In my post of July 2018, I wrote about a Robin building a nest on the second floor window sill of the house and I watched what happened in the following three weeks. First the female was sitting on the nest , leaving only to get some food. Then we had three fledglings, begging for their food constantly. Although I watched for hours, I missed when the new brood left the nest, but nevertheless it was quite educational.
This year a new tenant has arrived. This time it was on the outside porch. We noticed some debris on the porch floor. It was a combination of mud and moss. When we looked up we could see that the nest builder was using a small outcrop of one of the pillars holding the roof. After many attempts the nest grew into an open cup, and leaves and grass were used for the side walls. After the nest was completed, I saw only the head of the architect protruding above the rim and determined that it was a Phoebe. They have a round head and a straight beek.
The male Phoebe was defending the nesting territory by singing, especially in the morning. After almost three weeks, we could see three heads popping over the rim of the nest and both parents were busy feeding the young. Each time when we entered the outside porch, the male started to sing warning the young to be quiet and us to stay away.
In the meantime they had grown so much that they did not fit in the nest anymore. One was usually sitting on top of the other two. And then the day arrived when the biggest of the three left the nest and the other two followed two or three days later.
We learned that Phoebes may have two broods per year and they may come back for another set of off springs. Their nest is therefore still on the pillar, but they have not come back yet.
Phoebes catch insects, mostly in mid-air, some are taken from foliage or from the ground. They also eat berries.
A couple of days later we found a nest on the ground in front of the barn. Although it is also built of mud and dried grass, it is much bigger and sturdier than a Phoebe's nest. It has to be. It was the nest of a barn swallow and it has to hold up to seven eggs. Usually the barn swallow will build the nest under the eaves of a barn; both, the male and the female are building the nest together. The male also participates in the incubation of the up to seven eggs and feeding the young. One or two additional birds, the pair's off springs from previous broods, may attend the nest. The young leave the nest in about three weeks after hatching. Barn swallows, too, may have another brood in a year.
Barn swallows feed on a wide variety of flying insects, beetles, wasps, winged ants and moths. They even catch spiders and snails. We enjoy watching them wheel in tight quick loops over the surface of our pond in the evenings, as they catch insects on the wing.
And then we found a third nest, which we cannot identify. It is small and unfinished. It might have been of a hummingbird, because it is so tiny, but we don't really know. Hummingbirds nests are partially identified by their diminutive size, but also by their finished appearance, often constructed of mosses and even spider webs. Unfortunately, this nest which had fallen from one of our spruce trees, had only been partially constructed before it fell.
We had another "tenant", but could not find his nest or should I say nests. Every morning he sang in front of the bathroom window for an hour. It is the house wren. The wren does not participate in nest building or feeding the young ones, but he serenades the female with his songs. After an hour the wren moved to the other side of the house and began singing there for an hour. I would not be surprised if he had two more stops to make, because wrens have more than one female and they are singing for all of them. The female builds the nest in odd places. Some time ago we found a nest behind the trim of a window frame.
It is quite interesting to study nests. Each bird has a different strategy to give their young a good start in life. At one point, you will be able to identify a bird in you back yard by looking at their nest. I am always delighted if I can match the nest to a bird which eventually I will see.
When I got the television weather forecast the other day, the weatherman said that ‘now that summer is here, we could expect warmer weather and more sunshine’. Yes, we had very cool weather this spring and more rain than I can remember. Officially though, summer had not arrived yet. So why did the weatherman say that? It certainly didn’t feel like summer?
So when do we say summer is here? Mostly we do it with calendars that we make up to record time. The rotation of the Earth around the sun has been the basis for the astronomical calendar. We have two solstices and two equinoxes. Those natural phenomena have been the basis of the astronomical seasons for thousands of years. The tilt of the Earth and the alignment of the sun over the equator tell us when the solstices and equinoxes are. The equinoxes mark the time when the sun passes directly over the equator. That means that in the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice falls around June 21. The winter solstice is taking place around December 22. The spring equinox is on or around March 21 and the autumn equinox is on or around September 22. For the Southern Hemisphere the dates are the same, only the seasons are reversed.
Let’s have look how the astronomical calendar is for this year:
Spring 2021 Start (March Equinox) Start 20 5:37 am Duration 92 days, 17 hrs, 54 mins
Summer 2021 Start (June Solstice) Jun 20 11:32 pm Duration 93 days, 15 hrs, 49 mins
Winter 2021-2022 Start (December Solstice) Dec 2110:59 am Duration 88 days, 23 hrs, 34 mins
You can see from the above that the durations of each season are different. As Earth actually needs 365.24 days to travel around the sun, an extra day has to be added every fourth year, which we do in February - the so-called leap year. As Earth’s orbit around the sun is more oval than round, the length of the seasons vary and could be between 89 and 93 days! This variation makes it of course difficult for scientists who compare seasons and climate change. They were looking for a new method, which led to considering the meteorological calendar.
Despite the regularity of the earth’s rotation around the sun (we have yet to develop a good calendar to meter it over time without adjustments like adding a day every four years), in reality every country’s experience of a year varies with latitude and geography. We have to know when to plant, to harvest, to hunt migratory game, to prepare for floods and frosts. So whether an astronomical or a meteorological calendar would serve a people’s needs best is an open question.
So which calendar serves a nation best is fluid. Some use both, while others rely more on one than the other.
