Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Readying the chickens for the storm

My days and evenings have been busier than usual and tonight will be no exception. Heavy rain is predicted for tomorrow, perhaps as much as 4 inches of it. So tonight I need to secure my chicken pen to keep the girls from the worst of the rain. During the summer their pen was open to the elements, except for a mesh tarp over top to shade them and keep predators away.

Now that fall is here and the rains are beginning, it’s time to readjust their living quarters. Weather being what it is, this is a job that I don’t start until it’s needed, and the calendar isn’t a good predictor of when the job is needed. So tonight in the ever-shorter evenings, I will be out there attaching and tieing more tarps and plywood to the pen so they can remain comfortable through the coming tropical depression.

The girls will end up wet and mud-soaked even so, as they like to play in mud and water and dig holes and do other fun chicken things. But by nightfall, they like their sleeping quarters to be dry or at least dryer. And because they daily provide me with such wonderful brown eggs and because they are sweet-tempered and gentle, I do my best to see to their comfort. Sometimes I think they are 8 of the world’s most spoiled chickens, but they more than earn their keep and deserve good care.

So tonight will be “chicken night” for me on the mountain. The wild birds (and all the other residents and plants) will have to wait for another day.

Random things

Are stinkbugs a problem only in this area or pretty much everywhere? I came home on Friday to find them in my house. I've spent much of the weekend getting them back outside again. They are all over in the woods around the cabin, too. I've found them in the door-well of my car, under an afghan on my sofa, on my windows, everywhere. Ben the bad cat ran into a wall chasing one. He was looking up as it was flying just out of his reach, and because he was paying attention to the bug and not to where he was going, he ran headlong into a wall. When I go outside at night, the stinkbugs are all over the side of the cabin. I've never had them this bad. Last year, I heard people complain about them but didn't have more than one or two myself. This year it's a different story. Whenever they disappear, it won't be soon enough.

For the moment, the forest is so dry it's like walking on crinkled wads of paper when I go through the forest. It is supposed to rain over the next few days, so that is the good news. I only hope it doesn't make the stinkbugs worse than they already are. Saturday night was a big songbird migration. I saw the liftoff on radar around 9 p.m. and it continued after I went to bed. Sunday morning I had a migrant, a black-throated blue warbler almost in my feeder. It looked as though it was checking out the feeder, though they are insect eaters so that isn't likely. Perhaps it was simply curious about the crowd of other birds around the seeds. They are one of my favorite warblers and to have one just a few feet away from my door was a great way to start the day.

Elsewhere around the cabin, fall is creeping in slowly but a little more each day.  One day the weather is crystal clear, the next it is cloudy, with those big gray, billowing clouds of fall.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The coming of fall...and winter!

Some more much needed rain is falling on Roundtop Mtn. today. The sky is foggy and dark—too dark to take a photo, so the one in today’s post was taken over the weekend. By the time this storm finally clears sometime on Thursday, fall will be firmly in residence, judging by the forecast temperatures and promised blustery winds.

At my cabin before the rain started, I saw two phoebes, which surprised me. I haven’t seen phoebes now for a few weeks, so I suspect these were not my local summer birds, but two that were already in mid-migration. They seemed happy enough, flitting around and singing their “fee-bee” call. It made me wonder if the early part of migration is a bit like what we humans would call a vacation. It’s all fun and games at the start, but often enough we are glad to get back home by the end of it. These birds still seemed to be in the fun and games part of the journey.

This year seemed to be a good year for deer to drop twin fawns. I can’t think of one doe and fawn combination that didn’t have twins. Of the 3-4 pairs I see regularly, only one set is losing their spots at the moment.

With the rain and breeze that accompanied it, many or most of the dried and shriveled leaves that came from weeks without rain have fallen. The result is that the forest looks greener than it has for a while, though the forest canopy is a bit thinner. It’s not a lot thinner yet, but I can see patches of sky now, where I could see only leaves just last week. And with the coming of fall, that means winter isn't too far away and in looking around the outside of the cabin, I realize I have a lot of work to do before then. When the temperature was 95 and the humidity high, it was all too easy to ignore the work for another day.  Now I have no more excuses.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Foggy September morning

Now that fall is here, summer could not resist one final, parting shot. I’m in the middle of one more day above 90 degrees. I really shouldn’t need too much luck for today to be the last one.
This morning fog appeared on the mountain, which at least kept the temperature lower in the morning. The fog before dawn made walking Dog nearly as difficult as driving, even with my headlamp. And now that the mornings grow ever darker, minute by minute, I will soon reach the point where I won’t be able to take a photo in the mornings at all.

The leaves here on Roundtop are yellowing, though not from the arrival of autumn. Dry weather combined with the unusual heat this year is withering even larger trees. Leaves litter the forest floor nearly as thickly as if fall was near its end, instead of only just arrived.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

More than just hawks...

