The Cricket Wars

Because crickets belong outdoors.

It started the other night at 1:50 AM. The sound of a cricket so loud that it woke me out of a sound sleep.

Like most people, I like the sound of crickets. To me, it’s a country sound, a sound of the natural world. It reminds me of childhood and camping and the great outdoors. It reminds me of star gazing and warm summer nights and forests.

A symphony of hundreds of crickets is a wonderful blanket of white noise to lull a person to sleep.

But not when a cricket is making its noise from the inside of your bedroom closet.

It was loud. Very loud. And because my home has very high ceilings, the sound seemed to echo around the place. Indeed, when I finally got out of bed to try to put a stop to it, it took me a while to zero in on the bug’s location. But I found it in the corner of the closet, hidden under some temporary shelves I’d put in there to stow my clothes until my official move.

This was not a small cricket like the ones you might buy in a pet shop to feed your caged reptile. Its body was at least an inch long.

A shoe made short work of it. I picked up its carcass with a tissue and flushed it.

And then I went back to bed.

I never did get back to sleep. Another cricket started up soon afterwards. This one wasn’t in the closet. I had no idea where it was but I knew it was indoors. Somewhere. Possibly in the living room.

I got out of bed to start by day. At 3:15 AM.

That night, on Facebook, I mentioned my cricket situation:

Found and killed the cricket in my bedroom, but the one in the living room is still at large. For now.

One of my friends commented:

Oh no! I’m sad to hear that, I love me my crickets! All they do is make music for you!

My response:

I suspect you haven’t had them in your bedroom with you. At night. When you want to sleep.

My friend Alix, who is in a doctoral program for entomology, said she could use one for her collection. She’s required to collect, identify, and mount several hundred insects for her degree. I’ve been collecting interesting bugs on and off for her for the past two years. I even bought special zipper snack bags to store them in.

So the next morning, when the cricket somewhere near my hallway started up again before 4 AM, I grabbed a snack bag and went hunting. The trick, I realized, is to be very quiet. If they hear you nearby, they shut up. It took about 10 minutes, but I finally zeroed in on my second victim. It was in my future linen closet — currently shelfless — against one wall. I put the baggie down in front of it and coaxed it in. Then I zipped it shut, took a photo, put it in the freezer, and showed it off on the Facebook thread.

Cricket Post

Alix later identified it as a male Gryllidae. (She is seriously into bugs.)

Later that morning, I heard a third one. I found it in my bedroom closet again. The ShopVac I had sitting in the hallway made short work of it.

That night, it was quiet inside. In fact, it was quiet for the next few nights.

Until 3:30 AM on Monday morning.

I found it in my closet, conveniently close to my household vacuum and closet power outlet. I plugged in the vacuum, positioned the hose nozzle, and turned it on. Whoosh!

After a quick tweet, I went back to sleep.

Since then, I haven’t been bothered by indoor crickets at night.

I did find one by my bedroom door to the deck yesterday afternoon when I went outside with a glass of wine to watch a rainstorm and listen to the rain on my roof. I scooted it outside with my toe.

And I’m pretty sure there’s one stuck inside the wall or possibly between the wall and door jamb downstairs in my entrance vestibule. I can’t find it and it doesn’t make noise at night. As I type this, it’s silent and I’m beginning to think it either found its way outside or has died.

Is the Cricket War over? I doubt it. I am more careful about leaving the doors open downstairs, though. I know I have crickets in my garage and I don’t really mind. But since I suspect they might have come in through one of my two vestibule doors to get upstairs, I now keep those doors closed. And the front door.

But I know who the winner of this war will be — and it isn’t the crickets.

Spring Day from My Deck Time-Lapse

A windy spring day.

I set up my GoPro on a tripod on the deck outside my bedroom door for a time-lapse on Monday before dawn. Unfortunately, Monday was a rather ugly day — cloudy and kind of dreary. The resulting time-lapse would not have been share-worthy.

So I left the GoPro running and captured enough images for a 4 AM to 10 PM time-lapse on a much prettier — but windier — day. Can you see the point where the wind blew over my tripod? (I deleted the shot of my deck roof.)

