Welcome Back November 2016
  Back from it's long migration journey all the way from Asia, our first Steppe Buzzard of this season was spotted perched on a branch of our big dead tree between Kallie and our farms.

And what wonderful adventure tales he could tell us of his journey if he could only communicate with us. Best we can do is read the studies of how these amazing birds manage to migrate all that distance. We've learned so much from them and use their flight strategies in our man-made gliders to cover great distances without engine power. Their technique is to use warm air currents (thermals) to soar and gain altitude, and then use the altitude as potential energy to glide great distances. If you're interested in the technicalities, here's a good comprehensive study document on the subject on the Oxford Journals website.

We also heard for the first time this season the calls of the Red-chested Cuckoo (Piet-my-vrou) and the Diedericks Cuckoo.
 

While on birds, our Southern Masked Weaver population has increased ten-fold since the introduction of our chickens to the farm. They are regular visitors to our tunnel #4 (chicken tunnel) where they tuck into the crushed mealies that we feed the chickens. Below left, the males now in their bright yellow bodies and black face mask colours. Below centre, all the ladies gathering and below right, one regular little female visitor with head problem. It seems there are no feathers or skin on the back of it's head - you can actually see what looks like the bone of the skull. It doesn't seem to affect it's behaviour in any way, though.

 
  We've also noticed a marked increase in numbers of a few of the other bird species in and around the forest. We obviously make life a lot easier for them by introducing seed plants, leaving chicken and duck food laying around and there's always a few bricks and pieces of wood or tin laying around for insects to gather under as extra protein for them. There's also always water available for everyone.

We have a resident Cape Robin Chat or two that patrols the driveway between the house and the forest. The Robins are extremely territorial so there's another family looking after the growing
  tunnels and another down at the driveway garden in the forest. And there must be many more as you almost always see Robins when you walk through the forest.

Then there's the large Dark-capped Bulbul pupulation. They fly in from far and wide when we put out fruit in the feeding tree and we have one local that has become very adventurous. Almost every morning it comes into the kitchen (and often a few times through the morning) to check if there are any leftovers laying around. It checks the table, plates and all the pots as well, and gets especially excited when we leave the fruit bowl unprotected.



  Gathering More Grass
 
  Now there's a haystack! On his next work day with us Mandla set out to collect up all the remaining grass from my last grass cutting session. And whew, there was still quite a bit to gather.

He worked tirelessly all day raking it all up. And once there were neat little piles all over the place we used the bakkie to load it all up and then unloaded it onto our big grass pile.

  November Dinner Club Evening
  Now our third Dinner Club event and Martie and Maria are really getting into the swing of things.

The event was moved to the first Saturday evening of the month and we had an excellent turnout. With both my sisters and all of Che's three daughters there it was a full family gathering. Jacqui and Brenda N both brought along their partners Gerry and Simon. Guests were Theresia, Dot and Brenda S (unfortunately sans Buzz this time).

Two tables were now needed to be set for the large crowd and the atmosphere was nice and casual and relaxed.

   Martie and Maria in the kitchen
  On the menu this month was a Salmon Mousse starter, Filet Wellington with vegetable skewer and couscous main with a green salad and Creme a la Nesselrode with cream dessert.

And that's it for the Dinner Club for this year. Maria's going overseas to Germany and America to see her family and Martie has a few other events to work on for December.

   Two table setup in the "Saloon"
 
Starter . . .   
. . . Main Course . . .
   . . . and Dessert

  Good Rainfall At Last
  This year's October rainfall was more than double that of last year and November rainfall figures
 
Cumulus clouds building quickly into to cumulonimbus in the south      
are looking very good so far - see latest stats on our "Rainfall" menu on the left. Sorry, there are no detailed stats for January to November for last year as we just took monthly totals from our neighbour's readings up until mid-November, from where we were able to start taking our own readings.

During the second week of November we had very big thunderstorms for most of the week. Almost 30mm of rain on each day for three days of the week! Water run-off wasn't too bad on the farm out in Heidelberg but with thunderstorms you just have to take what is given to you. There was really serious flooding in the eastern parts of Johannesburg with reports of nearly 100mm of rain and hail in an hour in places.

