Friday, December 31, 2010

The game is afoot!

December’s wrath is disappearing, a few degrees at a time. 2011 will start off rather warm and I won’t mind even a little bit. Of course, if the warmer temperatures last for longer than a nice winter breather, I will begin to fret again. For a few days, however, it’s a most welcome relief.

My plans for the new year are nothing unusual. I will have the traditional Pennsylvania New Year’s dinner of pork, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. I will bird as much as I can on both January 1 and 2. The start of the new year means the start of a new bird list, and I’m determined to get my 2011 county list off to a good start.

For much of 2010, I was the #1 birder in York County, according to Cornell Lab’s e-bird, but limited birding opportunities, especially in the fall, dropped me well behind the two who are now ahead of me. I am determined to regain my #1 spot, though competing against a retiree and footloose young man will not be easy. So I want to get 2011 off on the right foot with as much birding as I can fit in over the upcoming holiday weekend. The warmer weather should help my cause, though rain on Saturday won’t.

I have a nice advantage with woodland birds, since I live in a forest, but shorebirds and waterbirds are my downfall, since that means I have to somehow find time to drive to the river or a large lake to add them to my list. And I don’t seem to be able to do that more than a few times a year. But this new year I will start off with trips to the river and a lake or two, looking for open water and seeing what I can find.

I will never have the means to even attempt a U.S. “big year,” and even a Pennsylvania big year must wait until I can retire. So until then, I will have to content myself with regaining my county crown. The race is on!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wind, wind go away

The big northeast blizzard pretty much missed me here Roundtop Mtn., though I was stuck with 50+ mph winds for several days. The forecast called for 6-10 inches of snow, so I feel safe in reporting the prediction was wrong. Snow showers were about all I got. I should point out, though, that the forecast was only off by 20 miles or so. With these kinds of storms, figuring out the track of the storm is the tough part.

In anticipation of the aforementioned 10 inches of snow, I made all my usual snow preparations. I dug out my snow shovels, tucked in the chickens, found all the battery-operated lanterns, installed new batteries and made sure I had plenty of emergency water on hand in case I lost electricity. Fortunately, none of those things were needed

Once the wind kicked up, the forest simply howled. I heard trees cracking and had branches fall into the driveway and the lane. Last night one branch fell on the steep-pitched roof and rolled down the whole way, sounding like a herd of elephants and rousting the dogs’ ire but causing no damage.

I don’t do wind well, I’m afraid. Go ahead and call me a wimp.  Living in the forest, I am more concerned about wind than any other natural problem.  I retreated to the coziness of the cabin and only came out to quickly run the dogs. But we all made it through, and now, after one of the colder Decembers on record (might make the top 10 coldest here), I am ready for the warm up. The warm-up won’t be enough for me to bring out the t-shirts and will only result in warmer than normal temperatures for a few or maybe several days. But after the first 3.5 weeks of December that already sounds heavenly.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Maybe it's not always Pig

Perhaps I have blamed Pig the raccoon for more than his share of my bird feeder destruction.
After many nights of being awakened to the sound of Baby Dog baying in outrage at the raccoon on the back deck, I have simply blamed all such nightly forays on him.

Then last early this morning, a bit after 5 a.m. when it was still dark but lit by the full moon, I saw a gray squirrel leap from the oak tree next to the cabin onto the tube feeder. The distance must be more than 10 feet, and the leap took everything the squirrel had. His little hindquarters pushed for all they were worth as he launched himself at the feeder, which obligingly fell to the deck in the face of the squirrel landing on it.

So I’ve maligned poor Pig, at least some of the time, when the fault is not his.

Now if I can only figure out what is rousting the chickens at 3 a.m., perhaps I will eventually get a full night’s sleep.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Solstice and full moon

Solstice, a full moon and an eclipse. If I had lived 372 years ago, the last time this phenomenon occurred, I would likely have assumed that combination portended something important. As it was, I simply set my alarm and got up just before 3 a.m. to view the extraordinary event. Did you?
The moon was an orangey-red; for me it was not the blood red I’ve heard described elsewhere. I couldn’t view it for the entire time of the eclipse as the moon dipped into clouds within several minutes. Still, it was well worth the wake-up alarm.

A few years ago I discovered I have my own personal and naturally-occurring “stonehenge” or at least a solstice display. Only at winter solstice does the sun set directly between the two trunks of the old oak behind my cabin. The druids would be pleased, as am I.

Now the sun will set further north each night. It will travel up the mountain, past its rounded peak, down the other side, up the side of Nell’s Hill, and reach past that rounded peak by the summer solstice. Some years, I don’t get to take my solstice photo because of poor weather. This year, the sun set just right, and I was able to watch the sun dip towards the horizon, right between the two trunks.
I was happy enough that this year’s solstice brought a full moon to soften the depths of the Long Night. In older times, bonfires were lit and burned through this night. With the full moon traversing the sky, a bonfire was hardly needed last night. The long night seemed much less fearsome with that huge moon above the cabin.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Early winter

The forest is brown and bare and still. The winter season is in its early phase; the dusting of snow only dots the old woods road. Perhaps this will be a winter with lots of snow, perhaps not. The chill of winter hangs in the air whether or not snow falls.

Winter is a dry season here, so the cold is more reliable than the snow. The ground is frozen and makes walking more difficult. Every invisible little bump threatens to turn an ankle or cause a misstep when I walk off a trail. The flattened grasses and leaves hide the bumps or holes, and I feel as though I am trying to balance on marbles simply by walking across the old field. I slow down and move more carefully, though that slowness allows the cold to creep under my jacket.

