THROUGH THE WOODS: Our Christmas wreath

THIS IS THE PROGRESSIVELY DARK and gloomy time of year of cold and shortening days. It is a time to welcome the holidays and many faiths traditions of light as part of the festivities; the torches, lamps, candles and bonfires, and now modern electric lights that help dispel the darkness. There are new lights for my house this year, something my spirit needs. It was in some ancient places an appeal to the sun to return for another year, and it did, as after the winter solstice the days lengthened again.

Many of the celebrations included gathering and decorating with the greens of winter, like mistletoe. which represent life in winter and the hope that spring will return. Our woods had pines, spruce and hemlock trees, and we could find some greens on the ground or under the snow.

My mother’s favorite, particularly for wreaths, was ground pine. On the higher, southeast corner of our woods was an area covered with it. Sometimes there was so much you could tangle your feet in it. It was an exciting and anticipated excursion to go gather it each year, and you had to be old enough to walk the well over half mile to get to it. I felt important to be included. I wore my buckle-up arctic boots, snowsuit, and red mittens with a matching knit hat. Mom picked as sunny a day as possible so that helped. Sometimes we rode to the woods in the horse drawn wagon with my father when he was cutting firewood in that area. These were the pleasant trips with little snow on the ground. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Trying out the trends

I GENERALLY TRY TO BE THE PERSON my dog thinks I am, but today I have to disappoint my canine Magnus and write about cats. Felines, it happens, are the reason for one of the latest gardening trends, the “catio.” Being more of a troglodyte than a trendsetter, I had to look this up, and found that a catio is an enclosed, outdoor room for cats. While we are currently cat-less, I had to learn more.

Catios, it turns out, are available as building plans and kits, and are featured on numerous websites and blogs. They can be small and windowbox-like, with the cats having access via a window, or much larger and taller, with one or more room-like spaces allowing full access for humans. Construction is generally wood framing with wire mesh walls and at least a partial roof to keep out the worst weather. Accessorizing, as usual, is a big part of the fun, and platforms, runways, sacrificial plants, and various toys can be added. Cat parents report that their charges love basking in the sunshine, smelling the alluring breezes and watching wildlife, all from a safe vantage point. Cranky kitties become more mellow and even happy cats think having a little outdoor time is purrfect. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Giving thanks

Tom Turkey. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IN THIS CRAZY YEAR of the Covid-19 pandemic with separation and restrictions from family and friends it is nice to look back to remembered happy 1950s Thanksgivings. Thanksgiving and Christmas were our two days of the year when we all got together and shared a special meal. Everything was timed around the 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. milking of our cows and related chores. The gigantic pale turkey was put in the roaster pan and stuffed with homemade stuffing. Made of celery and onion sautéed in butter, crumbled, and moistened good white bread (crusts too), Bell’s Poultry Seasoning, some salt and pepper and stuffed into the bird. Nothing tastes better and we didn’t get sick from salmonella or any other disease.

They were local free-range birds, and we didn’t know there was anything else. The big bird had to be started early in the day and cooked for many hours until it was a luscious crispy skinned brown. The internal juices had been absorbed by the stuffing and the rest of the drippings were in the pan for gravy, and we always used the diced giblets. No one complained about this until later years when one new person in the family complained. Too bad, they could pick out the giblet pieces, majority ruled. We had the luxury of both whole cranberry sauce and canned jellied. One of my jobs was sorting the fresh cranberries removing any leaves, stems or bad berries. Everyone had something to do. Brothers, sisters, couples, aunts, grandmothers, and kids contributed in some way. It could be mayhem, but somehow it was all coordinated.

I got the cut glass dishes out and put out green stuffed and black olives, washed celery sticks for the long celery dish, homemade pickles, and dishes of mixed nuts. Sugar bowls and creamers were filled, and we found the extra salt and pepper shakers. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Woolly bear caterpillars forecast winter weather?

