As the Crow Flies

After 20 Years, A Purple Martin Colony!

On becoming a landlord to the largest North American swallow
Article and photos by Doug Pifer
For over 20 years my wife and I have wanted purple martins to nest where we lived.  We bought books about attracting martins. I set up a wooden three-story purple martin house with the proper measurements and studied the best places to attract the birds. I made white painted gourd houses, hung them from a telescoping pole the proper height above the ground, and installed a baffle to deter climbing raccoons and other predators. I measured the site’s distance from large trees and from our house. I even carved and painted realistic martin decoys which I put up each year.
I bought a CD recording of the dawn song of purple martins and played it from April till July from 5:00 until 8:00 in the morning. We watched and waited as house wrens, tree swallows, and bluebirds successfully nested in our martin house. A colony of 8 bluebirds even roosted in our wooden martin house all winter. But no martins.
Sometimes three or four martins would show up. They would call out loudly, circle lazily around the house or gourd rack, or hover in front of it. They sat in the upper branches in a dead tree nearby, checking things out. But they neither stayed nor even landed on the house! Each year we held our breath as the martins would come, circle around and then leave. Something didn’t
suit them.
In 2016 we bought a historic red brick farmhouse a mile or so from the Potomac River, with a barn, woods, a spring-fed stream, and five acres of pasture. After we moved in, I bought a new aluminum four-tiered martin house and put it up the following March. I set up a couple of decoys.
Finally, one May morning three purple martins appeared. They came every day but seemed to shy away from the decoys.  After I swallowed my pride and took my decoys down, four purple martins came back, hung around for an hour or so and then left. They repeated this daily routine until the end of July, but never nested or stayed overnight. Bruce Johnson, then owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc. in Winchester, assured me they would return to nest next year.
Bruce was right! I put up the martin house in the same spot, and around the first of May four purple  martins came. With much excitement and loud chirping, they circled around and entered all the nest chambers. In early June, three out of eight chambers contained active nests.  By summer’s end all three nests had produced baby martins —not bad for a first-year colony. The first brood fledged at the end of June and the last one left near the end of August.
Maintaining a martin colony requires a firm, long-time commitment from the landlord. Many folks are much more actively involved than I was last summer. They check the nests regularly during the breeding season, examining nestlings for parasite infestations, and, when necessary, replacing their nests and dusting the babies with insecticide. I only lowered the house on the telescoping pole and opened the chamber to check the nests once.  I hated disturbing the birds, especially because they all seemed to be just fine without
my interference.
Here are things I learned last summer about purple martins:
Purple martins aren’t in a hurry to do anything.
Martins require lots of clear, open space around housing.
Activity around the nest is generally in early to mid-morning.
Martins spend much of the day away from their nests, even when feeding young.
If you have house sparrows around, martins won’t nest. Buy and use a sparrow trap.
Get the half-moon shaped entrances for your houses to discourage starlings.
Not all martins choose the same material for their nests.
You don’t have to monitor martins as closely as some people do.
Martins capture and feed their young many large flying insects like dragonflies and cicadas.
Young martins may not return to the house to roost after they fledge.
First-year males look much like the gray breasted females, but can breed as successfully as older “purple” males.
Martin housing should have a nesting chamber larger than 6 inches by 6 inches.
Gourds used for martin housing should be at least 12 inches in diameter
Trust martins, and don’t get excited if they don’t do what you think they should do. If you do everything right but don’t get martins right away,
be patient!
When I took down the martin house to clean and put it away for the winter, I examined the three well-used nests the martins made. Each nest was a shallow cup of plant material lined with fresh green leaves plucked from trees. Yet each was uniquely constructed according to the preference of the builders. One nest was composed exclusively of small dried rootlet rosettes of short grasses plucked from the ground. Another was made of 4 1/2-inch long hay stems. The third nest consisted of short, dead twigs, and contained some dried mud and about a dozen fingernail-sized freshwater clam shells, evidently gathered from the banks of nearby Rocky Marsh Run.
The Purple Martin Conservation Association,, offers helpful information for martin landlords, a blog where you can connect with fellow enthusiasts to share your concerns, and sales and discounts on martin housing and supplies.
I can’t wait for them to come back this spring!

