Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Nature's Bouquet

Mother Nature creates her own bouquets of wildflowers, and this morning's photo is one of them. Blue and white flowers stretch for yards and yards along the treeline at the edge of the ski slopes. I feel I needed a nice calm photo after the pyrotechnics of last night.
Mother Nature was in a rambunctious mood last night. What had been a good night's sleep turned into long hours of no sleep, due to the sound and light show that started around midnight and went on for several hours.
It was an odd storm too, with lightning strikes all around, first to the east, then the south, and then the north. Some were close, others miles away, all within a few seconds. As I lay awake around 0130, the lightning strikes were all 3-4 miles northeast of me, an improvement I thought, from the 1-2 miles away of several minutes before. All of a sudden, a loud crack makes me grab for my ears and shield my eyes. A milli-second later, the flash hurts my eyes even with them closed. A loud boom like an explosion rattles the windows and sends two cats under the bed and one dog up onto the second floor landing. The strike was close, just up the hill from me. I suspect it hit the utility pole out on the lane between my cabin and my neighbor's further up the mountain.
The storm rattled around for hours, but eventually rumbled far enough away that I could go back to sleep, though of course by then my good night's sleep was ruined. This morning, the sky is a bit clearer, the humidity a bit lower, and I'm hoping that tonight will not bring a repeat of last night.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Summer Storm

I didn't stray far from the cabin door most of the weekend. The weather was overcast with a near constant threat of storms. I heard thunder rumbling all weekend long. It would start far in the distance and slowly work its way closer and closer. Eventually, it got close enough where I would start to think it was too close to safely be outside, and in I'd go. And then the storm would dissipate or never get any closer. This happened time and again on both days of the weekend.
In the cabin I did my usual chores, all with the lights on, as the days were too dark to see inside without them. All around me, storms battered the region with rain, casuing flooding just a few miles away but at the cabin; I didn't get more than a few drops. Until Sunday afternoon.
Finally, after nearly two days of teasing, the storm didn't back away at the last minute. Late on Sunday afternoon, the rain and the thunder and lightning rolled over Roundtop. At first it was the rain, a downpour that actually hurt to be outside in it, stinging my arms and face the way sleet does. Then the thunder and lightning moved inexorably closer, until it, too, was right overhead. The storm raged for hours, until well after my normal bedtime. Fortunately, it didn't rain as heavily the entire time. Still, it rained heavily enough that I worried about water in the basement, but the lightning was too close to safely risk an excursion outside to the basement door.
At bedtime, the dogs wondered why they didn't get a final trip outside, but the lightning was still too close for me to feel safe enough to be outside. Finally, I gave up laid down, trying to sleep with noisy booms and strobe lights all around.
Later, the silence woke me up. It was after midnight. I hauled myself out of bed, checked the basement (dry), checked the rain gauge (more than 2" inches), and took the dogs outside briefly. The sky was still cloud-covered. The sound of thunder was far in the distance again. The weekend was over, too.

Friday, July 27, 2007

First Migrant of Fall!

As the birders among the readers to this blog will know, fall migration has already begun. Shorebirds, who stay in the north only long enough to breed, are already heading southward again. I was reminded of that this morning when I saw the first Great Blue Heron since spring migration at one of Roundtop’s snowmaking ponds. It was still nearly dark, and the bird was little more than a silhouette in the gloom. Great Blues are kind of ungainly, very Ichabod Crane kind of birds, especially as they are taking off and until they get going.

I’m not a huge shorebird fan—no disrespect is meant here, but as I live on top of a mountain that’s over 100 miles from the nearest ocean, my opportunities for shorebird watching are a bit limited. Still, in some years, I get to see a fair number of shorebirds or wading birds like this morning’s egret. I’m not that far from the lower Susquehanna River, which is quite a migration corridor. And the snowmaking ponds, while not ideal habitat, do offer some advantages for migrants.