The ponds are frozen, if not yet frozen deep enough to walk on. Dog and Baby Dog eye the ice suspiciously. Dog heads down to the edge of the pond, as though he wants to attempt it. He chooses the wrong spot, where the remains of some summer plant creates a bloom of ice with open water behind it and the sound of rushing water underneath. He steps on the bad ice. It cracks and he retreats. Perhaps if he’d chosen a spot where the ice was smooth and clear... Perhaps tomorrow he will try again.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A trace of snow

A trace of snow covers Roundtop Mountain and the low valley between the mountain and the orchards.  In the early morning the old road looks especially wintry today.  The old road winds along Beaver Creek, following its every curve, rising and falling a bit where the creek dives into a deeper spot or where the banks are too steep for a path, let alone a road.

In summer and fall I walk this road regularly.  Few vehicles ever pass and those only the Roundtop crew heading over to check on a pump or a well.  So when I walk it, I have the mountain to myself.  In snowy weather, I walk it less frequently, perhaps just 2-3 times over the winter.  The valley holds the cold as close as a lover, and the paths are icy. The hours of daylight are short, too, which lessens the time to get in and out again before dark.

Even in this time, though, the road calls to me.  That curve up ahead, where the road disappears into the forest, draws me like a magnet.  How can anyone resist the call of a road that winds into the woods, with a hint of still-invisible wonders up ahead?  Even though I know every curve and hollow, every rise and fall of that road, it still draws me in.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Calm and quiet(er)

Ahh! Rifle season for deer is over, and the brutal wind that has torn across Roundtop Mountain this week has diminished. This morning the dogs got their normal walk in the woods instead of the shorter one that kept us all away from spots where the hunters sat. And despite the 14 degree temperature, without that wind this morning’s pre-dawn walk was both comfortable and enjoyable.

The dogs were wild of course. Shorter walks for nearly two weeks do not make for calm dogs.

Snow showers flit across the mountain today. Sometimes I can see by the clouds that snow is falling, but it doesn’t always reach the ground. By Saturday the temperature might even break freezing for the first time in a week, but I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

The chickens’ water freezes solid overnight and freezes pretty solid during the day. I have two waterers for them and switch them out between morning and evening. The chickens are usually all on the roost when I switch out the water in the evening, so I don’t know if they have a chance to drink much of before it freezes solid. I don’t have electricity out to the chickens, and I’ve tried so-called solar sippers, but the bottom line is the girls don’t have many hours of opportunity to get a drink before the water freezes.

This winter is supposed to be a la nina year, which in this area typically means a winter is warmer and wetter than normal. So far neither of those things are true, but I’ve been around long enough to know that a cold start to the winter in December doesn’t necessarily predict anything about the rest of the winter. Warmer and wetter than average could still be the case later on. At this point, I’d be happy with less wind and more sunshine. We do appear to be making progress on the less wind part, but not so much with the sunshine.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Almost tin roof gray

Cliches usually have some truth in them. I was reminded of that this morning when I saw the sky—a leaden sky. The sky is the color of lead and even looks as dense as that metal. It’s a cold, uninviting, winter sky, portending snow or freezing rain or something that feels damp and miserable. So the term may be a cliché but it also holds truth.

Looking at the overcast sky reminded me of how I predicted snow when I was a kid. We lived in town then, and across the street was a duplex with a tin roof. Whenever the sky turned the exact shade of gray as that tin roof, it was about to snow. In my memory, that trick never failed. The sky never turned that shade of gray in summer, even before a summer storm. Only in winter did the sky reach the perfect shade of tin roof gray.

This morning, to my eye, the leaden sky is just a few shades too deep a gray to mean snow is about to fall from it. It needs a few more hours yet to “ripen” into the right shade, but it’s working itself into that direction. We’ll see what happens.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Foggy woods, damp day

Virtually every kind of precipitation there is fell out of the sky today. By dusk the precipitation was rain. Most of the day was foggy, as you can see from the photo I took earlier today. It was the kind of day that demanded cups of hot tea and a couple of wet walks in the woods with the dogs, followed by a sit in front of the fire.
In other words, the day was a bit lazy, perhaps lacking only a nap to turn it into a full-scale kind of lazy day. Even the chickens weren't inclined to wander outside their pen, though the gate was open most of the day. The dogs didn't mind the wet weather, at least not enough to want to stay inside when offered the chance for a walk.

Our forays produced a few surprises--a robin scolded us, the flickers I hadn't seen for a few weeks skittered in front of us. Wait, a robin? Where did that come from? Canada, perhaps? Unhappy with me or the dogs, the bird scolded as we passed. The flickers are less of a surprise, but still a pleasant sighting after not seeing them for a while.

We didn't see anyone on our walks, which given the weather, is hardly a surprise. Where I like to walk, it's rare to run into someone even in nice weather. And on those few occasions, the human is likely to be a ski resort employee on some errand or another. But today there was none of that, just me and the dogs, the wet and brown woods and the fog.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Icy visitor arrives and settles in

Winter arrived about a week earlier at Powerdermill Nature Reserve (where I took today’s photo) than it did at my cabin on Roundtop. These icy stalactites already look as though they are ensconced for the winter, though they can’t have formed more than a few days, perhaps a week, before I took the photo. The weather was still pretty warm in late November, though I am sure up in the hollow where Powdermill Creek runs, it would be colder there than elsewhere.
Here on Roundtop it didn’t take long for winter to settle in, plump the cushions and get comfortable, though. When I got up this morning the temperature was a chilly 15 degrees, though at least it’s no longer 15 degrees with a 20 mph north wind, which is what I had a day or so earlier.

I enjoy winter, but my vision of winter is a sunny, clear day with no wind, even if the temperature doesn’t rise above 20 degrees. The thermometer could say 35 degrees, but if there’s wind you can probably find me huddled inside in front of the fire. Call me a wimp but there you have it. I don’t do wind well.

