Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunset on 2007

Perhaps I should designate 2007 as the year of the power outage. Certainly the end of the year has been that way. This morning after the alarm went off but before I had my slippers on, the power went off again.


Overnight, I had less than an inch of snow, so downed trees or limbs are not the issue. Perhaps, this time it was the standard car-into-a-pole scenario. In any event, the mountain is dark this morning. Again.


For me, starting a new year means starting a new bird list. It's a time of hope and optimism, when I plan to spend more time birding, when I resolve to look harder for my local birds, when I hope April and May will bring waves of warblers to the mountain.


But December 31? If it means anything to me, it means getting the spreadsheets and bird lists ready for the new year. As a day in and of itself, I don't pay all that much attention to it. Certainly my feeder birds don't know that tomorrow I will be counting them (again) in earnest. To the natural world outside my door, tomorrow is simply another sunrise, another sunset. Some days I wonder if I should be more like that. Other days, I'm happy to observe the human-created holidays and rituals that are separate from the goings on in the natural world. Call it inter-species tension, if you like, as for all I know, trees have their own holidays and rituals that humans aren't privy to and don't celebrate.


So I am preparing for a human holiday tomorrow, a human-labeled arrival of the new year, though as a species we can't even agree on the date for its start. I can find references to 20+ different dates for the start of the new year. We do, however, seem to agree that a new year is cause for celebration, so I guess that's something. For now, it will have to do.

Happy New Year! However and whenever you celebrate it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Big Green Birding Year


I'm going to be joining the ranks of the BIGBY birders in 2008. For those who haven't yet heard this term, it means Big Green Birding Year. The idea is that you can only count birds that you see while birding around your own house and on foot. They do also have a second category called "self-propelled," which allows you to use a bike or other self-propelled conveyance to reach your birding destinations.

I figure I'm a natural for this one since it's the kind of birding I've been doing for some time.

As of this morning, some 75 birders had signed up. If this interests you, here's the Web address where you can sign up: http://www.sparroworks.ca/bigby.html


Light is already returning to the mountain, now that the shortest day has passed. On clear mornings, as this one is, the sun is just barely above the mountain to the east when I leave the cabin for work. In celebration, I took an early morning photo. The light I see during the hours I'm on the mountain is not yet good, but it is light.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Going Feral


It's probably just as well that the holidays are over, and my life is getting back to its "normal" routine. When I am alone and at the cabin, I find myself turning feral all too quickly.
It's so easy to quickly ignore society's rules of good grooming and good behavior. I end up wearing stripes and plaids (but they are my favorite flannel shirt and sweater). So what if they don't match at all? Both feel wonderful, so it's only natural to want to wear them together.
It's easy to let the hair go unwashed an extra day or to pad around in the same comfortable socks for longer than is proper. After all, the dogs, who are slobs at heart, don't mind. The cats are fussier but not about these kinds of things.
I find myself admitting, albeit reluctantly, that society's rules keep me from going too far "out there" down the path to being a feral human. The rules force me to leave the cabin, dressed and coiffed appropriately. If I had, say, a month on my own, I might forget how to do even that, and I'm fairly sure I would care even less than I do now, which is a bit frightening.
I am eccentric enough, I suspect, at least by the standards of normal modern life. For one thing, I can't abide pointy heeled shoes--they look like elf shoes to me. And even if I liked them, which I don't, they simply wouldn't work in the mud around the cabin, even on the short walk from the car to the front door. So I wear flat shoes with treaded soles, the only flats in an office with a sea of heels.
I don't scream when I see a mouse or a bat--both of which have mysteriously found their way into our office at one time or another. And naturally, I was the one who ended up catching these visitors and releasing them outside.
The differences run deeper, too, but the tamed and civilized humans around me are already suspicious enough. Sometimes I feel as though I spend my days in the costume of normal life, but I am wild and feral underneath.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Moon



The ice from last week's ice storm has melted, leaving scarred trees in its wake. Wherever I go, I see broken trees and their pale, exposed centers, often the lightest shade in this winter landscape. However, the weather since then has been calm. The skies have been most clear, the wind non-existent.

I am still cleaning up the limbs and branches that fell during the ice storm. At first, I only tossed them out of the way to clear the driveway. Now, I am creating several large piles deeper in the woods to get rid of them. So I lug what I can on each trip, dragging them out of the way. It is slow work, and unless I soon get snow, I will likely be working on it for another week or two.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. I was up before dawn and caught this photo of the setting moon when I first wentoutside. It has been a long time since the full moon set on Christmas morning. I don't even remember how long it's been. Perhaps even the last time it was cloudy or snowy, so I might have missed it whenever it did occur. But on this morning, there it was, heavy and pale on a clear, Christmas morning.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grandmother Nature Rules (and a few of my own)



In the aftermath of the weekend’s ice storm, it occurs to me that life has few lessons to be learned that can’t be taught by Grandmother Nature.

1. Humility – Grandmother can very quickly knock out any idea you may have had of your own importance or abilities. She teaches that she is in charge and nothing in your day to day life will stand in her way. Sometimes we forget that, lulled as we are by seemingly endless beautiful days and busy lives. Then Grandmother reminds us.

2. Beauty—This hardly needs much more description. Everything I know about beauty I learned from Grandmother Nature.

3. Respect—This goes along with #1.

4. Enjoy life while you can—Tomorrow may bring an ice storm. Or worse.

5. Find ways to enjoy more of your life—See rule #4. There will always be work, errands, chores and nasty times. The trick is to teach yourself to enjoy more about these things, so you can spend more time being in the "zone" of #4.

6. Change happens, learn to deal with it—No tree is forever, no animal is forever. We are not forever. Even the forest isn’t forever. Holding on to what used to be isn’t something that Grandmother Nature worries about. New trees take hold, mountains rise, mountains fall.

7. Don’t focus on what you’ve lost when things change—This one is really hard, especially at first. We all tend to focus on what is lost when things around us change. It might be a job or a loved one or our youth. But with every loss comes something new, eventually. Spring flowers don’t lament the winter. New lives know only today and the hope of tomorrow. To them, life always begins with them. For those of us who are older, life should begin with today.

8. Life and Grandmother Nature always moves on—We have to learn, or at least try, to do the same.

9. To everything there is a season—Happy solstice. The wheel of the year turns again, and Saturday will bring more light.

Re: "Grandmother" Nature—Mothers I can deal with, but the cumulative weight of the ancestors is a force of a different Nature. So from now on, in my mind, Mother Nature has become Grandmother Nature, to help me remember that she's no pushover and to remind me of the lessons she teaches every day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Victims of the Ice Storm


During the weekend’s ice storm, as many as 80,000 people were out of power in this region for at least a day. That’s down to about 2,000 now and those poor folks are supposed to have it back today. Some roads are still not cleared. Homeowners are assessing the damage and checking their insurance policies for what is and is not covered.

Humans are not the only victims of this storm. Tree damage is extensive. Last December I took a pretty photo of several white pine trees with a delicate and pretty glazing of ice and snow. All of those trees are now broken. One might survive but I’m even doubtful of that one. Ice still grips the mountain, if slightly less so than the day before. Temperatures only rose above freezing for an hour or two yesterday. It was enough to start the process of thawing but that still has a ways to go.

In front of my cabin, I have three conifers that are in danger. Yesterday, I thought for sure I would lose two but thought one might make it. Today, one of those in danger has improved, though it’s not safe yet.

I’ve also seen two flocks of Canada geese, both at migration altitude, heading south. These sluggards were likely "gambling" that they were already as far south as they needed to be for the winter, and then the ice storm came. Now, they are getting out of Dodge, better late than never.

