Friday, April 27, 2007

Bio-blitz 3 (Mammals and an Osprey)

Spring is rushing headlong through Roundtop. I am ever amazed at which the speed of the landscape around me can change. I see differences from night to morning.

The first photo was taken looking up my driveway. Redbud trees are starting to color, but the trees still have a long way to go to be fully leafed out.

Today, I'm recording the mammals for my bio-blitz.

White-tailed deer - at least 5 that I know of and likely more. Dog and I often startled a doe who is still running with last year's twin fawns and 2 other adult deer.

Gray squirrels - I've seen as many as 7 at one time.

Raccoons - I've had 4 different ones at the semi-feral cat feeders, and there are 5 of the cats that were dropped off here at Roundtop.

Rabbit - I've seen 3-4 at once.

Groundhogs - These aren't usually at the cabin but are at the edge of the ski slopes, sometimes wandering into the woods. 2-3

Red fox - 2 that I know of and likely more.

Skunk - 1 (I hope)

Oppsussum - 2 at least

Mice - Field mice and white-footed mouse (My Maine Coon cat Ben caught one of these last week and left it by his food dish).

As I was driving into the cabin last night, I came across this Osprey perched above the old snowmaking pond. Sorry the for poor quality photo. The sky was very overcast. I don't get to see ospreys at the cabin but a few times a year, and I can't remember the last time I saw one perching, so it was a photo that deserved taking, regardless.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bio-Blitz Part 2 with New Arrivals!

Sometime between the last notes of yesterday’s avian evening symphony and the first notes of this morning’s dawn chorus, I’ve had two new arrivals. The wood thrush and the ovenbirds have arrived!
These two species always (and I do mean always) arrive here at exactly the same time. The actual day of arrival differs slightly, but I never have the one species arrive even a day before the other. It does seem as though wood thrush arrive with slightly greater numbers than ovenbirds. This morning I heard 3 thrush to 1 ovenbird. In another few days, the ovenbirds will likely outnumber the thrush.
It makes me wonder. Do these birds migrate together? Do they take the same bus north? Do they hang out together on their wintering grounds? I have no idea, though I like the idea of that last. Since they arrive together, is it possible the same birds are neighbors for life, wherever they go? I wonder if anyone has attempted to find out?
Eastern blue- this is a tiny pale blue butterfly that’s one of the first butterflies of the spring and also one of the most common. I usually first see them on opening day of trout season. This year trout season came early and the butterflies came later, but they’re here now
Cabbage white – doesn’t everyone have these?
Black-throated green warbler – I saw 3-4 of them this morning
Yellow-rumped warbler – just one so far
Chipping sparrow – they’ve arrived!
White-throated sparrows – they’re still here and those yellow lores are twice as bright now as they were this winter!
Blue Jay
American Crow
Eastern Towhee
Eastern Phoebe
Chickadee sp.
Tufted Titmouse
Hairy woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Carolina wren
Turkey vulture
White-breasted nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Goldfinch
Great horned owl
Mourning Dove
Belted Kingfisher
Northern Mockingbird
Eurasian Starling
Common Grackle
American Robin
Eastern Bluebird
White-throated sparrow
Northern Cardinal
American Goldfinch

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bio-Blitz - Day 1

What could be more perfect than bio-blitzing around the cabin on the day when spring explodes into its fullest self? Not much, I’m sure. First, I get to spend even more time outside than I usually do. Second, I have a purpose to be outside even longer than I usually do. I don’t have to pretend I’m doing outside work. I don’t even have to pretend I’m thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow. I’m bio-blitzing, thank you very much. Everything else can wait.

My goal for the cabin bio-blitz is to make a concerted effort to identify more plants. I tend to be a bird and animal kind of girl. I will stop dead at the sound of a bird calling in the distance to try and identify it, while every day I walk right past the little green things on the floor of my front forest and not have a clue about what I’m not seeing. For me, bio-blitzing will be an educational project that will force me to find/buy more guidebooks so I can identify what I’m looking at.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:
Trees (9 species):
Red oak – these are majestic beauties
American beech- 2 large ones in the front forest. Their light gray bark is beautiful
Tulip poplar
Sassafras – my dad taught me to chew the end of the leaf stem when I was a kid. Now that's a good flavor!
Redbud – I can begin to see the red, but they’re not fully in bloom yet
Dogwood – I have 2 small ones just starting to bloom.
American Chestnut - one of these looks pretty large to me. I'm holding my breath that it will continue to do well.

