Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blue skies

Days and days pass with blue skies that don’t end. Clouds don’t even dot any part of the horizon and haven’t for the better part of a week now. It’s beautiful, even though the heat rises a few more degrees every day. But if you’ve a hawkwatcher, this weather is gruesome. Just try staring into that blue sky with binoculars for 8 or 9 hours, trying to locate hawks, with no clouds to give any perspective on size or to create a background to see one against.

It’s skies like this that keep me away from a hawkwatch but make me appreciate the counters who show up every day and do the work. I can deal with the heat, the cold, rain or sleet or worse, but when a sky looks like this, no way. This is bluebird weather, a real eye-burner.

The mountain in this photo is Nell’s Hill, my view to the west. At least it is my view in winter. At the moment all I can see is greenery and I have to walk out a hundred yards or more to reach the abandoned ski hill where I took this photo. I call Nell’s Hill a mountain not because of its size but because it is covered with forest. Around here hills, no matter how high, are things that are cleared, usually for agriculture or pasture, but mountains are anything that retain their forest cover. At least that’s the local definition. So how this one came to be called a hill instead of a mountain is something for which I have no answer.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Quiet in the air

Fall migration has slowed down a bit, possibly because of the hot, calm days that dominated the weather this past weekend and will dominate for several of the days ahead. Blue skies without a cloud in any direction are typical right now, and the breeze is calm to nonexistent.
I headed down to the Susquehanna River again this weekend, still hoping to find some unusual and migrating shorebirds. I find great egrets and spotted sandpipers, though nothing really unusual. The spate of dry weather has exposed all kinds of rocks and mudflats, and the birds have a lot of choices about where to land and forage. In years when the water level is more normal, mudflats are restricted to just a few spots and the birds concentrate in those spots. This year, you can find a good mudflat almost anywhere, and the birds are spread out all over the place.

Yesterday I found this great egret on Brunner Island, eyeing a passing kayaker suspiciously. I thought surely the bird would flush but it didn’t, and the kayaker passed with the egret still giving it the evil eye.

Wood ducks and mallards are molting this week, so they are looking pretty ratty. I saw a few osprey, including one that folded its wings, dove into the water and emerged a second later with a small fish. It happened so fast (and only once) so I didn’t get a photo, though I’m pretty sure it was too far out for a decent photo anyway. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve seen one do that, so it was fun to watch.

Back on the mountain, the forest is as quiet as the river was. If it wasn’t for the drone of the cicadas, the woods would be nearly silent right now, with minutes between bird calls. Some of the summer residents have gone—wood thrush are no longer in evidence. I have tons of tree swallows but the barn swallows weren’t seen at all this weekend.

I can enjoy the quiet for a little bit, but if it goes on for too long it makes me nervous and a bit antsy for some change. I won't wish too hard for something different, though. I'm a bit afraid I'll get my wish.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Evening on the mountain

Yesterday the evening here on the mountain was as close to perfect as anyone could ask for. Humidity was low, the air warm but not oppressive. As shadows lengthen earlier now than they have in months, evening walks must also come earlier.

Walks are more pleasant than they have been for a while. Mosquitoes prefer the heavier air of midsummer, not this fresher breeze that comes from the north. Even the cicada’s song is diminishing now, so the evenings are quiet or nearly so. Titmice and chickadees skip through the trees, landing every few feet and then moving off again. Perhaps they rest momentarily, perhaps they are simply checking the flight path ahead before heading into it.

The light turns golden as the sun nears the mountains to the west. A deer startles, flags her tail and trots off deeper into the underbrush, until all I can see of her is her tail. The light starts to fade, earlier than I am used to, earlier than I expect. It’s time to ramble back towards the cabin, though I am in no hurry.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A little fuzzy

I am still adjusting to the increasing darkness that comes with the turn towards fall. That adjustment is still a work in progress. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s easier to bounce out of bed in the mornings when it doesn’t look like the middle of the night outside.

