Bill Burton on the Bay

Vol. 9, No. 8
Feb. 22-28, 2001
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Spring is Just Around the Corner

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
To remember for years -
To remember with tears.

–"Four Ducks on a Pond," William Allingham: 1824-1889.

There they were, four ducks - though not on a pond. They flew up to the lawn from Stoney Creek, which is down the tree-covered and should-be-grassy bank that drops from the east side of the Burton domicile to the brackish waterway not far from its confluence with the Patapsco River.

Overhead was the blue sky associated with spring. Brisk chilled winds had white clouds on the wing, and most welcome was the quartet of ducks, three drakes and a hen, all mallards.

Assuming they were the same four that showed in March of last year - I'm certain two of the drakes were - it meant they had survived another hunting season. I had feared for them. Not that I have anything against waterfowl hunters; it's just that every time I heard an early morning shot from the direction of the huge rocks at the mouth of Stoney Creek, I silently prayed the pellets weren't fired at 'my ducks.'

Winter Favored 'My' Ducks

The past waterfowl season was a busy one up this way in North County, but the situation was a bit different. During the 2000-'01 hunt, there were bluebills aplenty rafting on the Patapsco, enough that men with guns paid them more attention than the mallards that live hereabouts year 'round.

The mallards stay more in Stoney Creek, while the scaup are found more in the open waters of the much broader Patapsco and the Bay. Presumably, I have that to thank for the survival of at least two if not all 'my' ducks, which prefer my lawn for the mating and nesting ritual from early spring through early summer.

With the more salty Patapsco pretty much free of ice much of the season, and the bluebills thereabouts more evident, hunters worked the open waters of the river. From all the shooting I heard, they did quite well.

The ice close to shore in the creek kept the mallards at a safe distance from the rocks, where creek shooters usually set up shop. The combination of more bluebills in the river than in many years and ice in the creek spared 'my' ducks, and for that I thank the severe winter - despite the mounting fuel bills.

Spring's Beginning

By the calendar, spring won't come until March 20, and earlier this month the groundhog assured us of that when - for the second consecutive year - it saw its shadow. When I was a boy in New England, the beginning of spring was more likely to be figured by the Hagerstown or Old Farmer's Almanac or the groundhog's shadow-no shadow experience than by the calendar and its vernal equinox. Still, Grandma Clara Burton didn't put much faith in that hedgehog from Pennsylvania.

She told me many a time that no self-respecting woodchuck, especially of the fair gender, would look for its shadow for fear of being reminded of how much weight it had gained while mixing sedentary semi-hibernation with snacking on warmer days over the winter months. She trusted the almanacs more for figuring when to begin preparations for spring planting and traditional end-of-winter tasks on the farm.

I go by a gut feeling, and I'm usually wrong. Once again, mid-February has caught me unprepared to tap the three mature maples in our front lawn. The fourth is only a bit over a yard high going into its fourth year, but from now on it will grow faster and more healthily, thanks to my finally implementing an anti-rabbit campaign.

No, I didn't make the lawn more inhospitable for bunnies, of which many reside hereabouts. I came to realize the sapling needed protection from them if it was to survive. Wild rabbits like chewy things, among them the bark of young maples, and for three springs they chewed back on the struggling red maple so much so that I feared for its survival.

Some of the damage had already been done late last March by the time it occurred to me that the netting of black plastic used for crab pots would, if shaped into a protective tube, keep the munching bunnies from the tree. That spared more springtime damage, and the bountiful rains that followed - plus some fertilizer spikes - gave the stunted tree the growth spurt it needed to ensure its future.

It won't grow into a picturesque maple. Too many times its shape has been altered by hungry rabbits since I first transplanted it when it was about six inches tall. But its unusual and almost corkscrew developing trunk will be a reminder of its determination to survive. That will make it a special tree on the front lawn at Park Road.

It replaces a silver maple that was done in by a lawn service that so 'ringed' its trunk with a weed-whacker that it perished. Needless to say, that lawn service is long gone, but so is the maple treated so brutally.

Syruping Foiled Again

It's probably too late now to drill with a half-inch bit three inch-deep holes into the two adult red and one adult silver maple for sap this year. Though the winter has been cold, their sap is already flowing. Life is renewed. And there are so many other things to do to prepare the lawn, feeders and houses for the birds that will soon arrive.

For decades I've planned on making my own maple syrup. The trees are not the sugar maples so abundant in my Vermont, but all maples - black, silver, red, swamp, ash-leaf and sugar - contain the alchemical sap that, when boiled, becomes syrup. It's just that the sugar maple is the sweetest and therefore the tastiest. In Vermont, the others are ignored.

It takes 40 gallons of sap to boil down to a gallon of syrup, which my three mature trees can't handle. But when that fourth tree gets bigger, perhaps I can get 40 pints, thus one pint of syrup, part of it from the tree I saved. That's an incentive for me to survive several more winters.

In the meantime, I rejoice that my ducks have survived - and that longer days will rouse nesting instincts that will bring them to the lawn regularly for handouts of corn and sunflower seeds, sometimes directly from my hands. It will take us a few more weeks to become fully re-acquainted, and I will be outside more watching for the first robin, and soon putting out grape jelly to satisfy the sweet beaks of the early catbirds and mockingbirds.
Just Around the Corner

Winter has its picturesque snow and invigorating temperatures; summer has its blooms and fledgling birds; fall its colorful foliage and comfortable weather. But spring brings the ducks, the variety of songbirds and the rebirth of perennials in the garden. I can hardly wait.

That's how it is up here in North County where - though bird baths not infrequently still freeze over during the night, requiring a teakettle of hot water to satisfy the thirst of squirrels and winter birds in daytime - spring is just around the corner.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly