Sunday, January 26, 2014

Surviving Winter

Winter Solitude

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone 
and solitude expresses the glory of being alone. 
-Paul Tillich

We had a mid-week temperature of minus 22F in the morning and the plants are protecting themselves. At least we weren't as cold as Watertown, New York - they were minus 37F on January 22, 2014. They were coldest city for that day in the lower 48 States: Watertown's Wild Winter. We're about 25 miles south of Watertown.  If you missed my blog post on the ice storm in the Watertown area  before Christmas you can check it out here: Welcoming in 2014!

Do you recognize this shrub? It is a rhododendron. It almost looks like it's dying with the leaves all curled up like that. In winter when the temperatures drop below freezing, certain shrubs protect themselves by curling their leaves in to reduce the surface area that is exposed to the cold. This also makes a more humid area inside the leaf. Rhododendrons that are grown in the shade usually have a larger and longer leaf to gather more light and if they are grown in the sun the leaves are somewhat smaller and thicker to retain moisture.

Here is your word for the day: Thermonasty. As a matter of fact I knew there was a word for this occurrence of the leaves curling inward to protect the plant, but I couldn't remember the term so I had to look it up online. Basically it means the response to a change of temperature. If you are interested in additional scientific information on thermonasty you can click on the link:

Temperatures below freezing (32F degrees) and this is what
the leaves will look like on a rhododendron.
I always know how cold it is outside before I look at the thermometer by just looking at the leaves on the rhododendron. If they're curled up - it's pretty cold out there and below freezing.

This is the same rhododendron in winter as in above two photos but temperatures above freezing (32F degrees).

Same rhododendron in early June (leaves are fully extended)
Frosts: Frost can be very damaging to some plants especially if you get a warm spell in late winter and the buds on trees start to open and then you get a heavy frost after that. You might not notice the damage right away and it may take several months before it shows up. You can identify frost damage from new growth that has pale brown patches and scorching between the veins on the leaves; evergreen needles can appear scorched and turn brown; a spring frost can damage flower blossoms and young fruit; and some plants appear to be water-soaked which turns dark green and in time turns to black.

If you planted shrubs and perennials that were recommended for your hardiness zone (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones) you should not experience much damage from the cold temperatures to your plants. But that's not always the case. Sometimes winter-kill also occurs.

Winter-kill: Sometimes a tree, shrub or perennial might be damaged by winter-kill. This can happen in the fall when the temperatures drop too fast early in the season and the plant has not acclimated to the colder temperatures. It can also occur during winter dormancy, or in or in the spring after the plant is coming out of dormancy.

It's possible that your plant was already stressed from last year's growing season if it was a particularly dry season. In winter when it's very cold, if the ground is frozen the plant can not take up water and the leaves will dry out and turn brown. Add wind to the problem and that can cause major problems for your trees and shrubs. In our area of New York we are fortunate in that we usually have significant snowfall which helps to protect and insulate our plantings. Where there is no snow on the ground and you have very cold temperatures your plants are more susceptible to winter-kill.

A very old trumpet vine
Another term used during this period is desiccation. Winter desiccation occurs when the amount of water lost in the foliage (wind being a contributor)  is greater than the amount of water taken up by the roots. This is more common with the evergreen trees. A lot of times the trees will look fine in the winter-spring but a few months later will turn brown. The top is more often to turn brown first because it is farther away from the roots and the least likely to have protection from snow cover. Newly planted evergreens might experience some loss of needles but should survive if they were watered well in the fall. If you have a dry season it's important to keep all your trees and shrubs watered through the fall to help keep them from drying out during the winter period.

Clematis vine on small trellis

In late winter or early spring when you are able to get back out into your garden, check your plants to see if the frost has heaved any of your perennials out of the ground. I've had this happen to irises and heuchera (coral bells), and other perennials. If you find that this has happened to some of your plants put a rock on them to keep them from getting further pushed out of the ground until you can re-plant them deeper into the soil.

