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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hoping this won't be the last...

As rain is falling now and wind is supposed to follow the rain, I’m not very optimistic about how many leaves and the quality of the fall colors that will be left afterwards. This fall’s display is also hampered by a large number of withered and brown leaves, mostly caused by the August drought, though insect damage might also be a culprit.
So last evening when the light was still nice and warm, I was out taking a few photos and hoping these won’t be my last really colorful leaf photos of the season.

At the cabin, all my houseplants that summered outside are now inside, and the cabin feels and looks smaller. A few windows are still cracked open, and they will likely remain that way until I get a frost. I might be forced to turn the heat on tonight. We’ll see about that one.

So I am nearly ready for chillier weather, if not yet ready for serious cold weather. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have to worry about that just yet.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Today fall is a freight train

All of a sudden, the fall color change picked up speed and is moving like a freight train. I can see the difference between morning and evening. Of course, temperatures in the lower 40’s overnight certainly help to move the process along.

The local animals are busier, too. Deer rut must have started because the roads after dark are not safe. And it’s not just the public roads; the deer are wandering through the parking lots at Roundtop, too. The raccoons are making a mockery of my “bird” feeder at the moment. It’s more like a raccoon feeder with an agility aspect in snaking out the goodies. Squirrels and chipmunks are so focused on grabbing acorns and nuts that they almost qualify as being underfoot. Everyone is about as busy as they can be. Including me.

Every fall it’s a race to get things done at the cabin. I always wait until the last minute, hoping for one more warm day, maybe another weekend. So when the weather turns, it always feel sudden to me—a day early or maybe a week. The decks need swept again. The outside furniture needs attention. The houseplants must come in. The chicken pen must be boarded up. The list is endless. The time in which to get it done isn’t. I try to do the most critical things first and then anything else I have time for.

Photos? Oh, yes, I’d better add that to my list. If I don’t the season will be over before I find the time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Color progresses just a bit

Fall color is gaining a little bit each day here on Roundtop Mtn. I’m tempted to take a photo of this view every morning for the next couple of weeks just to see how much the color does change from day to day. The leaves still have quite a ways to go, but the change is underway.

I had a female purple finch at my feeder yesterday. I was sitting just a few feet away from her and didn’t dare move even to grab the camera. I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever seen a purple finch before the first juncos arrived. I think I probably haven’t, but it may just be that I didn’t pay attention to when I first saw a purple finch.

I’m glad the finch I saw was the female. I think they are easier to differentiate from the ubiquitous house finch than are the males.

I should give up even attempting to take photos in the mornings now, but I can't seem to break the habit.
 Maybe next week.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Good times at Apple Harvest Festival

National Apple Harvest Festival
The past weekend I made my nearly annual visit to the National Apple Harvest Festival in Arentsville, Pennsylvania, which is just north of Gettysburg.  You should pronounce the first part of the town like the word “aren’t.” It’s one of the few big fairs that I like to attend regularly.
I love the fairgrounds, which look like something from the 1930’s. It’s nestled against the mountains. Nothing is paved. Mature pine trees are spread throughout the grounds. The food is outstanding. (Well, I guess that’s not unusual for a good fair.) I always look forward to this fair and this year’s version did not disappoint.

The festival is always held the first two weekends in October. I try to get there as soon as it opens on a Sunday. I never go on a Saturday. Those are always crazy-busy. Unfortunately, more and more people are learning that early on a Sunday morning is the least crowded time for this very busy fair, so even then is no longer very uncrowded.
The weather this past weekend was great, which no doubt added to the crowd but that’s how it goes. Did I mention the food? Apple this and apple that—from sausages to pancakes to funnel cakes and of course, all the more usual apple goodies. I need to start a diet ASAP.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Friday rambles

I’ve resisted turning on the heat in the cabin these past few days, even though the nights are down in the 40’s. When I turn the heat on, I prefer it to be when the weather will stay cold. So I’ve been wearing sweaters in the house and socks to bed. Today is warming up nicely towards 70 degrees and the weekend will be above 70. The cabin will be warmer and that moment when I have to turn the heat on is still a ways away.
The nights were cold enough this week that I’ve brought in most of my plants that summer outside. The cactus come in first, then the ferns. I still have a tree and a philodendron outside. They will return to their winter quarters sometime this weekend.