Lead Toxicity Remains A Problem For Raptors 

by the Wildlife Center of Virginia
Lead is a soft, pliable, elemental metal that is found in naturally occurring deposits around the world. While it has been used for centuries for many purposes, the highly toxic properties of lead have become well-known over the last 100 years through the issues of food contamination in cans sealed with lead solder, the toxic effects of lead-based paints and glazes, the polluting effects of leaded gasoline, the presence of lead in drinking water which passes through pipes connected with lead solder, and, more recently, the toxic effects of lead ingested by wildlife.
In wildlife, lead is most toxic when consumed by an animal, as opposed to lead bullets or shot simply lodging in muscle tissue. Exposure to digestive fluids and stomach acids breaks down the lead, allowing it to be absorbed into the blood stream and distributed to internal organs, the nervous system, the respiratory system, and the renal system. Lead may also leach from lead fragments lodged in joints and in bone marrow.
In 1991, the public became very concerned that nearly four million waterfowl in North America were dying from lead poisoning each year. Ducks and geese were ingesting bits of lead they found while filter feeding on the bottoms of
wetlands, marshes, shallow estuaries, or other bodies of water. The lead fragments the birds ingested were mainly shotgun pellets that had missed their primary target and rained down over the water.
The birds would deliberately pick up this shot and swallow it, thinking it to be food or grit they need for digestion. After years of debate, the federal government finally enacted a ban on the use of lead shot for most waterfowl hunting. The use of lead and lead-based projectiles for hunting of so-called upland species of game and nuisance wildlife has remained legal, presumably on the logic that spent shot which falls upon the land is very unlikely to be found and ingested by wildlife.
However, overwhelming scientific evidence now confirms that lead fired at upland game and nuisance animals is also finding its way into non-target wildlife, but mainly from lead projectiles that actually hit their intended targets. This lead is being ingested by eagles, raptors, scavengers, and non-target species when they prey upon wounded animals that have been shot, or scavenge the remains and entrails of animals that have been shot and left in the field.
While this once unrecognized toxic threat has existed for many decades, there is a dramatically increased awareness of the problem because new technologies and increased surveillance have enabled lead poisoning cases to be more readily identified. Also, the successful recovery and rapid expansion of once-endangered populations of species like Bald Eagles, whose historic habitat is greatly diminished, are forcing the birds to move into sub-optimal habitats where preferred food sources are not readily available.
As they move farther away from major bodies of water, like tidal rivers and bays, and are no longer able to find adequate supplies of fish for their normal diet, birds like Bald Eagles resort to scavenging as a primary foraging practice. Especially during and after the hunting season, animals and animal parts that are left in the field become a main food supply. As a result, often tiny fragments of the lead-based ammunition that remain in these dead animals and animal parts are available to be consumed by Bald Eagles and other
Between 2011 and 2017, the Wildlife Center of Virginia admitted 275 Bald Eagles, with 55 eagles being admitted in 2017 alone. The majority of these eagles came from the eastern third of Virginia, the Tidewater and Piedmont regions. More than two-thirds of the eagles admitted were suffering from measurable lead intoxication, to varying degrees.
Of the 55 birds admitted in 2017, approximately 35 percent had clinically observable indications of lead intoxication, including a general listlessness, inability to maintain balance, refusal to eat, overall weakness, and lack of muscle coordination. In severe cases, lead intoxication can cause a head tilt, blindness, convulsions, and eventually death. In such cases, treatment options are very limited and seldom successful.
Another 35 percent of the eagles admitted in 2017 were found to have elevated but less critical levels of lead in their blood, indicating some degree of intoxication, though the noticeable effects were less obvious. With “sub-clinical” levels of lead in their bloodstream, eagles may appear normal but still suffer damaging effects of the toxicosis. The birds may be able to fly, but with less agility. They may be able to see, but with less precision. They may be able to feed themselves, but not capture live prey. Their reaction time and reflexes may be slowed. Such sub-clinical intoxication is the functional equivalent of driving drunk; the birds are more likely to suffer accidents or injuries that would otherwise be avoidable.
As in waterfowl, the source of the toxin in eagles is lead shot and bullet fragments that were ingested by the birds as they feed. Frequently, diagnostic radiographs of the eagles show actual lead shot or bullet fragments still in a bird’s digestive tract. In some cases, the lead can be surgically removed, but not always. Even if the actual projectile has passed out the digestive tract and no longer remains in the body, dangerous amounts of dissolved lead can still be circulating in the blood or stored in the bones, brain, or internal organs of the body. No level of lead in the body is considered “safe.”
Compounding the threat is that, unlike organic toxins, lead is a heavy metal; an eagle’s internal organs are not able to easily purge the lead in the bird’s bloodstream. Once the lead enters the body, it remains virtually forever, accumulating in the bones of the bird and continuing to have permanent negative impacts. If the bird is exposed to additional lead in its diet, the amount of the toxin will accumulate and increase over time, eventually affecting the bird’s ability to survive. The cumulative impacts can last for years, and can only get worse over time.
For many people who don’t like hunting, this seems like an easy answer; but the truth is, it’s not that easy.  Hunting is not as popular as it once was in the United States, as a greater percentage of our population has gravitated to urban and suburban locations, but it is still an extremely popular pastime in the United States.  In some states, like Virginia, hunting and fishing are rights guaranteed in the state constitution.  And, to some extent, a hunting ban would be like banning driving as a way to reduce traffic accidents—not a proportional response.  In truth, many of the leaders of the movement to eliminate lead from hunting ammunition are themselves, hunters.  They are often the most effective messengers for information about lead toxicity.  Conversely, someone who openly opposes all hunting is NOT the right person to try and educate or inform the hunting public about this issue.  It may make you feel good to rant about hunters and declare, “Just shoot the hunters!” but that is actually extremely counterproductive.  The issue is about the availability of lead to scavengers, not about whether or not hunting is a good thing.
The challenge is not to find a way to ban the use of all lead — it is to find a way to reduce the amount of toxic lead fragments available to non-target wildlife and to do it without unreasonably affecting those whose activities are otherwise legal and acceptable to the public. Most lead-based firearms ammunition is used for national defense and public safety — by the military and police agencies. Target and competitive shooters, and those who own firearms for self-defense, consume the majority of munitions purchased by the private sector. Hunters use only a small percentage of all ammunition sold in the United States each year. A ban on all lead-based ammo would deal a serious blow to national security and public safety, and would hurt a lot of law-abiding firearms users, who are not contributing to the problem of lead-poisoned wildlife!
Thanks to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for this dispatch. The Wildlife Center of Virginia was formed in 1982 to provide quality health care, often on an emergency basis, to native wildlife. For more information, visit 

Time for leadership change at Virginia DEQ

The 2017 news cycle has whiplashed all of us. Just as we think it can’t get any weirder, bingo, it does. One result of being glued to news-of-the-weird is that it is easy to get distracted from important matters we face, like clean air and water. The Trump administration is living up to its campaign promise to decimate environmental protections.

They’ve nearly ceased enforcement for industrial polluters and crowed with pride about rolling back regulations that took years of science and public comment to develop. None of this should surprise anyone — they ran on a platform of rolling back rules and regulations that protect public health, and they won.

This puts an even bigger responsibility on the states. Entering the new year and a new administration in the Commonwealth, the question is: Will the governor and legislature step up? Or will they step aside?
Other questions abound. How will our landscape, air and water be protected from the impacts of natural gas extraction? How can rivers and streams be spared the negative impacts of mammoth gas pipelines? When will Virginia do a better job of enforcing its own laws with regard to rivers and streams that are, or should be, classified as impaired? Will local land use authority be maintained with respect to oil and gas development? Will the Commonwealth actually put stronger commonsense protections in place to protect the people, environment, and natural resources of Virginia?

So much remains to be seen. Virginia is fortunate to have a strong community of conservation organizations who work in the trenches, who bring the science and data — they present them in terms that even a legislator could understand should he or she have an interest in science. If you care about the Virginia landscape, clean air and safe water, you might consider supporting one of these organizations in your year-end giving.

