Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sharp shoes

Remember studded snow tires? Chains? In the era of all-wheel drive and efficient highway maintenance, both of these once common winter transportation aids have all but disappeared.

Back before the automobile, however, winter travel needed its own version of studs or chains. At this time of year, the shoes of horses had to be kept very sharp so that hooves could bite into the ice. A horse with dull shoes could slip and injure a leg.

Later, horseshoes were equipped with devices called calkins or calks. A calk was a tapered wedge or cone-shaped piece of iron or steel projecting downward on the shoe of the horse to prevent slipping.

According to one old source, it was a Ridgefield, Conn., man who invented calks. He sought the aid of an attorney to get a patent. However, the attorney stole the idea from the poor inventor and took out the patent in his own name.

The Ridgefield man was so upset, the story goes, that he went out of his mind and wandered aimlessly around the village the rest of his days.

Maybe the man should have left well enough alone. For him, good advice might have been, “If the shoe slips, bear it.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Winter harvest

There’s an old saying that firewood keeps you warm twice: Once when you’re cutting it and once when you’re burning it. But that’s not why winter was the time for woodcutting among the old farmers who lived in town a century or three ago.

Winter was woodcutting time for more practical reasons. First and foremost, farmers had the time – there were no crops that needed tending in January and February.

In winter, it was easier to pull large loads of wood on a sledge or “stoneboat” because the winter woodlands were usually covered with snow or ice and the forest floor did not have much of the thick underbrush that made travel among the trees difficult at other times.

The wood was drier in winter, lacking the sap found in spring, summer and fall. Logs would season more quickly and be safe and ready for the following winter’s home fires.

Good farmers loved the outdoors and always needed something to do. Wood was their winter harvest.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Winter hoods

Along the Atlantic Coast south of Cape Cod, the cold months are the best time to see Hooded Mergansers. They winter along our unfrozen coast, favoring brackish water, and spend the summers inland to the north and west, on wooded lakes, ponds and rivers.

They are famous for the big, white and black head crest that males display when trying to attract females. In his Essential Field Guide Companion, Pete Dunne says it “opens and closes like a Chinese fan.” The female also has a collapsible crest, which is reddish and not nearly as showy.

These birds are excellent at diving and can chase and catch fish with ease. They also eat just about anything else in the water, from crabs and insects to plants.

Hooded Mergansers used to be sort of rare, but their numbers have been improving. One reason for their resurgence is the large number of nesting boxes that have been set up, mostly to attract Wood Ducks. Hooded Mergansers, also cavity nesters, have been appropriating the Wood Duck boxes.

Of course, they will also use sizable holes in trees, and the reforestation of our once agricultural region may also be contributing to the population increases in the Northeast. Not surprisingly, the nesting trees must be near water.

In the spring, a few days after their eight or so offspring hatch, the babies must begin finding their own food. But first they have to get to water. If the nest hole is high in a tree, the parents will probably carry them one at a time down to the ground and nearby water. If the nest is low enough, the ducklings may be encouraged to jump – or tumble – down. The babies can swim, dive and feed themselves long before they are large enough to fly.

In a book called Our Amazing Birds, Robert S. Lemmon wrote in 1951 that “in all the bird world, there is no more charming sight than a pair of hoodeds, convoying their brood of eight or ten wee ducklings on the clear water of a forest lake, often with several of the little ones riding with evident enjoyment on their mother’s back.”

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Tunnel time

The snow, so cold and lifeless itself, tells tales of unseen life. On an early morning walk after a fresh layer has fallen, you may see scores of tracks of all sizes and shapes, the record of creatures roving the night in search of food.

If the snow is not too deep or if it is melting, you may also spot narrow tunnels that curve, loop and zigzag under the crust and near the ground. They are a sign that shrews have been foraging for overwintering insect eggs and grubs. Tiny and weighing a fraction of an ounce, shrews are the hummingbirds of the mammal world. They live a high-speed existence, with a heart that beats up to 1,200 times per minute - 20 beats per second! To keep that machine going, shrews must eat up to three times their weight each day.

No wonder they wander in all weather. But unlike commuting humans, shrews probably like traveling in the snow. It helps hide their movements and sounds from the sharp eyes and ears of nocturnal predators like owls and foxes who might love a juicy shrew for a midnight snack.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Feathered hope

Backyard bird watching and feeding are said to be among most popular pastimes in America. Birds are, after all, entertaining. They offer variety, action, even comedy as they jockey for position on your feeder or wander your lawn and shrubs, in search of a bite to eat.

In winter, though, they also offer a bit of hope. When the winds are blowing, the snow is falling, the temperatures hover around zero, and even squirrels are hidden in their nests, the sight of chickadees, titmice, jays, and juncos flitting around outside your window bring a lot of action to an otherwise lifeless landscape.

But real excitement comes when, in the middle of winter, a robin shows up in a bush or a bluebird at the feeder. While these birds are symbols of warmer times, many spend all winter in the North, mostly off in wetlands where there’s a bounty of berries and seeds to eat. However, a good storm may bring them to your yard in search of food and perhaps shelter.

And in their blue backs and red breasts, we get glimpses of the spring to come, when the full array of life will return to our now barren landscape.