 
Late afternoon sunshine breaking through the clouds in the west to illuminate the hill. In the background is the thunderstorm out north and north-east that caused all the flooding havoc in Joburg on the 9th.

  Baby Boom
  We've got chicks galore on the farm at the moment. Our six white bantams are now almost as big as the hen and we're just waiting to see how many hens and roosters there are in the brood. Can't wait to hear the young roosters' croaky voices crowing in the early mornings when they learn to crow.

The mixed breed hen's five chick brood (from which we lost that little lame one) is also doing well and we now let them out of the chicken tractor to freerange during the day. On the right the mother hen giving the mallard duck a warning as it gets a little too close to her brood.

And across at Che's farm it's all about calves. Four calves born within two weeks. Obviously they know when there will be good grazing and set their reproductive clocks accordingly. Below left is Ma Baker the jersey cow with last year's calf and her latest one. Below centre and right, two Ngunis with their calves, all only a few days old.



 

  Nature Update
  It's nearly mid-summer and with such good rainfall, all of nature is bursting into life around us. There are so many birds that the sound of their singing on forest edges in the mornings and evenings is
 
becoming very noticable. Our feeding tree always has a bird or two looking for scraps we put out there and we have small flocks of quella in the long grass and weavers constantly visiting the chicken tunnel for a quick snack. All the wild flowers are shooting buds and flowers and our vegetables and crops are growing like crazy - but not quite as quickly as the weeds! Life is really great right now out on the farm.

On the left and below left, out in the grasslands up near the foot of the hill way beyond our log fence, despite the field being mowed last summer season, this year there are more Lilac

Pachycarpus bushes than ever. Very distinctive little shrubs with beautiful little pink buds which open up to striking white flowers with dark lilac inner petals. Despite being classed as a herb in one of our wildflower books, it has a milky sap so not sure which part can be used.
 

And for the first time ever, this year we saw the Voodoo Lily flower.

Not a spectacularly pretty flower, but due to it being so unusual, it does have it's own special attraction - and smell. It has a kind of long hood-like outer tube and a very long spadix coming out the centre of it. I'm not sure of the purpose of the long spadix as the pollen seems to be located at it's base deep inside the outer tube. And the whole thing gives off a rather strong rotting meat smell to attract the flies that it needs to polinate it.

We have to be a bit careful
 

as the smell also attracts the dogs and the entire plant is very poisonous if ingested.

On the left, spotted in the long grass is this striking little beast.

Not yet identified properly, but probably either one of the lycid beetles or banded netwing beetle. Or maybe one of the wasps . . . or could even be a moth? We're researching but haven't come up with anything on it yet.

Insects are now abundant and looking into the setting sun against the dark forest, the air is alive with them.

  On the birding front, below left a solitary Quella seen on our feeding tree. The Quella flocks out in the grasslands are getting reasonably big. It's great to see them all flying up out of the long grass when you approach and making little flowing patterns in the sky. Below centre, like something out of a avian horror movie, a male Southern Red Bishop just starting to change into it's brilliant red and black breeding plumage.

On the right, a male Pintail Whydah, known for it's aggressive defence of his territory and general quarrelsome nature. They are often seen chasing any other birds (and sometimes much larger than them) off from wherever they are.



  Outgrowing the Modelling Workshop
  On the leasure activities side of the farm, I now have my upstairs modelling workshop almost kitted out but as yet there's been no production of any new models up there. Best I can do is go up there from time to time to check the solar system batteries are charging and enjoy the lovely view of the back of the farm and hills on the one side and look down into the forest on the other. There's just no time for building model aeroplanes right now! Hopefully one day I can going on them again.
 

But with our annual Highveld Thermal League end of year function coming up at the end of the month I decided to prepare my Xplorer. After checking all the batteries and radio progamming, I assembled it in the upstairs workshop. And with it's 3.5 meter wingspan it only just fitted across the short side of the workshop! Well, that pretty much sets my model size limits on any new models I decide to build up there.


  Dog Fun at the Dam
 
Eva and Spot out on their first swim in the dam
  After nearly 100mm of rain falling in the south of Heidelberg during the second week of November, Saturday morning was a good time to take the dogs out for a walk to the dam. The air was fresh after the rain and the ground still moist. And the dam had a good amount of water in it.