Snow showers pass over my cabin this morning. I can see them coming, first covering the top of Nell’s Hill to the west.  The scent of snow finds me next, even before the snow obscures the valley between us.  Finally, the snow rushes up the hill, hiding one tree and then the next to reach my cabin on the side of Roundtop. It takes about 3-4 minutes (though I’ve never timed it) for the shower to arrive, which gives me time to refill the bird feeders or close the chicken pen.

This year winter arrived suddenly, which made it seem like an unexpected visitor. Fall lingered on, losing strength a degree or so at a time, leading me to think that would continue. Instead, this winter visitor gave little sign of its imminent arrival, lulling me into thinking I had another week, perhaps two, to get ready for it. Guess not.  It's here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

More from Powdermill

The Powdermill Creek area has a lot more snow now than when I took these photos on Saturday morning. Still, the snow I saw then was the first snow I've seen this season that was more than just a few flakes. Powdermill Creek runs right outside the door of the cabin where I stayed over the weekend. The screened-in summer porch would be a great place to sit and watch the water flow by. In 20 degree weather, I didn’t spend any time sitting on the porch, but I did wander around the stream for a little bit.

The creek was running full and burbled loudly, so that the only bird song I heard was the scolding from a single chickadee and the sound of a singing cardinal somewhere in the distance. Deer hunters were out and about, too, which could have contributed to quieting the forest animals.

Several huge hemlocks shaded the cabin and the creek, a welcome sight. Hemlock is Pennsylvania’s state tree, and we are losing many of them to a fungus. I hope they don’t go the way of the American chestnut tree. I have 200 year old trees around my own cabin, and these hemlocks were larger than those, so I would not be surprised if these turned out to be 300 year old trees. For the moment, these looked healthy, and I hope they remain as strong and beautiful as they are today.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Powdermill Avian Research Center

 I am just back from a weekend trip to Powdermill Avian Research Center, which is a part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The research center and nature center is located near the town of Rector, PA.  I was attending the annual board meeting of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and was fortunate enough to be one of six people who stayed in this sweet little cabin, which is owned by the research center.

The cabin is located along Powdermill Creek and to reach the cabin we first had to get a key to the gate.  Then we drove back an unplowed, very narrow and steep dirt road for about a mile to reach the cabin. As you can see from the first photo, when we arrived there wasn't all that much snow, but snow continued to fall (and mostly melt) on Saturday.  Sunday morning, the area was supposed to get 8 or more inches of snow, so we ended up leaving early, which was a shame, as I would have enjoyed some hiking and more birdwatching than I was able to do.

The inside of the cabin was very sweet, too, making me a tad jealous, and except for the lack of any cell phone service, let alone high-speed internet, I was ready to move right in. 

The screened in summer porch was pretty nice, but we didn't get to enjoy that, as the temperature hovered around 20-25 degrees the entire time we were there.

The upstairs was a loft with several beds.  Downstairs were two bedrooms with two beds each.  We  were very comfortable, even though we didn't get to spend all that much time inside the cabin.  The storage in the kitchen was impressive, and I was more than a bit jealous of all that space, not to mention the way the storage was constructed so that everything was built in, and what looked like a lovely wooden wall was actually entire wall of storage with various doors and drawer and a pantry. 

So now I am back home, faced with a very dirty cabin of my own.  Oh, did I mention it?  That's the other great thing about this cabin--I didn't have to clean it.  Tomorrow, I'll post some photos I took outside the cabin.  It was pretty sweet outside, too!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Roundtop snowmaking is underway!

Roundtop started making snow for the winter season last night. I was surprised when I got up this morning that this annual activity was underway. I hadn’t heard the guns fire up at all, not that they are particularly noisy over by my cabin. Also, the day before had reached 61 before a huge rainstorm fell on the area and the temperature plummeted by 30-couple degrees. That’s not usually a combination I think of as being conducive to snow-making.

I’m not the only resident of the mountain that ignores the snowmaking. The local birds and animals seem as oblivious to the sound as I am. I did discover some years ago that it’s best not to take the dogs too close to the guns while they are spewing snow onto the lower half of the slopes. The sound hurts their sensitive ears, so I don’t walk them next to the slopes while snowmaking is underway.

Once snowmaking is underway, there’s little point in denying that winter is here. I tend to enjoy winter, so this was a happy start to the day for me. Snowmaking is a bit like an alarm clock for me—it’s time to think about hauling out or at least checking on the condition of the cross-country skiis and snowshoes, even if there’s no natural snow in my immediate future.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A few visitors

Gray squirrels must be a bit smarter than I’ve given them credit for in the past. I have one that comes to the patio door, stands up on its hind legs, places its front feet on the glass and peers inside the cabin. It gives every indication that it’s begging or looking for food. I’ve seen it pull this trick twice now, both times when the bird feeders (should I call them squirrel feeders?) were empty.
It drives the dogs crazy, of course. The cats aren’t much better, though at least they don’t bark, which is something of an improvement. So far, I haven’t been able to get a photo of the entire procedure, though if the dogs didn’t scare the squirrel with their hysteria, that might be possible. I’ll keep trying.

So far, I have plenty of goldfinch coming to my niger seed feeder, but I haven’t found anything more exotic than that. I’m hoping for siskins but haven’t found any local birders who’ve had them this season. I’ll keep looking.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

This morning I awoke to snow flurries, at first wafting out of the sky like feathers.  In a few minutes, the flurries intensified a bit, hiding the top of the western mountain with that distinctive veil of gray.  You can almost see that in today's photo, just to the right of the mountain's peak.  The air feels raw,too, though at least the wind is calm. 

