Thursday, December 28, 2006

SAD days

At this time of year, winter-haters can find a little solace in the fact that the days are getting longer.

Last week on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, we had nine hours and four minutes of daylight. By Jan. 9, we will be getting all of nine hours and 17 minutes of day. While that's a far cry from the 15 hours and 17 minutes we'll have at the summer solstice June 21, the trend at least is comforting and full of hope of warmer times.

For many, the lack of sunlight brings on seasonal affective disorder, whose signs include depression, irritability, overeating, and lethargy. It shows that despite the lofty place to which homo sapiens has risen among the animals, we are still creatures of nature and subject to her powers.

In fact, seasonal affective disorder may be a sign that nature really wants us to be more like bears. We should just fatten up and find a nice warm cave for the winter.

Some people have found a substitute. It’s called Florida.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Lord of Misrule

Christmas celebrations are not always sacred and solemn, as we well know, but one of the oddest practices was once commonplace in old England where the Lord of Misrule reigned at this time of year.

Cities, towns, and universities across the country appointed these public officials for the 12 days of Christmas. “His duties,” said a 19th Century historian, “were to lead and direct the multifarious revels of the season.” It was no trifling job, either; the Lord of Misrule of London in 1635 spent 2,000 pounds – nearly $500,000 today – on public merriment.

One of the lord’s first official acts each year was to absolve all people of their wisdom, but to demand that they be just wise enough to make fools of themselves. He then set about encouraging “reveling, epicurisme, wantonesse, idlenesse, dancing, drinking, stage-plaies, masques, and carnall pompe and jollity,” according to one contemporary critic.

In an era with no shortage of misrulers in the world, it’s a wonder the ancient office hasn’t been resurrected.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Unholy holly

We deck the halls with boughs of it, we name Christmas-born girls after it, and – if we're like Burl Ives – we even get jolly over it. But why do we love holly at Christmastide?

Decorating with green boughs, wreaths, and garlands was a practice of Saturnalia, a holiday season of the ancient Romans that fell around this time of year. The custom was picked up by early Christians in their efforts to woo pagans to their new religion. They made greens a Christian symbol, pointing out that Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem over paths strewn with palms.

However, holly may be more practical than symbolic. Evergreens are an attractive ornament. They are available in the cold of winter and last long after picking. The holly, with its shiny leaves and red berries, is particularly decorative.

While its name may seem associated with holy, holly comes from the Old English word for pricker or arrow. And some of holly customs have a sharp side. As they festooned their parlors centuries ago, English families would chant appropriate – if not elegant – carols. As the holly went up, their voices rang out a song that included:

Whosoever against the holly do cry
In a rope shall be hung full high.
Allelujah!

So watch what you cry, and, in the tradition of Mr. Ives, have a holly, jolly holiday – be it Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

They’re coming…

It’s tough being a commuter, traveling winding back roads and crowded expressways at dawn and dusk. Visibility is often poor as headlights shine in your eyes and perhaps rain, snow or fog blur your vision. Through all this, you must constantly keep alert for deer, which seem suicidally bent on throwing their 200-pound bodies at you.

Now come warnings that moose on the move, extending their territory well into Connecticut and southeastern New York. And the difference between a moose and a deer is like the difference between a Doberman and a Chihuahua.

In September, a car struck and killed a 700-pound bull moose at Barkhamstead in upstate Connecticut. A month early, a crash killed a 500-pound moose in Goshen. These weren’t even “big” ones – moose can reach 1,100 pounds.

Connecticut wildlife experts estimate more than 100 moose are now in the state and their numbers are growing as their range extends southward toward metropolitan New York City.

What’s a motorist to do? The best advice is: Slow down! Be it deer or moose, or maybe even a 400-pound bear, the slower you’re going, the less the impact. You may even be able to avoid an impact altogether.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Firewood words

“Don’t let it lie in great sticks,” the Old Farmer’s Almanac urged its readers for December 1864. The season of sawing and splitting was here.

For the local farmers, early December was the time to work on wood, not for the winter ahead, but for the next summer and beyond. Wood for stoves and fireplaces needed drying, for sap-filled “green” wood cuts heat output by a third. Split up, firewood dries quickly and, as the almanac exhorted, it was best left outside a while in the late-fall weather. “Give it the wind a few weeks before housing, and it will dry all right,” the “old farmer” wrote.

Today, many people still heat with wood, using sophisticated stoves that burn logs and even conveyor-fed wood pellets, or employing high-tech furnaces that can burn both wood and propane or fuel oil.

But the old farmer’s old advice on firewood still holds true: Dry it right to burn it well.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A lampmussel’s return

All environmental news isn’t bad: Behold the Yellow Lampmussel.