Once up, dawn is slow to arrive, and the birds that follow and announce the dawn aren’t in any hurry either. If not for the constant whine of cicadas, the mountain this morning would have been virtually silent, punctuated only by the distant call of an early-rising bluebird. The butterflies that were so numerous last week are suddenly uncommon. This morning I couldn’t even find any goldfinch at the thistle buffet. This will take a little getting used to.

It takes a little getting used to every year, though after all the years I’ve spent on this earth, you’d think I would be used to it. But there’s something about the passing of 365 days that’s long enough for the normal routine of earth’s seasons to feel at least a bit new again. Even though I’m familiar enough with the routine, certainly the seasonal details grow a bit fuzzy by the time the year circles around again. So I’m still adjusting. I imagine I always will be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Seasons change and the year turns

In the space of just a few days, I’ve gone from maybe needing my headlamp, to needing my headlamp for the first few minutes of my morning walk with Dog, to needing the headlamp throughout Dog’s walk. The lessening of the daylight hours is perhaps the worst part about the coming colder weather. And the fewer opportunities to both see and hear birds.
Already, I am beyond the time of seeing songbirds during our morning walks. This morning the avian companions started with the last call of a great horned owl, followed by an eastern pewee and then the crows. The crows found a sitting red-tailed hawk whose presence outraged them, but the hawk was experienced enough to not be intimidated. The crows eventually gave up. The last bird I saw before driving off the mountain was the eastern phoebe, another rather early riser.

Mornings with wood thrush and ovenbirds and the antics of chickadees are past already, except for the weekends. I miss that, though I am happy with the coming color change of fall and anticipate the crisp northwest breezes. Each season has its delights and it is those I miss when the year turns away from them. Before the new delights fully appear, I feel the need to mourn, briefly, for the ones that won’t return for another 300 days or so.

It’s a small sadness, but we never know how the year will turn or what our own personal landscapes will look like before the wood thrush and the ovenbirds come again. Perhaps nothing much will have changed. Perhaps everything will have changed. So for the next little while, or at least today, allow me to grieve this little passing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stand by for something

Susquehanna River in the early morning
At first, I thought it was just me. After weeks of 90 degree heat and high humidity, lower humidity and 80 degrees felt so wonderful, so wonderfully like fall that I thought I was just giddy with relief. But it’s not just me. It’s the birds, too. Fall is sneaking in, quietly, with little fanfare just yet. The signs, the data even, all point to it.

Bird migration is where I see it. Raptor migration is ahead of schedule for this point in August. For some species, hawkwatches are already reporting numbers equal to or greater than what they normally record for the entire month of August. And it’s not just raptors. Warbler migration is ahead of schedule by at least a week or two. Radar clearly shows nighttime migration already at a level that is unusual for August, let alone an August that still has another week in it.

So the question now becomes, do they know something that we don’t yet?

Are the food sources failing? Do they feel some anomaly in the weather that makes them think it’s already time to get the heck out of Dodge?

Please don’t ask me the answer. I don’t have it. But I can see that migration is underway and that it is rather substantially ahead of schedule. I think of birds as little fortune tellers. They often know things about weather that we don’t. I don’t know how they know, but they do. I’ve seen Broad-winged Hawks acting desperate to head south days ahead of their normal schedule in front of a weather system that humans predicted wouldn’t amount to much only to have it sock in the east coast for the next 10 days. So I listen to the rhythms of the raptors and the warblers, even if I don’t know what they know. I know them well enough to know it means something.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A little side trip

August is a great month to see migrating shorebirds, but since the top of Roundtop Mtn. isn’t known as a shorebird hot spot, this weekend I took a short side trip. I didn’t, unfortunately, have time to visit one of the true shorebird hot spots along the east coast, so I had to make do with traveling to the nearby Susquehanna River.
I didn’t find tons of shorebirds, though whenever I find a few things that I don’t see up on the mountain, I am happy with that. And I did find a few good sightings. My photo today shows two of them, but you will have to squint and look pretty close to see them. In the foreground is a green heron and a juvenile black-crowned night heron. The heron is pretty common, the night heron I see here only in migration. I’ve seen them here before but rarely more than once a year or so.