Yesterday I described hawkwatching as something similar to a “big sit,” a term that is likely familiar only to birders. Essentially, a big sit is when people count or list all birds they see from a single spot over the course of a day or at least several hours.

Hawkwatchers rarely limit themselves only to looking at hawks, at least in my experience. Birds of any stripe or plumage are fair game, as are animals, dragonflies, assorted bugs and airplanes. People even compare cloud formations, though I’ve only seen that when the birding was really, really slow.

So hawkwatching for me is also a good way to see what other birds are flying around, in addition to the hawks. At Waggoner’s Gap this weekend, black and turkey vultures were both in good supply, as were ravens, one of my favorite birds. Assorted woodpeckers were also common—pileated was seen twice, and flickers and downys were also regulars.

My bad bird photo today actually has a woodpecker in it if you look closely. It’s a juvenile red-headed woodpecker. I’d never seen the juvenile before and didn’t realize their heads are black or dark gray. The only thing that even crossed my mind at the time I saw it was an acorn woodpecker, a western species, and I knew this wasn’t that. Fortunately, Waggoner’s Gap counter once had a pair of these birds nesting in his backyard and that pair’s three fledglings provided him amble opportunity to know what the young birds look like. For me, seeing this uncommon species in a plumage I’d never seen before was a rare treat.

Birds aren’t the only visitors to the hawkwatch. The chipmunk is a common visitor, and a sunning garter snake provided some fun. A close-flying ultra-light aircraft, chugging over the top of the ridge was also worth a wave and a look through the binoculars.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A fine kettle of broadwings

Kettle of Broad-winged hawks
Hawkwatching for three days in a row during the prime Broad-winged hawk migration is simply heaven for me. Even though I didn’t see tens of thousands of broadwings, and too many of them were high birds, plenty of them were low enough to keep me happy. Several good eagle days were also much appreciated.

For those who are uninitiated into the joys of hawkwatching, perhaps a good way to explain it is to describe the activity as something like a “big sit” only in a location where the prime feature is the hawks. That’s not to say other birds and animals and bugs aren’t looked at—far from it. But the raptors are the reason for the show in the first place.

Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch on the border with Cumberland and Perry counties in Pennsylvania is where I’ve spent the last several days. By the time I got home in the evening, the dogs and chickens needed attention, and I was too tired to do any blogging afterwards.

Broad-winged hawks are a bit like the swallows that return to Capistrano every year on the same day. Broadwings flock together, a rarity among raptors, all searching for that perfect thermal that will make the long flight to central America easier than flapping the whole way. In this area, barring weather complications that delay or hurry their flight, September 17-18 is the time to be on a hawkwatch to see the bulk of the broadwing migration.

This year at Waggoner’s Gap the birds were annoyingly high on Saturday but made up for that a bit on Sunday by flying low through most of the morning. And when I say they flew high on Saturday, I mean they were in the Mars flyway, not the eastern flyway, because you almost needed a telescope to see them.

My photo today is what we call a “kettle” of broadwings. The term was apparently first used at Hawk Mountain to describe the circling motion of the hawks as they rise through an air thermal. When the hawks reach the top of their thermal they stream out of it, soaring for as long as they can. During their soaring, they often lose altitude again, so then they look for the next one to regain their height.

I’ve seen kettles of several hundred birds at a time, possibly as many as a thousand hawks once or twice. As broadwings head south and near their wintering grounds, the flocks grow ever larger, and in Veracruz, Mexico, and sometimes even in Corpus Christi, Texas, the size of the kettles number more than 100,000 hawks. Yes, you read that right, and it’s not a finger fumble on my part.

Tomorrow, I’ll report on a few of the non-hawks I saw on the hawkwatch.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gone Hawkwatching!

The title today says it all. I am "gone hawkwatching" and will be back to Roundtop Ruminations when I have something good to report (I hope).  Take care, all!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A little bit of everything

So rain on the mountain ended on Sunday and I’m still posting photos of rain-soaked things. Perhaps that is just an indication of how long it has been since the mountain had seen rain. It’s also an indication that the mornings are now too dark again for photography, and I’m still not adjusted to photographing things in the evenings again. And also, I really liked the raindrops on this late-blooming jewelweed.

My evenings include a lot of dog walking and chicken care, such as feeding my little angels and then washing the day’s offering of eggs. By the time all that is done and dinner eaten and cleaned up after, well, it’s starting to get dark pretty early in the evenings, now too.

The evenings are still pretty active with animal and bird life. Now that darkness intrudes both earlier and later, I hear the great-horned owl and the screech owl nearly every night or morning. Last evening the screech owl sounded very close. For a few minutes I thought it might be in a tree just above the chickens, so I went outside to see if I could find it, but again, no I could not. I’ve only ever seen a screech owl in the wild a few times, though I’ve heard them hundreds of times. I don’t see great horned owl all that often either, though I see them a lot more frequently than I have the screech owls.