Chickadees and titmice attack the feeders with gusto, perhaps the snow making them a bit edgy or at least even more eager for breakfast.  The dogs are full of themselves.  Gone is the laziness of summer's heat.  They are eager to run, to play, to get in trouble, if they can find it.

I hear the geese fussing over at the big pond.  I can't see them, but I know what they are doing by the sounds they make.  They are chasing each other; perhaps a stranger is trying to join the flock and they are chasing him out.  Perhaps it's just high spirits.  I think the weather has them feeling frisky, too.

This is the look of late fall here on the mountain.  Winter is not yet here, but I can feel it nearby, knocking on the door.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

November clouds and sunrise

Good Thanksgiving morning!

My photo on this holiday morning was not taken this morning. It's still too dark on this rainy, drizzly, sleety, snowy morning to take one.  My Thanksgiving dinner won't happen until later today, but the deer have already gotten a salt lick, the birds are feeding happily as I type, and the squirrels have gotten corn, though they seem to prefer the suet that I'd put out for the feeder birds.  The fireplace is warming the cabin, and for a few hours, I don't need to do anything but drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the morning.  My wish for you today is to find a few quiet hours before the get-togethers and the dinner and the family time to enjoy the natural world around your door.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Feeding like there's no tomorrow

That dreaded phrase, a “wintry mix,” is now part of the local forecast for Thanksgiving. It’s the “mix” part of that phrase that’s the really, ugly part. Mix usually means sleet and rain, sometimes ice. It’s never a pretty picture, that’s for sure.
The sky over the cabin has only a few clouds this morning, but the birds are already acting as though something is going to happen. Even my chickens are behaving as though they haven’t eaten in a week, judging by the way they rushed me when I was brought their food out this morning. The wild birds that come to my feeders are probably the regulars who appear every day, so they really don’t have much of an excuse either, given how quickly my feeders empty each day. But excuse or not, this morning the birds are feeding as though there will be no food tomorrow, and we all know that won’t be the case.

I enjoy winter quite a bit, but to me that assumes winter brings snow. November and early December are more likely to produce a “wintry mix,” and that I can do without.

At the cabin, I thought I was pretty well prepared for winter—until the door knob fell off yesterday morning. So that’s one more things that needs taken care of. Ah, the joys of cabin ownership. It’s always something.

Here in the U.S. tomorrow is Thanksgiving, or “Turkey Day” as it is euphemistically described. Everyone always eats too much on Thanksgiving. That’s a requirement of the holiday, and I won’t be an exception to the rule. The birds around my cabin, both the tame ones and the wild ones, will have plenty to fill their tummies, too.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

November foray

Now that the leaves have dropped, the brown shades of winter dominate the forest, even if the temperatures of winter have yet to arrive. This time of year can be challenging to photograph because the landscape is something of a monochrome. October brings such a riot of color that the sudden change to brown can be something of a shock.

This weekend the quiet that has pervaded November 2010 continued, so I was eager to get outside. Temperatures this November are about typical, but unlike many Novembers that produce a variety of precipitation, this one hasn’t done much of that so far. In other words, this has been an excellent November to be out and about and not huddled around a fire.

The sameness of the color of my local landscape drives me to look for things that are not brown, and that search usually finds me looking at fungus and moss. This weekend I found lichen and fungus and moss in abundance, so for the moment I happily have something to photograph.
The moss I found looked like a tiny little field of ferns, nature’s own miniature landscape.
The fungus covered the west side of this tree with ribbons of tiny, white polka dots of fungus.
Lichen is a favorite of mine. It is sensitive to air pollution of nearly any kind, so when I see a nice healthy patch of it on a rock or a tree trunk, I know I’m in a healthy forest.
So the leaves have fallen, the forest has turned brown, and the deer are taking on their duller winter coats. Can snow be far behind? Probably not.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The quiet of the season

Quiet is good, I tell myself, hoping to believe it sooner or later. The wind has died down, which is a good thing. I was tired of finding limbs in the driveway that were too large to drive over. More than a few of them seriously tempted me. I sort of wanted to see what would happen if I did drive over them or at least tried to. But then I grew rational again, thought of the possible car repair costs and did the smart thing by exiting the car and dragging the limb or branch or half a tree out of the way.

Quiet is a good thing because it means the raccoons haven’t dragged the bird feeders deep into the woods for several days. One feeder I never have found. Another was tossed or dragged off the back deck. The glass is still missing out of the squirrel-proof feeder. It did keep squirrels out. I’ve never seen a raccoon-proof feeder for sale. I think people know better than to advertize a feeder that way, because there would be no possibility of truth in such a statement.

The nights are quieter than I have been used to for a while. My windows are closed now. I had gotten used to the gentle sounds of the forest as my ever-present background music. But now those sounds are gone until the weather warms in the spring again.

For the moment, not much is going on around my cabin. Migration is quickly winding down and that means the birds that I see outside my door today are pretty much the only ones I will see until roughly the middle of March. Oh, I will likely find a few waterfowl, perhaps the odd wintering-over raptor, but I will have to travel to see them and there won’t be many.

Winter is a time of quiet, and the quiet is again settling over Roundtop Mountain. I enjoy the silence, though sometimes I also think I understand the urge towards hibernation. After the busyness of the fall season, the quiet and the silence of near-winter is making me feel a bit restless. Perhaps I should just hibernate through the quiet and awaken to spring’s bustle. Perhaps I’ll get over my restlessness and settle in to the quiet. Maybe that will be tomorrow. Or the next day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The night visitor

Last night clouds moved across the sky, growing ever lower, and before morning drizzle began to fall. The spate of warm and lovely November weather is ended. When the storm clears, the weather will turn to late fall temperatures, and snow showers are even in the forecast for Thursday. Winter will soon be on its way.

