Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What's old becomes new again

Sometimes I forget how loud snow can be. Before snow covers the ground and muffles the sound of the flakes that follow, the first snowflakes strike the fallen dry leaves on the forest floor. Those flakes are not silent, and at least when forest covers the land as far as I can see, they aren’t even particularly quiet.

This morning, my first thought when I stepped outside was that it was sleeting. But when I brushed my hand along the deck railing, soft, powdery snowflakes took to the air and danced around as lightly as confetti. Who would guess that something so light, so airy, so tiny as a snowflake could make as much noise as sleet? They do.

Perhaps it’s simply because the forest covers so much territory around the cabin that their sound is magnified that much. Perhaps it’s because the mornings here are so quiet and devoid of loud human noises that gentler sounds can predominate. Those two both contribute to how much I can hear around me, naturally, though I don’t think those are the sole causes. It’s simpler than that.

Dry, powdery snow falling on dry leaves is just noisy. It’s one of those things that I never noticed when I lived in a town surrounded by grassy yards. It’s also one of those things I tend to forget from year to year, so every new winter season brings a new revelation of remembering.
New years, new rememberings. What’s old becomes new again. The turn of the seasons is nature’s way of reminding us to remember again what we used to know and what we can know again. Nature’s gifts are ever boundlesss.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ice in the forest

Only a week and two days have passed since the shortest day of the year. Already, I notice the increasing minutes of daylight. In the morning before I leave for work, the light is already closer to day’s light than to night’s darkness. In the evenings, the sunset is officially just 4 minutes later than it was at Solstice, but the day’s light lingers to almost 5:30 p.m.

Somehow, that tiny amount seems like a small victory, the kind of relief that brings a contented sigh. "You’ve made it, again," are the unspoken words that seem to hang in the air. It hardly seems to matter that more winter lies ahead than is behind. It hardly seems to matter that winter’s hold will likely not ease much for another two months. Today it matters only that it’s no longer dark when I leave the house and dark when I return in the evening.

My photo today is another one from the Christmas Eve ice storm. My solar lights hang from the clothes line, but all you can really see is ice, ice and more ice.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Eve "presents"

As you will be able to tell from the photos I will be posting over the next few days, I’ve had a "bit" of ice. Christmas Eve turned out to be the diciest of the days, probably because I wasn’t anticipating problems. The forecast promised "no accumulation." The forecast promised temperatures of 40 degrees.

So between 7 and 8 a.m. the skies opened up, and freezing rain soon blanketed everything in less time than I would have guessed possible. And then the temperature didn’t rise, and didn’t rise, and didn’t rise. As you can imagine, the longer it went on without going above freezing, the worse I was starting to feel. I still had a bit of food to buy. I was supposed to be hosting a Christmas Eve party in the evening out at my parents’ farmhouse. The lane was more than a sheet of ice. It was panes of glass thick.

Around noontime one of the Roundtop boys tried to cinder the hill. It took him 3 pickup loads to make it past my cabin and then up to my neighbors’ A-frame. He stopped and we chatted as he inched his way back down the mountain. I think he was relieved to stop for a moment or two and take a few deep breaths. The road was that bad, and I could see white-knuckles. He'd been forced to take off his gloves to get a better grip on the steering wheel of the truck.

He promised to try and cinder my lane, but then he couldn’t get the whole way in and was eventually forced to give up. Fortunately for me, he was able to cinder the "intersection" between my drive and the lane, which turned out to be a huge help, little Christmas Even present.

I threw down an entire container of anti-skid between the intersection and where my car was parked. It’s a straight shot from there out to the lane, so I gunned the engine up to the lane, then turned a hard left and braked like crazy going down the hill and—I made it.

Once out, the situation improved. The temperature did, eventually, rise above freezing sometime late in the afternoon and then kept rising, even after dark. I like to think of that as another little Christmas Eve present, one that allowed my family to spend the evening together, eating and chatting and not doing much of anything. That was the best present of all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy holidays from Carolyn's Cabin

Wishing you the peace of a winter's day and the joy of nature's beauty this holiday and every day

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thoughts on a sunny morning

Although it was just 8 degrees at the cabin this morning, the brutal 40 mph wind has finally died down, and frankly, after yesterday, this morning feels almost balmy in comparison. Suddenly, 8 degrees is fine and glorious weather. The birds are already more active at the feeders this morning. The dogs no longer have their noses buried under their tails. The cats—okay, so the cats are still sleeping on top of me.

Yesterday’s weather kept the local woods residents as hunkered down as I was. Today, deer blink in the bright morning sun and step cautiously out of their hiding places. Squirrels arrived, hungry, to the bird feeders before the sun was up. It’s not only humans who appreciate a calmer day. I even heard a bluebird.

We share a lot with the animals who live on the earth with us. Often, I think, we don’t realize how similar we all are. Too often, we think of any animal other than humans as "them," a word that immediately points up our differences and ignores the similarities. If you’ve ever seen a doe gently nudge her new fawn or watch three young raccoons get into more trouble than their mother can deal with, the similarities suddenly become a lot more clear.

If all you see are the things that makes a hawk, say, different from a person, you won’t learn to appreciate the struggles of their lives. We may say that their killing another creature for food is cruel, especially when their prey is a "cute" animal, while we think nothing about eating that hamburger.

Nature is what it is: a system of life and death of which we are a part. Other animals, other plants are also partners of that system with us. We each have a place. We each have a role. We need to remember not to hog the stage.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Thoughts on an ice storm

Considering how much of the country is getting a major blast of winter at the moment, you’d probably prefer to see a photo of a nice, warm beach somewhere. Sorry. I don’t have any of those. I had an ice storm, just me and who knows how many other million people in the U.S.

After the ice, I had a bit of snow, then the temperature then dropped to 5F degrees, with a 40 mph wind. Suffice it to say that the dogs didn’t get much of a walk this morning. They didn’t seem to want one either, for which I am glad.

For me, in the cabin, weather extremes always seem more extreme or perhaps simply more immediate. When I get to work, everything there seems so normal and distanced from what’s going on up on the mountain. That’s always a bit of a shock to me.

Last night, the wind roared, the trees creaked, a few branches landed on the cabin’s roof or in my driveway. When I had to leave the cabin, I did so as quickly as possible, bolting out the doors so I didn’t let out any of my precious warmth. I worried about the pipes freezing—there’s something about a southwest wind hitting the corner of the cabin that sometimes causes me problems.

The cabin is warm, but sometimes I feel my hold on comfort is a fragile one, one that requires a lot of vigilance. I don’t mind that. In fact, I’m used to it, but there’s no doubt that living in the woods requires more from me during weather extremes than most people have to think about.

Staying connected to the natural world isn’t always all beauty and glory. It’s a bit about taking what comes and dealing with that. From my point of view, ignoring the reality of what’s going on in the natural world by never venturing out of our comfort lessens our ability to see life as it really is. To me life is too precious not to see as much of it as I can.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Go play in the woods

Winter days when snow cover is missing or light are great times to get into the forest and look for things. What things? It doesn’t matter. Look for whatever catches your eye and then learn more about it. I’m still working on figuring out what the fungus is on this downed tree. I think it’s a small turkey-tail fungus, one that hasn’t reached its full spread yet, but I might be wrong. The nice thing about living where I do is that I can go back tomorrow and check it again to see if looks any different than it did last weekend.

Although the forest is mostly brown right now and not particularly at a human’s version of its "prettiest" self, it’s a really perfect time to get out into the woods and look around. What makes now so special? For one thing, I don’t have much snow cover at the moment, so getting around the forest is easy. For another, all the seasonal growth and underbrush is down, so I can wander through the woods and not have to stay on a trail.

In the growing seasons, most eastern forests, Roundtop’s among them, have a goodly amount of underbrush. Sticking to a trail is virtually a necessity if you don’t want to come home covered with scratches. Fighting through underbrush is not fun. Plus, when you’re in the middle of it, you can’t really see much anyway.

