Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goodbye 2009

I will bid farewell to 2009 today. With more "wintry mix" predicted for tomorrow and New Year’s Day, I am making no predictions about the state of my internet connection at the cabin for the next few days.

This morning a 15 degree temperature with no wind feels wonderful. I stick my nose out of my burrow and find it a good day, a respite before that wintry mix returns to the mountain. This morning the dogs got a decent walk and both even behaved for once.

I look forward to a day off as much so I can walk in daylight as for any other reason. I eagerly watch the sunset to see a new minute added to the day. My other "plan" for the holiday weekend is to start my 2010 bird list. For me, birding on New Year’s Day is as much of a tradition as pork and sauerkraut and more of one than the Christmas bird counts. I know many people who live for the CBC’s, but give me good birding weather on New Year’s Day instead and I’m happy. In any event, good or bad birding on January 1, you're going to hear about it and that's a new year's prediction I feel confident in making.

If I were to make a resolution for the new year, it would be to find more time to spend outdoors, to pay more attention to what I see and to learn more about the things I do see. If I can do that, the rest of the year should take care of itself.

Whatever your own plans, may you enjoy the start of a new year.

Happy New Year! Welcome 2010

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A little night "music"

Last night the wind roared across the mountain. I lost power so many times that I simply stopped resetting the clocks. It’s easier just to wait until the wind dies down sometime tonight. Hopefully by then the power will stay on.

Fortunately, the trees in the forest are so far staying upright. This morning I picked up various branches and limbs—mostly long dead—that littered the driveway. With a temperature hovering around 20 degrees, a 40 mph wind makes for quite a wind chill. Suffice it to say that neither I nor the dogs were interested in a long walk this morning.

The chickens are pretty much under the cabin for the winter and seem to be doing well, though it’s weather like this that makes me glad I’m not a chicken. I’ve placed tarps over their pen, which I hope blocks the worst of the wind. In the years when I did a lot of winter backpacking in below zero weather, I was always surprised at how well a thin nylon tent (and a good sleeping bag) kept me cozy inside. Still, I’m sure all of us will be happier when the wind dies down.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Out of the cabin

I didn’t intend to be away from blogging for this long but weather and holidays and internet connections are variable and don’t always cooperate with my plans.

Since I’ve been offline, I’ve had warm weather, an ice storm, rain, high winds and even a sunny day. During the ice storm, I had the traditional mid-winter "carpet" of juncos on my deck. I counted about 50, but the little devils move around too much to get a completely accurate count. In any event, that’s a lot of juncos on a small deck.

The rain did in much of the snow and caused high water, though I don’t think it was quite high enough to be described as flooding. What the rain didn’t ruin, temperatures in the mid-40’s on one day did. One day of warm temperatures was enough to bring turkey vultures back into the sky over the forest, though wasn’t warm enough to bring the black vultures. Unless I really get a thaw, I probably won’t see them again until February.

So far no winter finches are plying my feeders, nor the feeders of anyone else I know down here. That isn’t really a surprise. The winter finches are pretty irruptive and it’s rare to get them two years in a row. Still, I always hope they will visit. Wild turkeys also came out of the woods—nearly a dozen of them yesterday morning.

As I haven’t mentioned any animals, you may safely assume that I haven’t seen any of those—except for the ever-present squirrels. I did walk the perimeter of my little cabin yesterday, searching for prints and didn’t find any—not even the deer. I suspect they are bedded down somewhere and not moving around too much. All’s quiet now and the internet connection, such as it is, is restored.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A little wren...

There’s nothing like a good snowstorm to fill the feeders with birds and empty them of food. Birds eat like sharks in a feeding frenzy during snowstorms. For me, it’s a good time to see lots of birds and to look for new birds.

This storm brought out large numbers of juncos and titmice, chickadees of both species, more cardinals than I knew were around and lots more. I did not see any unusual species. I believe a reason for that is that it’s still very early winter, and some of the more unusual winter birds may simply not have arrived. Or so I tell myself.

In other words, I didn’t have any purple finch, pine siskins or grosbeaks, let alone the rarer redpolls. After all, until two days ago it was still fall, and kind of a normal fall at that, so even those northern species that might be inclined to head south at some point this year might not have gotten their bags packed to actually begin the trip.