When it’s cloudy at night and rain is due, the clouds actually make the forest lighter. The contrast between the gray clouds and the trees makes it easer to see further than does a clear, black sky against the dark trees.

After I turn the lights out at the cabin, the nighttime view from the window lets me see across the forest floor, until the slope of the mountain hides it. Last night, as I lay in bed, I saw the silhouette of an owl cross the view. It was a great horned owl, as nothing else is so large. It crossed my view heading diagonally across the window, heading towards the ground. No doubt a mouse, perhaps on its way to becoming dinner, attracted the night time predator.

I don’t often get to see the owls that live on Roundtop. I hear them frequently, often several times a week. The great horned is the most common, though I fairly often hear the eastern screech owl, too. Barred owls are rare up by the cabin, though are more common down in the swampy area at the base of the mountain. Anything else is very rare, possible only during migration. I’ve heard the saw whet owl a few times and heard rumors of long-eared owls, but have never seen one of those here.

Most often, when I do see an owl, it’s not long after dawn on a grey and rainy morning. I’ve always thought the owls simply hadn’t gone to roost yet because the morning was so dark. Seeing one of the silent predators of the night swoop across the forest in those few minutes when I lay waiting for sleep is the rarest of treats. I’m sure it happens much more often than I see it, perhaps many more times, but long after I have fallen asleep.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A walk in November

Sunday was such a nice November day that I was compelled to go for a hike—not that I need much in the way of compelling. But I usually end up starting my hike right out my own cabin door, and it is a bit unusual for me to actually get in the car and drive someplace to go hiking.
I didn’t go far, just the few miles down to Pinchot Lake to walk on a trail I hadn’t walked on in a while. The walk is an easy one, mostly flat with a few mild uphills. The trail was rocky in spots, though, and those rocks are now covered with ankle-deep leaves, so that made the walk a bit more demanding that it would otherwise have been.

I was simply looking to get out of the cabin and wander around the woods for a bit before I became mired in household chores, so that was good enough for me. This lovely spate of pleasant November weather is soon coming to an end, and I was determined to take advantage of it while I could.

I left early on Sunday morning and never saw another soul on my little trek. White-throated sparrows and Carolina chickadees scolded me throughout much of the walk. A time or two I heard a deer crashing through the woods to get away from me, though I never saw them.

Nothing recharges my batteries like a quiet morning walk in the woods. It doesn’t matter to me if I don’t see anything unusual. It doesn’t matter to me if the walk doesn’t take me to some exotic vista. I’ve never quite understood the folks who feel they have to see a waterfall or a great view on their hikes. It’s the time away from the everyday that’s important. It doesn’t even matter if I don’t go far. It’s only important that I go.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The pleasures of November

November is a bit of a guilty pleasure kind of month for me. It’s not the kind of month that provokes nods of approval when I tell people I like November. Most people prefer October and May, and while those can both be very nice months, I still prefer November.

I like days that start out chilly and progress to shirt sleeves. I like a fire in the evenings. I like the view once the leaves have fallen. In my case the views I like are both the distant one over to the western mountain and the nearer one that lets me see deeper into the forest than the nearest 15 feet. And if I had to choose between them, I prefer the one that lets me see across the forest floor for a few hundred feet or so.

In the mornings, the feeder birds are glad to see me when I put out the feeder that I bring in at dark to keep the raccoons out of them. The raccoon still cleans up any seed the birds kicked out of the feeders, so he’s not starving, just in case you wondered.

The chickadees and downy woodpeckers are especially glad to see me and are already tamer than is usual for this early in the feeding cycle. This morning, a downy started eating at the tube feeder that was within a foot of my left ear while I was still filling the platform feeders. I could hear it pulling seed out through the wire mesh. Perhaps emboldened by the female downy, the chickadees landed on the deck railing and then the feeding table as I was adding seed and this year’s new offering—freeze-dried mealworms.

Last week a I held a chickadee that knocked itself silly when it startled and flew against my living room window. I stood outside with that tiny ball of fluff in my hand, waiting for it to recover. The rest of the feeder birds apparently viewed this operation as proof that I was “safe” and were soon darting into and out of the feeders while I held the little chickadee. Soon the little one was better and popped off into a branch.

Since then, the feeder birds have pretty much ignored me when I’m outside. I love being surrounded by them when I am outside. The birds don’t come to the feeders much in the warm months; the forest produces all the natural food they need. It’s only when that food disappears that they return to my feeders, yet one more happy event of November and one more reason to enjoy this time of year.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The joys of fallen leaves

One of the good things about the open forest of November is all that I get to see the vegetation isn’t a solid wall of green. This morning it was two squirrels chasing each other around a tree and a pair of deer sneaking deeper into the woods as Dog and I passed.
In summer I hear what’s going on but am often left to imagine who is making the sound. I have gotten pretty good at guessing what noises go with what animal, but it’s still more fun to actually see them.

Of course, all those dry, downed leaves, as yet undampened by any rain since they fell, helps too. Not even the sneakiest raccoon or the most careful turkey can avoid the scraping and crunching noises the merest touch creates on those leaves. Any noise sets the dogs to barking, which prompts me to head towards a window to see what all the excitement is about. I’ve seen all kinds of things that I never would have seen if I hadn’t been alerted by the dogs or sometimes the cats. Fox tiptoeing through the back forest just past the deck, a person wandering over on a ski slope, the chickens out where they shouldn’t be—it doesn’t matter what, very little gets past the cabin without someone knowing about it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November morning ramblings with geese

A few leaves are still hanging around the forest. Most of those are on the very tops of the trees. The under-canopy of the trees and the understory of the forest are largely bare of leaves or cover right now.

