THROUGH THE WOODS: The waning sunlight

Downy woodpecker on the empty suet feeder. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE NUMBER OF HOURS OF SUNLIGHT per day is decreasing this time of year in our Earth’s northern hemisphere. If the weather outdoors remains tolerable, I like to be out to see what is happening and get some of those remaining good rays. In summer it is nice to be out in the morning and now it is more pleasant after lunch when things have warmed up.

A cake of suet is hanging on the porch in a dollar store feeder as a test to see if the bear is finally hibernating. I could afford to have that feeder stolen but not my expensive squirrel-proof feeders. Nothing has happened to it for several weeks; when the cold finally comes, the switch can be made.

Today was gloomy and rainy, with a noon temperature of 41 F. The birds finished the seed and suet on the porch, so I went out to restock. With a warm jacket and a cup of hot coffee, it wasn’t bad by 3 p.m. The sun came out and I watched and listened. Deer hunter gunshots were heard coming from different distant locations. A flock of crows began mobbing something or someone. A raven joined in followed by blue jays. Gunshots draw these birds to where they anticipate a meal, or they come to warn everyone in the vicinity. The usually numerous deer at my place are in hiding. Read more…


An oyster in half its shell. Photo contributed

A FEW YEARS AGO, I read The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York by Mark Kurlansky and found it a wonderful book, easy to read, with so much history of our colonial beginnings in this state and information about one of my favorite foods. An older friend of mine who lived in Manhattan for years told me about one of their school trips to the American Museum of Natural History, where a giant model of an oyster (Crassostrea virginicas) and its detailed anatomy was on exhibit. She took one look at it and vowed never to eat one.

She probably blocked out the real importance of the exhibit. When Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for $24 in 1626, he showed his intelligence by also buying the oyster beds off nearby Oyster Island, later renamed Ellis Island in 1770. Oysters were cheap and abundant food found around areas of Long Island (such as Oyster Bay), Staten Island and up the Hudson River where they thrived in pristine, unpolluted waters.

The early settlers learned from the Native Americans like the Lenape to relish the oyster and archaeologists have found huge, ancient piles of oyster shells in excavations showing how important oysters were as a food source. Of course the Dutch, being good businessmen and traders, shipped them to Europe. I go back to these early Dutch; our family has always eaten oysters and included them in our Thanksgiving dinners. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: These dark cold days

BRRRRR, WE ARE HEADING into those ever-shortening hours of daylight, cold and the lingering adjustment to Eastern Standard Time. The marauding bears should be hibernating, and all the intelligent birds have gone south. And may we be spared further burdens of the elections.

This year was the worst I have experienced. My mailbox was filled with postcards and envelopes from parties I never heard of in addition to the ones I recognized. Our nice lady in the Post Office said she couldn’t wait until it ended because they were overwhelmed with mail-in ballots and all the handling of political ads. The number of robocalls reached a record, ringing at all hours of the day and into late evenings. My caller id was of little use because some were displayed as companies and places I recognized; one even said it was from CDPHP (Capital District Physicians Health Plan). How do they do this?

It is prudent to be wary of scammers taking advantage of us during these times. I know one person who stopped answering her phone and used only email for a while and asked friends and family to communicate by this method. It got to a point where I didn’t want to vote for any of these annoying people. The TV was flooded with millions upon millions of dollars of extremely poor candidate ads, some with outrageous and distorted statements. Politics has always been rough, contentious, and dirty and this year really topped it all. There are still requests begging for more donations. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The leaves are going, going…

Blue jay and oak leaves. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

NO FROST HERE YET. I go out each day and love my flowers because I know the harsh cold is coming. One obvious sign is the almost bare trees and the wind blowing, working on the last leaves holding tight. The sounds of rustling leaves are all around and combine with the unique smells of fall of damp bark and varieties of deteriorating vegetation.

The dry leaves are a curse for hunters, who cannot walk without alerting the blue jays that scream warnings to everyone. The oak trees may hold leaves until spring giving shelter to squirrels and birds. The gray squirrels are using the leaves to make and fortify their nests (called dreys) 20 feet or higher in the trees to keep them safe and warm. If you stand below the nest, it is a wonder of engineering as to how the leaves stay in place.

These nests are larger than bird nests and look like a huge mess of leaves and sticks resting in the crotch of a tree. Both male and female gray squirrels start repairing a nest in the fall or making a new nest in January at the start of their mating season. These nests are sometimes abandoned for new ones in winter. During the winter several squirrels often share a nest for warmth and have several dreys situated away from the primary nest to give shelter while foraging for food or for safety when threatened. Gray squirrels do not hibernate and stay active all year, especially loving our birdfeeders.

The nests are constructed of various materials such as moss, leaves and twigs. First, a platform is made, then an outer shell of tightly packed material is added to keep out the weather which looks like a big ball of leaves. Wet leaves are worked in to help stick it together. The diameter of the cavity is usually less than a foot wide and is lined with shredded bark, dry grasses and leaves. Squirrels may also incorporate man-made items like cardboard when available. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Cornell FeederWatch Program tracks backyard birds

A dark-eyed junco on snow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE CORNELL LABORATORY OF ORNITHOLOGY’s Project Feederwatch bird survey program began this week on November 1, 2022, and continues through April 29, 2023. In my yard, the approach of colder weather was confirmed by the arrival of small flocks of dark-eyed Juncos (slate-colored). I admire these little birds in their tuxedo-like feathers, but their first sightings always make me shiver. Cold weather is coming. I have scattered cracked corn and seed on the ground for them and they are gobbling it up, exhibiting their hunger after their travel down from Canada and parts of the Adirondacks where they nested during the summer.

The bears may not be in hibernation yet, so some old feeders will be put up for a while to see what happens. It is good to take feeders in before dark and put them back out at breakfast time. I am a proud supporter of Cornell’s research on birds and this will be my 20th year participating in this Citizen Science experience. The FeederWatch Program requires a 6-month commitment, but if you will be unable to do it for the whole winter this is okay. You only have to count birds on two days a week for a few hours, which makes it easy. Any data that can be collected is very important. The Cornell Lab says in its press release, “One backyard at a time, participants in Project FeederWatch are doing their part to unravel nature’s mysteries—simply by sharing information about the birds that visit their feeders.”

New participants can join at any time. People of all ages and skill levels can be FeederWatchers and do their part to help researchers better understand trends in bird populations. Participants count the numbers and different species of birds at a specific time, once a week at their feeders, and enter the information on the FeederWatch website at Read more…