THROUGH THE WOODS: ‘Owl-capades’

YESTERDAY AFTERNOON WAS A THRILL watching the nimble aerial acrobatics of several football-sized owls. They were short-eared owls down from the north for the winter. We think of owls as night birds however these owls hunt both day and night. Large farm fields producing grain and hay during the summer were snow covered, hosting untold numbers of small mammals such as mice and voles. A vole looks like a mouse but prefers to eat vegetation such as roots and seeds, is usually larger (4-6” long), and has a stubbier face and tail. They are also related to lemmings, which live in the far north and are loved by owls. Birds and mammals like weasels and muskrat are also eaten.

What was exciting for observers was deadly serious for the owls. The owls were upset with a northern harrier (also called a marsh hawk), which was in immediate competition for their food. Two owls flew circles around it midair. Owl talons were thrust toward the hawk, and an owl’s long wings were raised then slapped beneath it, chasing the hawk out to other fields.

The harrier was a beauty, a male, also called a “gray ghost” for its white body and black-tipped gray wings (females are brown). The owls got back to work flying low to the snow with a gliding, rocking motion and then abruptly circling back for another look or listen. Sometimes they gave short squawks/barks with an occasional sound like a cat’s mew. Did this cause prey to move? An owl would hover and dive to the snow. Then off to perch on a fence post or power pole. Feeding was short while standing on prey and looking in all directions for an attempted steal. The large vole’s head was pulled up and snipped off and swallowed. Next long strands of guts were pulled out and eaten and the body was chugged down last. After eating 1-2 small mammals an owl may stash more prey to carry it through bad weather. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Getting a head start

Seed packets. Photo contributed

GARDENING GURU JERRY BAKER said plants were like people, and I believe seeds are, too. Some seeds grow easily under many conditions, like your friend who thrives no matter what life gives her. Similar to your black sheep cousin arriving on your doorstep, some seeds germinate unexpectedly by the back steps, in the driveway gravel, or in the compost pile. Others are as fussy as your little sister, needing precise coddling to get moving.

This last group of seeds generally requires starting indoors well before planting out in the wide world. The tiny print on the seed packet gently suggesting “start indoors eight to ten weeks before planting out” is a warning to plan ahead. Other crops, such as tomatoes, germinate easily but take a good three months or more to fruit, so giving them a head start indoors assures production in the current calendar year.

After assessing which seeds need what conditions, assemble your gear. I like to use a soil-less mix, containing peat, perlite and vermiculite, specially formulated for seeds. It’s lightweight, drains well, and contains no killer pathogens. You can make your own mix, and even pasteurize it in your kitchen oven, but the stink and mess can substantially reduce household harmony. I also use professional grade plastic cells, those familiar “six packs” seen in nurseries, but a wide array of food containers, cleaned and given drainage holes, may work just as well. Containers can also be fashioned as soil blocks, made from peat or coir, or created from newspaper. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Winter farm 1958

TIRED AT AGE 12… Sledding and playing in the snow on an afternoon in 1958. The temperature was about -15 F and heading down the thermometer. Coming into the dairy barn was always pleasant. The cows were natural heaters and warmed the barn to a pleasant state during most winters. That day you could see their breath, and the moisture in the air was palpable and beginning to freeze on metal near the doors. The barn’s manure cleaner had frozen in the morning and the manure spreader wasn’t doing well either. Fortunately, the tractors had started up with a few tries. Lots of cold hard work on a small family farm without extra help.

The cold had brought in flocks of snow buntings and many hundreds of horned larks. There was also a small flock of common redpolls, but no hoary redpoll among them. Grandmother’s Christmas present of a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to the Birds had said to search for this rarer, whiter type. These birds were spooked up off the freshly spread manure during a late morning horseback ride. Bareback riding was the warmer and preferred way to go on these cold days, with flannel lined blue jeans, long heavy wool socks, high boots, and lots of wool everything else. The horses were always frisky and glad for a run, hair thick, warm, and full of static electricity, snorting and blowing through the squeaky snow and down to the “crick,” for a good drink. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: 2021 birds off to good start

Snow geese. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

MY FAVORITE PASTIME/HOBBY is bird watching and I signed up again this year to participate in a group of hardcore birders who try to find as many species of birds as possible in DEC’s Region 8 of New York state. Region 8 encompasses 11 counties: Schoharie, Greene, Montgomery, Fulton, Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Warren, Washington, Rensselaer and Columbia. The rule is that you can count any bird species you can identify by sound or sight in these counties for your year’s total, and there is a friendly competition to determine who sees the most.

Photography of birds is encouraged. There are no prizes or rewards other than submitting a lot of sightings to Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology through their eBird reporting system. The lab uses the data to determine species ranges at different times of the year, increases or decreases in populations, and where special studies need to be done or to add protection for a species. My strategy is to look for anything but concentrate on the bird species seen only in one season of the year.

Over the past few weeks, I found some nice birds expected in winter like redpolls, rough-legged hawk, , horned larks, snow buntings, Merlin hawk, and a pair of young snow geese in the company of several thousand Canada geese on a cornfield. A fellow birder emailed me to see if I had any idea why these snow geese were with the Canada geese. I jokingly wrote back the parents dumped them with friends and went south. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Getting a head start

GARDENING GURU JERRY BAKER said plants were like people, and I believe seeds are, too. Some seeds grow easily under many conditions, like your friend who thrives no matter what life gives her. Similar to your black sheep cousin arriving on your doorstep, some seeds germinate unexpectedly by the back steps, in the driveway gravel, or in the compost pile. Others are as fussy as your little sister, needing precise coddling to get moving.

This last group of seeds generally requires starting indoors well before planting out in the wide world. The tiny print on the seed packet gently suggesting “start indoors eight to ten weeks before planting out” is a warning to plan ahead. Other crops, such as tomatoes, germinate easily but take a good three months or more to fruit, so giving them a head start indoors assures production in the current calendar year. Read more…