The meteorological calendar also has four seasons, each is three months long, and they are based on annual temperatures. The meteorological seasons begin on the first day of the months that include the equinoxes and solstices. In the Northern Hemisphere, for example:
spring runs from March 1 to May 31;
summer runs from June 1 to August 31;
fall (autumn) runs from September 1 to November 30; and
winter runs from December 1 to February 28
(It will be reversed for the southern hemisphere.)
Let’s start with winter. We consider December, January and February as the coldest months, i.e.- winter. So the meteorological winter is these calendar months. The warmest months are June, July and August, i.e.- summer. In the Northern Hemisphere, March, April and May transition to the warmer season, i.e.- spring. The fall starts with September and ends with November, again a transitional season. These meteorological seasons will be the beginnings and ends of these calendar months.
Meteorologists started such a calendar, which makes it easier to observe and predict any weather changes, because it is more accurate than the astronomical calendar as to predicting local weather. The length of the meteorological seasons is also more consistent, ranging from 90 days for winter of a non-leap year to 92 days for spring and summer. It has become easier to calculate seasonal statistics on a monthly basis, which are very useful for agriculture, commerce and a variety of other purposes.
Because of the geography of the earth (ocean currents like the Gulf Stream off the North American eastern seaboard- and many others, pump huge amounts of warmth around the globe, all weather is local. The orbit of the earth around the sun is less predictive of annual weather than a meteorological calendar might predict! So a different model (meteorological) might suit us better in our everyday weather needs.
Different countries adopt different methods. In Australia, spring begins on the meteorological 1st day of September (again it is in the southern hemisphere). In Ireland, February 1st begins spring on St Brigid’s Day. But in the Scandinavian countries this method does fall apart. Their marks are more tied to temperatures than calendar dates, as might be expected with their varied geography.
For millennia, our human activities- hunting, planting, tribal ceremonies, rituals of passage, etc., have been tied to the astronomical calendar. We’ve built monuments of stone like the Mayan temples and Stonehenge, to ensure that our cultures stay in sync with the weather that controls our food, by tracking the passage of the seasons by marking the equinoxes and solstices. Perhaps because- unlike our ancient cultures, we’ve been able to develop math and statistical methods that allow us to make better seasonal weather predictions based on meteorological seasons, it is time to use this new calendar more.
I am wondering which of the two will be used more in the future.
Last year in July, I wrote a post about “Two surprises in front of my nose” about an elderberry bush and a downy woodpecker visiting our hummingbird feeder, and enjoying the nectar that was prepared for hummingbirds. (www.countryforcity.com/blog.html).
We have been in the country for many years and have never seen this. Last year a downy woodpecker learned to use our hummingbird feeder and came back many times, and might have also brought it’s offspring. Who knows? We were puzzled by how it came to be that the woodpecker would learn to use its long tongue to get to the sugary mix, but then we saw that ants had managed to find the feeder and were entering the feeder holes and many of them were drowning in the base. It is possible that the woodpecker had followed the line of ants and discovered them trapped inside the base.
This year two male hummingbirds showed up in early May - like clockwork, and a week later two females arrived. I was waiting to see whether last year’s woodpecker would join them sooner or later. Indeed a downy woodpecker did show up- probably the same one as last year, and went right back to the feeder, which had not yet been found by ants. But I had other surprises waiting for me. First, shortly after the downy made his return visit, a Baltimore Oriole appeared and sat for a long time on the perch and then he went with his beak into the opening to drink, and I saw him swallowing. He went from hole to hole before he left. An hour later he returned, but not only by himself, he was joined by two more. The perch got really crowded. One of the male hummingbirds was a bit irritated and attempted to buzz bomb the assembling orioles on the feeder, but he remembered that we have another feeder on the other side of the house. So all was good.
After the Orioles we had another guest, a Flicker. For him the perch was a challenge as he was too large to balance upright on the base and he left after a few attempts. But he returned and managed to find a way to hang upside down on the base and crane his head and neck up into the feeder holes. And then something amazing happened which showed me that birds watch and learn from each other, even across species!
Within the day, we had Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, an Eastern Phoebe, assorted sparrows and finches, and other birds I did not identify, all making a try at getting to the nectar. The grosbeaks, of course, were not successful due to their big, thick beaks, but at least he did not want to miss an opportunity. Most of the other birds with short beaks and tongues gave up rather quickly. But the cross-species observations and learning was clearly apparent!
In the several decades of putting out hummingbird feeders here, we had never seen any other birds attempt to feed from them. We already knew that all the surrounding birds were watching and listening to each other. Each day, when I go out to fill the feeders, a rippling chorus of feeding calls- usually initiated by the chickadees, radiates out from the house from all the different species, announcing that dinner is being served. So it is obvious that they are not only listening to and understanding the meanings of other species' calls, but also that they are watching and learning from each others’ behaviors. This is now thought of amongst scientists as ‘culturally’ learned behavior, and has been observed all across the animal kingdom, from tool use in birds and chimpanzees, to diverse hunting strategies in killer whales (orcas).
In the meantime I have found out that hummingbirds are not the only ones that thrive on nectar. Many other birds have a sweet tooth and will happily visit nectar feeders. Nectar provides an exceptional energy source to fuel the bird’s active lifestyles. This is easy food, and many birds will sample nectar from an available feeder, even if they don’t typically rely on nectar for a large portion of their diet. A popular hummingbird feeder will catch the attention of other birds, and they may perch on the feeder or investigate feeding ports out of curiosity. Although we had never observed it, it is apparently quite common.