In winter before snow covers the ground to any depth, but after several hard freezes have killed the undergrowth, wandering through the forest off the trail is the one time such wandering is easily possible.

Off trail, I get to look at new things. I pretty much know what I’m going to see along the trails. Oh, there are always surprises to be sure. But there’s a lot more surprises in those places I don’t see every day. Fifty yards off the trail and I’m in an entirely different place with entirely different things to look at.

Now this is the point where I have to say that if you’re going to wander off a trail, you need to be careful about what you’re doing. Maybe at first you’ll want to keep the trail in sight. That’s okay, there will still be plenty of new things to look at. Once you know an area a little better, you can try wandering a little further, simply by using a little common sense and developing your own sense of direction and observation a bit.

Probably the best way to not lose your way is as you’re wandering off the trail for the first time, take a moment to turn around and look behind you. That’s what you should see when you head back to the trail. A forest looks a lot different on your way out than on your way in, so pay attention to that.

Another simple way is to follow a landmark, say a creek. They always stay in the same place, so if it’s on your right on the way in, it should be on your left on the way out. If you walk downhill on the way in, your should be walking uphill on the way out. I know this sounds simplistic, but in these days of GPS systems, it bears mentioning.

I can’t tell you the number of people who get lost trying to find Ski Roundtop because they can’t read a map and apparently can’t follow their GPS either. I have drawers full of maps from all over the place, yet I know I’ve spent less on them over the past 30 years than one GPS system costs. Okay, so they take up more room. Big deal.

Happy Friday. Take a little time out from holiday preparations this weekend to go play in the woods. You’ll be glad you did.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Two roads

"Two roads diverged in a wood..."

I don’t think I’ve ever looked at this split in the woods road near my cabin without thinking of Robert Frost’s poem, "The Road Not Taken." Perhaps it’s how the snow covers the roads, perhaps it’s how the trees frame the snow-covered paths, but this morning, that poem seems even more apt.

Neither of these roads sees much traffic, and at the point where they split, one doesn’t look much different than the other. Unlike Frost, however, I have taken both paths at one time or another, and I can attest that their similarity ends here. The one continues along Roundtop’s access roads, the other grows ever narrower and winds down the mountain, eventually ending deep in the forest along Beaver Creek.

In a way, their ultimate difference only emphasizes the meaning of Frost’s poem: different paths lead to different outcomes. A choice that doesn’t seem like much of a choice at the point where you make it leads to a vastly different outcome. And because we can’t see where either path goes, we have to choose which path to take without knowing where it will end up.

Frost chose the path "less traveled by," but he also acknowledged that both worn about the same, so his choice of the one "less traveled" was perhaps more of a judgment call than an obvious choice. That’s how most of life is: a judgment call based on limited information. You do your best. You move on. You hope you did the right thing. Perhaps the important thing is that you recognize the choice when you make it and know it will lead to a different place than the other one, no matter which path you choose, even if the roads look the same at the point where they split.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mountain snow

A little snow, a little ice fell on the mountain yesterday. This photo comes from the earlier stages of the precipitation. By early evening I had about 4 inches of crunchy snow on the ground. After that some freezing drizzle fell, and the snow was compacted down.

This time I was lucky. The heavy icing that was predicted didn’t fall here. That isn’t to say I didn’t have any icing, only that what I had wasn’t too bad. I’ve seen far worse. Sometime during the night I lost power but I didn’t know about it until I woke up and saw the digital clocks flashing. So even that wasn’t too bad.

Yesterday afternoon the avian residents with whom I share this little corner of the forest emptied the feeders within an hour. I filled the feeders again and again and soon lost count of how many times I filled them.

For the first time this season, juncos carpeted my deck, all waiting quietly and patiently for their turns on the platform feeder. Until this storm, I’d seen juncos regularly at the feeders, but it’s always been just 2 or 3 at a time. When my deck is dark with juncos, I know winter and a storm has arrived.

Juncos are easier to count than many of my other visitors who flit in and out faster than I can keep track of them. Juncos just stand and wait their turn. And when they finish, they don’t disappear into the woods. They just go back to the deck railing or the deck itself and wait some more, waiting for their next round at the feeder.

Each of the species that visit the feeders has a distinctive species "birdsonality." Juncos come across as gentle and polite to me. Chickadees and titmice are rather hyperactive. Nuthatches are scrappy. Goldfinch seem a bit stolid. Blue jays are bold and brassy. Downy woodpeckers are focused.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Still life in winter

One thing I’d never fully appreciated until I started this blog is just how much the light changes throughout the year. When I take photos for Roundtop Ruminations, I archive the photos by month. When I look at my July photos, say, the light is visibly much different then than it is now. Although I was aware on some level that the light is weaker in winter than in summer, it’s quite another thing to see the evidence in my hands.

Today’s photo suggests just how weak natural light is near the winter solstice. I took this photo on Saturday afternoon, sometime between 2-3 p.m. The shadows are already rather long. The light is weak and pale, with little warmth, undistinguished. That’s the light of winter, when just a few degrees in the path of our sun changes the light and temperature across the earth.

The fern in this photo is a Christmas fern, so named because the plant’s fronds remain green through the winter. During Victorian times, the bright green fronds were used in Christmas decorations. Today, I find the color welcome in the vastness of brown that covers the mountain right now. Color is difficult to find at the moment, and any shade that isn’t brown stands out like a welcome beacon.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Saturday dawned clear and bright, an unexpected surprise when I stepped out of the bedroom and realized I could see for miles. I didn’t appreciate just how much I’d missed seeing my northwest to southern skyline until it stopped me dead in my tracks. It has been two full weeks since I’d seen that view. Two weeks since I saw sun bright enough to make me squint.

During the work week in these days of shortened daylight, I get used to leaving the cabin before it’s fully light and then not returning home until after dark. Last weekend was rainy, foggy and never got very light even during the day, so I couldn’t see much even when I was at home during the day. This weekend, the weather finally cleared, and suddenly I could see for miles again.

In another week, the light will pass the far turn and begin its slow increase again. Is it any wonder why the winter solstice was so celebrated by those who came before us? In the long eras before electricity, the long nights must have weighed very heavily on people. They didn’t have electric lights or full-spectrum lights or much of any lights at all to brighten the night’s long hours. We do have such things, and even so the thought of longer days to begin in just another week is enough to brighten my mood.

It’s no wonder to me that many calendars start the new year with the first coming of the longer days. The longer days mark a new beginning, a new revolution of the circle of the year. I think I will mark the occasion this year, too. I will light a candle for those who lived before, who lived before humans learned to push aside the darkness and for whom the coming of the year’s new light was a day of celebration. Today, I can understand why that was so important to them, and for this lesson, I will give thanks.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sleet and hibernation

For a few moments this morning, I toyed with the idea of simply running the same dark and foggy forest photo that I posted earlier this week. The mountain has looked the same for several days now. The only thing that’s different from that earlier photo, and you can’t see that anyway, is the temperature has dropped about 20 degrees.

Nearly three inches of rain and sleet have fallen here in the last 24 hours or so. Even when it was "warm" enough to rain, it was a bitter, biting rain that kept me from wanting to spend much time outside.

I ventured out with the dogs, feeling the sleet hurt my face with its tiny stabs of ice. At first I was surprised that didn’t seem to bother the dogs. Baby Dog, especially, hates to get wet and needs to be prodded even to walk through a tiny puddle. She didn’t seem to mind the sleet. I think her fur coat kept her from feeling its sting. I have no such protection for my face. I turned to face the opposite direction, but the sleet seemed to be coming from everywhere so even doing that didn’t help very much.

Instead, I holed up in the warm cabin, drinking tea, reading and generally feeling as snug as a squirrel in its warm and leafy nest. There’s something to be said for a little hibernation, at least occasionally. Still, I am ready for a little sunshine. I don’t think I could ever be one of those all-winter hibernators, like bats or frogs. I’m more like a bad weather hibernator, a raccoon, perhaps.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Losing the lights

Last night I’d no sooner gotten home from work and briefly run the dogs when my electricity went out. I don’t think I’d even gotten my coat off. I’m used to dealing with frequent power outages. I don’t understand why I have them so frequently, but I’m used to them.