On the subject of the new year, we think it’s time for a fresh face at the helm of the Department of Environmental Quality. Director David Paylor has served three governors: McAuliffe, McDonnell, and Kaine. Three is enough.

We have elections to bring in new ideas and to ensure our Commonwealth does not become a mirror reflection of a single point of view. If three governors thought enough of Paylor to appoint him, so be it. But the leadership of a critical agency should not be a lifetime appointment.

The issues we face today are vastly different than those of 2006. Virginia needs some new
energy and new ideas.

As the Crow Flies: Kingfishers Make A Big Splash

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer
Just as we passed the pond near the Freshwater Institute, we saw a kingfisher perched on a utility wire that ran about twenty feet above the water. Shooting swiftly straight down like a meteor, the bird spread its wings wide just before hitting the water just a few feet away from us. The arc of water from its impact shot more than a foot into the air, and the bird was up and flying back in the direction it came from before the splash had settled. Had we passed by a moment later we would have missed the
whole drama.
Belted kingfishers repeat this process many times daily. Like all predators, their success isn’t guaranteed. We’ve seen kingfishers dive many times and are surprised how successful most of these efforts are. Part of the accuracy might be attributed to the white spot kingfishers typically have in front of each eye.
Some scientists call these white spots “false eyes,” and believe kingfishers use them as sighting devices to focus on prey. A kingfisher, theoretically, uses binocular vision to align the white spots while looking down its bill at a fish, like sights on a gun barrel. This allows the bird to accurately compensate for the refraction on the water’s surface that makes a fish or crayfish appear closer than it is.
Sometimes, instead of diving from a perch above the water, a kingfisher will hover briefly and launch its dive from midair. When successful it carries its prey, usually a small fish, frog or crayfish, to a perch. Holding the prey tightly in its strong bill, it repeatedly slams it against the perch. After the prey is sufficiently stunned or tenderized, the bird tosses it upwards into the air and swallows it whole, headfirst.
A kingfisher’s unique appearance suits its way of life. Compared with most birds a kingfisher looks front-heavy.  A sword-like bill that looks far too big for the rest of the bird is supported by a large skull that flares widely at the forehead and eye sockets. The big-headed look is accentuated by the bird’s shaggy crest and
white collar.
Another odd kingfisher feature: tiny feet. Furthermore, kingfisher feet aren’t webbed as might be expected from a bird that gets its living in water. Instead, the two outer toes on each foot are fused together for most of their length. Their purpose becomes clear during the nesting season. Kingfishers dig tunnels in sandy or clay banks in the spring, stabbing their sturdy bills into the soil. The small feet handily scoop loose dirt backward and out of the way. After digging a narrow tunnel from 6 to 8 feet into the bank, the bird digs a nest chamber where it lays eggs and raises its young.
Photographers and bird watchers say a kingfisher is a good “scope bird.”  Kingfishers typically use a favorite perch—pier post, tree root, dead limb, or stretch of utility wire—as a launching pad and dining area.  So, you can set up a spotting scope or camera on a tripod and focus it on a perched kingfisher with a great likelihood that it will return to the
same perch.

Local Doctor Attends Climate and Health Meeting in Atlanta

Public Health in the Climate Change Equation

Story and photo by Jennifer Lee

Nick Snow has dedicated his professional life to helping people as a practicing gastroenterologist in Winchester for the last 22 years. For over a decade he has become increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change on public and planetary health.  “I began to realize that carbon pollution was beginning to affect my life and would most certainly affect the lives of my children,” he said. “As a gastroenterologist, I was caring for one patient at a time.  However, the health of the planet would impact not only my patients, but the health of all of us.”

Dr. Snow began reading scientific journals on climate change, taking online courses, and attending seminars on the effects of climate change — and solutions to it, including a three-day climate-change course sponsored by the
Climate Reality Project. (#CRPinFla).

This training, combined with his role as a physician, garnered him an invitation to attend the Climate and Health Meeting in Atlanta, February 16.  This meeting replaced a multi-day Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meeting that had been canceled shortly after the inauguration in January. Sponsors of the meeting included the American Public Health Association (APHA), the Harvard Global Health Institute, The Climate Reality Project, the Global Health Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and the Center for Health and Global Environment at the University of Washington.