Another sure sign of late summer—the wood ducks (and presumably other species that I didn’t see) are molting. Tree swallows seem to be readying themselves to head south, as well. Also of note were a bald eagle and two ospreys.

The river is pretty low right now. I am seeing rocks that I don’t usually see. That made the great blue herons and great egrets pretty happy as they stepped delicately along the water’s edge. Habitat is everything when it comes to birdwatching. Mountain birds and water-loving birds might as well be on different planets. For me, traveling a few miles down to the river brings an entirely new set of birds to look at, and that’s part of what keeps it fun.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Random notes

Although the weather is still hot and a northwest breeze lacking, I am starting to see signs of fall migration around the cabin. This morning I found a red-eyed vireo and this eastern phoebe. Both of these birds breed on Roundtop, but both were also in a place where neither species was seen to hang out all summer long. That makes me suspect they could be migrants, though at the least they are local birds that are now moving around and out of their nesting territories.
For the first time in months, I notice that the weather forecast no longer has any upcoming day of 90 or above in it. Perhaps I can’t quite say that’s a sign of fall, but it’s certainly a sign that summer is past its prime.

Drought-withered leaves continue to drop and are now pretty much everywhere, adding to a look of autumn around the cabin. I’ve had rain in the past week, but it was too late for the leaves that were already yellowing.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don't you look at me!

Wild Turkey

This morning my drive to work produced a flock of Wild Turkey, just where the forest ended and the neighboring orchard begins. By the time I pulled the car over and grabbed the camera, most of the flock was already hidden in the tall grass, except for this guardian. It’s not just that this photo is missing the rest of the big birds, it’s also missing the peeps. I saw at least 3 tiny turkey-ettes before they disappeared in the grass. The peeps were no taller than the big birds’ knees, nothing but tiny brownish balls of fluff.

Finding tiny peeps (or poults as they are more rightly called) now is odd. Typically, the little ones hatch around the end of May after a 28-day incubation. The male gobblers are at their strutting best in spring. Since these poults couldn’t be more than a week or so old, I suspect that the hen’s original clutch of eggs was destroyed as it is rare for them to re-nest in the same season if they raise a brood.

It isn’t unusual for a hen to lose her eggs. I’m told that less than half make it to hatching. Turkeys nest on the ground, where they are highly vulnerable to predation, especially by raccoons, of which there are many around Roundtop. And raccoons aren’t the only dangers—snakes, fox, skunk, opossum. It’s a long list.

In any event, mama turkey has a young brood now, and hopefully it’s not too late in the season for them to do well and be large enough to survive the winter. This flock isn’t a huge one, but there are enough aunts in them to help mama keep an eye on those babies.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

No fawns were injured in the making of this omelet

Some days mountain living is little different than living off the mountain. Other days are really different. Take yesterday, for example. I got home late and had an evening meeting to go to. So when I got home, I hurried to let the dogs out, got them back inside and fed them. Then, I had only a few minutes before I had to leave for my meeting. So on the way out the door, I carried a container of chicken food for the girls’ evening meal.
When I was feeding them I found they had laid 3 more eggs than the 4 I’d collected before I left for work in the morning. But as I was short on time, I didn’t want to go back inside the cabin, so I put the eggs in the chicken food scoop and got in the car. Once in the car, I put the scoop with eggs on the seat beside me and then put my camera bag and a portfolio in front of and beside them so they wouldn’t roll around.

Down the mountain I head, and all is going smoothly until mama deer and twin spotted fawns run across the road in front of me. I have to slam on the brakes to avoid the second fawn. Fortunately, I do avoid the fawn, but the portfolio, camera case, eggs and chicken food scoop slide forward and all end up on the floor of the passenger side of the car.

Miraculously (or so it seemed to me at the time) the eggs did not exit the chicken food scoop but stayed in it and only one of the eggs was broken. But now I had one broken egg floating around in the bottom of the scoop. I pulled over a bit later and dumped that out and wiped my eggy hands on the rain-soaked grass that lines the road. And I made it to my meeting on time.

