Friday, September 29, 2006

Fall, After the Storm

Two tornados came through the area last night, one to the north of me and one to the southeast. All is fine here at the cabin, though it was fairly exciting, weatherwise, for a few hours.

This morning, black, gray and white clouds are racing across the sky; the wind is from the northwest, and the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler than it was yesterday. In other words, it really feels like fall this morning.

Last evening, a great blue heron dawdled at one of the ponds. This morning I saw two double-crested cormorants heading south as I drove across the Susquehanna River to work. I see Monarch butterflies constantly, all moving south. I expect now that the storm has cleared that today will be a big migration day for hawks, especially sharp-shinned hawks. In the fall, in the east, northwest winds the day after a storm always brings higher numbers of migrants. I wish I was sitting on a hawkwatch someplace, instead of working, but such is life. Tomorrow will bring more possibilities, I hope.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Aurora Watch!

Be on the lookout for aurora borealis on September 29 and 30. A solar wind storm is approaching and may trigger Northern Lights tomorrow and Saturday. I am ever hopeful, though I'm starting to think there's some kind of cosmic rule that keeps skies overcast whenever the aurora forecast is high.

I took this photo last evening looking up my lane. The color change has started, but it's not very far along just yet.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Still Here!

Not all the summer residents have left the mountain just yet. I snapped this eastern phoebe last night. Many of the 73 frogs I counted a few weeks ago over at the new pond are still diving into the pond just ahead of my steps. They are almost like synchronized swimmers, one just half a leap ahead of the next.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

In Between

With every day that passes, fall progresses a little more, a little deeper into the season. Each morning I find another leaf, another branch that bears some color, though I am still several weeks away from the peak. If you look closely in the photo, you can see a little twinge of color on the tree in the foreground.

This is a time when the summer residents have left, but the winter ones haven’t yet arrived. I no longer hear eastern pewees, even on the weekend mornings when I am home and could hear them if they called. The eastern kingbirds are gone. The barn swallows are gone. I still see monarch butterflies, but they are always heading south.

It is still too early for the skeins of Canada geese or tundra swans to fill the sky. They are only just now leaving their northern grounds. It is still too early for the first juncos to arrive. The white-throated sparrows aren’t here yet, either. Activity at the birdfeeder by the year-round bird residents is picking up, a sure sign it won’t be long before the winter birds are here.

It is another in-between time or is it just that almost every time is an in-between time? The natural world is always moving. Even deepest winter is between fall and spring, though sometimes the deepest weather, no matter if it’s the hot end or the cold end, seems never-ending. Right now, I am somewhere in between the first signs of fall and height of fall. But exactly where I am, in between, is always a moving target.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Misty Morning

A foggy morning is beautiful in a landscape, though unfortunately, foggy is also a bit how I feel this Monday morning. I took this photo Sunday morning, just at sunrise as I was coming back to Roundtop after running out to get a Sunday paper.

After a busy weekend, I need a weekend where I have nothing to do but relax and enjoy the beauty around me. Instead, my weekend felt like a battle plan, with missions to accomplish and activities scheduled hour by hour. Missions accomplished; I got through it, but with no time to relax or enjoy.

I can report that Baby Dog had her first recorded encounter with a toad and survived to tell the tale. With luck, her encounter will keep her from attacking toads for the rest of her life, though with Baby Dog this isn’t really a sure bet. Saturday evening we’d taken an after dark walk down to the end of the lane and were almost back to the cabin when Baby Dog tugged hard on the leash and went after something. She had her mouth on it before I could see anything or stop her. Just about then I saw a large toad hop away, presumably unscathed.

Toads secrete a substance that causes dogs to salivate excessively if they try to eat or catch the toad. Baby Dog spent the next half hour salivating and trying to get rid of that substance. Flushing a dog’s mouth with water will help them get rid of it quicker. The substance isn’t dangerous to the dog, unless you live in Colorado or Texas where certain kinds of toads are really poisonous to dogs.