Should have set this to music but I didn’t. Sorry!

I’ll try this again in a few weeks with the image zoomed in a bit. I thought I’d set it right for this one, but apparently I didn’t.

Taking “Home Made” to New Levels

I realize that I can take home-cooking to extremes.

French Toast Breakfast
My home-made/grown bread, eggs, and honey went into this.

This morning, I made French toast for breakfast. For most people, that’s not a big deal — French toast is easy enough to make. But I realized that my French toast went beyond what most people would consider a home-cooked meal for a few reasons:

  • I baked the bread.
  • The eggs came from my chickens.
  • The honey I put on top came from my bees.

The only thing related to my plate that I didn’t make or grow was the cooking spray I used in the pan and the fresh strawberries. In two months, the strawberries will come from my garden.

While anyone with an oven (or bread machine) and a tiny bit of skill (or ability to follow directions for a bread mix) can make their own bread — and I highly recommend it! — I agree that raising chickens or keeping bees is not for the average person. So no, I’m not trying to tell you to follow my lead here. I’m just pointing out that it’s possible to have better control over what you eat.

And the results can be delicious.

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

The economy of this area of Washington State is based primarily on tree fruit production: apples, cherries, pears, and apricots. Indeed, Columbia River Valley around Wenatchee is one of the biggest apple producing regions in the world.

Fruit trees bloom in the spring, are pollinated by migratory bees, and form fruit. Throughout the summer, the fruit develops and grows. Months later, when the fruit ripens, it’s picked, sent to processing plants, and either shipped out immediately, as in the case of cherries, or stored for later shipment, as in the case of apples.

The timing of all this is determined by the weather and can fluctuate by several weeks every year. The trees get a cue from temperature to start budding and once the buds are formed, there isn’t much that can stop the seasonal progression.

Except frost.

Frost can kill flowers and developing fruit. A bad enough deep freeze over the winter months can even kill trees.

And that’s where frost protection comes in. Growers are deeply concerned about frost destroying a crop so they take steps to protect the crop from frost. In this area, they rely on wind machines to circulate the air in parts of an orchard prone to pockets of cold air.

This video shows wind machines in action at a pear orchard in Cashmere, which is near here. It looks to me as if the trees are in bloom. Unfortunately, the sound is turned off so you can’t get the full effect.

Wind machines look like large, two-bladed fans on a tall pole. Usually powered by propane, they’re often thermostatically controlled — in other words, they are set to turn on in the spring when the temperature drops down to a certain point. The blades spin like any other fan and the fan head rotates, sending wind 360° around the machine’s base.

The idea, of course, is that the cold air has settled down into pockets and that warmer air can be found around it and above it. By circulating the air, the warm air is brought around the trees and frost is prevented.

In California, they use helicopters to protect the almond crop from frost. (As a matter of fact, as I type this my helicopter is in California for a frost contract for the third year in a row.) The principle is the same, but the orchards tend to be much larger and I can only assume that it isn’t financially feasible to install and run wind machines in that area. (Hard to believe it’s cheaper to use helicopters, though.)

This year, some unseasonably warm weather has triggered a very early bloom. My clients tell me that their cherry crop is running 2 to 3 weeks early. Right now, cherries are in various stages of bloom throughout the area; apricots are pretty much done with their bloom. (Apples and pears will come next.) And since winter has not let go of its tenuous grip on us, the temperature has been dropping down into the low to mid 30s each night this week.

Well, not at night. It actually starts getting cold around 4 or 5 AM, as you can see in this weather graph:

Weather Graph
The National Weather Service weather graph page for this area shows the forecasted highs and lows over time.

The result: the wind machines kick on automatically when it starts getting cold: around 4 or 5 AM.

Want to hear what a wind machine sounds like close up? This video has full sound as a field man starts and runs up a wind machine. He’s wearing ear protection for a reason. Stick with it to see the spinning head on top.

