Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Farmer lilies

Even if I would still be blogging 30 years from now, I can’t imagine that I will let a year pass without posting a photo of farmer lilies. When they are in full bloom, as they are here now, lilies are simply gorgeous.

One of the many things I like about them is the surprise of them. I may drive along a road for a few miles and the road edges are green with grass and assorted other things. Then all of a sudden I’ll round a small curve and there they are—an entire bank of farmer lilies. It’s rare to find just one or two of them. Twenty to 50 blooms are more common, tightly grouped together like members of an audience. Sometimes there are hundreds of blooms. I never know where they will show up but when they do it’s spectacular.

They all turn to face the sun, basking in it, burning bright with the light. These are no hothouse flowers that must be coaxed and coddled. Farmer lilies are strong and hardy and in their own way every bit as showy as a rose.

They ask only for sun and a bit of moistness. Once they find a spot they like, they gladly spread and grow more numerous by the year. I can’t imagine that I will ever grow tired of them. To me, growing tired of farmer lilies would be akin to growing tired of life and beauty. I can't see that happening, not now and not in 30 years, or in 100.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Morning Gold(finch)

It’s no secret that eastern goldfinch love thistle. I’ve found that the easiest way to photograph them is simply to find a decent patch of thistle. The birds ignore my car as I drive slowly towards the spot. I try to get the camera ready before I get too close. Then I open the window and photograph the birds from inside the car. Usually I don’t turn the motor off, as sometimes that scares them.

This morning, I found an adult male and what is apparently a sub-adult male at my chosen thistle patch. The younger bird has the bright yellow of the adult but is missing the black cap. Goldfinch tend not to be particularly shy. If you’ve fed them at your household bird feeders, you’ll know that the birds show up and stay until they eat their fill, unlike the bouncier chickadees or titmice who pick up a single seed and flit away, only to return again and again, each time taking a single seed and then going someplace else to eat it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Another year, another ironweed

This morning I find the purple ironweed bush at the bottom of my lane is in full bloom. Around here, people usually call it wild butterfly bush. What I was also glad to see is that the bush was covered with bees. I’ve been hearing that colony collapse disorder is worse than ever this year. As Roundtop is nearly surrounded by orchards that depend on bees to pollinate the fruit, that news is particularly worrisome.

Knowing that I’d previously blogged about ironweed, I went back into my archives and discovered I posted about them on June 24, 2008 and June 27, 2007. That’s pretty consistent, isn’t it?
Who knew that blogging tags would make it so easy to keep track of when things happen in the natural year? I know I sure didn’t realize that for a while, but now I regularly check the tags and archive. Usually birds and plants are pretty consistent, but I can’t say that I expected to find a blog post about ironweed on the same day a year ago.

To me, the ironweed bush(es) looks extra flowery this year. Perhaps this is another plant that has appreciated all the rain of the last two months. The second photo shows how many blooms I found this morning. Ironweed is another plant that many people consider a weed. I just don't get that.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Even snapping turtles are muddy

It’s snapping turtle time! Again. Last evening I found this one blocking the path of my car as I headed back up to the cabin. It’s possible it’s the same one I saw last June. This one seemed a bit bigger but not that much. It was certainly as nasty as its reputation, though eventually I could at least drive by.

After I took the photo, I went back to the blog archives to see when I last did a post on snapping turtles. It was June 9 and June 4 and in roughly the same area. This one is covered in mud, not surprising given the amount of rain that’s fallen here lately. Or perhaps it was simply digging to lay its eggs. In any event it was headed back towards the pond where I think it lives.

This morning, the woods is finally starting to dry out a bit, a welcome relief after days and weeks of rain and overcast skies. In May, it rained here on 22 days out of 31. June has been a bit better, raining on just 13 days out of 22 so far. Of course, most of the non-raining days were overcast, and June has been quite a bit cooler than average. Until today, when the heat wave starts.

In other words, the weather has been anything but normal, and in this area people are pretty much universally whining about it. People complain about the too-much rain and no sun on gardens, on their inability to mow lawns, sit outside or grill dinner. Everyone has a complaint. I won’t add mine today. Let’s just say I could on for a while and leave it at that. For the moment, I’m just glad the sun is out. I’ll be whining about the heat by tomorrow, I expect.

Monday, June 22, 2009

How we saw the fox

This past week and for nearly every week until the end of July, I will be spending my Thursdays walking in the woods with a too-large bunch of varying kids to hopefully help them connect with nature. Heaven knows, if the first batch is any indication, they need it. This past Thursday we saw lots of .25 inch tree frogs, regular frogs, assorted toads, a few water snakes, lots of butterflies and an assortment of bugs, most of which I couldn’t identify. We also got to taste a few wild raspberries and suck the honey out of honeysuckle.

