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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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April 10, 2016

Signs Of Spring

Flowers, gnarly maple trees, sick ash trees, woodpeckers, robins, horny skunks and snow

Weatherwise, we’ve been having an eventful Spring. One day it’s warm and lovely, and the next day it’s winter again. Usually this is the time of year I take off my long winter underwear, those wonderful garments that make cold weather tolerable for me. But each of these mornings I’m baffled, should I wear them or not.

Now, I’ve been writing about some heavy subjects, such as some more about the ongoing perversion of the presidential election that for the first time in like 50 years has shown up in Albany. Also, on my last post I seem to have given people the impression that I was dismissing the topic of racism, that was hardly my intention and I’m on top of it. Racism can no longer be dismissed, even for narrative clarity. So while the world waits with bated breath to read my unsolicited opinions, I’ll show a few photos I’ve taken of Spring in my neighborhood.

Look What This Woodpecker Has Done To My Tree
Look What This Woodpecker Has Done To My Tree

For the last few months there’s been a woodpecker working around the neighborhood, I could hear him whacking away at trees both dead and alive. When the bird drills into dead wood it sounds exactly like the high, loud clonk when you whack two wooden posts together rhythmically, a rapid musical sound. But when the critter takes on a live tree the sound is more mushy, it carries but is muffled, and the knocks are slower than when the bird drills dead wood.

From the woodpecker’s point of view it’s all the same, if a hunk of wood contains bugs, which are always in short supply this time of year, then hey, a bird’s gotta eat, right? This has been alarming me though, I don’t want perfectly good live trees in the neighborhood torn to shreds and falling on my head. How these birds know a hunk of wood contains edible bugs and is worth the effort of drilling is a mystery to me, I suppose they can hear them inside the wood.

Wood Chips Littering My Sidewalk Nicely Compliment The Lawn Trash Left From Last Year
Wood Chips Littering My Sidewalk Nicely Compliment The Lawn Trash Left From Last Year

One morning in March around 7AM a tree branch fell on the road down the hill from my house, around 10 AM the City DGS guys came to cut it up and feed it into their shredder. Shortly after they’d left I arrived back at my house and looked down at the front sidewalk and saw that it was covered with wood chips. My first thought was that the City guys had hacked at the maple tree in front of my house again while they were in the vicinity and hadn’t cleaned it all up, which got me all righteous.

But no, the City guys were not responsible. Some wood chips landed on my head as I looked down and few more landed on the concrete. And I heard that mushy tapping. I looked up and there was that damned peckerhead tearing a giant hole into my street tree right outside my second story window!

The Head Is A Blur As This Pileated Woodpecker Drills
The Head Is A Blur As This Pileated Woodpecker Drills

I have a lot of respect for that tree, more than I have for most people, but I have to admit my wooden friend hasn’t been looking too good. Lately the tree has been getting gnarly and dropping branches, and it has begun to lean in an alarming manner in the direction of my house. Last summer the City guys showed up and hacked off a bunch of branches which I grudgingly admit was necessary, but now my precious friend isn’t quite the top notch spreader of shade anymore. I depend on this tree to keep my house cool.

The last thing I want to see is some peckerhead drilling big holes into my tree and messing it up further. I mean look at the size of that hole. But watching the critter I could see it every so often stop shredding wood and eat. So I am forced to admit that my friend is dying and full of bugs. I guiltily wonder if I murdered the tree by pouring root killer into my sewer line.

Woodpecker Takes A Short Break
Woodpecker Takes A Short Break

This guy that tore up my tree, the same one that has been working the neighborhood, was a pileated woodpecker, which are said to be on the increase in upstate New York. This is the first I’ve seen one of these around here. Usually I see the more common smaller red-bellied woodpeckers, which have, um, red heads and white bellies. Seriously, like who names these birds? Those kind smack the wood very rapidly, much faster than the pileated woodpeckers do.

One baking hot July day I was walking through Lincoln Park and heard this rapid mechanical hammering on metal that that got really loud as I approached the source. It turned out to be a red-bellied woodpecker attempting to drill through a metal light post, which made me wonder if these creatures kept their brains intact after smacking their heads against trees all the time. Maybe there were bugs inside the light post, or maybe it heard something electrical which it mistook for food. It sure was tenacious, I’ll grant it that.

First Flower Of March Popping Through The Leaf Litter
First Flower Of March Popping Through The Leaf Litter

There were some nice days at the end of March, it sure looked like this mostly dry winter was over with. The first few flowers popped out of the lawn debris leftover from last year, which I purposely don’t clean up completely so as to give the flowers some cover. We even had a thunderstorm with lightning along with several bouts of high winds like we usually get with summer storms.

It was one of these high wind events that caused me to worry about a dying tree (perhaps an ash?) that was hanging over the spot where I park my truck. I’d been thinking about this job for a while, so I found a hook and rope and revved up the chain saw. I knew I would miss the tree’s shade over my vehicle come summer, but that tree was about to fall over and I need my truck.

The Stump: This (Ash?) Tree Was Not Long For This World
The Stump: This (Ash?) Tree Was Not Long For This World

One problem, the tree had to fall in a precise direction so as to spare the overhead wires on the street, not to mention the neighbor’s fence and their parked car. So I needed a spotter to hold the rope, but that Sunday I had no one available who was usually available. So I had to convince The Wife to come outside and help me do the job.

She was most hesitant. I had to humiliate her by telling her that I fully understood that she couldn’t help me because she considered herself a weak stupid girl who wasn’t capable of doing a guy thing like that. Soon she was outside and ready.