Birds and animals are busy in the forest now. Activity at my feeders is picking up. I see the fox pair at least once a week. Squirrels are seemingly everywhere, nearly always with a mouthful of nuts. Although fall is still officially a week away, the mountain has felt rather fall-like for almost a week. It sure is a relief after this past summer, which is officially now the second hottest summer on record in this area. And yes, I do remember the hottest summer ever in 1968. I was marching in a 4th on July parade with the high school band and very clearly remember passing under a bank time and temperature sign that said 106 degrees. I sort of hope that having survived the hottest and second hottest summers ever that I don’t have to experience either of those situations again in my lifetime.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Rumination on naming things...or not

In this area, the plant you see in today’s photo is called horsetail, but this isn’t anything like the officially-named plant called horsetail, so I don’t know what the official name of this plant is. But it matters little. I didn’t take the photo to tell you about the plant horsetail, of either the local or official variety. I took the photo because I liked the way the raindrops are clinging and weighing down the heads of this plant.

I am a person who has generally liked knowing the names of all manner or things, be they birds, plants or rocks. Lately, I am wondering whether knowing the names really matters very much. Oh, there are advantages to knowing the names. I can talk to other people, use the name of the thing and they will know what thing I’m talking about. But the name is not the thing, just a label we attach to the thing.

It is perfectly possible not to know the name of a thing and still know that thing in all its variety and individual splendor. Knowing the name of the thing does not guarantee that someone knows anything about the thing other than its name.

Sometimes I see this manifested in a certain kind of birdwatcher, often the kind with a long list of bird species they have seen. They have seen many species of birds, but know very little about any of them. For these folks, the “tick,” the checkmark next to the name of the bird, and having more of those checkmarks than the next person is the important thing. Nothing is terribly wrong with that activity as it may well lead, at some point, to a desire to know more about those ticks.

For myself, the knowing is more important than the name, and my own level of knowing a species, whether it be a bird or a plant or a mushroom, is not nearly as complete as I wish it was. Knowing anything well takes a lot of time, more time than any of us have on this earth. But making the effort is still important, as deepening our knowledge of anything opens us up to possibilities that will remain forever beyond our grasp if we don’t.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Finally! Rain and fog

Sunday finally saw some much-needed rain on Roundtop Mtn. Fog and drizzle were the orders of the day, and the dampness even felt a tad chilly, which was a very welcome chill to me.

Migration is slowly picking up around the mountain. I counted over 100 geese on the biggest pond Friday evening and 20 cedar waxwings just a few steps from there. Migration sightings didn’t end then, either. Sunday afternoon, when it was almost too foggy to see, I found myself in the midst of a few visiting warblers—black-throated greens and a single Nashville, though it’s possible there were two of them. Still, however few or many there were, the warblers are a very visible sign the season is turning.

I’m happy to see the changes and am glad I don’t live somewhere where the weather is pretty much the same all year long. As it is, I chafe whenever summer lasts too long for my tastes, when the late fall takes on an unremitting browness after the leaves fall but before the snow. I look forward to the seasons changing and enjoy every little sign of each one. Unchanging weather would not be to my liking. Some days, the changes I do have seem to go a long ways between them. But not in fall, where the season moves quickly, almost too quickly to see each headlong rush towards winter.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Girls in the woods

Last evening my “girls” were out in the driveway, running from plant to plant and gobbling up everything in sight. The forest floor is pretty wilted right now, so the girls weren’t finding much greenery that suited them. When one of them found a good morsel, somehow the others knew about it instantly and rushed over to get their own share or, barring that, to steal it from their sister.

The chickens get to roam around outside most evenings. I don’t leave them outside unsupervised during the day or when I’m gone. I have one that likes to tease Baby Dog by hopping up on the front porch and looking in the storm door at the dog. That drives Baby Dog crazy.

Chickens are a lot funnier than I expected. They know when they see me carrying a little silver colander that there’s something inside it for them. And then they come running from wherever they are to scoop up the treat. Blueberries are their favorite. Never get between a chicken and her blueberries. You’ll be trampled.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Dry weather

View to the south from Waggoner's Gap hawkwatch
I’m posting one last photo from Waggoner’s Gap—at least until I make another trip to the hawkwatch. This one is looking to the south and towards Roundtop, which is the fourth bump in the distance from the left. When I looked at the view from my perch at the hawkwatch, I enjoyed how clear everything looked. But when I looked at my photos from the trip, the view is quite a bit more hazy than I remembered it.

At Roundtop it has now been three weeks since I’ve seen any rain. The forest crackles underfoot. Dust rises like smoke from every step. The next chance of rain isn’t until Sunday and that isn’t a very good chance. If I don’t get any rain then, another week will pass before any chance returns again.