I bet none of that would happen in to your average city-dweller. I’m just glad I missed the fawnt.

Later in the evening all it took were two tornado warnings, about 6 thundershowers, a torrential downpour and reports of hail, but the soupy weather of yesterday is now gone, and the morning gave me this beautiful sunrise you see in today’s photo.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Weekend Soup and a few sightings

My weekend was a soupy one, as you can see by my photo this morning. The soup continues into Monday and certainly contributed to my need for a headlamp when I walked the still slightly skunky Dog this morning. Were the humidity within a normal range, he might not give off an odor, but with the atmosphere looking like this, I can still get a whiff of skunk every now and again.

The good news about the soup is that it means the temperature isn’t 90 degrees or more. Saturday felt almost like fall, though I’m sure part of that was simply my relief that it wasn’t 90 degrees. The sense of fall was heightened by the drought-withered leaves falling to the ground in the slightest breeze.  You can see the results of that in today's photo, with yellowing leaves littering the path.

I found a large eastern garter snake stretched out in my driveway, likely hoping to catch a few rays. I was glad I didn’t have Dog or Baby Dog with me when I saw it, though a camera would have been nice. I carry my camera whenever I take a walk, but not usually when I’m feeding the chickens.

The soup also likely contributed to the great horned owl calling at a time when on a sunny morning he would already be abed (or is that a-limb?). The eastern pewees and wood thrush were singing together this morning, the pewee no doubt confused by the late dawn, and the wood thrush not to be deterred, despite it.

Overall, I think the soupy weather reduced the number and variety of birds I saw this weekend. Once the air clears, early migrants will certainly move and give me something new to look at.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A little rain too late

Over the past 24 hours Roundtop Mtn. has finally gotten some much-needed rain. The rain has come too late for some portions of the forest, though. These yellowed leaves are not a sign of an early fall but simply of drought. The rain will help with vegetation that’s not as far gone as these leaves. Fortunately, the yellowing leaves are in the minority.

August is a time on the mountain where I expect more to happen than it usually does. Partly, that’s because I am looking forward to the fall, that prettiest of seasons here in the east. I love winter but there’s no getting around the gorgeous colors that come with autumn. August usually brings the first hint of bird migration. For raptors and songbirds, this month is just a teaser for what is to come, though I am ever eager to see the first signs. Off the mountain shorebirds move in earnest during August. Occasionally a few of them will stop by the mountain, but never as many as I’d like to see.

August is just one step away from fall but usually the hottest month of the year. I tend to see signs of fall in every cool breeze that passes in August, if there are any. This year I am trying not to despair about the upcoming fall. Long-range forecasts are already predicting warmer weather in September and October than I’d like to see. It’s true that long-range forecasts are notoriously wrong, and I’m hoping that will be the case this time around, too. I prefer fall with more than a little “bite” in the air. If this September and October turned out to have a lot of bite to them, I’d be thrilled. Just the chance that might not be the case puts a bit of a damper on my thoughts of the fall.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Too much drama

First Dog gets doused with skunk. Then a fox tries for the chickens on Sunday night, and last night an owl tried for the chickens. I believe that the dry weather has pushed the predators to spots they wouldn’t ordinarily be and to try things they wouldn’t ordinarily try. If my theory is correct, the rain that dampened the forest early this morning should put an end to all the drama. I hope so.
Dog is well, and his stink is now at a lower level. At least it is low enough to allow him back in the cabin during a storm. The chickens are well, too, but after two attempts on their pen in as many days, they are jumpier than usual.

Last night the chickens woke me up around 3 a.m. They were all worked up, but nothing was visible. They wouldn’t settle down, though, and then I heard a great horned owl call close by. I shone my headlamp in the direction of the sound but couldn’t find anything through the dense canopy of leaves. The girls took a long time to mollify and longer to settle down.

