Friday, February 29, 2008
Today's science lesson is a report on what I found out about trees that hold their leaves through the winter. There's a name for it. It's called marcescent leaves. After agreeing on the name, scientists apparently don't agree on much else about it.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s back up a bit. Marcescence literally means "to wither without falling off," which is a good description of what I’m seeing with beech trees around the cabin right now. The leaves do fall off eventually, of course, but not until spring when new buds push them off.
The scientists agree that oaks, hornbeam and beech trees are the species most likely to exhibit marcescence. And they further agree that it’s the younger trees or sometimes the lower, younger branches of older trees that are most likely to have marcescent leaves.
Now for the muddy part. No one seems to agree on why it happens.
One scientist says that the trees get the benefit of some extra photosynthesis by holding onto their leaves, effectively extending their growing season a bit. Another says marcescence is actually disadvantage for the tree because insects love these dead leaves, and one study showed that trees with marcescence had higher numbers of galls or tumors than trees that didn’t have it.
Another study says marcescence is a benefit because it keeps deer and moose from eating the twigs because the attached leaves make the twigs less nutritious and tasty. Another scientist seems to have given up entirely and just said, "sometimes there doesn’t have to be a reason."
After hearing a different reason from as many different experts, I gave up. That's enough reasons for me. So here in a nutshell (so to speak) is the story about trees that hold their leaves throughout the winter. Please pick your own reason for why marcescence occurs. Once those leaves finally do fall, it's a pretty safe bet that spring won't be far behind.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Every year, it's not unusual to see a tree here or there that hangs on to its leaves well into mid or even late winter, but I've never before noticed that this has occurred with a single species of tree. In fact, in previous years, it's usually been one or two old oaks where a branch or two has held its leaves. So why this year have the smaller beech trees held their leaves? At the moment I have no idea but this has gotten my investigatory juices flowing, and if there's a reason, I will certainly try and find it.
So what's the second reason I'm posting this photo? This is actually a photo of the old logging road bed that climbs up the mountain in front of my cabin. This mountain was cleared sometime after the Civil War but before 1900, as best as I can determine. The old road is almost invisible now. The dip to the left and the flat area in the middle are not the mountain's natural shape. This little section of the old road is visible only in winter. My cabin sits where part of it once cut across the mountain, and the lane past my cabin bisects another piece of it, so its only remains are small sections. Every year, the road is less visible as leaves fill in the left corner of the cut a little more. The mountain is reclaiming its shape.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Last night, I sat outside after dark, surrounded by dense fog. I heard the sound of Canada geese overhead, but I'm not certain these were migrants. For one thing, it wasn't a huge flock. The geese called and called, for minutes on end, using their "migration voice," but for some time the sound didn't seem to be going anywhere. By that I mean that I couldn't tell for sure if the birds were moving south to north or north to south or just what they were doing. I suspect the geese were circling, and I wondered if the flock became disoriented or separated in the fog.
The morning chorus of residents is underway again. This morning I heard bluebirds, the cardinals, the white-throated sparrow, the juncos and the Carolina wren. The birds certainly feel that there's something to sing about again, so spring must be on the way.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
So why is this one (and three of its best friends) here now? That's what I wondered, too, but I think I have an answer. Larry, my neighbor down the mountain, has taken the reins of the snowplowing duty for our common lane. Larry believes in plowing the snow right down to the ground, unlike some of the other plowboys. And, since our lane is dirt, that soon leaves open ground. And the doves, along with many other birds, are venturing into the woods to get at the grit in the dirt. Everywhere else is still snow-covered or paved, so open dirt is in short supply at the moment.
I don't consider mourning doves to be the brightest bulbs in the birdy world, but now that the doves are venturing into the woods for the grit, they have at least been smart enough to locate the feeders at the back of the cabin. So for me, having a mourning dove at the feeders is pretty unusual. I wish I could tell you what they were eating, since my feeders are nothing but suet, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, thistle and assorted nuts, mostly peanuts. There's no corn in there, but the doves were happily ingesting something.
Note: Days 5-8 of my 30-day Sit Spot challenge are now posted here.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Spring must be near. This weekend when I stepped outside, I heard singing. The cardinals, carolina wren and juncos were all twittering away in the early morning. So even though I have 3-4 inches of snow on the ground, and temperatures that are normal for the time of year, the birds think it's spring.