Two of Che's kids, Precious and Georgia were already out there swimming and the dogs enthusiastically joined in.

It was the first swim ever for the puppies. Spot took to the water with no problem as he knew what happens when you step into it from when he played in the duck pond. But Eva had no idea what water was like and she entertained us as we watched her try and run onto it to get to spot, who was already swimming out into the deeper water. But it wasn't long before she got the idea from the other dogs and her natural swimming instincts took over. She was then able to keep up with the kids and all the other dogs swimming around and jumping in and out of the dam.

It was a beautiful morning with water seeping out of the rocks in the hills wherever you looked. Strong streams of water were running down all the gorges and there was a lovely little waterfall as all the streams came together to feed into the dam.

We spent a few hours giving the dogs a good workout in the water. And when all the excitement was over and the puppies tired of splashing about, Dakota took the opportunity to go in for a cool, leisurely swim.

Then it was time to head home just over the hill for lunch.

      Eva getting to grips with this new surface. Spot had some idea
      of what it was all about as he had experimented in the duck pond.
      Eva's first reaction was to try and run on it!

      Precious and Georgia encouraging Eva into the deeper water

      Tess joining the Collies in the water for a splash

      Charlie and her two puppies playing in the water
 
Water still running down the  
gorge to the left of the dam  
Water seeping out of the rocks
on the hillside above the dam
  Beautiful little waterfall at the
  end of the stream into the dam
 
Time to go home. Tess on the lead and Martie coaxing Dakota across the little waterfall

  XPlorer Test Flight
  One afternoon when the weather looked good I took the battery out of the tractor and lugged it and my old heavyweight winch up into the grass field beyond our log fence and set it all up to test fly the Xplorer in preparation for the Highveld Thermal League competition at the end of the month.

With all the controls checked and working correctly, we winched it up into a perfect "cloud street" sky. Although the model was not really new (it had been flown by a friend at the F3J World Championships a few years ago), it was only my second session with it, the first being in a competition. And that was a bad move as with a high performance model like this you do need to
 
Everything working and ready to launch       
get familiar with it's flight characteristics - and preferably in a calm environment.

Pilot and model quickly got into sync and after a few adjustments it was thermalling away to what looked like almost cloud base. I was also testing a new feature in the new 2.4GHz radio control system that feeds variometer and altitude information from the model back to the transmitter. It was so interesting to see the altitude and rate of climb/sink of the model on the transmitter screen and hear the variometer tone frequency increase when the model is climbing and decrease when it is sinking or diving. This amazing new telemetry technology is adding a whole new dimension to flying our radio controlled model aircraft.

 
In it's element - the Xplorer working it's way up to cloud base in a strong late afternoon thermal    

  More Rain
  The third week of November started off with another two days of good afternoon thundershowers. What perfect weather for farming. We hadn't had to water plants for over a week, with wonderful sunshine up until lunchtime to charge the batteries and heat our bath water, and then rain in the afternoons. In fact, we sometimes got both together. Here's the ducks foraging in the rain while the sun is shining.

  More Cleaning Up and the New Gardens
  We continue our quest to thin out and clean up around the black trees and the forest edges.

Mandla is doing a fantastic job. We have begun to realise that we are just not going to get to where we want to be on the farm on our own. Having Mandla work a full day two or three times a week for us is really making a difference. He can get on with the mundane work allows us to step back and get on with the planning, planting and more important stuff.

In the picture top left, all the branches cut down from the lapa black wattle tree sorted and ready for clearing away. That would have taken Martie and I at least three days to do. He did it in less than
 
Lapa black wattle tree substantially thinned out       

Woodpile building steadily daily       
two and we scored three days to do other stuff.

Mandla is also meticulous about sorting good wood, branches and general ground rubble. We have a huge pile of small branches and ground rubble (twigs and leaves) building up and he cuts the good wood into usable lengths and it all goes onto the woodpile for firewood.

The big black wattle that fell across our driveway last month is almost cleared - just the big peices of logs to go now (picture bottom left).

Below is the latest garden is at the end of the forest driveway as it curves away from the log fence toward the house. A garden had been started there a while ago. The cleared area has been extended around the big tree and we planted some ferns and "mother-in-law's tongue".

