Friday, March 31, 2006

Spring is springing

I saw a few leaf buds on an unidentified shrub this morning. That is the first sign of new growth I’ve seen—as long you don’t count the non-native growth like an old Easter hyacinth or the first growth of the bleeding heart bush that I planted a few years ago.

Off the mountain, lots of new growth is visible—grass is greening up, daffodils are in bloom, etc. But here on the mountain the new growth is slower. It has also been untypically dry for a spring so far. I think it’s been 3 weeks since any rain and/or snow has fallen. Perhaps that’s why so little new growth is poking through.

The sun was just breaking the horizon when I walked Dog and Baby Dog this morning. That’s the last I’ll see it in the morning for a while. In another day the time will change, and my morning walks will take place in a murky shade of near night again for a month or so.

The local geese and mallards are readying their nests. A new migrant arrived yesterday—tree swallow. That’s at least a week early for them. I don’t think I’ve ever had them before the first of April before, and most commonly not until the start of the second week of the new month.

I’ve heard reports from other birders of early migration as well—rough-winged swallows, a palm warbler, etc. I don’t know if it means anything or if the lack of rain on the east coast has simply allowed birds to move without stopover days.

Anyway, it’s the weekend, so I hope I’ll get to see more arrivers now that I have more time to look.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sometimes it takes a cat

This morning I was eating breakfast and was joined at the table by one of my cats, the one who should be named Total Destruction. He was on the far side of the table, looking out the kitchen window, not vulturing over my breakfast, so I let him stay. All of a sudden he sits up like a prairie dog, still looking out the window and continues to hold this position, all the while looking very interested in something.

I try to follow his line of sight, but don’t see anything other than a few fluttering leaves. A few seconds later I see two young deer running around the mountain at full speed, dashing here, there and all over in play. Both deer were small, probably last year’s fawns. They are out in a section of open ground that is part of an abandoned ski slope. I don’t know that anything prompted the antics, other than normal young animal hi-jinks. They were a good 50-75 yards from the cabin, when Total Destruction spied them. Sometimes it takes a cat to point out what’s going on around the neighborhood. I’ve seen lots of things because they saw them first and then I noticed their interest. Raccoons and possums are probably the most typical sightings that turn them on, but several times it was a fox and later her kits in a den near the cabin that provided entertainment for them and for me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Starting the Day

I am enjoying the last few days, for a while at least, of daylight in the morning. This weekend the country “springs forward” to start daylight savings time. It will be great to have more light after I get home from work (sunset is now just before 6:30 p.m.), but it means my early morning walks with the dogs will be dark ones again for a while. For the past week or so, I have been waking up gently before the alarm’s ring while the day gradually lightens. Night starts to pale shortly after 5, though actual sunrise isn’t until I’m about to leave the house for work.

The early morning light also wakes the dogs, and they usually make it almost impossible for me to stay abed until the time when alarm would go off. They think the growing light is reason to wake up and start playing. They bounce and snort and show their teeth, play bowing next to the bed, bumping into the bookcase and the dresser, knocking things in all directions. Baby Dog is usually the instigator of this, though Dog never says no to participating in the fun. Baby Dog apparently thinks that greeting the new day means she has to act as though she hasn’t seen Dog in years and has to make up for lost time. Two dogs that have been separated for months couldn’t be more enthusiastic when they first see each other than my two.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Waiting Season

I'm naming the current time of year as Waiting Season. Winter, such as it was this year, is over, but nothing much has started yet to replace it. I have no signs of spring greenery, unless I count the two-inch high leaves from an Easter flower of 15+ years ago. The migration of spring birds is still pretty early in the process. I haven't seen any baby animals yet. So basically, it's an overcast sky, chilly, breezy and leafless trees in a quiet forest. Not the most exciting of seasons.