The little red-breasted nuthatch that visited my feeders 50 times a day since the moment it arrived is also among the missing. I still have a small glimmer of hope that it has survived, but only a small one. During the week, I don’t have much daylight time to see what’s going on at the feeders so perhaps it is there and I am only not seeing it. This is possible but unlikely, as before the storm I could rarely look outside and not see it. Perhaps it is holed up somewhere with its stash of seeds—not even the world’s hungriest nuthatch could consume as many seeds each day as this one took from the feeders. Perhaps it has left the area, figuring that it wasn’t nearly as far south as it thought it was. This is also, I think, unlikely. In any event, I haven’t seen it since Sunday afternoon. Godpseed, girlfriend, wherever you are.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Grandmother Ice Storm

Several days ago I said I had the mother of all ice storms. Boy, was I wrong. That storm was just a toddler. Two days after that storm I had the ancestor of all ice storms. I have only now gotten power back, and I’m one of the lucky ones. Tens of thousands are still without power in this area and likely won’t have power for as long as two more days. I was out of power for two days and that was bad enough.

My first photo today was taken yesterday, after the road up to Roundtop was cleared. Today, ice still hangs on many of the trees, and trees are still breaking from the weight of the ice that covers them. The trees worst hit were the ones that still had some of their leaves hanging on. And conifer trees (more about that tomorrow, I think). I am still about half-expecting to lose power again, either from more breaking trees or from the ice falling off the trees.

My driveway looks like a battle zone—if the war was fought with ice. The ice looks like inches of shattered glass covering the mountain. It sounds like glass shattering too when a tree breaks and the ice hits the ground. I have been fortunate, as I had no damage at the cabin, though I had at least one close call.

A tree fell no more than a foot from the front of the car, covering the hood with leaves and small twigs (looked like a bad haircut) but not damaging the car or the cabin. Larry, my neighbor and manager of Roundtop’s paintball, brought up the backhoe to pull the downed tree out of my driveway and clear our lane of branches. I had many branches and limbs fall on the roof of the cabin and roll off its slope. If I never hear that sound again, it will be fine with me. Often, I heard a tree crack before I heard the sound of the branch falling on my roof. Now I cringe at the sound of a tree cracking, waiting for what is to follow and wondering how bad it will be, until the branch lands somewhere. The driveway almost looks like a hedgerow, lined as it is now with branches and limbs that I have tossed out of the driveway and off to the side.

Living without power for two days in early winter isn’t something I’d recommend. I did have enough water, food, warm sleeping bag, etc. in my emergency kit. I have a hand-cranked emergency radio, but found I couldn’t get the kind of emergency information I wanted to have. Too many stations carried on business as usual and if they listed locations of emergency shelters or reports on when areas might get power back, I never heard it. The local ABC station was off the air for 2.5 days and has only just come back on the air this morning. The road in and out of Roundtop was blocked for a while by all the downed trees covering the road. Once I did get power back, the information on the local TV stations was better and more robust than what the radio stations carried, but even that isn’t helpful unless you have access to TV, and referring people to Web sites isn’t very useful unless you have an internet connection.

All in all, it was a mess but everything seems to be improving for now. Once I got power back, I saw an interview with a 104 year old lady (she looked like she was in her ‘80’s) who was in a local shelter. She said she’d never had to leave her home before and had never seen anything like this ice storm in her entire life. I hope that means I'll never see another one like it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mother Nature's Wrath


Mother Nature’s wrath was in evidence yesterday. The ice storm that pelted Roundtop was a big one—not the worst I’ve ever seen but certainly in the top five. I lost power in the late afternoon and despite promises from the electric company that it would be back up in 2 hours, I didn’t get it back for nearly 12 hours. I’ve come to the conclusion that their projected times for power to return have no basis in fact. I think they just give you a time that’s 2-3 hours from whenever you call.

The cabin stayed warm-ish as I closed the heavy curtains and didn’t open the door again except for a moment to take the dogs out. And when we were outside, I didn’t stay outside very long. I could hear limbs and branches falling with a crystalline shatter all around.

Just before I got up this morning, I heard what sounded like a heavy rain outside. Oh, great, I thought, more freezing rain. I got up to take the dogs out and dressed for rain. It was coming down hard. But then I looked up at the lightening sky and saw a star. That’s funny, I thought, a star out during a rainstorm. Then I saw more stars and realized the sky was nearly clear. That’s when I realized the "heavy rain" was the melting ice falling off the trees. That’s how much ice there is on the trees.

And Saturday, I will do it all over again—maybe. I was hoping for a snowstorm, but instead it may be a repeat of the ice storm. And in other news—forecasters locally report that the long range forecast for the winter is that after this blast of wintry weather, the long range forecast for January and February is for much warmer than usual weather. I’m reporting that now simply to see if they are right or wrong about that. Last year, December and January were warm but February brought a return to more normal weather. There’s nothing to do but wait and see. The last photo of my driveway was taken after I'd cleared all the limbs from it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Ice!


The mother of all ice storms is coating Roundtop Mtn. this morning. I didn’t try to drive to work. So I am at home fighting with the dial-up connection and working from the kitchen table—at least for now. With the ice storm only 90 minutes old and still going strong, I’ll be surprised as all get out if I don’t lose power before it ends.

I have already had “lunch,” figuring that if I don’t eat something hot now, I might not be able to later. The dogs are surprised to have me at home but as long as I don’t interfere with their sleeping, it’s fine with them.

I feel sorry for the birds that come to my feeders. I put out lots of fresh seed for them just as the storm was starting, so they will have plenty. But now they are as wet and icy as a plane you don’t want to be flying on. I notice it the most on the jays. Perhaps it’s simply more visible on a bird that size. Or perhaps the jays can’t find shelter as easily as the smaller birds. And suddenly shelter may be more difficult to find too.

I noticed last night for the first time, that the leaves are finally mostly down. For the first time, I can look out my bedroom window and see open sky and only a few leaves, even on the oak trees. At least the leaves picked a good time to fall. Leaves and ice would definitely not go well together, and I can imagine that whatever damage I will get from this storm would have been much greater had the weight of icy leaves been added.

So for now I am warm and dry. I expect to stay put, whatever the rest of the day brings.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Little Brightness


Last night the fog was as thick as I’d ever seen it. It swirled around my knees like a hungry cat, and though I could still see my toes, they seemed far away and pale. This morning, thankfully, the worst of that dissipated overnight. If it hadn’t, driving would have been impossible.

The front that has iced in the Midwest is now toying with Roundtop. It rises and falls across the southern tier of the state like a flag blowing in the breeze. One day, the mountain is north of the front and the weather is cold. The next day the mountain is south of the front and the temperature rises. This morning the mountain is south of the front and it feels like early April. The Carolina wren joined the cardinal in song this morning before dawn or what passed for dawn.

Clouds still cover the mountain and the sky, but as the sun rose this morning, it produced one brief moment of glory. For a few seconds the drab and overcast weather that has kept even the days in a kind of twilight lifted in a glory of reds and yellows. Seconds after I snapped this shot, the sun rose into the clouds and was obscured by them. Moments after that the rain started again.
Sometimes we only have brief moments of brightness in our days. I can get lost in the gloom or scurry of my day to day life, especially in these hectic days before a holiday. Sometimes I feel as though I am lost in a fog. But even a tiny bit of brightness can raise my spirits and get me through a gloomy day. Today, my little bit of brightness is the memory of this morning’s brief and glorious sunrise. Take the time each day to find your own little bit of brightness.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Respite


The fog and drizzle of the past few days have combined to melt 99.9% of the snow that fell last week. After the snow came the freezing rain, which made walking and driving treacherous. Now that I can safely walk around again, I find I'm enjoying what will likely be a brief respite from shuffling across the ice. I can walk on snow as well as anyone, but I can do without the ice.