Just before 5 a.m. a thunderstorm rumbled through the forest, lighting up the sky and waking me up yet again. I went through the cabin, closing windows, relieved to hear the sound of rain on the roof and glad that it didn’t fall in a downpour. The rain was steady but would likely do some good and not just run off. By daylight, nearly an inch of rain had fallen in about 2 hours or so. That’s a good start, though after days of a heat wave and no rain, a bit more wouldn’t hurt. I sure hope it’s enough to ease the nightly dramas that have plagued my last few sleeps, though.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Skunk 1, Dog 0

Last night around 10 p.m. Dog got skunked. The skunk in question was small, hardly more than kitten-sized. I didn’t see it until it was too late. I glimpsed it for a second in my headlamp before I saw what happened and attended to Dog.

Fortunately, the stink is not as bad as it might have been. Perhaps it wasn’t a clear shot. I wiped Dog down with a baby wipe and will wipe again when I get home today. But until I can’t smell that smell, he is banished to the back deck.

Do you think he looks repentant? Perhaps he does a little but not nearly as much as he should look. This was only the second skunk I’ve seen at Roundtop. The first was shortly after I moved in nearly 20 years ago and that one was an adult tiptoeing carefully down a dirt access road.

The encounter lasted but half a second or less. Dog himself is fine. If there was any actual physical contact between the two there is no sign of it. This skunk was across the driveway at the edge of the lane, and I thought Dog was heading over there to do his business. Guess not. I suspect he won’t be so eager the next time if he finds another skunk.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Dog days are here

After a weekend of normal summer weather, higher heat and humidity are returning to Roundtop. Rain has been in short supply during these dog days, which means the understory of the forest is starting to wither. Small shrubs, flowering plants and saplings are all starting to look rather sad this week.

My own water usage is higher than normal, too. The heat makes the dogs and cats, as well as the chickens, drink more, and I find myself filling their water bowls and waterers several times a day. My plants that are summering on the decks need to be watered as well. Usually, I don’t need to do that as what falls from the sky is typically good enough to sustain them through the summer. So naturally, as someone whose water comes from a well, I am starting to be a bit concerned about the amount I am using.

So far, the well and I are doing okay, though I do try to conserve everywhere I can. Showers are short. Laundry is done off-site. If I run hot water, I collect the water before it turns hot to use for the dogs or plants, so it just doesn’t go to waste and down the drain. Still, a bit of rain would be appreciated, though nothing is predicted until later in the week and that looks pretty chancy.

This morning Dog and I really needed a headlamp to start our walk, though I did without one for at least today.  The changing early morning August light in the forest is taking on a a golden hue.  It is a warmer shade than the lemon yellow of last month.  Despite the heat, the wheel of the year is turning yet again.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Of kids and camp, heat and humidity

Camp is over for the summer, and I am glad about that. I love working with the kids. I love the hikes, but this summer has not been kind. On the last day of camp, the heat and humidity didn’t let up. It sure would have been nice to have had even one week with comfortable weather but that was not to be.

This week’s camp was a decent one, despite the weather. The third group of the day found a luna moth not long out of its cocoon. The wings were unfolded, but the tail was still a bit wrinkled. The kids were thrilled, as was I. The heat reduced the number of frogs and toads we found, but the kids seemed happy.

All the kids seem to love the large millipedes we found along the trails. I don’t know what it is about millipedes that the kids love so much, but every one has to let the thing walk across their palms so they can feel it tickle them.

When the temperature hit 94 at 3 p.m., just in time for the last group of the camp, the session was with the youngest ones, the 7-8 year old kids. We decided to forego a hike in the sweltering, breeze-less woods and play around the lake instead. The kids chased frogs, were thrilled with the two dead ones they found, waded in the water and looked at dragonflies. They waded in the pond with their shoes and socks on, looking for more frogs and seemed to have a delightful time.

I’m ready for more hiking, but I think after 42 times along this particular trail, I’ll pick another one for a bit. And I think I’ll wait for the weather to be just a bit cooler, too.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Some unadorned cuteness

In my book “cute” can be overdone very quickly, but sometimes even cute is appropriate, and today you will get a full dose of it here at Roundtop Ruminations. Last evening I drove off the mountain just before sunset and there in front of me was cute in full measure, just waiting for me to take their photo.