Wind machines are not quiet. In fact, from a distance, they sound exactly like helicopters. And as they spin, they sound like moving helicopters — so much so that when I first heard them in action back in Quincy in 2009 or 2010, I thought they were helicopters and actually got up to see what was going on. I suspect that to someone on the ground, they sound exactly like a helicopter drying cherries would sound.

Although there aren’t any orchards on my end of the road, my property does look out at quite a few orchards, some of which have wind machines. There are at least 5 within a mile of me — I can see 4 of them from my side deck. I can also see others much farther out into the distance. And when the close ones are running, I know it. It’s not loud enough to wake me up in my snugly insulated home, but it sure did wake me up when I was living in my thin-walled RV outside. And it’s definitely not something you can pretend you don’t hear.

Fortunately, wind machines are a seasonal nuisance — much like other orchards noises: sprayers, tractors, helicopters, and pickers. Although frost season runs through May in this area, the machines only kick on during cold weather. Looking at the forecast, I can expect to hear them tomorrow morning and probably Wednesday morning, but not likely on Monday or Tuesday morning.

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

In the meantime, I’ve already gotten the heads up from my California client who might need me down there on Monday. After all, they don’t have wind machines.

For a helicopter pilot working in this area, wind machines are one of the obstacles that can be a hazard when drying cherries. They tower higher than the trees and their blades can be “parked” at any angle or direction. Although some growers will try to use wind machines to dry trees while waiting for pilots, my contract states I won’t fly in an orchard with wind machines spinning so they’re usually turned off when I arrive — or right afterwards. But if the blades aren’t parked, they can move. And one pilot I know learned the hard way about what happens when a helicopter’s main rotor blade hits a wind machine. (He’s okay; the helicopter is not.)

To sum up, wind machines are an important crop protection device that can be a bit of a nuisance with predawn operation in the spring. But I don’t mind listening to them. Like so many orchard owners in the area, my livelihood depends on a healthy cherry crop. If that means tolerating some noise 10-20 mornings out of the year, so be it.

My Barn Cats

Low maintenance rodent control.

Rodents are a fact of life in rural areas. They were in the garage — and sometimes in the house! — when I lived in Arizona. They were in my hangar there, got into my RVs, and made nests in my cars and motorcycles. Here in Washington, they’ve gotten into my RV and Jeep. I’ve never seen evidence of them in my shed or big garage, but they must be there. After all, rodents are a fact of life.

When I say rodents, I’m mostly talking about mice. Sometimes they’re adorable little mice the size of my thumb. I’d catch them live and release them far away. Until I started catching multiple mice each day. The novelty wore off and I resorted to traditional snap traps. Can’t use poison because I can’t worry about Penny eating it or poisoned mice. And the sticky traps are downright cruel.

Image of a vole from Wikipedia by user Soebe.

Here in Malaga, we also have voles. They dig up the ground and, if they get into your garden, can kill your plants from the roots. That’s one of the reasons my planters have chicken wire bottoms — to keep the damn things from getting in from below. Penny successfully caught and killed one last year and I suspect she’ll do it again this year.

While I normally wouldn’t mind rodents outdoors — after all, they are part of the ecosystem — they tend to attract snakes. And while I don’t mind non-venomous snakes like bull snakes, I do mind rattlesnakes. I killed three of them in my immediate yard last year. It’s unfortunate, because I really don’t like to kill anything, but I don’t want to worry about Penny or my chickens — or me, for that matter — getting bit.

That’s where the idea of “barn cats” comes in. The Wenatchee Valley Humane Society (WVHS) has what it calls a Barn Buddy Program. They capture feral cats, find homes for them, spay or neuter the cats, and hand them over to their new owners. The cats are strictly outdoor cats and owners are not expected to do much more than give them safe shelter and a steady supply of food and water.

The way I saw it, if I had cats to reduce the rodent population I might be able to reduce the number of snakes that come around in the summer months.

And it was a nice way to help out some cats that would likely be euthanized if not taken. Indeed, the WVHS does not go through the expense of neutering a cat unless an owner is already lined up for it. The reason: they only keep these cats, which are otherwise unadoptable, for about a week. Once a home is lined up for a cat, the WVHS sends it off to be neutered prior to handing it over to its new owner. It’s important to note that in the wild, if not neutered and given a safe home, these cats are only expected to live a few years.