I wrapped the rope around an upper part of the tree and gave her precise instructions on how to handle the rope and what to expect. Basically, guide the tree as it falls by pulling with your body and stepping backwards, and that the tree would start falling slowly but then it would crash down to the ground faster than you could think. And hold the rope, don’t wrap it around your hands or it might drag you.

The Wedge, The Red Color Is A Sign Of Infection Of The Wood
The Wedge, The Red Color Is A Sign Of Infection Of The Wood

I climbed up the ladder, cut out a wedge with the chainsaw in the direction I wanted it to fall, told her to get ready and I carefully cut straight on the other side toward the V tip of the wedge. She guided the treetop precisely as it fell, it missed everything and she was absolutely exhilarated with her accomplishment. She asked me for the wedge as a souvenir, so I dipped into polyurethane a half dozen times. It looks like a melon slice.

Cutting up the trunk I could see it was hollowed out, and as I stacked the logs I noticed I’d disturbed a carpenter ant colony that was probably finishing off the tree. The big black ants were frantically trying to salvage their until recently thriving colony among the stacked logs. It was then that I thought about the woodpecker, not only had I killed a tree and brought disaster upon an ant civilization, I had no doubt destroyed one of the woodpecker’s favorite lunch counters. Okay, I didn’t really worry too much.

Growing Grass And Melting Snow
Growing Grass And Melting Snow

In mid March the weather was so warm that the lawns were turning green and flowers were popping out, too early because of global warming, but then in early April came the first sizable snowfall of winter. I mean, it melted in a couple of days, but first I had to shovel it. And it got seriously cold for a few days which finished off the magnolias in the park that had just started to bloom.

I saw my first robin in late February, there seem to be quite a few of them around the immediate neighborhood this year. I wonder what they eat around here this time of year, whatever bugs come out early I guess, earthworms or grubs in the ground I suppose, along with whatever meat or suet I throw on my mulch pile. The ground cover of snow must make it harder for them to search the ground for food.

Robin And Snow In April
Robin And Snow In April

Back in February the squirrels wake up from their hibernation, and so do other critters. The building I own diagonally across the street from my house has a wrap-around porch, skunks have lived under there since I bought it. They are fat and slow and said to be not very bright with brains smaller than their skulls, but they have nothing to be afraid of except cars.

This February I got complaints from the tenants of that building of a bad skunk odor, the second time this has happened in February. The first time I thought a skunk had woken up and was angry about repairs I’d made to the porch and took it out on the building. But recently I found out that male skunks often wake up in February feeling horny, and if an unwanted male is nosing about, a female will spray around her home to chase off the potential rapist. I suppose human females would want that talent too.

The Iron Trellis
The Iron Trellis

In the yard of that building there’s an old iron trellis. It sat naked for several years, but after someone told me that it might get stolen by an antiques dealer (don’t know if that is true or not, I’m more worried about scrap thieves) I decided to buy a flowering plant that would wrap around it, partly so it would be hard to remove. I have no idea what this thing is called, except it was on sale at the nursery and I was told that it would grow slowly. That turned out to be true.

The plant does not like the iron, it refuses to voluntarily wrap tendrils around it and it does not cling to the metal. I’ve had to carefully guide the stems around the spokes of the trellis, the new shoots are brittle and will break if I bend them too far. By Summer the plant will bloom into a thousand small white flowers and stay that way for months, it’s really very nice. I ought to find out what it is.

Fallen Branches In Lincoln Park
Fallen Branches In Lincoln Park

The crazy weather has brought down a lot of branches around the neighborhood, particularly from the maples which are the local dominant tree. It’s kind of odd how the maples around here get gnarly and fall apart as they age. At least they are not getting sick and dying from the ash borer beetles like the ash trees are, several of them in Lincoln Park have had to come down.

Is This an Ash Tree?
Is This an Ash Tree?

A year ago I heard a presentation by Albany City Forester Thomas Pfieffer about the ash borer crisis and what the City is doing to try to save the trees. Some ten percent of the street trees in the City are ash, about a thousand. They’ve been desirable because they are tough trees that can tolerate car pollution and abuse but are no match for the ash borer beetle which currently has no enemies except, of course, woodpeckers.

In fact woodpecker damage to ash trees is often a sign of infection. Mr. Pfieffer’s department has been injecting the pesticide emamectin benzoate into the cambium layer of the tree, right under the bark. This has been the most effective treatment, killing 99% of the beetle larvae inside the tree after four days. I read that woodpeckers are unlikely to be poisoned by the pesticide because they don’t eat dead larvae, they like live food.

The City got a $50,000 grant to combat the ash borer. The cost of treatment varies with the size of the tree, a 15 inch diameter tree costs $100 to treat, while a 40 inch tree costs about $375. Now, I’m not too good at tree identification, but that tree i took down with The Wife’s help was an ash, I think. Maybe. If it was I didn’t see any beetles inside the trunk, I would assume they couldn’t coexist with those big black carpenter ants.

Maples Along Morton Avenue
Maples Along Morton Avenue

There is something about these naked trees about to wake up and burst into bloom that is very attractive, a hard to define different feel than in the dead of winter when they seem... dead. Even at a distance they, I can’t describe it, have a glow, an aura? Something like that? They are ancient life forms that I’ve always been convinced are sentient on a level that we humans cannot understand. If that sounds crazy well I guess I am.

So I feel bad when I have to cut down a tree or lop off big branches, similar to the feeling I get when I have to take a dying house pet to the vet to be put down. That’s sort of why I get annoyed when the City DGS guys come around and lop branches off the tree in front of my house, or in the neighborhood. I mean guys, is this necessary? How’d you like to get amputated like that, huh guys? But that’s just more crazy talk so prudently I grumble and shut up.

Looking Across Morton Avenue At Lincoln Park

Looking Across Morton Avenue At Lincoln Park

 


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