Insects that sip on the nectar may also attract birds that pluck morsels off the feeder, even though the birds are not interested in the nectar itself. It might be that they are after the ants that are trying to get into the feeder.
Here is a list of birds that are regularly seen at nectar feeders: Chickadees, Goldfinches, House Finches, Orioles, Warblers, Woodpeckers.
And here is another list of wildlife that may also be seen at nectar feeders: Bats, Bears, Butterflies, Insects, Lizards, Moths, Raccoons, Squirrels.
If you just want the hummingbirds and keep the other birds and stray critters away, just hang the feeder high and buy one without a perch. That keeps at least the big birds out.
There are feeders especially for bigger birds with wide perches. There is also a special nectar available for Orioles. The woodpeckers will of course be very happy with suet.
Can I make a ‘Flower Clock’? Can I use it to tell time?
I was reading recently about time and how we refer to it, measure it and use it in our daily lives. It was coming from a point of view that time is an artificial construct, and we create ways to use it more now in our daily lives - which are governed mostly by hourly events, than in the past, when life flowed more with the passage of the seasons. It argued that for most of history, our lives and societies were governed more by the ebb and flow of nature. We’ve lost the methods by which we used nature to meter and regulate our lives.
As far back as the Romans, we still had the need to try to refer to some point in a day for conducting commerce, society and even war. So we had the sundial to help us. Our star governed our lives. But there was the intriguing notion that we could somehow use the earthbound clockworks of nature - plants or animals, to even tell the time of a day, not just months or seasons. So it was wondered, can we tell the time of day by the blooming of our flowers?
Can you make a ‘Flower Clock’ that will tell you what time of day it is? (Don’t be confused by flower clocks you may see pictures of on Instagram for sale to hang on your wall. Those are dry flower arrangements that may not be of any help to you in your garden). If you are interested in creating your own garden which will tell you what time it is as you take a peaceful walk amongst the blooms, then you will have to research the flowers and the times they bloom for your specific area. Local conditions will dictate the hourly blossoms.
Carolus (Karl) Linnaeus, the famous Swedish geneticist - father of modern taxonomy, is widely credited as the originator of this idea.
Carl Linnaeus was born in the Swedish province of Smaland in 1707, well over 300 years ago. At this time, botany was an important part of medical training, as doctors had to be familiar with many types of plants and their medicinal effects in order to treat their patients. Plants had only a description in Latin at that time. He finished his medical degree in the Netherlands at the age of 30. Afterwards he enrolled at the University of Leiden and wrote his famous SYSTEMA NATUARE - a new way of classifying living organisms. Over the years he revised this classification system, which soon became a huge multi-volume work. So the Linnean Society of London was founded to pursue his scientific work.
Linnaeus had the idea to take advantage of the fact that plants open or close their flowers at particular times of the day to accurately indicate the time. According to his notes, he developed the floral clock garden in 1748 when he was teaching at the University in Uppsala.
He might not have been the first person though to observe that various plants open at specific times during a day. As early as Alexander the Great, one of his admirals - Androthenes, noted that the Tamarind tree leaves opened in the day and drooped closed at night. There were many more that observed that plants behaved differently over a daily (diurnal) cycle (e.g.- Pliny the Elder and Albertus Magnus). In fact most living things have built in circadian (around a day) rhythms that govern when we sleep, when we wake, when we eat, etc.
But in 1751, Linnaeus seems to be the first scientist to publish an observable table of specific plants that open and close during a 24 hour cycle - hence, a Flower Clock! There are major flaws with his clock of course. Located in Uppsala, Sweden, his observations of times and plants were totally dependent on his local conditions, i.e.- latitude (the further north you are located on the planet, the later flowers will bloom, also local weather conditions and seasonal variations apply). But his thorough list of 46 specific plants and their hours of bloom, sparked a sensation to replicate it all over the world. It is said that he never tried to plant such a garden himself, but there is a garden that has been planted by Uppsala students that can be seen today in his honor.
Trying to plant your own floral clock depends on so many variables. Of course, first is location, and then also elevation and climate. Accordingly, you have to test the plants when they open and close during the day. Plants have different survival strategies to open and attract special insects for pollination when it is advantageous for them. If you have five different plants, you might have five different opening and closing times. So before planting anything you have to bring along a lot of time and a lot of patience.
If successful you might look out the window, look at your flowers and know it is about 7.20 in the morning because only one flower is willing to welcome one particular insect.
Nevertheless, I found it a very interesting thought to tell time according to the hints nature is producing in front of you. The idea itself is inspirational. In fact, it inspired the french composer Jean René Désiré Françaix in 1959, to compose his L'horloge de flore (Flower Clock), for solo oboe and orchestra.
So if you feel confident in your gardening skills and want to take up the challenge of creating your own local Flower Clock, it might just add a new dimension to your day.
If you are lucky enough to be attempting to get your children interested in gardening, there is a nice video on YouTube posted by the Linnean Society explaining the concept (and difficulty) of telling time with plants, which your children would enjoy - and you might learn something about insects as well:
These days, when I make breakfast in the morning, looking through the window to the lawn in front of the house, I will get distracted by the ladybugs crawling on the window pane or sitting on the windowsill drinking in the warmth of the morning sunshine. The window’s southern exposure lets the sunshine in and it is giving me the kick to start my day, and that of the ladybugs.