Every dog I’ve ever owned has had one toad in their history, but only one. I think it’s a little like kids sticking their fingers in a light socket. No matter how small the kid, once is all that’s needed for them to learn never to do that again. I hope Baby Dog has learned her lesson.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A Howlfest

Baby Dog has claimed an old round patio table (see picture) that came with the cabin, and which is now shoved into a corner of the back deck, as her own special spot. When she’s on it, she can see over the deck fence and into the woods. Since the deck is 6-7 feet above ground level, she can’t jump out.

When Dog was an only dog, and had the cabin to himself, I hardly ever heard him howl. But now that Baby Dog has joined the household, I am treated to a howlfest at least once a week. Sometimes a visit to the front deck by mama and baby raccoon will start it off. Sometimes it’s the arrival of a delivery truck. Last night, my neighbor came home from work after dark, drove past my cabin and up to his own, and that set them off.

Sometimes a quick word from me will break their concentration and end the display. Other times this doesn’t work, and they just have to howl themselves out. The howling doesn’t usually last very long, just a minute or so. Actually, I kind of like it, as long as it doesn’t go on for too long. Their howling is a very primal sound, very wolf-ish. It takes me back to what it must have been like when packs of wolves ran the forests of the Appalachians.

I’ve heard the deep howl of wolves in the Yukon, and I’ve heard the “yippier” and higher pitched howls of red wolves in North Carolina. I wish Dog and Baby Dog would howl, at least once, when I am some distance away, perhaps over by the new pond. I would like to hear their howls echo through the trees. That’s as close as I’ll ever get to hearing wild wolves in Pennsylvania, but I would like to have the memory of hearing something close to that sound, just once.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Angry Sky

I took this picture over at what I call "the new pond" that Roundtop put in a year or so ago. The sky had that angry October/fall look to it for the first time this season.

Overnight, the temperature dropped into the mid-40's for the first time, and this morning I can already see more color change to the leaves. I'm going to step out on a figurative limb here and predict that I think the fall colors wil be extra nice here this year. The rain two weeks ago really plumped up the foliage again, and I believe the timing of it was right so that the fall colors should be strong.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Spotted touch-me-not

I'm pretty sure this bloom is a spotted touch-me-not. An entire row of these plants is growing as thick as a hedge for 8-10 feet along a seasonal stream at the bottom of my lane. The blooms are small, no more than half an inch each. I like how they are the colors of fall in the days just before fall arrives. The plants are about 2 feet high, and they are just covered with these tiny blooms. I'm guessing there must be 100 blooms along the little stream, if not more.

The flowers and seeds are supposed to explode when touched, hence their name. I'll have to try that when I get home tonight, though the flowers are so pretty that I hate to ruin one. The "explosion" is how the plant distributes its seeds, which is a pretty clever adaptation. I enjoy finding any blooms this late in the season. Nearly everything else has long since faded and disappeared, so finding anything, let alone something this striking, is a treat.

As pretty as this little plant is, even with a row of these plants to look at, they are also easy to walk by. In fact, if I didn't have the whole row of them to look at, I'm not sure I would have noticed them at all. The plant looks a bit weedy, and the blooms are best seen when I'm crouched next to them. To me, the blooms look like an orange, miniature lady's slipper. Nature's show isn't always about majestic rocky mountains and grand canyons. The little things all have their own stories, if you take the time to listen for them.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Trail Ahead

I took the photo looking down a trail that winds off the side of the mountain and into the wooded valley that lies between Roundtop Mountain and the next one over. It’s a trail I walk frequently, both with and without the dogs. Although you can’t see it in this photo, I am already starting to see a few leaves here and there that have some touch of fall color to them. I’m pretty sure these aren’t changes brought about by drought or insects. I’m seeing the color mostly on smaller trees, the ones that are only a few years old—perhaps the sap simply has less distance to travel.

