Reflections in Nature

There’s a stillness in the woods,

the fields are all at rest;

And the weary sun,

homeward bound,

sinks deeply in the west.

Winter began with the winter solstice that occurred at 12:11 p.m. on Dec. 21. However, prior to that date, we have had some very wintry weather, with cold days and more snow on the ground than in recent years.

On Sunday morning, Dec. 15, I measured 8 inches of fresh snow on the ground. The view from our kitchen window was of a winter wonderland, with much activity at our bird feeders.

The fodder shocked,

the hayrack filled,

the corn in heaps of gold;

The cider made,

the turnips pulled,

and stored for winter’s cold.

Later, while shoveling snow, I noticed that deer had visited the bird feeder during the night. As I backtracked the deer trail in our yard, I found that they had passed under an ornamental tree, which had low limbs hanging heavy with fruit.

The deer would not have had any trouble reaching the fruit; however, they paid no attention to the fruit-laden branches. I also noticed that the birds also had avoided the fruit of the tree.

In early fall, as the leaves revealed their colors, I noticed another tree in our yard that was loaded with fruit and even before the leaves fell, birds of all species and squirrels fed upon the fruit until the tree was bare

The tired year draws to its close,

and death on falling wings

Comes gently down

in swirling leaves,

a requiem nature sings.

Wildlife (just as we humans) definitely have a preference for the type of food they eat. If food is plentiful, wildlife will pass up food that they will feed upon later.

During the winter months, birds and animals are likely to suffer more from lack of food than from the severe cold and will need more food to eat to keep warm.

A fresh snow cover might appear as if everything in nature is asleep; however, while a snow cover helps some animals, it makes life harder for others. If a blanket of snow or an icy rain covers preferred seeds, making it impossible for wildlife to get to them, this is when birds and animals will turn to food that is not on their preferred list.

On the other hand, a snow cover will protect mice and other small animals from the preying eyes of the hawks and owls.

But life goes on, and only sleeps

to wake and sing again,

While hopefully hearts

new courage take,

and love and trust remain.

Bernd Heinrich, in his book “Winter World,” states that the berries of plants and birds are intertwined, just like the relationship between flowers and bees; however, it is not always obvious because this relationship occurs over a season, rather than days.

One tree that never fails to produce seeds, also called drupes, is the staghorn sumac. (It’s only the female tree that produces the drupes.)

I very seldom see the smaller birds (probably due to their size) feeding upon the sumac trees; however, I have noticed crows and even turkey feeding upon the sumac seeds. This is usually after a winter storm has dumped a lot of snow on the ground that remains for several weeks.

Since the seeds stay on the sumac tree throughout the winter months, the spring migrant birds often will visit the sumac trees when nothing else is available.

Nannyberry, winterberry, buckthorn and sumac are some of the plants that keep their berries all winter long, and these are used by wildlife as a last resort.

The fruits and berries that are eaten early in the fall are those that contain fat and sugar that give wildlife high energy needed for the long migration or to put on a layer of fat for the coming winter; however, these fruits spoil fast due to their sugar content.

The fruits and berries eaten late in the season have low fat and low sugar as well as high acidity and low water content, which help to prolong the life of the fruit. Of course, they are not as tasty as the earlier fruits.

My wife, Mary Alice, often has said that when we sit down to eat, we should have the desert first and then the meal. Seems to me that wildlife have been doing this all along.

So days must pass

and years must go,

from birth to death the round;

But fresh new life

will spring again

out of faithful, holy ground

– W.J. Rupp

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

Last week, my wife Mary Alice and I attended the Christkindl Market in Mifflinburg. We read on the brochure that it is the oldest authentic “Christ Child” market in the United States.

The actual German figure is called “Christkind,” which is derived from the earlier Christkindl, that was introduced by Martin Luther.

Dec. 25 is the traditional anniversary of the birth of Christ; however, most scholars are unsure about the true date for Christ’s birth. The decision to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 was made sometime during the fourth century by church bishops in Rome.

Many early cultures in the Roman empire had fallen into sun worship. Recognizing their dependence on the sun’s yearly course in the heavens, feasts were held at the time of the winter solstice, in December, when the days are shortest.

During these festivals, bonfires were built to give the sun god strength to bring him back to life again. Great rejoicing was had when it became apparent that the days were growing longer. The church leaders in Rome decided to celebrate Christ’s birth during the winter solstice in an attempt to Christianize these popular pagan celebrations.

Long before the advent of Christianity, certain plants and trees remained green throughout the year. Since these plants and trees remained green during the winter months, many people believed this had a special meaning and began to decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce and fir trees.

Ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In the 16th century, Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition (as we know today) when devout Christians brought trees into their homes to decorate. During the American Revolution, Hessian soldiers brought the Christmas tree custom to America.

Back in ancient times, holly was thought to be magical because of its shiny leaves and the plant’s ability to hold fruit during the winter. The Romans brought holly to England, where it was considered sacred.

Why are holly berries red?

And why is snow so white?

Why are spruce and pine so green?

And why are candles bright?

Can’t you guess? It’s Christmas time

When everything’s aglow,

And loving hearts are full of cheer

It’s Christmas – don’t you know?

– Author Unknown

In Mexico, it was traditional to leave gifts on an altar for Jesus on Christmas Eve.

One of the legends surrounding the poinsettia began when a young boy, who had no gift to leave, knelt outside the church window and prayed. In the spot where he prayed, a beautiful plant, with vibrant red leaves, appeared. This plant was known as “The Flower of Holy Night.”

Dr. Joel Robert Poinsett, of South Carolina, who was the first ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to America, where it was renamed in his honor. Dec. 12 was named Poinsettia Day.

The poinsettia is a shrubby plant of the spurge family, with milky juice and brightly colored leaf-like bracts surrounding small green flower clusters.

While poinsettias are commonly considered as poisonous plants, the poisoning is greatly exaggerated. Poinsettias are only mildly toxic to cats and dogs. Only mild signs of vomiting, drooling and diarrhea might occur if an ingestion occurs; however, this is not enough to cause death to your pet. Far more worrisome are the lily, holly and mistletoe.

Another custom is the mistletoe, which is a parasitic plant believed to have magical powers because it too had berries during the winter. Mistletoe often grows on apple and oak trees.

The Celtic people believed that mistletoe had the power to heal diseases, give protection from witches, bring fertility to humans and animals and also bring good luck. The legend was told that if enemies met underneath a sprig of mistletoe, they would lay down their arms, exchange friendly greetings and keep a truce until the next day.

From this, our custom of hanging mistletoe over a doorway became a token of goodwill and peace to all who entered, and anyone standing under the mistletoe should receive a kiss.

I hope you and your family have a blessed Christmas and remember the reason for the season.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

For the last five years, I have gone to Camp Babylon in Potter County on the Sunday before the first day of the regular firearm season (buck season). Each year I question why I’m leaving an area that has more deer than where I’m going.

While growing up, the week spent at deer camp in Potter County with my family was a very special time. Perhaps my going to Camp Babylon is a way to relive those camp weeks of my youth; however, camp life as I remember has changed somewhat.

As I looked at pictures hanging on the walls of Camp Babylon, I noticed that camp life also has changed there. The hunting clothes that the hunters wear today are much different than those of the earlier hunters.

In 1925, Woolrich introduced the classic deep-cherry-red wool hunting coat that has been worn throughout the years by many Pennsylvania hunters. When this coat was worn with a matching pair of pants, the outfit soon became known as the “Pennsylvania tuxedo.”

Back then, red was considered the safest color to wear; however, today, hunters are required by law to wear fluorescent orange, which now is considered the safest color.

Today, hunters are wearing lighter materials, such as Gore-Tex, Thinsulate (both made by Woolrich) and other brands.

The type of footwear worn by hunters has drastically changed. In earlier times, a hunter was lucky if he or she had a pair of felt liners that went inside either a pair of rubber-buckled boots or high-laced shoes; however, most hunters simply wore extra socks to ward off the cold. Today, insulated shoes and rubber boots cover hunters’ feet.

The guns being carried now also are different. When I was young, the camp’s gun racks were filled with 32- or 30/30-caliber lever action rifles and even some shotguns, which required the hunter to carry slug ammunition. Today, the gun racks at camps are loaded with calibers such as .3006, .308 and others that are mostly bolt-action rifles.

The number of hunters attending camps has changed, too. In earlier years, larger groups of hunters went to camp, with most staying for the first week of buck season. Today, this number has dropped drastically, and many hunters stay for only one or two days. Of the 20 hunters who belong to Camp Babylon, only five stayed to hunt.

At camp, when I was a young hunter, every evening after supper was eaten and the dishes were washed, we gathered at the table again; however, this time it was for playing hands of penny-ante poker, with small limits on the amount of money one could bet.

At Babylon, only one member, Bob Winters, played games of solitaire.

The type of hunting also has changed. In earlier times, the camp put on drives for deer. Hunters also stood on watch until they became so cold they had to move to keep warm. Although hunters still sit on watch, it could be from either a tree stand or from a hut that could contain a small heater.

However, not all things at camp have changed. Hunters still eat like kings when at deer camp, with the quality and quantity of food not changing. The fresh air and exercise from climbing up the mountainside gives hunters an appetite to consume more than their usual amount of food.