For me seeing ladybugs means that I am expecting a couple of days of joyous circumstances. I have learned that as a little girl in Europe, and I am a firm believer of joyous days in the future. I also learned that you should never kill a ladybug. Who would, with a prediction like that? You will find ladybugs all over the world. They might look differently and have a different name, but they belong to the same beetle family.
They are considered useful insects because they prey on aphids or scale insects which are considered an agricultural pest. Usually you will find ladybugs in your garden near your tomatoes where they are very welcome. They snuged into our old farmhouse a long time ago and considered it their winter quarters.
They are fine with humans, not poisonous and they do not bite. During the night they disappear, but bounce back as soon as the sun hits the kitchen window.
As we all know, nothing is perfect. So ladybugs also have a not so favorable side. If you startle an adult ladybug, they will emit a foul-smelling liquid, which seeps from its leg joints and will leave a yellow stain on the surface. It is called “knee bleeding”. It might signal to a predator that it is dealing with a sick beetle and it should move on. Even larvae from ladybugs can produce a foul-smelling liquid. The liquid however is not poisonous and can be wiped up easily.
Cottony Cushion Scale
Ladybugs live for a year. Its life begins when a batch of bright-yellow eggs are laid near a food source, for example near aphids. In four to ten days they will hatch, and when the food source has been eaten up, they will begin to build a pupa. In a good week they emerge as an adult with the red dome-shaped red back with the black dots. Farmers love them because during its lifetime, it is said that they will consume 5,000 aphids apiece! Farmers use ladybugs to control other insects. The first time it was done was in 1880, when an Australian ladybug was imported into California to control the cottony cushion scale. It was a very expensive experiment, but in 1890 the orange crop in California tripled.
But not all experiments are successful. The Asian harlequin ladybug was introduced to the U.S. in 1980. It did depress the aphid population, but it also caused the declines in native species of ladybugs. And there is another problem with the harlequin ladybug. They love fruit, especially grapes. They get harvested with the grapes and if the winemakers are not careful, the nasty taste of “knee bleeding” will spoil the wine.
As soon as the temperature rises to 60 degrees or more outside, the ladybug will leave me and head into our garden and hopefully return at the beginning of the next winter.
If you enjoy having a vegetable garden every year but have a bad aphid or scale insect problem, then ladybugs can help - particularly if you are as fond of having several different varieties of tomatoes like we do. If you find that you lack sufficient numbers of them in your garden, or have a particularly bad aphid infestation, you can order live ladybugs online. They are delivered in a small box by the postal service. You can just release them into your garden and they will quickly solve the problem.
But don’t forget that you ordered them, as one of our new urban fugitive neighbors on the road did one year. He ordered several hundred ladybugs and then promptly forgot about them and left for Europe for a few weeks, after putting a hold on his mail. We don’t have home delivery of our mail in our rural area, so several hundred homes share one small post office with a bank of post office boxes. Well after a couple weeks, the now dead ladybugs began to cause quite the stink, in more than one sense of the word! Everyone was trying to find a dead rodent or something you would expect. But the non-descript little box in one P.O. box was overlooked for quite a while. So remember, they don’t ship with food!
A few days ago, I saw a small animal in the snow under our bird feeder. It was partially obscured in the depression of packed snow under the feeder, hidden behind the walls of the surrounding two feet of snow we’ve had in the last few weeks. It was much smaller than any of the visiting raccoons or neighboring cats that forage under the feeders, so it caught my attention. After a few minutes it showed itself and it was a small possum!
The Possum (or Opossum), America’s only marsupial, goes back 20 to 23 million years. It has a bad reputation. I guess his appearance has something to do with it. As they are usually nocturnal, you often see them in a beam of light. The shaky shadows of a hand held light probably make it look even more scary. It looks like a big rat, with beady eyes, a long prehensile naked tail and it seems to eat everything. When I saw my first possum I thought it was creepy. This was reinforced later with a close encounter.
I was at a friend's house chatting on her back deck, when we saw a possum climb up a tree where she had hung a suet feeder. Wanting to see if the old saying “playing possum” was a real thing, we ran up on it and it dropped to the ground, hissed at us and promptly dropped on its side and appeared to die immediately! It was really unsettling. Within moments, its lips curled all the way back exposing all its teeth, the gums and mouth turned an awful yellowish grey, the body became stiff as if rigor mortis had already set in, and it quickly started to emit a very foul odor. I’m not surprised that close encounters like this have put people off of possums.
But this is a very unfortunate and undeserved impression! Truth be told, they are actually very beneficial sanitary workers, keeping our surroundings healthy and safer for all of us! They should be welcomed in the neighborhood.
Compared to other wildlife, they are very helpful and play an essential role in the ecosystem. They consume a variety of foods like beetles, slugs and snails (your home gardens are thankful), but also rotting vegetation, which they prefer to fresh. They are cleaning up dropped fruits and vegetables in the garden.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of possums is their ability to control ticks, which might carry Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. The possum consumes - through careful grooming, 95 % of the ticks which ride on their bodies. It is estimated that it eats 5000 ticks a year.
And there are other items on its menu card, like mice, rats, and snakes (even poisonous ones). As they are scavengers they clean up carcasses, which can spread disease to you and your pets - not to mention foul smells.
They do not get rabies or botulism (early theories said that the foaming at the mouth was rabies, which proved to be untrue). They are immune to toxins in bee and scorpion stings.