I got my cats around Christmas time. Note that I said cats — plural. The WVHS prefers that you take at least two because they are more likely to stick around if they have company. The cats I got were a 1-1/2 year old black cat I named Black Bart and a 6 month old tabby I creatively named Kitty. I picked them up from the vet in large plastic kennels, set them up in my shed with a heater, food, water, and litter box (as instructed) and let them roam free inside for the required 3 week acclimation period.

My shed is small — just 6 x 8 feet. It’s full of garden and beekeeping equipment. There are shelves on one wall. There’s a hollow overhang over the door. The cats quickly learned to climb up onto the shelves or overhang when they heard me coming. Not only was it safer for them (in their minds) but it was also warmer since heat rises.

Kitty on a Shelf
Here’s Kitty, up on the top shelf in my shed.

After three weeks — and a few weeks before I went away for a vacation in Arizona — I installed a cat door on the shed. This would give them the ability to go in and out at will. When I knew they were using the door — cat paw prints in fresh snow was a dead giveaway — I removed their kennels and returned them to the WVHS for someone else to use. I also bought a feeder that would hold 10 pounds of dry food and a water dispenser that would hold a gallon of water.

It wasn’t long before I realized that they were spending a lot of time under the shed. Penny is actually the one who discovered this. I heard her barking from inside the shed and opened the door to let her out — but she wasn’t in there. It took a moment to realize that she wasn’t in the shed but under it, likely barking at one or both cats. I got her to come out and I think she hurt herself doing it because she was sore for a few days afterward. Since then, she often goes to the cat’s entrance to their undershed domain but doesn’t try to go in.

I’d occasionally see Kitty inside the shed, up on a shelf — especially when I still had the heater in there. But I didn’t see Black Bart at all and I worried a bit about him.

Understand that these are still completely feral cats. If they see me, they run away. They don’t know their names and, even if they did, they definitely wouldn’t come if I called. Although I suppose I could make some effort to tame them, I prefer not to. There are many predators in this area — coyotes, eagles, owls — and although they have the shed for safe shelter, I don’t expect them to live very long. For that reason, I’d prefer not to get attached to them.

Still, the water was drunk and the food was eaten so I knew they were around somewhere. While I was in Arizona, the litter box got quite disgusting, but I think that was actually a good thing. When I returned, dumped it, and refilled it, I soon realized that they were hardly using it at all. When the weather gets a little better, I’ll take it outside and eventually do away with it. They did their business outdoors before they were captured, they can do it outdoors again when the litter box is gone.

Based on Penny’s behavior, I knew at least one of them was living mostly under the shed. I assumed they came out to hunt at night.

Lately, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time up in my living space over the garage as I finish up construction. I often take a break in a chair by the window and look out over my property and the Wenatchee Valley beyond. Over the past two days, I’ve caught sight of both cats wandering around near the shed. On Friday, Kitty explored the inside of the cabinet installers’ cargo trailer. On Saturday afternoon, Black Bart sat sphinx-like on the concrete “porch” of the shed while Kitty wandered around the weeds nearby.

My Barn Cats
I shot this photo of my two barn cats out in my garden from my living room window only a few hours after writing this blog post.

It was rather comforting to see my barn cats out and about on a nice day — especially since they’d obviously become a pair and were roaming, at least part time, together. It was a sort of reminder of the success of the program. I admit that I’m tempted to get another two cats and set them up in my garage, but I’d rather wait until I’ve moved my furniture and boxes into my new home upstairs. Then I’ll give it some thought. (I don’t want people to think I’ve become a cat lady.)

As for rodent control, it’s too early to see what kind of difference they’re making. It’s still winter here and the temperatures have been getting down into the low 30s and high 20s lately. The ground is hard and the voles aren’t coming up to the surface. Or maybe they have been — just long enough to make a tasty snack for a barn cat?