Archive for March, 2009

Trumansburg is at the northern edge of Tompkins County and the next county up, Seneca County, is full of active and inactive agricultural land, interspersed with woodlots and dotted with villages and hamlets. During the winter the county roads (most of them still unpaved) are excellent for trolling for open country birds like northern pipits and snow buntings. These are birds that generally don’t come to feeders and are only in this area during the winter. More dramatic are the rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls and snowy owls, all of which are less common than the pipits and buntings, but a bit more heart-stopping when you spot them.

Center Road snowy in flight

Center Road snowy in flight

A fellow bed and breakfast owner, Michele Manella of Hayward House up in Ovid, has become an avid birdwatcher since moving to the Finger Lakes from Pittsburgh. She is part of a network of birders who let each other know when unusual species have been spotted. Several weeks ago she let us know that a snowy owl and several short-eared owls had been hanging around the intersection of Center Road and County Road 129 in Ovid, and she encouraged us to go have a look. The best time was around dusk, which was happening around 7 p.m. in early March.

We tried to make up there one night a couple of weeks ago and arrived at about 7:20 p.m. when it was already too dark to identify anything out in the field. Snowy owls, because they are from the tree-less tundra, will often sit on the ground in the middle of a field for hours. It is often difficult to tell the apart from patches of snow or wind-blown plastic bags. The short-eared owls like to sit on the rolls of hay out in the fields, but they tend to like the lee side rather than sitting right on top, where it would easier to see them …

Then, earlier this week Michele gave us a call. Someone had spotted the snowy owls after no one had seen it for several days. The network of birdwatchers maintains a phone tree and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology posts a regularly updated list of local notable sightings. We picked up Michele at her place and drove up Rt. 96, and took a left onto Center Road and began scanning the fields on either side of the road. The first thing we spotted (Michele spotted) was a male northern harrier. These hawks fly in a distinct manner, teetering on narrow upswept wings, swooping low and then rearing up sporadically when they appear to have spotted something down below. The males have blue-gray backs and black wing tips. The female–whom we saw shortly thereafter–is larger and brown instead of blue-gray. Both have a distinctive white crescent at the base of their tails.

We encountered two dedicated birders who were doing owl surveys for Cayuga Birds (I think). It was a cold and windy evening, but very clear with good low light. Michele (again) found the snowy owl crouching out of the wind in a hedgerow. We could see only its head sticking up out of the high grass. Deirdre set off up a lane paralleling the hedgerow to see if she could flush the owl into the open. She got within about 50 feet of him when he popped up and flew about 30 yards out into the field and set down in full view. The males are whiter, while the females tend to be streaked with brown. This was definitely a male.

One of the owl surveyors predicted that he would sit in the middle of the field for a while and then, when it started to get dark, fly up into a tree at the end of the hedgerow. (In the end, that is exactly what he did.)

We turned our attention to the north side of the road where a bird was singing from one of the cylindrical hay bales. I thought it was a red winged blackbird because I’d seen them around for a few weeks now. But he turned toward us and the setting sun and his yellow breast lit up: a meadowlark. He was back up north a little early, but he was definitely back and singing with enthusiasm.

The harrier were still about, but we hadn’t seen the short-eared owls yet. Evidently they represent a sort of changing of the guard, with the harriers ending their hunting just about the time the short-eared owls start their evening shift. After about a half hour of waiting without seeing any short-eared owls we prepared to go. Of course, just as we were about to get in the car one sailed into view, followed shortly by another. They swooped in to have a look at the snowy owl (who by now was in the tree) and then disappeared over a hill, apparently to hunt over a recently plowed field. We’d seen dozen of gulls flying over it earlier in the evening. They were gone now and had left the field to the owls.

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The Finger Lakes are a popular tourism destination between May and October. From November to April it is quiet and we’d love to see a few more people visit. A lot of people seem to have the impression that we get a series of enormous snowstorms all winter, but that isn’t actually the case. That happens in the “snow belt,” which is a broad swath of New York beneath Great Lakes Erie and Ontario. But the southern edge of the belt reaches down to only the northern ends of Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.

Ithaca and Trumansburg are at the southern end of Cayuga Lake. We get our share of snow, but not those three- and four-foot dumps that they get so regularly in the snow belt. And what I regularly tell warm weather visitors who express trepidation is “Hey, this is where salt comes from!” Indeed, much of the road salt for the northeast comes out of salt mines under Cayuga Lake and the Genesee Valley (the mine under Seneca Lake is apparently used largely for table salt). In other words, the roads around here are possibly less icy and safter than some of the ones that folks have to deal with in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and downstate New York.