As it does not dig deep holes, it is not injurious to your landscaping, but it might occupy burrows of other animals. If you leave cat food outside, it will eat it. It might be happy to move into your garage or outbuilding and feed on the contents of your garbage bags. But I’ve never met anyone who has adopted one as a pet or cohabitant. (Are you surprised?)
And what about the American expression “playing possum” (pretending to be dead)? It is one of their defense mechanisms: they are playing dead. Most hunting predators only eat what they kill when they can. They won’t touch a carcass in most circumstances. “Playing Dead” is actually an involuntary reaction - a lot like fainting, that causes the possum to seize up. When it is in this state, it will bare its teeth, have foam at the mouth and produce a foul smelling fluid from an anal gland to mimic sickness. It will remain like that for up to four hours. Predators will easily avoid such an animal.
Baby possums are called joeys, like baby kangaroos. They are not bigger than a honeybee when they are born. After birth they will crawl into the mother’s pouch and will stay there for two to three months. As they get older, they venture out of the pouch, but instead of wandering around they cling to the mother’s back as she scavenges. And they have prehensile tails like new world monkeys, anteaters and tree pangolins. They can curl and grip with their tails to help them climb and anchor themselves.
Possums are considered to be living fossils, as they go back 20 to 23 million years. Interestingly you will find them everywhere on the globe, even if they might look a little different, they belong to the same family - the order Didelphimorphia. They originated in South America and spread into North America when the two continents connected. Because of its varied diet, non-specialized biology and reproductive habits (it doesn’t need to nest or den for example), it has been able to colonize most of the world. Generalists always tend to survive better in varying environments.
Possums have survived the reach of time that included the Earth’s tectonic plates bringing together today’s North and South Americas, and then having time for them to spread around the world! It is truly amazing to be able to watch this living fossil.
So next time you see a ‘creepy’ possum, perhaps give it a nod of appreciation for keeping the neighborhood clean. It is just one of the army of sanitation workers (some species of mammals, birds, fish, insects and bacteria, etc.) that keep our world humming and clean. The possum should be a welcome visitor, but perhaps not a house guest.
2021 - A year full of hope! Let’s see whether Janus gives us some hints.
January was named for the Roman god Janus. He was the protector of gates and doorways, who symbolized beginnings and endings. When Janus is portrayed, he usually has two faces: one looking into the past and the other with the ability to see into the future.
Until 450 BC, January and February were not part of the Roman calendar. They were considered dormant in agriculture and also in terms of war. This was a time of peace. Due to the March Equinox, the Roman calendar began in March, and was named for “Mars”, the god of War, who was also an agricultural guardian.
Wassail Bowl Celebration
According to folklore, the weather of the first 12 days of the year is said to be indicative of the following 12 months.
January 5th - in English folk custom, marked the end of the Christmas period, and in ancient Celtic tradition, the end of the 12-day winter solstice celebration. On the Twelfth Night, it was customary for the assembled company to toast each other from the wassail bowl, a delicious hot cider drink toasting to health.
European Star Singers
On January 6th is Epiphany. According to the New Testament, the three kings brought gifts to the infant Jesus. Not only in Germany, but also in most of the other European States, so called Star Singers go door to door singing and asking for donations for poor children in their neighborhood.
There are other forgotten customs, like the one marking the day to go back to work. This one though has nothing to do with our current virus. The day after Epiphany (January 6) was once called Distaff Day and marked when the women went back spinning, after the 12-day Christmas celebration. A distaff is a wooden rod (staff) that holds flax or wool. Although not used so much anymore, distaff in English was also a word that referred to women related issues or topics. Before the Spinning Wheel arrived, spinning was slowly and tediously done on a Drop Spindle. As is often the case, it’s hard to go back to work after the holidays and not much gets done! The women’s husbands would mischievously try to set fire to the flax on their wives’ distaffs, while the women, lying in wait, would retaliate with humor by dousing them with buckets of water.
Plow (Plough) Monday marks the resumption of agricultural activities. Dating back to the fifteenth century, the first Monday after Epiphany (January 6) marked the start of the agricultural season, specifically for ploughing the fields for spring-sown crops. Of course, not much work was actually done on the first day! Dressed in clean white smocks decorated with ribbons, the men dragged a plow (plough) through the village and collected money for the “plow light” that was kept burning in the church all year. Often men from several farms joined together to pull the plow through all their villages. They sang and danced their way from village to village to the accompaniment of music. In the evening, each farmer provided a Plough Monday supper for his workers, with plentiful beef and ale for all.
In modern times, a folk revival has returned Plough Monday to some small communities. If you have a small farm, why not celebrate the start of spring sowing this way!
Of course all these customs are meant to coincide with the Perihelion- when Earth passes Its closest to the Sun. This year it occurred on January 2, 2021. At perihelion, the Earth will be 91,399,454 miles from our bright star.
January’s Moon is called the Wolf Moon. The Saxon word for the month is “Wulf-monath” or wolf month. This year, the full Moon is late in the month of January, reaching peak illumination at 2:18 P.M. EST on Thursday, January 28, 2021. It can be seen rising from the horizon around sunset that evening.
WHY IS IT CALLED THE FULL WOLF MOON? The full Moon names used by The Old Farmer’s Almanac come from a number of places, including Native American, Colonial American, and European sources. Traditionally, each full Moon name was applied to the entire lunar month in which it occurred, not just to the full Moon itself. It’s thought that January’s full Moon came to be known as the Wolf Moon because wolves were more often heard howling at this time. It was traditionally believed that wolves howled due to hunger during winter, but we know today that wolves howl for other reasons. Howling and other wolf vocalizations are generally used to define territory, locate pack members, reinforce social bonds, and coordinate hunting.