I saw the constellation Orion this morning, high in the pre-dawn sky. It was a brief sighting, with both Orion and the slivered moon poking in and out of morning fog. To me, seeing Orion again is like the return of a good friend I haven’t seen in a while. Orion is the “star” of the winter sky, a huge sky-filling warrior that makes other constellations look puny. It first makes an appearance in the evening in early November. The constellation throws its leg over the eastern fence (apologies to Robert Frost), marches across the sky of winter and disappears into the west sometime in March. But today it is up there as a morning sight, high overhead, two months before I can see it in the evening.

Today, a cold rain, tasting of fall, of seasons passed and seasons to come.

Let the bird feeding begin!

To be politically correct, I should call the bird in the feeder, a chickadee species. I live in a narrow band where both Carollina and black-capped chickadees are found. Scientists are now suggesting that where both are found, the two alleged species will interbreed, and so telling them apart is problematic. They used to say the calls were diagnostic, but no longer. I've never been politically correct; it's a black-capped chickadee. I can see differences in the chickadees that come to the feeder. The Carolina is smaller, and the white behind the ear is slightly grayer or less distinct. The black-capped is just a tad larger and has a bright white patch behind its ear. And usually, their wings are also edged with white,

I set up my bird feeder this weekend. Some people are surprised that I don’t feed the birds all year around. I would if the birds came to the feeders all year, but starting around April, the number of birds coming to the feeder drop way down. Add in a little rain, and the food will mold before it gets eaten. So I just stop feeding.

Mid-September is usually when I start feeding again, though even now I don’t expect many birds yet. Still, I’ve had chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatch, cardinals so far. I just bought some peanuts in the shell, which the blue jays love, so as soon as I add that, I expect they will come too.

I use a food called “Woodpecker.” The same company has one called “Chickadee” too, but my even chickadees like the Woodpecker mix better. The Woodpecker mix is mostly nuts, some quite large, but that doesn’t keep chickadees and titmice from hunting for the biggest nut and taking it back to their favorite tree for eating.

I also add extra sunflower seed and the peanuts, and later in the season, I’ll add a suet cake. I get a great variety of birds to my feeders. Woodpecker is an expensive mix, but little of the food goes to waste, unlike with the cheaper mixes where the birds throw out half or more of it. Most of the cheaper brands of bird seed have lots of cracked corn and millet, which most birds don’t like. That stuff is cheap, though, so they are commonly added to mixes.

It’s been my experience that a better quality of bird seed brings a better quality and variety of birds to the feeders. The only bird that eats cracked corn is mourning doves, and most of them don’t come this deep into the woods. The average bird doesn’t care for cracked corn. I read a study once that showed sunflower seed to be the second favorite seed of virtually every species of bird that will visit a feeder. For cardinals, it was the first choice. So plenty of sunflower seed are a good base for a feed mix.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rain, no broadwings

The photo is of raindrops on white pine needles. Today was supposed to be clear. Heck, yesterday was supposed to be clearing and mostly nice. It's still raining.

I’m starting to think my idea of a diminished food source as the cause for the early broadwing migration in the east was premature. So far today is still foggy and misty. In other words, it’s not very good migration weather. I’m already doubting the “clear” forecast for tomorrow.

So perhaps the real answer to the reason for the early migration is a prolonged bout of poor weather, and the birds felt compelled to move when they knew it was clear. This, naturally, begs the question of how birds in northern Canada know that the east coast of the U.S. is going to be weathered out for the next week, when forecasters with computers can’t?

I’m pretty good at watching the sky and telling when bad weather is going to arrive, but once I’m in the middle of the bad weather, I find few clues to tell me when it’s going to end. When bad weather is moving in I can see the first clouds appear on the horizon and march across the sky until it’s completely cloudy. I can tell, usually, if the storm will be a fast-moving one or one that’s going to be here for a long time. I can tell if the storm will be strong or weak. But when I’m surrounded by low, thick clouds or in the middle of rain or snow, I can’t tell when it’s going to end. And that’s the point I’m at right now. But those broadwings know!! So they flew before all this settled in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


Broadwings never do what they're "supposed" to do. Despite the early date, yesterday Hawk Mountain counted over 7000 broadwings, the fifth largest count ever. A few miles to the east at Bake Oven Knob, over 4000 were counted. I only saw one other site that counted over 1000 hawks, the other 30+ sites I checked results for rarely had over 100. So what's going on??