The kids are enthusiastic enough, as long as they can see something they deem exciting. Hearing birds is not exciting, in their minds, no matter how uncommon the species. Finding a teeny, tiny bright green bug that I have no idea what it was qualifies as sort-of exciting, at least to the kid finding it. Eating almost ripe raspberries was a pretty big deal, as was the honey suckle. Catching and holding a frog or a toad is a huge deal. If they couldn’t see it or touch it, they weren’t interested. And boy, we’d better see or tough something almost every few minutes or they were soon bored. Fortunately, seeing the fox was pretty exciting, even to teenagers.

How we saw the fox was pretty impressive, even to me, who sees and hears the local foxes regularly. Here’s how it happened. I was trying to convince the kids that when you’re walking in the woods, even on a trail, it’s important to regularly look behind you, especially when you come to a trail intersection, because things look different from the opposite direction. We’d just come to a T in the woods road and turned left. After walking another 15-20 feet, I made the kids stop and look behind them. They’d all just stopped and (amazingly) were all looking towards where the now-obscured trail intersection was when a fox trotted across the trail about 50 yards up the road. They all got to see it, which was pretty amazing since trying to herd teenagers and get them to do the same thing at the same time wasn’t something I managed most of the time. But that time it all worked out, and everyone saw the fox, and they thought it was pretty cool. I didn't get a photo, though--happened too fax

The weather has been extreme here on Roundtop and across much of the rest of the country, too. The sky is still unsettled and stormy-looking. Apparently, I’m soon to move from extreme rain and storms to extra hot. I’m not sure that’s going to be an improvement, though a day or so of warm and dry weather would be appreciated in my rainy forest right now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A coming storm

Does today’s photo suggest anything to you? Let me give you a hint. It’s about the weather.

The leaves in this morning’s photo are turned inside out or upside down or however you wish to describe it. In any event, you are mostly looking at the underside of the leaves. Where I’m from, this is a sign of rain. Maybe it’s a sign of rain where you are from too or perhaps this is one of those signs that is only well-known in my region. I can’t answer that one.

I’ve heard various explanations for why this happens. I’ve heard that updrafts ahead of a rain cause it. I’ve heard the underside of leaves are more porous to gulp moisture out of the air. I have a slightly different theory of my own that I’ll get to in a bit.

First, the porous explanation: I have no idea. It sounds a little off to me. Unless the weight of the leaves is different from the top side to the bottom, I can’t figure out how this would work.

Second, the updraft theory. This says that right before a rain you get a change in wind direction or updrafts that moves the leaves this way. This one sounds sort of okay to me, except that I often see this phenomenon hours before the rain hits and not just moments or minutes before rain.

Here’s my own theory. It’s the addition of extra moisture in the air. On dry days when you have a breeze, the leaves and twigs just bend and flow with the breeze. But when the air is moist, the air is also heavier with that moisture and this affects how the leaves blow. This explains why you will sometimes see upside-down leaves even a day or so ahead of the rain, if the moisture is in the air ahead of the upcoming storm.

News from Roundtop: I will be offline for a few days to hike with kids from Adventure Camp and introduce them to a little nature study. See you next week (and maybe before but don’t count on it).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

East wind

An east wind blows across Roundtop this morning. Easterly is the least common of the wind directions here on the mountain, and it always brings moisture from the Atlantic. The ocean is several hours away to drive the distance, but even that’s not enough to overcome how far moisture from the ocean can travel.

It isn’t raining here yet, though it’s likely that it will before the day is over. The morning breeze is both cool and damp, making a temperature in the mid-50’s feel cooler than it really is. The distance to the ocean is too far, apparently, to actually smell salty air but not too far for the air to have the ocean’s chill to it.

The cabin is still warm and cozy from several days in the 70’s, and the easterly chill won’t insinuate itself inside for at least another few days. By then, the easterly breeze will likely be gone again.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Visitors to the cabin

I never intended to enthrall moths this weekend. It was only after I turned off my bedroom lamp on Saturday evening that I realized I hadn’t turned off the porch light. But I was already sleepy and didn’t feel like waking up enough to get up and go turn it off. So I didn’t.

I was surprised when I got up on Sunday to discover the side of the cabin covered with a nice selection of moths. So I went and got the camera.

The moth in this morning’s photo is a silkworm moth, I believe, a cecropia species. I think it’s the Columbian silkworm, but don’t hold me to that one. The moth’s wings aren’t open and never were when I was around, so I can’t tell exactly how they would look while open. It’s a big moth, at least 4-5 inches across.