Perhaps my best sighting—and don’t hold your breath for it—was the first appearance of two Carolina wrens at the same time. I’ve always assumed that I had two of them, but they never appeared together before. I was also glad to see them for another reason. These little wrens tend to burrow in cavities near the ground, and heavy snowstorms can bury and kill them. They are also, apparently, sensitive to extremes of temperature. After a 20 inch storm in the mid-90’s, I didn’t see Carolina wrens again for several years. So I’m glad these two are staying someplace that can at least make it through a foot-deep snow with higher drifts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice snow

Weekend snow total at the cabin: About a foot.
Electricity: Remained on except for several flickers. The little town 4 miles from the mountain was out for about an hour on Saturday afternoon.
Chickens: Doing fine, thanks, though I couldn’t lure them outside the pen and into the snow.
Dogs: Crazy. What is it about snow and dogs? Mine act as though they’ve run wild all their lives and have never had a moment’s training when they see snow. They don’t heel. They don’t sit. All they want to do is run and run and run.
Walk to the car: A quarter mile
Plowed out: Not yet (but promises for today)

The nor’easter that buried the eastern cities didn’t hit quite as hard here as it did a bit further east. I ended up with about a foot of snow. On Saturday, the snow fell at about an inch or perhaps even two inches in an hour. Add in the wind, and it wasn’t quite a whiteout but it was close enough.

The snow was light and fluffy. I’m not sure I could have made a snowman even if I’d tried. I could almost broom it off the front deck, it was that light. This is the kind of snow I’m more likely to get in mid-winter than the last day of fall. Usually, the early-season snows are what I call "concrete" snows that have enough water in them to make a really wicked snowball.

The snow ended late Saturday evening, and on Sunday morning I was out shoveling and then playing in the snow a bit. It was tough to do much snowshoeing—too fluffy. I sank down to the bare ground, I think.

The feeder birds arrived at my feeders in droves. The back deck was littered with juncos and chickadees. For the first time ever, I actually saw two Carolina wrens at the same time. I’d always known there had to be two, but they always took turns at the feeder, and I’d never seen the pair together before. I didn’t have anything unusual show up at the feeders, but I certainly fed the masses. I filled the feeders three times on Saturday.

My photo today was taken yesterday evening at sunset. As today is the solstice, I wanted a photo showing the sun at its southernmost setting. The sunset is firmly in the southwest and not too far from south-southwest. By June the sunset will be in the northwest. By my opinion, which I know counts for nothing, the day after solstice should be the first day of the new year. What better time to start a new year than the day the light begins, however weakly, to add minutes to the day’s length again?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Warning! Snow ahead!

The next time I say life is normal, please slap me.

I love snow, I truly do. But after spending last weekend in New Hampshire and now facing a forecast of 6-12 inches of snow the weekend before Christmas, I am so far behind in preparing for the upcoming holiday that the only way I could catch up is if we move Christmas back a week—or maybe two.

I was afraid this would happen. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind, I looked at that storm on the radar down along the Gulf of Mexico and didn’t believe it when the forecasters said my area was only going to get a couple inches of snow. Last night the last thing I did before I turned off the light was to listen to the forecast. They were still saying 2-4 inches of snow, with my county’s prediction pegged at 2.5 inches. So, what happened? Did I sleep for days?

No, I didn’t. A mere seven hours later the forecast is now for 6-12 inches of actual snow, followed by wind, with 2-3 feet of wind-driven snow not out of the question. Yikes!

This morning, I can see the snow clouds moving in across the sunrise. Those pretty rose and mauve colors don't light up the sky every morning. The prettier the sunrise, the worse the weather to follow. Tonight, I’m going to be running until midnight—stocking up on bird seed, more chicken food, food for the holiday. Then I’m going to ready my snowshoes and hunker down. Snow's ahead!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


December once again feels like December here on Roundtop. Late last week, the temperature plunged into January range, with a brutal north wind. Then the temperature rose into early November range and felt balmy. Today, all the drama is over, and the day is simply typical for December.

Overnight, clouds rolled in and brought snow showers that gathered flakes along one side of my driveway but not the other. In December, it’s not uncommon for this to happen almost every night.

I, too, feel as though I am returning to normal after the drama of the weekend just past. Between the pleasure of the long trip to New Hampshire and the terror of frozen ice and a highway littered with accidents, normal feels pretty good right now.

In my case, normal could also be a euphemism for nothing much is happening right now. And certainly nothing unusual is going on. The closest thing to unusual was a quickly glimpse of an immature yellow-bellied sapsucker and that only barely qualifies as unusual. An immature sapsucker in December almost qualifies as a birding cliché. It’s true that I don’t find sapsuckers every year in December, but when I do find them, they are always immature birds. They hang around, eating my suet, until the first really harsh snowstorm arrives. Then they disappear. That's normal, too.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wherein a merlin gives me the hairy eyeball

A few photos of this lovely lady are the only photos I took in New Hampshire. It was a 9-hour drive north, followed by a morning-to-night meeting on Saturday, followed by a 13 hour, freezing rain-delayed trip home.