The dogs appreciate the longer walks we are taking too. In fact, I can't even claim that they got much of anything that resembled a walk this past weekend. So now they have more energy than they can contain and are finding all kinds of mischief to get into to work off some of that energy.
The respite has affected the cardinals, too. I heard one singing this morning. This is not a sound I expect to hear in December. Cardinals do sing earlier than other birds, but they usually wait until a sunny day in February to start their chorus.
The ponds that were iced over are now open again in spots that get at least a little of the afternoon sun. The ground that was freezing is soft again. The air smells like winter but feels a bit like late November, as though winter has not yet settled in and decided to stay.
The respite will be a short one, if years past are any indication. I welcome this short respite. I already had the season's first taste of winter, just enough to remind me what it is like. The first taste helps me prepare my mind and the cabin for it. When it comes to stay, next week or the week after that, I will be ready.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Foggy Weekend and 2007 Bird Sightings


Fog covered the mountain most of the weekend. Freezing drizzle further obscured the view. Even at midday it looked and felt like dusk. The mountain was quiet too, as though the fog deadened the sounds around me. The bird feeders were busy all weekend. The icy conditions likely made it difficult for the local feeder birds to find much natural food.
I didn’t spend much time outside this weekend. Between holiday preparations and the ice that made walking treacherous, I was mostly inside. So perhaps that explains why I am already starting to compare my 2007 Roundtop bird list with the one from 2006.

Every year list has its own interesting differences, and 2007 is proving to be no exception. I’m currently at 83 species for the year at Roundtop, up from 77 in 2006. The number is likely to stay where it currently is until the end of the year. December is not typically the month when I find many new bird species. If I get very lucky a sapsucker might show up or perhaps one of this season’s irruptive northern species, but I’m not counting on that.

In the course of a year, I don’t see many differences in the total number of species found each month. May brings the most species of the year, and that remains a constant. February 2007 was an exception. It was quite cold compared with 2006 and I saw significantly fewer species as a result. In 2007 only four months (March, May, August, October) produced higher totals than 2006, and these totals were only 1-2 species higher than in 2006. So why is my yearly species total 5 birds higher than last years? The answer is that the variety of species in 2007 was good, but the number of sightings for the more common birds was somewhat lower.

When I look at my species by families, I find I had a decent year for waterfowl and raptors, a well above average year for shorebirds (that new pond has helped these totals a lot). Both the number of swallow species and the number of swallow sightings were much lower than normal. Warbler and vireo sightings on the mountain were abysmal in 2007—only 5 species when I can usually find 12-15 species of them.

2007 brought several species that are new to my Roundtop list. Double-crested cormorants were seen flying over the mountain not once but twice. Coot was a new species. The bobwhite family was a new species, as were the solitary sandpipers.

And the news is not all good. For the first 10-12 years I lived here Scarlet tanager was a regular summer resident. I heard that song regularly and often saw a pair or two of them. Since the woods were cleared and the new pond was built near the area where they nested, I haven’t heard them at all. Perhaps they’ve only gone deeper into the forest, but I miss that lovely song in early summer. Another missing species is field sparrow, which used to be common in the scrubby areas over by the tubing runs.

Overall, the results for 2007 were mostly pretty good, though I’m a bit concerned that the sightings of resident species is lower. Is that a trend or just a 2007 anomaly? Perhaps 2008 will bring some clarity.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Unexpected Cougar


The morning here at Roundtop is dark and overcast, in anticipation of what the forecasters are describing as a "wintry mix." That pretty much means something is going to fall from the sky, but they don’t know what. As it is too dark to take a morning photo, even a morning photo on a day when snow is on the ground to brighten things up, I’m posting a shot of one of the sibling cougars at Squam Lakes Natural Science Center.

The two cougars like to play tricks on humans. They are in a strongly fenced area that the public can’t reach. However, the front of their naturalistic enclosure is glass where people view them. People walk up to the glass on a slightly raised boardwalk. The bottom of the glass hits the average human just above knee-level. Below that is a wood wall.
As there are two cougars, it’s not uncommon for one cougar to be up on the rocks, pretty much ignoring the people oohing and aahing at it. What people don’t see because they’re looking at cougar #1 is the cougar directly below them along the wall—until the cougar leaps up in the air and suddenly appears at your knees. They are particularly prone to do this, so we were told, when small children are present. The sudden appearance of cougar #2 terrifies parents, who quite understandably have a strong visceral reaction to a cougar that seems to be right in their child’s face. The cougars love this game.

While we were there, cougar #2’s face suddenly appeared once or twice right at the bottom of the glass for just a second—though he didn’t actually pounce. I think he saw that we were adults and so the game wasn’t quite as much fun. He did this sudden appearance so quickly, though, that I couldn’t get a photo of that. He’s quite the beauty. Both he and his sister were very calm and not at all shy about being seen.
I think the reason the reason the animal enclosures here are so nice is that they have few animals and so can provide excellent care and top-notch situations for them. The bears were hibernating, but of the rest I saw no more than 20 animals, of which 4 were raptors.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Snowy Morning


Winter has arrived in the form of about 3-4" of very light and fluffy snow. The light and fluffy part is unusual here this early in the season. It’s more common for the early snows to be wet and heavy. Light and fluffy is more typical of my mid-winter snows.

I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the snow this morning, though the sun wasn’t yet fully above the horizon when I took it. I tried taking a photo up at the cabin too, but the forest blocked what little there was of even the early morning light, so I had to wait until I got down to where the sky was open.

What is it about snow that makes dogs wild? Mine are like kids with a snow day off school. They act as though snow means they no longer have to behave or listen to anything I say. They forget everything they have ever learned. Baby Dog was as bad on the leash this morning as she was on her first day of leash-training. Dog is hardly better, though at least he seems to know he won’t get away with it.

At Roundtop, the ski season will open tomorrow, which for me means I will have no more weekends off until probably sometime in late March. Last year a warm-up in late December closed the resort until mid-January. That warm-up was blamed on the jetstream being further north than normal. This year the mountain is on the cold side of the jetstream but only just, so it remains to be seen if that continues or not.

November turned out to be 1.65 degrees colder than average this year, which was kind of a nice change after October, which was nearly 7.5 degrees warmer than usual. November can’t begin to make up for October’s heat wave but in this era of global warming, I appreciate anything that doesn’t further deepen the heat.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Squam Lakes Science Center


This past Saturday I spent all day in a HMANA Board meeting that was held at Squam Lakes Science Center, near Holderness, N.H. HMANA’s Chair is also the executive director of the science center. The highlight of the day was not the Board meeting (which was okay as such things go) but the tour afterwards.

The science center has a variety of exhibits, including hiking trails and boat tours of the lake in the summer. They also have some animals that are native to N.H. in very high quality exhibits. The center is closed to the public now until spring. Some of the animals, like the bears, were already hibernating, but some are still in their areas. All are quite at ease with people around and were out in the open and easily seen.

The bobcat enclosure had two bobcats. We also saw sibling cougars, a fisher, a pair of red fox, bald eagles and red-tailed hawk.

This great horned owl was a lot of fun. This bird is now 39 years old, unreleasable as it is blind in one eye. Although the second photo isn’t very good—it was getting dark in N.H. around 3:30 p.m.—I couldn’t resist. Who would expect to find a great horned owl sitting on the sign that bears its name? Obviously, this bird didn’t want anyone to miss just who it was. Iain told us that the bird was meaner than any of the other animals and over the years was responsible for more staff injuries than any of the large mammals with fiercer reputations. The bird sat there and hooted at us while we stood just a few feet away on the other side of the glass.

Although we’d hoped to hang around Plymouth for a few hours on Sunday morning and search out the nearby pine grosbeaks, instead we left at 6 a.m. in order to beat the storm that swept across the east coast on Sunday. We did pretty well with that. New Jersey had a some sleet and freezing rain, but while we were on the road it was only bad for a mile or two. Snow nipped our heels the entire trip south but the roads were mostly good. Trip time from Plymouth N.H. to Hawk Mountain Pa. was just under 8 hours, with stops only for gas and drive-through food. Of course, having four drivers helps a lot.