Plants (13 species):
Mayapple – the most common plant at the cabin right now. I’ve counted 87 plants in about 2 square yards, got tired of counting, so I stopped. It's safe to say hundreds are here, and more are appearing every day.

Trout lily – known locally as dog-toothed violet (but it’s not a violet). I have a nice bed of these right behind where I park the car. That’s where I took this photo (top photo).

Bloodroot - Currently, I have about 18 flowers in 3 different bunches. The root of the bloodroot was used by native Americans and others to make red dye. Isn’t it amazing that someone would even think to dig up this little plant to look at the root and then somehow figure out that you could make dye from it? All I can say is that you must only need a little bit to make a lot of dye or there used to be a lot more of these plants around than there are today. Notice how the leaves of this plant kind of curl around the stem (second photo). That's typical.
Spring beauty – I usually have tons of these, but so far this spring they are slightly less abundant than usual. More are appearing every day, though.

Wild violet - I have several bunches of these right by my front steps but they’re not blooming yet.
Coltsfoot – several plants out by the lane
Bleeding heart – Native to the area but I planted the one I have.
Wild raspberry – I’m already waiting for these to be ripe. There’s nothing that tastes as good as wild black raspberries.
Autumn olive – I think
Multiflora rose – Another invasive species
Wild grapes

Moss and lichens – boy, are these difficult to identify. The majority of the Web resources I’ve found are checklists without pictures. I did learn that in a "preliminary survey" Pennsylvania was found to have 363 species of these. I think I will just let this go for now until I can find a good guide. Let's just say I have lots.

Tomorrow: Birds, butterflies, and mammals

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Flat rock Trail Part 2

Saturday was the first nice weekend day in months. As you can see from this photo that I took partway up the mountain on the Flat Rock Trail, spring still wasn't very far along. I'm sure that has changed a lot since then. I know that at my cabin, spring has now arrived in full force, appearing literally overnight.

But on Saturday we didn't need leafing trees to enjoy ourselves. A warm, clear day was all that needed. And we certainly had that.

This was Baby Dog's first long hike, and naturally I was worried how she'd do. Mostly, I was worried that she'd poop out and I'd have to figure out how to get back to the car. I shouldn't have worried. She did fine. Of course, she had to bark everytime anyone else appeared on the trail. And she continued to bark until they'd passed. She is still a work in progress.

In places the trail was very steep and quite rocky on the way up the mountain. Once on top of the mountain, the trail wasn't rocky and flattened out quite nicely. I saw many mountain laurel bushes. This trail must be quite spectacular when they are blooming. Perhaps it will be worth a trip back for that!
My entry for tomorrow will be a bio-blitz report of what's going on around the cabin. And now that spring is here, a lot is going on!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Flat Rock Trail

I know I was supposed to be bio-blitzing this weekend. Sorry, I went hiking instead. I'll make it up soon.

Until I do, here are a few photos from my hike on the Flat Rock Trail in Colonel Denning State Park in Cumberland County (or is it Perry?). Anyway, it's a state park northwest of Carlisle, PA.
Two of my friends brought their dogs, I brought Baby Dog, and we all went for a hike on the most beautiful, crystal clear day I've seen in months and months. The temperature neared 70, the humidity was low, and if the weather could have been any more perfect than this day was, I wouldn't know where to begin to improve it.

Flat Rock Trail is a short but very steep trail (5 miles round trip). The first 50 yards or so are flat. After that it climbs steeply for a mile, gaining about 1000 feet in altitude in that mile. Then it levels off somewhat. The first photo is from the start of the hike. The second photo is my friend Teresa and her dog Tula (who looks a lot like Baby Dog but is half her size). That's Baby Dog's tail in the foreground.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Coltsfoot in Full Bloom

The coltsfoot plant I photographed the other day is now in full bloom. The overcast sky that has darkened the day for weeks has now cleared, and today is clear and warm. The result is that spring is about to explode.