Last July, two naturalists canoeing on the Connecticut River found the first Yellow Lampmussel identified in the state since 1961. Once common and widespread, this mollusk was a source of food, currency, and jewelry for the American Indians. Colonists ate the meat and made buttons from the shells, whose interiors are lined with mother of pearl.

In nature, lampmussels help filter the water of both good and bad substances. They are also food for River Otters and other small mammals, as well as fish.

The Yellow Lampmussel succumbed to the activities of man, particularly polluting, damming, and dredging. The fact that they are being rediscovered here and in neighboring states, says the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, is a sign that the health of at least some rivers is improving.

We can do our own part in creating healthy waterways by eliminating – or at least carefully using – pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals on our yards. Remember, say environmental officials, “what you put on the land will eventually end up in our rivers.”

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Beauty in the beast

Each fall, the Turkey Vultures return. Often roosting in roadside evergreens, they may be drawn there by area's wealth of carcasses of deer, squirrel, possum, and other creatures fallen victim to the car.

Some also get a seasonal treat. At least one family places the family turkey, picked clean after Thanksgiving dinner, in the back yard each year. Like clockwork, the vultures appear to pick it even cleaner.

In the air, few birds can match the vulture’s beauty. They glide for miles on outstretched, six-foot wings that rarely flap soaring, angling, dipping, and rocking, all as effortlessly as a goldfish in a pool. Sliding over the treetops as they approach their roost, they are like so many 747s arriving at an airport.

Close-up and on the ground, however, the vulture looks like a character from a horror movie. With the black body of a fat undertaker, the huge bird bears a featherless, big-beaked, red-fleshed head – all the better to dip into the corpses with.

Sometimes beauty is not only in the eye, but in the distance of the beholder.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Whoooo is there?

Interested in riding around in the middle of the night, emitting strange sounds in the woods and fields? If so, Connecticut wants you.

Concerned about the future of owls in the state, the Department of Environmental Protection has begun surveys to get a sense of their numbers, distribution, habitat, and habits in general. The problem with owls, of course, is that they are mostly nocturnal and are hard to see, so relatively little is known about them.

Volunteer surveyors hit the road at midnight with special sound equipment that broadcasts the calls of Barred, Northern Saw-Whet, Great Horned, Eastern Screech, and Barn Owls. They play the calls and hope for responses. This year, teams traversed 13 routes with 130 survey points, and got responses at 30 locations.

They found more than 30 birds – but no Barn Owls like the one above. Perhaps like the buildings they are named for, Barn Owls are disappearing, too.

If you don’t mind night work and would like to help find whooooo’s around Connecticut, call Shannon Kearney-McGee, 860-675-8130, to volunteer for the 2007 owl survey.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Abscission

As we rake, sweep and blow away the final leaves of autumn, we might wonder why they’re there – on the ground, that is, and not in the trees.

One reason was made clear here in 1987 when, on Oct. 4, a mere three inches of snow fell on leaves that were still healthy and green. The weight of snow-laded leaves felled countless limbs and trees, and knocked out power as long as four days. Broad leaves and snow just don’t mix on most large plants.

So as snow season approaches, trees shed their leaves, a process called abscission. In the fall the tree produces an “abscission layer,” a waxy substance at the base of each leaf stem. This substance, called suberin, first cuts off food and water to the leaves, resulting in the color changes.

Then, suberin’s added weight helps sever the leaves, freeing the tree of the burden and giving us our annual November exercise.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Birds at night

Where do birds go at night – especially in the winter?

When heading off to sleep, birds are looking for protection from two things: enemies and the elements. Because of this – and, of course, the fact that it’s dark out – people rarely see sleeping birds.

Diurnal birds – those active in the daytime – have various ways of spending the night. Many small songbirds simply find a branch in a convenient tree to protect themselves from wind, rain and snow. Some favor thick bushes and shrubs. Many like spruces, hemlocks and other evergreens whose needles provide a degree of year-round protection. Cavity dwellers, such as woodpeckers and wrens, may make use of holes in trees or among rocks or fallen trees.

Outside breeding season, many songbirds such as robins, bluebirds and even cardinals will gather in flocks and sleep together. Some birds, such as crows, vultures, and starlings, will roost in great numbers. Roosts provide protection in numbers as well as a modicum of heat generated by all the bodies being fairly close together.

Gull, ducks and geese will float on water at night, usually in groups, while some shorebirds will settle down for the night on a relatively remote beach or in grass at the edge of the shore.

Some birds, such as Common Redpolls, ptarmigans and Ruffed Grouse, will bury themselves in snow at night, taking advantage of its insulating quality. It was a technique emulated by North American Indians as they journeyed away from camp in winter.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fishing for cats

A century ago our suburban countryside was largely farmers’ fields, a moonscape compared to today. Now, the trees have returned, and with them, some woodland creatures that haven’t been seen since before the colonists flattened the forests primeval.