I keep the lanterns, the hurricane lamps and candles handy. They are a permanent part of my cabin décor. I reported the outage to the power company who told me it would be fixed in about 90 minutes. That didn’t sound too bad, so I decided to wait to prepare dinner. I keep food handy that doesn’t need to be heated or refrigerated, but it’s not very exciting stuff. I know my refrigerator will keep the food in it for at least 48 hours if I don’t open the door, so I wasn’t about to start opening the refrigerator door. I have my backpacking stove and assorted freeze-dried and emergency food, but I don’t like to use that for short-term events, preferring to save it for more serious or long-term outages.

My neighbor down the mountain started his generator. My neighbor up the mountain called out for pizza. Ninety minutes came and went, and I had no sign of returning power. I called the power company again. Oh, they said. You’ll have power by 8:30 (another 90 minutes).

So, I gathered an apple, an energy bar, some crackers and peanut butter and had dinner. The cabin is tight, and the weather outside was still in the mid-40’s, so I was perfectly comfortable. The inside temperature only dropped a single degree. I settled down with that book I haven’t found the time to read much lately.

Eventually, I looked at the clock. It said 8:30 and I still didn’t have power. So I called the power company for an update. Oh, they said. You’ll have power by 10 p.m. (yet another 90 minutes). Are you starting to notice a trend here? So was I. I went back to reading my book by candlelight.
I finally finished my book and then it was 10 p.m. Can you guess what happened next? Right. I still didn’t have power. And the power company reported—you guessed it—that I would have power by 11:30 p.m.

So now it was time to think about getting ready for bed. I used a bit of my stored water to wash and give the dogs fresh water. Then it was time to open the cabin door, let out some of the precious warmth and run the dogs for the last time. I put on my headlamp. I gave both dogs stern warnings. Tonight, there would be no tom-foolery. We were to exit the door quickly and calmly and then they were to wait nicely while I closed the door behind me. Re-entry was to follow a similar pattern. They wagged their tails politely. Amazingly, I had compliance.

Back inside I got ready for bed. I set my wind-up alarm clock for morning. I put on my pajamas, sat on the bed, removed my flip flops and was leaning back into the bed when---the power came back on. Well, at least I won’t need that extra blanket I laid out in case the cabin cooled over night. And, I finally finished that book. I’ve said it before, but it’s still true. There’s never a dull moment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Total confusion

Not more than a week or so ago, I complained about how gloomy one particular morning was. I was wrong. That was nothing. This is gloom.

The weather this week may take the cake for its extremes. Snow and temperatures down to 14F, followed 36 hours later by rain, fog and 55F. Don’t like it? Well, tonight the temperature drops again and will bring rain, sleet, ice and snow. Whatever I decide to wear in the morning, I need something entirely different by afternoon. It’s pretty funny, actually.

Two days ago I wore my parka and snowboarding pants. Last night I stepped outside the cabin in a light rain jacket and flip flops. I smelled rain and a skunk, which I thought would have been in hibernation by now. Perhaps it was, until the warmer temperatures woke it up for a day or so.

Tomorrow I will need the parka again. I can’t keep track. At this rate I’ll soon end up in a parka and flip-flops.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

I don't get grass

Today’s photo is my front "yard." Actually, I call this my front forest. There really isn’t a commonly used phrase that replaces the word yard but that describes what I have. If I say the word yard, the rest of the world will picture grass. I don’t do grass. This is what I have where a yard would be if I had one.

I do have some decent boulders around the back of the property, but I think these particular rocks were moved from their original spots, where they had been for unknown millions or billions of years, when the cabin was built. These rocks look as though they are sitting on top of the ground, not "growing" up out of it; that’s why I think they were moved to this spot.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood the whole "yard" thing. What’s the point of having grass? I don’t get it. Even if I lived somewhere that came with a yard, my mission would be to get rid of it. I would either have 100% garden or natural landscaping or, if I lived someplace that would allow it, I would revert my new yard to a forest. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people build a log cabin in the forest, and as soon as they move in, they cut down the forest and put in a yard. Why would you move to a forest and then make it look like a subdivision? I just don’t get it.

And another thing: grass is so boring. It’s a plant monoculture. Grass doesn’t really support much of anything that’s part of the natural world. Whether it’s birds or insects or animals, a varied landscape creates more variety. But obviously, I’m almost alone in this thought process, because people are really, really into their yards.

And another thing: you have to mow grass. What’s up with that? I never have to mow my forest. I can just go out into the front forest and enjoy it. I don’t have to trim it, mow it, buy expensive lawn equipment or anything.

I just don’t get grass.

As you can see, I received a bit of new snow. This photo was taken as the snow was still falling. I actually ended up with about an inch of new snow. Doesn’t my front forest look great in the snow? I think so.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Winter is arriving a bit early to Roundtop this year. Although 15 is not a record low temperature for this time of year by at least 10 degrees or so, when you combine 15 degrees with a 25 mph wind, it feels pretty darn cold. I dug out my parka and my waterproof snowboarding pants, which are a great windbreaker. I could barely move but at least I was warm!

Saturday night brought a little natural snow to the mountain, not much but enough to cause a lot of traffic accidents. The wind and the snow made visibility almost zero. At my cabin, the car was parked. Unfortunately, the dogs weren’t. I’d love to know what it is about snow that makes the dogs so wild. Baby Dog is the worst. Snow makes her deaf and wild. She doesn’t listen to anything I say. She runs from one end of the flexi-lead to the other with a crazed, happy look in her eye. Then she reaches the end of the lead and doesn’t bother to stop until my arm is nearly jerked out of its socket. You’d think it would hurt her neck, too, but you’d never know it by the number of times she pulls this stunt.

The ski resort has blown snow all weekend, making new snow 24 hours a day. Sometimes I hear the distant sound of snow guns when I’m out with the dogs, but mostly this weekend’s wind drowned out that sound. It was the kind of weather that makes me want to hunker down in the cabin and not go anyplace. I think I’ll wait for a day when the wind is calm to head down into the woods again. The cold I love but that wind can go someplace else!

Happy Friday

This week was such a busy one for me that I’ve barely had time to notice what’s going on around my cabin doors. This morning, I finally had a chance to draw a deep breath and look around. That’s when I saw the sun rise this morning. Finally, something that stopped me in my busy tracks.

The shaft of light below the sun is a bit of a lower sun pillar. Sun pillars can be either above or below the sun, sometimes both. Usually, lower sun pillars are less common. A sunrise or sunset that’s partially shrouded by clouds, as is this one, is when you see sun pillars. They are caused by light reflected from ice or fog crystals. You can sometimes see them with the moon, too, and even with street lights under certain conditions.

The coldest weather of the season so far is now moving in across my mountain. I am finally as ready as I am going to be for winter. I was a bit lulled into thinking I had more time by the milder falls of the past few years. This year the weather is more typical again, which means I don’t have until early December before winter throws its first punch. This week I was racing to finish all my outdoor cabin work and projects ahead of the weather. I promise not to let things slide so late in the year again. Now I am finally done. Let the winter begin!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Got acorns? Mostly no

Roundtop Mtn. has that pre-snowfall, post-November gloomy look to it this morning. Clouds darken the sky and everything has that same flat shade of bark brown. Four deer stood among the trees this morning just off the road, and I almost didn’t see them. They were exactly the same shade of brown as the trees.

Locally, I’ve heard a sudden concern over a lack of acorns. So far, biologists are just starting to realize that this isn’t a local event but something that’s being seen pretty commonly throughout many areas of the country. No one seems to know what is causing it. Some say a wet spring is the culprit. Some say it’s just a normal low-end of the acorn cycle. Some fear climate change.

I don’t have many acorns either, though I had some. I do know that oaks, even when they drop acorns, don’t commonly produce viable seedlings from those acorns. It can be 15-20 years, I’ve read, before you reach a season that results in many new oak seedlings.

