by Winding Pathways | May 25, 2023 | Foraging, Nature
The Guys Do the Work
Some aspects of sunfish sex are bizarre. Here is a huge family of many species of fish where the guys do the hard work caring for their babies. That’s unusual in the animal kingdom, where normally mom cares for the young.
There are many sunfish species. Most are native to the eastern United States but they’ve been stocked all over the world. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds green sunfish, and crappies are abundant, easy to catch, and tasty. That’s why they’re called “panfish.” Largemouth and smallmouth bass also belong to the Centrarchidae, or sunfish, family but most people consider them gamefish.
How It Works
As water warms in the spring, the males of most sunfish species create a round depression in the sand in shallow areas of a lake or pond. Females don’t help a bit with nest building and spend their days cruising the water seeking tasty invertebrates to eat. They visit a nest only to lay eggs, which are immediately fertilized by the tending male. She leaves. He stays. Lots of pesky small fish love eating sunfish eggs, so the poor male spends his days chasing them off. Finally, after the eggs hatch and babies leave the nest, he’s free to join the females roaming the pond.
Many sunfish species nest throughout the warm months, while others, like bass and crappies, have one spawning season. One part of sunfish sex is absolutely strange.
A four-acre pond where Rich fishes has relatively deep water and only one shallow area suitable for sunfish to nest. It is small so round nests are crowded together, forcing the two sunfish species to spawn near each other.
Green Sunfish are smallish but aggressive colorful fish with relatively large mouths. They usually dwell in rocky areas. Bluegills are one of the largest of the sunfish. When both nest in close proximity hybrids result. They look a little different from each parent species. The strange part is that nearly all the hybrids are males!
Sunfish are amazingly common, fascinating, and often colorful. Males are fun to watch as they patrol their circular nests driving off intruders.
Sunfish are fun to catch.
Chunky hybrid sunfish.
by Winding Pathways | Mar 9, 2023 | Foraging, Geology/Weather, Maple Syruping
A slice of history.
Scars in a tree at the Indian Creek Nature Center reveal maple syruping history.
Back in 1979 Rich Patterson and volunteers approached a husky Box Elder tree, armed with a drill, spile, and buckets. It was early March. Nights were cold and frosty, followed by warm sunny days. Syrupin’ weather.
Oozing Out the Sap
As soon as the drill’s bit cut through the tree’s bark, clear watery sap oozed out.
Rich gently tapped in a metal spile and hung a bucket under it. By day’s end, two gallons of clear sap nearly filled the pail ready to be boiled into syrup.
The spile angles slightly downward.
Visitors and plastic bag on tree
If not overdone tapping just harvests a small percentage of a tree’s sap. It’s sort of like a person giving blood. Taking a little does no harm. Healthy trees quickly create a scab over the tap hole, somewhat like a human body heals a scratch. As the tree grows and its trunk diameter swells, wood forms over the old tap hole. It’s fine to tap that tree again next year, the year after, and every following year.
Syruping season ends when night temperatures don’t drop below freezing. That’s when spiles are pulled, leaving the hole for the tree to heal.
Aging Out of Production
That’s what happened to the Nature Center’s tree. Box Elders are true maples capable of producing sap for quality syrup, but they are short-lived. An 80-year-old Box Elder is, well, elder and near life’s end. After being tapped for 40 years in a row the Nature Center’s box elder reached the end of its days converting solar energy into sugar. After its death staff felled it, revealing at least 30 tap scars. The oldest ones are closest to the center of the tree’s trunk.
Syruping is a fun late winter activity. To learn more visit the Indian Creek Nature Center during syruping season. It holds a fun Maple Syrup Festival in late March each year. For details check out Indian Creek Nature Center’s website.
Thanks, box elder for sharing some of your sap all these years.
Tasting sap from a sumac spile
Syrupin’ time is upon us!
by Winding Pathways | Feb 2, 2023 | Foraging, Nature, Pests, Trees, Trees/Shrubs
Disappearing Ash Trees
Ash trees are fast disappearing from American forests and towns. It’s tragic.
There are several ash species, including white, green, blue, and black. A Chinese native insect, the Emerald Ash Borer, is killing them all quickly. It’s awful.
Years ago, Dutch Elm Disease cleared cities of American elms, and many homeowners and towns planted green and white ash trees to replace them. Ashes, in general, thrive in the woods and towns. They grow relatively quickly, resist storm damage, and are beautiful. They seemed like an ideal urban tree.
That was true until Emerald Ash Borers were found in Michigan in 2002, although they may have been around at least a decade earlier. Since then, the insect has spread like crazy, killing ashes radiating outward from Michigan.
They reached Iowa years later and have since killed most of the trees in Cedar Rapids, area woodlands, and many other towns.