Back at Roundtop winter is settling in (even those many of those oaks still have dead leaves on them). I had to clear an inch of snow off my car before I left Hawk Mountain to head home on Sunday. The forecast is calling for a few inches of snow today. Roundtop is busy making snow, and I expect they will be open this weekend, though I haven’t gotten the official word on that yet.

Tomorrow, a new report from Roundtop Mountain! It was a fun trip, if brief, but it’s good to be back on my mountain with all the critters.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Bohemian Waxwings!

First, let me apologize in advance for foisting upon my readers the world’s worst photographs of Bohemian Waxwings. I took the photographs in very early morning non-light at Plymouth State University in Plymouth N.H. on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, the HMANA board meeting required that I spend the day at that, so my only chance to see this life bird was before the sun was high enough to allow a good photo. But, as this will likely be the only time I ever see or photograph bohemian waxwings, for my purposes a bad photo is still cause for celebration.

And what a way to see a life bird! This wasn’t a single bo’wing or even a small group of them. The flock has been counted at around 300 individuals. So my first view of this irruptive migrants was in a huge flock that’s virtually impossible to miss. As of Saturday, the birds were spending a lot of time in an area around the arts center, where there are a lot of bushes and small trees with red berries.

Seeing a flock like this, it’s hard to keep in mind that what is a birding bonanza is actually a bad thing for the birds themselves. In a normal year, bohemian waxwings stay up north, happily chomping away on local food. When they come south, it means there’s not enough food up north to sustain them. So they are forced to migrate, with all the inherent dangers associated with that. And then in the spring they will head north again, braving those dangers a second time. I have to wonder if breeding success the season after these irruptions is poorer than it is in years when the birds can overwinter in their home turf. I try not to let the excitement of seeing a new bird for the first time override my sense of what that means for the birds themselves. But that is really hard when you’re surrounded by 300 of them.

So, now I’m back at Roundtop safe and sound. I’ll post more on my trip to New Hampshire tomorrow and possibly on Thursday before getting back to the news at Roundtop again.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Red-beasted Nuthatch


It really shouldn't have been as difficult as it was. I have likely taken 50 photos, just trying to get a half-decent photo of this red-breasted nuthatch. It shouldn't have been so difficult because this tiny little cutie is a daily visitor to my feeders. And, the bird makes multiple trips to the feeders. So why is it so difficult to photo?
Well, the bird is fast. It zooms in like a fighter jet from somewhere near the side of the house, grabs a seed and zooms out again all in the same second. I have blurry photos and photos of the bird's back (head down as it grabs its favored seed). But actually seeing the whole bird? This is about is good as it gets.
This particular bird doesn't have much of a red breast. It's closer to tawny than red. I'd also forgotten how tiny these birds are--smaller than the Carolina chickadees, which makes them the smallest birds at my winter feeders.
My goal for the winter is to take a photo of every species that comes to my feeders. The red-bellied woodpecker is likely going to be difficult, simply as it doesn't show up that often. The sparrows might also pose a challenge as they stay on the deck and don't hop into my platform feeder. But whatever the end result, it should be fun!
Note: I will be offline until Monday. I'm heading up to New Hampshire for a board meeting of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Hopefully, I'll have a few spare moments to see some good birds and take a few photos!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Titmouse at the Feeder


This isn't the best photo, but I still couldn't resist. Who can't love a tiny bird with enough moxie to take a seed that size? Tufted titmice are a regular feeder visitor here on the mountain. I usually have 4-5 of them, as best I can count. They zoom in and out so quickly that it's rare to have many of them at the feeder at once. They land on the feeder, grab a seed and fly off, though often not too far off, to enjoy their prize and then will zip back to the feeder. I've wondered more than once if they don't use more energy getting their one seed than the seed gives them. Of course, this titmouse won't have that problem.
Here on the mountain, November has thus far been appropriately cool, with only one or two warmer than usual days. Leaves still persist, unusually, on many of the trees--especially the oaks. The color is mostly all gone from them, and they are crinkly, brown things that make scraping noises against their branches. It's a Halloween-spooky kind of sound.
I wish I had been at home yesterday. I returned to an empty finch feeder, not something the two small goldfinch that are regulars here would have done. I suspect something wonderful that I didn't see emtpied it. Siskins, perhaps? Redpolls? I will likely never know. It is a small mystery in a world of many and many larger mysteries. Whoever they were, at least they found food before disappearing back into the mystery from whence they came.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Searching for Serenity


My blog was unexpectedly quiet for a few days, due to connection issues. Wouldn't it be nice if life was as serene as today's image? I took the photo on Sunday morning just before dawn with the moon setting in the west over Nell's Hill.
Sometimes I need to look to nature to remind myself that I'm the one who's making my life feel less than serene. The natural world goes on, whatever else is happening, moving in its own slow time. If there's anything nearby that's as close to timeless as we will ever know during our time here on earth, it's this planet on which we all live.
Some times I can almost hear nature telling me that it's no big deal, that whatever is stressing me out is not even worth noticing. The sun will still rise in the east. The full moon will still set in the west and will continue to do so long after I am gone.
In the meantime, I try and remember and to notice that I am surrounded by small and large beauties everywhere I look. My photos are simply reminders of those beauties, these every day blessings. The serenity is always there. I simply need to remember how to look.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Silence of the Season

November is a favorite time of the year for me. When the leaves are down, I can see deep into the woods. Deer step gingerly over downed trees, a hundred yards or more from the cabin, yet I can still watch them. Life in the woods and my busy life around the cabin finally starts to slow down. It’s as though the bustle of the summer’s long days drops a little further away with every leaf that falls.

The forest will soon begin its winter sleep and is already settling towards that. Where just a few weeks ago a riot of green once blocked my view, now only bare trees, empty of all color except brown, is all that stands in front of me.

Sounds travel further now than they do in summer, a difference that I seem to forget every year. It’s perhaps the one difference between summer and winter where I would choose to keep summer’s silence. And even in summer, the silence isn’t complete. The rustle of the leaves in the slightest summer breeze blocks some sounds, though the leaves themselves create a constant background music. Still, in the summer the forest’s leaves act as a kind of leaf-thin barrier that over distance turns into thousands of leaves and blocks many of the sounds of modern life’s intrusions.

Although perhaps 30-40% of the leaves remain on the trees now, this is still quite a change from even a week ago. So this morning before dawn as Dog and I walked in the fog, the sound of a fire siren from more than three miles away sounded loud to me. In summer, I rarely hear the siren at all. I believe the fog and the slight breeze also combined to help enhance the sound, but still modern life suddenly seemed much closer than I like to think it really is.

Dog looked up, hearing the trucks as they headed out the road. He hates cars, trucks, bicycles, anything that moves faster than he does. He was convinced the truck was just behind us and lunged at the lead trying to go after it. In his excitement he even missed seeing four deer that tip-toed from the pond, up a bank and through a hole in the netting at the base of the ski slopes.
The sound of the fire trucks faded quickly, and quiet returned to the mountain. November is here, and with it the silence of the season returns.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Different Forest


This past Saturday evening I was in a forest other than the one at Roundtop for a change. Just north across the valley from Roundtop, about 7 miles or so, is the next ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. These ridges to the north are actually the last ridges of the continuous chain of Appalachians.

Roundtop and its few nearest (and smaller) ridge neighbors are an anomaly in the Appalachian chain of ridges. Roundtop is pretty much a standalone mountain, when virtually all the other Appalachians are a continuous chain of ridge after ridge. I like to think of Roundtop as a guardian of the Appalachian chain, the signpost, if you will, that warns of deeper forest realms ahead. But I digress...