If you notice that a plant is not growing in spring and you suspect damage from winter, do not dig it up right away or discard it. Sometimes it takes a few months for them to rejuvenate and start growing again.

Rugosa Rose hips in winter.
Perennials/Plants for Winter Interest: Some plants that you might like to add to your garden this upcoming year for winter interest could be the Rugosa Rose bush. This is a large shrub and it can grow up to 8' high. It has good fall color and produces hips after flowering. The hips will last all year (if the birds don't eat them). They are very tolerant of cold temperatures, and mostly pest free.

Be careful handling the shrub because the stems have thorns growing up all the stems. The thorns are close together and can be brutal. Plant it in an area away from foot traffic. I really love this rose because it reminds me of the old-fashioned roses with it's strong scented flowers. Not all of them are scented and its also is available in other colors. It is cold hardy for zones 3-9.

Rugosa Rose in summer

Tall Sedum (Autumn Joy)  photo taken October 2013
Another plant for winter interest is the tall sedums and specifically Autumn Joy. Depending on how much snow cover you get you can enjoy this plant from spring through winter. It is a very adaptable plant and will grow in full sun or some shade. It grows into a clump and is not invasive. It flowers from August and the flowers last through November. It will grow about two feet tall. The flowers open a light pink and turn very dark later on in the season. It also is a butterfly magnet. This plant is very easy to propagate as well. All you have to do is break a branch off it and plant it directly in your soil or pot it up.

Note: Ted (my husband) is keeping busy this winter. Second New Birdhouse!!! If you didn't get a chance to read my last post on birdhouses here is the link for it: Birdhouses - Think Spring!

Feel free to leave a comment. . .I would love to hear from you!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Birdhouses - - -Think Spring! ! !

Need something to do that will brighten up your yard/garden in the coming year? How about adding a new birdhouse or two? Even if you don't get any birds to use them it will add a little yard art to your view.

One of the birds basic needs are nesting sites. Depending on the species of bird, it could be located in deep grass, nesting boxes, tall trees, marshes, in abandoned buildings, in the side of a sand bank, and sometimes on cell or cable towers.

Some birds build nests on shelves on the side of buildings, basketball hoops, hanging flower pots and every other imaginable place. Some birds build very precise, intricate weaves, and some build a sloppy nest of some twigs. And other birds nest in colonies.
This photo and the one above is from my friend Jan's yard.
You will first have to decide what kind of birds you want to attract to your yard and then find out what kind of nests they construct. But before you do that you have to know what kind of habitat you have. Example: If you have a yard with few trees in it you are probably not going to be able to attract woodpeckers, but if you are on the edge of a clearing or have a large yard you might be able to attract bluebirds. Choose a nesting box or bird house based on what kind of birds are currently visiting your property. Once you determine that then you have to decide where to site the bird house and how high up to place it. It's not as complicated as it sounds, and there are a lot of pages on the internet that can help you with this information.

Here are some very good links that will help you with your initial choices of birdhouses:
An older bluebird house now used by wrens

Birds You Can Attract
Placement of Birdhouses
Design (important because it includes information on ventilation, drainage, accessibility, entrance hole, and cleaning). A note on the size of the entrance hole: it's important to have the correct size for the appropriate bird you want to use the bird house. If the hole is too big it will attract larger birds (like house sparrows and starlings) to either enter and steal the eggs or lay their eggs in the nest and have the other species of bird raise their young.
Birds Nesting Box Chart
Protection from Predators

While this information is useful it isn't an exact science. It will provide you with the help you need in determining what you need to do to attract birds to move into your yard and take up residency.

Now is a good time to either shop or build your birdhouses. If you place them outside in late winter/early spring before the spring migrating birds return from the south they have a good chance of checking them out and using them. In some species of birds the male returns to the north before the female and inspects some nesting sites before the female returns and then they build the nests together. Some birds build multiple nests in the same area.