Also, though the wind was largely calm (which broadwings like), when there was a breeze yesterday it was from the south (which broadwings hate). Wind from the south means these birds are moving with a headwind, which means they have to use more energy on their already long and arduous trip down into central and South America.

Interestingly, to me, the Great Lakes hawkwatch sites that often count broadwings in the tens of thousands really haven't seen much yet. In other words, their broadwings so far seem to be arriving (or not) on schedule. So why so many birds in the east this early in the season? Boy, don't I wish I could answer that one.

So I'm going to make a few semi-educated guesses. Although the weather will block migration for the next 3 days, the front is supposed to clear out by Friday and have good skies for flying after that. On the surface of it, the birds shouldn't need to fly in these numbers this early. Something else must be making them want to move early. That something else, in my opinion, is likely food.

I suspect that their food source in the north either wasn't as plentiful as usual, or perhaps it's been cold up north so their food source is vanishing earlier than usual. It's liable to take weeks/months to get a reasonable answer to this mystery. But trying to figure out the "whys" of migration is one of the reasons I find it so fascinating.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Moon When the Birds Fly Away

Native Americans measure the year in moons, not in months, as is well known. At least one tribe calls what we name September as the Moon When the Birds Fly Away. I am really seeing the truth of that this week. Looking out my office window the past two days I see flocks of starlings and others that I can’t identify without binoculars swirling around the sky, like so many spots of pepper.

I’ve heard reports of large warbler fallouts—not at the cabin, unfortunately. A warbler “fallout” is when large numbers and many species of these tiny and beautiful birds all end up in the same place at the same time. A fallout most often happens on tops of mountains or on both sides of a large body of water that the poor things have to fly over. A fallout on the shore before a big water flight is to fuel up with insects, rest and perhaps to work up the nerve to start. A fallout after a big water flight is to rest and eat. Sometimes, the birds are so exhausted they all but fall out of the sky when they finally reach land. Fallouts on tops of mountains are rest stops and eating stops. It probably takes less energy to drop just a few hundred feet in altitude and refuel on the top of a mountain than it does to fly into a valley. It’s kind of like a gas station right at the on/off ramp of an interstate.

Broad-winged hawk reports for yesterday in this area were pretty impressive for so early in the season. Several of the local hawkwatches tallied more than 1,000 broadwings. The timing of the broadwing hawk migration is usually quite predictable, weather permitting. In my area of southern Pennsylvania, it you want to see broadwings, you should be on a lookout on the 17-18th of September. Historically, those are the days most likely to be the big migration days for this species. This is not to say you won’t see them a week before or after these dates. But the biggest flight is usually on these days.

Weather does affect the migration. One of the biggest flights ever in this area was September 12, 1978 at Hawk Mountain when more than 12,000 birds flew past. But this amazing result preceded 10 days of serious rain and poor flight conditions. Those birds pretty much had no other window of flight opportunity, and they knew it, so they migrated early.
This year, the prediction is for poor flight conditions through Friday (the 15th) but clear weather is predicted after that, so the 1,000+ birds seen at several lookouts yesterday is a little surprising to me. The other interesting pattern was that the flight was better to the west than in the east. Waggoner’s Gap near Carlisle had 1,300 broadwings, while Bake Oven Knob in Schuykill County (or is it Berks??) had 1,100. The Philadelphia region hawkwatches had less than 100 broadwings. This is likely due to the lack of northwest winds this week. The birds haven’t been pushed to the east and have been able to follow a more direct flight path. Of course, that might change after the rain finally clears the region.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


On this cloudy and foggy day, I find I can’t get my mind away from the thought of a beautiful and crystal clear September morning five years ago. How is it that I remember what the weather was like? Is it because the weather was so at odds with the darkness of what happened that day? ?