Instead of the baby steps of the past few weeks, the speed of the new season will now likely move so quickly, I won't be able to see or note it all. It will suddenly just be here in full force, probably by tomorrow morning. I am certainly ready for something to change. It feels as though I've been living in November since, well, November.

Gee, it's Friday, and the sky is clear. I have two days to enjoy the outdoors and the forest. Let the weekend begin!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gloomy Day

Yesterday’s sunshine turned out to be only momentary. That such a brief appearance of sunshine was cause for my celebration is just one more indication how gloomy it has been here for I-don’t-even-remember-how-long now. This morning the gloom is back (see photo).
My own gloom these days extends beyond the weather and off the mountain. Each spring brings another destruction season (as I call it), with more open land, farmland, woodland razed to build ever more houses (or housing units as developers prefer to call them). I can already see the signs of this season's destruction--tapes around trees, stakes in fields, the path of a bulldozer through a wood lot.
I am starting to feel like an endangered species myself, though it is my lifestyle that's endangered. Suburbia moves ever closer and the people who come are interested in things like curbs and street lights. I will never understand why people who move to places with open air and open land want nothing more than to make where they move to look like the cities they are escaping. But that's just me. Obviously.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Coltsfoot and Other Insanities

If you want a better indication of how late this spring is arriving, today’s photo is it. This is coltsfoot, which is typically the first wildflower to appear each year. In fact, this flower is so anxious to bloom that it blooms before its leaves appear. As you can see in this photo, the plant is not yet (quite) blooming as the flowers haven’t opened up yet.

It is not uncommon for me to first see a blooming coltsfoot around the first week of April. I wouldn’t be surprised, in some years, to find it before the end of March. I have also seen it in bloom when patches of snow were still around. But this year, today will be its blooming day. It is no exaggeration to say that it is blooming about 3 weeks later than usual.

The coltsfoot, as I have only just found out to my dismay, is not native to North America but to Europe, where it was used to treat asthma and colds, usually in a tea sweetened with lemon. It is also, apparently, smoked in a pipe to treat asthma, which to a modern sensibility seems like a contradiction in terms.

Spring continues its slow progress, though the speed of the season is beginning to increase. Last night, as I drove past the old snowmaking pond, several tree swallows skimmed along its surface—another first of the year!
And this morning, for at least several seconds, I was briefly convinced I’d overslept. Dog and I were walking along one of the ponds when I saw brightness in the east and was momentarily blinded. The sun! If the sun was up, it could only mean that I was late for work because when Dog and I walk it is still dark. In fact, it was dead dark only yesterday on our walk, and it doesn’t go from dark to sunny in one day when we walk at the same time each morning, so…Oh, wait. The sky is clear this morning. The sun is supposed to be rising now. It’s only because it’s been so flippin’ overcast for the past two weeks that I couldn’t see morning was rising to greet us on our walks. Okay, so I’m not late. Deep breath.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Spring Beauty

This morning, after the worst of the nor'easter cleared out, I went out into the front forest to look for more signs of spring and found one! Here is the first spring beauty of the spring. Each spring my driveway and front forest area is lined with these tiny flowers. They are always the first flowers I see in the spring.
Now that the first of these beauties has arrived, I expect the first eastern blue butterflies to appear momentarily. Usually these two appear at the same time here on Roundtop.
Spring is still slower and further behind than is typical here. Every spring a few "volunteers" from long-gone Easter baskets reemerge and brighten the area around the front deck. Yesterday, the first of these was now just half an inch or less through the ground. That's close to 10 days behind normal. These escapees are are still weeks from blooming, which I don't expect now until around the end of the month, at least.
Here on the mountain I have yet to see any sign of trees leafing or redbud reddening. To me, one of the interesting things about forests, or indeed any plant growth, is how much spring temperatures promote or hinder new growth without apparent ill effects to the ecosystem as a whole. Animals and birds seem to be much more likely to be adversely affected by timing issues than the forest itself. The plants of the forest simply bloom earlier or later, zen-like, in response to whatever the weather is doing. The forest is really the master at going with the flow. And in other ways, as well.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Spring Nor'easter