The sky is taking on that deeper blue shade of winter. I’ve never quite known if it’s the lessened humidity or the sun’s angle that creates the shade, but the summer sky is never this color. It’s only November that brings a blue as deep as a sapphire, even in the early mornings.

For the past few days I heard Canada geese almost every time I step outside. Some are migrants. Some are the locals feeling the pull of autumn even though they won’t head south. Something, probably something they don’t even understand, draws them into the air and sets them to that high, keening call even if they are just flying down the mountain or over to the next pond.

The evenings here at the cabin are chilly, and night’s dampness seeps through my clothes, no matter what I’m wearing. The days warm up nicely, though are often accompanied by a breeze that limits a true appreciation of the temperature. Still, this is the kind of weather that requires me to start the day wearing several layers of clothing that are usually shed by midday.

November is good weather for outside work. I can work hard without sweating off gallons of myself, and it’s not yet so cold that I have to work for an hour before I feel comfortably warm. There’s a lot good to be said for a month like that. November has its own kind of pleasures.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Winter is knocking on the door

My western view is still a work in progress, though already a bit more progress has been made. I took this photo on Saturday morning, and I know more leaves have come down since then. I might even have seen the season’s first snowflake last evening, though I wouldn’t swear to it. After dark I was walking Dog, wearing my headlamp to navigate the through the forest during the New Moon. And I thought I saw at least two snowflakes.
The nights are cold enough for snow, if not yet cold enough for snow to lay on the ground. Lake-effect snow did fall not all that far west of me, so it’s not out of the question for a few of those flakes to reach my wind-swept mountain top. The feeder birds have certainly feed as though they expect snow.

I’ve resorted to bringing my bird feeders inside overnight. I’m tired of feeding a 20+lb raccoon and having to wander through the forest looking for the birdfeeders he’s stolen from my deck. Not only must I remember to bring them in at night, but I have to remember to put them out in the morning—a task that’s easier to remember this morning because the forest is now light when I eat breakfast.

The feeders were busy with birds all weekend. I didn’t see anything unusual, though I was happy to see three goldfinch in the finch feeder. Often, that feeder seems lonely, and the niger seed not quick to get eaten. Some of the birds that are supposed to be eating the niger seed seem to prefer the other offerings instead. I don’t begrudge them whatever they choose to eat, but it’s made me consider taking that feeder down as a result. I guess I won’t do that now. Those goldfinch have convinced me that someone is using it.

Away from the feeders, I did see a few unusual birds, at least unusual for November. Yesterday, a nearly-adult bald eagle flew over Roundtop’s north parking lot, heading north. I guess that one’s not ready to migrate just yet. And I saw three robins cruising quickly through the trees, probably wondering where their next worms are going to come from.

It’s starting to feel almost wintry outside, that windy, chilly, raw feeling that says November to me. November to me means it’s time to make sure I’m ready for winter, and that raw wind from the northwest hurries me along. I hurry to stay warm and I hurry to finish up all the things that need done before winter. Time is short now. Winter is coming.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Later and later

The leaves are falling every day, a little or a lot. Today is a rainy day, to be followed by a breezy one, so I expect not many leaves will be left by the end of tomorrow. This is something I look forward to every year because it means I can see the sky again. It means I have a view again. It means I can see through the woods again when I sit on my back deck.

I have been in my cabin for nearly 20 years now, and each year the leaf fall is a day or two later than the previous year. For a good many years, I could count on the leaves being down before Halloween. Sometime around the 26th or 27th or 28th they were down. Then the leaf fall became Halloween itself. Now, the leaf fall is slipping past the first of November and will soon threaten not to finish until the second week of the month.

Climate change? Global warming? Call it what you will, but a change in the date of leaf fall by two weeks over 20 years is a lot, no matter how you name it. That’s two weeks less for the leaves to decay on the forest floor over the winter and likely two weeks less for winter weather, as well. What does that change do for the germination of this year’s nut crop? What does it mean to the water table if warmer weather lasts longer? Likely, thousands of things are affected by such a shift, most of which I suspect we don’t even know about.

Insects can forage later in the year. Warblers arrive in the spring after the point when insects they used to feed on have already dispersed. The trend doesn’t look to be one that shows any sign of slowing down. It’s as though our little blue marble in space is rolling down a hill and picking up speed with every revolution. Stopping or even slowing this freefall will be difficult to impossible, I expect.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope we can find fixes that don’t entail removing human life from the planet. I hope we are smart enough and care enough about our little blue marble that the best minds on it can find a solution to keep all life on it healthy. But every year the leaves drop a little later than the year or the two years before, and I wonder.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Changing seasons, changing thoughts

Fall’s colors are already past their peak. The color doesn’t last very long, certainly not long enough to enjoy it properly. Wind has brought many leaves down, perhaps half of them. That’s enough to open up the view around the cabin. Funny, how summer’s heat never seems to end but fall’s glory is over in an instant.

This morning I found ice in the chickens’ water. My bed was covered with cats all night. The dogs huddled together like puppies. There’s no denying the season is changing.

It seems odd to me, after six warm months, to find ice again. After all the years I have seen ice come and go, I would have guessed that the annual reappearance of ice would be so old hat as to hardly even be noticeable, let alone worth mentioning. But that’s not the case. Apparently the span of 180 days or so is enough for the commonplace to appear new again.