Have you ever noticed how warblers often drop onto the top of a mountain during migration and then work their way down the slope? I’ve always thought that was because they used less energy by landing first on the top of a mountain, which after all is closer to the altitude at which they migrate than is a valley. I suspect it’s the same kind of thing with the shorebirds I see at Roundtop. To them, it might not look ideal but it’s a pond with an easy on/off just off the migration interstate so it’s worth checking out.

In some of the drier years, Roundtop even has a few mud flats, and then I’m likely to see more shorebirds than average. So far, I don’t have any mudflats, though it’s still early. For now, let me just say that fall migration has begun!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shadows of August

Today’s photo is what one of the ski slopes looks like in summer. Roundtop mows the slopes once or twice each summer with a tractor, but the grass is never really cut too short. I took the photo yesterday morning, which has turned out to be a good thing, as this morning the mountain has disappeared behind an early morning fog bank.

I can see the shadows of August appearing in the landscape around me, though some of what I’m calling "August" is likely just the result of little rain for the past two weeks. The understory in the woods, even the poison ivy, is starting to wither. I’ve seen a few stressed trees with yellow in their leaves as well. Even in my photo you can see the plants in the left foreground sagging a bit. That’s only gotten worse in the last day or so.

On cloudy mornings, like this one, it is almost dark when I start my early morning walks with Dog. It feels to me as though it’s only just gotten light enough to walk without stumbling, and here it is already turning in the other direction. I don’t know why this surprises me, as it happens every year, but for some reason I’m always surprised and never quite ready for the early morning darkness to take hold again.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Observations on the Season So Far

At least one of July’s resident birds is reappearing on Roundtop in good numbers this summer—house finches (see photo). Last year, I saw only a few. The year before that I saw but a single bird all year long. For the two or so years before that, nothing. Oddly, I never saw an ill finch on the mountain, no sightings of finches with eyes closed by conjunctivitis. Perhaps they don’t last as long, here on the mountain, as some of the finches who lived in more sheltered environments. In any event, before the commonly called "house finch disease" depleted their numbers, the birds were common at Roundtop and regular visitors to my feeders, with even greater numbers of them at the feeders down at the ski lodge.
I have not yet had any of them reappear at my feeders, but they are again verging on being a common local species. Their numbers are not as common as they were before conjunctivitis, but at the current rate of increase, they are likely to be so next year or the year after, at the latest.
Another bright spot in my otherwise dismal list of 33 species seen so far in July are the Eastern kingbirds. Kingbirds are not common on the mountain, though the grassy ski slopes cut through the forest provide some habitat for them. This year has been one of the best years I’ve seen for them. I am sure of at least 3 and possibly 4 nesting pairs. Reproduction was good this summer, and the scruffy looking "teenaged" birds are now terrorizing bugs across the mountain.
My impression is that some of the fulltime residents of Roundtop are being a bit slow to reappear after the quiet time of nesting. I’ve yet to see young nuthatches, cardinals or titmice, for example, nor are the adult birds out and about calling or scolding either, making me think they are still paying attention to nesting duties. This continued quiet from them seems a bit longer than is typical. Chickadees, in contrast, are starting to be out and noisy again and have been for past 7-10 days, though not yet at their full number.
Every year, every season on the mountain has something unusual about it. Seasons are never the same, though some are more different than others. I always think you can see the weather reflected in the plants and animals on the ground. Does the extended quiet some of the nesting species somehow reflect this continued spell of dry weather? Did early nests fail, leaving the birds to begin again? Did the extended cooler weather of spring simply push back the start of nesting? Trying to find the connection, the "meaning" for the difference is the difficult part. I’m better at asking the questions than at answering them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vanishing Places

I carry with me the remnants of vanished places---of rolling fields where houses now crowd, of sleepy country roads where 4-lanes cut a swath. So many places, so many memories. They exist only in my mind, as ephemeral as my last breath. And yet once they were all as real and as solid as the stones that are now under my feet, and to me, they still are, at least sometimes.
It is an odd feeling, this sense that I could find my way around a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I can still smell the pines, hear the soft call of a whip-poor-will on a summer’s evening, hear the gentle low of cows meandering back to the barn at dusk. Little enough remains in the solid world anymore.