White-tailed deer are as common as robins here in Pennsylvania, and it’s rare that I go more than a few days without seeing several or nearly colliding with one with my car. The majority of Pennsylvanians are as blasé about deer as they are about robins, too. We barely notice them anymore.

But every now and again we notice, especially when the fawns are small and spotted. Mama and twins were quietly cropping grass in this field and were not very concerned when I stopped the car and rolled down the window. Deer ignore Pennsylvanians almost as much as we ignore them.

The road I was on is not much traveled, so no cars came along while I was taking a few shots from my impromptu mobile deer blind. Mama knew I was there, but as long as I wasn’t doing anything that she deemed dangerous or inappropriate, she was content to just continue grazing and keep an eye turned in my direction.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The more seasons change...

The mornings grow ever-darker as I move further from the longest days of the year. This morning the darkness was heightened by overcast skies. For a few moments I even considered wearing my headlamp during my morning walk with Dog. I let it go this morning, but it won’t be long, likely no more than another week, before I will need it.

Because Dog and I are now taking our walks around dawn, what I see on the walk is different than I saw when our walks were after sunrise. The birds I see now are mostly crows, with the odd barn swallow or bluebird thrown in for variety. This morning, the crows were harassing the sharp-shinned hawk that I saw a catbird harassing last evening.

Raptors have a tough life as it is without near-constant harassment by one species or another. I’ve read that nearly 80% of fledglings die in the first year when their hunting skills are still poor. And with red-tailed hawks their success rate for killing their prey apparently is just a single success out of an average of 20 attempts. Easier, I think, to be a species whose food is plentiful, even if that makes you are a prey species.

And with that raptor note comes a reminder (or an announcement, depending on your point of view). The fall hawkwatching season is now open. The first three hawkwatches counted for at least a few hours this past Sunday, though only Waggoner’s Gap near Carlisle is full-time this early in the season. The first days of migration season are virtually never auspicious ones and this year is no exception. Still, the season has begun!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Old farms, old ruins

August has arrived. To me that means fall is nearer and I am past midsummer. Unfortunately, that is not precisely true since summer hangs on officially for another 51 days. But by the time Labor Day weekend is over, weather tends to be decidedly fall-ish here on Roundtop Mtn., so for me this summer should be more than half over (Got that?).
August, though often hot, is also often a quiet month on the mountain. The northwest winds that blow in the autumn weather are still mostly absent. The typically unsettled weather of spring and early summer is behind me. The leaves take on a deep green that soon begins to fade. The understory of shrubs and small trees begins to wither. I can begin to look ahead to fall even though that season is still far on the horizon. At least it is on the horizon, though.

Bird migration begins in August, though will be quite tepid until at least the middle of the month. The first hawkwatches opened on Sunday, but they are really pushing the season trying to count every migrant hawk of the entire migration season. Nearby Waggoners Gap found exactly 1 American Kestrel in 6.5 hours of counting that was deemed a migrant. I prefer hawkwatching when there’s a bit more action than that.

This past weekend at the cabin was comfortably cooler, and I made up for days of heat-induced lassitude by catching on up some housecleaning. I figure I’d better get to it now, because once hawkwatching season begins in earnest, I won’t have time to do much of it then. For me, housecleaning is something that takes a back seat to almost everything else. As a general rule, life is just too short to spend it indoors and cleaning.

August is arriving with a bit a haze and dark clouds, which made the morning even darker than it would otherwise be. The hours of daylight grow shorter, noticeably, already this year.

My photo this morning is the ruins of an old barn, looking down what used to be the lane to the farm. Now, it is simply a grassy area lined with trees, flatter where the lane used to run. I have to be right in the center of the old lane to see it. I often imagine what it must have looked like when this was a working farm, busy with the chores of the season. As time passes and the ruins fall, the lane gets ever harder to see and even my imagination begins to fail. The seasons are taking the memory of the farm with it as they pass.