Friday, March 30, 2007

Blue Sky

The forest trees are still bare, and I can't see any signs of imminent bud-popping on them. These are the two largest trees in my "front forest." My driveway passes between these two lovely beech trees. The clear blue sky is typical in this area of an early spring sky. In spring, when it's not raining, the humidity is usually low, the skies clear. By summer, the skies will turn hazy with humidity.
I have been clearing brush in my back forest this week. Last summer thorny undergrowth took over, and I couldn't walk behind or past the cabin into the forest. Likely, having the cabin here in the first place is what created the edge habitat that favored the appearance of the thicket. Even though my little cabin sits between trees, several trees had to be cut down to have room to build it. And that cutting created open sky and let in more sun than elsewhere in the forest. That extra sun favors the thorny undergrowth. Normally, I am profoundly in the "let nature take its course" camp, but two things happened to make me think the area was getting a little out of hand.
The first clue (that I ignored at the time) was when a Northern waterthrush appeared on my deck railing. Waterthrush are secretive birds that prefer deep underbrush with water running through it. The water, in this case, came from my basement drain after inches of rain. The fact that a waterthrush was on my deck railing was a hint that the underbrush was getting pretty thick. This bird spent several days making odd little noises and teasing the cats before moving on to another spot.
The second thing happened in August, during a dry spell. The thorny thicket was now growing up, snaking its thorny fingers between the deck fence that's a good 6 feet above the ground. Obviously, this thicket was now getting to be a fire hazard too, but in the heat of August I wasn't about to start trying to cut it back then. So I held my breath and hoped my luck would hold until the weather broke. But fall turned into a time when family obligations prevailed. Then winter came and with it work at the ski resort, also eventual snow cover. So it is only now that I am cutting down the thicket, at least enough so that I can walk behind the cabin.
The only sign of spring greenery that I have yet seen at the cabin is the buds on this thorny stuff, so I know I'm not a moment too soon in starting to clear it out. I work at it a little each night, only 20 minutes or so at a time. On the south side of the large oak tree out back, I have cleared a buffer of 8-10 feet. The north side still needs work--there's only room enough for a path so far. This is the area where the waterthrush appeared, and I am a bit reluctant to attack it with more vigor. How many people have waterthrush on their deck railings? I really liked that part.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hawkwatching 101

Maybe I shouldn't call this post Hawkwatching 101 as I'm not going to give you any hawk identification tips. This is more in the realm of "how to hawkwatch."
First off, one of the nice things about hawkwatching is that unlike, say, warbler watching, you don't have to get up at 5 a.m. to do it. You can sleep in, go out to breakfast, walk the dog(s) and then get to a hawkwatch in plenty of time to see the flight. Of course, since places to hawkwatch are often good spots to see other birds you still can go early if you want to see them. Just don't expect to see any hawks then. On most days, 9 a.m. is plenty early enough to start your hawkwatching day.
If you decide to go hawkwatching, be prepared to sit and wait. So, a chair or a cushion are good things to take with you, depending on where you plan to hawkwatch. When I watch at Roundtop, I'll take a chair or sit in the car with the front window facing southwest (in spring). When I go up to Hawk Mountain or Waggoner's Gap, the walk is a bit far for a chair so I take a cushion and hope to find a comfortable rock.
Other good things to take with you: food and water -- Snacks are always a good way to fill the times when the birds aren't flying. Binoculars -- for hawkwatching I prefer 10x binos. Extra clothing--this can be in the form of a rain jacket, an extra sweater or whatever depending on the season. Brimmed hat--don't leave home without this. It's as important as the binos. Sunscreen --ditto. Sunglasses--ditto.
If you're hawkwatching in the spring, wait for a day when the wind is 1) calm or better yet 2) from the south. If you're hawkwatching in the fall, wait for northwest winds, preferably the day after a storm.
I've gotten to the point where I avoid hawkwatching on days that are perfectly clear. Bluebird skies are what I call this. Staring into an all-blue sky all day long plays havoc on your eyes. Worse, if there are no clouds to keep the birds at a lower altitude you'll be looking for spots in the sky, instead of seeing close-up hawks.
My favorite days are those with high hazy clouds but lots of gray or white cumulous clouds are okay too.
Hawks fly at lower altitudes in the morning, get pretty high to invisible by noonish and then drop down lower again later in the afternoon when they lose their lift. I often stop hawkwatching around noon when my time is limited. Usually, the birds stay lower longer in the morning than in the afternoon anyway.
Today's photo is a shot I took this morning looking towards the last of the snow left on Roundtop Mountain. It's going to be a bluebird sky today.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Good Morning!

