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…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Redpolls

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…