A case in point is the fisher. This 10- to 15-pound marten has long been found in northern New England and forested regions across North America. But until a few years ago, these weasel-like mammals were unknown here. Now that the trees are back, so are the fishers.

Sometimes called fisher cats, fishers neither fish nor are they even closely related to cats. In fact, they may be a cat’s worst enemy. Fishers usually feed on wild mammals ranging from mice and voles to porcupines and young deer. In suburbia, however, domestic cats are becoming a fisher delicacy. And there’s little a hapless cat can do – run up a tree and the arboreal fisher will follow right behind.

It’s another good reason why all pet cats should be house cats.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Eat a sheep’s nose

Nothing gives more, yet asks less in return, than a tree, particularly the apple,” said Jonathan Chapman. Better known as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman spent a half-century promoting the apple's many gifts. Besides providing flowers in the spring and shade in the summer, the tree gives us fruit in the fall. Countless dishes – from pies and cakes to sauces and butters – are made from apples. We can drink its juice and, if we age it a bit, tipple its hard cider.

The fruit is tasty and nutritious, full of fiber. It comes in a perfect package: attractive, long-lasting, and 100% biodegradable.

More than 2,000 apple varieties were once grown in the United States, offering a huge variety of flavors, as well as textures, colors, picking times, and durability. Apples names like Westfield, York imperial, black gilliflower, Baker, Newtown pippin, Stayman, and Esopus Spitzenburg were once commonplace. Today we’re lucky to find a half-dozen kinds in a supermarket and a dozen at an orchard.

However, “antiques” are still around and if you’re out for a ride in rural America, watch for an orchard carrying Dutchess of Oldenburg, opalescent, Ashmeads kernel, or even sheep’s nose. Buy a bag and taste Americas yesterday.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The survivalists

The season of migration is well underway as millions of birds flee the coming cold.

Their journeys often amaze us with their length and navigational expertise. The Arctic Tern flies 11,000 miles from northern Canada to Antarctica each fall. The hummingbird, weighing but a fraction of an ounce, may traverse a thousand miles of the Gulf of Mexico to reach winter grounds. Many songbirds fly hundreds of miles each night, guided only by stars or some invisible magnetic field.

Amazing all. But what of the birds that choose to stay? Are they just lazy? Hardly.

While their migrating brethren are enjoying temperate shores and tropical forests, our year-round birds face cold and snow. They must survive winter’s winds and frigid temperatures. They must find sustenance when a foot or more of snow covers the ground. Many must spend months in preparation, storing food for winter use – and later remembering the hundreds of caches they made.

Whether they are winging their way to warmth, or just crouching against the cold, birds are astounding survivalists.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scents of the seasons

The seasons have their own smells, distinctive scents in the air that are as tell-tale of time as the vegetation on the ground.

Spring arrives with a sour-sweet smell that arises from the brooks and swamps as soon as the snow melts. It comes from the rotted leaves and roots of last year’s plants that will feed this year’s growth.

Flowers appear, and you can almost tell the part of the month by the fragrances – the early Andromeda, tulip trees, magnolias, mustards, lilacs, and rockets. Like the season, they are fresh, sweet, celebrating rebirth. Then come the rich, heady scents of summer – the wild roses, clovers, milkweeds, pokeweed, and Queen Anne's lace. As summer wanes into fall, the goldenrods and Joe-Pye weeds begin filling the air with spice – scents of anise and vanilla.

And then the leaves begin to fall, offering an earthy but pleasant aroma of decay, only to be covered with the snow. Snow has a scent of its own and its coming on the wind is easily forecast with a good sniff.

The scents of the seasons are a calendar for the nose. Enjoy the latest page!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A kick and a puff

Ages before video games or even Lego and Erector sets, children often entertained themselves with the toys of nature. In early autumn, a favorite was the Giant Puffball, a magical fungus that can reach massive proportions – in the world of fungi, at least. Specimens measuring six feet across and weighing more than 40 pounds have been found.

For a kid in the 18th or 19th Century, a big, white puffball sprouting in a pasture was just too tempting to ignore. Perhaps presaging their descendants’ interest in football and soccer, youngsters would invariably give the “ball” a good, swift kick. The reward was the namesake puff: A thick cloud of more than a trillion spores could burst from a ripe puffball.

The kicker probably did the fungus a favor, for the spores are its seeds and the kick cast the fate of future generations to the wind. Odds of success for a microscopic spore are slim, however, for its chances of creating a new Giant Puffball are literally one in billions.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bounty from above

They say that tall oaks from little acorns grow. Judging from this year’s acorn supply, the region will be well-forested in the future.

Oaks occasionally generate bountiful acorn crops – and many years, produce not a nut. Last spring apparently offered ideal conditions for pollinating oak flowers – dry, warm weather.