I found this killdeer this morning in a parking lot at Ski Roundtop. Now that skiing is over for the year, the killdeer have moved in. This one looks as though it's eyeing up those stones as a potential nesting site. It wouldn't be the first time these birds have nested in the stones at the edge of this parking lot.
Yesterday, my morning of hawkwatching was a productive one. I saw harrier, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk. It’s a bit early for broadwings, but it won’t be long before they show up.

I’ve become a lazy hawkwatcher. I used to race to Hawk Mountain, a 1.5 hour drive, then race the mile up the hill to the North Lookout. But no matter how much I raced, it was still 2 hours from leaving the cabin until I was officially looking for hawks. Now, I’m lucky if I have 2 hours total on a given day to watch hawks, and I’m not going to spend that driving. So I just go to one of the upper parking lots at Ski Roundtop where I have a good view of the open sky to the south and where the added altitude raises me at least several hundred feet above the valley floor. It’s not the world’s best hawkwatching site, but it can be pretty good and has the advantage of being close.

I had just driven back into the cabin from my hawkwatching when I saw a small bird flitting in the top of one of the beech trees at the end of the driveway. My first thought was that it might be a blue-gray gnatcatcher, an early bug-eating migrant. I raised my binoculars and quickly discovered something else. It was a golden-crowned kinglet instead—another early bug-eating migrant.

I started to walk slowly towards the end of the driveway, hoping for a closer view of this bird. This is a species that I don’t see every year at Roundtop, though they are likely around. These little birds are easy to miss, and since I have to work away from the cabin during the day to keep the roof over my head, I am likely simply not always here when they are.
But yesterday I was home. So as I was walking towards the first bird, I saw another little flit in a tree to my left. Another golden-crowned kinglet! I stopped and started scanning all the trees in this section of the woods, and I found a total of 6 golden-crowned kinglets. It’s likely there were even several more. I can be sure of 6 separate birds, so that’s my official number.
Spring has arrived!

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring is Moving In

Last night I heard the first spring peepers here at Roundtop, though I’ve been hearing them down in the valley for a few days longer. This morning I heard, but have not yet seen, the first eastern phoebe of the spring. Two days of rain over the weekend has eliminated 12” of snow cover. The only snow that remains is a few piles or a bit of it that was protected from the rain—the underside of logs, the sheltered under-edge of a rock.

It is very muddy, of course, and with snow cover only gone by 48 hours, no spring growth is yet visible. So it is brown and wet here in the forest, though the air is already tinged with the warmer air of spring. I no longer hurry to close both the front and storm doors when I go out. I have even opened a few windows a bit and am surprised, as I am every year, by how much sound that lets into the cabin.

The birds are starting to sign in earnest now. The cardinals sing almost non-stop. Enough robins are here that their dawn chorus is fairly loud. This northern mockingbird was displaying his repertoire, which included the song of a whip-poor-will. I have never heard a whip-poor-will here on Roundtop, and though I have heard them nearby none of the songs were recent. Apparently, this mockingbird has been somewhere where he heard them.

