THROUGH THE WOODS: Our friends are returning

SPRING MIGRANTS CONTINUE TO POUR INTO OUR AREA and the air is filled with the happy sounds of birds singing everywhere. Some of our winter yard birds like the little dark-eyed juncos gathered into flocks of 20-30 birds and have left. My most loved arrival here is a field sparrow with a partially white head (leucistic), which was here last year!

Black bears have been around our area already so be prepared to have your bird feeders raided. A few years ago some expensive feeders were bitten in half so this year they were taken in early. I put loose corn, cracked corn, and sunflower seed on the lawn. Bears can eat from this without damaging anything. Since the birdseed attracts the bears to a yard there could be a danger to us, so be vigilant when you go outside. If you see a bear it is best to stay inside and not go out to take pictures or try to scare it away.

Most of the waterfowl have moved up the Hudson River and gone north. Huge flocks of hundreds of swallows were observed flying up the Hudson River by friends. They were rapidly catching insects and swirling around and back and forth. The majority were tree swallows but there were probably some others. It is a dizzying task to look through binoculars and find one barn swallow. Today there was a tree swallow flying back of the house. Also present was a turkey vulture checking out some old meat put out for them. It was wary and as it ate, the American Crows flew in to harass it. After all, it is their field. There are many internet listserves available for birders to join. Members post recent bird species sightings so other birders know which ones are coming to an area. I get alerts from New York City, Kingston, Albany, and north up to Canada. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Daffodils and butterflies


I WANDER’D lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

—William Wordsworth 1804

WHAT BEAUTIFUL IMAGERY for a beautiful flower. It also fits the floating dancing flight of a butterfly, and this past week I enjoyed both. The first butterfly out near the house, as usual, was the brown, buff-edged, 3” mourning cloak butterfly. If it alights for closer inspection, the row of iridescent blue dots just inside the buff edge can be seen, and the wings are actually a rich, very dark red velvet color. Only four legs are visible, but like all insects, there are actually six, with the front two legs near the head and very short and hairy. This puts them in the category of brush foot butterflies. I always feel so excited to see them and think, right or wrong, that finally, winter has gone.

The reason this butterfly can emerge and fly so early is that it hibernates through the winter as an adult. It can survive very harsh, cold winter weather, and actually requires a cold stage. They are found throughout much of North America and Eurasia, Siberia and Japan, but it does not survive in mild, damp climates such as in Great Britain.

Specimens found there are migrants and called the Camberwell beauty for the area they were first discovered near London in the 1700’s. The name mourning cloak is a literal translation for this article of clothing and comes from Scandinavian (“sorgmantel”) and German (“Trauermantel”). It is thought that these early settlers gave us this name. The official, scientific name is Nymphalis antiopa. Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he pined away and the gods turned him into a flower. People sometimes refer to certain types of daffodils as narcissus, but in general, growers refer to all types as daffodils. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Our other crow

The fish crow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

MOST PEOPLE DO NOT REALIZE we have two species of crows in our county. Our most common and usual crow is our American crow at 19” long, and our least common and smaller species is the fish crow at 15” long. The fish crow has been a southern bird until about the last 30 years, when they worked their way up the coast and up the Hudson River. I regularly find them at Clermont State Park, Hudson, Troy and Saratoga Springs. They are a scavenger species that feed on shoreline debris, berries, eggs, other bird’s nestlings, carrion, grain, basically anything.

They have very ably adapted to finding food in our civilization. If you shop in Greenport along Rte. 9 the fish Crows hang out with the gulls (larger) on trees, poles and rooftops and wait for whatever looks edible. They love open dumpsters and watch for generous patrons at fast food places to throw some french fries their way. Sometimes they deftly steal food from the gulls.

Fish crows are small, all-black crows, but the two crow species can overlap in size so the only reliable way to tell them apart is by their calls. The American crow says, “caw, caw,” and the fish crow has a higher-pitched hoarse call that sounds like, “cah” or “cah-ah.” The actual call can be found online and is easier to learn by hearing it rather than by trying to describe it. Anyway, if you are out in one of the shopping center parking lots and hear a funny-sounding hoarse crow it is most likely a fish crow. If you share some food they will be ever grateful friends. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Some facts about wild turkeys

Hungry hen turkey. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

SPRING IS IN THE AIR and wild turkeys are really getting into the annual mating season. I have handsome toms looking like puffed-up ads for Thanksgiving, and demure females distant from them. There is a myth that Benjamin Franklin proposed our wild turkey as our national symbol. Eagles had bad behaviors of thievery while the turkeys were very congenial so Benjamin Franklin defended the honor of the turkey. I feel sorry for turkeys being pejorative. People say that something disappointing was a “real turkey.”

The name turkey has murky origins. In King Henry VIII’s time, turkeycock referred to exotic fowl such as peacocks, possibly because the country of Turkey had exotic exports. The wild turkey is the only Western Hemisphere bird to receive worldwide importance through domestication. As North American natives, our wild turkeys were shipped live to England, and we adopted their name turkey. Native Americans had many names for the turkey. The Blackfoot term omahksipi’kssii, literally means “big bird.”

Wild turkey feathers have been used in the traditional dress of many tribes, particularly the feathered cloaks of eastern Woodland Indians like the Wampanoag and the feather headdresses of southern tribes like the Tuscarora and Catawba. The Turkey Dance is one of the most important social dances of the Caddo tribe, associated with songs about war honors and tribal pride. Some other eastern tribes, such as the Lenape, Shawnee, and Seminoles, have turkey dances as well. You can understand this when the tom turkey dances around to impress hens with lots of footwork and a colorful presence. The book Birds of Algonquin Legend by Robert E. Nichols Jr. is an interesting book I want to read. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Those blasted squirrels!

YEARS AGO we were hard at work in our labs in Schenectady when all the generators kicked in and we knew there was a power outage. This went on for hours until we had word that a gray squirrel was “fried” in our nearby power station, knocking out power for thousands of customers at a cost of untold thousands of dollars. No one had a word of sympathy for the poor squirrel, which had probably been doing just what squirrels do, scampering along wires and looking for food and shelter in man’s domain.

On our farm, our Sheltie dog had an ongoing war to keep them off the porch. We could hear her frenzied “squirrel bark” and would see her in hot pursuit of the blurred gray fur she never caught. Talk about frustration.

Our frustration was how they managed to eat so much birdseed. The sunflower seed was kept in a wooden barrel with a tight lid. One day we moved it out from the porch wall and discovered a neat and quite large hole near the bottom that had been gnawed through to gain access to the seed. We perfected some good squirrel curses @#$%!! Read more…