What kind of geography is this, what name shall I give to it? Is it real enough to have a name, this geography of the mind? Or has it already passed beyond the realm of named things? It is, perhaps, the geography of twilight, fading into the blackness of night, but never to reappear with the dawn.

Blogger Woes

Blogger isn't letting me upload photos at the moment. I'll post as soon as that clears up.


Monday, July 23, 2007

Summer Wanderings

This weekend was perfect for hiking around the mountain. The temperature was comfortable, the humidity low. I decided to wander around a few areas of the mountain that I don’t regularly haunt. My reasons for not visiting certain areas vary.
Sometimes they are dense areas where bushwhacking through the brush is difficult. Sometimes the area is simply not much different than another that’s a little closer. But I haven’t had rain for some time now, the brush is withering, and it was time to take a look at a few spots that I haven’t looked at for a while.
If I think that places change from day to day, not looking at a place since spring brings more changes than I can count. Brush was both more dense than ever or non-existent. Normally wetter spots are now dry as a bone. I ended up telling myself I really have to get to some of these spots more often.
I ventured over to the east side of the mountain this weekend. Normally, I range around the west and southern sides of Roundtop, also sometimes going on the north side. Reaching the east side means I have to cross the ski resort’s parking lots to reach my destination and there’s not much to see in a parking lot. Once past the parking lots, there’s lots of nice open habitat, ranging from forest to long grass, with a small pond and a stream or two.
My photo today is of a honey bee on a thistle. I saw a good many bees, so I know they’re not all gone yet. I was really hoping to find a few more species of birds to put on my now-foundering July list. I specifically sought out spots where I was hoping to find a few more species of sparrows but didn’t have any luck in that department. I did find virtually every species of bird I’d already seen in July in one small area, but have no new species new to report.
Several of the missing species are surprises. Why am I not seeing any black vultures? Or catbirds? Heaven knows, mockingbirds are as thick as ticks this year. And where are the hummingbirds? My feeders have been empty all summer. Frankly, I thought last year’s July list was kind of thin, so I fully expected to top it in 2007. Instead, I am 4 species short of the 2006 list, with now little expectation that I will even reach last year’s dismal total.
So the results of my weekend ramblings were kind of mixed, the mission unfulfilled, even though the setting was outstanding and the weather exquisite for late July.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Odds and Ends

Yes, I did get a storm last evening, so the signs I saw in the early morning were true enough. The storm at the cabin was not as severe or as strong as I expected. Thunder boomed all around me, the wind picked up, and I did get some rain. However, when I looked at the radar, I saw I was in a tiny circle of only light bad weather, while the storms were severe just a very few miles to the north and south. In a way, I was lucky, though the mountain could sure have used more rain.

I took this photo last evening before the storm and the rain came through, just as the wind was rising. It was taken looking up my lane.

I've been organizing my 2007 cabin birding lists, which you can find here and here if I've set things up properly, by no means a certain thing. I will likely keep my cabin lists online for a while, at least until I get bored with doing it.

The morning the remanants of the storm are still hanging around, but it is already breezy and cooler, with the sky only just beginning to clear. With the weekend weather looking good, I'm hoping to spend some time deeper in the woods, on a few of the trails I don't get to walk regularly, just to see what's going on. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Sensing the Storm

I think today will be the day that a storm comes through. Weathermen have been promising it all week (and it hasn't gotten here yet). But to me, today feels like the day.
The sunrise was red, briefly, this morning. The color lasted but a few minutes, not long enough for me to rush back to the cabin for the camera. Dog was antsy and misbehaved, acting as though he'd never smelled a deer or seen other people before.
The air is thick, and I think I should have gills instead of lungs, as I feel as though I have to work twice as hard to suck the oxygen out of the water-logged air.
In fact, many of the forest animals seem more active this morning than is typical. I see rabbits, several deer, assorted gray squirrels and everything from mockingbirds to mourning doves plying the air around me. For all the world, it reminds me of people rushing to get their errands done before a big event. Only in this case, it's not a wedding or a vacation that's on the horizon, but a storm. I believe the forest more than I the weathermen. Today is the day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Summer Snowflake