Of course, most of this year’s bumper crop will be consumed – by nearly 100 kinds of birds and mammals. For creatures as small as a nuthatch or a mouse and as large as a bear and a deer, acorns are a major source of food in the fall. The ebb and flow of populations of such common creatures as Gray Squirrels and Blue Jays are closely related to acorn yields.

With so many fans in nature, you’d think humans would be acorn-eaters, too. In fact, they once were: American Indians and early settlers ate acorns. Today, however, we’ve been spoiled by the sweeter meats of peanuts, cashews, almonds, and other nuts that are also easier to process – and to salt.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Fairy rings

Fairy rings are magical places, nearly perfect circles of mushrooms that run from a few to many feet in diameter. Also called fairy circles or pixie rings, they were more often seen in the days when pastures were common and before chemicals and frequent mowing turned lawns into monotonous carpets of green.

A fairy ring marks the edge of an underground growth of fungus, called mycelium. This subterranean body spreads slowly outward, emitting chemicals ahead of it that convert organic matter to food usable by the fungus. When the time is right, the mycelium shoots up mushrooms at its outer edge. Like flowers on plants, they distribute spores that will create future fungi and, perhaps, fairy rings.

That’s the scientific explanation. Folklorists tell more colorful tales of fairies and elves, dancing in circles, wearing down the grass and sparking toadstools to sprout. If you weren’t careful and stepped inside a fairy ring, you might be transported into another world.

More fantastic than folklore is fact, however. There’s a fairy ring in France that’s a half-mile wide and said to be 700 years old!

Monday, September 04, 2006

The hitchhikers

A walk in the woods or across a field at this time of year will often net you a collection of hitchhikers.

Plants like beggars lice, burdock, tick-trefoils, sticktights, and black-burs employ the by-hook-or-by-crook method of navigation. Their seedpods have evolved hooks that latch onto fur or clothing and hitch a ride to a new location, a place possibly suitable for sinking roots. The technique is so efficient that a major international corporation has made billions capturing it in plastic and calling it Velcro.

These plants’ interest in us turns the tables a tad. We humans have found countless uses for plants: as food, clothing, shelter, fuel, medicines, and decorations. How nice it is that at least a few plants have found a use for us.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The embattled beaver

Pity the poor beaver. Although touted in countless film documentaries, the beaver’s industriousness is always getting the rodent into trouble.
To establish ponded homesteads, beavers kill trees to build dams. The dams often flood roads, lawns, septic systems, parking lots, basements, and other trappings of suburbia, angering the human neighbors.
It wasn’t always so. Driven from much of the East Coast by farmers who chopped down most of the trees, beavers had vanished in many areas by the 19th Century. With the return of woodlands in the 20th Century, various reintroduction efforts were successful – so successful in Connecticut that some 8,000 beaver live in that small state today.
Adult beavers have no natural enemies – except man. They are among the few creatures legally hunted with what are called “kill traps.” Amazingly, kill traps are the only legal way to catch them in Connecticut; it is illegal to live trap a beaver to relocate it. The official state explanation: There are so many beavers in Connecticut that moving them would only exacerbate problems elsewhere.
Being industrious and a movie star doesn’t always pay.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Hitchhiking hummers

Nature inspires much lore. Dragonflies sew up your mouth. Toads give you warts. Bats land in your hair.

But a magazine, not children or backwoods naturalists, dreamed up a tale about hummingbirds, those hovering micro-birds that just now getting ready to return to Central America. In the 1880s, a writer proposed that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which weigh only an eighth of an ounce, couldn't possibly fly non-stop across the Caribbean on their way to and from North America. Without any evidence in hand, he theorized they hitchhiked on the backs of such larger birds as Canada Geese.

Today, we know this is not true, yet the speculation has been told and retold till many consider it fact. But as is often the case in nature, fact is more amazing than fiction. Rather than hitchhike, this miniature creature, wings whizzing at 80 beats per second, zips non-stop across 1,000 miles of open sea at up to 40 miles per hour, twice a year.

Even more amazing is its metabolism. If you weighed 170 pounds and lived like a hummingbird, you'd burn 150,000 calories a day and produce 100 pounds of sweat. And if you ran out of water, your skin temperature would surpass the melting point of lead and you'd probably catch fire.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer's ghosts

Coming across a cluster of Indian Pipes is an eerie, almost shocking experience. Ghostly and pale in the dark of a midsummer woods, the plant’s freakish white flesh makes it look more like an oddly formed fungus than the wildflower it is.

Indians Pipes are not only strange-looking but strange acting. Botanists are not certain how they survive. At first, they were thought to be parasitic – living directly off other live plants. Then they were deemed saprophytic – living off dead plants. The latest thinking, however, is that they are “epiparasite” – a parasite that forms a relationship with another parasite to get food from a host. In this case, a fungus connects the roots of the Indian Pipe to a nearby plant, transmitting essential nutrients.