My husband recently built the bird house in the picture to the left. It's quite large but doesn't appear that way because it's up so high on that tree. Because we have quite a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers (see previous post on More Feathered Friends), he decided to make the dimensions to house that bird.

This is how high
the box is located.

You can see how high up in the dead tree where he placed the box. This box will also be suited for the saw-whet owl.

Gourds (the red one pictured first on this blog) can be used by many birds depending on its location. These are very popular in the south when mounted high on a pole with several of the gourds lined up in a row. They will be used for Purple Martin colonies or bluebirds will use them too. We put up some in our back yard several years ago to attract the Purple Martins (because they eat several thousand mosquitoes each day) or bluebirds. We ended up having tree swallows use it for several years, but that's ok because they eat mosquitoes too. After they moved out we had the Great Crested Flycatcher use the same gourds for several years too. They eat bees. We didn't find out until later, but there was a bee hive that used one of the gourds and it was pretty convenient for the flycatchers because they moved in right next to their food supply. They usually look for abandoned woodpecker holes to nest in.

Purple Martins prefer a large open field area on the edge of a pond or lake. They don't like to be too close to any building (preferably at least 40' away). They nest in colonies so you would need a bird house that has at least 4 available rooms or gourds.

House wrens will use just about any available birdhouse if the entrance hole isn't too large.

The nesting box at right is made from PVC pipe. Wrens have nested in it.

Tree Swallows will use PVC nesting boxes. Bluebirds and house wrens have also used this type of house.

Tree Swallow using PVC bird house

This is a bird house (on left) for multiple birds that is located on the Oswego River at the lock in Phoenix, NY.

Shelf  box used by robins on pole barn

Phoebe nest constructed of moss on plant hanger under the roof of our barn.

Decorative birdhouses. Some birdhouses are just pretty and look great on your porch or as a decoration in your yard.

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak on feeder.

Birdhouse mounted on PVC pipe.

This is the backside of a bird house that houses three separate nests (2 on left on one on right).

If you have birdhouses out from last year be sure to clean them out before spring.

Here are plans for constructing various birdhouses: Next Box Construction Plans
If you decide to build a birdhouse make sure it has ventilation and drainage holes in the box.

Hope you decide to add a birdhouse 
(or add another one) to your yard! 

Feel free to leave a comment. . .

Sunday, January 12, 2014

More Feathered Friends

Male Cardinal
Everyone loves pictures of birds in winter. . . especially the Northern Cardinals! With their pointed crests, bright red feathers, orange beaks, and black throats, they really are stunning against the white snow. Such a beautiful sight. The males are much brighter than the female to attract predators away from the female while she is sitting on the nest and raising their young. This is true in several other species of birds. The female Northern Cardinals are yellow-brown with some red on the wings and crest. You will find cardinals in hedge rows, wood margins and suburbs.

You usually can tell what kinds of seeds/nuts birds prefer by the size and shape of their beaks. The Northern Cardinal beaks are very large, conical shaped and designed for cracking open large seeds such as the sunflower seeds, one of their most favorite foods. The baby Northern Cardinals' coloring is that of the female and their beaks are black.

Female Cardinal
If you live in the north and hear the song of the Northern Cardinal at the end of winter, you know that spring is just around the corner. Such a beautiful song. Here is a link to their call and song: Northern Cardinal Sounds (when the link opens scroll down and click on the arrows for the Songs and Calls)

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpeckers: The red-bellied woodpeckers are about 10" long. They live in open and swampy woodlands. We are on the northern edge of their territory. You usually will not find this bird any farther north. If you do then they will usually migrate south for the winter. Otherwise they do not migrate. They will come to feeders in winter for seeds and suet. This bird, in the past, was scarcer in the north, but they have since expanded their breeding range. The first time I saw one of these birds around our house in the winter, I was very surprised seeing as they were so rare this far north. Now they are one of our frequent winter visitors.

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker
If you notice the difference between the male and female Red-bellied Woodpecker, there is less red on the top of the female's head than on the male's.