Woolly bear caterpillar. Photo contributed

OUR TEMPERATURES ARE BEGINNING TO COOL OFF, and our little woolly bear caterpillars are starting their march across driveways, sidewalks and highways. They are off in search of a suitable crack or crevice to spend the winter months until warm weather allows them to complete their life cycle and reproduce. Their scientific name is Pyrrharctia isabella, also known as the Isabella tiger moth. In spring when the temperature gets to 40-50 degrees F, the caterpillar wakes up and spins a cocoon incorporating some of its own stiff hairs in the matrix. When the adult emerges in 2-3 weeks, it is a yellow/orange moth with a wingspan of about 2” and only lives 1-2 weeks.

In June, the moth finds a mate, lays eggs and dies soon after. The eggs hatch in 10-12 days to go into the larval stage. It is a small caterpillar at first and can hold on to a wisp of cocoon silk that it uses as a balloon for travel. It eats a variety of vegetation like clover, dandelions, maple leaves and grass, then goes through molts and increases in size to the 2” caterpillar we see in fall. It has 13 segments with the end segments usually black, and the center one a reddish brown.

When I was a little girl, I found a woolly bear, and my parents told me to be careful or it might bite. I was curious so picked it up anyway and found that unlike some other caterpillars, this kind did not bite. I was lucky. It did feel weird though, because of the stiff bristly hairs that touched the palm of my hand when it curled up in a tight ball and played dead. I carefully put it down and watched it slowly uncurl and go on its way. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A rare Western visitor

Sage thrasher. Photo courtesy of Larry Federman

THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCITING WEEK for birdwatchers in Columbia County. Birders from all over New York state and beyond flocked to the Columbia Land Conservancy Ooms Conservation Area in Chatham. A sage thrasher normally found in Western states such as Arizona was found on Wednesday, November 4, 2020 and photographed by Barbara Sylvester, who sent the photo on to expert birders to confirm its identification. Birders are well connected through various online birding organizations and word went out with the speed of the internet and some of the first bird experts from the Albany area began arriving.

The sage thrasher looks like a yellow-eyed cross between a Northern mockingbird and a brown thrasher. This one is a real ham and throws in a disappearing act periodically to keep observers on their toes. Its favorite spot is a group of shrubs and bushes at the eastern pond edge not far from the highway. A buckthorn loaded with fruit is a feast for the bird which is supplemented with short flights out to the field to forage for insects in the grass. Good birders are patient and quietly waited for the thrasher to satisfy its needs and photographers clicked away from various vantage points obtaining many good shots.

This bird species was first found by me during a trip to Arizona way back in the 1970s. Currently the most excitement has been watching the birdwatchers. The parking spots at Ooms have been packed with vehicles from dawn to sunset each day. Cars pull out and others pull in. Trunks are popped open and backpacks, binoculars, and cameras are carried to the site. Some use tripods. Cell phones are pulled out to look at references and file reports. Varieties of thousands of dollars of equipment are a treat to view and often a cause of great envy.

There have been young to old, amateurs to professionals and the usual hikers and dog walkers stroll through, giving curious stares or stop to inquire about what is happening. Sometimes the scene has choreographed movement. The birders are spread out to cover more vantage points. When the bird is spotted everyone carefully moves to a discreet distance and binoculars are picked up and long camera lenses point to the bird. Most are frozen in place until the bird moves again. Yesterday toward sunset a carload of photographers with an out of state license were less careful than some. Possibly from desperation at the fading light, they were more aggressive in their search. One man sat in the bushes and chain-smoked cigarettes at the damp pond’s edge near the buckthorn. It was comical when a chickadee flew in and perched above his head. He was unaware and I chuckled. Too bad it hadn’t been the thrasher.

Larry Federman of Palenville related his experience: “My wife Joyce and I arrived at Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland Pond around 2:40 p.m. to try to see the errant sage thrasher. There were a couple of other birders on the scene, but the thrasher hadn’t been located since earlier that day. We staked out the favored buckthorn bush and at around 3 p.m., Joyce took a little walk along the main path, to the east. Next thing I know, she’s waving her arms to get my attention! The thrasher was on the ground, foraging!”

The sage thrasher is in good shape, well fed, and we wish it a safe journey home.