He told us more about his interest in and commitment to this issue in a recent interview.

Q.  What is your background and what prompted your interest in climate change and associated issues?

A.  I have always had an interest in the health of the earth. I grew up in Ohio near a river that had repeatedly caught fire because of pollution. After the EPA was created, I saw this area become clean and vibrant again. In college, I studied quantum chemistry before going to med school.

Q.  What did you learn at the recent Climate and Health Meeting?

A.  2017 is the year of climate change and human health, according to the American Public Health Association. This meeting was not about the science of climate change, but more about how it is affecting our health now and how it will affect our health in the future.
Gary Cohen, president of Health Care without Harm, stated that, “Our addiction to fossil fuels . . .  is killing more people than AIDS, malaria and TB combined.”

Dr. Kim Knowlton of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia said that there are already 65,000 additional emergency room visits a year nationwide due to heat. This is only going to increase as our earth warms.

Dr. Mark Keim, Founder of DisasterDoc, laid out the effects of how rising sea levels will lead to food insecurity and displacements of millions of people. In fact, a quarter of the world’s sovereign nations are at risk of disappearing because of sea level rise.

Q.  Have you seen examples of how climate change is affecting the planet in your travels?  How so?

A.  I have seen the effects of climate change already. For one of my courses, I analyzed freezing temperatures for our local area and showed that over a 30-year time span, spring came more than a week earlier and fall more than a week later.  The last three years have been the warmest on record.

I was shocked this February by the unprecedented warm weather across the United States. High temperature records exceed cold temperature records by more than 100 to 1 this month.  In my travels, I have talked with a 27-year-old trail guide in the Andes who said he has witnessed significant glacier loss from the mountain peaks in his lifetime and this is confirmed by scientific measurements.

There is increased global demand for food, and climate change affects both the quality and quantity and location of where food is produced. This is because of increased CO2, increased temperatures, and changes in precipitation. Climate change affects pests, pathogens, and pollinators.  Because of decreased food, there is increased reliance on international trade.

Q.  What do you say to people who resist the science on climate change and that human activity is contributing to it?

A. We live in a country where denial of climate change and our burning of fossil fuel as the cause of it are common. Global climate is complex, though the physics of greenhouse gases is simple. In fact, scientists have predicted the observed warming since the 1800s. There is near universal consensus among scientists that carbon pollution is warming the planet faster than any other period in history.  All the major scientific groups in the world are in agreement. And 195 countries signed an agreement in 2015 to try to combat carbon pollution and resultant climate change.

Q.  With the proper tools and intention, do you think we as a society can combat climate change and avoid the
predicted disasters?

A.  We have the tools to combat climate change, but every year we waste, pollution increases in our atmosphere and the cost of adaptation increases. Encouragingly, the cost of green energy, wind, and solar has continued to come down. Presently, they are competitive with natural gas. Green jobs are the fastest growing segments of our economy, while fossil fuel jobs are decreasing, mainly because of automation. Green energy is a win-win-win.  It provides safe renewable energy and jobs that cannot be outsourced while improving human health.

While many people agree that climate change and its resultant effects are posing one of, if not the, greatest issues of concern of our time, Dr. Snow remains optimistic and committed to continuing to learn about solutions and sharing his knowledge with others.  “There are a number of things that people can do to improve their health and the health of their planet. The first is to merely become aware of the energy you use on a daily basis, whether for transportation, comfort, or food.  This is a global problem and will likely require global solutions.”

For more information about the conference and resources on climate change and public
health, visit:

Ceiling Fans Cool the Energy Burn

By Jeff Feldman


A good couple of years ago, I perused a magazine article highlighting inventions that have changed the world. I was surprised to see that the ceiling fan made the list. I can’t fully recall the author’s rationale for including the humble ceiling fan among such heavy hitters as the printing press, the public library, and the telephone. But as I sit here today in the summer swelter, with my ceiling fan spinning faithfully above me, I am in full agreement on its inclusion.

It was German-American inventor Philip Diehl who, in the mid 1880s, first mounted a fan blade on a sewing machine motor and attached it overhead. We have enjoyed the ceiling fan’s cooling breezes ever since.