You can see a slight red coloring on the belly

I have no idea where they got the name Red-bellied Woodpecker from for this woodpecker. There certainly is not much red on their belly. But they didn't consult me when they were naming this species of woodpecker.

I like this photo because you can see a Hairy Woodpecker in the branch on the left,
 and a Red-bellied Woodpecker on the suet feeder.

Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker: Two other woodpeckers that are fairly common around our place are the Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker. They are common in mixed woods of pine and deciduous trees. The major difference between the two would be their size. The Hairy Woodpecker is about 9" (the size of a robin), and the Downy Woodpecker is about 6" (the size of a sparrow). The sexes are similar in coloring except the male has a red patch on the back of his head. The Downy Woodpecker also has a smaller bill. The Downy Woodpecker is the most common woodpecker in the east and is also common in some of the west as well. You also might find Downy Woodpeckers in the suburbs and orchards. Try putting out some suet if you want to attract them to your yards. The Hairy Woodpecker is more shy than the Downy Woodpecker and is more apt to be found in the forest.
White-breasted Nuthatch on left and male Downy Woodpecker on right

If you look at the woodpeckers' beaks, they are huge. They are used for hammering nuts and acorns open, making holes in trees to search for bugs and ants, and also carving out spaces in trees for nesting cavities. They also eat grasshoppers, wood-boring beetles, and other pests, and may store their food.

Hand-warming female Downy Woodpecker
after it flew into one of our windows.
Some wild birds can be hand fed like chickadees and nuthatches, but this downy woodpecker flew into one of our windows and was pretty well stunned. If you missed my post on chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, and juncos, you can find it here in this issue: This One Is For The Birds

This Downy Woodpecker was lying on the ground and not moving or making any attempt at getting up to fly away. Not sure if this female would have made it if my husband hadn't gone out to warm her up. It was pretty cold that day and my husband warmed her in his hand for about 20 minutes. She was finally able to fly up into one of the trees and sat their for awhile until she finally flew off.

Because we have been feeding the birds for so many years we've tried several devices to keep birds from flying into the windows. We haven't been able to find anything that works. We've tried putting up silhouettes of hawks but that didn't work either.

Downy Woodpecker flew into this tree after it recovered.

That's one of the hazards of feeding birds near your house. They sometimes fly into your windows and can cause damage to your property and to them as well. It becomes dangerous when hawks are searching out smaller birds for food so they come into the area where the birds are feeding. When the birds are scared like that they just scatter and sometimes forget the windows are there. And we've had hawks fly into our windows as well. Just last year we had to have one of our bathroom windows repaired from a hawk flying into it. The hawk must have been fine and flew off because we never saw it on the ground after that. Several years ago we had a hawk fly into our living room picture window. We had a feeder out front that we have since moved away from the windows. You might want to consider where you place your feeders outside and make sure they are placed away from windows.

Would you look at the size of that squirrel??? He's looking a little confused. He's used to helping himself to the suet in our old feeder. My husband replaced our old suet feeder with this one and now he can't steal the whole block of suet anymore.

Gold Finch on back of feeder and Purple Finch on right

Purple Finch: The above bird, the Purple Finch, was a rare siting for us last week. Right before we had those very cold temperatures (minus 10 F) this bird, along with some Gold Finches, were feeding at our feeders. This was the only picture I got of the Purple Finch. I was hoping to get some additional pictures, but after I took this he flew off never to be seen again. The Purple Finches are hard to distinguish between the House Finches because the coloring is so similar and they are the same size. The House Finches have heavier brown streaking on the sides of their breasts below the wings. The female Purple Finches do not have any red on them and they are heavily streaked on the breast and under the wings. They prefer to breed in coniferous forests, but will breed in mixed forests of deciduous and pine trees. In the winter you can find them in shrubs at the edge of a forest, fields and they will visit feeders. They prefer the black oil sunflower seeds.