So perhaps it’s because of the dry weather that not much is going on around the cabin right now. Birds seem to have disappeared almost entirely. Butterflies are nearly gone. The closest thing to excitement was seeing a small raccoon on my morning walk with Dog. The raccoon was low in a tree, on its way down the tree, I think, when it spied us and hustled back up. I only saw it because of my headlamp. Dog never saw it, which is just as well, as that would mean a pulling fest between the two of us, and 5:45 a.m. is simply too early for that kind of effort.

Yesterday marked the first day this season that I could see the constellation Orion high in the morning sky. Facing due south, the constellation is about at 11 a.m. on a clock face. The moonless sky and ever-later dawn combined to make the old warrior visible yet again. I’ve spied the constellation as early as the end of August, but this year the moon and clouds conspired to keep it from my view until now. Welcome back!

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A little distance, a little difference

Black swallowtail
Too often, I fail to remember that the world is made up of millions or even billions of tiny ecosystems and habitats. Then, I travel to a forest not far from my own and am reminded that those few miles somehow make a difference.

A case in point is my jaunt to Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch this past Sunday. From the top of Waggoner’s Gap, I can see Roundtop Mtn., my own mountain, directly to the south, with the Cumberland Valley stretched out between us. Roundtop and Waggoner’s are also of a similar height, and without doing anything like an official survey, the basic tree and shrub species and the relative abundance of each certainly appears to be very much the same.

And yet, here sits a black swallowtail butterfly on a rock that was not far from my feet. Now I would never claim there are no black swallowtails on Roundtop. But I have seen precious few of them amongst the numerous pipevine, tiger and spicebush swallowtails that flitted through my summer landscape. And I’ve seen none while I’ve had a camera in my hand.

Roundtop has plenty of clover, thistles and milkweed, the species’ preferred food, which is also the preferred food of the aforementioned pipevine, tiger and pipevine swallowtails. So why are they on Waggoner’s and not so much on Roundtop? I wish I knew the precise answer to that one. Instead, I will give an imprecise answer. Something is just probably different several miles to the north on a mountain that isn’t very much different than Roundtop. But those few miles do make a difference. And when we’re thinking about preserving species diversity, we would do well to remember that one eastern forest habitat is not the same as its neighbor.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Let the hawkwatching begin!

View to the north from Waggoner's Gap hawkwatch
It’s September and for me that is the start of the prime hawkwatching season. It’s still the early part of the prime season, so I haven’t yet seen hundreds, let alone thousands of hawks. But the weather and the wind both were promising after Hurricane Earl passed, so on Sunday I headed to nearby Waggoner’s Gap for a day on the mountain.

The results were a good, solid day of hawkwatching. The highlight was the 15 bald eagles I saw. I left before the counter did, so he picked up another after I left. A second highlight was the ravens, including the Red-tailed Hawk and the raven that spent a good five minutes swooping on each other. It was a little hard to tell if they were serious or just having fun. It looked a bit more like fun to me, at least most of the time. Some of the ravens may have been the local pair, plus their young one, so I don’t know how many different ravens I actually saw. I know I saw ravens 8-9 times and at least a few of them were migrating.

Broad-winged hawks, those little hawks that flock and fly in kettles, as we call their flocks (because they appear to be boiling out of a kettle), were in shorter supply than I hoped for, but it is early yet. I also saw American Kestrel, a merlin, plenty of Sharp-shinned hawks and a lone Cooper’s Hawk.

The weather was outstanding, though a little less blue sky and a few more clouds would have been greatly appreciated.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Quietly waiting

Late summer on the mountain turns the forest first a deep green and then one that looks a bit past its prime, faded, with edges of brown. I am starting to see the greens slip into that faded look this week. I can sympathize as the heat of the past few days and the dry weather of longer than that would fade anybody and anything.
Actually, the hot spell of the past few days wasn’t nearly as terrible as the heat in July that was a lot hotter and much more humid. But when you add that to days without rain or moisture, it’s certainly beginning to take a toll on the forest.

This week has been unusually quiet around the mountain, at least for birds. I keep looking at the radar and see nice amounts of nighttime migration activity. That gets me excited about finding new southbound migrants outside my door. I’m starting to think, though, that instead of bringing new birds here, the activity must be showing birds leaving this area.

Not all the summer residents are gone, yet. This morning I still hear the pewee at the same time as the last calls of the great horned owl. A robin, startled awake when Dog and I passed on our morning walk, scolded us in the near-darkness.

For now, I keep looking for those fall migrants, including the sometimes-dreaded “confusing fall warblers” as Roger Tory Peterson characterized them. I wouldn’t mind seeing something unusual that decides to head inland ahead of Hurricane Earl—as long as Earl himself doesn’t show up on my doorstep.