The only birding I got done was when two flocks of wild turkeys blocked the mountain road I was on. They stood there looking at the car before hopping over a snow bank and disappearing into the woods. So my hope of a week’s worth of New Hampshire photos to post on the blog did not materialize.

I should probably say a few words about this lovely lady. She is a 12-year old merlin, an education bird at Squam Lakes Nature Center in Holderness, NH. An injury to her left wing keeps her from flying more than a few flaps.

I was impressed by her for a couple of reasons. The first is simply her age. It’s amazing to me how long a wild bird or animal can live in captivity compared to their life in the wild. The other thing about her that is especially impressive is how calm she is. Of course, that’s what an education bird is supposed to be, but merlins are notoriously, um, not calm. This bird was absolutely the calmest merlin I’ve ever seen. She sat calmly and seemed content, where people were peering at her or while she was being carried.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Morning light with snow

Winter is arriving on the last days of fall with something of an attitude here on Roundtop Mtn. After snow, rain and slush, the wind is bone-chilling, and the temperatures are falling into the January and February range. From my experience, I’m already expecting a thaw. Of course, I have to get through this weekend first.

And speaking of weekends, I am heading to New Hampshire tomorrow. Two full days of driving for one full day of meetings with the Hawk Migration Association of North America await me. And some good meals and chats with good friends to soften that drive. In any event I should be back online on Monday, hopefully with a few good photos taken in New Hampshire for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Where's that cabin?

My little cabin in the woods is almost invisible in this photo. In summer, it is invisible from this spot. In winter I need a little snow cover to keep it invisible. Overnight, another inch or two of snow fell, and then the rain started. At the moment everything is a slushy mess. Tonight, it will likely turn into a frozen mess, unfortunately. This morning I couldn’t even entice the dogs to play in the snow. They don’t much care for the slush either.

One thing about living in the woods that I never seem to get used to, for some reason, is that travel can be difficult to impossible up at the cabin, but once I get off the mountain, it’s a different world. Down in civilization, the roads can be just wet or sometimes even dry, when up at the cabin I can barely get out or around.

That sometimes extreme difference can make it difficult for me to decide if I should head in to work or not. And for those times when the difference between here and there is at its worst, I have to suffer the unbelieving looks at work when I tell them I couldn’t get out.

This morning wasn’t as difficult a choice as I’ve sometimes had. The schools had a two-hour delay, and I was thinking I might have my own two-hour delay as well. But I managed to get out and discovered merely wet roads once I reached a public road.

Most of the time, I love the difference between life at the cabin and life down in the city. After all, that’s why I wanted to live in the cabin in the first place. It’s only explaining to my boss about my difficulty getting to work when the roads are dry down in the city that’s a bit uncomfortable.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Cold thoughts in snow

Snow from this past weekend remains around my cabin today, as the temperature has stayed cold. The major difference between the photo I’m posting today and the current reality outside my door is that the sky is now overcast. The dreaded "wintry mix" is expected later, which should it arrive as predicted, will ruin this pretty little snow and replace it with something less pretty.

In this area, a "wintry mix" is essentially a euphemism for freezing rain. Sometimes I wonder why they don’t just say freezing rain, as "wintry mix" doesn’t seem to mean anything else. Oh, the forecasters say it could also be rain or sleet or snow, but I can’t even tell you the last time the forecast for a "wintry mix" produced something other than freezing rain. For the moment, I am trying to take some comfort in that my county is supposed to get less of that than counties to my west and north. Still, I live on a mountain and forecasts are notoriously wrong, so I’m not dancing just yet.

Although it’s dark when I get home, I’ve still circled around the cabin a few times, looking for tracks in the snow. I haven’t found much other than deer, which is just as well. My chicken pen will keep out raccoons and fox, but I don’t have a prayer against weasels. The chickens are close enough to the cabin that I can hear them squawking at night, should something attempt to breach the pen then. Of course, that assumes I would be at home to hear them. I’ve never actually seen a weasel within a mile of the cabin. I just hope that continues.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Snowy weekend

Snow fell on Roundtop this weekend, a bit of a surprising snow in a couple of ways. This was the first snow of the season, and it’s uncommon for the first snow to be measurable. It’s also unusual that first night with temperatures that were below freezing all night ends up producing any snow at all. Up at the cabin I got 4, perhaps 4.5 inches of snow. It soon began to compress, though, and this morning I only have about 2 inches left on the ground.