And what is there to do in the winter around here? Well, pretty much everything that you can do in the summer. Go to the wineries (yes, most of them are open all year), eat at excellent restaurants, see top quality live theatre, visit the gorges (OK, some of them are closed, but Taughannock is open all winter), see live music (just not outside, as you might do in the summer) and visiting artist studios,  art galleries and bookstores.

There isn’t a lot of downhill skiing around here–Greek Peak is about 40 minutes to the east–but the cross-country skiing is widespread and varied. Trails at Hammond Hill State Forest southeast of Ithaca are heavily used by local people, so it unlikely that you would even have to make your own trails. The Finger Lakes National Forest trails are good for beginners because many of them run north and south along the height of land between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes and so change very little in elevation, while passing through open fields, woodland and isolated ponds and gorges.

If you like wine, really like wine, and would like to hang around and talk about it with the people who make it, then you are much better off visiting the wineries between November and April. You are likely to walk into the tasting room and find almost nobody else there, except the person behind the counter, who may in fact be the winemaker himself. Even if it isn’t the winemaker you encounter, the taster will have much more time to talk wine with you and, as they are usually savvy local folks, tell you where to go for a good meal and some reasonable accommodations.

In other words, if you visit the Finger Lakes, you will be hanging with the locals and learning a whole lot about the region that you can apply toward your subsequent warm weather visits. As the area gets more and more popular, inside information will serve the clever visitor by helping him avoid the crowds and see the “real Finger Lakes”.

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We didn’t have a lot of snow this winter, but we had snow often and it was bone-chillingly cold for weeks in a row.  Changes in the weather were often accompanied by howling winds. The white pines and Norway spruce on the north side of the house took a beating this year; there were limbs down all over the place.

Overproduction of cones is not a good sign.

Overproduction of cones is not a good sign.

The pines in particular are in rough shape. The needles have been yellowing and falling off for at least three years now and there are a troubling number of mushrooms coming up under the trees. It could be that they don’t like cars driving over their roots all the time. It could be that they have got some blight. Or it could be that they are just getting old. Because they are probably at least 80 feet tall and less than 10 feet from the house, we have been talking about having them taken down. It will be a real shame because they add a lot of character to the property.

The spruces are far less majestic and arranged in a line extending from the corner of the back deck. The pines may actually be shading them out, so they at least may benefit from their removal. Left standing there on their own though, they may look a bit scraggly.

Two years ago we planted four hemlocks. Two of them are under the pines and next to the spruces. Hemlocks are happy to grow in the shade of other trees, while pines and spruces are not. In the best case scenario these 10-foot high trees will be 15 or 20 feet tall when the pines have to come down.  The other two hemlocks are out in the open and have been growing much more quickly, so when the pines go, the hemlocks formerly under them are likely to really take off.

We have a large box-elder on the northern boundary of the property. These soft maples grow quickly, but do not live long. We’ll have to have our tree guy do a clean-up of the dead limbs this year. It is a majestic, spreading tree, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I outlived it.

One of the pines is at left and the spruce branches hang over a little hemlock.

One of the pines is at left and the spruce branches hang over a little hemlock.

Along the western boundary on Bradley Street there was once a continous row of sugar maple trees. They were the result of a Progressive Era planting campaign throughout the village. Since they were all planted at the same time, they are all entering into senescence at about the same time. When the trees were planted, nearly all the roads in the village were dirt and there were far more horses around than cars. The advent of paved roads and winter salting has done these shallow rooted trees no good at all. In addition, their roots have thrown the flagstone sidewalks all over the place. Many of them have already been removed and many other have been liberally trimmed. The village is in the process of seeking state aid to replace these street trees.

In a couple of weeks, when the twigs and pine cones are not still frozen to the ground, it will be time to get out there and rake. The village DPW comes around once a week on Mondays to pick up yard detritus. You have to make sure everything is less than four feet long and you have to tie it up so that they can throw it up on the truck easily. Anything smaller has to go into a paper (not a plastic) bag. Trumansburg is on a schedule with the other villages and towns in the county; the grinder comes around periodically and reduces all this yard waste to something like compost, which residents are then invited to go scoop up and spread around their shrub borders.

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