Geese are still moving through, mostly Canada geese now. They fly mostly after dark. I hear them long before I see them, and when I do see them they are high and tiny against a dusky sky.
Today, the morning wind is from the south, so I am planning to do a little spring hawkwatching. Spring hawkwatching in this area is always chancy and rarely superb, but that never deters me. The rewards of a few broadwings or an eagle are always worth it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sunny Day

My snow is melting fast. I would not be surprised to discover it gone when I get home from work today. The forecast is calling for 60 degrees, and even when the daytime high only reaches the mid-40's the amount of melting from morning to evening verges on the shocking.
The snow is rapidly being replaced with mud, an unhappy result as far as I'm concerned. I happily wander through a snow-covered forest, but once I start losing shoes and ruining boots in the mud, I refuse to enter until the ground beneath me is solid again. So for me, mud season is the one where I am least active and least in the woods. I'll be happier when I'm not sinking.
I'm still adjusting to this earlier daylight savings time. I just can't equate snow on the ground with stays-light-until-7:30 p.m. I can't say I dislike it, but I just can't get past the weirdness of it. Maybe next year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Early Morning with Snow

Today is the official first day of spring, and I have 8-10 inches of snow left, though the snow is starting to melt fast. The sun of mid-March is stronger than the sun of mid-winter, so even when the temperatures are the same, on a sunny day I will see more melting now than in February.

Today, the sun was just poking through the trees as I headed out onto the public road, and it seemed a good photo for an equinox day. Here, where the road allows more sun to strike the edges of the forest, the snow cover is already far thinner than it is up my lane. A little more sunlight makes a lot of difference.

Although it is too soon to tell, it is possible that this snowfall was this area's onion snow. I'm not sure the term is a universal one, but around here an onion snow is the last snow of the season, after which it's considered safe to plant your onions. Naturally, it's a little difficult to say with certainty when a snow is the season's last snow, so the question of whether it will be or won't be the last snow is the kind of thing neighbors jaw about over the fence.

Monday, March 19, 2007

After the Snow

After the snow stopped, bird activity really picked up around the cabin. I took this photo of a pretty song sparrow taking advantage of the dirt kicked up by the stuck plow truck and front end loader to find a little grit.

I saw 29 species of birds around the cabin over the weekend. My best sighting was the secretive brown creeper. I only see this little bird several times a year as it doesn’t announce itself or make a show when it arrives. It is easy to miss, though I’m sure it’s around virtually all the time. I also saw a long overdue American goldfinch. Usually they swarm my niger seed feeder all winter long but they were strangely absent until yesterday. I also saw the first northern flicker of the season, a sign that winter is losing its grip.

Down off the mountain, sightings of Eastern Phoebe are becoming common, but I haven’t seen any up here yet.

If you think winter is a slow time for birding, all you have to do is spend a few minutes sitting quietly in the woods. I am fortunate to have several large picture windows where I can observe birds and animals even when the weather is too poor to make sitting outside comfortable. A minute never goes by without having something fly or flit by close enough to me to see them. Usually, several species are within sight at once.

I often see animals this way too, as being in the cabin hides my scent from them. On Saturday, two deer bounced by the cabin, leaving the confines of one nearby thicket for one just a little further away. Likely, they’d cleared the browse from the first and simply moved to the second for better foraging.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

High Drama with Snow

I am not exactly snowed in today, but the hassle of getting out and then getting back in to the cabin again is pretty high, so the result is much the same as if I was snowed in. I had 12-13 inches of new snow, a goodly amount for this late in March, though not a record. The last big late March snow was in 1993, another El Nino year where 2+ feet fell on the 20-something of March. So this snow can’t compete with that one, but it was still a pretty good amount.

I took this photo yesterday while it was still snowing, so if it doesn't look like 12 inches, that's why. I think it had snowed 7-8 inches by the time I took the photo.

Last night my driveway killed one of Roundtop’s plow trucks. My driveway is very deceptive. It looks flat, but it isn’t. It’s narrow, with a curve and there’s quite a lip where the driveway meets the lane. Last night one of the regular plowers got hung up in front of the cabin and started to slide off the driveway. Then, when he tried to go forward again, he hit a small pile of ice left over from the last snow and couldn’t go over it.