When I’m busy, as I’ve been this past week, I don’t have nearly as much time to spend outside as I’d like. So I find time for little mini-visits around some of the natural areas around me. Sometimes, they are nothing more than a very slow drive along a Roundtop access road, looking for something interesting. Sometimes before work I park the car in the dirt parking lot and scan the sky with my binoculars for a few minutes. Sometimes I find a good rock or stump and sit for 3-5-10 minutes before work.

None of these aren’t substitutes for a good walk in the woods, but even a few quiet minutes in the forest betters my mood. And I very often get to see something that makes the little side trip worthwhile, whether it’s a bird or the deer or a fox or an interesting plant. A few minutes can make all the difference in my day.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Rain, rain gone away

Sunrise, October 7, 2010
The low, heavy clouds that brought several days of rain to Roundtop Mtn. lifted overnight. With the sunrise came with a perfectly clear sky and suddenly the morning is bright again. The weather didn’t clear early enough to produce any overnight songbird migration—that will come tonight. And with this next burst of activity, I would not be surprised to see the first juncos of the season arrive, too.

Whether the juncos arrive Friday morning or later, I am very glad to see the sun again. This past week was too gloomy for my tastes. The clearing weather has already brought out several of Roundtop’s forest dwellers. This morning Dog and I crossed paths with a fox, who turned tail and ran the instant it saw us. That was enough to make Dog want to give chase for a good 15 minutes after the fox was long gone. Baby Dog and I heard a deer snort and then saw several near a pond. She was eager to give chase and would have if she hadn’t been leashed. One of the skunks was around, too, and I am just as glad we didn’t see that one.

The leaves are beginning to turn color here, but are still too early in the process for me to say if the color will be good this year or not. At the moment, I’m leaning towards not and am hoping to be wrong. This evening I’ll be able to take a walk for the first time this week. I am hoping to have a better idea about that afterwards.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

But do they taste as sweet?

Carolina rose hips
This past spring I located (and blogged about) the native Carolina rose and the invasive multiflora rose, both of which are found on Roundtop. The other evening I relocated both plants and have now found that even the rose hips of the two plants are different. So even now, in the fall, I can tell the difference between them.

The native Carolina rose has round and smaller rose hips. The multiflora rose has a larger and elliptical-shaped rose hip. There are other, more subtle differences, too. The blossom end of the Carolina rose is a bit larger than the tiny spot on the multiflora rose. On the multiflora rose, the flowers are all up and down the stem, and so are the rose hips. With the Carolina rose, the flowers are clumped together and naturally, so are the hips.

Rose hips are edible and birds love them, scattering the seeds in their poop. People make tea and jellies with them. I’m told that you should wait until after the first frost to gather them, as the frost sweetens them. Some rose species apparently have better-tasting rose hips than others. For tea, the recipe I’ve seen says to steep 4-8 hips in a cup of boiling water for 10-15 minutes. Some recipes suggest you prepare the rose hips before using them. Others say to use them whole. To prepare them, the directions are to trim the stem and blossom ends, slice the hip in half and remove the inners seeds, using scissors if the hips are too small for a knife.

Multiflora rose hips
If you dry the hips before you use them, you won’t need as many in your recipes. Drying is a simple matter of spreading them out somewhere and letting them dry to the point where the skin just begins to feel and look shriveled. Then, you split them and remove the seeds. Apparently, if the hips are too dry, you can’t remove the seeds and if they are not dry enough the inside pulp is sticky and will cling to the seeds. 

After the seeds are removed, let the hips dry completely or they won’t keep well. You can store them in sealed plastic bags for several months or freeze them so they last indefinitely.

I’ve never tried to eat or use rose hips before, but I think I’m going to this year. All rose hips are edible, the literature says, so I think it’s worth trying. I’ve read the hips are packed with vitamin C and once dried or frozen can be eaten like candy. And perhaps if I eat the multiflora rose hips, that will help keep them from spreading so fast. (I can only wish.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Autumn's birds are arriving, summer's birds are going, going...