Gold Finch
Gold Finch: Another bird that has been visiting our feeders regularly this winter is the Gold Finch. The gold finches molt (lose their feathers) in the fall and their winter feathers grow in a lot duller than their bright spring yellow coloring. In winter the males are almost the same color as the females. The males' spring and summer colors are bright yellow with a black forehead and white wing bars, and white on their rump while the females retain their dull colors.
When gold finches fly they have an undulating flight pattern and usually sing one of their calls.

Junco on top branch and Mourning Doves on bottom branch.
Mourning Doves: The mourning doves are a very common bird across the country. They mostly forage for their food on the ground but if snow is covering up their food supply, they will take food from a feeder. When they are taking off for flight their wings make a loud whistling noise. Quite often you will see the mourning doves on telephone wires. One of the mornings where it was extremely cold at our house we found several of them sleeping in one of our back yard trees (pictured above). This helps to insulate their bodies against the cold and retain energy.

"In order to see birds it's necessary to become a part of the silence."
 -Robert Lynd

I enjoy sharing my knowledge
of birds with you.
Hope you found it interesting as well. 
Feel free to leave a comment. . .

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Our Ever Changing Cultural Landscape

When we first moved to this area, almost 40 years ago, we liked the small town atmosphere, the small school district and the busy, little community. We always hoped that it would stay that way. We live about 3 miles from our little Village of Mexico, New York.

We were always worried that a large housing development might go up on our road or in our community and that would have devastated us. Especially if a housing division went up across the road from where we live. That land went up for sale a few years after we moved here and it sold, but luckily for us it was never developed. We moved her for the specific reasons of a little more land and woods for our children to play and grow up in.

The road we live on.
Well, it pretty much has stayed a small little community.  My husband used to joke that if a fast food restaurant moved in to our community that we were moving. Well, we now have a McDonalds, a Subway, a Dunkin Donuts, and other typical community businesses and we're still here.

One of the first Amish homes in our area.
About 15 years ago an Amish family moved into the area about 15 miles from here. They had purchased a small farm from a farmer that was selling his property. Since then we have had several Amish families move into our local townships. They are buying up abandoned farms and buildings and making repairs to the buildings on the properties. The Amish are attracted to New York because of the lower prices for farm land in rural areas and the isolation that exists in these rural areas as well. And their original local areas, like Ohio, have become very populated. New York has the fastest-growing population of Amish and 5th overall.

Within a ten mile radius from our house we probably have at least 10 Amish families living in our towns. It is not unusual now to see or hear the buggies going down our road. The first time I heard a buggy going down the road, I couldn't see it and I thought it was a car with some pretty bad tires on it. It sounded like it was dragging something. It was shortly after that I saw a horse and buggy go by. Depending on the specific order of Amish some do not use rubber on their buggy wheels.

Amish School about 5 miles up the road from us.
Each order of Amish have their own differences from other Amish orders, and they are governed by their local bishop and ministers. The bishop and ministers do not have any formal religious training but are elected by their members. Some of the minor differences between the orders would be the different style of hats for the men, and head coverings for the women. Also included in this category would be the color and length of the women's dresses, and the type of suspenders for the men's pants, and the differences in size, color and shape of their buggies. The buggies shown in these photos appear to be from the Swartzentruber Amish originating in Ohio. I've identified this order of Amish because of the shape of their buggies and the main difference is that they do not use the red triangles (for slow moving vehicles) on the back of their buggies. We have seen some of their buggies marked with white reflector tape. This would be another of the differences among the different orders. Here is a link on the Swartzentruber Amish: Who are the Swartzentruber Amish?
Sign designating Amish School ahead.
Some Amish farms are permitted to use phones, cell phones, computers, and the use of electricity if they have a business. This is especially true if they have a dairy farm and are selling their milk. The milk would have to be refrigerated in modern milk tanks. One of the major differences among the orders would be the use of phones. Some are allowed to have a phone and these families might have a phone shed outside of their home. Most Amish families have indoor plumbing, but some of the stricter orders still use outhouses. This order of Amish in our area, the Swartzentruber Amish, are limited to the technology that they can use. I believe they are from the more stricter order of Amish and are not allowed to use electricity. I'm not sure if they are allowed to use a phone. I have seen some of the farms with sheds not too far away from their homes, but I'm not sure if they are for telephones or outhouses.