Some people are worried the squirrels will starve to death. I can’t see that happening here. I see squirrels every day carrying huge walnuts from one side of the road to the other. They seem to be finding plenty of those. I haven’t seen many hickory nuts this year, which in my part of the woods seems even more noticeable than the lack of acorns.

Deer rely heavily on such nuts during winter, and if any animal is going to be hurt by the lack of nuts, I expect it will be the deer. This would be especially true if the winter turns out to be a severe one, which I’m still thinking is a possibility. With no moderating influences from El Nino or La Nina this year, a severe or at least a normal winter wouldn’t surprise me. And in fact, both the summer and fall here have tended toward cooler rather than warmer temperatures.

In any event, for the moment, noticing the lack of acorns and other nuts is the first step towards finding out what there aren’t many. This is something I expect we will learn more about as more people investigate. For now, the squirrels are busy emptying my bird feeders, and the deer are enjoying the apples I throw out for them. I’m doing my part to see they make it through the winter, acorns or no.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hail or sleet?...and drama in the morning woods

Yesterday afternoon, I suddenly heard a racket on the roof like I’ve never heard here before. I first thought it was the mother of all sudden rainstorms, but when I looked out the door I saw large icy things bouncing to the ground. I first thought "huge sleet" and then, "no, hail." So which is it? I had to check my weather definitions to be sure, and even after doing that I still think I had both. I think the first few seconds of the bouncing, large icy things was hail. Then after a minute or two, the large icy things were not longer quite as large, and they might have been sleet.

Sleet forms after it falls from a cloud. Hail is formed inside a cloud when water is forced upward, usually by a thunderstorm cloud. Typically, hail comes in warmer weather and sleet in winter. We did have a clap or two of thunder when this brief but intense storm first came through. I think we went from hail to sleet to rain, all in the space of less than five minutes. Yesterday was one of those wild weather events.

Does Dog look guilty to you? He should. And even if he does, he doesn’t look nearly guilty enough. As I reported yesterday, rifle deer season opened in Pennsylvania Monday morning, bringing hunters up my private lane and past the cabin. So, the dogs are not being walked beyond the driveway to the cabin for a bit. As a result, I am now the unproud owner of two wild, exercise-deprived dogs. This morning Dog showed me just how bad a thing this can be.

So it’s just after 5:30 a.m. and the two of us are walking along the driveway when one of the hunters, in a big red pickup slowly starts to inch his way up the lane. In the first place, Dog hates vehicles, and more than that, he hates vehicles other than mine coming up the lane and worst of all, he hates pickups. A pickup coming up the lane towards the driveway to the cabin is the worst of all possible evils to him. So Dog goes wild. He lunges against the leash and won’t stop. Before I know it, he has pulled the leash out of my hands and goes running up the lane after the pickup.

There I am in the complete darkness of early morning, hurrying up the mountain on the second day of buck season, chasing a dog who’s chasing a big red pickup. I yell for Dog to stop. That does no good. I try to call him to me. That does no good. I keep heading up the road, yelling for Dog, hoping the pickup guy, who at this point probably doesn’t even know Dog is chasing him, isn’t planning to hunt over in the next county. Near the top of the mountain, as I am running out of breath, the road reaches an abandoned ski slope, and along this grassy area I see the pickup guy stuck inside his truck because Dog won’t let him out.

I grab Dog, who still needs to be dragged away. In his mind, he’s caught the pickup, it's now his, and he isn’t going to give it up. I apologize profusely to the guy who was hoping to sneak into the mountain to go deer hunting, and pull Dog back down towards the cabin. And all this before 6 a.m. in the morning. Drama like this I don’t need.

I probably ruined that poor guy’s day of hunting. The deer around the cabin are used to humans, though, so perhaps to them it was no big deal. Life in the big woods—there’s never a dull moment.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Ramblings on a foggy morning

My view of the mountains to the west of the cabin is completely back now. A lot of folks might not think this is anything spectacular, but after being encased in green leaves that kept me from seeing past the large oak in the foreground for six months, I think it’s pretty special. Even though I only have a view for the coldest months of the year, I will still sometimes wrap myself in a warm blanket, grab a hot chocolate and plunk myself in a chair on the back deck to watch the sun set in the west.

This morning the fog was thick enough to slice for breakfast toast. I couldn’t see anything, even with the headlamp I use when I walk the dogs. The weekend brought a cold, wet rain to my woods, the kind that is bone-chilling no matter how many layers I wear. Sunday morning it was sleeting for a few hours, and even after the precipitation turned to rain, it only did so by a degree or two.

Today marks the opening of Pennsylvania’s rifle deer season. As a result, the dogs didn’t get a walk out of the driveway this morning. Although the season is open for 2 weeks, the first 3 days and the weekends are the busiest times. Still, by the time the hunters no longer drive past the cabin in the pre-dawn hours, I will likely have two exercise-starved crazy dogs to deal with. For that reason, I am always glad when the activity of this season abates. Baby Dog doesn’t look anything like a deer, but Dog has been thought to be everything from a bear to a wolf to a deer, at not very great distances by people who should know better. So I take no chances.

For now, I will stay close to the cabin and wait for the fog to lift, wait for the hunters to move on and wait for the weather to clear before I wander deep into the woods again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday helpings

Today’s photo is the last of my "first snow" photos, and likely my last blog post for a few days. With the upcoming holiday, I’ll be doing holiday things for a day or so and then outdoor things for another day or so. I’ll be back to regular posts by Monday, perhaps earlier if the internet connection and time allows. Roundtop will open for skiing this weekend, too, so I will be busy!

And if I don’t already have enough to do, I’ve signed up again for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch after a few years of not reporting my data. I enjoy participating in this project but when I’m pretty sure my winter will be too busy to do it justice, I don’t sign up. This year I’m not certain I’ll have enough time, but I’m going to try anyway.

Activity at my feeders is starting to pick up. I have almost all my "regulars" in attendance this year. The only one I haven’t yet seen at the feeder itself is the Carolina wren that I hear singing down by the brushy edge of the woods. The rest of the usual gang pigs out every morning. In fact, I hear the titmice call as soon as I open the back door, announcing the arrival of food to the entire forest before it even hits the bird feeder.

I’ve made an addition, perhaps a temporary one, to my bird feeding regimen. The local garden center is now selling mealy worms and I picked up a plastic tin (about 2 cups at $9.99) for my birds. They are thrilled, but since this is expensive caviar-grade stuff, my largesse may not last through the winter. I dole it out in palm-sized daily amounts. The rest of my bird food is the same: suet, sunflower seeds, thistle, safflower seeds and the "Woodpecker" mix of nuts and seeds from a seed manufacturer. This combination results in happy birds and little wasted food. Virtually everything is eaten, and there’s no millet involved.

I have two tube feeders and a platform feeding station. I’d put out more tubes, except that the white oak tree over the feeders doesn’t have any other low-hanging branches to hang more from. The platform feeder actually hangs on my deck, not the deck railing but on a hanging iron plant stand that has a round base. I have to weigh the base down with stones to keep it standing, but it usually does keep standing, though sometimes a very heavy squirrel, leaping from some distance or just overly klutzy, will knock it down. That hasn’t happened, though, since I added yet another stone atop the base.

So, I hope everyone has a happy Thanksgiving and enjoys a long holiday weekend. I’ll make sure the feeder birds get an extra helping of mealy worms for the holiday, and you go ahead and have that second piece of pumpkin pie, too. It’s okay.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Outdated (and a tale from the woods)

My snow photographs that I took on Sunday are outdated already. Last night I had almost half an inch of rain, so this morning the snow is gone. I am not surprised, really. This is November, after all. November is perhaps the most variable month of the year here. In the space of 24 hours I went from a morning low of 18 degrees to a temperature in the mid-40’s.

I’d love to be posting a photo of the red fox that was sniffing around just 10-15 feet from the end of my back deck. But I was afraid if I moved to go get the camera that it would run off. At the time I was watching my bird feeders, where the activity is finally picking up, when the fox trotted into what would be my back yard if I had a yard instead of a forest.

