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…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Pungent, yet modest

Spicebush. Photo contributed

SPICEBUSH! I BRAKED MY MOUNTAIN BIKE hard to take a closer look. I was pleased to see dozens of Lindera benzoin scattered beneath the cottonwood trees, in a section of Schodack Island State Park not yet swamped by invasives. The cottonwoods were bare, and the surrounding weeds still green, so the luminous yellow of the spicebushes gave them center stage on a cloudy fall day. Bike botany, neat native plants, glorious autumn—by George, who could ask for anything more?

I first appreciated spicebush along another trail, the Bronx River Parkway, where it grows in profusion in the damp soil. Indigenous to much of the eastern half of the country, it is a medium-sized understory shrub about 12 feet tall. All parts of the plant have a strong aromatic odor, pleasing in an odd medicinal way. Flowering in very early spring, its clusters of small yellow blossoms are much more demure than brassy forsythia, but attractive nonetheless. Spring flowers sell plants, but whereas you’ll find forsythia for sale in droves at the big boxes, spicebush is more difficult to discover in the nursery trade and sought out only by those in the know (such as you and I). Someday, when the public gains a greater appreciation of our native flora, perhaps the sales figures on these two species will be reversed, with spicebush finding a place in just about every local landscape now occupied by a forsythia. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Before recycling

EVERY WEEK WE SORT BOTTLES and plastic jugs, cardboard and newspapers, and pack food scraps and other wet garbage into expensive plastic bags and head off to our local solid waste transfer station. If we didn’t, we would be buried in hundreds of pounds of waste material each month. This time of year, and the holidays make things even worse. Wonder what people did fifty, or a hundred years or more ago?

When we were a more agrarian society there wasn’t much thought about waste piling up because almost anything leftover had a purpose and a place. Recycling as a term did not yet exist; it was just practiced. My parents and grandparents and older generations often lived on the edge of survival and had to be frugal and saving. There weren’t plastic containers or many disposable items. Some medicines came in glass bottles, which were put in a small dump area on the farm. It has been interesting to dig through these areas to discover bottles once containing horse liniment, Lydia Pinkham’s female herbal remedy (alcohol content 40 proof), and very rarely a wine or other spirits bottle. Some of them were salvaged and today the blue Bromo-Seltzer, blue-green Palmer’s hair oil, and brown or white medicine bottles decorate our windowsills.

Most bottles could be washed and refilled with vinegar, wine or other liquids. Father kept a long-necked bottle for “dosing” horses or cows with liquid medicines. The animal’s head could be held in an elevated, restrained position, and the long bottle neck was inserted in the mouth away from teeth, and the contents poured down the throat. It worked surprisingly well. It was washed and ready for the next dosing. Read more…