So Saturday evening I traveled into this deeper realm, which is itself an anomaly in my area. I went into a long draw between two of these ridges. It’s an area of fairly flat land and yet it is still forested and that’s the anomaly. In this area, the mountains, even today, are largely still forested, and few people live in them. But where the land is flat, the land is usually cleared of forest. Years ago, the forests were cleared for farmland. Today, some farms are still around, though far fewer than even 20 years ago. Joining the farms in the flat lands between the mountains are suburbs and towns and strip malls. Having forest in flat land at the base of the mountains is unusual.

If you look at my photo from Friday’s blog entry, you will see exactly where I was. It’s the area darkened by clouds in the center of the photograph. Several reasons that I know about combined to save this lovely draw. I don’t know the entire story, so pieces of my knowledge are missing. For the past 50-60 years, perhaps a bit longer, the area has been owned by the Boy Scouts and is the site of their Camp Tuckahoe. About 100 years ago, this was an area of small and local clay mining, charcoal production and, I believe, a little pig iron mining.

When I was a very young child, my father often took me on Sunday walks up in here, pointing out the round charcoal pits that are 12-15 feet circles, about 3-4 feet deep. These were where charcoal was made, in smoldering fires that were never allowed to flame, carefully tended continuously for days on end. The remnants of the clay mining never looked like much to me—just a cut into the bank that resulted in an area barely big enough to park a few cars. Of the iron mining, I never saw any forest damage, but I remember the raised foundations of the trestles that carried the iron out of the woods. These were hardly more than head high and on Saturday night I couldn’t even find them anymore.

This mining ended in the early 1900’s and apparently never amounted to much even in its heyday, though it provided some few local jobs. Even during its production days, the area remained forested around these operations and was never cleared. When even this small production petered out, the land was essentially abandoned, and this is the part of the story I don’t know. It would have been more typical at this point for the area to be cleared of its forest. But it wasn’t. Perhaps the owners hoped production would resume at some point. Perhaps the first World War intervened and by the time it was over, clearing land for new farms wasn’t a priority. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, the land wasn’t cleared, and in the intervening years, the forest has eliminated virtually all traces of the operations here, unless you remember where to look and know what you are looking for.

My photo today was taken near dusk on a cold and overcast November day.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Snow!

Yesterday’s first snowfall of the season wasn’t a big one, but it still tied a record for the day, such as it was. I got about half an inch of snow from a storm that was relatively small in size, but folks who live in the middle of the storm’s track are seeing up to 10 inches of snow. I just got clipped by the edge of the storm, so I didn’t see much of it, though people even a few miles north of me saw a bit more.

The snow started as sleet shortly after dark last evening, the sound of it made me look up from my book. The weather had been cold and threatening all day, but nothing had come of it. When it was time to run the dogs for the last time in the evening, I already had a quarter of an inch or so down. I was waiting to see what they would do when the first saw it. Dog is well-experienced with snow. He likes it. We’ve camped in it together. I put the leash on and opened the door. Like the middle-aged gentleman that he is, he took one look at the snow, sniffed it and stepped outside, ready for a run. Once off the porch, he happily ran his nose through the snow and dug in it a bit, but overall he was fairly blasé since he’d seen before and saw it as soon as I opened the door. He accepted that it was there, and was ready for fun.

Baby Dog, as you might expect, was a different matter. I opened the door, and out she bolted. Her legs went every which way. She fell onto her side, chin hitting the deck and then slid down the steps. She finally recovered her footing at the bottom of the steps and then looked at me as if to ask, "where did this stuff come from?" Observant, she is not. Once outside, she launched into ricochet mode, racing back and forth as fast as she could, slipping and tripping every time she tried to turn. I hope as she gets older that she learns to pay attention to what’s going on around her just a little bit more.

This half-inch snowfall does tie the record for the day, but it’s a record that’s aching to be broken, surrounded as it is by other daily records ranging from 3-9 inches of snow. This record should be an easy one to break, but not this year.

Today’s main photo is of my snow-covered driveway. It was barely light enough for a photo when I left this morning, but I figure the snow will be gone when I get home from work today, so I had to try for at least a few snow photos. The second photo today is something I don’t know if I’ve ever had before—green leaves covered with snow. It’s not that unusual here to have snow on autumn-colored leaves, but I don’t ever remember having snow on green leaves before.

Tomorrow the temperature is supposed to near 60 degrees. I guess that means this snow won’t last, huh?

Friday, November 16, 2007

November Morning


Last night, the rain ended and the wind picked up, bringing down a few leaves, but only a few. This morning it is clear and beautiful, so I thought I'd show you a photo I took this morning as I was leaving Roundtop and driving to work. The mountain in the photo is the next ridge to the north, with my neighbor's farm in the foreground. Despite the wind, the trees on the farm and the mountains are both still covered with leaves.
It's chilly here--in fact I might well have snow tomorrow night or at least a snow/rain mix. Perhaps the weight of snow will finally be enough to drop the leaves, though they normally are all down on their own, without benefit of snow, by November 1.
I have come to think that higher than normal nighttime low temperatures throughout the fall are the culprit in the leaves overstaying their welcome. October's average temperature was nearly 7 degrees above normal, but much of that higher result came because the day's low temperature averaged more than 9 degrees above normal.
I expect this season's long-lasting leaves to cause some atypical changes in the forest around me, but I don't expect to fully see what those changes will be until next spring or perhaps even summer. Since the leaves won't have as long to decay as usual, I expect the changes that result will center around that. I can anticipate that spring growth might be affected. Perhaps the species mix of the plants will be different as a result. That could affect food availability for the summer birds.
Theoretically, I might say that the differences might be interesting to observe and document, though I don't expect it to be interesting in a good way. I also think I can see a winter project in the works, which will be to further hone my plant ID skills and try to better inventory what's here now and what's here in the spring. Paying attention to what's going on is the first step in understanding it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's Just Wrong


Today it is raining hard, so hard that neither Dog nor Baby Dog nor I got anything resembling a half-decent walk this morning. As it was, all three of us came back inside soaked to the skin. In my case, I was soaked despite a hat and a raincoat. Okay, so it’s not the rain that’s odd, even in mid-November. Today’s is a cold rain with a strong breeze, the kind of precipitation and day I can expect when it’s not quite cold enough for snow.

What’s odd is that the 70% of the leaves that are still on the trees are not coming down despite the rain and the wind. The leaves have virtually all turned a color that’s somewhere between deep orange and brown. They are no longer pretty colors of yellow or red or even orange. These are leaves that are dead and brown. But even after getting hit by drops of rain big enough to hurt my face when they struck and even after being buffeted by a breeze that strong enough to make hearing difficult, those leaves are still not falling off the trees. And given that it’s now mid-November and that these leaves should have all been carpeting the forest floor 15 days ago, what’s up with that?

I’ve never seen anything like this. Call it climate change, call it what you will, but this is simply wrong. This is the kind of thing that has a ripple affect that impacts probably twice the processes I can think of. Once the leaves do eventually drop, how much longer than normal will it take for them to decay? How will delayed decay impact next year’s forest growth, especially in the understory of the forest? Will it change what plants grow in the understory, favoring some species over the ones that typically make up the understory? If the plants are different, how does that impact the animals? How does the leafy canopy that’s currently overstaying its welcome affect the temperature in the forest today? Or later in the winter?

