THROUGH THE WOODS: Woolly bear caterpillars forecast winter weather?

Woolly bear caterpillar. Photo contributed

OUR TEMPERATURES ARE BEGINNING TO COOL OFF, and our little woolly bear caterpillars are starting their march across driveways, sidewalks and highways. They are off in search of a suitable crack or crevice to spend the winter months until warm weather allows them to complete their life cycle and reproduce. Their scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, also known as the Isabella tiger moth. In spring when the temperature gets to 40-50 degrees F, the caterpillar wakes up and spins a cocoon incorporating some of its own stiff hairs in the matrix. When the adult emerges in 2-3 weeks, it is a yellow/orange moth with a wingspan of about 2” and only lives 1-2 weeks.

In June, the moth finds a mate, lays eggs and dies soon after. The eggs hatch in 10-12 days to go into the larval stage. It is a small caterpillar at first and can hold on to a wisp of cocoon silk that it uses as a balloon for travel. It eats a variety of vegetation like clover, dandelions, maple leaves and grass, then goes through molts and increases in size to the 2” caterpillar we see in fall. It has 13 segments with the end segments usually black, and the center one a reddish brown.

When I was a little girl, I found a woolly bear, and my parents told me to be careful or it might bite. I was curious so picked it up anyway and found that unlike some other caterpillars, this kind did not bite. I was lucky. It did feel weird though, because of the stiff bristly hairs that touched the palm of my hand when it curled up in a tight ball and played dead. I carefully put it down and watched it slowly uncurl and go on its way. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A rare Western visitor

Sage thrasher. Photo courtesy of Larry Federman

THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCITING WEEK for birdwatchers in Columbia County. Birders from all over New York state and beyond flocked to the Columbia Land Conservancy Ooms Conservation Area in Chatham. A sage thrasher normally found in Western states such as Arizona was found on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 and photographed by Barbara Sylvester, who sent the photo on to expert birders to confirm its identification. Birders are well connected through various online birding organizations and word went out with the speed of the internet and some of the first bird experts from the Albany area began arriving.

The sage thrasher looks like a yellow-eyed cross between a Northern mockingbird and a brown thrasher. This one is a real ham and throws in a disappearing act periodically to keep observers on their toes. Its favorite spot is a group of shrubs and bushes at the eastern pond edge not far from the highway. A buckthorn loaded with fruit is a feast for the bird which is supplemented with short flights out to the field to forage for insects in the grass. Good birders are patient and quietly waited for the thrasher to satisfy its needs and photographers clicked away from various vantage points obtaining many good shots.

This bird species was first found by me during a trip to Arizona way back in the 1970s. Currently the most excitement has been watching the birdwatchers. The parking spots at Ooms have been packed with vehicles from dawn to sunset each day. Cars pull out and others pull in. Trunks are popped open and backpacks, binoculars, and cameras are carried to the site. Some use tripods. Cell phones are pulled out to look at references and file reports. Varieties of thousands of dollars of equipment are a treat to view and often a cause of great envy.

There have been young to old, amateurs to professionals and the usual hikers and dog walkers stroll through, giving curious stares or stop to inquire about what is happening. Sometimes the scene has choreographed movement. The birders are spread out to cover more vantage points. When the bird is spotted everyone carefully moves to a discreet distance and binoculars are picked up and long camera lenses point to the bird. Most are frozen in place until the bird moves again. Yesterday toward sunset a carload of photographers with an out of state license were less careful than some. Possibly from desperation at the fading light, they were more aggressive in their search. One man sat in the bushes and chain-smoked cigarettes at the damp pond’s edge near the buckthorn. It was comical when a chickadee flew in and perched above his head. He was unaware and I chuckled. Too bad it hadn’t been the thrasher.

Larry Federman of Palenville related his experience: “My wife Joyce and I arrived at Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland Pond around 2:40 p.m. to try to see the errant sage thrasher. There were a couple of other birders on the scene, but the thrasher hadn’t been located since earlier that day. We staked out the favored buckthorn bush and at around 3 p.m., Joyce took a little walk along the main path, to the east. Next thing I know, she’s waving her arms to get my attention! The thrasher was on the ground, foraging!”

