www.thegardenersworkshop.com.
Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable gardening. You can email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org, call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website www.shoptgw.com .
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