THROUGH THE WOODS: The Woodpile

Woodpile. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT SEEMED LIKE A HUGE PART OF OUR LIVES revolved around the woodpile. As a neighbor once remarked, he never knew anyone who worked harder than my father, Donald Kern, and mom was right beside him. Work was also shared down the family, and whenever the weather permitted and there was time between planting, growing and harvesting, we cut wood for the next winter. The house was actually a combination of two houses put together by grandfather Frank Kern, and needed 3 stoves to heat it. It was hard to figure out how many cords it took, but there were huge piles of wood to be stacked up east of the barn. We took the team of Belgian draft horses and iron wheeled wagon to the woods where father chopped away (no chain saws then) until there were wagon lengths of limb wood. The bigger trunks got pulled out one at a time and split.

We had one of those “one lung” engines we called the popping machine, and another early gas engine to run a belt to a buzz saw to cut the wood to stove sized chunks. Later there was a tractor for the job plus a chain saw. When we were old enough, we began tailing the saw and picking up the cut chunks as father fed the limbs through. One very cold day it was a close call when he almost sawed through a numb finger. He was a sickly shade of green as mother, a Registered Nurse, phoned the doctor. There weren’t any antibiotics to be given and whatever she did, it worked and he healed. There was no OSHA, helmets, safety goggles, ear protection, or anything close to them. You had to be very alert, follow instructions and have great reflexes.

Other hazards were wood pieces kicked off the saw, sawdust up the nose and in the eyes, and splinters. We used the sawdust in the barn under the cows, and the wood smelled different depending on what kind it was. The “iron wood” as we called it was really different because it was so hard and heavy. It was actually American hornbeam and had beautiful smooth gray bark and was a pleasure to hold. It had no rough dirty bark or splintered ends, and burned for a long time. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Queen Anne’s lace

Queen Anne’s lace. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

ALONG ROADSIDES AND ALMOST ANY SUNNY PLACE grows a beautiful flower, Queen Anne’s lace. Its snowy white flowers are particularly striking when paired in the wild with lovely blue chicory flowers. It is thought that Queen Anne’s lace is the ancestor of our cultivated garden carrot, so is also called wild carrot, and the feathery green leaves of each are quite similar. Its scientific name is Daucus carota and it is a biennial herb that comes to us from Eurasia.

The forming flowers can have a pink color and are cup-like in form, so they may also be referred to as bird’s nest plants. As the flower opens it flattens out to an umbel (flower head) of many tiny white flowers that often have a central cluster of dark red or purple flowers. This cluster may appear as a black dot from a distance. The plant can grow up to five feet tall and the flowers are about 4-5 inches in diameter. As the flowers age, they turn brown and curl inward to form an upward thrust “fist” of many seeds. Eventually, these “fists” may detach and become small “tumbleweeds”, helping to disperse the seeds.

If you amble along a roadside and really take a good look at the white flowers there are no two alike. Some are very flat, some dome-shaped, and some flowers are densely packed in the umbel, while others are more open and lacy. Some umbels have a spiral pattern of flowers. Insects are attracted to them and seem to go to the central purple flowers when they are present. This may explain the development of this feature. These central flowers are too small for us to separate out a distinctive scent, but the crushed flower and leaves smell like carrots. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The Mystery Duck

White-winged scoter. Photo contributed

IN JULY I GOT A PHONE CALL from a perplexed Hillsdale farmer. This is a multigenerational family farm with people who understand local wildlife, so I was surprised when I heard they had a duck on a farm pond they couldn’t identify. I asked for a description and ran through all the usual suspects, and it wasn’t.

I love these calls and get the location and promise to respect their privacy. They did not want people to arrive and tramp all over their property, which I understand. There is a liability, possible livestock that would be disturbed, and litter, to mention a few items. Birders are respectful, but wildlife photographers are notoriously not, and they are always watching the internet for unusual finds. It is a business and money for them, and the sought-after subject can be harassed and harmed too.

I drove over to the about-half-acre farm pond and parked to observe for a few hours. I saw about 10 Canada geese and then spotted the dark-colored duck near them. I immediately knew what it was, an adult male White-winged scoter. I was flabbergasted because this duck should have been up in the arctic for the nesting season. I took numerous photos to document it, knowing I would be questioned by other excellent birders who would find this report hard to believe. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The Hummers are still at war!

Male ruby-throated hummingbird. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

In May, two male ruby-throated hummingbirds in my yard fought over the sugar water feeder. 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 in 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 was 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. I think they veer off in another direction when you can no longer see them.

They are very smart for their size. If you watch them over a week or two, you can tell there are subtle differences between each bird. These poor little things were quite thin compared to when they left last fall, so I was happy they were spending a lot of time eating in between chasing each other around the yard. If I sat out on the porch they would zip by so fast you could feel the tickle of the air from those whirring wings. Hummers are my “yard pets.” They are constantly at the flower beds and are constantly working them, flying to a flower and hovering to get the nectar and moving to the next. I sometimes talk to them and they seem to know we are all friends. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Green heron

The green heron. Nancy Jane Kern

OUR LARGEST AND MOST EASILY OBSERVED HERON is the great blue heron, while the much smaller green heron, although abundant, can be difficult to find. Green herons are shy birds that like thick vegetation and the quiet shallow water of marshes, farm ponds, and river edges. Birds are easier to find if they move about. Green herons like to remain motionless and walking to another spot is quite slow and deliberate. They often fly home to roost for the night and may be seen at places like Stockport Creek at dusk. Look for a crow-sized bird with slow wing beats, crooked neck and trailing legs.

If you walk around a reedy pond you may startle one into flight. They have a loud and unmusical, raspy “skeow” call, which can be startling. Another characteristic is discharging a long stream of white excrement after taking flight. Both of these behaviors could certainly put off a predator. If you get an opportunity to watch this bird fish, they like to perch on a fallen tree limb or rock close to the surface of the water. They eat most small pond life, particularly small fish and tadpoles, and will very quickly extend their long neck and grab one. Occasionally they might spear a larger fish, but in general, they just extend their long neck and grab with their large, thick bill.

The most interesting thing about this bird is that it may use bait to catch fish. They will find insects like mayflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers (bread if available), drop one in the water, and catch the fish that come to eat it. There is a great video of this titled “Green Heron Fishing with Bread” on YouTube, and the heron gets a nice meal. It shows that birds can be smarter than we think. Since they have been around longer than man, maybe we actually learned to bait fish from them. Read more…