Dark, heavy, rain-laden clouds—a real sign of fall here—made evening photography no better than the morning yesterday. Last evening I heard the first truly migrant flock of Canada geese heading south. I never did see the birds, but that constant, overlapping honking, high above the clouds, isn’t a sound the locals make on their routine evening flights. No, this sound is the sound of fall, when the birds have flown for hours, honking as easily as they flap their wings. The honking is constant; I can hear it coming from the north, loudest when the birds are overhead and then diminishing into the south. When I think of fall, in my mind, that’s the sound that accompanies the visual image of golden tree-covered hills.

I’ve been seeing flocks of sparrows, too, flittering half a dozen at a time, never stopping long enough for me to identify them. Sometimes I think they are all chipping sparrows, but they can’t all be chipping sparrows, can they? The light is so dull and dark at the edges of the day and the birds are so flittery that I never get a good look at them. I simply see them, never pausing very long, little bundles of motion. I keep checking their tail feathers for signs of juncos. The light is just barely good enough to distinguish that white outer tail feather against the juncos’ slate gray, but so far I haven’t seen them either. Soon, though, perhaps this weekend, the first of them will arrive.

Red-breasted nuthatches are moving south this year after mostly staying up north last year. I’ve seen several already and heard more. They’ve come to my dad’s feeders, my own. I’ve heard them on Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch and heard them in my own woods. This year's winter finch forecast also predicts purple finch will head south this year, but I haven’t seen any of those yet. Once, a few weeks ago, I thought I might have heard several of them, but I wasn’t sure enough to record them as such.

Other predictions from Ron Pittaway’s winter finch forecast, which is based on the supply (or not) of cone crops in Canada, are that the crossbills will likely stay up north. Common redpolls are predicted to head south, but pine siskins will likely stay up north. The Yukon apparently has a bumper crop of white spruce cone this year, which will keep the siskins, bohemian waxwings, pine grosbeaks and especially the white-winged crossbills happy in the north.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Oh, no! That time of year has arrived again!

Today’s photos are a bit “off topic” for Roundtop Ruminations. This was not deliberate. I was hoping to squeeze out another week of morning photographs on the mountain before the decreasing daylight forced me to switch to evening shots. However, a morning drizzle darkened the already dark morning and made any mountain photography impossible up at the cabin.

So today’s photos were taken off the mountain, along my morning commute. Once outside the cover of the forest and after I’d driven for 5-10 minutes, the morning was just barely light enough for a few photos. The photos were taken along the good part of my commute, before I reach the highway, which pretty much looks exactly like every other highway in the U.S.

Every year, I seem not to time the day when I have to switch from morning photos to evening photos very well. I prefer taking photos in the morning as those are much more likely to at least somewhat correspond with what I blog about for the day. Photos taken the evening before may have little or nothing to do with the day’s blog posts.

Even the evening photos are a short-term solution that only lasts a month or so. When I have to switch to taking a week’s worth of blog photos over the weekend, the odds that the photos will have anything to do with the written topic of the day are pretty low.

Friday, October 01, 2010

After the storm comes chores

The remnants of tropical storm Nicole pounded Roundtop Mtn. with several inches of rain yesterday. Fortunately, much of the worst of the storm missed the mountain. I did lose power for a while, but I lose power all the time here, so that’s not very unusual.

The rain fell so fast and hard for a while that it literally hurt to be outside in that downpour. The worst of the storm was over by late yesterday afternoon, though rain showers still fell on and off through the night. Pretty much all the rain I should have gotten throughout the summer fell yesterday.

This morning the sky was already beginning to clear, as you can see from today’s photo. The sky suddenly has that October look to it. At the cabin this morning, Dog surprised a small family of wandering raccoons, no doubt making their first appearance after holing up during the storm. We weren’t very close to them, but we were close enough for him to see them, which was more excitement than I needed at 5:45 in the morning.

With the clearing weather comes some very fall-like temperatures, which means one of my chores for this weekend will entail bringing in most of the houseplants that spent the summer outside. Another chore will be at least a start to clearing off the front and back decks, now littered with twigs and clumps of downed leaves that fell during the storm.

It’s not just birds and plants that are different during the seasons. My chores vary with the seasons, as well. And it’s time to get to work on at least some of my fall chores.