Then bottom right, the entrance gate garden. Martie found some old summer flower seeds in the garden shed and sowed them in there. Right now they're only just holding their own against the weeds.

 
New driveway garden from the forest . . .    
   . . . and from house side
 
Where the big tree fell across our driveway    
   Front gate garden

  Finding it's Place
  Every plant has it's ideal place. And in the pumphouse bathroom we've had some difficulty finding the right plant for the window corner above the bath. The big windows above the bath face from
  east to north and although there is a bamboo blind to stop direct sunight coming in, that corner really gets hot during a sunny day. So far we've tried a poinsettia and a fern with disastrous results. After just a few weeks they had to be removed and resuscitated.

But I think we've finally found the right one now. Our little bleeding heart plant was bought for it's striking little white and red flowers a few years ago and has sadly gone through some long periods of severe neglect in our Joburg house where it was placed in a darkish cool corner where we would sometimes forget about it for weeks.

It has survived the years of neglect and now just loves the heat and the light in it's new position. It always feels good to make a plant happy.



  Last School Farm Stall for the Year
  Every Thursday Martie now teaches baking class at the Montessori school over at Che's farm and on Fridays she bakes some extra goodies and sells the baking class and extra goodies at the Farm Stall they set up near the school gate when school comes out for the weekend.

The deal is that Martie handles all the food and sweets and any of the older schoolkids that are interested can also set up a stall to sell any crafts that they make or can get hold of. Some kids
  make necklaces and bangles, others source cheapie toys from the Chinese market and resell them. The price limit is set at R5 per item and the idea is to encourage and teach the older kids a bit of enterpreneurship and money exchange values for the younger ones. Sometimes Hydeaway Farm Dairy also sets up a stall to sell little yogurts to the kids and milk and cheese to the parents.

This was the last farm stall for the year and Maria joined in to bake some goodies as well. Ernest (Mandla's father) harvested some carrots from the schoolyard vegetable garden (very sentimental to us as this

    Time for business at the farm stall. One of the teachers' helpers
    managing the little kids' pocketmoney and Brenda managing the line.
  was one of the projects at the school that my Mom initiated many years ago). One of the older kids set up a stall to sell off all of her granny's fluffy toys and another put pipe cleaner legs and arms onto little flower pots and planted some grass tufts into them as hair. It was a record day with just about everything sold out.

Martie's gingerbread men and
mini-banana bread loaves
   Maria added swiss roll slices,
    maringues and cream puffs
   Ernest brought a big bucket
   of fresh carrots for us to sell


  Dinner Club Breakfast
  To end off the year for the Dinner Club, Martie and Maria tried something a little different - and risky, considering the weather we've been having lately.

They arranged a breakfast out on the dam wall. A lovely setting now that the dam had some water
  in it and everything was lush and green.

The menu was basically toast, eggs and bacon but with lots of extras such as crousants, cheese, home made jams, etc. The toast and bacon were made on a fire (with so much firewood about, we may as well use it).


 

  First New Season Grass Cutting
  Back on the farm, with the recent high rainfall the grass was growing fast. The dogs were disappearing into it on their runs and it wasn't pleasant to walk in (especially when it was wet). I got the tractor going and cut a nice wide strip above the garage block. Here's Martie cleaning up the edges with her weed wacker. That's better - now we've got an area where we can walk comfortably and the dogs can easily get to their big grass pile to play.

  Starting on the Fruit Tree Orchard
  After much deliberation we have finally decided where our fruit tree orchard will be located on the farm. The first location we looked at was up in the top eastern corner of the property. But that's too far away for us to keep an eye on at the moment. Maybe we'll set up another orchard there once we've settled into the house.

But for now we've decided to continue developing the area around the growing tunnels, large crop area and the pumphouse. I ran the tractor across the area to cut the grass, we paced out some measurements, knocked in a few temporary poles and ran some lines across the area to mark off the boundaries of our new orchard. We'll put in a log fence with two gates to separate the crop and orchard areas from the rest of the yard. Keep an eye on the news here to check progress on that.

 
Mandla on the last hole. We gave him a rough measurement and he   
cut a stick to size to work from to get them all exactly the same size!   

