Thursday, November 30, 2017

It Gets a "D"

If someone asked me to grade the months of the year there’s no question that April and May would both get an “A”. April would deserve that grade because that’s the month the waterfowl return, the days are warming and many are absolutely balmy, the rains are usually gentle, it’s nice enough to get back on the bike, waterfalls are at their peak flow, and spring’s first wildflowers are in bloom. May receives an “A” for its generally lovely days, the surge in blooming wildflowers, colorful warblers that are returning from their winter quarters in Central and South America, deciduous trees’ buds are bursting and new leaves are expanding, in May it’s warm enough to comfortably put the canoe back on the water.

October also gets an “A” for its glorious fall colors, its pleasantly warm days with a crystal blue sky, bike rides without hordes of other folks on the rail-trail, some of the best canoeing of the year, ripe apples, white-tail bucks and bull elk that have shed their antlers’ velvet, and the bugling of rutting elk.

All the other months have their good and not so good sides that, in my opinion, warrant grades of “B” or “C” – all that is except November which gets a richly deserved “D”. Why a “D”? Because November is dark, damp, dreary and depressing, the cloudiest month of the year. Unlike me, some of my friends love November because of Thanksgiving feasts and family get-togethers, because Christmas is just around the corner, or because they’re enthusiastic hunters and deer and bear seasons are in November.

I’ll step back from grading the months to say that even in dark, damp, dreary and depressing November there are still wonderful things to see in the great outdoors. A day’s walk in field and forest reveals some color:

The yellow of a goldenrod, probably the last one I’ll see this year –

More yellow the fruit of horse nettle –

On a field’s edge a cranberrybush viburnum with its brilliant fruit –

And the mottled bark of a sycamore that also grows along the edge –

The field/woodland border is a good place to find “wild” apple trees and here was one still holding a few apples, shriveled now from having been frozen –

Then in another tree the color of the tail of a red-tailed hawk that was preoccupied in scanning for an unwary squirrel –

On a far hillside the crown of an aspen positively glowed with bright yellow leaves that were still hanging on –

Entering the forest the red leaves of a seedling red maple came into view –

Also growing low to the ground was a black huckleberry that still held a few leaves –

And a partridgeberry with its green leaves and bright red fruit –

Red isn't the only low-to-the-ground color, as demonstrated by these blue-gray turkey-tail fungi


So, even though I give November a “D”, there’s still color and joy to be found in field and forest – and occasionally a few bright sunny days.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving

Today, on turkey day it seems appropriate to post some favorite photos of wild turkeys. Here the photos from my various camera traps –

And here from my hand-held cameras –

We’ll be enjoying turkey and stuffing, corn and squash, fresh baked rolls and pies – apple and pecan. Would that everyone could have as wonderful a day with family and friends and a great meal.

In the words of Andre Dubus:

“It is time now to sing of my gratitude:  For legs and hills and trees and seasons … and for all the roads I walked on, for the hills I climbed and descended, for trees and grass and sky.”

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Shagbark hickory that is. Shagbark hickory is aptly named for its bark which, as the trees grow, breaks loose in large plates that curl away from the trunk.

Shagbark hickory can be quite large and forest-grown trees are usually tall, they can exceed 100 feet in height, and straight –

Trees growing in the open are usually wide and spreading –

Like most hickories, shagbark’s wood is strong and heavy and has traditionally been used for tool handles and chair rungs. Its compound leaves normally bear five leaflets and turn bright yellow in the fall.

But it’s not the tree, or the wood, or the leaves that especially interest me. Of most interest to yours truly are the shagbark hickory’s nuts –

The actual nut is inside a thick hull that splits into four segments –

Both shellbark and mockernut hickory also produce nuts worth gathering, but shagbark’s nuts are larger. Just be sure not to gather nuts from pignut or bitternut hickory trees; both species produce bitter unpalatable nuts.

In late September several nearby shagbark hickories provided an abundance of nuts, free for the picking. In one spot I knelt down and picked up 22 nuts without moving. It’s not every year that the trees set fruit in such abundance, shagbark hickory usually has bumper crops at three to five year intervals but, although they usually bear some nuts each year, the trees may not produce any fruit in other years. 

Nuts with a small perfectly round hole were discarded –

Those are the exit holes of weevil larvae that feed on the nutmeats and pupate over winter in the soil –

It didn’t take long to gather enough shagbark hickory nuts to fill a number of baskets.

Inside those nuts is an edible sweet nutmeat that is time consuming and tedious to extract but well worth the effort.

The nuts were rinsed and spread out to dry for a few days – then the opening commenced.

Extracting the nutmeats takes time, quite a bit of time. A light blow with a hammer easily cracks the nuts’ shells, and then it’s time to bring out the nut-pick. Extracting the nutmeats is slow work, but a good thing to do on a rainy day, in the evening or when there’s an unexciting football game on TV.

From all the nuts I gathered we retrieved 23 cups (about 5 ½ pounds) of delicious nutmeats that can be dried or frozen for later use –

Although hickory nuts can be used wherever walnuts or pecans are called for – and I think they taste better then either of those – H uses them to make absolutely delicious cookies. Here’s her not so secret recipe –

Hickory Nut Cookies
          ½ cup butter or margarine
          6 tablespoons brown sugar
          6 tablespoons granulated sugar
          1 egg
          ½ teaspoon vanilla
          1 ¼ cups sifted all-purpose flour
          1 teaspoon baking powder
          ¼ teaspoon each baking soda and salt
          1 cup chopped hickory nuts
Mix butter and sugars together until smooth, then beat in the egg and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients together and then blend into the smooth mix. Stir in the nuts. Place teaspoon size beads of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375° for 10-12 minutes. Makes 2 ½ dozen cookies.

And the results –

When the trees start dropping their fruit speed is of the essence since mice, chipmunks, squirrels, wild turkeys and black bears quickly consume the nuts. If you don’t have ready access to shagbark hickory trees, nutmeats can be purchased commercially for $40-$60 a pound.