Salvaging Ash trees
Rich salvages wood from a scrap pile of used pallets. Pallets are made from cheap wood, like cottonwood, poplar, and hackberry, but now he’s finding ones made of ash.
Loggers are salvaging dead and dying ash trees, and the wood is cheap, at least for now. Soon ash lumber will no longer exist.
A Versatile Wood
Sports fans will miss ash wood. It makes the best baseball bats and has been used for gymnastic bars.
Ash also is crafted into gorgeous furniture.
We lost our big ash tree in the August 2020 derecho, but it was already infested with borers with its days numbered. Sadly, we cut the tree up but gave it a second task. It harvested solar energy and used it to make wood. That wood is now being fed, piece by piece, into our woodstove. It’s keeping our home warm, but we’d rather have our tree.
Ash bat on oak floor.
The ash tree anchored our east corner of the property.
White Ash bats will soon be a memory as these elegant trees die.
by Winding Pathways | Nov 24, 2022 | (Sub)Urban Homesteading, Birds, Bugs, Flowers/Grasses, Foraging, Garden/Yard, Nature
We think of fall as migration time when all the birds leave. And there is a great birdcast website to see in live time the flights. But an autumn walk through a park with wild edges reveals shrubs, bushes, and grasses alive with bird activity. Visit an orchard on a cold winter day and the odds are good for spotting robins pecking on frozen dropped apples, but wild fruits are more common, all just beyond suburbia.
Let’s step back to spring. When Rich worked at the Indian Creek Nature Center his phone would often ring during those first warm days. With excitement callers would announce that the robins had returned. Spring’s here!
Seeing a robin on a spring lawn gives the illusion that they’ve just made a long journey from a faraway wintering ground down south. Robins, bluebirds, and other birds usually just shift where they live and forage as seasons change.
A robin surveys the area
Robins, in particular, are ecological survivors. They’re adapted to living on lawns and around people during the warm months, where they nest on porch eaves and forage for worms and bugs in mowed grass. The coming of fall’s cold marks the disappearance of robins from suburbia. They don’t go far and make an amazing dietary switcheroo to wild fruits.
Robins and bluebirds shun their summer buggy and wormy diet and shift to fruits and some seeds come winter.
On an October walk, we spotted several wild fruits – berries perhaps – that birds feast on during the cold months. the native plants are great – even the poison ivy – the exotics are problematic.
Here are some common winter weedy and seedy plants:
- Gray Dogwood. This small native dogwood often forms thickets along trails, parks, woods, and even yards and holds plenty of berries into cold months.
- Wild grapes. People rarely eat sour and seedy wild grapes, and sometimes birds also leave them alone during summer, but come winter the raison-like grapes make nutritious avian fare.
- Poke Weed. In late fall this tall purple-stemmed and fruited plant is hard to miss. Birds eat the frozen berries. Note: Poke berries are toxic to people and many mammals but not birds.
- Poison ivy. Gulp. This bane of allergic people is a beneficial wildlife plant. Deer and rabbits browse on the woody sprouts and birds feast on the berries.
- Asian Honeysuckle, Japanese Barberry, and Oriental bittersweet are “dirty bird plants.” Actually, birds love the berries and carry them far and wide to poop out the seeds. All three exotic plants are highly invasive and crowd out more desirable native plants. Birds have helped them conquer woodlands and field edges to the detriment of healthy bio-diversity.
Poison Ivy berries are a favorite of birds.
Wild grapes are a tasty winter treat.
An invasive species and favorite of birds.
Winter Fare Is More Than Fruits
Winter bird fare isn’t just fruit. Many birds glean frozen spiders and insects from crevices in tree bark and dozens of species continue to eat grass and “weed” seeds. That’s a problem with mowed lawns. They produce no seeds, so few birds visit them during the colder months. Taller growing grasses, flowers, and shrubs often hold their seeds into the winter and are bird magnets.
This beneficial spider controls insects in the yard.
Birds bob on prairie grasses.
Ragweed seeds last through the winter.
Want to have birds in the yard all winter? Keeping feeders stocked helps, but better results come when homeowners encourage buffers of native shrubs, vines, and grasses that produce natural winter bird food and habitat. Most people love their tidy lawn, but edging the lawn, usually along a property line, or creating “pocket prairies” with native or desirable tall grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs adds summer color and year-round wildlife appeal. So, we encourage readers to create and leave wilder spaces for the birds!
by Winding Pathways | May 19, 2022 | (Sub)Urban Homesteading, Foraging, Garden/Yard, Weeds
Yes! The blossoms and leaves have vital nutrients and were cultivated by our European ancestors. In the modern world, every year homeowners spend money and elbow grease to poison their lawns all to try to rid their lawn of dandelions. They could sell the dandelions instead!
You can make money selling dandelion blossoms.