Some of the countless viruses
In this crazy year of complete social disruptions due to pandemic lockdowns and governmental restrictions, it is somewhat comforting to look back at traditional customs and beliefs. Our last global pandemic was 102 years ago in 1918. Tens of millions of people worldwide were killed by the global Spanish Flu. I heard that in today’s numbers, that would translate to well over 300 million deaths worldwide today! And of course, human history is punctuated by widespread plagues and pandemics going back all the way through human recorded history. They have toppled our greatest civilizations from the Roman Empire through the great empires in the Americas of the Aztecs and Mayans. So it is somehow comforting to look back at folk traditions, that have endured through these thousands of years of collapses and rebirths, to see that the timeless cycles of the seasons, of growth and renewal, remain embedded in our yearly work of growing and reproducing. This pandemic too will pass. Perhaps our children will look back at the final numbers and see that we were able with our modern technologies to hold the line against the grim reaper’s massive success in the past, and not come close to what he stole from us 102 years ago.
The science of viral evolution shows us that viruses tend to become less virulent over time. After all, it makes more ‘sense’ for the hosts that are infected to survive, to facilitate the survival of the virus to continue existing into the future. A virus that kills 100% of the hosts it attacks, is a virus that will die out and disappear. The more hosts that survive, the more chances of mutating into more sustainable forms that the virus will have. We lacked the modern medicines/technologies in 1918 that are available to us today. So maybe 300 million deaths worldwide in today’s numbers, is not so likely. We choose to be optimistic and think that our agricultural traditions will survive this current assault. We will get through this!
Are wild turkeys in the Eastern United States on the decline?
In the beginning of December 2020, I got a request from the Department of Environmental Conservation to participate in the annual Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey. They are conducted during August to estimate the average number of wild turkey poults (the young ones) per hen statewide. The survey will indicate the geographic regions and predict the reproductive success in a given year and monitor this popular game bird.
I had never received such a request and thought that I would participate. After a while I had to admit that I had not seen wild turkeys in a year or two …. I have plenty of pictures of turkeys under our bird feeders or taking dust baths on our front lawn.
In late summer you see the turkey family parading their young ones in a long line with the male in front and the female in the back; and nobody dares to leave the line.
Here is some turkey history. In the late 1990 and early 2000s, turkey populations hit an estimated 7 million birds in NYS, but since then there has been a slow decline. In the beginning, scientists speculated that the turkey population had stabilized and the capacity of the habitat was met. In the Eastern United States however, the population has dropped 40 % since 2010, and that is alarming. But other states also report declining numbers; Tennessee is down 50 % and Arkansas even 65 %.
Scientists have noticed that hens with poults were down 43 % from the year before and on a five year average of 34 %. The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stated that with a poult-per-hen count of only 1.9, the wild turkey population would neither grow nor decline.
So what is happening? One reason could be that the nesting habitat has changed. Turkeys prefer older mixed forests. Hens need brushy, young growth for nesting. Unfortunately, our timber management in this region is not providing this habitat. Then you have more and more fences around crop fields and increased use of pesticides. This results in less insects for the hens and the poults. Less nesting habitat leads to increased attacks of raccoons and other predators.
Survival of the poults is difficult to observe. Scientists assume that only 50 % of the young tiny poults will make it, due to predators or even the weather conditions.
Turkey hunters like to blame the decline of wild turkeys on chicken manure from poultry operations. It is used as fertilizer and some people think the chicken manure might spread a disease. This was tested but the results were inconclusive. Personally, we doubt this is one of the causes based on personal experiences. We’ve been observing wild turkeys in our area since the 1970’s. Chicken farming for eggs and meat was always a major industry in this area. In fact, our property was a former mom and pop chicken operation with as many as 14,000 free range chickens on any given year.
The local farmers have been using chicken manure for generations to fertilize their fields. When they spread it in the winter and early spring, all the local turkeys follow the spreaders and dine on insects and uneaten chicken fodder found in the waste. If the practice was a vector for harmful diseases, the local populations probably never would have peaked in the early 2000’s. It may be that the unpleasant, exceptionally strong odor that it emanates- you do not want to get anywhere near a freshly spread field for at least several days, is the reason that it is being blamed, but if you spot a freshly spread field, you will probably see the turkeys in train behind the spreader tracks.
It is assumed that a moderate harvest of turkeys in the spring has no effect on the population. Nevertheless scientists are taking another look. Each state could change hunting rules to take the pressure off the turkeys. Every state’s hunting seasons and rules are different, so modifying them to adjust to local population declines, is a long held tool of biologists to regulate wildlife levels. Although hunting has become somewhat politically incorrect to newer generations, it is a vital instrument in maintaining our natural habitats and wildlife. Hunting fees, permits and related taxes are a major source of revenue for states to use to maintain and restore habitats and fund research programs. Although the general public are slow to agree to new taxes for conservation initiatives, hunters gladly fund these efforts as they want to preserve their sport in sustainable ways.
The weather is of course also playing a role. If the spring arrives late and is cold and wet on top of it, it is not weather that turkeys want to reproduce. Everything must be right.