We are all familiar with the simple premise of ceiling fan operation: air moving across the surface of our skin makes us feel cooler and more comfortable at warmer temperatures. A study conducted in Florida several years back revealed that proper use of a ceiling fan allows us to raise our air conditioner setting 2 degrees without any loss of comfort. This minor adjustment can result in up to a 14 percent reduction in annual cooling energy usage. With both energy prices and daytime temperatures rising steadily, the humble ceiling fan can offer some extravagant savings.

The problem is that many people don’t use their ceiling fans properly. That same Florida study found that we tend to run the ceiling fan but don’t bother with the corresponding bump of our AC those 2 degrees. This, of course, results in more energy usage, not less.

The other issue is that many of us turn on ceiling fans and then leave the room. The fan’s breezes cool us only when we are present to appreciate them. A ceiling fan whirling away in a vacant room is simply a waste of energy. You may argue that a ceiling fan contributes to air circulation within your home, but according to “the Green Curmudgeon” at, you’d be wrong. This includes the myth about running ceiling fans in reverse in the winter months. A Consumer Reports study reveals that the notion of fans reducing air temperature stratification—heated air sitting up toward the ceiling – is inaccurate, at least in spaces with the standard 8-foot ceilings many of us have in our homes.

Home energy auditors armed with infrared cameras have taken aim at running ceiling fans. Their findings? Those ceiling fan motors get hot! An active ceiling fan can measure 100 degrees, the equivalent of having a small heater mounted to your ceiling. This heat output is offset by the cooling effect of the fan, but only if the fan is actually blowing on you. The bottom line: don’t waste energy and add heat to your living space by running fans in unoccupied rooms.

I encourage those in the market for a ceiling fan to plan to spend a bit of money to get a good one. Those $50 specials at the big box stores that wobble and rattle give well-built ceiling fans a bad name. One of your key shopping criteria should be energy efficiency. Energy Star certified fans are 60 percent more efficient than non-qualified models. You can check out the 2014 list of Energy Star’s most efficient ceiling fans (over 52 inches) at

At the top of the Energy Star list sits the Haiku by Big Ass Fans. These lovely, bamboo-bladed, high tech fans—some of them come equipped with a room occupancy sensor!—operate on only 5–6 kWh of electricity each year, costing less than an estimated 70 cents per year . Of course these fans also cost over $1000 to purchase and so the payback period is a bit extreme.

For those looking for a good, solid, efficient fan that won’t break the piggy bank too badly, I suggest looking into Emerson fans. Emerson’s Carrera EcoMotor line of fans use only 14 kWh of electricity for an estimated annual operational cost of $1.59. Various motor finishes and wood blade packages can be mixed and matched on these fans and they are light kit adaptable. I installed Emerson fans in nearly every room of our home over seven years ago and have been impressed with how solidly built and well-designed they are. At around $400 apiece, this was a sizeable investment, one we did in stages, but we have enjoyed the quiet operation, the cooling breezes and the energy savings ever since.

Jeff Feldman is a speaker, writer and consultant on green living and green building. You can reach Jeff at

The Magnetic Draw Of ‘Ogs’

By LInda DeGraf


One morning as I began to rise from the depths of sleep, my husband called to me from our big glass sliding doors, “Come quick. You’re not gonna believe this!” Standing over the little pond in our yard was a four-foot-tall great blue heron! It was evidently eyeing the frogs as a possibility for breakfast before it took off for larger waters. That was an unexpected encounter with a wild one, but it was a welcome moment of wonder.

Adding a water feature to your yard or garden area nurtures a host of wildlife visitors, and provides a home for frogs and other aquatic lovers. Everyone needs water, whether to live in, breed in, hover over for a fly-by sipping, wash and splash in, or just sit by and feel renewed.

Having built our strawbale house on ground with a significant slope, we needed to bring in someone with a backhoe for some serious re-grading. What a fine time to scoop out a few more bucket loads for a pond. How big though and how deep? Everyone says to make it as big as you have space for because as soon as you put it in you’ll wish it were bigger! But we also wanted it to be manageable, simple, and affordable, so we made a modest, irregular shape roughly ten feet across.