That’s why the pipe is white and leafless. It doesn’t need chlorophyll for photosynthesis, and it doesn’t need leaves, the food factories for most plants.

And that’s also why, when most of summer’s flowers are aglow in the fields, you’ll find Indian Pipe hiding in the shadows, deep in the woods.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Crawling mysteries

Those who’ve grown up in suburbia don’t usually think of it as mysterious. Yet even our backyards are filled with mystery.
Take the caterpillar, for example. Stroll in your yard and you could quickly spot half a dozen kinds. Spend a little time, and you might find dozens.
But discovering caterpillars is a lot easier than naming them – or knowing what butterfly they become. And in a world that offers field guides to bird nests, mammal scat, and even roadkill, it’s surprising to learn that someone – in our backyard, almost – has recently written the first caterpillar field guide. UConn Professor David Wagner and his book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, were profiled in the Aug. 8 New York Times.
Backyard caterpillar study has its advantages. The creatures can’t run or fly away, and you can, with little effort, raise most into their adult forms. You might even contribute to science since, as Dr. Wagner points out, there are moths – including well-known ones – whose caterpillars have never been discovered. It’s great fare for a natural history detective.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Queen’s mystery

Each August, a blizzard of white covers many fields and roadsides as Queen Anne’s Lace opens its flowers, and offers its annual mystery.

Look at the cluster of hundreds of tiny white florets. Right around the middle, you’re apt to spot one little purple flower. Why is there a single, colored floret in a sea of white? No one knows for sure, except the folklorist. Long ago, the story was told to children that Queen Anne pricked her finger as she was stitching some lace, and the purple flower is her bloodstain passed down the centuries.

Less mysterious is the plant’s ties with man. Pull one up and smell the root. Its scent is a clear give-away. Called by the scientist Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s Lace is an ancestor of our garden carrot. In its native England, where the wounded Queen Anne lived, it is known simply as Wild Carrot.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Brrrr? Achoo?

The temperature might be 95 degrees on a July day, but the sight of its yellow blossoms can offer a chill that’s autumnal.

New Englanders used to say Early Goldenrod’s appearance presaged an early winter, but as its name suggests, this species always blooms in July.

Early Goldenrod is just one of nearly 50 kinds of goldenrods found in the Northeast, most blooming in late summer and fall. All are subject of another, more serious misconception: They are said to cause hay fever.

It’s simply not true. Goldenrods bear colorful flowers that attract insects. Their pollen grains, designed to be carried by bees, are too big to become airborne and to end up in the noses of allergy sufferers.

The real villains are grasses, plantains and ragweeds, which bear green flowers and dispatch their tiny pollen into the air. In fact, any time you see a colorful flower, you can bet the display is aimed at attracting bees and that the pollen is too big to bug you.

It’s the unnoticed, dull, green flowers that create the season for sneezin’.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Scent of summer

There’s nothing elegant about the look of milkweed. In fact, to most people, it is what its name suggests: A weed. But get close to a cluster of its unusual flowers and you may be charmed.

Few native wildflowers smell as sweet as common milkweed. The plant uses its powerful scent to attract bees, which provide pollination like Pony Express riders. As they crawl across the blossoms, their legs unwittingly pick up tiny saddlebag-shaped pollen packages to deliver from one flower to another.

The result of pollination are those late-summer packages of fluff that delight children and which the Navy once used to fill life vests.

For us, however, milkweed is a room freshener. Somewhat drab and droopy, the flowers are not the stuff of fancy bouquets. But pick a stalk – don’t mind the sticky juice, from which Thomas Edison once tried to make rubber – put it in water, and place it in a dark corner of a room where it will stand unseen but not unnoticed as it sweetens the air with its fresh summery scent.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Backyard gold

All that glitters may not be gold, but if you run across Metriona bicolor, you wouldn’t mind at all. At least, not if it’s an adult.

Like a drop of molten gold, the Golden Tortoise Beetle clings to and munches on the leaves of morning glories – or, on the wild side, the closely related bindweeds. The golden shell glows with iridescence. Put one in your hand, however, and watch the color change to mother of pearl, and then dull orange as the insect manipulates the moisture content in its shell.

Seen on a leaf, the lustrous beetle is hard to believe. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that the beautiful adult sprang from a “filthy” kid. The black, fork-tailed larvae of the tortoise beetle camouflage themselves by collecting excrement, attaching it to their backs, and walking around under a load of, well, crap.

This tiny Jekyll and Hyde is yet another example of the wonders of nature right outside your back door.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Season’s greetings

Summer arrived Wednesday at 8:26 a.m. That was the solstice – “sun stop” in Latin – when Old Sol halts its northern movement and starts heading south again.