Each year brings new surprises and new reappearances. The passing of time lets me look and think about things with a fresh eye and a fresh mind. I don’t know what the right amount of time is for the eye and mind to see old things in a new light. The surprise of the ice is a good reminder for me to think about the things I believe to be true and see if any adjustments are needed. Maybe what I thought was true last year isn’t as true this year. I’m pretty sure one season isn’t long enough for this process to work. Two seasons or 180 days works, though there’s nothing magical, so far as I know, about the passage of that amount of time.
The impending arrival of winter, with its shorter days and long nights, is as good a time as any for me to kick those thoughts around a little.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Whoa, Nellie! I'm not ready for that

I can’t remember the last time my area had a freeze before a frost, but it looks as though that’s what will happen tonight. I guess that means I can add one more item to the list of unusual weather events for 2010. Tonight I’ll have to throw some more straw to the chickens and make sure their pen is readied for cooler weather.
Last evening I found a large flock of Canada geese lounging by and on the largest pond here at Roundtop. I suspect they are migrants, not locals. They were suspicious and flighty, which would be unusual for the local birds that suffered through weeks of adventure camp with more aplomb than I would have guessed. I still have two or three windows that are just barely cracked open at the cabin, and perhaps I’ll make an effort to get them closed tonight. I like to think that not much cold air enters or warm air escapes through them, though that’s probably not so. I just like to hear what’s going on outside, and once those windows are finally closed for the cold months, I can’t hear the woodland sounds or the birds twittering at my feeders.

I can’t pretend to be surprised. I’m within spitting distance of November, after all. Yet, somehow I always feel unprepared for these seasonal chores. Partly, I think it’s because summer feels like a long, extended stretch of unchanging weather to me. And then when fall arrives, it’s a new change every minute or so. It just takes me longer than that to get back in gear after idling for so long.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A good morning

Today was a good morning for sunrise photos.
Today was a good morning for a sunrise.
Today was a good morning.

Deer eyes greeted me this morning, shining in the gleam of my headlamp, one of the foxes, too. The crows watch them, pausing in the treetops for a few moments, just to make sure they aren’t up to anything tricky.

Even before sunrise, when the stars were already gone and the sky just pale, crows argued above the trees. Small flocks of unidentifiable little birds slipped overhead, followed by a flock of 19 robins. They are heading south, all of them, soon to be gone until another turning of the year. They hurry, as though there isn’t much time.

Migration was getting off to an early start this morning. I could feel it too, though how much more must those with wings sense the change in the air and feel that certain something in the wind that says, “head south” to them. I don’t feel the urge to head south, but I can tell when the day is right, when the wind is right. This morning, the wind is right.

I don’t mind that I stay behind, while they are urged to the south. The mountain becomes a different place when they are gone, so in a way I am in a different place, too, even though I haven’t left.

At the cabin, Pig the raccoon made another appearance last evening, precisely at 8:05 p.m., which was the same time he appeared the night before. Last night, I saw him in mid-leap, followed by a heavy plop when he leaped and failed to reach the hanging suet feeder. That’s what too much bird seed will do to a raccoon. Baby Dog was outraged (again!) and again I was on the telephone during Pig’s arrival. What must people think? That I’m attacked nightly by aliens? Or wolves? To hear Baby Dog, you’d think it must be something at least that dangerous.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Still quiet. Well, sort of

Roundtop is quiet for the moment. The only excitement was the appearance of the raccoon I have nicknamed Pig. Pig is a pig when it comes to finding bird seed and leftover cat food. But the real reason for the nickname is his enormous size. If this isn’t a 30 lb. raccoon, I’ve never seen one.

Last evening I was talking on the phone when a tiger-sized roar erupted from Baby Dog. That’s her raccoon voice. The sound of outrage is unmistakable. I don’t even have to go look. I know Pig is out there when I hear that sound. Baby Dog will keep up her outrage unless and until I go to the door and watch Pig scurry away. If I don’t go to the door, she will bark for hours.

As excitement goes, Pig is a pretty poor excuse, but as I said, it’s kind of quiet. The sky remains overcast and the clouds so low that it’s hard to tell when daylight actually does arrive. At least I haven’t had much from that big storm that’s swept across the country. A bit of rain, but no lightning or tornadoes and so far no wind either, though apparently I might still get some of that. In any event, the fall leaves survived for another morning, even if it’s still too gloomy to see them in their full glory. Sometimes I can see a hint of the glory, and that will have to do.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On a dark and dreary morning...

Today might be the last “good” day for autumn leaves here on Roundtop. Partly, it’s just time for the leaves to fall. Partly, it’s that weather system that’s due to arrive tonight. Put together wind and leaves ready to fall and that ends up with leaves fallen and on the ground. Or so I suspect will be how the morning greets me tomorrow.

So this morning, in the darkness of the pre-dawn hour, amid the gloom of a drizzle, I am out trying to get a few last leaf photos. The light wasn’t very good, but it won’t be very good all day, so I was stuck with what there was. That’s just the way it is.

The time change isn’t for another 12 days or so, and I will just have to put up with dark mornings until that happens. At this point, I pretty much wake up the chickens to feed them before I leave for work. They don’t mind being awakened, but they don’t see well in the darkness, and almost any motion scares them. Something like moving the feed dish or plunking down the water bottle, neither of which fazes them in the least in daylight, suddenly is a scary thing.

Worst of all about the morning darkness for me is that I don’t get to see the feeder birds that empty my bird feeders. It’s too dark now even for the crows, those early risers of the colder months. I’ve thought of putting in a birdcam but then I’d probably never get any work done. And there’s also the matter of reporting. Can I report a bird species I see only on my webcam? I suspect not, and that would make me crazy if the redpolls or the siskins or the crossbills showed up. Better I simply not know they were there.

Today's photo shows the lane up to my cabin.  It's prettier in sunlight.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fall bonus

Sunday was a rare bonus. It’s not often that a day in late October is warm enough to sit comfortably outdoors and enjoy the pleasures of fall. Adding to that was this lovely warm day occurred not on a weekday or even on a busy Saturday, but on a Sunday, when people are more inclined to take the time to simply enjoy it. Everywhere I went I saw people outside walking, gathering with friends on their front porches or just sitting, still as a stone, faces upturned towards the sun.