The fox nosed around, calmly checking out the territory with the aura of an animal who’d been there before. It casually looked under leaves, poked around sticks and branches. A couple of times it stopped and looked right towards me, and we made eye contact through the picture window. That didn’t bother it. It would just check every several seconds to make sure I wasn’t doing anything it didn’t like. Then it would go back to checking out the territory.

At the time, it was perhaps 10-15 minutes before sunset. The sky was cloudy and already darkening but still light enough for me to watch the fox for several minutes. I wondered what it was up to. Then I remembered I had tossed a few apples that were past the point where I wanted to eat them out into the back woods for the local deer. After watching the fox, I’m thinking the deer never got them.

The fox continued its activity, and eventually it got so close that I couldn’t see it any longer. I think it trotted under the cabin (which is raised several feet off the ground), taking the short cut back in the direction it came from. My guess is that it had one more stop before reaching its den. I’ve also seen it by my neighbor’s carport, where he keeps (and uses) his grill. I wonder if he knows??

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's this about?

I thought an arty-type snow photo of this pretty, old stone bridge along Beaver Creek would be a good addition to my early snow photos. The bridge and the dirt road beyond it is closed for all but private use, and I just love the look of the straight lane disappearing into the woods. But as is so often the case, once I got to the bridge, I saw something more interesting than a simple arty-type photo.

Can you see it? Look at the bridge itself. Rabbit tracks hop along the length of it. The sides of the bridge are about 2.5 feet high, though they are somewhat sloped where the it starts. Sometime after the little mini-snow fell, a rabbit jumped up on the bridge and followed the wide stone side of it for the entire length of the bridge. What’s that about?

This rabbit could easily have crossed the bridge and stayed firmly on the ground. Instead, it decided to take the route with a view. I can’t help but wonder why it did. What was going through that little rabbit brain? I would have guessed it would be more easily seen up there by the red-tailed hawks that patrol the valley. In any event, this particular rabbit followed the edge of the bridge, hopped off at the end and disappeared into where I didn’t follow.

I am left with yet another of nature’s mysteries, one I will never solve. I enjoy the idea of a curious rabbit with a hankering to explore its world from a different point of view and taking the chance to do so when the opportunity presented itself.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Snow! This is what greeted me when I stepped out of the cabin this morning. This truly counts as an actual dusting of snow, not a pretend dusting like I had yesterday morning. For most of this week the sky has looked like snow, and I’ve seen flurries and flakes almost every day. But since nothing much was coming out of the sky, I’d gotten out of the habit of expecting it to amount to anything.

Then around 4 a.m. I woke up and saw into the forest from my bed. The woods looked light, almost as though the sun was soon coming up. I think it was this false dawn that woke me up. I knew as soon as I looked out that it was snowing. When it snows in the woods at night, the sky turns a pale shade of tin gray that I only see in winter. This is the snow sky, and as the clouds lower, they brighten the surrounding forest even before the first flakes cover the ground.

Later, after I’d gotten up, I could see the snow was heavy enough to coat the decks and this year’s leaves that fell only last week. The dogs even tried to run through the snow with their noses acting like a snow plow. That didn’t quite work. Maybe next time.

Snowmaking at Roundtop will start tonight, which will likely make the season’s opening sometime over Thanksgiving weekend, though it will be several more days before we can yet know a precise date. Winter is arriving, one little step at a time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A tiny little step

I had a little bit of snow last night. As you can tell from today’s photo, it was a really little bit. I don’t think it’s enough to call it a dusting, though it would have dusted if I’d had a bit more of it. The biggest news about this little snow is simply that the ground here on Roundtop is now cold enough for the snow to lay there and not melt the instant a flake hits it. One step closer to winter.

Actually, the entire year is a series of these little tiny steps, one step closer to this season, one step further from that one. Occasionally, the steps moving closer or further from a season are big ones, but that’s not the most common way a year turns. Usually the steps are tiny, and sometimes they are almost too tiny to notice.

I’ve always loved looking for these tiny steps. I hate it when I don’t notice a change until it’s such a big one that it slaps me in the face. Those make me feel as though I’ve been asleep at the switch and probably deserve that slap. They also make me wonder what else I’ve missed.

Sometimes in our daily lives, nothing much does change, so it’s easy to get lulled into not noticing little changes anywhere around us. The furniture is still in the same spot it was yesterday. The car is the same one you’ve had for years. We get out of the habit of looking for change.

The natural world reminds me that change is always happening, and those changes are noticeable if you take a few moments to look for them. Paying attention to the little changes around me usually makes the bigger ones seem less of a surprise. I can see them coming.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Last night snowflakes swirled around the cabin for several hours. The flakes were enough for me to count them as an actual flurry. Last week I had a few flakes, too, but you had to be on high alert to be quick enough to see them. Not last night. The flakes tickled my face and were thick enough to obscure the more distant trees of the forest, if only briefly.

Perhaps that little bit of snow is what feeds the restlessness I feel. I am not the only one to feel it, though. The dogs misbehave in the crisp weather and seem to have a renewed energy they can’t contain in good behavior. I am impatient when chores or work force me to stay inside and don’t seem able to settle until I am outside. And then I have to force myself to stay in the moment and not let the cares of daily life intrude on this precious time.

Sometimes I never do slow down. I can’t find that comforting groove where the minutes seem long and precious, and each moment is an experience to treasure. I try to let it go, that restlessness, that urge to hop to the next chore or the next thought. Sometimes I am successful. And sometimes I swirl like the wind-tossed snowflakes and never alight.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Since I started this blog a few years ago, I’ve posted a "frost" photo at least once each fall. Here is the one for 2008. It’s been cold enough here for a frost multiple times this year. However, each time it was cold enough, it was also dry, so there wasn’t much to see. This morning, though, the frost was on the grass and fallen leaves and drew my eye as I was leaving the cabin.

I finally had a northern cardinal at the feeders this morning, so I am relieved that they are still around. So far, I’ve only seen one male and not the multiple pairs of last year, but that may well change before the first snow flies.

I’ve also seen what I’ve suspected for some time: I have at least two male red-bellied woodpeckers at the feeders. Today was the first time I saw both at the same time to confirm that there are two.

Roundtop hasn’t yet made any snow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they began doing that before this week is out. I’ve been working down at the lodge for the past few weekends now doing the usual pre-season work. That always gets me in the mood to see snow on the mountain (and at the cabin!) again. I do have hopes that this year might actually be a real winter here. For the first time in 7-8-9 years, there’s no El Niño or La Niño effect to moderate the weather, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this year might be a good one. I hope so. I’m ready (I hope).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Leaves down

The annual nature show called autumn is officially over here on Roundtop. All the leaves are down (and brown, too) and the sky is gray. This time of year is often challenging to photograph. Colors are limited to various shades of brown, and the light is so variable that what looks gorgeous one minute turns dull and drab in the time it takes to raise the camera to my eye. It takes me a while to adjust after the brilliance of just a week ago.

My outdoor forays were unusually limited this weekend. Heavy rain kept me inside most of Saturday, and the tornado watch kept me with one ear focused the radio much of the time. Sunday boasted gale-force winds much of the time, and those doesn’t make me want to rush outside and play. So I spent an inordinate amount of time inside and watching the birds at my feeders.

The new bird-feeding season is starting out quite a bit different than usual. So far, I haven’t seen a single northern cardinal. Usually I have 4-6 of them. Are they gone? Are they still finding food on their own? So far it’s a mystery. I also haven’t seen a Carolina wren this fall feeding season, though it’s possible I have simply missed them. They were never the most regular of my visitors.

The rest of my diners are pretty much the usual suspects, though titmice and chickadees of both the Carolina and black-capped variety seem a bit more abundant than average. The white-breasted nuthatch is furiously defending the feeder from all but the bigger birds—like the blue jays and red-bellied woodpecker. I haven’t actually seen the downy woodpecker in the feeder yet, but it is feeding on branches all around. Yesterday I had the first goldfinch that I’ve seen. It ignored the thistle tube (perhaps because of the wind) and fed in the platform feeder instead.