For those who love light and believe night is good only for sleeping, it is a joyful time, with 16 hours of sunlight. The dreary days of seasonal affective disorder are long gone, and the world is bright – and warm.

For lovers of the outdoors, June 21 is a lot more significant and worthy of holiday status than Jan. 1, a dismal and silly celebration, signifying little more than taking down one calendar and hanging another, or watching Windows do it for you. It’s not a new school year, it’s not a new fiscal year, it’s not even an astronomical event – it’s just the changing of numbers, arranged by long-forgotten Roman emperors.

The longest day, on the other hand, is a real event, a more than symbolic day on which we welcome the most enjoyable time of the year, when we can relax more, play more, and generally recharge our lives.

So, a day late, we wish you a Happy New Solstice.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Two twitchers

It’s the season of the twitchers, the fledgling birds that seem to get so excited at the prospect of food that their bodies shimmy and shake with excitement.

Most of our songbirds are altricial – like humans, they are born helpless and need to be waited on, break and foot, by their parents. To be fed, the youngest simply hold open mouths so wide, they seem to dwarf their bodies. As they grow older, they add voices to their food demands. And by the time they leave the nest, they twitch for attention – standing on a branch, wildly wiggling their bodies and their slightly open wings as a parent approaches with dinner.

This behavior may have inspired the British word, twitcher, which means a fanatic bird-watcher: It is said that true twitchers go into uncontrollable spasms of excitement at the sighting of a new species. So the next time you see a young sparrow or robin twitching for its lunch, think of an otherwise staid Englishman in his tweeds, binoculars raised, posterior all a-wiggle at the joy of spotting a Long-tailed Tit.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

June snow

The air in parts of town has been full of fluff, white fuzzies drifting in the breezes like impossible June snowflakes. It’s the season for the cottonwood to cast its future to the wind and, like the lowly dandelion, to set countless cotton-covered seeds adrift to find new home sites, often covering the ground with white.

The Eastern Cottonwood is a wetland-loving poplar, a group of trees with more than usual ties to the wind. The leaves and their stems are shaped in a way that makes them move in even the slightest breeze. They shake – or quake, as in the Quaking Aspen, another poplar.

No one is quite sure why they wiggle, but the creative minds of the past devised reasons. Legend has it, for instance, that Christ’s cross was hewn from a poplar and that ever after, the tree has trembled with fear at the awful deed to which it was a party. Perhaps that explains why today, its lumber is considered so poor that it is used mostly for packing crates and pallets.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The weed wars

The airwaves have been bursting with commercials warning of ugly invaders called dandelion, chickweed, and crabgrass. Chemical answers are offered, and Americans will spend billions in the war against weeds.

Why bother? What's so bad about having a few wildflowers mixed in with your grass? Why must all the lawn's greens looking monotonously alike? Why shouldn't a lawn, like a garden, have variety of color and shape?

Think of the advantages of a natural lawn: Less expensive (no chemicals to buy), less work (no weeding), fewer worries (buttercups won't bug you), fewer potential health hazards (that's poison you're pouring on those dandelions), more color and form (natural lawns are interesting, have variety, offer surprises), and more wildlife (songbirds love weed seeds).

The disadvantages? Well, you’ll still have to mow every week or two. And maybe it's a little tougher to practice your putting.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Zap the cracklers

Snap. Crackle. Pop.

The sound is not cereal but the death knell of the 71 billion insects killed annually in ``bug zappers.''

“Great,” you say. “The only good bug is a dead bug.”

The fact is, however, that most insects killed in zappers are beneficial or, at the least, not harmful or even annoying. Many are food for wildlife such as birds and fish. Others, like ladybugs and tiny wasps, attack and control harmful insects. Still others, including moths, are flower pollinators.

The mosquitoes and biting flies that owners think they’re killing aren’t even attracted to the device’s ultraviolet light. One scientific study of the contents of bug zappers found that of 13,789 bodies, only 31 were biting insects. That’s less than one-quarter of one percent and an incredible waste of not only life, but electricity.

The irony, the researchers said, is that bug zappers destroy many of the insects that kill and control mosquitoes and flies.

Do the world a favor and zap your zapper.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Dead meat

Some of our simplest-looking wildflowers offer some of the most sophisticated tricks for survival. Take the Red Trillium, for instance.

A handsome plant found in our open woods, Red Trillium bears big, three-petaled purple flowers in spring. The flowers are pretty, but they don’t mean to be. In fact, they mimic dead meat. The petals wear the color of carrion and the flower itself reeks with an odor among the most foul in nature.

The fakery is the trillium’s way of drawing flies. Unlike the many bee-oriented flowers, trillium uses flies for pollination. These are the same flies that explore the recently thawed forest floor, feeding on the carcasses of creatures that died over the winter. To a fly, a trillium looks and smells just like another spring corpse.