There is one interesting fact: turkeys can fly despite popular perception, but it looks rather awkward! If pursued by a predator, they will tend to run and launch themselves into a long glide when possible, to evade danger. In fact they do roost in trees at night to sleep. I remember being startled one morning shortly after dawn while I was hiding in my game blind in a stand of trees. Suddenly, I was surprised by a series of slapping noises behind and above my head and a group of large dark shapes swept silently over me from behind. It was quite unexpected and startling in the quiet early dawn. I had in fact entered the stand in the dark and was unaware of about a dozen turkeys sleeping right above me in the gloom. When they all launched themselves together into the field I was watching, it took my breath away.
I hope they will not disappear like the bats did due to disease. Wild Turkeys are such a unique part of the United States. In fact, the American polymath and founding father, Benjamin Franklin- always a scientist at heart, wanted it to be the National Bird! Perhaps unfortunately, he lost out to the bald eagle lobby.
Some time ago I saw the neighbor’s cat hunting near the treeline. When it moved, I was puzzled. In spite of its color, the brownish black fur, the small round head with the small ears, the bushy tail and the long slender body, it was not a cat. The first give away was the posture. When cats hunt, their body is very concentrated and their long legs are ready to pounce. The little guy I saw had small legs and it was total action. It took me some time to find out its proper identification: A Fisher Cat.
Fisher Cats are not cats nor are they really fishers. They belong to the weasel family, kind of a bigger relative. They live in the forests of Canada and across the northern United States. They have long thin bodies and a fur coat that a century ago was so highly valued that they were hunted to near extinction in some parts of the U.S. Fisher's fur was almost like mink, especially from the females. They were put on the endangered species list. It also helped that fur lately has fallen out of style in general, and Fishers have been taken off the endangered species list and are coming back.
Regarding the name Fisher Cat, it is assumed that early European settlers misidentified the Fishers as a polecat. The Dutch call a small weasel “Fitch”, but nobody knows really. As the Dutch were among the earliest European settlers in New York, there are many confusing artifacts in the local language that sprung from Dutch. I remember an early visitor from Germany, who came to see our property. We gave him a tour of the local area, which included the world famous Beaverkill and Otterkill trout streams. He sniffed disapprovingly that he couldn’t understand the American fascination with killing things, and why they had to memorialize features on the land with animals they had killed! Of course he was wrong. I explained that ‘kill’, in this context, was derived from the Dutch word for stream, and was instead named for the various animals the early frontiersmen observed on the land.
This Fisher was caught on our trail camera taking a freezer-burned piece of venison we left in the woods.
With a name like ‘Fisher’ you have to assume that they eat a lot of fish. They eat a lot of things, but fish is not at the top of the list. They enjoy dining on red and gray squirrels, rabbits, fruit, reptiles, birds and bird eggs, and other small mammals, and chipmunks. They’ve even been known to kill the much larger predator - the lynx! This has been observed when a lynx has been bedded down during a snowstorm, and is found by the ever active Fisher as it hunts during the storm. The Fisher will latch onto the back of the lynx’s neck with a vice like grip and hang on until the end. The Fisher is also among the few animals which can kill a porcupine. It attacks the porcupine’s face and bites it, and thus gets spared from those piercing quills.
Fishers are about three feet long with a 15 inch long tail. Males weigh around 12 lbs. And females 8 lbs. They are expert climbers with five toes on each foot with unsheathed retractable claws. Their feet are large, making it easier to walk on snow packs. They have mobile ankle joints giving them added traction on slippery surfaces. They can rotate their hind paws almost 180 degrees, allowing them to climb down head first.
They seek shelter in hollow trees, crevices found in rocks and other dens. They make use of scents to mark their territory, which can be more than a square mile. Their hunting range however is 3 square miles.
Fishers mate in early spring. The gestation period is between ten and eleven months. The female can have one to six kits. Fishers build a nest in a hollow tree and the female looks after the young after birth for five months. Then she encouraged them to move out and search for their own territory.
Although Fishers are not considered an endangered species anymore, they are under threat from loss of forest habitat due to logging and road building. Forest fires destroy the older cavity bearing trees they need for denning.
Fishers are not ideal animals to be kept in captivity. You cannot spot them even in zoos. They are nocturnal, solitary and shy, and they tend to hide from humans. There are however instances of fishers paying a visit to chicken coops and preying on small pets.
Nevertheless, I am excited that we have a new animal on our property and hope to see them once in a while.
October is my favorite time of year because nature will give us a great show of dazzling colors. The leaves turn into deep red, golden yellow and brown, and everything is almost breathtaking. This year our reds are more deep than I remember and the yellows almost sparkle. But there is trouble in paradise. There is a catastrophe unfolding; the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), has done an efficient job of robbing us of so many ash trees! You will see them still standing with no leaves amongst the other trees in full cover.
We had our woods logged six years ago and the logger took all the marketable ash trees that were 16 inches in diameter at chest height and were still healthy. He explained to us that in five or six years they would be infected and the wood would be worthless. He was spot on it appears. Today 90% of our ashes are dead or declining quickly.
Even our few 120+ year old trees that survived their changing surroundings, are in decline. They grew up next to the open fields the original settlers cleared, and they sprouted and avoided being grazed away by livestock.. They then competed with other trees, as those fields were abandoned and left to nature, transitioning to sapling crowded thickets that competed with them for light and nutrients, and they survived against browsing deer. Finally, they were robust woodland sentinels, with multiple tiers of branches, spreading more offspring around them.