The other moths I saw were even more problematic in their identities. I was sure I’d be able to identify one from its unusual way of holding its wings but that hasn’t been the case. The other moths were all smaller and even more difficult—at least for me. One was completely white but most of the other 8-10 moths were various shades of beige and brown, usually in a camouflaged-type pattern that would make the moth invisible on the bark of a tree.

The most-reported way of keeping moths around until morning is to drug them with alcohol and something sweet, often reported as rum and sugar or molasses. But leaving the light on all night seems to work just as well, as long as you get up fairly early in the morning.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fiery Hangbird (aka Baltimore Oriole)

This pretty boy appeared quite close to me as I was picking up my mail yesterday. I’d seen a Baltimore oriole in the same spot a week or so ago, also while I was picking up my mail, but that bird disappeared before I could haul out my camera. This time the bird was cooperative and didn’t flyaway for long enough for me to grab a quick shot or two.

I took several other shots but the bird moved so quickly up and down that fence rail that I usually only captured its hind end in the photo. The bird would be sitting atop the rail, I’d snap a photo but before the shutter clicked the bird was hanging along the edge of the rail and I didn’t have much to show for it. Finally, the bird sat still long enough for me to snap it sitting still before it flew off. It was only later when I zoomed in a bit on the photo that I realized what Mr. Oriole had been doing bobbing up and down that fence. See the bug in its mouth? Apparently, it was finding delicious little wormy things in that split rail fence.

If you’ve been birding as long as I have, you’ve lived through several name changes for a good many species. I first learned this bird as Baltimore oriole, then its name was changed to northern oriole and now it’s back to Baltimore oriole again. The bird also has several non-official names, including both hangbird and fiery hangbird. The fiery hangbird really fits, and this bird’s antics made me realize just how well that name fits.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Enough soup already!

The soupy weather is back. Today’s photo was taken in my driveway the morning. My area had some very severe weather yesterday, though fortunately none of it was directly over my cabin. Today, more severe weather is forecast. I hope my luck holds, and the worst of it misses me again.

The forest is starting to creep over the driveway, looming over it a little further all the time, inch by inch. Leaves flutter along the edge of the car as I drive in or out. The jungle is trying to take back the man-made driveway, but until the weather dries a bit I won’t be able to battle back.

The western and southern U.S. both have temperate rainforests, and given how my area looks right now, it got me to wondering just how close my own area might be to qualifying for that status. And wouldn’t you know, even the definitions don’t agree. For example, Australia defines a temperate rainforest as one where the closed canopy of trees excludes at least 70% of the sky. Trust me, I pass this one. Also, the forest must be composed of mainly of tree species that can regenerate under shade and natural openings. I have that one too. However, I don’t live in Australia.

Here in North America, a temperate rain forest is defined as one where the mean annual temperature is between 39 and 54 degrees F. Mean temperature in my area is 53 degrees in Harrisburg, so I qualify for that one. Here on the mountain the mean temperatures is several degrees cooler, and the area around the cabin falls around the 49-50 degree mark

In North America a temperate rainforest is also supposed to get 1400 mm of rain per year. This amounts to about 55 inches. That’s where I miss the mark in most years. I get something over 40 inches on average, usually around 45 inches. Using this criteria a few very small areas of PA would still qualify as temperate rainforests. A bit of Monroe County and somewhere around the border of Westmoreland and Somerset counties fit that restriction. The rest of the state does not. I never hear of those areas being called temperate rainforests, so perhaps they’re ashamed.

I suppose I could just declare myself a protectorate or a territory of Australia, but there’s probably paperwork involved with that, so I don’t think I’ll bother. And frankly, as rainy as May and June have been, I’m kind of glad I don’t qualify as a temperate rain forest. I don’t want to think about what another 10 inches of rain would mean around here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What will I do for an encore when the day starts like this?

It took four thunderstorms and a bout of hail, but the weather is much improved this morning. The temperature is about 10 degrees cooler, and the atmosphere has gone from soupy to every-day run-of-the-mill hazy.

As a result, both Dog and I were in the mood for a decent walk this morning. The sky was still reddish at sunrise, which may not bode well for the weather later in the day, but for now it is nice. We headed down the lane, and near the bottom of the hill I was suddenly almost over-powered by a scent so wonderful, so strong and exotic that it’s hard to believe I wasn’t in some wonderful tropical jungle. What was it? Why, today’s photo tells the tale. It’s honeysuckle, of course.

Now honeysuckle is a perfectly fine name, but even it doesn’t do justice to the scent that emanates from this plant. It’s the only floral scent that one-ups a rose, in my opinion. And it’s a wild plant, not some hot house, imported sissy that faints outside of perfectly controlled conditions. How’s that for amazing?