The event was a pretty little snow that stuck on the trees and branches longer than is typical. I took enough photos that you will be seeing snow photos on this blog all week, even if the snow doesn’t last that long.

This was the chickens’ first experience of snow, and I don’t think they much liked it. When I opened the pen Saturday afternoon to let them out, they rushed the gate as usual but stopped dead when they got to that weird white stuff on the ground. Eventually they stuck their heads out and pecked at it a bit. They soon discovered they could avoid the snow and go back to pecking in the dirt and ruffling up the leaves if they stayed underneath the cabin and the back deck, where the snow didn’t penetrate.

The dogs are an entirely different story. They both love the snow. They forget everything they ever learned about walking nicely on a leash when the ground is white. They pull and lunge, and you’d never know that they do usually behave. Even after they run in circles and push their noses in the snow, they still don’t want to act as though they know how to walk nicely.

I enjoyed playing in the snow, too, though there really wasn’t enough of it to ski or snowshoe in. Maybe next time. Winter is here!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Open water

Snow. It might, here, this weekend. It’s in the forecast, though I can’t say that I yet feel it in the air or see it in the sky. Maybe this afternoon. For now, even a hint of snow--and on a Friday to boot!—is the kind of good news that doesn’t come along every day.

My photo today is of open water. With snow in the forecast, this is a sight I can’t expect to see for too much longer. True, this water is moving at a decent clip, which will keep it open longer than in places where the water is still. Even so, the time of freezing fast approaches. Will this be a year when the ponds stay frozen into late March or April? Will this be a year of many freezes and thaws? None of us can say. The future is a mystery even deeper than the forest. I know winter lies ahead, but not what winter will bring. Those secrets are held close.

So today I will celebrate the open water, knowing the time for it is short. The time of its return is unknown, so I have to be content only with the knowledge that it will, one of these days, return.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Mother moon and sister woods

This morning before sunrise I am greeted by the sight of Mother moon, hanging above the twin bumps of two, old Appalachian mountains. Sometime during the night, the rain spent the last of its moisture and moved off, leaving the air crystalline and sharp, the sky clear.

Ah, that lovely old moon! She has seen it all, hasn’t she? She has seen those mountains rise and now she watches as they wither away, to eventually be rounded into hills and at some point, not even that. And still, I expect, she will watch.

I have often thought that the trees of the forest around me would have quite a tale to tell if they could. But that tale is nothing compared to what the moon could tell us of what she has seen. This morning, as on all mornings, she is silent and her light is blue and cold.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A chilly night

Sometimes when I look at the thermometer, I can’t believe what I see. Today was one of those days. It felt so raw and damp that I thought the actual temperature must be at least 10 degrees cooler than it was. The chill wound its way under my coat and up my sleeves. As soon as I could, I came inside the cabin and got a heavier coat.

Temperature and how cold or warm I feel do not always track together. I’ve wandered around on cold, dry, sunny winter days with an unbuttoned jacket when the actual temperature was below zero. Today, the temperature was only flirting with freezing, but you couldn’t have guessed that by the coat I ended up wearing.

In describing this phenomenon, weather people usually talk about wet bulbs and dry bulbs. That’s really just the scientific way of factoring in how moist the air is. When the air is moist in cool weather, it feels worse than the temperature would indicate. Add in a little breeze, and it feels even colder.

A friend who was originally from the Green Bay area used to tell me that he felt colder in winter Pennsylvania than he ever did in Wisconsin. Their winters are dry cold; Pennsylvania’s are usually a wet cold that feel far worse than you’d expect.

This morning is overcast and raw, so you can safely assume today’s photo wasn’t taken today. Even though last night’s full moon was obscured by the high cirrus clouds, it still managed to brighten the forest. Both great horned owls and a screech owl called late into the evening. The red foxes were barking at each other higher up on the mountain somewhere. They were all, I think, taking advantage of the added light despite the chill. Tonight, it will be warmer but raining. I expect the woods will be quieter as we all try to shelter from the rain.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Winter's coming

The nights are growing cooler, literally with each new turn of the sun. Last night I was forced by a damp east wind to put away my lighter jacket and seek a heavier one. A bit of ice now greets me in the mornings where open water sits still and dark. Last Friday evening a cold wind blew in tiny, stinging needles of snow. Winter is coming. It is almost here.

By day’s light, the coming season is less in evidence. Winter sneaks in during the night and now tries to muscle in during daylight, too, though it is soon chased away. Each day that chase takes a little longer before warmer temperatures win out, at least for this day.