The sage thrasher is in good shape, well fed, and we wish it a safe journey home.

THROUGH THE WOODS: Looking forward to winter finches

Common redpoll. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

CANADIAN FINCHES STAY PUT when there are lots of seed containing spruce cones which anchor them in the north. It is good for them but not for birders down here who want to see them at their feeders. Reports are the opposite for this winter, with an apparent dearth of spruce cones in areas of Canada. Pine siskins are already being seen in New York State from Ausable to near Kingston, and a birder emailed last week to say she had a few pine siskins and evening grosbeaks at her yard in Chatham. I visited Nassau Lake last week to look for waterfowl and saw a few, and no winter finches.

Waterfowl are scarce and large flocks of Canada Geese are just beginning to pass through. This likely reflects our warm fall weather. If you have trees with cones keep an eye on them for seed loving finches like red or white-winged grosbills. Other northern finches we may see are male yellow, black and white evening grosbeaks, reddish pine grosbeaks, common redpolls, and some of our more usual birds such as purple finches, and area goldfinches.

I will put out one old test feeder containing sunflower seed to see if the bears have gone into hibernation yet. There has been no sign of the bears lately, so I may put up some suet next week. As it gets colder, I will put up more feeders. The finches like sunflower seed, but they are particularly crazy about Nyjer seed, which is sometimes incorrectly referred to as thistle seed. The seeds are small like thistle seed, but they are from an entirely different plant, Guizotia abyssinicia, grown in Asia and Africa, and has been used to feed birds for more than 40 years. The black seeds resemble very small grains of rice and contain a high content of oils that provide more calories per seed for the birds. These seeds are not native to the US and there have been concerns that they will be an invasive species, so the seeds are heated to make them unable to germinate before they are allowed into our country. This also kills other plant contaminants too. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: An old job with new twists

“THERE’S MORE LEAVES out here than ever before!” my neighbor Mary exclaimed, as the yellow, orange and brown confetti rained down. She should know, she’s lived here for 50-plus years. I suspect it’s the frequent south winds blowing the autumn leaves in our direction, not unlike the winds of change which are getting us to re-think the ritual of putting the garden to bed.

The biggest change is neatness. I’m accustomed to pulling up the remains of all annuals and chopping down every perennial stalk and stem, leaving the ground as flat as a nuclear bomb blast. Tidiness removes diseased plant remains, makes the gardens less attractive to varmints like voles, and reduces the amount of work to do in spring.

But a plea for less grooming is now coming from those who know nature. Pollinators and other creatures important to the planet’s function require places to spend the winter. Red mason bees, leaf cutter bees and wool carder bees need to nest in cavities, so the hollow stems of plants like beebalm and ornamental grasses fit the bill. Butterflies including the red-spotted purple, meadow fritillary and viceroy want to hide in seed pods, vegetation, and rolled-up leaves. Hoverflies, which sound pesty but are actually important pollinators as well as aphid-eaters, must have the shelter of undisturbed soil or craggy tree bark to ride out the cold and snow. As we become better attuned to the importance of these tiny and often unseen creatures, we’ve got to recognize their year-round needs. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A Halloween tale

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS LATE OCTOBER and good weather to do a final cleanup of the old rural cemetery before the winter snows began. The secluded little cemetery was surrounded by woods that still retained a few colorful leaves and lots of leaves and branches lay on the ground. The crisp, clean air had that wonderful, indefinable smell of the damp earth of fall.

The late 1700s to 1800s headstones had death’s heads and flower-like carvings on slate and sandstone, someone died of smallpox, another grave contained several children who had died from another disease or mishap. One man was buried near his three wives. Dates showed he had quickly remarried at the death of each wife. It was hard not to think about what these lives had been like and wonder if it was the wind or their spirits rustling through the leaves.

The old pickup truck was filled with debris as work continued from the front to the darkest corner in the back of the cemetery. Here were the remains of an old rotted tree with the modest stump almost sitting out of the ground. Soon it was excavated and found to have an interesting artistic shape, like a piece of driftwood. It was placed in the truck for addition to a home flower bed. The greenish coloration of the old wood would look very nice centered in the ferns. The now tidy cemetery was reverently left to itself for the winter. Read more…