So it was kind of shock when I drove off the mountain yesterday and down into the warmer valley where the lawns are greening and daffodils are blooming. Weird.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Bad Cat

I haven’t taken many pictures lately. Last weekend, the post-snow melt, pre-new growth woods with overcast sky simply didn’t present itself as a particularly good photo opportunity. So I am posting a picture of The Bad Cat, taken during the fall, ensconced atop my bill box for no good reason other than that he knew I wanted to open it. With luck, this weekend will present more photo opportunities.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sun Pillar

I saw a sun pillar this morning just after 6 a.m. It lasted about 5-10 seconds, just as the sun was rising and disappearing behind heavy cloud cover. The sun turned the clouds into a shade of mauve, and the pillar shone like a golden beacon into the morning sky. If you don’t know what a sun pillar is, here’s a link to a nice picture. ( In fact my own sighting was very similar to how this picture looks, (though the sky was not as dark) as one of the snowmaking ponds was in the front of my view, and trees line the back of that pond. The Spaceweather site is one I frequent, as they always have interesting information about what’s going on in the sky at the moment.

Last night, after dark, I was cleaning up the evening dishes when Baby Dog starting barking, just a yip or two at first, but she wouldn’t stop and was soon joined in sympathy barks by Dog. Eventually, I was forced to look out the front door, as I’ve learned they won’t stop barking when they think they hear something until I do my duty as mistress of the cabin and make sure there are No Evil Monsters out there. I looked out, didn’t see anything and went back to work. The barking stopped momentarily, then got worse, and this time when I looked out the front of the cabin door, I saw a huge raccoon gobbling up the last of the food I put out for the semi-feral cats. This raccoon was a beauty with gorgeous fur and tail, and in size it was the mother of all raccoons. The raccoon was snaking its paws into the body of the cat feeder, reaching up inside it and pulling out the cat food, piece by piece. At one point, one of the wild cats jumped up on the deck, saw the raccoon and froze. It stayed that way for a few moments and then fled into the night.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Morning Symphony

I woke up early this morning because the night starts to lift shortly after 5 a.m. now. Morning's increasing light wakes me up gradually, which is far more pleasant than the alarm. Of course, I could sleep longer if I closed the curtains, but then I couldn’t watch the woods from my bed as I’m falling asleep each night. This morning, instead of just lieing in bed and waiting for the alarm to go off, as I usually do, I got up and decided to take the dogs for longer walks instead.

Dog and I went down the mountain to the pond and walked around it. Spring’s dawn chorus is already starting to be fairly impressive, though still far from the near-deafening crescendo of sound that is late April or early May. This morning’s chorus started with the sound of a lone eastern phoebe. That bird just entered the spring’s chorus for the first time last weekend, one of the very earliest migrants. The phoebe is early in other ways, too, often starting its call when the night is just a few shades paler than fully dark. The phoebe was joined not much later in the morning by the cardinals, bluebirds and robins. Calling crows, a screaming killdeer and the distant honk of geese add their voices.

The mockingbirds provide jazz riffs—you never know whose song is going to come of those beaks. I’ve found that listening to what songs they’re singing at the moment pretty much tells you what other species of birds are around. It was the mockingbird who first alerted me to the newly arrived presence of the phoebe. The mocker has been singing robin and blue jay and bluebird songs for weeks, but suddenly the phoebe’s voice was added to the repertoire, a sure sign that the noisy gray bird had heard the call recently. Later that same morning I heard the song from the real deal, not the faux trickster.

A few minute later, the morning’s second act starts—the song sparrow and the twittering juncos, punctuated by the occasional percussive staccato of the flickers hammering territory on dead trees and transformer boxes (love that hollow sound!).

The walk and daily morning performance were just what I needed, far better than a few extra minutes of coziness in bed.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Closed for the Season

The first day of spring greeted me with snow flurries this morning. Winter’s north wind still blows, though not with the meaness of just a week or so ago. Ski Roundtop is now officially closed for the season, ending yesterday afternoon with its traditional pond skimming—an event where skiers, often in swim suits, ski down a slope and across a pond of water. If they hit it just right (and aren’t too heavy) they might make it across the water, but usually they don’t.

I don’t particularly care for spring. For one thing it means winter is over. For another, spring is a season that apparently has a great press agent, always promising warm weather, gentle breezes, baby animals, etc. The hype for this season is so much nicer than the reality. The reality is usually a cold rain, and this brings up my own personal nickname for spring: mud season. There’s not much fun going down the mountain to walk along the stream in the valley when every step I take creates giant sucking noises. I think I stopped liking spring about the first time I ruined a decent pair of boots and came home with muddy feet.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Pretty Smart!