Since the resort is supposed to close tomorrow, it was this man’s last night of work for the year on the hill. So sometime after 10 p.m. he and I are out in the snow, looking under the truck with my big flashlight, to the accompaniment of howling dogs. It was pretty obvious right from the start that a little digging with my snow shovel wasn’t going to do the trick. He put in a call on the radio to one of the plowers running the smaller front end loader. That loader was in use clearing one of the nearby parking areas, so the loader showed up in front of the cabin within a few minutes. After several attemps and much struggling, it became obvious the little loader just wasn’t heavy enough to pull out the pick-up.

So another call was placed to the man running Roundtop’s big front end loader, which was then out on the public road along the power line pulling the mountain manager out of a ditch. But eventually, that equipment showed up, and this time they were able to hoist the truck sideways enough to get it back onto the drive.

Then they discovered the truck would no longer move forward, though it would move backward. So the truck backed out the driveway but promptly got itself stuck again where the driveway meets the lane. Fortunately, the loader hadn’t disappeared down the lane yet, so the two men chained the truck to the loader bucket again and hauled it down the mountain and into the shop, suffering from some kind of serious, possibly fatal, transmission problem.

As a result of all this, my driveway is pretty messed up. They said another vehicle would come eventually to finish my driveway and clean up the lane so my neighbor up the mountain can get in and out of his cabin. For now, both of us are parked down off the hill in one of the resort’s parking areas.

It was midnight before I got to bed—waay past my bed time and with way more drama in the evenings than I’m used to. Who said life in the woods is quiet and peaceful? Well, not last night.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Visitor

Spring continues to make its presence known, both in what I see and how the forest and the weather feels.

I knew I had an evening visitor last night when Baby Dog used her outside voice while staring out the front door. Yesterday it was nearly 70 degrees, so I let the front door open with only the storm door to create a barrier between the inside and the outside. This gives the cats and dogs more to look at. The cats seem to enjoy this a lot. Baby Dog finds that the increased field of view also allows her to find more things to bark at.

It didn't take long for one of the local raccoons to make an appearance. It was momentarily deterred by Baby Dog's outside voice, but it soon learned to ignore that. I caught this photo of it when it was still in the cautious stage.

Tundra swans and C anada and snow geese continue to move north. Likely raptors and songbirds are moving, too, but I don't get to see many of the daytime migrants. I get to hear and sometimes to see the migrants that move near or after dark. So far, I see no sign of new green growth. This is actually a good thing, as cooler weather will return in another day or so, and by the end of the week I will likely have snow again. March is nothing if not variable.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Migrants are Here!

Last night as I passed an old snowmaking pond on the way back up to the cabin, I found this handsome pair of Ring-necked Duck on it. I almost missed them. The pond is usually populated by a menage a trois of mallards--two males and a female that return every spring. So when I first saw two ducks on the pond, I barely turned my head to look but when I did, I soon realized they weren't mallards.

I lived at the cabin for many years before I saw my first pair of ring-necks here. But in the last two years I've suddenly had three sightings of them. I don't know if this means there are more ring-necks around, if their migration route is suddenly taking them past Roundtop, or even if the larger new pond is an attractant, even though they weren't sitting on it. The birds were very calm, ignoring a pair of Roundtop employees taking their after work walk around the pond, as well as the skiers nearby on the bunny slopes, not to mention me, screeching the car to a halt to photograph them.

Last night I hear another flock of snow geese but the most common sound was the near constant honk of Canada geese flying north well after dark. I went outside several times last evening and heard them each time. Spring is coming.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Last of Winter

Winter is over, despite the bit of snow that remains in this photo. I know that winter is over because the snow geese are moving north.

On Friday night I was walking Baby Dog for the last time when I heard a soft and familiar hooting in the distance. It was a warm night, with that balmy feel that often precedes rain. I looked for the geese in the overcast sky, not really expecting to see them. And then, there they were, the first of several skeins appearing like apparations over the cabin. They were bright against the cloudy night sky, bellies illuminated by the reflection from the lights on the ski slopes, aglow in the night like something out of a myth. It was almost too amazing and too beautiful to be true. The first group was 50-75 birds, the second several hundred, the third a smaller family group, all heading north, all calling as they flew, heading home.