What I’m seeing now isn’t a little change. It’s profoundly different than normal here in this forest. It's past time to be doing something to stop it. It's past time to be pretending it will go away on its own. It might already be too late.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Roundtop's Pine Trees


The forest around Roundtop is mostly an oak and hickory forest, with a fair amount of tulip poplar, beech and sassafras thrown in for variety. Conifers are in short supply. The edge areas have the requisite cedar trees, but a stand of pine trees, like those in today's photo, are rare.
I know of two more stands of pines on the mountain, other than this one, though one of those has been cut back recently, and the other is well down the mountain. I'm always surprised when I am near the pines at how quickly the sound of the forest changes. Leaves lapping on leaves change to whispers between pine needles. The pines are so much quieter than the ever noisy leaves. The smell changes too. Leaves smell of deep rich earth, and pines have a sweet smell.
I often find the whitewash of owls here, though they don't restrict themselves to the pine trees by any means. Still, they do seem to prefer them for sleeping and nesting. Once a bald eagle was roosting in one. I was walking on a trail when the bird suddenly came crashing out of the tree with a racket that was terrifying until I saw what caused the noise. The bird had been so deep in the tree that it was invisible, and I was within only a few feet of the tree when it spooked.
In the winter, I enjoy walking in the pines primarily because they are green in a brown and white landscape. In other seasons, I enjoy them for their sound and smell. When you live among oaks, as I do, walking in the pines almost feels as though I'm on vacation to some other new and vaguely exotic place. I enjoy the difference.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Leaves are Still Here


Here it is mid-November, and at least half, if not more, of the forest's leaves are still firmly attached to their trees. A few of the trees' leaves are even still green-ish. What's truly bizarre about this is that in a normal year, all the leaves are down by the first of November.
At this point, I don't think this oddity can be blamed fully on temperature. The temperature has steadily dropped every day for nearly 3 weeks, and I've now had 3 good frosts in the past week. The November temperatures are actually below normal now, but the leaves still show little sign of falling. I was figuring they were only waiting for a good breeze to finish them off, but I had that this past weekend, and it didn't help much. It looks really odd outside to have the weather as chilly as it is but to still have so many leaves on the trees.
I wonder what larger effects on weather these clinging leaves might have. In summer, the leaves keep the hottest temperatures of the day from penetrating under the canopy, so I stay cooler at the cabin. I track the minimum and maximum temperature each day, and what I'm seeing now is that I'm having warmer overnight temperatures than Harrisburg does down along the river. The daytime temperatures are still cooler than Harrisburg. Do the leaves play any role in my warmer overnight temperatures? Or is that difference all due to my higher elevation?
There's so much I don't know. Every year has its own oddities. Sometimes the effects of those oddities are obvious, and parallels can easly be drawn. Other times, like now, it's more mysterious, though that veil of mystery could likely be parted with a little knowledge. I will investigate, though I don't know that I expect to find an answer yet. It might be too soon for answers. but winter lies ahead, and I will have time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees: A Day for the Birds


Any day that I see an adult bald eagle flying directly over a Susquehanna River bridge as I’m crossing said bridge on my way to work has to be a day when my blog is dedicated to birds. Sorry, there’s no photo of the eagle. It’s a blessing I didn’t crash the car. Still, the sighting is a great way to start a rainy Monday, or any Monday, or heck, even a Friday.

See the two chickadees in today’s photo? It’s not as good a photo as I would like, nor does it show all the important field marks, but in my opinion it does show a Carolina (top) chickadee and a black-capped chickadee (bottom). Two of the field marks that this photo does show pretty well are the differences in the bibs—the bottom edge on the Carolina is neat versus the black-capped's ragged bottom edge. And to some extent you can see the white wing edging on the black-capped versus minimal white wing edging on the Carolina. The bird on the wire is also smaller than the other, though because it is also a bit closer, that doesn't show up as well. There's also very slight differences in color, and the black-capped's tail is very slightly longer than that of the Carolina's. I'm also tempted to call the cap on the black-capped as extending further down the head/neck, but because of the angle at which the Carolina is perched, that might be a bit deceptive.

The bird activity at my feeders is starting to pick up, and I’m already getting a sense of who are going to be regular visitors this year. The numbers I will report for each species represent the total number I’ve seen at one time, so it’s likely this number doesn’t represent every individual, but it represents at least the minimum number of that species. For example, I regularly have 4 blue jays that arrive together like a squadron of bomber jets, scattering smaller birds in every direction. But at some point in the day, I will have a single blue jay arrive and feed. Now is this simply a hungrier bird of one of the four who breaks formation and sneaks off to get an extra portion of food? Or is this a different blue jay that travels on its own? I don’t know. I suspect it’s blue jay #5, but I have no way to prove that, so I only report 4 blue jays, the number I’m sure of.

So, here’s what I saw this weekend at my feeders:
4 blue jays
2 white-breasted nuthatch - I only see one of these at a time but one has a cap that’s dead black and the other’s cap is a dark gray.
1 red-breasted nuthatch – This little cutie is now a regular at the feeders. So far my photos have been poor, to say the least. I hope to get at least one good photo of it before it disappears.
2 cardinals - so far. I'm pretty sure there's at least 2 pairs, but so far I've only ever seen one pair at a time.
2 goldfinch – Likely more are around but my finch feeder has only two perches and so far I’ve seen no sign of finches stacking up and waiting for an open slot.
2 juncos – This is still a low number, considering the number of juncos in the area. That tells me they are so far finding enough natural food that they don’t yet need to rely on my feeder
1 white-throated sparrow – same comment as for the junco
5 Black-capped chickadees
3 Carolina chickadees
2 Downy woodpecker (male and female)
2 Red-bellied woodpecker (male and female)
4 Tufted titmouse

Friday, November 09, 2007

Snow in the Air


This morning snow is in the air. I can smell it, though I haven’t yet seen it. The air is raw, the kind of chill that penetrates, no matter how many layers of warm clothing I’m wearing. I don’t expect it will amount to much—a few flakes, a thin frosting on the ground at the most.

This scent of snow isn’t enough for the feeder birds to act like sharks in a feeding frenzy. On days when snow is going to amount to something, the birds hover around the feeder all day, emptying it ask quickly as I fill it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to fly when I approach with more seed. Today, they are acting normal, so I only give them the usual amount before heading off to work.

The temperature here has been steadily dropping since it began a descent on October 28, now 12 days ago. After the record-breaking heat last month, it’s taken that long, but now I am running about 10 degrees below normal on average. Oddly, the real difference hasn’t been in the nighttime low temperature, but in the day’s high temperature, which barely climbs 7 or 8 degrees above the nighttime low. Usually, the day is 15 degrees or so higher than the night temperature.

Perhaps it is because the warm weather hung around so long, but this morning I heard a killdeer in one of Roundtop’s parking lots. During the summer, close to a dozen haunt the dirt parking lots and pond edges. This morning I heard one call, expecting it to be the last time this year I hear its sound, but then I heard a second return the call. Today ties my latest record for this species at Roundtop. If I hear them tomorrow, I will have broken my 15 year string of records. Will this dusting of snow send them south overnight? Or not? Only tomorrow will tell.

Note: The photo was taken last weekend of what was the last sunny day of the week.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Frost! Finally!

Frost finally found its way to the mountain last night. It wasn't a "maybe it frosted before I saw it" kind of frost. It wasn't a frost that happened 100 feet in altitude below me kind of frost. It was an actual frost. Better a full 30 days late than never, I guess.

This morning the ground was white with it, suddenly changing the landscape to mostly sepia tones and dimming the bright colors of fall. It's more than past time.

So far, November's temperatures are typical ones, perhaps even a tiny bit below normal, though only just and not yet nearly cool enough to make up for the heat of October. I think it was cool enough, and for long enough last night, to be a killing frost. I'll be better able to determine that this evening when I return to the cabin and see if the vegetation is wilting. Still, it's a start.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Random Ruminations


This year’s autumn is apparently producing "stages" or partial leaf color change all over the place. Yesterday, ChicagoLady commented here that’s what was going on over her way. Last night I was on a conference call for the Hawk Migration Association of North America and found out that’s what was happening in New Hampshire too. And people all say they’ve never seen anything like it. Dry weather is implicated as the cause for this, though I’ve also heard that should only account for the first and earliest "stage," not the three stages of color change I’ve had since. I suppose you could say it’s interesting in an odd sort of way, but I’d be just as happy if it didn’t happen again next year.