The strong nor’easter that pummeled the, uh, northeast made its presence felt here on Roundtop, too. I have had several inches of rain, “trapping” me in the cabin for most of Sunday. I’m currently worrying through strong winds that kept me awake for much of the night. To be fair, it wasn’t just the wind that kept me awake. Whenever, anything fell on the roof or the decks and made a noise, Baby Dog was forced to bark at it. I had a mildly wet basement from the rain, but it was nothing my little battery pump couldn’t handle. So far the winds have dropped limbs and branches but no wires or trees.

Before the storm hit, Saturday was overcast but calm and almost warm. I saw a pair of ruby-crowned kinglets darting through the trees, but that was my only new migrant of the weekend. By now I should have at least 10 mores bird species than I’ve recorded.

I’m starting to see some new growth on the forest floor, but it’s still minimal compared with most years to this time. And what has started growing is still too small for me to identify the species. For plants, I need more than ¼ to ½ inch of growth before I can identify them. I have finally seen the first butterfly of the new season—a cabbage white. Typically, I have seen at least 3-4 other species by now.

I expect that once this nor’easter has blown through that spring will explode almost overnight. As you can see from today’s photo looking across the valley and towards the next ridges, it still doesn’t look much like spring here. The grass is green, but the orchard isn’t even close to blossoming yet.

I guess all years have their own seasonal oddities—too much rain, too little, too cold, too warm, etc.,--but this year is one of the most unusual I can remember. I suppose you could say I find it intellectually interesting, but emotionally concerning. Too many odd years in a row have serious consequences for wildlife, migrants and the forest itself. I can do little about it but watch and document what I see.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Clouds of Change

After getting an inch of rain, the sky is now clearing. Clouds race across the horizon, first in shades of gray, then white puffs with hints of blue behind them, and finally dark and threatening gray again. The wind roared across the mountain last night. Branches dropped onto the cabin roof, and called Baby Dog to barking.

This morning, the wind is strong but no longer roaring. The vultures were airborne as soon as it was light enough to see. Perhaps they were lured into such an early flight because they were ground-bound by the rain yesterday. Perhaps they also know that a nor’easter is due tomorrow and could bring snow back to the area. Today will be the only day they have, probably, to search for food, and they want to take advantage of every minute.

To me, the weather feels like late October or early November. If it was, I’d be proclaiming it “golden eagle weather” and would try to put myself on a hawkwatch someplace. But northwest winds in spring are just the opposite of good migration weather.

With this year’s weather so unusual, I’m afraid the spring migration, when it happens, will be over in a day or two. Somewhere, further south, the spring birds are backed up by this weather, waiting for it to improve before attempting the flight north. Those who have the furthest to go will likely fly for long hours and may well overfly this area without stopping.
For now, I have a phoebe calling—after silence for several days—and the towhee’s song to fill the woods. Tomorrow’s snow is still a day away.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Foggy, Soggy Morning

It’s been kind of a quiet week here on the mountain. The cool weather has slowed migration and new plant growth. This morning is foggy and soggy, just a few degrees above freezing at Roundtop, so it feels chilly and raw. It’s the kind of day that makes me wish I could have stayed home, slept a few hours later than usual and then woke up to a few hot cups of orange tea.

Alas, the alarm went off as usual, the dogs needed walked, and the day moved ahead. By the time I’d walked the dogs, I was damp and chilled. Dog behaved perfectly this morning, which scares me. He walked on a loose lead like a perfect gentleman. This will likely mean that on our next walk he will be a perfect hellion. That has been the pattern since he was a puppy. I used to say that he was either the perfect puppy or the puppy from hell. Now that he’s a dog, the pattern hasn’t changed all that much. I have hope, sometimes, that the extremes of this pattern are dissipating, but when he’s as perfect as he was this morning, I expect trouble to follow.