Now for the science purists in the audience, I should report a bit of the techie stuff associated with the plant, so here it is. Worldwide, so far more than 180 species of honeysuckle are found, with more than 100 of those species native to China. North America and Europe can only boast about 20 species of the plant. Most have berries that are described as mildly poisonous, which seems an odd phrasing to me because any kind of poisonous isn’t something I would ever associate with the word "mild."

I could have stood there all day, getting high or at least well-blissed on that scent. The particular bush that enraptured me today is good-sized and well-covered with blooms, but I still wouldn’t have expected the scent to linger for some 50 feet beyond the plant but it did. That alone is amazing. Who needs some distant tropical jungle when the honeysuckle is in bloom? Not me, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Soup's On!

Hazy, humid and hot. Those three words for summer have arrived here for the first time this season. The air is thick with it. An early morning thunderstorm woke me up as it rumbled north of me, for once not passing over my cabin. But it was a clear warning of what to expect later today.

I am starting to see a few yellowing leaves on some of the forest plants. I’m guessing they’ve had enough of rain and no sunshine, too. The heavy air seems to hold scents better than drier air. When I walk the dogs, they start dancing and sniffing as though something is quite near, and then I’ll see a deer standing way up on the slope. Normally, something that far away wouldn’t bother them, but in this air, the scent must seem closer than it really is.

Birds are noisy around the cabin—the Carolina wren is especially vocal right now. Ovenbirds and wood thrush have quieted somewhat, no doubt performing nest duties. I still hear them occasionally at dusk or dawn, but it’s nothing like the constant singing of just a few weeks ago. I see deer occasionally but as yet no fawns. Perhaps they are still too small to be doing much traveling with the doe. Still, usually I’ve seen them by now, and this year I haven’t.

Today’s photo is of the old stone bridge that crosses Beaver Creek at the bottom of the mountain. I’ve shown this photo before, usually in fall or winter. I think this is the first time I’ve shown it in a green season.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Around the mountain

The forest is starting to dry out, though it won’t get far with that before more storms come through later today. Mud is still prevalent, though as of yesterday afternoon, it was a more solid kind of mud, as opposed to the quicksand kind. It’s not much of an improvement, but I’ll take my improvement wherever it can be found.

The rain and somewhat warmer temperatures have brought out mosquitos, those unwelcome summertime visitors. I worry that this will be a bad year for them, partly because of the rain, of course, and partly because bats with white-nose syndrome have been found in Pennsylvania. So far, I have heard little about how wide-spread that might be. Likely, no one knows the answer to that question at this point. The news is worrisome enough as it is. Roundtop has no shortage of bug-eating birds, but nothing can tackle those mosquitos the way bats can. And with west nile virus also prevalent here, this isn’t the year to be running a bat shortage.

My other choice, of course, is to cover myself with bug goop every time I stick a toe outside. I don’t favor that option. Bug goop stains clothing and smells terrible. I use it when I must, but I don’t want to spend an entire summer living in the stuff. Usually, when I do wear it, the first thing I do when I come back inside is to shower it off. Since I’m in and out multiple times a day, it’s simply not practical to shower each time. Better not to have so many mosquitos. It’s a bit too soon to know just how bad they will be, as I’m only just seeing the first few. The signs aren’t good, though.

Friday, June 05, 2009


Fleabane is common around the forest right now. This one, I believe, is common fleabane or Erigeron philadelphicus. Philadelphicus tends toward the pink or lavendar, as this one is, and it doesn't have much in the way of leaves.

There’s not much variation in how common fleabane, daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus) and annual fleabane (Erigeron annus) all look. The colors vary from white to pale lavender. They don’t keep fleas away.

Annual fleabane is often called daisy fleabane instead of annual fleabane even in some books. The difference between all of them lies in the tiny hairs on the stem and to some extent in the number of leaves, but even that isn’t noticeable unless the plant you are looking at is an especially healthy one. So just fleabane is good enough as far as I’m concerned.

Fleabanes, even the one called daisy fleabane, are really asters.

So let’s recap: they don’t keep fleas away and the daisy fleabane isn’t a daisy. So much for descriptive names. They are all pretty, however, or at least I think so. Several plants will often grow close together, so it’s not unusual to find a small patch filled with 50 flowers within a few feet of each other, one of nature’s living bouquets.