Sadly today, even these survivors are showing stress as well, and may be the last to fall. The loggers that came behind them were not interested in them because- as they had grown up, next to, or in an open field, their branches were many and spread in all directions to catch the light. Their branches, knots and flaws were scattered randomly through the trunk, which gave them absolution from the loggers axe. Only straight grained trees from crowded middle/older growth woods are desirable.
So what about our trees now? You do not see it from the outside; usually they just break and fall. We went through such an “event” last week. We had a little wind and suddenly the power went out. One of the ashes fell on the electricity line. It took the provider almost ten hours to repair it.
Holes from a hunting woodpecker
If you have ashes on your property, look for signs of infection. Look at the bark from a few meters (yards) away. Mature ash bark is a mottled light gray to black. If you can see small beige spots from that distance, take a closer look. If those spots are actually from the bark being chipped out, exposing the inner wood. Then it may be a sign that the woodpeckers are chasing the emerald ash borer under the bark already, and you may have to take action. Another sign would be seen on the outermost branches. If the leaves on the furthest extremities of the crown appear significantly smaller than the leaves closer to the main trunk, then this may be a sign of distress, as the tree is struggling to pump up enough water to support them. Once in the tree, the borer disrupts the flow of water and nutrients up and down the whole tree. Now, in the Fall- at this time of year, if your ashes are shedding their leaves much earlier than the other trees, it is also a bad sign.
If you have a valued ash tree on your property that you really want to save, you can have it treated chemically by an arborist, but it will be a yearly treatment for the rest of its life. I recently visited Midland Michigan, and they were aggressively treating their trees, as decades ago they planted their ashes as a large part of their arboreal urban/suburban landscapes. Today they are majestic, tall shade trees and the community has decided it is worth the expense and effort to save them.
What can we do to stop losing all of our valuable ashes? Unfortunately probably nothing ultimately. We don’t have any clever chemical or mechanical means. Using biological weapons- like introducing a lethal fungus or natural predator for this invasive species into the mix, is fraught with unexpected consequences. And although this is always a consideration, we are not likely to do this.
In the eastern U.S. we have gone through many blights. In the early 1900's the chestnut blight killed all of them and changed the forest forever. Our old barn, which was built in the1850’s out of old growth chestnut, is still going strong. After the chestnut blight, the elms were killed by an exotic bark beetle. Then we lost almost all our beeches, which after 30 years are coming back now. And now the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), an Asian insect, which was first discovered twenty years ago in Detroit, Michigan. It is assumed that it was hidden in wooden crates or packing material from China. It is the most destructive insect ever to invade the U.S. So far it has killed millions of ash trees and was found first in 18 states, along with Ontario and Quebec, and then in all the eastern United States. I still remember when I first saw the purple EAB trap in our County, trying to confirm that it had arrived. Somehow I cannot help thinking of Covid19 now!
The EAB is very good at finding ash trees that are stressed or injured, noticeably with purple and green leaves. First they nibble along leaves and then they lay eggs, pushing them into bark indentations. The larvae hatch in mid-summer and chew through the outer bark to reach the inner layer (phloem). The tree needs it to transport carbohydrates from the tree crown to the roots. The larva keeps making tunnels and forms a ring around the inner trunk (out of your sight), thus girdling the tree and stopping water transportation from the roots to the top of the tree. If it has hundreds or thousands of larvae, the tree gets strangled and it starves.
Scientists have found that most EAB stay within about a half a mile from where they first were spotted. A few of the females however are able to fly three miles and find new ash trees.
Unfortunately, we have helped the EAB to move further. Infested ash trees have been sold by nurseries or sold as firewood. Although an infested ash tree trunk will not be infected again, any larvae under the bark will go through the regular life circle and emerge as adults. So just because your wood is cut and down, doesn't mean that EAB won't escape into the local environment! In NYS, it is illegal to transport firewood more than 50 miles from its source, without a certification that it has been kiln heated to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 75 minutes.
In China the EAB is only a secondary pest, attacking only dying ash trees. Because it is an indigenous species there, it has natural controls. We don't have that, and trying to import those natural controls could be even more dangerous. The ash trees in North America have no- or only few, defenses to resist this pest.
The economic impact of the loss of ash trees is enormous. I have read that eight billion ash trees were lost in the last decade which are valued at $280 billion. And it will get more expensive when all the dead ash trees have to be removed before or after they fall down. This will lead to more power outages and insurance claims as time and storms claim them.
There is much hope that a native tiny wasp might come to the rescue. It has not been studied enough, but it seems to have become more common where ashes are dying, teasing the hope that the wasp's numbers are increasing because they are preying on EAB? . If this native predatory wasp is expanding in response to the explosion of EAB, that would be possibly great news. Perhaps nature will save us with a home grown predator. Unfortunately, this is all 'blue sky' wondering. We don't have a solution right now. Considering all the other invasive species stories in this country resulting from global trade, the prospects are grim.
Scientists have tried insecticides and tree girdling or “SLAM” (Slow Ash Mortality), before the larvae can go to work. Scientists hope to slow the death of all ash trees, but it is a struggle.
It seems likely that we have to kiss millions of ash trees goodbye, before we find a solution. We sincerely hope not!!
>This is about our journey from being Big City people to learning how to embrace a country lifestyle.
We bought an old farmhouse (built in the 1850's); we have hay fields and woods, streams, bridges and a long drive way. Our neighbors are far away. We are so far away that we have to go to the post office to get our mail. For us it has been paradise.