This morning, shortly after 5:30 a.m. I could still see no sign of daylight in the east. But when I stepped outside with Dog, I heard the cardinal singing up in his favorite spot by a beech tree. Now at 5:30 a.m. the only light around is my porchlight, and if that is bright enough to wake up the cardinals and make them sing, then spring must be close indeed.
Already the daylight is lengthening, though I've noticed that the birds are pretty quiet by 4:30 p.m. Some light remains in the sky after 6 p.m. but my feeders are empty of birds at least 90 minutes before that. I certainly appreciate the longer daylight, but I find it a little surprsing that the local birds don't seem to be taking advantage of it yet. Perhaps next week.
Friday, February 22, 2008
When I see the males, especially at some distance or in poor light, I'm always asking if the color is more strawberry (house finch) or more purple (purple finch). Usually, I change my mind eleventy-eight times, and even then I won't be sure I'm right.
But the females make the identification an easy one. See that nice eye line on this bird? Purple finch. Female house finch don't have the eye line. The female purple finch's belly stripes are also more defined and paler than the female house finch's. So when I see finches and can't figure out which variety I'm seeing, I look for the females in the group, and that makes the identification an easy one.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Did you see the eclipse of the moon last night?
I didn't expect to be able to see it, as the afternoon and evening brought me 4 inches of the frothiest snow I've about ever seen. The snow was like bubbles. I could blow it away. As it was still snowing at 7:30 p.m., I figured my chances of seeing the eclipse were nil.
So imagine my surprise when I went outside shortly before 10 p.m. to walk the dogs. The sky was clear, and high overhead was the moon, growing smaller and darker with every passing moment. What a beautiful sight. I watched it for a good 30 minutes before the chill drove me back indoors.
Note: My Sit Spot Journal through day five is now posted here
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
My latest rant is on the upcoming switch to digital TV and the language that I read and hear about it. "The only people affected will be those who have resisted replacing their rabbit ears." I can't tell you how many times I've heard this one.
Resisted? The mountain blocks satellite reception, and cable isn't available, so how am I resisting replacing the rabbit ears on my 13" TV? Now I have to buy a converter box than may/may not work with my so-so reception. Please, don't get me started. Oops, it's too late.
Note: Day Two of my Sit Spot Journal blog is now up at http://sitspotjournal.blogspot.com
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Yesterday's warm weather made most of the snow and all of the ice disappear, so this photo wasn't taken today. But I like the shot and wanted to post it, so here it is even if it's not how the mountain looks this morning. The photo is only 3 days old but compared to the iceless and nearly snowless mountain I saw when I drove off the mountain today, to me the photo already looks like ancient history.
Colder temperatures are back this morning, so the drippy, sticky, soggy mud of yesterday is frozen again. Boy, does that make walking easier. Dog and I had a nice, long walk this morning. North wind howled atop the mountain all night and was only slightly diminished this morning. It felt wicked outside, though the temperature was just under 30. The wind always makes Dog want to run, so run he did like a kid at recess.
The lenghening daylight is more obvious with each new day. At 6 a.m. now I can even see a little bit of color in the eastern sky. Both before and after work, there is enough daylight for me to see at least some of the birds that visit my feeders. That alone makes me enjoy the winter more.
This morning I had a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers, a downy, the Carolina and black-capped chickadees, the ever-staring juncos, Carolina wren, white-breasted nuthatch, blue jays and tufted titmice. It's already a good day.
Note: if you're interested in my Sit Spot journal, a reflection of what I see and hear as I challenge myself to sit outside and observe my surroundings for 20 minutes each day for the next 30 days, you may now visit it here.
Monday, February 18, 2008
I've had to sit after dark one day and near sunset on the other two days, and it's been a bit chilly. It's rained on 2 of the days I've sat outside, though not a downpour on either day.
Still, I'm finding this an interesting exercise. Even living in the woods, I too often find myself seeing the woods around me only on my way to or from someplace else or while doing something other than simply observing what's going on around me. The Sit Spot is helping me slow down and simply notice whatever is happening.
I'm planning to create a new blog where I will post my Sit Spot journal, but I likely won't get to that for a day or two.