So far, I have had no unusual suspects at the feeders, but the season is early yet. Once the first snow dusts the mountain, I typically get all sorts of birds who ignored the feeders before the snow fall. Last night, snow flurries tickled my face as I walked the dogs after dark. It won’t be long.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Today's photo is one I took only a litte more than a week ago. Today, the same view is barren of leaves, with just a few brown stragglers hanging on. To me, it feels as though the forest takes forever for its color change to progress past the first few leaves. Then the blaze of color that is so breathtaking is gone within a day or two. Blink and you miss it. Even if you don't blink, it's gone quickly.

Some of these same leaves, no doubt, now fill my rain gutters and cover both decks. Leaves also find their way into the cabin, hiding under the kitchen table or sometimes right out there in the middle of the living room. Every time I open the door, one or two of them trails in behind me and the dogs, like stray puppies who are determined to adopt you as their family. The leaves are everywhere and get into everything--just like puppies. The other day I found one atop my bed, and I'm still trying to figure that one out. Maybe I can blame it on the cats.

Should I have a dry winter, the leaf problem will remain with me throughout. Rain weighs them down, but as soon as the surroundings dry again, the leaves are skittering back into the cabin. Snow is the best thing to stop their constant parade. Once covered by snow, they become earthbound, usually for good.

By spring, after three months under a snowy blanket, the composting process is well underway, turning last year's leaves into good soil to sustain the forest and foster new growth. The cycle will then start all over again. For now, I just need to clean the rain gutters.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ancient history

This photograph was taken on Sunday afternoon looking up the road past my cabin, but already the photo is "ancient history." The color is gone. Indeed, the leaves are gone. The only shade left on the few remaining leaves is brown. Sometimes I’m shocked by just how fast the forest around me can change. And yet, this view is also a glimpse of a truly ancient history.

Leaves fall every autumn. Every autumn. Every year. The trees that line my lane are older than I am and will live long past my own span. The trees that cover this mountain are the direct descendents of trees that have covered this mountain for untold lifespans of other humans and for untold eons before humans first set foot here.

They are a living link back into the dimmest days of the pre-history of our planet. When I look at them, I can imagine the first humans who walked here. I can imagine a forest before people ever stood here. I can imagine the change of seasons and the quiet that then covered these hills.

Nothing else can tie us to the past as directly as the trees. Fossils of formerly living creatures are now simply interesting stone imprints. But the trees are living reminders of what has gone before. A reminder I can touch every day, a reminder that changes before me every day, a reminder that teaches me every day what history really is and that today is only today.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wordless Wednesday

I'm away from the computer today, so I thought I'd leave you with just a photo. I like how the tree limb is bending gracefully over this boulder. It almost looks sheltering.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Monday sunlight and evening moonlight

I took today’s photo on Monday morning as I was leaving the cover of the mountain. The view is to the west, of the range across the valley. I was taken with how the morning sun basked the range in light under a cloudy sky.

Last night I drove back to the cabin after dark, under the light of a clear sky and nearly full moon. A white-tailed deer calmly trotted from the edge of one of the snowmaking ponds, across the driveway in front of me and into the edge of the woods.

I stopped to let her pass and watched her walk towards the woods. She didn’t even raise her tail in alarm. Then I saw where she was heading; two other deer, already curled up and laying down in the leaves, were not more than 20 feet off the road. They were as brown as the leaves and nearly invisible among them. They were unconcerned as I drove slowly by and didn't even stand up. One twitched its ears. They looked perfectly comfortable on their leafy mattresses. I didn't linger but inched by slowly. I hope I didn’t disturb them. They looked so comfortable. I don't think I did.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Leaves falling down

This is the last photo I will post of good fall color around Roundtop. The leaves are nearly all down today. A few days with a slight breeze was all it took to take the leaves from good color to brown to on the ground.

And in just that little space of time, suddenly I have lots of natural light at the cabin! Even on a cloudy night, as last night was, it seems almost bright at night because I can see the sky. I look forward to the falling of the leaves every year simply because I enjoy the added light so much.

The leaves are ankle deep on my decks, even though I swept them clean both days of the weekend. By the next morning, it didn’t look as though I’d done any sweeping. If there’s one constant about living in the woods, with the forest coming right up to the doors, it’s that I will never get ahead of the leaves.

This morning as I left the cabin, I waded through the leaves again. If I hadn’t swept them off the decks, I would be shin high in leaves. And that could happen before the end of the week, as I have a busy week ahead and will likely not have much time to spend at the cabin, let alone time to sweep the leaves.

You might think that once the leaves are down, my leaf sweeping regimen would end. That’s not true. As long as the leaves are dry, the slightest breeze will toss them about, and somehow they will end up on the decks again. It’s only when the leaves are wet or buried under snow that they’re not finding their way onto my deck. Sweeping leaves is not nearly as bad as mowing grass, at least in my mind, but it’s also something that needs to be done more frequently and for longer during the year. That doesn’t mean I’d prefer mowing grass. Not at all. Not for a moment.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Missing the daylight

As much as I like the weather of the cooler seasons, I also find it a bit frustrating sometimes. Here I am living in the woods, amongst all this beauty and natural life, and I don’t get to see it very often right now. In the evenings, I’m racing to get home while there’s still some light in the sky. Lately, I haven’t been making it. The sun is already behind the mountain, and woods around me are the monochromatic colors of dusk by the time I pull into the driveway. The birds are already quiet and roosting. In the mornings, it’s not much better, especially on these overcast mornings.

When I’m lucky, the mornings are not too early for the chickadees or the titmice to visit the feeder, but I get to see only a few of them before it’s time to head to work. It’s certainly too early in the morning for me to see the feeders when they are their most active. And I know the birds do show up eventually because the feeders empty so quickly.

It’s frustrating to live here and yet still not be able to spend much time in the woods or even see what’s in the woods much during the week. I can’t imagine how much greater my frustration would be if I lived in a town or a city where I would have to travel just to visit where I live. During this time of year, when the hours of daylight are short, even attempting to visit a natural area during the work week would be out of the question for a city dweller.

So is it any wonder that so many people are nature-deprived? It’s not just children who suffer from a "nature deficit disorder." Some days, even I feel that way.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Leaves of change

Autumn leaves around my cabin come in all colors, though yellow is the most predominant. This year, there’s a healthy dose of orange in there too. Red remains the least common of the colors I see. Since Sunday, when I took this photo, the colors are already fading. Oh, the brilliance of autumn lasts too short a time.

Overnight, as I lay in bed trying to fall asleep after staying up too late to watch election returns, a little sprinkle dampened the woods, and the leaves started to fall, more with each drop of rain. Sometimes it didn’t even take a drizzle or a breeze. They just dropped, waflting past my bedroom window, slowly falling to the ground. It was simply their time to go. In another few days, a week at the most, they will all be gone.

I love winter and look forward to it each year with all my heart, but I will miss the brilliant colors of autumn and wish they would stay just a little longer.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Color on the mountain

I took today’s photo on Sunday morning. This spot is about 100 yards behind the cabin. I can’t see this view from the cabin as the leaves are still hiding it. Nell’s Hill is the closest hill. The further hills are the next range across the valley. Just two days later the colors are already fading. The next half-decent rain or bit of wind will bring them all down.

Waterfowl migration is ongoing right now. I saw three buffleheads on the new pond the other day, an uncommon species here on the mountain. It’s only since the new pond went in that I’ve gotten to see a few species of waterfowl on the mountain, other than a few lost souls once or twice a year. The new pond has been great for my "yard" list of birds spotted on the mountain. I pretty much reached the limit of seeing the woodland species that show up here years ago. Several years passed without seeing any new species until the new pond was built. So now, my local list of birds seen on the mountain is inching up again, and if it’s moving at a glacial pace, at least it’s no longer static.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Great fall colors

I don’t often get to ride the ski lifts on a pleasant fall afternoon, but I did this weekend. Roundtop was holding its annual ski swap, and one of the ski lifts was open for rides. The fall color was past the peak of brightness, but it made up for that with every leaf on every tree now showing color. Saturday was a tad hazy but the views were still great.

