Twenty Years


(This 1045th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 3, 2011.)


This column completes twenty years of "Nature Watch". I'll mark this occasion by reminiscing. Here are excerpts from a few early columns at this time of year.


1991. Little Valley. My first trail hike of the year. My shins, calves and finally hips keep me informed. Three hen turkeys quietly feed on the trail. Seeing me, they shoulder each other off the path and melt into the woods. Along a ridge are several acres of blowdown. The absence of overhead canopy encourages bare raspberry branches to tear at my clothes. A fox sparrow, like a big, richly dressed and redder song sparrow, works its way through the tangle.


1992. A confession: I joined a group that sought to have the kingbird named our New York State bird. Of course our insurrection was immediately crushed and the lovely Eastern bluebird continues to represent us. There were many arguments in the kingbird's favor, but I recall one telling criticism. A discerning opponent felt that the kingbird represented one aspect of "our state personality" too well: our belligerence.


1993. Hiking the Erie Canal from Middleport to Brighton, near Hindsburg I find dozens of dead bees curled in the snow. My bee-keeping friend Guy Johnson informs me that these are drones, driven out of a nearby hive by the female worker bees. This way food is conserved for the contributing members of the colony. Perhaps the honey bee could serve as the designated insect for N.O.W.


1994 How can you hide a baseball behind a pingpong ball? My father posed that puzzle to me when I was about ten. His answer was instructive: it taught me about solar eclipses. The solution: close one eye, hold the baseball at arm's length, and with the other hand hold the pingpong ball between your eye and the baseball. By adjusting the distance, you can find a point at which the pingpong ball just hides the baseball. And that, my father told me, is how the smaller moon hides the sun in a total solar eclipse. The sun's diameter is 400 times that of the moon, but it is also almost 400 times as far away.


1995. Skunk cabbage is at its best in March and April. Now you'll see a group of oddly attractive purple monk's hoods, each with a peak that bends forward to screen its interior. If you bruise that hood, you'll release that skunky smell, but if you are more careful, you may be able to detect (as I cannot) what some describe as a more appealing fruity odor. 

1996. At the Clarence turf farms, we came upon two rough-legged hawks that put on a spectacular show. They were obviously courting, their soaring loops almost intersecting. When they approached each other they would heel over on their sides and flash their talons toward their partner. I hoped they would "grasp hands" like we saw the Iroquois eagles do two years ago, but they never got quite close enough.


1997. Along the Peanut Line Railroad pathway in Amherst I find many burdocks - and, indeed, they find me as well. My pants and jacket are festooned with burdock burrs. That is, of course, this hitchhiker's mode of transportation. Every burr is a bristly sphere of spears hooked like crochet needles. Many attached themselves to Velcro patches on my jacket, a case of the original adhering to its imitation. 
1998. One of the best features of April is that favorite of children - and me as well - the pussy willow, a common shrub of low wet areas that is often "civilized" to form a garden hedge. Now their soft furry catkins have burst from under the varnished brown, tent-like bracts that protected them through the winter. Those gray pussyfeet invite stroking.
1999. I have only seen one weasel in a lifetime of outdoor 
activity. It was wintertime and the weasel was all white except for the tip of its tail, remarkably handsome in that soft, petable ermine coat and with a sleek body obviously built for speed. It 
seemed miniaturized: tiny ears, tiny beads for eyes, tiny dachshund-like legs. It stopped only 
briefly, rose erect on its hind legs and then bounded off.-- Gerry