THROUGH THE WOODS: Condo for birds

Downy woodpecker. Photo by Nancy Ker

ON THE WEST SIDE of my long driveway was what I called the bird condo. It was an old tree, mostly rotten with no top or branches, and stood as a natural totem. It was a sculpture made by wind and rain and mostly by the birds who chiseled out many holes from top to bottom. Several friends and family members remarked on it, mostly with offers to take it down. They considered it an eyesore, some worried that it would fall on someone.

It was actually out of the way from doing much harm. There are a few who understand that it is nice to just leave things alone sometimes and watch. The holes varied in size and shape and told which birds probably made them and why. Tiny, older holes about a ¼” in diameter were made by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. These robin-size birds make a series of holes just deep enough to let the sap flow out. They return later to sip the rich fluids and to keep the holes open. One wonders if they are the birds the Native Americans watched and learned how to collect maple sap for its sweet sugar.

Other birds may drink the sap too, and eat the insects drawn to the sugar. Our smallest woodpecker is the downy, who looks very much like its larger cousin, the hairy woodpecker but has a series of black dots in the white feathers at the edges of the tail. To keep them straight, remember the downy has dots.

Our largest woodpecker is the pileated, the one that is crow-sized and has the beautiful red crest, like the cartoon “Woody” Woodpecker. They make large oblong holes, not round ones like the others. They are so good at chiseling wood that they may completely gut a large tree to get the insect larva inside. People get upset if these birds attack a yard tree, but it shows that the tree is unhealthy, probably dying, and full of insects. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Dry out and toughen up

Leatherleaf viburnum foliage curls to conserve water in January. Photo by David Chinery

BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE! While we huddle up to the fireplace or pay the oil delivery man for our comfort, trees and shrubs just stand out there and grin. How do water-filled woody plants survive freezing, especially when temperatures fall below zero? Let’s de-mystify this rather complex process.

The cold hardiness of the plant depends upon not just how cold the air turns, but also on rainfall, light intensity, day length, soil fertility, previous high temperatures, and the consistency of temperatures. The shrinking light and dropping temperatures which accompany autumn are the most crucial of these influences which naturally trigger plants to develop cold tolerance. The longer a plant is exposed to these changes, the hardier it gets. Scientists call this “acclimation,” while gardeners know it as “hardening off.” If frigid temperatures occur before proper acclimation, plant damage may result. For example, August’s lush English ivy plant may die if exposed to 25 degrees F, while it may withstand minus 30 degrees F in January after being properly hardened off. Similarly, a winter warm spell might cause a plant to de-acclimate and later suffer if a cold snap follows—just another factor to keep us horticulturists awake at night.

Genetics also play a part. A red maple (Acer rubrum) native to Georgia will be less cold tolerant than the same species from New England, even if hardened off in the same way. That is why we often proclaim it is better to buy young woody plants from northern nurseries rather than from warmer climes. But of course every species, even when properly acclimated and of the hardiest known stock, has its rock bottom temperature it can tolerate. Witness the crepe myrtles in Charleston, SC, but not Castleton-on-Hudson, NY. Read more…


I WENT OUT to fill bird feeders and enjoy our first real snow and cold of the season. It was a time to vacillate in thought between the beauty and the work aspects of winter, and how much fun winter was when we were young. My first memories of winter were being stuffed into one of those warm but restrictive snowsuits, scratchy real wool mittens, scarves, and hats. Then wool socks and little rubber boots to finish it off. My mother was agile and happy to join in back then and she taught us to make snow angels. I think we covered the whole farm in angels, at least as far as we could get, and only had to be pulled out of the deeper snow a few times.

That was a little scary, especially to be flat on your back swooshing your arms, and not be able to turn over or to have snow cover your face. We always got rescued and sometimes the snow stuck to our eyelashes for a while. When we came inside we had the reddest little cheeks and it felt so good to get next to the intense heat of the living room wood stove. Wet boots went beside it and mittens often went on top of the stove grate. There was the smell of warm wet wool and soon the sizzle of the water as it dripped down and vaporized.

My father made us a great toy by putting a long wooden box on his old Flexible Flyer sled so we could sit in it and not fall off while someone took the sled rope and dragged us along behind. My mother did this for short trips, but it was really fun when her best friend “Aunt” Jane came up from Sharon, CT, and took us out. She loved it at our house, “at the farm,” and also loved to walk. I was the oldest and sometimes she would add my sister Dona to the sled too. We often went out on the snow-packed road across where the Taconic Parkway now goes through. It was so clear and quiet back then except for the squeak and crunch of the snow, a crow overhead, or rarely a train whistle from the old Harlem Rail Line coming out of Chatham about six miles away. A car traveling down our road was a rarity in any season so we didn’t have to worry about traffic. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The black vulture

Black vulture and squirrel. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THERE HAVE BEEN some recent local discussions about large, black vultures with black, featherless heads which have been seen around Columbia County. Our usual vulture is the turkey vulture, which has scavenged our area since I was a child on our farms in the Town of Austerlitz in the 1950s. It has a reddish featherless head. We had to control animals like woodchucks, and as soon as one was killed in a field there would be at least one turkey vulture flying down to feed.

Vultures have an incredibly keen sense of smell and soar high over vast areas until they pick up the smell of death, garbage and food. One summer my father was grilling hamburgers in the yard for a family barbecue when we suddenly had eight turkey vultures circling just above our heads and over the lawn. We joked about which one of us they were checking out. They had picked up the smell of meat.

Our other vulture is the black vulture. There are dozens of black vultures frequenting areas in Greenport by the fast-food places, the County Transfer Station, and the nearby Cedar Park Cemetery, where they find roosts in large evergreens. I first encountered black vultures in the 1970s at central Florida cattle ranches where they were feeding on dead calves. They started showing up in NY about 30 years ago and now are quite common. The theory for their expansion north is our warmer winters and an abundance of food such as roadkill. Sometimes I see mixed flocks of both species of vultures circling in groups called “kettles.” Read more…


IT IS THAT TIME OF YEAR to stop and take stock of ourselves and launch into a brand new year. It is a blank canvas, clean slate, or fresh start, however you want to express it, and it is time to make things better for ourselves and those around us. New Year’s resolutions are fun to make (especially after a few glasses of champagne on New Year’s Eve) and they make us feel good. We are really going to do such and such this year.

About half of Americans make these resolutions though most of them are abandoned by February. The top New Year’s resolutions include: spending more time with family, falling in love, helping others, quitting smoking, learning something new, staying fit and healthy, enjoying life to the fullest, spending less and saving more, getting organized, and losing weight. I admit that in one year or another I have committed to them all. Spending time with my family has always been a priority so that has pretty much been accomplished. From childhood to adulthood I have looked after grandparents, parents, siblings and the next few generations. Fortunately, I like my family and enjoy time with them. I feel very sad for those without family and am very thankful to have this blessing.

Falling in love used to be a lot easier in youth. I am not sure if aging jades you or maybe you lose interest at some point. Then, just how do you define love anyway? There are so many degrees and variations of it. Definitely one of life’s big mysteries. Read more…