Bayberrying

Winter is Sarah’s favorite time for walks on the beach. From November to March, she is a faithful pilgrim to Long Island’s shores. While she gazes at the sea, undaunted by the bitter winter wind, I (an inland creature), often scout out a nice sheltered rock or dune. This is how, on Black Friday, I found myself wandering the dunes, busy with the unlikely and decidedly uncommercial task of gathering bayberries for candlewax.

Bayberries

Also known as candleberries and wax myrtle, northern bayberries grow on the dry hillsides, dunes, and abandoned farms of the northeastern coastland. The grey-blue berries ripen in September, but cling to the bushes throughout harsh northern winters. They are rimed in a waxy coating that was used in colonial times to make candles. While refining bayberry wax was an arduous process, the resulting tapers were more economical than beeswax and finer than smoky, smelly tallow. They were traditionally burned on Christmas or New Year’s Eve for luck, as in the rhyme “a bayberry candle burned down to the socket will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.”

With help, I gathered a scant pound of berries, leaving fruit for other foragers. Today the principal foragers of bayberries are yellow-rumped warblers, whose unusual ability to digest lipids in the berries’ coating allows them to overwinter where others of their genus cannot. Indeed, the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is known as the myrtle warbler, after its reliance on the fruit.

bayberry
Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)

Of fruits & labor

As described by capable DIY bloggers, the process of refining the wax seemed simple. First, the berries are boiled in a few inches of water, until the waxy coating has melted and risen to the surface. Then, cooling wax is skimmed off the top. Once hardened, the wax can be re-melted and strained to remove impurities.

Spurred by romantic notions of perfuming my kitchen with their balmy fragrance, I eagerly boiled my berries.

After 15 minutes, the resulting brew was the color of bog water and smelled of briny oregano. The wax burst from tiny bubbles, then bloomed on the surface of the water like algae.

Bayberry brew
Bayberry brew

I was able to remove a brittle saucer of wax, littered with seeds and stems and mottled with purple berry juice from a too-long steep.

Unfiltered bayberry wax
Unfiltered bayberry wax

After re-boiling, re-melting, and straining through cheesecloth, I produced a far more attractive wax and then, finally, three misty green tea lights.

Bayberry votives
Far Left: pure bayberry, poured after partially cooling; Top: bayberry & paraffin, inexpertly blended; Far Right: nailed it!

After working hours for my small candles, it is easy to understand why this practice has been all but abandoned. But my yield was greater than a few ounces of wax. Now I know the bright scent of fresh-picked berries on my hands, their deep herbal tang when boiled, and the woodsy aroma of their smoke.

We plan to burn one down to the socket this Christmas.

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Rusty Birding

Like many New Yorkers, I love the magnolias and cherry blossoms that drape the city in spring. But for me, the parks’ yellow sprays of spicebush, rubbery red skunk cabbage, and the conquerees of red-winged blackbirds are my favorite harbingers of the season.

Last Saturday, Sarah and I went to Alley Pond Park for the start of spring migration. We found the woodlands waking to the calls of spring peepers, and spied a few early migrants, including an eastern phoebe and two pine warblers—one with bright breeding plumage.

Pine Warbler
Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

When living in the age of eBird, where rare birds are charted in digital wilds, we can easily forget to allow nature to be our guide. Neither of us expected to see a life bird that afternoon, so we were very fortunate when we stopped to take a second look at the birds foraging in the shallows of Decadon Pond. They were black, but with brown brindling and startling yellow eyes. They had buffy eyebrows and the voices of droids. They were rusty blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird
Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

I know that rusties are not uncommon in New York City’s parks, but had never seen one, myself. They are seasonal visitors—some overwintering, others stopping over on their way from Southern swamps to their breeding grounds in the Canadian muskeg. They are also among the most rapidly declining bird species in America. Using the Audubon Christmas Bird count and Breeding Bird surveys as a reference, scientists estimate that their numbers have declined by staggering 85% (or more) since the mid-1900s.