Unfortunately for trillium, the burgeoning numbers of White-tailed Deer have significantly cut its numbers in many areas.

It takes more than bad breath to offend a hungry deer.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Deadly balloons

Just when you think you’ve heard all the ways we’re messing up nature comes news of yet another problem: balloons.

Yes, those symbols of childhood festivities are killing fish, birds, and even sea turtles. A full-page feature in the latest issue of Connecticut Wildlife points out that helium-filled balloons can travel miles, frequently ending up in the ocean. Fish and sea turtles see a popped balloon, think its food, and eat it. The result is a blocked digestive system and death.

Birds often grab the washed-ashore strings as nesting material, but these strings too often get wound around the birds – both parents and nestlings – resulting in strangulation or starvation. Swimming waterfowl can become entangled in the floating strings.

The problem is serious enough that Connecticut passed a law, making it illegal to launch 10 or more helium balloons in a 24-hour period.

So the next time you throw a birthday party, keep the balloons, as well as the kids, under control.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A pink potato

Some wildflowers, like hepatica, anemone, and trillium, wear fancy Greek or Latin names. Others, like cohosh and poke, bear colorful American Indian labels. However, often the prettiest and most appropriate names are simple American English.

Such is Spring-beauty, whose name tells its story. In early spring groves of these small, pink flowers welcome the winter-weary, who head for the woods in search of the season of new life. The flowers seem so delicate – and in a sense, are, since they will quickly wilt if picked. Yet they are able to withstand freezing nights and raw days.

The Indians’ interest in Spring-beauty was more practical than esthetic. They knew that down below, the plant’s little round corm offered food, sweet and a bit nutlike, and wearing a skin like a potato. Indeed, they have been called wild potatoes. But an even better name, so typical of wonderful old English-language folk names for wildflowers, is fairy-spuds.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Squirrel sweets

Throughout New England, metal spigots are sticking out of tree trunks. It's sugaring season. When the sap flows, the buckets fill and the pots boil for hours to make maple syrup.

For unknown centuries humans have harvested this spring treat. But they weren't the first.

Since long before men rammed spiles into sugar maple bark, Red Squirrels have been making pre-spring rounds of these trees. They nip the bark, creating little grooves to start the sap dripping, and then move on to bite more bark. A day or two later, after the sap that flowed from the cuts has mostly evaporated, the rodents return to eat the sweet, sticky residue.

How do they know this cause-and-effect connection -- that a bite plus a wait yields food? The sap has barely any taste, yet these animals have learned to distill the watery fluid to its sweet essence -- squirrel-made maple syrup.

Will pancakes and butter be next?

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bottled waste

Most of us don’t think twice about grabbing a bottle of water for a walk or workout. But we ought to think about it a lot more than twice.

The statistics of waste and extravagance are staggering, says the Earth Policy Institute:

  • To package and ship the seven-billion gallons of bottled water we drink annually requires 1.5-million barrels of oil – enough to supply 100,000 cars for a year.
  • Nearly 90% of the bottles wind up in landfills, where they take a thousand years to biodegrade.
  • Bottled water costs 10,000 times what tap water does, and the difference in taste and content is usually barely detectable.
  • When billions of people around the world lack safe drinking water, we are buying bottled water at per-gallon prices that exceed what we are paying for gasoline!

Most of us drink bottled water in a quest for purity. But the cost of that assumed purity is both pollution and waste.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hard times for squirrels

It’s been a tough week for squirrels. The tree-loving rodents can’t handle a foot and a half of snow, and had to pretty much hunker down till a melt – or a crust – makes terrestrial travel safe.

Gray squirrels often have it tough. Back in 2004, the acorn crop crashed, and the squirrels had a hard time surviving last winter. Those that did were often weak and more susceptible to predators – including the automobile tire. They produced smaller families, and their population declined markedly.

The 2005 acorn crop was reportedly a bit better, and until now, the winter of 2005-06 has been mild, so nature may be giving the Gray Squirrel a break.

That may not please folks who battle “tree rats” at the bird feeder or in their attics, but a healthy squirrel population helps keep forests healthy by planting oaks, hickories and other nut-bearing trees. Squirrels also provide food for hawks and owls, and, when they don’t cross at the green, for vultures and crows.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The miry mess

Most folks in town a century or two ago would have not been pleased with the warmer than usual winter of 2005-06. It’s not that they loved cold; it’s just that they liked to get their work done.

Warm winters were a muddy mess, and mud was the enemy of the farmer. When the ground was frozen, the narrow wheels of wagons could handle the dirt roads and farm paths with ease. Thawed, roads and paths were one miry mess after another.