Queen Anne’s lace is blooming now, another sign of mid-summer here in Pennsylvania. When you get as close for a photo as I did for this one this morning, you can see these are pretty complex little flowers. In my photo, only the flowerets on the outside of the bloom are fully out. The rest are still closed. To me, the close up resembles a snowflake in both its complexity and color.
It’s also a bit like a mandala or, perhaps, nature’s own maze. Whenever you think you’ve seen all there is to see, suddenly there’s another layer to it. Each "flower" is actually made up of many separate tiny stalklets, and on each little stalk is an array of individual blooms. Yet, when I’m not this close. I think of each as a single flower, instead of what must be thousands of little tiny flowers.
Nature’s complexity seems limitless, and even the tiniest and simplest of things is far more complex than we usually notice. But it’s always there, if we take the time to see.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Summer Morning (and Autumn Thoughts)

Ahhh, it feels good to be back at the cabin. Gettysburg is a medium-sized town, but it’s still a town, and in the middle of summer miles of tourists arrive to visit the battlefield. I don’t think I’m going to go back there during the tourist season anytime soon. I’ll wait until fall or winter, when only the ghosts remain.

This morning is a near-perfect summer morning in the woods. A nearby evening storm cleared out the soggy, high humidity, and this morning I was greeted by a calming summer breeze and clear skies.
And in only the 4-5 days I was away, the mornings are already different. It is darker now when I take Dog for his morning walk. For a few days, near solstice, the sun was already up around 5:30 a.m. Now, I can see an orange glow in the east, but the sun hasn’t yet made an appearance, and the the sky to the west is still quite dark.

The forest birds are much noisier than they were just a few days ago. The phoebe and the pewees are still the earliest risers. How did the robin get its reputation as an "early bird?" They don’t start their morning songs for nearly an hour after the pewees and the phoebes. The single cuckoo that I’ve heard but not seen all summer long calls every day, never in the same spot. Sometimes it is so far away I can barely hear it. Sometimes it’s close enough that I grab my binoculars and head out the door, but so far it has always moved further away again before I can spot it. I heard a chickadee last evening for the first time in what seems like months, though it’s really only been several weeks.

Dog and I take our morning walks around Roundtop’s snow-making ponds. I am ever hopeful that I will see a few common shorebirds, simply so I can add them to my local list. Southbound shorebird migration has started already, if not yet at full force, so my wish isn’t exactly a pipedream. Still, the water levels on the ponds are fairly high, and until that changes, my wish probably is a pipedream.

I looked at my 2007 Roundtop bird list last evening, and so far this year is not a stellar one. May was a decent month, but April and June were both less than normal. July still has potential (and enough days left in the month to see more species), but the pattern of this year has been that I likely won’t find the number of species that I often do. For the year, I am currently at 64 species, if my quick count is correct. By the end of the year, I should add 10-15 more species to that total to reach a normal year. In the past, often the semi-common transient birds that I missed during spring migration would be easily found during fall migration. Last year, that didn’t happen, and I am already wondering what the fall migration will bring—or won’t bring.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Back at the Cabin

Well, no this photo wasn't taken at the cabin. My conference was held in Gettysburg, just off the battlefield, so I couldn't resist taking a few photos while I was there. The first was taken from the middle of the wheatfield near the area of Pickett's Charge.

The second photo was taken on a hazy morning near the same area, but looking to the south. This was one of the staging areas for troops feeding into that charge.

While I was away from the mountain, the forest has now solidly moved into mid-summer. It's amazing how much change I can see in just 4-5 days. Normally, I think of summer as a bit static, with changes in the forest happening slowly. In summer, I think in terms of a week or two, not days. But that certainly wasn't true this past week.