I took full advantage of the day, too. Dog and Baby Dog both got long walks in the daylight, for once, not just in the pre-dawn darkness. We all enjoyed that change. This fall is not turning out to be a brilliant one for color, but that doesn’t mean what can be seen isn’t enjoyable. Fall is not just about leaves, but is also about the warm shades of fall sunlight, and that is as nice as ever.

Behind the cabin, I can now begin to see the outline of the mountains to my west. The outline has reached the point where it’s no longer more in my imagination than reality, either. The night sky is visible through the forest canopy enough so that I can even see a few stars—or will be able to once the moon wanes a bit.  The first white-throated sparrows visited my birdfeeder this weekend. They seemed confused by the feeder but attracted to it, watching the more skilled chickadees and titmice deftly comb the deck for seed.

My photo today was taken at Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch, where I got to sit and watch the interplay of sky and clouds on the landscape below me, at least when I wasn’t seeing hawks. Fortunately for me, there were a lot of hawks to see. This week is the time that produces the best variety of raptor species at hawkwatches in the U.S. Golden eagles are beginning to fly. The uncommon northern goshawk is one species I get to see only once or twice a year—and happily for me I got to see it this past week. I’m still missing the rough-legged hawk, though I don’t get to see that rare migrant every year. It’s still too early in this season for that late-flying raptor. Perhaps I’ll get in one more visit before the season ends. Maybe I’ll see one then.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Fall colors? Not so much

I’ve pretty much come to accept that this year isn’t going to be a great one for fall colors here on Roundtop. Oh, I could still get some decent color or find some nice little copse where the colors are excellent. Overall, though, I’m not going to expect too much.

The color change is far enough along now that I see a lot of brown and withered leaves, even on large trees that appear to be healthy. The August drought was simply too much and the September rain too little, I guess.

At the cabin, I can begin to see the outline of the western mountain through the impenetrable canopy of green to my west. Last night after I turned the lights out, I was wondering if I’d left a light on upstairs—until I realized the light was from the just barely past first quarter moon streaming into the woods. That’s the first time since May that the canopy was thin enough to allow moonlight to reach the ground.

From my point of view those are both things to the good. The fall colors are a great extra, but they are only an extra. Fewer leaves and crisp temperatures are the real reasons I love the fall.

Note: I will be offline for a few days. Gone Hawkwatching again. I hope to have a few good stories from that excursion when I’m back online. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Woodsy fantasies

My Sunday ramble produced so many photos that you may expect to see them throughout this week. When I reported yesterday that I stopped nearly every 3-4 feet to take a photo, I really wasn’t exaggerating very much.

Sunday was the kind of fall day that makes fall a season that’s really, really tough to beat. The day began with a nip in the crystal clear air and then warmed up through the day so that I ended my fall walk with my sweater pulled off and my sleeves rolled up above my elbows.

I would willingly have walked all day, but considering how often I stopped to take a photo, I doubt I would have covered more than 5 miles. As it was, a 2-mile walk took over an hour, and if I hadn’t been keeping half an eye on the sun as it started to dip behind the mountain, my walk likely would have taken longer.

Today, my moss photos will be featured. Green and soft, for me heaven might well be a bed that feels the way moss looks and smells, with that gentle “give” that’s never too harsh or too floppy. The idea of a moss bed is better than the reality. Moss is both damp and lumpy, though it’s hard to rid myself of the fantasy of a warm bed of moss on a nice, flat surface.

The fall colors right now are highly variable. Some trees are nicely yellowed; others are still green, and some are even bare of leaves. The variability is extending the time that I am seeing some color, but it is also diluting the overall effect. I must say, though, I’m enjoying the idea that the color change isn’t over in three days time, even if this isn’t turning out to be a brilliant year for fall color. For the last few years, the peak of the color change has been when I’m at work during the day and couldn’t enjoy it very much. This year it’s not as exciting, but at least I’m getting to see it. Some year, I’d like to have it both ways, but that’s even less likely than the fantasy of lying on a warm bed of moss on a nice, flat surface.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Sunday afternoon ramble

The fall colors here on Roundtop Mtn. are still a work in progress, but fall weather the past few days is perfection itself. Knowing that this can’t last, I left my housework behind and headed down the mountain, to ramble along the stream that runs between Rountop and Nell’s Hill. I told myself that I needed the exercise, but since I found myself stopping to take a photo about every 3-4 feet, it’s questionable how much exercise was actually accomplished.

Originally, I simply wanted to take a photo of the mountain behind the cabin, but while I was up there, looking down to the base of Roundtop, it didn’t look very far away, so I headed down. Once there, I was just going to visit the pond that I can almost see from the top of the hill, but then I wanted to see how some of the ferns looked at this point in the fall, and before you know it, I was deep in the forest, enjoying the weather and sunlight and the quiet.

I followed the old woods road for much of my ramble. It makes for much easier walking than bushwhacking around the rocks and fallen trees that litter the forest floor. The old road cut created a bank on one side that is covered in ferns, mosses and forest plants of all kinds. I always see something different down here, and this ramble proved no exception.

The second photo today is of a withering ostrich fern, so named because the plumes resemble the ostrich feathers that used to adorn lady’s hats. The spores of next year’s growth are already visible on the underside. Before long, probably after the first frost of this season, the fronds will settle to the ground, where the spores will find a moist and fertile medium to begin their growth cycle next spring.

Along the old road, I see a flock of juncos. Saturday, for just a second, I saw the first to arrive at my feeders, but it was gone almost before I saw it. Today, the juncos are flighty, as though they aren’t yet sure if this is the spot where they will winter. I watch them flutter and stop, moving through the forest, then I move on, too.