Sign on left advertising snow shoveling roofs and decks;  buggy in center
of photo on road; and children walking home from school on right.

The advertising for their businesses usually consists of a sign either in front of their house or at the end of a road/crossroad.
Amish farm on left and on right Amish school children playing outside of school for recess.

It's not unusual to pass a buggy on the road around here. Sometimes from my perspective it's very dangerous for the Amish. Especially after dark in the winter. It gets dark so early here in the winter (on the shortest day in December that would be about 4:30 p.m.) that you often see them on the road in the early evening.  They do have a light on their buggy on the drivers side. It's a lantern that is clear on the front of it and red on the back of it. It is basically a candlelight.

Sometimes if they don't have reflector tape on the buggy you can come up on them pretty fast after dark. And our country roads do not have a specific speed limit so therefore, quite a few people drive 55 mph. Another contributing factor to the hazards of their type of transportation is that with our snowbanks around here they cannot get off the side of the road at times to let people pass them in cars. It's not like our roads are really busy around here, but sometimes I think people drive too fast for the country roads.

The Amish have beautiful vegetable gardens. Usually the children, depending on their age, help with the gardening. Several of our local Amish farms sell their wares either at a stand in front of their house or at one of the local businesses. You can find baskets, quilts, vegetables, fruits, baked goods, fire wood and other various items at their little stands.

Milk tanks in the back of a wagon.

Talk about an ironic image - - -We have seen buggies pull into gas stations. They go to gas stations to fill their tanks with kerosene which is used for lamps and heat (I'm guessing). Some of them also use gasoline for diesel engines for their lumber mills, generators to keep the milk cold, and also for some of their other cottage businesses. This order of Amish do not appear to use coolers for their milk, but rather provide the milk in metal containers. The sale of their milk would most likely be used in cheese production because it would be a lower quality than that needed to produce milk.

They also will work for some of the other farmers that might need help. A few years back during one of our winters where we got record snowfalls, one of our local farmers that had a big dairy farm and barn needed his barn roof shoveled because of all the snow on it. There were over 6 foot drifts on his barn. The Amish neighbors came over as a group and helped them shovel it off.

Amish buggy in parking lot of Aldi's. 

They are allowed to ride in cars, but usually only in the event of emergencies. If they are travelling to visit other family members in another community they usually travel by bus. The Amish pay sales taxes, county taxes and property taxes, etc.

Children leaving school. Some walk home and some ride in buggies.

Amish children walking home from school
I never thought that when we moved here in 1974 that 40 years later one of my closest neighbors would be an Amish family.

Here us a short video of a buggy that we were following a few weeks ago on our way home from our village. Our car appears closer than what it actually was because I zoomed in with the camera.

Here is a link to some additional facts about the Amish traditions: Amish Life/Amish Facts

Link to Frequently Asked Questions on the Amish:

Other related articles: Amish America - New York
     Inexpensive land lures Amish-Mennonites to Region
     Sharing the Road with Amish Buggies
     Amish Men Jailed for Refusing to Attach Orange Triangles to their Buggies
     Upstate New York Amish Struggle for Survival
     A Local Amish Barn Raising

ADDENDUM: After I published this post I am very happy to report that a very popular author that writes fiction and non-fiction books on the Amish, Suzanne Woods Fisher, viewed my blog and commented below on it. Suzanne writes beautiful books on the Amish lifestyle and communities. Here is a link to Suzanne's website: Suzanne Woods Fisher. Thanks Suzanne!

Hope you enjoyed your visit with our Amish neighbors! 

Feel free to leave a comment. . .