The first thing I notice is that the green of the forest is now a deep emerald shade. Gone is the neon green of early summer. And as yet there's not even a glimmer of late summer, when the greens fade to a dull, brownish shade before turning the brilliant colors of fall.
The wildflowers that are blooming now are different too. The Queen Anne's lace is out, as is chicory. The beautiful farmer lilies are almost done for another year.
Bird life is changing too. For the first time is some time, I heard a great horned owl call again in the morning. Like most birds, they quiet during the time when they are raising their young. The owls actually nest in late winter, and the young ones are on their own by June, but it is only now that I'm hearing their calls again. The smaller woodland birds are starting to be more visible again too. I heard a chickadee yesterday, the first in weeks.
Tomorrow my photo(s) will be from the mountain again. I'm glad to be back in the peace and quiet of the woods. The conference was a good one, but nothing can compete with home.

Monday, July 09, 2007

It was a typical sleepy summer weekend in the woods this past weekend. The stormy rages at last week’s end are past, and only the 3H’s (hazy, hot and humid) remain. The only time the woods is active is in the early mornings before the temperature reduces everyone and everything to the proverbial dish rags.

That said, the early mornings here are still busy enough. Each morning Dog and I see deer. Perhaps because of the weather, they seem to wait longer to bounce away from us than is typical. So we get closer to them than we usually do, much to Dog’s delight. They flag their tails but don’t seem overly perturbed. I think they know we won’t give chase, and that this is little more than a game.

Baby Dog is smaller and finds groundhogs and rabbits more her style. Each morning we pass a groundhog’s hole, and she has taken to sneaking up on it and then freezing in a point. She is a Heinz 57 varieties kind of dog, and the only discernable species is a chow chow, which aren’t known, as far as I know, for their hunting or pointing ability. To see her suddenly freeze, one front foot folded neatly under her when she nears the hole, is my morning’s amusement.

I still haven’t seen any signs of baby animals venturing out on their own—except for a few rabbits. I’m convinced the foxes have a den of kits nearby, but I haven’t found it or seen the young ones yet. More surprising to me is that I haven’t seen any fawns yet, though I am sure they are also near.

Note: It will be light to no posting from me the rest of this week. I will be off the mountain and away from both forest and the computer at an annual conference for work. I’ll expect to be back next week on my normal Monday-Friday posting schedule. Till then, keep your eyes open, and I'll do the same.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Morning Moon

The torrential storms have passed for at least the next few days. This morning is bright and clear—no soupy haze to mar the view.

Early this morning Baby Dog and I walked out to Roundtop’s new pond so I could see some open sky. The moon shone above me in the dawning light. It looks as though it was all alone up there. The sky was already too bright to see the stars, and the result makes the moon look like a solitary watcher gazing down on earth. It seems a lonely goddess of the night, far away, with no companions of her own.

And then Baby Dog saw a rabbit and nearly jerked my arm out of its socket as she roared to the end of the leash. Dogs! What’s a body to do?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Mother Nature's Fireworks

Mother Nature put on her own fireworks display last night. I didn't even have to leave the mountain to see it. And apparently, one day of July 4 celebration wasn't enough for Mother Nature, so she's planning a repeat showing for tonight.
Virtually all yesterday afternoon southern Pennsylvania was under a tornado watch, and the day kind of had that feel about it--the woods were still, the air heavy, not a leaf moving most of the time. The sky was threatening all day, but it wasn't just the look of the sky that made me uneasy. When tornado potential is high, there's also a "something else," some ancient animal instinct, perhaps, that warns every sense in my body to watch out. The day had that feel of potential trouble to it, but on Roundtop it never progressed into a full-scale run-for-cover senstation of imminent danger.
In the evening one or two tornados were reported within 10-12 miles of me, but apparently none touched the ground, so no damage resulted. It's not just tornadoes that set off my own personal radar. I've had the same thing happen before hurricanes and very strong winter storms, too. I expect that sensation is likely some function of unusual and changing air pressure, if you want the logical and scientific explanation. However, I prefer to think of it as the same animal awareness that once warned my ancestors of danger and is today a small but real connection to the anonymous forebears of all of us.
This morning the woods are soupy with moisture, the building blocks for a repeat performance of yesterday's fireworks later today. You can see the "soup" in this morning's photo. Once I saw this photo next to one taken just 2-3 weeks ago, I also saw that the shade of green in the woods is already darkening from the bright green of spring to the deeper, richer shade of mid-summer. The wheel of the year is turning.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Summer Mornings in the Forest