Pictures of hunters and camp members still deck the walls of Camp Babylon. If someone mentions an old member who has passed away, a story will be told about his hunting escapades. Storytelling has not changed at camp, and in the evenings, many stories are relived. Believe me when I say fishermen are not the only ones who stretch the truth.

Although things do change through the years, many hunters still look forward to going to deer camp. I am delighted to say that I have been asked to join Camp Babylon, and I readily accepted.

The history of Camp Babylon is quite colorful. The name Babylon is Greek and means the gate of the gods; however, in the Bible, it is signified as a place of luxury and corruption.

Members of the camp are proud of their heritage. Philip Bower – although no relation, I call him “dad” when we are at camp – is the oldest member. He is the third generation of his family to belong to the camp, with his grandfather being one who helped to organize it.

Bob Winters is the present president of the camp.

One of the biggest changes is that Camp Babylon has done away with their “Feel Better Inn,” actually an outdoor privy. A modern facility has been installed inside the camp.

Although things do change at deer camp and probably will continue to change, being part of a group of Pennsylvania deer hunters and the camaraderie that occurs at deer camp never will change.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.

Reflections in Nature

Coming up Route 14, on the left hand side of the road just outside of Trout Run, several stands of winterberry holly bushes grow. Since the leaves have fallen off the trees, the winterberry holly’s red berries give a splash of color to the countryside.

Perhaps, you’ve seen the bright red berries, called drupes, of the winterberry holly bush and, being unsure of what they were, called them Christmas berries.

The common name of Christmas berry for the winterberry holly came down from our early ancestors who did not have the fancy balls, lights and trinkets that we use today to decorate our homes for Christmas. Instead they decorated their homes with items found in nature, and boughs of the winterberry holly were one of their favorites to use.

Another common name for this bush is black alder. Many years ago I had been out hunting grouse with Charlie Fox and we came upon a bush loaded with red berries. Charlie commented that the bush was a black alder; however, after telling him that he was wrong, I went on to say that it was winterberry holly.

Along with black alder, winterberry holly also is called Canadian holly, swamp holly and fever bush.

The winterberry holly, which usually is found as a shrub 6 to 12 feet high, grows in swamps, wet meadows and along the shoreline of streams, lakes and ponds. It is one of our deciduous hollies.

Although the plant is in no way related to the alders, the winterberry holly grows in the same areas and appears as an alder. The common name of black alder comes from the fact that it often grows among the alders, with leaves shaped somewhat similar to those of an alder, and, during the fall, the leaves turn black.

True alders have neither petal flowers nor fleshy fruit but do have catkins and dry fruit produced in a small cone.

Individual plants of the winterberry holly will bear either male or female flowers. The flowering period varies from April to July and later in colder climates. Because of this late blooming, frost damage to the flower is infrequent; however, a summer’s drought can stop the development of the fruit.

Male blossoms are borne in clusters, with each attached to the twig by a common stalk, while the female flowers occur singly. Both flowers are borne on the basal part of the current year’s twig growth.

It will take at least three years before a shrub will start to produce fruit. A large shrub can bear several thousand red berries.

If a female winterberry plant is to bear fruit, a source of pollen must be close by. Although the pollen needed can be from a male of another holly species, it must flower at the same time as the winterberry shrub.

Another berry that gives color to the drab November woods is the bittersweet. Aldo Leopold wrote, in Sands County Almanac, “I like the bittersweet because my father did and because deer, on the first of July each year, begin suddenly to eat the new leaves, and I have learned to predict this event to my quests. I cannot dislike a plant that enables me, a mere professor, to blossom forth annually as a successful seer and prophet.”

We have two types of bittersweet in Pennsylvania. One is our native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, which commonly is called American bittersweet. It is not as abundant in our area because it is difficult to cultivate and, in the wild, the plant has suffered from over cutting.

American bittersweet has a lance-shaped leaf, with the berries growing on the ends of the vine.

The second type is the oriental bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus, which also is known as round-leafed bittersweet. It has been particularly hard on American bittersweet because it is easy to grow and will grow in a wide variety of habitats, with berries growing along the vine. Gardeners and decorators find the oriental bittersweet more attractive.

The color of the arils (coating around the red fruit) is different on the two plants. In the American bittersweet, the coating is orange, and in the oriental variety, the coating is either a tan or light yellow.

The name bittersweet is said to come from the vine’s inner bark, which is said to have a bitter-sweet taste. One book stated that it has many medicinal abilities, including the treatment for cancer, liver, skin ailments and rheumatism.

In olden days, the bittersweet berries were crushed and then applied to warts and other skin conditions; however, a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed bittersweet as a toxic plant.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.