When the ground was snow-covered, life was even better for the farmer, whose slays, sleds and sledges could get much more work done than could wheeled vehicles. A horse could drag four times more weight on a sled across snow than could a wheeled cart across dirt.

That meant that farmers could easily haul timber home from the woods to cut for firewood, to saw into lumber, or even to hew into railroad ties. It meant that stoneboats could remove large boulders from fields, and that other heavy-duty tasks could be accomplished.

Winters may have been colder back then, but the work was harder and kept people warmer.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The moths of winter

It’s a February night and you’ve got the porch light on. It’s 37 degrees out, but there, fluttering around the lamp, is a moth.

Moths in winter are not freaks of nature. In North America, at least 50 species may appear throughout the winter – as long as the temperature is above freezing.

Specially adapted to cold weather, they have furry bodies and circulation systems designed to retain heat while keeping flight muscles flexible and functioning. Many dine on tree sap, high in sugar and energy content, and they shiver to warm up. When the temperature dips too low, they can tuck themselves under some leaves and nod off till the next thaw.

Why should moths bother to adapt to an environment so hostile to a cold-blooded creature? In many ways, winter is less hostile than summer. There are no night-flying bats or birds to gobble them up; the bats are hibernating and birds are down south.

For some creatures, there’s safety in camouflage; for others, safety in numbers. But for wintertime moths, it’s safety in shivering.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Hessian fly

In the 19th Century, farmers here grew many crops, but the most common grain – wheat – was generally not among them. This was probably because of the Hessian fly.

Hessian fly? Not your everyday bug of 21st Century suburbia, yet this mosquito-like insect had a major impact two centuries ago because its larvae sucked the life juices from wheat.

The insect, which first appeared on Long Island around 1779, is believed to have arrived with Hessian soldiers fighting in the Revolution – hence, the name.

Many farmers in the Northeast gave up the crop – despite the fact that no less a personage than George Washington urged them not to do so. Washington recommended growing yellow-bearded wheat, which was more resistant to the larvae.

Hessian fly is still around and now attacks wheat coast to coast. But fly-resistant wheat varieties have been developed and are so successful that insecticides are often not needed to combat this strange, living remnant of a war fought 225 years ago.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

SUVs and kids

Big SUVs have long come under fire as inefficient, gas-guzzling behemoths that waste energy and money as they pollute the air. But there was always the argument that they are safe – especially for a family with children. They look like tanks; they ought to protect like tanks. And what’s more important than keeping our kids safe?

Now researchers at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia report that, in accidents, children are no safer in a big SUV than in a regular car. Despite their size -- an average of 1,300 pounds more than a car -- SUVs are twice as likely as a car to roll over in an accident. And children in rollovers were three times more likely to be injured, the hospital said.

How dangerous are rollovers? The federal government says, of the nearly 11 million passenger car, SUV, pickup and van crashes in 2002, only 3% involved a rollover. Yet, rollovers accounted for 33% of the fatalities that year.

If you want to keep your family safe, look beyond outward appearances. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s Web site, www.safecar.gov, has more on what’s safe and what’s not in many categories – and notes that, when it comes to accidents, SUVs are the most likely to roll over.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The door

Most months have dumb names, honoring egotistical emperors and long-dead gods, or saying they are the 10th when they are the 12th. But at least January makes a statement.

Centuries before the Christian era, a king named Numa Pompilius decided the Roman world needed more months than the 10 it had. So he added two and, unlike Julius Caesar and Augustus, was modest enough to keep his name off both. The first, placed at the beginning of the year, was named for Janus, the god of doors. Yes, back then, even doors had a god.

But to old Numa, this was appropriate. January opened the door to the new year, so why not have Janus there to make sure we didn’t trip over the threshold.

And it sure beats the old Saxon name for the month. They called it Wolf-monat because that’s when wolves were the hungriest and most apt to gobble up a Saxon foolish enough to be wandering out of doors in January.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Codswallop!

In the vast vocabulary of the English language, some words seem more fun than practical. Such is codswallop.

Dictionaries say it means “nonsense,” but most are uncertain of its origin. Some etymologists tell of a 19th Century British inventor named Hiram Codd, who created a soda bottle with a glass ball in its neck. The pressure of the bubbly contents forced the ball against the neck, providing a built-in stopper that you pushed in to pour. It was a successful invention (though kids kept stealing and breaking open bottles to get the “marbles” inside).

Nineteenth Century denizens of the pubs, who used “wallop” as slang for beer, sneered at these fizzy, sweet drinks, calling them “Codd’s wallop.” The derogatory term grew to become an expletive for something silly and useless – nonsense.

Some etymologists dispute this derivation, claiming the story itself is codswallop, but they can offer little better.

Readers of this essay may consider it, too, to be codswallop. However, we live in a world full of codswallop, so why not just a little bit more?