Sometimes beauty comes in small packages. It’s easy to equate beauty with something as magnificent as the Grand Canyon. But I find beautiful things in smaller doses everywhere. This morning I found it in a small bunch of brown-eyed susans shooting color through the nearly monochromatic green surrounding it.

The weather here has been glorious the past several days, with lower temperatures and humidity. Perhaps as a result, the local animals have been more active and visible. This morning Dog and I saw several deer that watched us as we watched them until Dog stood on his hind legs to get a better view. That proved too much for them to stand so off they bounced.

Yesterday morning the foxes were barking again and woke me at 5 a.m., ending my night’s sleep. Usually, several times a week, I hear several barks in the early morning, sometimes closer, sometimes further away, as the local mated pair try to relocate each other after a night of hunting. It is, usually, just a few barks. Then they stop and quiet returns to the mountain. But Monday morning, the missing half did not answer or return for long minutes. The barking fox barked and barked, sometimes very loudly. After several minutes of this, Dog and Baby Dog could stand it no longer and joined the barking, which soon turned into howling. Eventually, I heard the answering fox bark from somewhere down in the valley. The near fox kept barking to give the mate a sound to home in on, and eventually they were reunited, to my great relief. I love sharing my corner of the woods with foxes, but I would appreciate them even more if they didn’t wake me up at 5 a.m. on a Monday morning. Such is life in the woods.

Monday, July 02, 2007

A Slight Interruption...

We interrupt this blog for a special announcement.

Wanderin’ Weeta, of the blog of the same name, has tagged me with the 8 facts meme. I don’t often participate in these things, but what the heck? It’s a holiday week and it’s a Monday, so that’s my excuse. The rules of this meme are that you have to post the rules before you post the answers. So here are the rules:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don't forget to leave them each a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Here goes:
1. I was the first person to hike the entire North Country Trail, some 3600 miles, back in 19xx (well, it was a while ago).
2. I hiked the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska/BC in the off-season, and the ranger told me if I didn’t find my own way out, they’d recover my bones in the spring.
3. The longest I’ve ever gone while hiking without getting a shower or washing my hair was 14 days.
4. I collect stereoviews of the Alaska gold rush. Many of the views haven’t changed much in the past 100 years.
5. I also collect pink luster china.
6. I’ve yet to see a bobcat in the wild, but I’ve lost count of the number of bears I’ve encountered.
7. My birding life list isn’t very big because I don’t get to travel nearly as much or as often as I’d like to. Plus, I’m not really into chasing birds just to see them. My yard list stands at 130 species, though.
8. I am the world’s worst housekeeper.

The next part of the meme is that I have to tag other folks’ blogs so they get to play this game, too. Also, it gives readers a chance to visit some other blogs.
1. First, I tag Cathy at The Quiet One. This is a blog from northern PA. She gets to see some and photograph some great things up there.
2. Next I tag Winterwoman, anther great photo and nature blog by a woman in upstate New York.
3. Also take a look at Beyond the Fields We Know from eastern Ontario.
4. Pablo from Roundtop Journal is another great nature blog that I read regularly
5. Laura of Somewhere in in New Jersey writes about nature in and near the Pine Barrens
6. Chicago Lady writes the one non-nature, non-outdoorsy blog I’m going to tag.
7. I’m also tagging Dogsled Stacie from Life in the Yukon with Dogs.
8. And last but not least, a good photo blog at The Farmer’s Wife.