So, I can no longer deny it. Winter is over. The geese told me so.

The rain that came the next day removed 90% of the snow cover, and now mud season has begun. I can't call it spring. To me the word spring sounds so chipper, and the reality of the new season is anything but. The reality is heavy and mud-covered, with rain. I am not yet ready for this, but the memory of the snow geese flying north helps ease the way.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Stopping by Woods

This beautiful old stone bridge is near the bottom of Roundtop Mountain, just before I emerge from the shelter of the forest on my morning drive to work. I have often walked along this old road, but I don’t start my walks at this spot. I pick up the road another half mile or so deeper into the woods and closer to my cabin. This morning, the trackless snowy road and the bridge called to me, so I jumped out of the car and took a picture in the early morning light.

I suspect this bridge once stood at the entrance to a summer camp, the remains of which I’ve seen down in the valley. All that’s left now is a portion of one bath house and a caved-in stone swimming pool. I have no idea how long ago this camp was last used. The ski resort has been on the mountain for 40 plus years, and I suspect the old camp was abandoned long before that. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the camp was last used in the World War II era. I don’t know when it opened or what the name of the camp might have been. Even an old topographical map I have of the region doesn’t show it.

Deeper in the forest, the old road follows a stream, passes a small pond and then continues along the stream, eventually emerging on the other side of the mountain as a public road that is marked as a "dead end" on that side of the mountain. It's not really a dead end road, but the public portion of the road does end at a farm where the forest ends (or begins depending on your point of view).

Perhaps it is only the freedom of the upcoming weekend calling to me, but I'd have given a lot this morning to throw off the day's work obligations and follow this old road through the woods, making tracks in the trackless snow.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Snow Games

Winter is not yet dead. Five inches of snow fell here yesterday, and because the temperature is barely reaching the teens, it was the nice powdery kind of snow, not the concrete snow that fell two weeks ago. Dog and Baby Dog are both thrilled. For some reason, they seem to think that if it’s white outside, they don’t need to listen. Or in fact even hear me. They are so excited by snow that their doggie brains go on overload.

Last night Baby Dog raced from one end of the driveway to the other, back and forth, back and forth. She must have done that 8-10 times until she was panting so hard she had to stop. Dog, who is 6, is calmer but he still finds running with his nose under the snow great fun. I worry that he will run into a stick or a stone hidden by the snow and bang himself up, but so far that’s never happened.

The raccoons are out of hibernation, as they have been visiting the dish of cat food on the front deck, much to the outrage of Baby Dog. Cardinals, and even juncos, are singing in anticipation of spring. So far, the only sign of spring I see is in the lengthening daylight and the western march of the constellation Orion.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

All Tied up

Even more than the lack of cold weather in the early part of the season, for me what stands out most about this winter has been the wind. First it’s from the north, then it’s from the south, but whichever, 20-30 mph winds have been nearly constant. The wind has been calm on only a few days this winter.

So when I saw this tree wrapped like a maypole with a vine, it seemed like an appropriate picture for the day, though for the life of me I can't explain why. Perhaps it's just that I feel constrained by the brutality of the wind. Perhaps it's because first I'm blown one way and then the other and end up feeling like I am all tangled up in it.

Last night the wind howled at more than 40 mph all night long. And so did Baby Dog.

Every time a twig or a branch or a limb fell onto something and made a bumping noise, Baby Dog barked. This happened I don’t know how many times throughout the night. And once she started, Dog had to join in.

Baby Dog is a mutt with enough chow in her lineage that it’s her most identifiable breed. She has a black tongue and could be a sister to at least two other dogs I know who are also half or at least part chow. Chows were bred essentially as alarm dogs who would awaken the palace guards at the first sign of trouble. Baby Dog has retained this characteristic. Unfortunately, her version of trouble and my version of trouble are two entirely different things.