What? Sell dandelions? The Ackerman Winery in Amana, Iowa, crafts delicious dandelion wine. To make it they need thousands of the plant’s golden blooms and they pay $8 a gallon for them.
The dandelion season has faded for the 2022 spring, but we’ve seen lawns with many dollars’ worth of blooming dandelions that could have been sold. For information on how to buy dandelion wine or sell dandelions go on the Ackerman Winery website.
By mid-summer dandelion leaves are tough and bitter.
Dandelions are an amazing plant. Native to the Old World, their seeds were brought to America on the Mayflower. For thousands of years, people considered them a valuable resource. By late winter people often suffered from vitamin deficiency. Dandelion leaves are rich in vitamins and green up in early spring. People ate them to restore their health. They are as nutritious today as they were in the past.
Only in recent years have dandelions been considered pests. Because they are prolific, common, and easy to identify, chemical companies encouraged people to view dandelions as pests so they could sell herbicides.
How silly it is to spend money to kill plants that are good to eat and so nutritious. Thanks to Ackerman Winery they can even add to a family’s income.
How People Unwittingly Encourage Dandelions
Mowing low encourages dandelions.
Observation reveals a dandelion secret. They thrive on mowed lawns and rarely grow in prairies, woods, or wetlands. Mowing invites dandelions to move in, and chemical companies are ready to sell potions designed to kill a plant with a remarkable relationship with people. A natural way to reduce dandelion numbers in a lawn is simply to set the mower to cut at its highest level. It leaves the grass a big shaggy but their leaves shade the ground and discourage dandelion growth.
We enjoy dandelions at Winding Pathways and steam young tender leaves every spring.
by Winding Pathways | Apr 28, 2022 | (Sub)Urban Homesteading, Chickens, Foraging, Garden/Yard, Garden/Yard, Weeds
We are shocked by the rise of many prices, especially food. Fortunately, we mute the cost by finding or growing groceries here at Winding Pathways. We’re lucky to own two acres, but folks living on tiny lots can produce an amazing amount of food, even if they aren’t passionate gardeners.
In a nutshell here’s what we do to tame grocery bills:
It’s ironic that many people consider the most delicious and easy wild foods pests and spend time and money trying to eliminate them. We eat ‘em. Books and websites, including Winding Pathways, share tips on finding, identifying, harvesting, cooking, and eating wild foods. Caveat: ALWAYS check that you have the correct plant, gather from unpolluted places, and consume only a small amount initially to be sure your body accepts the wild edible.
Here are our favorites:
We’re not passionate gardeners and we don’t can or freeze vegetables, so here’s what we do:
- Succession plant: Our small garden yields an enormous amount of food. We don’t let a square foot be idle. When summer’s heat turns lettuce bitter, we pull it, feed it to our chickens, and plant beans or another heat-loving crop. Same with other crops that grow quickly and then fade.
- Use vertical space: Pole beans, for example, produce much more food per square foot than bush beans, so we choose climbers and use vertical space. We have the pole high enough to reach up and pull off the beans.
- Grow dwarfs: Some cucumber varieties, for example, are “bush” type, meaning they produce a crop without long vines that consume plenty of space.
- Think of winter eating: Because we lack freezer space and don’t can food, we plant vegetables that need little care during the growing season and store them until late winter without being canned or frozen. Here’s our list:
- Winter squash. Pick them, let them curet, and store them in a cool spot. They keep for months. Same with pie pumpkins.
- Carrots and parsnips. In late fall we smother the plants with a thick blanket of dry leaves or straw that keeps the ground from freezing. We’ve harvested carrots in January by brushing away snow and peeling back the mulch and pulling them.
- Sweet potatoes. They love the South’s climate yet grow well up north.
We carefully dig them in the fall, cure them, and store them like winter squash.
Sweet potatoes are a healthy vegetable.
Winter Squash vary in color, texture, shape and size.
We can’t imagine living without a small chicken flock. Our six to 12 hens gift us a couple of dozen eggs a week. Their manure fertilizes the garden and garden weeds are a great hen chow. During warm months our hens forage in their large run eating bugs, worms, and weeds and transforming them into eggs. Sometimes we even stew down an old hen.
In the summer hens find plenty to eat.
The chickens kept on laying eggs.
Chickens efficiently recycle squash seeds to eggs.
Lots of folks don’t like hunting. For us harvesting a deer is a form of food gathering, not recreation. After all, deer are free-ranging, local, and organic. Fortunately, we’re able to hunt on our property and convert a deer into delicious meat. We also enjoy eating panfish.
Like most folks, we can’t grow or forage all our food but much comes from the yard and area. It takes knowledge and investment in elbow grease but trims the food budget. Perhaps even better, knowing how to find and grow food makes us feel less vulnerable to national disruptions that make food either hard to get or expensive.