I’ve never been one to understand why people prefer grass to, well, just about anything else, so I will freely admit that I could never think of fleabane as a weed, the way many seem to. If it flowers and turns the edge of the woods or the pond pink with such tiny and delicate little blooms, how could it be a weed? Not in my book, anyway.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Guilty pleasure

Today’s photo is another one from Sunday’s walk down the mountain and through the valley. This one was taken in a more open area, where the forest isn’t as dense as it is along Beaver Creek or even as dense as most of the mountain. The little woods road itself partly to blame, but it’s not just that. The trees grow further apart and are fewer and smaller right in this spot than elsewhere. In a few steps, in fact, you can even see where the forest grows denser again up around the slight curve.

Through most of the forest, the undergrowth is so dense that I couldn’t walk through it during the green seasons without a machete or the old woods road to follow. So I am grateful for the woods road, which allows me to walk easily through the forest and explore its many delights. To be politically and environmentally correct, I should probably lament the existence of the road, but I can’t bring myself to do that.

I know I would not explore here if I had no path to follow, except perhaps in winter. I can’t see myself armed with a machete or bushwhacking my way through this much underbrush, ripping my clothing, getting scratched, stumbling over uneven ground and rocks. And missing the riot of growth and ferns and birds that thrive in this density of greenery would be a pity. How would I ever know the pleasures of the forest if I couldn’t walk through it and explore it for myself? So I am grateful for this little road that lets me explore easily and at my leisure.

The photo is already "old news," I'm afraid. The rain is back, dropping another inch on Tuesday, half an inch yesterday, and the forecast is promising another 1-1.5 inches today and tonight. The moisture-loving plants must love it. I, however, am not a moisture-loving plant and could use a bit of a respite from the 2 a.m. storms and the rain. This forest is already green enough, don't you think?

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Where the sun rarely shines

The weather kept me away from venturing very far into the woods for longer than I like. Actually, any time the weather keeps me from venturing into the woods is longer than I like, but even I have come to understand that heavy downpours don’t make for good hiking. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, and I have many pairs of ruined shoes to attest to it.

So it had been a while since I’d been down in the valley between Nell’s Hill and Roundtop. The last time I was down before this past Sunday, spring was springing but not yet in full regalia. This long introduction is just my way of warning you to expect another day with a photo and a story about my walk.

The valley between these hills is narrow, and sun only fully penetrates for a brief spell in the afternoon, especially at the upper end of the valley, where I took this photo. A bit further to the west the valley opens up a bit where Nell’s Hill ends. There, the forest is sunnier throughout much of the afternoon. Mostly, though I only come down here in the afternoons simply because mornings and the dense forest don’t offer enough light for good photos. Even in this photo, taken nearly in mid-afternoon on a bright and sunny day, you can see that deep forest darkness.

No shadows dapple the woods down here, even when the sun is but a few weeks from reaching its highest point in the sky. The forest canopy is too thick and the valley too narrow for sunshine during most of the year. Some time, I’d like to keep track of just how few days of actual sunlight do penetrate into this upper valley. I’ve seen sun down here in March before the leaves come out, and I also think I’ve seen it briefly in late afternoon just after all the leaves have fallen. But I also know I’ve been down here in early winter, near the winter solstice on a sunny day, only to find this end of the woods as shadowless as a gray day.

Monday, June 01, 2009

My walk in the woods

Finally, the rain and gray skies have cleared here on Roundtop. After giving the woods a day for the rain and mud to settle, on Sunday I headed down to the bottom of the mountain for a walk along the normally quiet Beaver Creek.

I was lucky. The valley tends towards wetness even when a season is dry, and I was worried my walk would be stopped by yards of mud. I did find wet spots, of course, but not so much so that I needed waders. And the normally sleepy and nearly still Beaver Creek was, for once, a loud and very pretty little stream.

Baby Dog accompanied me on this foray, to her delight and my relief that the mud and water didn’t cause her to brace like a balky horse refusing a fence. Baby Dog hates to get wet. She wouldn’t even take a drink from the creek because it would mean getting her toes wet.

We headed down the mountain along an old woods road, which takes us to the bottom of the mountain, where we followed another woods road along the valley and along the creek. We saw no one and none of the large forest residents either. Bird song surrounded us—orioles, tanagers, the pewees, wood thrush and ovenbirds. The forest is thick enough already that spying the singers was almost impossible, even when the sound came from a tree nearby.

As you can see from the photo, the creek is running full, and the valley is bright with spring greens. I came across three species of ferns within 5 feet of each other—sensitive, Christmas and Lady. The three species abound this year.

The sun was finally out, dappling everything in green-tinged sunshine. The loudest sound was the creek, which carried everywhere, sometimes blocking out the sound of the singing birds. Even as we climbed up the mountain again, the sound lingered and followed us all the way back to the cabin.