Naturally Speaking

—by Steve Lekwa

It’s a tough time of year for people who love outdoor projects. There’s a new dusting of snow on still-frozen ground as I start writing this morning. A little more is forecast. It’s too late to do any more pruning on shade trees. They’ll often bleed heavily as sap has really started to flow. Bleeding doesn’t really hurt the tree, but moist open wounds are an open invitation to insect and fungus infections once things eventually warm up. Heavy sap flow in maples is great for maple syrup making in weather like this, though. I enjoyed a natural pop-cycle yesterday when I broke an ice-cycle from a cracked maple twig. The frozen sap was slightly sweet.

It’s too early for much yard or garden work with the soil still frozen. It’s also too early for pruning flowering shrubs like bright yellow forsythias which should be blooming soon. It’s best to prune old growth from them right after they finish blooming. Apples should be pruned just before they begin blooming. That’s getting closer, but is still likely a month away. I suppose I could clean up some twigs and a few more leaves that have blown down since last fall once this darn snow melts. I’m really ready for some outdoor project weather!

It is time to start getting any bird houses around your area ready for use. Old nests should be removed if it wasn’t done last fall, and deer mice may have moved in over the winter if boxes were left closed. Blue birds are starting to return and males will be selecting nest territories to defend soon after they arrive. It may be some weeks before they find a mate and begin serious nesting activity, though. Blue birds will use houses for night roosts especially in nasty weather, too. Once the houses are closed and ready for use, be watching for house sparrow interest. Black-bibbed male sparrows are aggressive in their search for nest sites and often take over blue bird boxes before blue birds have a chance at them. You may need to throw their accumulating nest material out of the box several times a week. Be careful what you’re throwing out if you are seeing blue birds in the area. They’ll carefully arrange grassy nest material in a circular cup pattern while sparrows just pile in a mix of grass and even paper trash every which way.

It’s too early to open up purple martin boxes. Sparrows and starlings are likely to fill them up, too, before martins get a chance. Though possible, it’s harder to clean unwanted guests out of martin houses since they’re mounted so much higher off the ground. It’s better to wait until the first "scout" martins show up. That’s often in mid April and may be several days to a couple of weeks ahead of the main flocks. Martins don’t survive cold outbreaks very well. They eat only flying insects and may starve if weather restricts insect movement for a few cold days. They will need their houses ready for shelter when they arrive.

The first wood ducks are back, but it’s too late to safely reach wood duck boxes if they’re over water. Though most ponds and lakes still have some ice cover at this writing, any remaining ice should not be considered safe. Duck boxes mounted on trees or posts over land should be checked right away, however. Wood shaving nesting material should be dry, clean, and several inches deep in the box. Last year’s unhatched eggs, shell fragments, screech owl pellets, mouse nests, twig pile wren nests, wasp nests and even shredded leaf nests complete with baby squirrels are but a few of the things that may be found in duck boxes. Check the squirrel nests carefully. Sometimes Mamma squirrel stays in the box with her babies and then jumps out right in your face as you lift the nesting material. That can be disconcerting if you’re standing on top of a ladder. A squirrel nest can be removed if there are no babies.

That’s it for this week, folks. It’s snowing again as I look out the window. I could vacuum the carpet or wash dishes, but there must be something I can find to do outside.