Friday, February 15, 2008
The ice from yersterday's storm is still with me, though it is less severe than yesterday. The roads are better now, though ice still covers the trees. The temperature rose to 33 degrees in the late afternoon, so the mountain got perhaps an hour or so of melting.
The feeder birds are taking it all in stride. Perhaps they simply assume I will keep "their" feeder filled. I doubt birds worry about anything, except perhaps for juncos.
The juncos are funny little birds around the feeders. Most of the other species zip in and out of the feeders. They grab a seed and go someplace else to sit and eat it. Or, they eat several seeds in the feeder before leaving with one to go. The juncos are different, though. A whole passle of them sit around the feeders all day, staring at it. Periodically, one or more will approach the feeder, eat a few seeds and then retreat to the branches above and beside the feeders to sit some more. They never get but a very few feet from the feeder. It's almost as though they think they have to stare at it all day long to keep it from disappearing in front of their eyes. At least that's sort of how it looks to me. I sure wish I knew what was going on inside their little heads and why they spend all day staring at the feeders.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Now that the temperature is back well below freezing (and into the single digits), snowmaking has resumed at Ski Roundtop. Last night I was coming back to the cabin late in the evening and thought I'd take a photo of the action. As my readers know, I'm a staunch defender of nature and her ways, but I always find the sight of the mountain lit up and with snowmaking in progress to be a beautiful sight.
Natural snow also fell here overnight, though only about an inch. Local schools are closed today, not because of an inch of snow, but because last evening's forecast predicted several inches of snow to be followed by sleet to be followed by ice and freezing rain. It's the ice word that scares the schools. This winter I've seen a lot more ice than snow, more than I care to see.
My area of Pennsylvania is hilly. Even the flat land is rolling. The roads were all created more than 200 years ago along the edges of the property lines that existed at the time. Years later, the roads naturally have been improved but rarely moved. I don't think there's a single straight line or straight road anywhere. So school buses (and other drivers) have to contend with continually winding and hilly roads that, when combined with ice, are often very difficult to negotiate.
This morning, the forecast seems to have changed since last night. Now, the snowfall is to be lighter and the ice not to begin until after dark this evening, so the kids are ending up with a day off school when they likely wouldn't have needed to be off. I'm inclined to believe the change in the forecast. This morning, my feeder birds were eating normally and not in their frantic feeding mode that tells me I'm going to get hit with a bigger storm. At least that's my prediction, and for now I'm sticking to it.
Monday, February 11, 2008
February normally brings snows that routinely close in on 2 feet deep. February normally brings snows that are as heavy as concrete, and snows that can't be plowed and have to carted away in dump trucks. February brings snows that drift towards the top of my back door. February snows can close the roads for so long that kids are bored out of their minds and are screaming to go back to school so they can hang with their friends.
A pretty little snow is so...so... November.
But it is mid-February, and all I got is this pretty little snow that lasted a but a few hours. The feeder birds didn't even bother to go into a feeding frenzy.
Still, the weekend did provide some interesting weather weirdness. Saturday night lightning was so bad on the mountain that they closed the slopes, but I never heard a single clap of thunder. When I first saw the lightning as I was out walking around with Dog, I thought someone skiing on the nearest slope was taking a photo with an extra bright flash.
On Sunday, the wind turned mean and fierce, with gusts over 50 mph, and sustained winds in the 35-45 mph range. I lost power (briefly) 5 times. The power went out so often for a few hours that I stopped trying to reset my digital clocks until I was sure it wouldn't happen again. I didn't get online because the outages fried 2 computers (that I know of) at Roundtop, and I didn't want that to happen to my home computer. All that excitement and I never even left the mountain.
Note: Due to my own klutziness, I have managed to delete instead of publish all the comments about the weird red light in my last post. I am not ignoring you folks, truly, my hand just (somehow) jumped at the last second and all the comments got rejected. I'm sorry about that. I'm not sure if I needed more coffee or had too much.
Friday, February 08, 2008
As humans, we think of dark places as gloomy, of bright places as happy, fog as mysterious, and for a few minutes this red light even feels like an imagined Martian landscape. The birds and animals in the forest don't seem to notice or care that everything is suddenly red, so I think this sense that a different light creates a different atmosphere or sense of place is a particularly human experience.
