THROUGH THE WOODS: Listen to the mockingbird

Northern mockingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ONE DAY YEARS AGO we were walking through the cemetery back of St. Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Spencertown next to the old firehouse. We heard a muted version of the fire whistle, looked around, and there atop a bush was a Northern mockingbird singing his heart out and mimicking the fire whistle. It was amazing, even though he couldn’t quite reach the correct decibel level.

Mockers get their name from this ability to learn and repeat sounds and the calls of other birds. They originated from our southern states and moved north, bringing with them a repertoire of southern bird calls like the yellow-breasted chat, Carolina wren, and others. Since we do not normally have chats and some of the other southern birds here, the young start learning these calls from their parents and keep passing them down to their young. I once worked with a doctor who loved to try and stump me with bird questions, and one day he asked me, “What is the mockingbird’s actual song?” I stood speechless and he smiled and went on. I later learned they do have a few calls of their own, a hew, a nest relief call, chats and a begging call. Of course, the dead giveaway is their singing of many other bird calls, one after another.

The mother of a friend in Missouri loved to hear the “mockers” sing and once sent me a tape of one in her yard, and it sang 53 different songs without stopping. Studies have shown that they usually have two sets of songs, one for the spring, and the other for the fall. They also keep learning and adding new ones all through their lives. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: It’s a hardneck life

YOU SHOULD CONSIDER YOURSELF RICH if you have a garlic plot to harvest right now. This most flavorful, easy-to-grow member of the Allium family is planted in fall and harvested in high summer. Master Gardener Nancy Scott, an enthusiastic cultivator of all things vegetable, sent us this report on harvesting the pungent cloves.

“This year’s theme at the Vegetable Demonstration Garden at the Parker School in North Greenbush was alliums. Master gardener volunteers from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County planted garlic and ornamental alliums last fall. The garlic bulbs were broken into cloves and planted pointy side up into the prepared beds about 1-2 inches deep and about 6 inches apart. This allowed the roots to form before the cold weather set in. Once the warm weather arrived in the spring, the plants sent up their leaves.

Hardneck garlic is a daylight sensitive plant, so when the days began to get shorter again after the end of June, the loss of light signaled to the plant that it was time to mature. As a result, it was time to start harvesting in late July. Some people like to wait until the leaves are all brown on the plant. This could bring the harvest into August and at that point, the papery coating on the bulb can begin to break down. The garlic will still taste fine, but there’s more of a chance of the bulb breaking apart. It also means some of the garlic will rot and not store as well. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The hummers are still at war!

Male ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IN MAY THERE WERE TWO MALE ruby-throated hummingbirds in our yard fighting over their sugar water feeder and a small female. The females do not have the red throat and are mostly green with a white belly and some gray areas. This probably helps them remain hidden on the nest and they are less conspicuous. The male’s red throat may be part of the attraction for females during the mating season.

In all the years I have been birding I have only found one hummingbird nest near a woodland pond. It was in a small birch tree about 12 feet off the ground and so tiny. Just a grayish cup attached to a small limb and the female was snuggled down on her eggs. That was a thrill, and I regret that I did not have a camera with me. I have watched at home to see where they fly off to, but never have found a nest again. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: A good time to get dirty

THE YEAR 2020 HAS BEEN like no other, but you can’t keep good gardeners down. Last Monday, 11 master gardeners opened their plots to our in-house Pandemic Garden Tour. Since our tour for the public had to be canceled, this members-only event at least got a few friends together, masked and socially-distanced, for the first time since the pandemic hit in March. It was nice to see the gardens in their mid-summer glory, and great to see folks I’ve only had a glimpse of on Zoom. At the end of the day, my heart held a flicker of joy and a spark of hope.

The master gardeners agree that the act of gardening has been a lifesaver during these overwhelming days. Weeding, plucking and pruning allows one to have at least a resemblance of order over a tiny spot in a chaotic country. Hard work makes one forget about the national news. There are no restrictions on getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Nurturing a bit of nature releases positive feelings, and even disappointing results are seen in a new light: next year will be better. Gardening is often a solo affair—most of the family members disappear when it’s time to spread mulch—so we’ve got that covered, too. Read more…

THROUGH the WOODS: Feeding the heifers

Holstein heifer. Photo contributed

WHEN SCHOOL ENDED for the summer in 1959 we all rejoiced to be “free” for a couple of months. It depended on what you considered free, free of school, but certainly not free of chores. A family farm requires all capable family members to pitch in. I spent much of my summers at my grandparents’ (Gram and Gramp Wambach) dairy farm, helping them while they kept an eye on me. The black and white Holstein calves they raised over the winter were turned out into the small field by the barn, the “calf lot,” to get a taste of their first green grass.

We had checked the fence because those heifer (female) calves’ first instinct was to go exploring. They learned to respect a fence before returning to the open end of the barn. We could see them from the house or the barns so knew they were okay. This went well until they had eaten down most of the grass and were growing up along with their ever increasing appetites.

Gramp and I would take a truck and scythe out to a spot where there was a good supply of grass and get more food to keep them happy. He would take a whetstone and sharpen the scythe blade (think of what the Grim Reaper carries) then start rhythmically swinging the scythe through the grass to cut it. He was really good at this, gained from 50 years of practice. I loaded the grass on the truck with a hay fork, and we took it back to the hungry young bovines mooing in anticipation. Read more…