Tuesday, January 27, 2015

wintertime...and the living ain't easy

Stone fence in snow

I’m not buried in snow, but there’s still plenty of it about on Roundtop Mtn. Roundtop was hit pretty hard by the infamous "Snowtober" in 2011, so I’m not unhappy about missing the worst of the current blizzard that’s burying Boston today.
Even the amount I have on the ground must be hard on the forest residents. Baby Dog and I saw three deer this morning, which prompted me to wonder how and where they sleep in this poor weather. There’s a nice tangle of brush in a low-lying area that offers good screening in summer, but nothing is dense enough there to keep them from becoming snow-covered as they sleep. Perhaps they don’t mind. I know puppies Sparrow and Skye act as though they would be happy to spend hours in the snow, racing back and forth. I can easily imagine they would curl up and sleep in it if they had to.
That said, this weather must still be hard on the wild animals, and not just because it makes finding food more difficult. No place that I can see offers much in the way of protection from the wind, let alone the snow. When the chickens are out, they soon retreat under my raised cabin, where the snow doesn’t reach. Perhaps it is also warmer under there, too, but even that doesn’t provide much protection from the wind.

Everywhere I can see is snow-covered, and the little dips and gullies in my hilly forest don’t look as though one offers any more protection than the next place. All of which makes me glad to be indoors and warm when I sleep. I have winter backpacked when it was -20F, but I was in a tent and a warm sleeping bag, and the wind wasn’t howling, nor was I in a blizzard at the time. Clearly, the forest animals are hardier than I am, though I still can’t help but feel sorry for them living outside in this weather.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Red sky before snow

A few inches of snow fell yesterday. It was the light powdery kind of snow that soon starts to compress under even that slight a weight. So this morning the snow already looks less than it did last evening. I am harboring a cold, which makes me want to huddle next to the fire, wrapped in a blanket and sipping a cuppa hot tea. Unfortunately, the puppies want to run full tilt through the snow, noses buried, back and forth for hours. We have not yet found a compromise that suits us all.

In addition to today’s snow photos, I also am posting a photo of the sunrise of the day before the snow. That red-sky-at-morning thing is really true. And as long as the sailor’s-warning part of the old rhyme doesn’t turn out to be something really awful, the red morning skies can be appreciated simply for their beauty.

Thus far, the January here in southern Pennsylvania is turning out to be colder than average and could end up in the top 15 of coldest Januarys. It won’t touch the infamous 1994, of course, when the coldest ever temperature recorded in this area was reached at a bone-chilling -16 and the day before at a -12 or so. Two days like that skewed the entire month that year.

Although 2014 was the warmest year ever on record, in my area the temperature was one of the few areas of the globe that registered below average. That may explain why some people here still aren’t convinced of climate change. To them, if they don’t see it where they are, it doesn’t exist.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Overcast and gloomy skies are certainly dominating this winter so far.  That’s unusual for this area, where a sunny winter is more typical.  The cloud cover and shortened hours of daylight make it difficult for someone like me, who works away from the cabin, to get photos in either the morning or evening.  The progression to longer daylight seems utterly halted by the overcast sky.  Most of the time I couldn’t even tell you where the sun should be, as not even a bright spot can be found overhead.

This time last year, I found the sun rising through the forest at the time I normally head out to work. This year, not yet. This morning did bring a few moments of brighter sky before the sun disappeared into the cloud cover yet again.  The harsh cold of last week is abating somewhat, though the temperature remains below freezing, if no longer by double-digits.

The mountain roads were skating rinks for a while.  Seriously, hockey games or triple lutzes could have been done for a few days. I slipped even in my trusty Yak-trax.  Yesterday, a thick layer of stones was applied to the roads, and that helped a lot, though my Yak-trax are still firmly attached to my boots.  I am just happy that I can get the car up the mountain now and so don’t have to slip and slide a quarter mile down the mountain to my car.  It’s the little things that matter.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Deer refuge

Pretty much the same view as last time--but with snow
I apologize for the lack of posts lately. It’s a bad combination—the need to acclimatize the camera in the cold weather and the fact that it’s not light enough for photos before I leave for work and too dark for them when I get home. However, the days are lengthening, if at a very slow pace, and soon one end of the day will be good enough, if still marginal, for photos.

The cold is abating, if only for today. And truthfully, although cold, it’s that wind that’s made the weather so brutal. Four degrees Fahrenheit and a 25 mph wind do not make for pleasant outings. However, this morning was 14 degrees with calm winds, and I have to say it felt balmy to me.

I do believe two summer fawns or perhaps a summer fawn and a small doe are sleeping almost underneath my cabin. Last evening as I was walking Baby Dog for the last time, we walked past the 40-year old juniper bush at one edge of the cabin. The bush is huge, as I don’t trim it, and serves as a hiding place for various birds or the semi-feral cats.