To her trouble is a raccoon calmly eating cat food on the front deck. She will stand at the front door, staring outside for hours just waiting for the raccoon to arrive so she can bark at it. And even removing her from the spot doesn’t stop her from barking.

Trouble is also the sound of a foot-long branch hitting the cabin roof and rolling off it. Every Time It Happens. All Night Long. I didn’t get much sleep last night. And neither did Baby Dog, though at least she is likely asleep right now.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Old Orchard

These old apple trees were pulled up a week or so ago. They reached the end of their productive life, so the orchardman is making way for new trees. Each tree in a viable orchard has to produce a certain amount of fruit to sustain the orchardman, so when the trees fall below that point, the old trees have to go.

The land will likely lie fallow for a year before new trees are planted. Behind the old trees you can just see a few of the new trees that were planted last year to replace the batch of old trees that used to grow in that area.

I grew up a farmer’s granddaughter, and an orchardman’s daughter in later years, so I understand how this cycle has to work. But I’ve never gotten over wishing that it didn’t have to be so. It seems wrong to me to pull up living trees, though I’ve never been able to think of an alternative. The amount of land isn’t unlimited, after all, and the orchardman has to eat. Non-productive trees deplete the soil without producing anything. But still….I just can’t get past the idea of it. Perhaps it’s simply the sight of the old trees, roots above ground, that bothers me. I certainly enjoy seeing the new trees take root and grow when they are planted. I will get over this. I always do. Perhaps it’s just the dreariness of an early March day that has captured me. Once the new trees are planted, once the first blossoms appear I will greet them warmly.

Further in the background is Roundtop Mountain, still well-covered with snow.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Sorry, no photo

No photo today. It’s so foggy this morning that my photo was all gray, unrelieved by any outlines. It is that foggy. So far, the rain here has produced stream flooding, but my basement was damp but not deep when I got up this morning, so I am relieved and happy about that.

I can’t see much, so I can’t really tell yet how much the rain hurt the snow pack. I inched my way off the mountain this morning, glad I knew the road. Once off the mountain the fog lifted slightly, at least enough that I could tell the local streams were very high. One bridge I cross is usually 10 feet above the stream below. This morning it was about 18 inches, perhaps less, above the stream.

At the cabin, I could hear water rushing down the little seasonal stream at the bottom of my lane. It sounded like a waterfall. And yet, the actual rainfall was only somewhere between 1-2”, and for the most part it seemed like a fairly gentle rain. It could have been a lot worse.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Seasons Change

Melting snow changes unidentifiable lumps and bumps in the forest to identifiable objects. This old log is newly visible this morning. Each morning of this week has brought some new object into view, as the snow is melting a little each day.

This morning I also saw and heard the first robin of the new season, followed by a sighting of several killdeer (though I’d first heard one the day before). Spring is on the way, and if I had any doubts of that, rain is in tonight’s forecast, not snow or ice.

Tonight’s rain, which will fall atop the snow and ice, will likely bring a new season’s set of problems—basement flooding. So last evening I was outside where my basement drain hose is, first trying to locate it under several inches of snow and then chopping the snow and ice away from it. Then I dug out my battery-powered sump pump (useful if I lose power) and my electrically-powered sump pump in anticipation of tonight’s weather.

With so much snow cover on the mountain, an inch or two of rain will dissolve a lot of it and that often causes my basement to flood when the ground gets saturated (or is still frozen as is the case today). So over the years I’ve accumulated an arsenal of equipment to deal with it. Keeping track of what’s going on in the basement is still more labor-intensive than I like, but it’s still preferable to manually bailing out this small area, which I’ve also had to do.

Living in a cabin in the woods has many joys but anyone contemplating such a move should also anticipate having to deal with things most town and city dwellers don’t think about. I’ve found that each season has its own set of worries. Losing electricity in the summer isn’t a big deal, but losing electricity in winter (or when the basement is flooding) is another matter.

So the change of season brings out a new set of equipment. Gone are the snow shovels and the ice melt. Ready for action are the sump pumps. I hope I won’t have to use any of my equipment tonight, but at least I’m ready. I hope.