Animals don't pay much attention to light or even weather, at least not in the way humans do. A severe storm sends animals scurrying, but that's about it. They certainly aren't fair weather creatures in the way that we humans tend to be. Was it always so, I wonder? How much of our aversion to rain or wind or heat (or cold) is a cultural construct that tells us that's how we should behave. Is our aversion simply another way of saying that we are wealthy enough to have a place to go to get inside and get away from all that? And yet, I dream of a time where humans were more comfortable in their surroundings, where a little rain or a little wind or a little heat wasn't enough to drive us inside and separate us even more from the world around us.
Note: if you like my blog or nature blogs in general, you might want to check out the Nature Blog Network, where you can find a lot of great nature blogs. If you're a nature blogger yourself, you may want to join and see where your own blog ranks.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
It's not every day or every year or even ever before that I've come home from work in February to a thunderstorm. But that's what greeted me last evening. Moments after I took this photo of the weird light just ahead of the storm, the lightning was close enough that I scurried inside.
The weather during the day brought record-breaking warm temperatures, breaking the old record of 60 degrees by a degree or so. Given that extreme during the day, it's not surprising or unusual that the storm that followed would be atypical as well. As far as I know, my area did not get the tornados that accompanied this storm when it passed to the south. Certainly, I didn't have anything like that at the cabin.
Later in the evening another storm crashed through, this one with high winds that reached 70 mph but even that only lasted for a minute or so.
This morning the sky is golden and clearing, the temperature already on its way back down to a more seasonal number. Snow is even forecast for the weekend. The weather has been so bizarre, especially during the last year or so, that its weirdness is almost starting to feel like the norm. And that's a much scarier thing than a thunderstorm in February.
Wednesday, February 06, 2008
The hairy woodpecker is quite a bit larger than the downy, but that's not always easy to judge when a bird is umpteen feet away from you in the woods. How the bill appears in relation to the bird's head is usually something that you can see.
The difference in the birds' bills also tells you a lot about where you'll commonly find them. The little downy is usually plying the branches of trees. The larger hairy is usually hanging out on the trunks of trees, as in my photo of the hairy.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
This just keeps getting better. Now I've seen yet another of the regular birds that I missed in January. It was the Hairy Woodpecker. Where were these birds during January?
Hairy woodpckers are easily told from Downy Woodpeckers if you see their bills. Hairy woodpeckers have a big, honkin' bill that's about as long as their heads are wide. You can just see the partially obscured bill in this photo. Downy woodpecker bills are tiny in comparison, less than half the width of the head, often just barely peeking past the little tufts of feathers where the bill begins.
Hairy woodpeckers are quite a bit larger than downy woodpeckers, but that's not always easy to tell unless the bird is close (and if you are familiar with the size of the more common downy woodpecker).
Hairy woodpeckers come to my feeders, but seem much shyer than the downy woodpeckers and startle easily. Well, that's another species to add to the foot-powered birding list (though if I'd seen this bird during January, when I should have seen it, my species count for that month would have reached 29, which is precariously close to theoretical 30 species I hope one day to find in January at the cabin).
Monday, February 04, 2008
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Saturday, February 02, 2008
Below is my January foot-powered bird list. The average number of species I usually see in January is 26. This year I saw 26. But it wasn't the usual 26 species that I saw. Now, I have to figure out why I didn't find the Pilieated woodpecker, the Hairy woodpecker and even the black vulture. And what about Song sparrow? One of these years I'll see everything I know is here, plus one or two extra birds. Theoretically, I should be able to hit 30 species in January, but I've never done it yet.
26. Red-breasted Nuthatch - finally
25. Common Redpoll - only the second sighting in 15 years
24. Red-bellied Woodpecker
23. Turkey Vulture
22. Mourning Dove
21. Great-horned Owl - heard only
20. Carolina Wren
19. Pine Siskin - second sighting in 10 years
18. Canada Goose
16. Downy Woodpecker
15. Northern Flicker
14. Blue Jay
13. American Crow
12. Carolina Chickadee
11. Black-capped Chickadee
10. Tufted Titmouse
9. White-breasted Nuthatch
8. Eastern Bluebird
7. American Robin - a very good bird for January 1!
6. European Starling
5. White-throated Sparrow
4. Dark-eyed Junco
3. Northern Cardinal
2. House Finch
1. American Goldfinch