This morning, perhaps because the weather has turned cool again, I had quite a crowd at my bird feeder. It was just the usual suspects: cardinals, juncos, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, nuthatch, etc. But they were all there at once and created quite a crowd. Suddenly of the blue jays, a notorious mimic, gave a perfect red-tailed hawk scream, and the others birds scattered. This left the blue jay with the feeder all to himself, where it took full advantage to eat all the peanuts. I don't know if the bird had a clue what the effect of the red-tailed hawk scream would be to the rest of the birds at the feeder, but jays are smart, and if the bird didn't know before, I'm guessing it will know in the future!

Friday, March 17, 2006


Last evening I started one of my favorite post-ski season activities—looking for things, usually money, that people drop on the slopes. I follow the edges of the melting snow pack on the ski slopes and see what I can find. Last year I found about $30 in cash, mostly quarters. My best find was a pretty hand-crocheted scarf in spring colors. I still have it. It dried out pretty nice.

I’m pretty much a piker when it comes to finding stuff on the slopes. There’s a guy with a metal detector that I see every year. He slowly works his way back and forth across every slope. It takes him days. My neighbor down the mountain says he found over $100 in coins last year, but he gets off work earlier than I do and since he works at Roundtop he can scavenge on his lunch hour. Plus he now has a metal detector too.

Still, there’s a lot of stuff, some of it decent stuff, to be found. There are always rumors of lost rings, Rolex watches, etc., but I don’t know of anyone who’s ever found anything that good. My neighbor has already found several strands of prettily painted beaded necklaces hanging on a tree. And (yet another) pair of gloves, which he gave to me. Nice ones, too. Gore-tex fleece. One less pair to add to the hundreds of pairs lost this year on the slopes. I’m not exaggerating. One of my duties during the season is to search the lost and found when people report they’ve lost something. That stuff all gets donated to a local shelter.

So last night the light was fading because I didn’t get home until late, and I wasn’t having any luck finding something. I sort of suspect this won’t be a good a year for finding stuff since the season ended early, and the warm weather in January kept a lot of people away. But I was determined not to quit until I found something. And then I saw it. A dime. Not an auspicious way to start the scavenging season, but at least it is a start.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Random Notes

I don’t ever remember a winter (or any season) that was so constantly windy as this one has been. One was more than enough, thanks.

I found the first sign of spring greenery yesterday. Before I moved to the cabin, the previous owner planted a small number of Easter flowers at the edge of the driveway—crocus, hyacinth, etc. After all these years, those spring bulbs are still coming up. One of them is now about 1 inch above ground. So far I haven’t seen any signs of life from the native flora.

Baby Dog is probably too old to be called Baby Dog anymore. Maybe I should call her Girl Dog.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

So what's the deal with the weather?

Weather here is psychotic. Monday the temperature neared 80ºF, followed by a big windstorm. Last night I followed my moon shadow down the lane, buffeted by heavy winds. My shadow and I looked drunk as the wind staggered us or suddenly eased. This morning I had snow flurries—a 45º change in temperature from the day before. Friday, several inches of snow are predicted. Even for March, this is unusually bipolar.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

March Magic

What's the best thing about living in the woods? Every day, something magical happens.

Last night I heard spring peepers, not a lot yet, but some. Today was so warm that I was outside during the day in a t-shirt, cleaning leaves off the decks that didn't finish falling until about one day before the first snow. After dark it was still warm, so I sat out on my front deck in a long-sleeved t-shirt and was comfortable, enjoying the evening. Even the moths were out. The only light in the woods is my porch light, a 100-watt bulb in a lamp.

My neighbor from further up the mountain was out for an evening walk on our dirt road and headed into my lane when he saw me sitting on the deck, under the light. We chatted for a bit, mostly about what animals we've seen lately. While we're sitting on the deck we hear the sound of a huge flock of Canada geese go by overhead. I didn't see a single bird, but I know how much noise a few thousand geese can make, and this group must have numbered in that range.

Several minutes later we hear the sound of snow geese. The sound gets closer and closer. Suddenly the geese appear, just over the tops of the trees, a flock of 75 or so, lit up underneath by my single light bulb. The lighting effect on the geese looks otherwordly. The white breasts of the birds glowed as they passed overhead, so close we could hear the sound of their wings over the honks as they headed north, soon passing out of the range of my light and into the dark.