The reasons for their plunging population are poorly understood, but habitat loss is suspected as a primary cause. Other North American blackbirds have adapted to diverse breeding habitats and even flourish near human settlement, where they feast on waste grain in fields and pastures. In contrast, the rusty blackbird is reliant on secluded forest wetlands. In the southeastern US, wetlands sheltering overwintering birds have been fragmented by logging and agricultural development, while breeding habitat in Canada has been degraded by oil sand mining.

Of additional danger is the blackbird’s breeding diet, which consists almost entirely of aquatic snails and insect larva. Not only are these species vulnerable to pollution, but they also accumulate toxic methyl-mercury, which threatens developing young.

The small flock in Alley Pond Park were lively, giving bubbly calls and eagerly flipping wet leaves and rooting in the mossy bank of the kettle pond. We submitted the sighting via eBird to the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz, an initiative of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. I am crossing my fingers that we will see them again next year.

Feeder Watching at Forest Park

After three years of living in a neighborhood without a publicly accessible patch of grass, it’s a delight to be able to trek ten minutes to 413 acres of trees. Sarah and I have been taking weekend walks to “The Water Hole” in Forest Park’s east end, a popular haunt of Queens’s avian set. There peckish passerines can find seed and suet feeders under the cover of mature oaks. We’ve seen a lot of activity, including overwintering pine warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets.

One of my favorite sightings was a particularly waggish white-breasted nuthatch. I snapped a picture of it suspended from a single foot, its hallux sunk into bark like a climbing axe.

White-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Here it is again, in a more cautious pose, its red rump and powerful back toes exposed to the camera.

White-breasted nuthatch
Lunchtime

I was hoping to bird again this weekend, but with forecasted temperatures hovering above zero, I think I will be content to sit inside, snug with my cat, watching whatever alights on the wires outside the window.

Juniper watching the snow
Juniper (Felis catis stupendous) demonstrating my preferred cold weather birding technique

Escalloped

I grew up in a sea of corn and soy, some 800 miles from the ocean. Like many Midwesterners, my acquaintance with marine life was limited to the pale, flash-frozen creatures unfortunate enough to end up on my plate.

This was a surprisingly frequent occurrence. My mom worked in the seafood department of a local grocery store. She was an expert lobster-bander and fish-filleter, and often came home smelling of brine. One of my favorite childhood dinners were her scallops, breaded and fried in butter.

It’s easy to forget in a place like Queens, but now I live on an island in the sea. Today Sarah and I drove east to Point Lookout. I saw a harlequin duck diving in the surf of a jetty. I saw a long-tailed duck, its plumage swept in a cat-eye curl. But my favorite discovery were the shells. A clear winter’s day as the tide is going out may be the perfect time to spy them.

I took a picture of my favorites. They were deep slate and heavily ribbed. And they were—as I later discovered—bay scallops. Or, more properly, the exoskeletons of bay scallops, whose sturdy little adductor muscles I so enjoyed drenched in butter.

scallops
Bay scallop (Argopecten irradians)

To my surprise, the bay scallop is a fascinating animal. Their shells are variably colored, ranging from grey to red, yellow, and purple. Their bodies are ringed in dozens of bright blue eyes, their visage something like a nautical Wheel of Galgallin. They see movement and shadow, and unlike most mollusks, can swim in quick bursts to escape predators. To swim, a scallop rhythmically contracts its adductor muscle, opening its shell and expelling a jet of water to propel itself forward.  (This activity accounts for the fact that their muscles are meatier than that of oysters and clams.)

Because a frightened scallop is capable of jetting ten feet away, prime scalloping season is in the active mollusk’s period of winter dormancy. Indeed, for over 100 years scalloping was the main economic activity of many Long Island towns during the winter off-season.

Since 1985, the rise of brown tides has caused a sharp declination in the bay scallop population. These algal blooms destroy the eelgrass meadows that shelter developing scallops from tides and predation. From 1986 to 2008, the average yearly landing of scallops has dropped from an average of 62,400 bushels to only 3,500. The CCE Eelgrass Program is working now to restore eelgrass habitat to Long Island and to protect related species like the scallop. Here’s what you can do.

It’s funny to think there’s so much history resting on one little half-shell.