All five apricot trees planted - just a bit more filling in around them    
We had already collected quite a few fruit trees and were very keen to get them into the ground so they could get growing this summer. First in were five Palsteyn apricot trees all in a row.

First one planted - four to go

  Before Robert Fischer passed away he explained the art of planting trees and we were using his recommendations. The trick is to dig a big square hole and fill below and around the unbagged tree with a good loose compost and soil mixture, so the root growth can taking in the nutrients in the compost. His theory is that after the first few waterings the roots can start easily penetrating into the soft mixture and when required during the next season, will be strong enough to easily penetrate into the normal soil. And the square hole is so the roots can get into the corners and start extending out into the normal soil (a round hole causes the roots not to extend out into the normal harder soil as easily). Of course there's also the pruning, feeding and maintenance but all of Robert's fruit trees produced really good fruit.

So Mandla got busy digging some biggish holes for our little apricot trees. Martie got involved in the compost/soil mixing stage and they planted the five trees in a nice straight line along the front of the growing tunnels.

 
Growing tunnel area starting to look very busy with the beginnings of the new fruit orchard in front of it

  Fixing the Driveway
  With the constant rain the low section of our driveway is getting a bit mushy. Not bad enough for cars to get stuck in, but just messy. One morning Mandla and I decided to fix it. We loaded the bakkie with some slate type rocks (nothing that I could use for building) and layed them nicely over the mud patch in the driveway. If that works we might move on to phase 2 and do the whole low section of the driveway.

  Bird Watching Hour
  Fairly regular vistors to the feeding tree (and other trees on the forest edge), below left the very handsome Fiscal Flycatcher on the lookout for insects in the grass and below right a cute little Cape White Eye attracted to the old piece of pineapple.
 
 

And below, high up on the dead tree between Kallie and our farms a pair of Common Fiscals (it's old name was the Fiscal Shrike, commonly known as the butcherbird). Very similar in colouring to the Fiscal Flycatcher but a slightly heavier bird and it has a slightly thicker, hooked beak.

 

  Maize Crop Progress
  This year's mealie crop is looking so much better than last year's. There are no signs of stress like we had during those dry and hot windy spells last year. We could have planted a bit earlier but barring any disasters we should still get a good crop. And we've still got time to plant our second section. Just got to get out there and dig in the dirt a bit more!

  Highveld Thermal League Year End Contest
  Saturday it was all out preparations for us as we were going to to host a record turnout for the Highveld Thermal league Year End Contest on the last Sunday of November. Contestants would be coming from as far as Pretoria to fly with us.

While Martie did all the shopping for rolls, meat and cooldrinks in town, I hopped onto the tractor for a few hours and mowed a nice big square area in the grassland across the road for us to fly from. I also mowed some strips for "roads" so the guys to get in to the "flying field" from the new gate that was installed when the municipality erected the barbed wire fence for Che.
 

Sunday morning was overcast but thankfully not heavy enough for rain. There were a few early arrivals that needed to test fly their models while we were setting up our kitchen gazebo to make breakfast.

Once everyone was there the contest got underway - it was a little windy but in general it turned out a really good day for gliding. Heidelberg

Some of the high tech models at rest and the winches used to launch them
  always throws in a few curved balls and some of the better pilots failed to make their 10 minute flights on more than one occasion.

Martie arranged for the ladies to help her braai the meat (something different!) and at lunchtime Che brought all the kids down to collect the grocery and present donations and thank the guys.


      The ladies braaied the meat for us

Che with all the kids      
 
All the kids posing with a few of the pilots and their models
 
We managed to get all the pilots together just after pilot's briefing for a group picture

  Weed Wars
  Everything's growing well - including the weeds! The only thing that seems to be outgrowing them right now are Martie's mealies. She planted a few seeds in one of the growing tunnels very early in the season and they're getting really big now. She also gives them lots of pampering and fertilizes them regularly - something that mine out in the big crop area won't be getting.

But back to the weeds. We tackle the tunnels one at a time and pull wheelbarrows of weeds. I'm sure it's because we used fresh horse and cow manure in the tunnels just before the growing season without composting it first. Below right is Mandla hard at work filling another wheelbarrow.