THROUGH THE WOODS: Our magnificent osprey

WHILE DOING THE ALAN DEVOE Bird Club Century Run Bird Count on Saturday, the one where each birder tries to find 100 species of birds in one day, Marion Ulmer and I decided to checkout Stockport Landing at the end of Station Road. Both adult bald eagles were at their huge nest out on the island, and there were lots of fishermen on the Hudson River. Fish were running and an osprey was circling over the Stockport Creek. It dove and came up with a huge fish. It is amazing how much weight they can carry in their talons.

Suddenly one of the bald eagles attacked the osprey and grabbed its fish. This tactic of theft caused Benjamin Franklin to object to the eagle becoming our national emblem. The osprey is possibly North America’s best studied bird of prey, and the only raptor that eats almost exclusively live fish, and at times has been referred to as the fish hawk. Despite this restricted diet, Osprey have nested in a variety of habitats. Their prominent stick nests are found from mangrove islets of the Florida Keys to Alaskan lakes to New England salt marshes to the saline lagoons of Baja, Mexico, and from Carolina cypress swamps to the redwood coasts of California. All but southernmost populations are migratory, leaving their breeding grounds in late summer for rain forest rivers and fish rich seacoasts and lakes in Central and South America. Then they return north each spring as waters warm, and more fish become accessible. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Angry Birds

Red-tailed hawks fight over roadkill. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT’S A TOUGH WORLD out there for our birds. Spring seems so peaceful and happy. We look at the flowers and beautiful birds are flying around the yard and across the countryside. I am still putting bird seed out so new bird arrivals have something eat. They migrate hundreds to more than a thousand miles to get here, and some of them are darn hungry.

The first gorgeous rose-breasted grosbeak landed on the lawn yesterday and proclaimed it was his. He is about the size of a robin with a shorter tail, dressed in black and white feathers with the brilliant rose-colored bib against a white breast. The name grosbeak is just that, a large, strong, seed eating tool. It is also an impressive weapon. He has been attacked by black-capped chickadees, sparrows and cardinals who think he is an intruder and should at least share the food. No way says the grosbeak. He flutters his wings, opens that impressive beak, and tries to bite the other birds, who give up and leave.

So far, the only birds that have successfully scared him off are the much larger, longer billed, blue jays. Once they have fed, the grosbeak comes right back. So, the first bone of contention in the seemingly tranquil spring is food competition. If you are hungry, it is hard to do much of anything else. One of the worst and most impressive food fights I have seen was between two red-tailed hawks that were fighting over roadkill at the edge of a field (see photo). The slightly smaller bird on the left finally flew up in a tree to wait until the victor had his fill. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The willow whistle

MY UNCLE WAS ALWAYS GOOD at teaching us interesting things he thought we ought to know, and entertained us when things got a little slow, or when he needed a short rest from all the hard farm work. Probably it was also a good way to keep us occupied and out of his hair. I would hang out around the cow barn, or occasionally pass through on the way to find a favorite cat, and he would ask me a question that would stop me in my tracks. That day he knew I had just been given a jackknife by my grandmother, and he asked me if I knew how to make a willow whistle. No, I didn’t, and he sent me off behind the barn by the pond to cut a branch from the big weeping willow tree.

I was usually barefoot in those days, which was a good thing because it was a wet, muddy area. He said it should be about 1” thick and be straight and free of knots. That kept me looking for a while. I wasn’t that tall that year and had to stand on tip toe and pull down a thin branch to cut it at a thicker part.

I came back with quite big branch and was cautioned not to drag it through the barn and scare the cows while they were being milked. Relaxed cows were more inclined to give up their milk and less inclined to kick off the milking machines. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Boxwood back from the blight

There now are ways to control boxwood blight. Photo contributed

BOXWOOD, THOSE PLUSH GREEN GLOBES and mini-hedges popular with the highest gardening elites down to the lowliest discount garden centers, fell from grace about a decade ago with the advent of a deadly disease called boxwood blight. In the early days, photos of giant piles of dead boxwoods culled from nurseries and lush gardens browned by the blight circulated as warning stories. But what has changed since then?

First, a little review. Boxwood blight showed up in several East Coast locations simultaneously during the summer of 2011. Like Stonehenge and superconductivity, no one knows its exact origin, but boxwood starting dying of the strange fungus in the United Kingdom way back in the 1990s. The first symptoms that occur are light to dark brown, circular leaf spots with dark borders. Infected stems have dark brown to black, elongated cankers. Rapid defoliation occurs, especially in the lower canopy of the shrub.

Disease transmission primarily happens through movement of infected plant material, contaminated landscape and garden tools, and rain/irrigation splashes. Fungal spores are spread by wind, rain or sprinklers. Because spores are sticky, they can potentially be spread by contaminated clothing and animals, including birds. Spores on infected leaves that have dropped can survive five years. Warm and humid conditions cause the fungus to spread quickly. Gardeners are urged to clean their tools, never water boxwood from above and replace dead boxwoods with something else. The fungicide recipes and regimes required to keep boxwood green resemble a cross between Baked Alaska and Gateau St. Honoré and are unsustainable. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A dairy farmer “retires”

Young Holstein. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

MY FATHER WAS A DAIRY FARMER as far back as I could remember starting in the late 1940s. All the local farmers had a cow for milk, butter and possibly cheese, which was mostly for family needs and not the main source of income. Our Town of Austerlitz had been a big sheep and wool area, probably because of demand and possibly because it was hilly and rocky with clay soil suited for these animals. Sheep could graze almost anywhere and eat almost anything.

When demand for wool diminished my father decided the better paying dairy cattle farming was the way to go. He was recently married and needed to prepare for supporting a family. I remember seeing the skull of our farm’s last big Merino ram down in the corner of a pasture below the barn. It had huge, curled horns. My father said he was mean, and you couldn’t turn your back on him, or he would butt you flat on your face.

My father seemed happy to say goodbye to the sheep and start on a new career with cattle. We had a few mixed heritage cows and a big red and white Ayrshire bull, and then, when he could afford it, he bought a few registered Holsteins (the black and white cows). My mother didn’t like potentially dangerous bulls around, so when the new artificial insemination service became available there were no more bulls. Artificial insemination also gave us access to some of the top Holstein bulls in the country via their frozen semen. We used nothing but the best until we had a small, but high-quality herd of registered Holsteins with great milk production. Read more…