Baby Dog was entirely too interested in that spot, and I was anxious to return to the warm of the cabin, so I pulled her away. We went out to the end of the lane and came back—poor dogs are only getting short walks in this weather—and as we passed the juniper bush, two deer crashed out of that area and trotted up the mountain. Apparently, walking past them once was okay, but our return trip was too much for them. I was sorry to have startled them away from their warm bed. I hope they returned after we settled inside for the night. And now the mystery is solved. Odd that they settle so close to the cabin, but I guess the lure of a protected spot out of the wind is that great.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Unquiet Forest

View into the west from my cabin
It’s a gray and blustery day at Roundtop ahead of some light snow expected tomorrow.  The wind roared and howled all night long, with gusts nearing 40 mph. The temperature is now nearly 20 degrees colder than Sunday and will drop another 25 degrees before it’s done.  Winter has arrived.

I spent yesterday adding more straw to the chickens, snug in their winter pen, digging out my Yak-trax and my mid-winter parka—my winter chores. This blast of winter will last, in varying degrees, about a week.  Wednesday and Thursday look to be the coldest days, and by then the chickens will get another handful of straw.

Last night I wondered if the coyotes were around again.  Not as close as they were last week, but somewhere relatively near. The wind was from the west, and late in the evening Baby Dog faced the wind and began to bark that deep, serious bark of hers.  I scoured the forest with my headlamp but saw nothing.  With the wind as fierce as it was, their scent may have traveled quite some distance, perhaps even from the next mountain over.  Certainly, I haven’t heard them howling since that night, so they are not near enough to hear that.  But Baby Dog’s unhappy barking led me to believe that something she didn’t like—nearly always a predator—was near enough for her to sound a warning.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Winter orchard--sleeping
Another year is about to end. I had such a busy year that to me 2014 seemed to last about 6 months, not 12. I am hoping for a somewhat quieter 2015 but who knows? As the author of Cache Lake Country, my favorite outdoor book, says, "Starting a new year is like heading into strange country with no map to show you what’s round the next turn in the trail or what lies behind the hills." Sometimes that’s a good thing. 

Another favorite writer, John Muir, said "the map is not the territory," so even if I had a map of the year ahead it certainly wouldn’t tell the whole story of what is to come. A map doesn’t give you the feel of the territory, nor can you get much of a sense of how easy or difficult the walking might be. Just because a map shows those little swamp icons, for example, doesn’t tell you if it’s a swamp you can walk through or one that’s impassible. So when Huck Finn says at the end of the story, "I’m heading off into the territory," you just know he didn’t have a map and probably didn’t want one. He was heading off into the unknown and seemed pretty eager to do so.

Heading into 2015 I feel a bit like Huck Finn, if perhaps more tempered by the years than that young sprout. It’s a new year, with new adventures, new hopes and challenges, and I would appreciate it greatly if it turns out there aren’t many ravines ahead. Even if I did have a map, I wouldn’t really know what’s ahead because I wouldn’t know how those events will make me feel. The map is not the territory, after all. But we are all heading off into "the territory" now. Here we go!

Monday, December 29, 2014


Holiday seasons are fun if too busy and too hectic for much relaxing or computer time. The busiest part of my holiday celebration is over now, so I am already looking ahead to 2015. I am hoping that 2015 will be a "normal" year for me, so that, unlike 2014, I’ll be able to return to my regular amount of birding and traipsing around. 2014 didn’t give me much time for that, but the known activities ahead of me in 2015 are less than those of this year, so there is reason for my hope.

As a result, I am already plotting my New Year’s Day birding. I fell woefully short of my normal birding this year, and too many other county birders leapt ahead of me in E-bird. For the first time ever I dropped out of the top 5 to number 15 on the year list. And as little birding as I did, #15 is better than I deserve. I am still #5 in the all-time list, so that’s something.

I am fanatical only about my county bird list, as I have neither the time nor the money to pursue a country or state list. Some time after I retire, I do want to attempt a big state year in Pennsylvania, but that’s as lofty a goal as I can aspire to. Until then, my county list is my passion, and this year I simply haven’t had the time to work it with my usual zeal. However, 2015 looms ahead in a mere three days, so my retribution isn’t far off.

First off is the weather, which looks suitable for birding, if chilly. It should be sunny, a rare occurrence over the last month. In winter, especially, sunny weather helps.

Next is planning the routes. I will start and end the day at Roundtop. I’ll spend at least the first 30-60 minutes of the birding day checking my own feeders and the area around the ski resort for the usual suspects. So far, I haven’t seen anything unusual, so I’m not expecting some exotic wintering bird to be around. However, finding the usual birds here means I won’t have to focus on them during my travels.

After Roundtop, I’ll head to Pinchot State Park, just three miles away. There, I will look for waterfowl mostly and perhaps sparrows, trying to scare up any of the common birds that were hiding at Roundtop. After that I’ll head to the Susquehanna River, hoping for a few gulls and perhaps a bald eagle. Last year I did get two bald eagles on January 1 at Pinchot, but they are probably more likely on the river.

After that, I’m still deciding where will be my next stop. It will likely depend on how well I’ve done to this point—or not. On January 1, 40 species are possible here, but I’ve never made that number. I always miss something, often something "easy." Who knows? Maybe this will be the year that I tally 40 species on New Year’s Day. It’s something to look forward to.