How deep depends in part on what you want to do with your pond. If you hope, for example, that critters will be able to overwinter, you need at least some part of your pond to extend below the freeze line. In this area that means about three feet deep.

We dug out a shelf around parts of the perimeter to hold plants we got from a nearby pond, and used field stones to secure the pond liner. Stones placed in natural curves down to the water’s edge provide varying levels for wildlife to enter and exit the water, as well as plenty of nooks and crannies to hide from predators. We barely finished preparing the space before a huge rainstorm filled it with water. For the long term, we ran a downspout from our roof into the side of the pond, and created a spot on the lower slope for overflow. We added a few oxygenating plants, so we’re about to enter the third summer without the need for a pump. (There is plenty of information online for those who want more active circulation.)

Being surrounded by woods, we decided not to stock our pond, but to just wait and see who chose to come. Had we put in fish, they would have eaten most of the smaller critters and altered the native ecosystem we wanted to nurture. Within weeks we had hundreds of tadpoles! We have counted up to two dozen green frogs at a time basking on rocks or launching themselves into wrestling matches. Last summer four pairs of American toads held a three-day breeding marathon, trailing their black, jellied egg necklaces around and around the irises.

Once a shy wood frog peeked out from under a rock and pickerel frogs appear from time to time. In the spring, the choruses of tree frogs and greens resound throughout the evening. Last summer a painted turtle came and stayed for a few months. A ribbon snake spent hours weaving in and out of rock crevices and gliding sinuously across the water in vain attempts to snag a frog or two. One morning we watched a dragonfly emerging slowly from its old nymph exoskeleton. We see little goldfinches sipping water and hummingbirds gathering nectar from the irises.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of our wildlife habitat improvement project has been the delight of all the children that rediscover their own wildness at the edge of this one little pond. To bear witness to our two-year-old granddaughter’s squeals of joy and magnetic draw toward “ogs!” is to remember the wonder of the natural world.

Experiencing the intricacies of life cycles and biodiversity reconnects us with our own inner child and instills in all of us that the earth’s caretaking is our sacred trust. Watching that instinctive bond between children and their wild home is pure magic.


Linda DeGraf is an artist and educator of young children who lives at the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Community near Shannondale Springs.  The PVAS Backyard Naturalist program encourages people to connect with the wildlife in their own backyards. To learn how to provide quality backyard habitat, see

It’s Morel Mushroom Time

By Doug Pifer

Somewhere in an old orchard under a dead apple tree, grayish yellow mushrooms that look like sponges have popped out of the ground. It’s morel mushroom time.

I found my first morel in damp, rich woods where swamp violets and skunk cabbage grew. Poking up through wet leaves, it looked surprisingly like a small piece of dried sea sponge about five inches high. Pear-shaped, it had a short stem with a slightly granular surface.  When I picked it, it broke in half and was completely hollow, as if molded out of wax. I discovered several dozen more as I searched around among the dead leaves.

When I took them home, I studied several field guides and identified them as Morchella esculenta, the common, gray or yellow morel. The morel is related to the cup and bird-nest fungus, and its woodsy aroma reminds me of the dead tree roots on which it feeds. The cap of the morel generally has a honeycomb-like network of ridges surrounding deep pits. The tops of many of them take on a rusty or blackish tinge. But you know you have a morel mushroom when you split it open and the cap and stem are all in one piece and it is completely hollow inside.

The name esculenta means delicious.  Morels are among the choicest of all mushrooms. They belong to a group of fungi known informally as the foolproof four, along with giant puffball, sulfur shelf, and shaggy mane mushrooms. Supposedly these are the four most easily recognized edible mushrooms.

Morel mushrooms sometimes show up at farm markets. I once bought some at the Mount Airy Farm Market in Waterloo. They were delicious sautéed and served with buttered toast. It is always a good idea to split the morels in half and soak them in salt water for a minute or two. Virtually every morel mushroom has a resident population of springtails: tiny, soft insects so light colored they are nearly transparent. The salt water bath will destroy them all instantly.

In the Western States, morels grow by the hundreds in recently burned forested land. Harvesting them has become a big business there, and teams of professional pickers set up camps in the national forest lands in Washington, Oregon, and the Rocky Mountain states. There, licensed mushroom buyers sell them to gourmet stores and restaurants throughout the world.

Now here comes the wet blanket: I don’t recommend eating anything you pick from the woods unless you’re equally certain about what it is and what it isn’t. In other words, you should know what other species it might be, and how to tell the difference. The poisonous morel mushroom, Verpa bohemica, appears at about the same time as the edible morels. A poisonous morel resembles a brain more than a sponge, and its insides have a cotton-like texture. Still, it looks very similar and many folks have eaten it and have become really sick.

If you want to hunt and eat wild morels, remember there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old, bold mushroom hunters!

On Edge for Spring Gobblers

By Doug Humphreys

Ecologically speaking, an “edge” is the boundary between two distinct environments. It might be where a hardwood forest meets a hayfield. It could be timberline or where a dense pine forest meets the shore of a lake. As hunters we know from experience that an edge usually means game. But why?

To fully understand why game gravitate to edge environments, one must first understand the ecological phenomenon known as “edge effect.” The extreme case of a mature hardwood forest that borders a cultivated field is a good case study that dramatically illustrates edge effect.

The canopy of a mature hardwood forest minimizes the amount of light that reaches the forest floor and, as such, limits the quantity and type of vegetation that can survive in the understory. When a mature hardwood forest ends abruptly at the edge of a cultivated field, the characteristics of the forest edge are different than that of its interior. Wind and sun are able to penetrate the forest edge and create a drier environment with more available light—conditions favored by opportunistic species. This allows shade intolerant species to exist beneath the canopy, as they are able to take advantage of the light penetrating from the edge opening.

The edge ecosystem provides a perfect combination of food and cover for both game and non-game species. The open side of the edge provides grasses, grain, or legumes; which will vary based on whether or not the field is cultivated. The edge itself will provide abundant browse on the understory species and high levels of hard and soft mast, as species at the edge take advantage of available sunlight. When an animal senses danger, it can escape to the protection of the forested side of the edge.

Turkeys utilize edge areas for multiple reasons. They use the open side of an edge for scratching and take advantage of the inherent protection provided by the edge understory. In spring, toms strut along an edge and use the edge for breeding. Hens nest in the thick understory at the edge ensuring food for themselves and protection for their clutch, roosting in the tall trees overhead.

Hunting spring gobblers in an edge environment is an exercise in patience. A turkey hunter can begin the day by using the cover of morning darkness to enter a field and pinpoint the location of a gobbling bird still on the roost. When an active bird is located, the hunter can discretely position at the edge near the gobbler’s location. The gobbler will likely come off the roost into the field to strut at dawn.

Being positioned on the edge near the location of an early morning gobbling bird can present a shot as the bird struts along the edge looking for a challenger or a breeding hen. A hen decoy positioned 20 yards into the field can help draw a tom toward the hunter as well as divert attention away from any movement the hunter might make. Calling should be kept soft and to a minimum, the decoy should be the primary tool to bring an energetic morning bird into range.

During midmorning, when the hens go to nest, the gobblers will often head to an edge area to establish dominance and scratch. Patience is imperative during midmorning hours. The birds will typically gobble less and, unless they are fighting to establish a pecking order, content themselves to scratch in and out of the edge as they mosey with no particular purpose. A jake decoy will pique the interest of an older, dominant bird, and lure him into range. The occasional call to bring life to the decoy is fine, but don’t overdo it.

When hens come off the nest in late morning to stretch their legs and look for a mate, toms will often gobble with the regularity and vigor one would expect at dawn. A hen decoy in the field, supplemented with a jake decoy, will attract the attention of a mature tom. Call enough to get the attention of an active bird, but, again, keep calling to a minimum.

Choose a camouflage that matches the environment and season. In the early part of the season, before foliage is heavy, I use a tree bark pattern of some design. As the woods green up, I switch to good old-fashioned woodland camo.

To most people, edge effect is a relatively mundane ecological process. To turkey hunters it is a literal natural wonder. Next time you are in the woods looking for a long-beard, do what I do. Get on edge for spring gobblers.