Riding the ski lift is fun, and the round trip only took about 15 minutes. A lot of people rode the lift up the mountain and then opted to walk down, but I can walk down the mountain any day I want to, and I was hoping the added elevation of the lift would allow for a slightly different perspective on the views.

The leaves have arrived at the point where the next rain or decent wind storm will bring down almost all of them. Tuesday and Wednesday shows a chance for drizzle, which probably won’t be enough to do the trick. Saturday might bring a storm strong enough to do it. I’ll keep hoping.

Each day more and more juncos arrive, though they either haven’t found my feeders yet or they’re not yet hungry enough to want to visit the feeder. Right now I have only the forest regulars—titmice, chickadees of both the Carolina and Black-capped species, white-breasted nuthatch, downy woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. For some reason, I haven’t yet seen a cardinal at the feeders, and the goldfinch have been ignoring the thistle as well. Likely, that simply means that they are all foraging well enough in the woods and don’t need the food from my feeders just yet. They will return soon enough.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Free Hawk ID program

Last week I told you about a free hawk silhouette guide. This week I'm pointing you to a new free PowerPoint presentation on hawk identification. The presentation is about 30 minutes long and available free for download for non-commercial use (if you have high speed internet access) here at the Web site of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). If you don't have high-speed internet, you'll need to order the CD for $12.

The slide show is called Identification of Raptors of the Northeast and combines photos and graphics to show how hawks really look as they appear in flight and during migration. We all know that hawks on the wing don't look anything like poses in a field guide, and this presentation will help you identify the birds as they really look.

The program covers 19 species of hawks and vultures, and first focuses on how to identify the major raptor families so you can narrow down an identification. Then it zeroes in on the field marks and flight patterns that will identify each species as they look in flight.

The program was created by Susan Fogleman from Little Round Top hawkwatch in New Hampshire. I was one of the early "beta testers" and think it will be very useful for novice and intermediate hawkwatchers alike. Plus, it's a fun prgroam, and I think you will enjoy it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Winter's coming--finches too

This morning I saw three dark-eyed juncos, marking the first time this year I’ve seen more than one at a time. The morning is dawning clear, after several days of clouds and three types of precipitation (rain, sleet and snow), but it’s still almost dark when I leave the cabin. That will change in two days when we "fall back" an hour’s time this weekend. The mornings still will likely not be light enough for a photograph, but maybe I’m wrong about that and it will be.

Now that this big nor’easter is past, I’m expecting that the next day or so will be particularly active around the woods. Hawks and songbirds both migrate heavily after big storms. Their migration is bolstered by a backlog of birds waiting out the storm, plus the storms apparently focus the birds’ attention on heading south. If the weather is good and food supplies are decent, they will hang around in their summer grounds and not feel the urge to move.

It may well be another good year for winter finch irruptions to the south. Hawkwatches are reporting huge numbers of pine siskins, especially, moving south over the past week or so. A few hawkwatches have counted 1200-1500 each day. Ron Pittaway has posted a detailed winter finch forecast here on e-Bird that focuses on the abundance of far northern food supplies as the predictor for each individual species. Locally, some red-breasted nuthatches have been reported already—none at my feeders yet, where the action is still limited to the local birds and activity is just starting to pick up.

The prospect of seeing northern finches is always exciting for me. Last year was a good one for me with redpolls, purple finch and red-breasted nuthatch all showing up. I know that these birds are down here because they’ve had a rough year up north, but if they come south, I promise to feed them well, so they will be good and fat when they head back north in the spring.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Easing towards winter

The wind that has dominated here is finally easing. Yesterday was the most intense—45-55 mph winds for much of the day. I lost power at the cabin several times, each time briefly. I can’t drive up the driveway and down the lane without needing to stop at least once or twice to remove a branch too large or too gnarly to drive over.

More juncos have arrived, though still not huge numbers of them. That might well change in the next few days. Once this nor’easter clears, those little snowbirds may decide they’d better clear out of Canada and head south while the gettin’ is still good.. The Canadian robins have also arrived. When I was a youngster, these were called "woods robins." These birds are a bit larger and browner than the birds that summer here (and which left about a month ago). Down here the Canadian robins tend to stay in small flocks and often stay throughout the winter, especially if the winter tends to the mild side. They don’t hang out in fields and yards like the summer robins. They prefer woods and sometimes abandoned fields. We used to think that "woods robins" were simply summer birds that didn’t migrate, but over the years research has shown they are really Canadian robins who have migrated, and after a trip of 1000 miles or so, they have flown south.

In general, though, I see few of the forest’s animals in weather like this. They are as hunkered down as I am, waiting for the raging weather to abate. The snow that fell in the Poconos missed me. I was on the southwest edge of the storm and so got the worst of the wind instead.

It’s a bit early in the season to have what is essentially a winter storm of such strength. This year will be the first year in what seems like forever to me where there will be no El Nino or La Nina effect to warm the winter. That doesn’t hurt my feelings at all, though I reserve the right to change my tune if I’m snowed in for longer than a week.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Was that snow? Maybe

Maybe I had a few flurries of snow last night. Mostly, though, nothing fell from the sky. Wind dominates my landscape at the moment, dropping ever more leaves from the trees. The wind will likely ruin the peak of fall color around me. The leaves will come down before they turn brilliant. Ah, well, such is life.

Last evening Dog and I took a spin around the ponds. Walking in the evenings now is turning into a race with sunset. The evening was the kind of weather I think of as a true October sky—angry dark clouds, crisp temperatures, a wind that bites. Usually, I don’t have to wait until the end of the month to experience that.

This October has been rather normal for its temperature—an improvement over recent years---but it has also been unremittingly clear with days on end of cool, windy days and blue skies. Much of the northeast has been the same. All I have to do is read the hawkwatching "dailies" to hear the complaints of counters suffering from "blue out." Blue skies are the bane of hawkwatchers. The undifferentiated sky is both hard on the eyes and makes it hard to see or even spot migrating hawks, who can fly much higher than they can when a little cloud cover holds them lower. Looking at teeny tiny little dots is not my idea of good hawkwatching. I’ve reached the age where I simply can’t hawkwatch in blue sky anymore. If I do, I won’t be able to drive home or walk down off the mountain.

So last evening Dog and I walked and then simply sat, enjoying the weather. He wandered off after a few minutes, nosing the ground and then he started to roll. Now, if you own a dog you know this is not a good sign. I was up in a flash, pulling him off his rolling spot, but it was already too late. He’d found some fox poop to roll in. And he stank. So I took him for another run, hoping to blow the stink off of him, at least a little. Eventually, I couldn’t put it off any longer, as darkness was closing in. My evening was spent giving a doggie bath—not how I wanted to spend my evening. And Dog wasn’t pleased either. He loves water, but he can do without the soap.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Out in the wind

Wind blew across the mountain all weekend. On Saturday, it was rainy and windy. On Sunday it was sunny and windy. When I returned to the cabin after running errands, I had to stop the car, get out and pick up branches before I could get up my lane and back down my driveway.

The wind blew mostly from the northwest, though even that swirled around and tossed leaves in many directions. I spent much of Sunday afternoon out in the woods. The sound of the wind was with me every step of the way, blocking out any other forest sounds. Missing was the usual sound of squirrels scurrying or deer trying to step lightly through dry leaves. I felt hampered by the loss of that sense, forced to rely solely on sight to notice what was around me.

That made observation more difficult than I would have guessed. My eye was drawn to motion, which meant I saw a lot of leaves blowing across the mountain. Normally, I rely on hearing to alert me to something interesting and then follow-up with looking towards the sound. Deprived of hearing, suddenly everything caught my eye. That turned out to be both fascinating and frustrating.