Here at the cabin I’m anticipating and getting ready for the first snow of the season, currently in the forecast for Friday. Oddly, I haven’t yet even had a good hard frost. I’ve had snow before when the leaves were still on the trees. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Branches broke from the weight of snow on leaves. Tree limbs came down and knocked out power. I could do without all that.

I’m still adjusting to last weekend’s time change. It’s not nearly as light in the morning as I expected (hoped). This shouldn’t surprise me by now but it did. I’m already nearly at the point where it’s dark when I leave for work in the morning and dark when I get home in the evening. It might just be light enough to try for a sunrise photo if an especially pretty one presents itself—it hasn’t yet—but that’s about it. This weekend, I will need to take more photos to get me through the weekdays when it’s too dark for photos.

The lack of daylight also means I don't get to see the birds that daily empty my feeders, and I really miss that. Instead, the weekdays are filled with sightings of large, brown mammals darting in front of my car. Whew! Missed another six.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Path Ahead

Walking along old woods roads is one of my favorite ways of getting deeper into the forest around me. The eastern forests around me tend to have a lot of undergrowth, so bushwhacking isn't easy or even feasible, not to mention that I end up trampling the understory. But woods roads were cut years ago, for purposes long past being important, so today they are little used, often forgotten. Often the roads don't really go anywhere, at least not anymore, so a traipse along one is the kind of walk where the journey is always more important than a destination.

And in the autumn, the old roads are leaf covered and tree draped, graceful and peaceful paths that are lined with beauty. To me, walking along one feels as though I am walking back in time--back to a quieter, simpler time with less noise and bustle. It's impossible to feel stressed or harried when I'm walking on one of these old roads.

In an way, it's just as well for me that most of these roads don't go anywhere. I get caught up in them too easily and always want to see what's around the bend. The path ahead, ever and always, draws me onward. If the roads kept going on, whether for miles or for decades, I would likely keep going too, unwilling to turn around and head home, when an unexplored bend in the road lies ahead.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Little Chickadee


The bird feeders at the cabin were busy this weekend. I saw most of the usual winter suspects. This little fellow is a black-capped chickadee with a seed in his beak. In this area, I’m supposed to be politically correct and refer to the chickadees I see as "chickadee species," since both Carolina and black-capped chickadees are present and will interbreed. (And since they do, doesn’t this make them a single species? But I digress.) Just to be clear, I am not now, nor have I ever been politically correct, so I’m saying this cute little one is a black-capped chickadee.

I do have Carolina chickadees at the feeders too, though they are still in the minority (but a growing minority). When I get a good photo of one of those I’ll post it so we can compare. The reasons I’m calling this little cutie a black-capped chickadee is 1) because its white face patch continues as bright white throughout the patch. In Carolina chickadees, the white patch fades to a pale gray past the eye. 2) This fellow also has a nice amount of white on the wing edgings. White wing edgings are in short supply on Carolinas. 3) The bird is quite buffy on its belly, which you can only just see a tiny bit around its legs. The Carolinas are pretty uniformly gray underneath, with little or no buffy color.

You might also notice the background of this photo. Yes, there’s yellow back there, but also quite a bit of green, which is completely atypical for November 4 (when I took this photo). I’ve never known of any year where the leaves weren’t completely down by November 1. But this year, not only are many not down yet, many are even still green!

The leaf change has come in stages this year. At the moment I’m in stage four, and I suspect there will be at least one more to come. By stages I mean that some leaves turn color, then a good wind will come along and all those leaves will drop. What’s left are leaves that are still green. Late last week it looked like late August or mid-September again for a few days. In a normal year, there are no "stages." The leaves simply all turn color and drop within a week a so, gone with October’s end. Even the local weatherman remarked on the leaves this morning—the first time I’ve heard anyone else mention it or even notice it locally.

The temperature is near normal for November, at the moment. I’m guessing the record warmth in October is the culprit for the weird and late leaf drop this year. Who know what will happen next? I’m trying to hold out hope for a decent winter, but I’m not sure I really believe it will happen anymore.

Friday, November 02, 2007

November Quiet


Fall is finally settling in around the cabin. The leaves have changed color, even though many still persist in hanging onto the trees. The land no long feels particularly warm underneath a chillier air. The birds that change plumage with the season are now in their drabber togs. Even the deer are turning the dull brown of winter. And yet a few holdovers from the warmer season persist. The killdeer are still hanging out in the parking lots, though I think I am hearing fewer of them than I did just a week or so ago. Yesterday I saw a great blue heron at one of the ponds, one of my later records for the mountain.

I can feel the forest around me quieting. The effusive dawn chorus of spring no longer greets my mornings. Instead of singing birds, I am more likely to hear the angry chatter of squirrels or the territorial white-breasted nuthatch who’s determined to keep all comers from the bird feeder. In the summer, leaves touching each other in the breeze make more noise than you might expect, rustling with almost no provocation. Surrounded as I am by thousands of trees, the leafy whispers are a constant backdrop. Now, with each leaf that drops, the forest quiets a little more. Soon the only sound the trees will make will be the sound of wood against wood, and that only when a breeze with some strength behind it moves across the mountain.

I always look forward to this time of year. It’s a time to relax from the more hectic time of summer. With the early darkness, I don’t feel as guilty in the evenings when I put my feet up to read or knit. In summer, when the daylight lasts until nearly bedtime, I feel a bit guilty about wasting the daylight by settling down too early. No longer, as now there’s no daylight to waste.

The dogs slumber at my feet, eager for bedtime, though to me it doesn’t look like much about that will be so different from what they are doing now to anticipate it they way they do. Still, they follow me with their eyes, lounge underfoot, grumbling a bit, hoping that I will soon settle down for the night so they can too. It’s quiet. It’s November.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

October's End (Ruminations)


If you follow the old calendar, happy new year! Halloween or Samhain was in times long past considered the last day of the year, which makes November 1 the first day of the new year. The year itself was commonly called the turning of the wheel, which I’ve always thought was a pretty good description. What people called the year before they invented the wheel is lore long lost.


October turned out to be a good month for birding on the mountain. I ended the month with 33 species seen here, up from the paltry 28 of last October. I’m now at 82 species for the year, which is quite good, except for the fact that I had almost no warblers this year. Perhaps the warmest October on record helped improve my bird list. I suppose it has to be good for something.

I’ve decided that I don’t care for the extended daylight savings time in the fall, though I like it a lot in the spring. I’m looking forward to the time change this weekend, as it will again be light enough to take photos before work (at least for a little while). For the past 10 days or so it’s been too dark in both the morning and evening for photography.
"Today's" photo was actually taken the better part of a week ago. A few days later the colors intensified for about 48 hours, then many came down in a rainstorm. Now, the leaves that are left are mostly brown but are still sticking onto the trees longer than they should be. In a normal year, all the leaves are down by November 1 in this area. Today, I'm guessing that less than half have fallen.


The cabin is now as prepared as I can make it for winter to arrive. The plants are inside. The windows are closed and sealed. (Most of) the gutters were cleaned. I’m ready. Bring it on!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Falling Leaves, Falling Temperatures


I have only just last evening turned on the heat in the cabin, but I still only keep it between 61-63 degrees inside during the heating season. My reason for the low temperature is a combination of trying to pay less for energy, trying to reduce my overall energy use and not minding at all if I need to wear a sweater inside. That’s what sweaters are for, anyway.

After the first day or two, I don’t even notice, let alone mind, that my cabin is cooler than most places. My body adjusts and is happy at the cooler temperature. By not turning the heat on as soon as the temperature dips below 65, my body has a few days to adjust slowly, which is what it takes to not notice that the temperature is lower than "normal." If the outside temperature suddenly shoots back up to 75 or so, I will be hot. In the summer, a temperature of 75 will seem cold after a run of 90 degree days. Once you realize that a healthy body can easily adjust to a wider range of temperatures than just 68-72 degrees, both heating and air conditioning become a lot less important, though I’m sure the power companies don’t want you to know that.