Baby Dog is still a work in progress, though she seems to have a more laid back nature than Dog. On our morning walks, she takes forever to decide on an appropriate spot for her bodily functions. Multiple spots need smelled, and when a particularly good smell attracts her, she forgets entirely what she is out there to do. Then when she eventually does find the right spot, she has to circle it, just to make sure. Her record for this circling is 18 times. This morning, with the rain pounding down, she took even longer than usual.
Rain, chill, no new birds, no sprouting plants, canine issues—at least I can still have a hot cup of orange tea to ease me into the day.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


No, this isn’t my grass. I don’t have grass at the cabin. This is some of the grass around the ski area. Isn’t that some of the brightest green you’ve ever seen? I love the bright green of spring grass and leaves. I don’t have any bright green leaves to look at yet, but finding spring’s bright green anywhere, even in grass, is nearly as good.

It almost hurts my eyes to look at the green of spring. It’s a green that shouts, “I’m here!” It’s a green only found during the early part of spring. Quickly enough, this brightness will fade into a richer shade of elegant green that means summer has arrived. And by mid-August or so the green will turn dull and dark, not pretty at all. But for now, it’s spring and the green is bright and fresh with new growth.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Misty Mountains

Winter was late arriving, but now so is spring. Here on the mountain, I have had snow showers every day for the last 4-5 days. Some were just a few flurries, others were full-fledged squalls. On Saturday, the temperature never got above the mid-30’s. I have yet to see a butterfly, and the arrival of summer birds has slowed. Spring growth on the mountain is almost non-existent, but when I drive off the mountain and down into the valley, growth is much further along.

The late spring might be a big boon for warblers—at least I hope so. Before global warming, warbler arrival was well-timed to match the appearance of spring leaves and insects. The past several years, the early warming means the leaves were out and the hatching insects already dispersed, leaving little food for the birds on the trip north or on their nesting grounds. Warbler populations have plummeted, and though early springs aren’t the only cause for this, it is one of the major factors. Perhaps a “late” spring that’s actually closer to the normal spring of years past will help their reproductive success and population this year.
I took the photo this morning looking towards the mist-shrouded hills to the east of Roundtop. It was below freezing and chilly this morning—though at least the blustery wind of the weekend has calmed.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Fox and Fungi

I never thought I'd say this, but I guess even I’m ready for spring. I groaned at the sight of snow squalls this morning and am starting to be jealous when other nature bloggers around the country wax poetic about spring flowers and butterflies—none of which have appeared here at Roundtop yet. This is just what a 40° drop in temperature in 24 hours will do to me.

The suddenly cooler weather does not seem to matter to the dogs. I made the mistake this morning of not putting on a jacket when I took Baby Dog outside, figuring a sweatshirt would be good enough. So the wind kicks up, and I’m suddenly cold. Baby Dog was taking forever to find the proper spot to complete her assignment so we can go back inside. Just when I thought she was going to oblige, some smell distracted her, and she forgot why she was out there in the first place. The spot needed to be smelled, extensively, and this was far more important than any bodily function.

Dog and I heard a fox calling last night. It was close enough to the cabin to pique Dog’s interest and make me wonder what the wild little canine was up to. The fox call is a single bark that is repeated over and over. When Baby Dog heard it her hackles went up, and she started to bark too. Here's a link to a site with fox calls on it. Check out the one called call.wav. That's what we heard last night. It's kind of a spooky sound when it's 10:30 p.m. and no more than 50-75 yards away. At least Baby Dog thought so. Dog was interested enough for his ears to perk up, but he wasn't about to start barking back at it.

My photo today is simply a downed tree with a lot of neat fungus on it. I love the bright red fungus in the middle. It is the most colorful thing in the woods right now.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Today I’m not very happy with my photo but it’s what I have, so there it is. It’s gray, chilly and rainy this morning, and I’m already missing the sunny weather of yesterday. In fact, it’s because it’s gray and rainy today that the photo I was hoping to get didn’t work. Such is life. Such is April.