Even in ways I don’t expect, a few hours in the woods teaches me yet another lesson, one that I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d stayed inside. My inside environment, even in a small cabin, is a controlled one. Outside I don’t control anything, and I must react to what’s around me, whether it’s wind or sun or a herd of deer. That’s yet another reason why being in the outdoors is so different than working in a business or sitting in a house. That façade of control that we humans seem to value so much is torn away, even about little things. In the outdoors, you have to let go of that, if you really want to see and experience what’s out there.

Friday, October 24, 2008

In the air

For weeks, the weather here on Roundtop was crisp and clear, with low humidity and no rain. This morning the moon was veiled with high cirrus clouds, and by the time the sun rose, I could feel the moisture in the air. I had frost this morning, and I smelled the sweet, sweet fragrance of snow in the air. The coming precipitation will not, however, fall as snow later today. The clouds will thicken with each passing hour and cause the temperature to rise. Rain will fall tonight or tomorrow.

With the rain, many of the colored leaves of autumn will fall too. When the rain is over, the leaves that will remain will be those few that haven’t turned color yet, and for a few days the mountain will likely look green again. In a few days, another, this time the final round of color change will begin.

Winter is coming. I've smelled it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Finding help for tough identifications

If you’re anything like me, you likely have a bookcase full of fieldguides in your house. And though you may have started with a fieldguide to birds or trees or mammals, somehow, inexorably, over the years you’ve added fieldguides on subjects you never would have guessed you would own back when you got your first one.

Some fieldguides are very complete. Birds are a good example. Many now show females, males, juveniles, inter-grades, hybrids and other plumages. As a result, if you get a good look at the bird (which of course it feels like something that rarely happens) you can probably identify it.
Other fieldguide topics are less satisfying, I’ve found. For something like fungi, for example, there are so many species that authors are forced to make selections about what species to include. So they look at the various habitats in the U.S. and then choose the most common species found in those habitats.

But there you are, out in the woods somewhere, new fieldguide in hand, fungus (or fern) in front of you and you can’t identify it. Isn’t that a bummer? I can’t really fault the authors of those national guides. With thousands of species, they simply have to make choices. Especially with plants and insects, the number of species found in just a single state will fill the average number of pages of in a single fieldguide. That doesn’t make it any the less frustrating for the rest of us.

A solution, I’m finding, is to search for fieldguides specific to the state or region where you live. In the bad old days when you were lucky to find any fieldguide for just mushrooms, say, regional fieldguides rarely existed. But now they are much more common, and even if you can’t find a guide to your state, it’s usually possible to find one for the state or province next door that will be better for you than a national guide that tries to cover a little bit of everything.

The regional guides will certainly include more of the uncommon species in your area than is possible for a national fieldguide to include. And so while I can’t guarantee that you will be able to identify that odd fungus or fern or wildflower you’re sitting in front of, those regional guides will increase the odds you’ll find out what it is.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


About 3 miles from me was another earthquake on Sunday. I heard this one measured 2.6. I didn’t feel it. The dogs didn’t howl either. One person reported a crack in the foundation of their house. Another reported a broken window. Until 2 weeks ago, the last earthquake in this area was 10 years ago. But in 2 weeks there’s been 2 earthquakes.

Geologists are telling people that these little tremors—the first was a 2.0—don’t mean a "big one" is imminent. Locally, people aren’t ready to agree. The second one was stronger than the first, so these might be "foreshocks." An "aftershock" is always weaker than the main earthquake. People are reporting hearing a loud boom coming from underground that is soon followed by a tremor. It’s because of the "boom" that people called the police, thinking it was an explosion or a dynamite blast.

There is supposed to be what’s been described as a "small" fault line through the area, somewhere. No one, not even the experts know exactly where. It doesn’t even have a name, so far as I’ve been able to learn. The geologists estimate the quakes are about 5 kilometers below the surface. Unlike in California, the rocks in this area are old and cold and rigid, so they don’t really cut loose very often. There hasn’t been a really big quake in the eastern U.S. for the past 100 years. That one was impressive, though—an 8.0 that was felt 500 miles away. In this area, the last "big" one was somewhere between a 4 and a 5 in 1988. I didn’t feel that one either. That's probably a good thing.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Catching Up

Sorry I was offline unexpectedly. Partly I was away and partly I had internet access issues. So I'd better catch everyone up on what's happened in the past 3 days.

1. I've seen the first dark-eyed junco (Sunday). It was only one, no doubt a scout. The timing for its arrival is just about average--2 days earlier than in 2006 but 9 days ahead of 2007 (which was late).

2. The nights are now falling into the upper 30's. I have had a frost. Neighbors in lower areas have had a killing freeze. It's chilly enough this morning that a front moving through could, theoretically, bring some snow flurries--except that it's been so dry and the front is so weak that it's unlikely any precipitation will reach the ground.

3. Action at my feeders is starting to pick up. I haven't had anything unusual yet, just the usual suspects: Red-bellied woodpecker, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch. I haven't seen a red-breasted nuthatch yet, though several have been sighted nearby.

4. I have a very annoying grey squirrel at my feeders. I've been wondering why the seed is disappearing so quickly when the feeder action is still kind of limited. Now I know. Jabba the Hut of a grey squirrel sits in the middle of the feeder, lazes back on his haunches and stuffs himself.

5. The leaves continue to fall (hooray!) and I can now see just a teeny little bit of the very top of the mountain to the west of me. Okay, so it's not much yet, but my view is beginning to return. At this point, I'd estimate that about 20% of the leaves around me have fallen. Winter is coming!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hawk silhouette guide for free!

The Hawk Migration Association of North America and The NorthEast Hawk Watch, a regional chapter of HMANA, have partnered to distribute a silhouette guide to hawks of the eastern (and most of the central) U.S. The guide is available for free Here as a .pdf file for non-commercial use. If you like the guide enough to want a laminated version, we're going to charge you $4. You can order that one here.

The artist is Paul Carrier, who for many years was the artist who created all the drawings for our journal, Hawk Migration Studies, of which I am the editor. Eventually, the journal went to photographs instead of drawings, but I will always have a soft spot for Paul's fine drawings.

The silhouette guide is 2-pages and shows hawks as they appear when soaring overhead, which is how most hawkwatchers see them. I can still remember the first time I saw a Cooper's Hawk sitting on a wire, years after I'd started hawkwatching and years after I was comfortable identifying them in migration. I couldn't identify the thing. It wasn't flying. For most people, though, identification works in just the opposite way. They see something sitting and identify it in a fieldguide. Then if they go hawkwatching, they end up being flummoxed, because birds they can readily identify sitting someplace look entirely different on the wing and (usually) overhead.

So this guide is designed to identify hawks when the only field marks you can see are the ones on the underside of the bird. There's also a little text to describe what to look for and views of the birds as they are heading directly at you. You will also find see the difference in hawk shapes among the major families of hawks.

The drawings are excellent--more of Paul's great work--and I highly recommend the guide. And after you've downloaded the guide, why not take a look around the HMANA Web site at and see what else we have there.
The photo today was taken last Sunday and shows the lane heading up to my cabin. The color has changed a lot this week. I'll have a newer photo of it on Monday.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ferns in sunshine

Even the ferns are turning color in the woods right now. I came across many of these colonizing a steep bank on my Sunday walk. These are the Lady fern, one of the most common in northern temperate climes like mine.

This fern was much prized by the Victorians during the Victorian fern craze. This species is probably the most common fern species I see around Roundtop. I’ve read that I could divide a plant in the spring and replant it up at the cabin, but I have an aversion to taking anything I find in the forest. That doesn’t keep me from being tempted, at least occasionally, though.

Of all the plant families, I think ferns are my favorite, though fungi are close. Often, identifying ferns isn’t a particularly easy exercise. There are many species and many of those are similar to each other. Reading about how one species is separated from another very similar species usually gets very technical very quickly, and sometimes I just zone out or give up. Sometimes, even when the descriptions use words I understand, they use those words in unusual ways, and I end up even more confused.

I love knowing what species of all plants are found around Roundtop, but I’m not about to make myself crazy over it when I can’t. Not knowing doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of their beauty. Nothing could do that.