Night Shot

Okay, so it's not the best night picture you've ever seen, but it's the first one I've ever taken, and so I'm pleased that it turned out at all. I took this at dawn last week on one of my early morning walks. The bright "star" on the left is actually one of the big planets, but I forget if it's Jupiter or Saturn.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Random News

“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, clearing the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.” - Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac

I stepped out of the cabin just after dawn this morning to be greeted by the sounds of hundreds of Canada geese, high overhead, coursing north. And with apologies to Aldo, this March thaw is more like a rapid boil, with the March murk more like muddy than anything. Today the local temperature is to be in the mid-60’s! The overnight “low” matched the daytime high of just 3-4 days ago.

Last night I played with Dog and threw a snowball at him, mostly because it’s probably the last time I’ll be able to do that. (He loves snowballs). I expect today’s temperature will eliminate the last of my snow.

The results of the February yard bird listing competition for Pennsylvania are in, and I’m tied for #7 in my category! This is so hilarious, and I’m so surprised. I had a measly 7 species to add to the list for February. I have little hope of improving my ranking. The person in the number 1 slot in my category has 19 more species than I do. Counting all categories, including the unlimited acreage category, I’m listed at #23.

The ideal “yard” for this competition would include woods (which I have) and an active pond where lots of waterfowl stop (which I don’t have). The ponds at Roundtop get a few birds that I can sometimes count because they fly over the cabin or I can hear/see the waterfowl from the cabin, but they aren’t active waterfowl stops. Pinchot Lake, which is several hundred acres or so, is just 2 miles away, so the waterfowl much prefer to stop there than on the little ponds at Roundtop.

My real Baby Dog is now back! No more stitches, no more conehead! Just one wild little border chow (I've decided she's part border collie and part chow, hence she's a border chow). She also has wonky ears, which I hadn't noticed before. One stands up more than the other.

Spring News

Spring is arriving, one small change at a time. Last night, as I walked the dogs for the last time, I heard the sound of hundreds of Canada geese, flying somewhere in or above the cloud cover, and heading north. “Geese!” I said to Dog who looked around (but not up) excitedly, no doubt thinking the birds were on the pond.

Once, when Dog and I were walking around the pond, a small flock of geese landed on it. Dog, in his excitement, broke away from me and jumped into the pond, swimming towards them. The geese swam to the other end of the pond, chased by a swimming dog, who stayed with them until he tired. Fortunately, he was able to make the shoreline before he gave out completely. But the word “geese” still gets his attention.

This morning I saw a single wild turkey in the overflow parking field at Roundtop. It was a large male, though alone and without a harem. It’s the first I’ve seen at Roundtop in 2006. At my parents’ farm, however, this has been a banner winter for turkey. They have about 30 that parade back and/or forth across the road almost daily. That group has one large tom and several younger toms with it. This past weekend the big tom was strutting his stuff, fanning his tail and exceedingly proud of his very large harem. When the birds are in their upper yard, they just about cover it. My parents often comment that many people drive by without even noticing that 30 turkeys are in the yard just a few feet from the road. They’re so busy talking on their cell phones or looking down the road that they don’t notice anything else.

Tonight, Baby Dog finally gets her stitches out! I think she’s forgotten (or pretends she has forgotten) just about everything she was taught before the cone went on two weeks ago. I think tomorrow we will have a play day to try and rid her of some of her excess energy. Then on Saturday, the lessons in civilizing behavior will begin again.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Raccoons are awake and out

Last night I talking on the phone and realized I hadn't turned on the porch light, so I walked over and flipped the switch. When I did I saw the hugest raccoon ever on the front deck eating the cat food. I mean this thing was twice the size of my 13 lb Maine Coon cat, so I'm guessing it was well over 20 lbs.

Since the raccoon is obviously awake and out of its den, I suppose I'm forced to admit that spring is here. I haven't seen any signs of new greenery yet, but with the temperatures due to reach the 60's this weekend, that can't be far behind. The 60's are waaay too warm for March, and I am not ready for this.