Last evening, knowing that it would be the last warm day for a while, I sat outside on the front deck and watched and listened as the day turned first to evening and then to night. Just before sunset I heard the call note of an Eastern Towhee, my first of the season. The lone bird called its familiar chip note, but I have yet to hear its song. I realized as I drank my coffee that I’d heard the bird chipping for a minute or two before I became aware it was a towhee.
The same thing happens to me every year, with towhees and phoebes and others. Suddenly my brain wakes up from whatever else it has been doing and announces to me, “hey, that’s a towhee!” And so it is, the name of the bird rising from some slumbering depth of my wintering brain, its call (eventually) reawakening my awareness to the presence of its owner. For a few moments, before I’m aware of it, I have no name for the sound or for the bird. I’m not searching for either; the sound simply hasn’t yet penetrated my consciousness to the point of naming. And then my awareness kicks in, the connection is made, and both the sound and the bird are “in there” again, the sense memory reawakened, like a muscle long unused. Like riding a bicycle. Only for me, it’s the naming of a towhee.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Open Water

The sound of rushing water is my background music right now. The ground is releasing its winter moisture, and every gully and depression is full and flowing, though it hasn’t rained in days. The sound of rushing water nearly overpowers the song of spring peepers in the evening and the soft call of the great horned owl in the early morning hours. It’s a gentle constant. For now.

Tomorrow April reasserts its variable self and will bring me rain and thunderstorms. The sound of rushing water will likely turn into a gush of water, only to be followed once more by winter’s silence. After—or perhaps during--the storms, the temperature will drop, snow might reappear but colder temperatures and ice certainly will reappear for another week or so.
The change of seasons never progresses slowly or even continuously. Seasons change in fits and starts—the old season fighting with the new for dominance, but the new season always wins, eventually.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Warm Light of April

April, if not the “cruelest” month, is certainly the most fickle. Some days, like today, are warm and inviting. But by the end of the week, the nights will again be below freezing and the days cold and windy. That’s just April. For now I will enjoy the warm morning glow against the still slumbering trees, but I’ll keep a sweater handy for later.

Perhaps because it was chilly, overcast and damp this weekend, signs of spring’s progress are a bit hard to come by. So far, I have seen no new growth on the forest floor, not even skunk cabbage, which is usually the first new growth I find. And I usually have seen the first butterflies by now and I haven’t found a one. Saturday was Pennsylvania’s opening day of trout season, a day when I usually see the first Eastern Blue butterflies—not this year.
The thistly raspberry bushes have tiny buds, but that’s the closest thing to spring greenery I’ve found so far. The longer it goes without many signs of spring, the more likely it is that one warm day will suddenly bring an explosion of new growth. I just don’t know when that day will be.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

March birding Recap

Now that March is over, so I’ve been running through my monthly bird list to compare the species I saw this March with the Marches of previous years. First off, the good news. I counted 39 species this year, up from 34 last year. I even had one species I’ve never before seen here at the mountain in 15 years—a small group of double-crested cormorant migrating north. This sighting puts me at 129 species total for species I’ve seen at or around the cabin.

The bad news? It’s not really bad news, it’s just species that I should have had in March and didn’t see. Into this category falls wild turkey (where are they this year??), kingfisher (I thought I heard one but it was distant and I might have been mistaken so I didn’t count it), and eastern towhee. I usually have nice numbers of towhees arriving after the 20-somethingth of March, and this year I’ve had none. So that’s a little concerning but might correct itself soon.

This year I didn’t hear the first phoebe until March 23. Last year the first one announced itself on March 13. Average arrival date here is March 15-17. Likely the last snowfall contributed to this year’s late date.

The ring-necked ducks that spent more than a week on one of the snowmaking ponds were a nice addition to my list, as was the small flock of golden-crowned kinglets I saw the other day. This year I also haven’t seen a red-winged blackbird here yet, but the mountain top isn’t really their kind of habitat, so that’s not a major surprise.

I started my April list today—nothing great or unusual to report for it. April is tied with June as the second “birdiest” month of the year, after May of course.

My photo today was not taken here on Roundtop. It was taken down at my parents' farm on Saturday. My mother has been planting daffodils for years, and now she never knows where they're going to show up next. Here on the mountain I see few signs of the oncoming spring. The wild raspberry bushes are starting to get buds, but that's it. I don't even have any growing skunk cabbage yet, and that's usually the first thing to appear.