Often I don’t even wear a sweater inside, I’ll just put on a hat if I get a little chilly. People lose 40% of their body heat through their head, I first learned back when I was a novice backpacker. The fastest way to warm yourself up is to simply put a hat on. Most of the time I forget I have one on my head and it stays on until I go to bed. I favor a beret, as they are soft and loose over the top, so there’s no hat hair when I take it off.
My photo today just shows the road leading off Roundtop mountain and the current state of the leaf drop, which is later than normal. Inside the cabin, the bright moon and the more open forest canopy make even the night seem bright.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Finally, Juncos!


Yesterday was a big migration day through my area. When I got home from work I heard the sound of something I haven't heard in a while--robins! Not one or two robins, but a large flock of them. I had robins as thick as grackles in the woods, much to the annoyance of a few local squirrels. And near the robins I found a few dozen dark-eyed juncos--my first of the year. These birds didn't arrive by onesies or twosies this year. They all got onto the bus together and came south as a group.

Overnight, the chipping sparrows have thinned out, and the white-throated sparrows are much in evidence. The chipping sparrows aren't completely gone yet, but I expect another day or two will see the end of them.

Here on the mountain, I have not yet had a frost, though the lower-lying valley areas have. Hot or even warmer air rises, and the Appalachians aren't high enough here for the temperatures to be lower than the valley temperatures. In some ways, the temperatures on the mountain are more moderate than in the cities or down in the valley. The trees and leafy canopy keep summer's hot temperatures a few degrees lower at the cabin. In the winter, the low-lying areas take the worst of the cold, though I get the wind up here that isn't felt down below.

Do you like today's photo of a wolf spider? It was on the side of the cabin a day ago. These spiders look like miniature tarantulas to me. They are common in the fall, especially around doors, porch lights (where I found this one) and windows. They don't weave a web at all, they are hunters. More than once I've found them in my shower. I tend to just leave them alone unless they get into the way.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cows: Yes; Juncos: No


A field of cows doesn't have much to do with life at the cabin, but at least once a year, cows in a pasture with a pretty mountain in the background gets to me, and I'm forced to take a photo of them. I've now gotten it out of my system for a while.
As you may guess from the title of today's post, I still haven't found juncos at the cabin, despite some rather intensive searching this weekend. Even without juncos, it was an interesting few days at the cabin. What I did see was many, many birds exiting the region for the winter. I literally saw hundreds of chipping sparrows, that most ubiquitous of summer sparrows, in groups from just 5-6 to 20 or more. They are fleeing the area in droves right now, and once they are gone, looking for other species of sparrows will be much easier, as I won't have 499 of them to look at before finding the 1 that isn't a chipping sparrow.
After weeks of not seeing a robin, suddenly I am seeing a few again. These are not the same robins that were here all summer, but migrants that are moving down and through the region. Some of them, those larger, tougher, slighthly browner Canadian robins that locals here call "woods robins" may well stay throughout the winter, thinking they have already come far enough south to spend the winter.
I also had saw a phoebe, several weeks after the local phoebes left. Raptors were moving, too--redtails and sharpies especially. Some of these will likely winter over, too.
One summer resident that has so far not left is the killdeer. I still hear them nearly every morning in one of Roundtop's parking lots. I don't expect they will remain much longer, though.
After several days of rain that grew into an ever colder rain as the days passed, the temperature is now near normal for this time of year. However, the chill doesn't yet feel "deep," for lack of a better word. The trees or the rocks or the ground itself is still holding onto the heat of the year. The wind feels chill but there's an underlying warmth beneath it somehow, as though if the wind stopped, the land would quickly warm again. The cooler weather hasn't yet settled into the rocks or the cracks and crevices. That takes a while longer.

Friday, October 26, 2007

No Juncos?


The rain continues here at Roundtop, though overnight it was light enough that it didn't add much depth in the rain gauge. Almost hour by hour I can feel it getting colder. The rain started like one of those rare, soft summer rains that makes me feel as though I could enjoy getting soaked to the skin in it. But now it is verging on a cold rain, with a chilling wind from the east. I like it, though; we need the rain and the temperature is now closer to normal.
I am hoping that later this weekend when the rain finally stops I will finally see the first dark-eyed juncos of the season. Their arrival is much delayed this year, though juncos are not a species that arrive like clockwork on the same day each year, as swallows very nearly do. And it is this normal variability in their arrival that has kept me from saying until now that they are late.
Juncos ordinarily arrive in shifts. In past years, it has been common for me to find the first junco or two during the second week of October. But then I won't see large numbers of them for another week or two. Occasionally, I have missed seeing these early "scouts" entirely, only to have the first small flocks of juncos show up in mid-October. I typically see them daily from October until they leave in the spring, but it usually takes the first small snowstorm before they are as thick as a carpet in front of my bird feeders.
I have never seen the first juncos later than October 21 before. I really expected to find some when I took my walk down in the valley earlier this week, figuring that the abundance of natural food this year meant simply that they didn't need to scavenge at or near the cabin. But I didn't see any. I've also noticed that not many have thus far been reported on the PA Birds listserv I subscribe to. At first I thought that was because juncos are a common species and the PA Birds folks tend to be looking for rarer ones, but I don't think that's it either. The little darlin's simply aren't here yet. I expect they will arrive as soon as this rain stops late in the weekend. I will look hard for them then as I don't wan't October to end without sighting my first junco of the year.
Thanks to all who've asked about Baby Dog. She is fine, full of herself and doesn't seem to be bothered at all. I actually wish she was a little less full of herself, as I'm worried she might reinjure the tail with her antics.
My photo today was taken at my neighbor's farm. The mountain in the distance is the one on the far side of the valley that I walked over to earlier this week on my walk through the forest.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Roundtop News of the Day


It's a good thing I did take a lot of photos during my walk down in the valley earlier this week. It is raining now and has been for two days. It is a lovely, soaking rain totalling perhaps an inch so far. This fall, all-day-long rain is much different than the momentary gully-washers that seem to be the only kind of rain that comes in summer.
Between the rain and the shortened hours of daylight, it is now too dark to take photos during the weekday hours I'm at the cabin, so it's a good thing I have plenty to use, even if they are now 3-day old photos.
Last night after I went to bed, I looked out my bedroom window and was surprised by how light the night appeared. At first I thought the pale gray cloud cover was the reason it appeared so, but then I realized that wasn't it. The rain is starting to bring down the leaves, and I am suddenly able to see the sky through the leafy canopy. Hurray! Soon I will be able to see Nell's Hill without traipsing 200 yards out to the abandoned ski slope. My view to the west will slowly reappear.
In other news: Still no juncos, but the other winter residents are gobbling up the bird food as though they haven't eaten all summer. I am seeing decent-sized flocks of sparrows as they flush from inside one bush and fly to the inside of the next bush, but they are so skittish and flush so far ahead that I rarely get close enough or get my binos up fast enough to ID them. I suspect the flocks are primarily white-throated sparrows, as I occasionally see enough of a bird to ID one, but I'd love to be able to see more.
Baby Dog has broken the end of her tail. When I came home from my hike on Monday, she was all excited to see me (as usual) and was jumping up and down in excitement. Somehow, during this jumping, she got tangled in a cable I had placed by the car in anticipation of throwing it away. Even as I was bending down to untangle her, she got scared by the tangling and bolted, but her tail was still tangled and was broken about 2-3 inches from the end. After a vet trip to detangle her from the cable, she is home and now back to her normal antics of rough-housing the cats and barking at any object that has been moved from its appointed place. I am hoping the tail heals well and doesn't need to be amputated at the break.