Redpoll. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE BIRDERS OF THE AREA were on alert this fall for the anticipated northern finch species irruption caused by low food supplies in Canada, and they were not disappointed. During the past week I was checking out the Kinderhook farm fields and a small swirling flock of about 15 common redpolls flew ahead of me from the side of the road and up into the tops of some birch trees.

This was exciting! I hadn’t seen a flock like this in years! They flew down to feed on roadside weed seeds and exuberantly chattered and rattled with a call reminiscent of some of the many American goldfinch vocalizations, expressing their obvious pleasure at finding this bountiful location. They were ravenous and worked hard extracting seeds from the dried weeds. I am not sure what was on the ground, but they alternated between feeding there and then back up into the birches. Possibilities included grass seeds, seed shaken from the birch catkins, or road grit to replenish their crops.

A crop acts like teeth for birds, and the muscular gizzard surrounding the crop sack squeezes to grind and break down the seed/grit mixture so more of the vital nutrients can be absorbed. The grit passes through the intestine and out so it must be periodically replaced. An interesting feature of redpolls is their ability to store seeds in diverticula, their laterally expandable sections of esophagus. In winter, seeds can be gathered quickly out in the open, and stored in the diverticula. Later, in the dense cover of spruce or other conifers, they can regurgitate, husk and swallow the seeds, saving significant energy at times of intense cold. Fortunately, there was a stand of spruce near the southern end of the adjacent field and I assumed they would shelter there. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Launching potential

Vegetable seeds were donated to master gardeners associated with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County. Photo by Eileen DePaula

A NEW YEAR AND A PACKET OF SEEDS: both are full of promise. This is what I think as I navigate around the four huge boxes of unsold seeds a large retailer gifted our Master Gardener group and which now sit in my office. Seeds of vegetables from A to Z and flowers of every color give a gardener the starry eyes of a Christmas morning kid with ribbons to untie and boxes to unwrap. And just about anyone can share in the magic of seeds. Author Sue Stuart-Smith writes, “Gardening is more accessible than other creative endeavors, such as painting and music, because you are halfway there before you start; the seed has all its potential within it—the gardener simply helps unlock it.”

Some of these donated seeds are easy to grow, while others demand more coaxing. Seed packet verbiage gives clues how to begin. Something like “sow after all danger of frost has passed” means being patient until a dry, warm day in May, then heading outdoors with a shovel. Instructions will hopefully also reveal how deep to plant the seed and how far apart from its neighbor it should go. If planting in a row, some gardeners use two stakes and string to make a straight trench. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Happy New Year 2021

“Ring out, wild bells”

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light;

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow…

TENNYSON GOT THIS RIGHT. 2021 must be a better year with new vaccines and Covid-19 treatments, and our lives improved. Let’s get back to more normal lives again. One thing I have vowed to do is to stop watching the news and to skip all the negative thoughts and events that go with it.

Follow the birds to connect to nature. I am going to be an ostrich this year to improve my life. It would be figuratively burying my head in the sand, something that ostriches actually don’t do. It may be this myth came from this bird’s habit when frightened to lie down and stretch its head and long neck out flat on the ground. From a distance the body resembles a bush and helps camouflage it. I wish I could do this and then be sure I could stand up again.

I am laughing, which is a good thing. This winter my time will be spent taking a Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology online course on “Bird Biology,” which includes a large textbook. It is a daunting task but will improve my skills as a bird watcher. Along with this I am reading about one of my favorite and most intelligent birds, the common raven. They occasionally come to my woods and field and do aerial acrobatics, play and chase each other. These are most likely pairs bonding for the coming nesting season. A local nest site to watch is located at the large Shaker Barn at the Darrow School in New Lebanon. It is an amazing, huge pile of sticks which has been rebuilt each year since the 1980s. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A tough year ends

WHAT A YEAR of fear and turmoil 2020 has been. It started like any normal year, then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived. I admit I have been frighted because I and family members are in the most vulnerable categories of age and sometimes combined with medical issues. It has been a year of isolation for many of us. One family member, an in-law, was isolated in a nursing home. No one could see him except to stand outside and wave at his window. He became ill with Covid-19, went to an Albany hospital in isolation. He recovered, went back to a nursing home and eventually died. Only his wife and two sons could attend a burial without a funeral. We hope that at some point we can have a proper religious service to honor him.

Schoolmates, neighbors, and friends have died. So many thousands of people have gone through similar situations. We have been a nation of fear, loss of livelihoods, anger and grieving. Woven through this were elections and political turmoil. It is a wonder we have managed to stay as sane as we are. I have had lots of time to think about this and religion, connections to friends and family have helped. I spend a good portion of the day in Zoom meetings, watching live streamed Church services, and talking on the phone. In nice weather I occasionally saw family members and friends at a distance outdoors. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Spice up Christmas

MY FIRST SPICY CHRISTMAS MEMORY was of sticking cloves in an orange in Sunday school. While I’ve never discovered the significance of that Advent exercise, I do know peppermint candy canes, scented candles and especially the office party punchbowl add zest to the holidays. Our recent batch of spice cookies, featuring cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, was rather lost on me due to my middle-age allergies, but I still find fascinating all the scents and seasonings the plant world provides.

Pumpkin pie, that most Yankee of desserts, would be rather bland without a West Indies native called Pimenta dioica. Just who discovered that the fruits of this tree could be ground and eaten is lost to history, but the English thought the powder tasted like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and nutmeg and called it allspice. Once traders got their mitts on allspice, it traveled the world over and become a staple flavor in dozens of far-flung cultures. Caribbean cuisine adds it to jerk seasoning, mole sauces and pickling. In the Middle East, it is often found in stews and meat dishes, while in Germany commercial sausage-makers rely on it. The British like it in desserts, while Ohioans claim their Cincinnati chili just isn’t right without it. Interestingly, allspice can also be used as a deodorant: could that be the inspiration behind the Old Spice I used to give my dad? Read more…