I have no words that explain or console. It was not a day for words. At least not for mine. I found little comfort anywhere, though I have found some since. I continue to find it as I see the seasons progress, as migrations continue, as life goes on. That things will never be the same is a given, but some things never change and in a small way, knowing that comforts.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Quiet Weekend

It's been a quiet weekend at the cabin. Summer is gone, but fall isn't quite here yet. Two inches of unpredicted rain fell Friday night, and some of the greenery has rebounded almost to spring's bright green.

Now that I could take my morning walks with dogs in daylight, I've discovered the pewees are still here. I heard a screech owl this morning, just after sunrise. It's the first I've heard them since spring.

So far, I haven't seen any sign that the summer birds have left, nor have I seen the winter residents appear yet. Sometimes I think much of the year is simply an in-between time. In-between winter and spring, in-between summer and fall, after fall but before winter. Shouldn't we have more seasons? Why only four?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Harvest Moon (...and other round things)

Tonight’s full moon is the Harvest Moon. Sometimes Harvest Moon is in September, sometimes in October. It’s always the full moon that falls closest to the equinox and this year that means it’s September’s full moon. I’d almost forgotten about it. It’s been so gray and overcast here for nearly 2 weeks that I haven’t seen the moon once since the first quarter a week ago.

Last night, well after dark, I was walking Baby Dog and when I came out of the forest, I was nearly blinded by the rising moon. A full moon is a fast way to lose the night vision I gained when I was walking in the woods. But with the sky clear and the moon so close to full that I couldn’t tell the difference, I didn’t really need it.

I found this mushroom near one of the old snow-making ponds when I was walking the dogs last evening. It’s a nice one, though can’t compare to the monster ‘shrums I saw in the rainforests of southeast Alaska. Those were nearly knee high, with caps the size of dinner plates. But this one is still pretty (though deadly).

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Downside

I am now taking my morning walk with Dog a good 45 minutes before sunrise, long before even the eastern pewees are up. Occasionally, as on this morning, we startle some sleeping bird as we walk past where they are roosting. This morning it was a killdeer who was startled and responded with their familiar call.

The lack of morning light affects my birding in other ways too. I have records going back a good many years of the dates when different species arrive in the spring. But my records of when they leave in the fall are pretty bad. Right now I'm just leaving the cabin and heading to work when I first hear the morning pewees call. In another week I will be leaving before they call. When do they head south? I won't know they are gone until some weekend when they aren't around. It's a shame that work has to interfere with good birding.

Last evening I saw the season's first large group of common grackles, several hundred at least. That's actually not a large group, but large enough. Down in Maryland and sometimes in this area, the flocks will be in the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands. In addition to the noise, the mess is pretty extreme as well. In this area, the birds hang out in one area for a few days or a week and then move someplace else. In Maryland and further south, sometimes the flocks hang together in the same area all winter. I hope I never have to see that near me.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


I did a little hawkwatching yesterday, which for those who don’t know, usually entails sitting on a mountain and looking into the sky with binoculars. I guess in some ways it’s a bit like fishing. It’s relaxing but often requires a fair amount of waiting and sitting. On good days it’s like winning the lottery when I see lots of hawks up close or a rare species. On bad days, I hope for good weather and a decent view. And perhaps some good conversation with fellow hawkwatchers.

After being a hawkwatcher for 20+ years, I can pretty much tell which days are going to be productive ones. Unfortunately, telling where the best place to be to see the hawks that fly past is more difficult. That’s why hawkwatching, especially broadwing hawk hawkwatching, is also a bit like gambling. Some hawk species migrate along ridges, but broadwings fly first where the wind takes them and then correct their path to take them where they want to go. So they can show up almost anywhere in this region, and trying to figure out where the wind has placed them is as much art as science, at this point. I “win” just often enough to keep me coming back for more, but I lose a lot too.

Yesterday turned out to be a good day for what is still the early migration season. By Sunday, Hurricane Ernesto cleared the region, and it was one day before more bad weather. That meant birds interested in heading south only had Sunday to do so or wait for the next favorable weather pattern.