In good news: The conehead is removed tomorrow. I've discovered that it's just about impossible to train a dog who's wearing a cone. She can't see, she doesn't hear well with it on. I suspect that after 2 weeks of the cone, I will be back at square one with her training. Wait a minute. That's not good news! Oh well, at least the weekend is coming up, so I'll have some time to work with her.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Still Life with Snow

Despite my best intentions, my own life this weekend wasn't a still one, so I'm only now updating the blog. That said, I hope you enjoy this shot I took during the snow last week. I don't know what I was expecting, but I kind of like the way it turned out.

This past weekend at Roundtop might well have been the last great weekend of skiing for the winter. The snow was wonderful. Next weekend, however, the temperatures are predicted to be near 70o, amazing considering it was 15o at the house the other morning. The warm temperatures should ensure a great turnout for the bikini and speedo race during Roundtop's Springfest but is not the best thing in the world for keeping the snow on the ground.

My natural snow is already gone, except for a few patches. I'm starting to see signs of spring--a big flock of common grackles just showed up this morning. The dawn chorus of birds is also gearing up, even if it's only the opening bars and still only the winter residents. I've heard reports around the state of a few eastern phoebes, a better predictor of spring that the cliche'd robin, but none have arrived here yet. So, even though I don't like to admit it, I suppose I have little choice but to accept that spring is already making an appearance.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


The conehead. A photo of the conehead is as she appeared the day after I brought her home from the vet's. She still wasn’t feeling too great at this point. Today, she is banging around the house, driving me nuts. I will be so happy when the cone and her stitches are gone. I haven’t really be able to continue her training while she’s wearing the cone, so I’m sure it will be like starting all over again. With the cone on, she can only see directly in front of her, and she doesn’t seem to hear too well either. So she can’t see me while I’m trying to work on walking nicely. She has a long way to go on that one, even without the cone.

For a while, I was leaving her out of the crate, but leashed, when I was at work, as she barely fits in the kennel with the cone. But when I came home yesterday, I discovered that she had chewed the doorframe into my bedroom and clawed the wall, so now she is stuffed into the crate. And I have will have to sand and re-stain the door frame and plug up the depression she made in the wall, a project that will have to wait until my next paycheck.

One Degree from Disaster (and sniffing into the wind)

The forecast sounded ominous—the dreaded freezing rain and sleet for the commuting hours. Last night just before bed I went outside, without the dogs for once, to check the sky and sniff the air. The sky was only partially overcast, but more overcast than just a few hours before, so I could tell that the weather system was progressing.

Sniffing into the wind, I could scent the rawness of the air, almost taste the ice. Now, I’m going to tell you something kind of disgusting, but it’s a guaranteed way of improving your ability to smell or scent something. Human noses aren’t very good, but I think they’re better than we give ourselves credit for. We’re so used to being told how poor our ability to scent is, compared with virtually all other animals, that we tend to ignore what we are capable of.

I’ve learned to scent deer and bear as well as raccoons (and dogs and cats and other things). It helps a lot if the first time you scent them the aroma is particularly intense.

Have you ever wondered why animals with good scenting ability have moist noses? Because it improves even their already keen ability to scent. For a human, having a moist nose also improves your ability to scent, though of course you’ll never be anywhere near as good as a dog.

To me, bears smell like something rotten with an undertone of musk. Alaskan black bears smell like rotten fish. Pennsylvania black bears also smell rotten, but the scent is a bit more like rotten fruit. Raccoons have a similar smell but it’s more pungent. Deer smell musky. Find a spot where deer hang out, preferably in a little hollow that will hold the scent in place. Then choose a warm humid day with no breeze and go sniff.

So, that being said, here’s how I do it. Moisten the outside of your nostrils with spit, and while it’s still wet, scent into the wind. I think this at least doubles whatever scenting ability humans have without the moisture. You’ll be surprised at how many odors you can scent and then later learn to identify.

So there I was last night, sniffing into the wind and knowing the storm is on its way. This morning, ice against the window woke me up around 5 a.m.

This first shower of sleet and freezing rain didn’t last long, so the ice buildup wasn’t severe. Fortunately, although the sky continued to look threatening, nothing much fell out of it. I drove to work this morning, my eye on the outside temperature as displayed inside the truck. It stayed at 33ºF the entire drive in. Where I am, I was one degree from disaster. I expect the folks just 10-15 miles north of me weren’t so lucky. If I ever learn to tell the temperature by sniffing, I’ll let you know.