As it turned out, I didn’t see as many broad-winged hawks (known as broadwings to hawkwatchers) as I’d hoped. But I did see osprey, sharp-shinned hawks (sharpies) and red-tailed hawks (redtails). I also saw plenty of turkey vultures and a few migrating black vultures. The vultures turned out to be the only ones close enough for photos.

Another enjoyment of hawkwatching is looking at other things that fly by, even when they aren’t hawks. Of these, the best were ruby-throated hummingbird, migrating monarch butterflies, and a first year or female Cape May warbler in the pines below my seat. I also saw small, loose flocks of starlings and grackles that were either migrating or preparing for that by grouping together and flying around.

The big broadwing flight in this area won’t occur for at least another week and more likely not for about 12-13 days. The best variety of hawks, up to 14 species in this area, is coming in mid-October, usually October 20-23. After that hawkwatching requires perseverance and a good wardrobe to brave the cold weather and greet the late season migrants.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Season Changes

Ernesto's rain has ended, but as you can see the sky is still dark and dreary, and the light for photography is pretty bad. So naturally, I came across a large, probably female, red-tailed hawk sitting on a wire as soon as I left the cover of the woods yesterday.

Hurricane Ernesto was a season-changing kind of storm. From here on, the weather won't likely get as hot as mid-summer, though it's still possible to get a few more hot days.

The storm also started birds moving in a way that I hadn't yet seen before it. As soon as the storm cleared, I started seeing loose flocks of small birds headed south. Most were starlings or finches, but it's the first time I've seen birds in flocks since summer started. This morning I saw a south-bound dragonfly. Yes, they migrate too. Tomorrow is to bring more rain, so I'm optimistic that today will bring a good early-season hawk migration. I'm heading off to a hawkwatch to enjoy the show.

I did manage to get one better and closer picture of Ms. Redtail sitting on the wire.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Rainy Saturday

Hurricane Ernesto turns out to be an odd little storm. The 3-5+ inches of rain that were predicted haven't really materialized, though I've had about 2 inches and it's still raining, though not very heavily. The winds, which weren't supposed to be a factor, brought down 2 trees into the lane below the cabin. So before any of us who live along the lane could get out this morning, those had to be taken care of. One we just moved by hand, as it wasn't that big.

And now it's a raining Saturday afternoon, and all the animals are snoozing. I should be too.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Calm Before the Storm

The calm before the storm is a real phenomenon, not just a cliché. Last night as I walked the dogs for the last time, the leaves were as still as those in a painting. It’s as though the forest is holding its collective breath. Even the crickets and the cicadas were silent.

Hurricane Ernesto is going to sweep up through Roundtop and past my cabin today and tonight. I’ve seen quiet like this before. I’ve seen it after the one tornado that careened past the base of the mountain came through. I saw it the day before a winter hurricane dropped 3 feet of snow on the mountain and blasted by with 70 mph winds. It’s as though these big storms suck away all the air flow in an entire region, pulling it into their own storm system. The result creates this area of calm ahead of them.

The current forecast for my area doesn’t sound terrible, but I’m wary. The last time the forecast was for 3-5 inches of rain, I ended up with 15” of rain. My basement was good for the first 11”. After that I was in trouble, especially when the sump pump broke at 13” into the storm. So last evening I bought a new sump pump and all the necessary accoutrements. I also bought a battery-powered pump in case the electricity goes out. I’m as ready as I can be.

If the storm stays within its predicted rain level, I (and my basement) will be fine. I might even be out looking for “hurricane birds.” Birds (and likely other animals as well) respond to the lowering air pressure by heading inland and to safety. It’s not uncommon to find coastal birds on the Susquehanna River or on area ponds during big storms. It’s one of the few benefits these storms can bring with them. This morning, I’ve been seeing many small flocks of common birds floating around, no doubt seeking food and shelter and being far more active than is typical for this time of day.

In the meantime I’m waiting for the storm, trying to create my own area of calm ahead of its path. Waiting and watching is all I can do.