Friday, December 30, 2011

A winter's morning

December is a good time for sunrise and sunset photos. You need interesting cloud cover to make a good sunrise or sunset photo, and I guess Roundtop gets a lot of that in December. Last night I had a dusting of snow up on the mountain, and at dawn the clouds were still pretty thick, if already beginning to clear.
The landscape is starting to look more like winter now. It is cold, too, but not the bone-chilling mid-winter kind of cold. Still, it's got me thinking I should soon dig out my down parka, which is somewhere in the back of the closet.
The ski resort opened this morning, though only with a few slopes. People were already lining up when I left the mountain. The night time temperatures here just haven’t been cold enough yet to make a lot of snow. That will change after New Year’s, if the forecast is at all correct. The temperature will drop and the wind will rise. Well, what do I expect? It will be January.

What will be different this year for me is that the ski resort is planning fireworks on New Year’s Eve. I will have a ringside seat for that, which should be fun. Usually, I don’t stay up to midnight, though I’m not infrequently awakened by the sound of fireworks from elsewhere, or even homegrown fireworks or gunshots. The dogs are quick to bark at any noise and their noise is more likely to awaken me than the shooting or fireworks themselves. I wonder what they will think of fireworks? It won’t be long before I find out the answer to that one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wishing and hoping

Along Mt. Airy Rd. -   gorgeous sunrise light
Now that Christmas is over, with no more presents to be bought or opened, no more food to be cooked or eaten, my mind automatically turns to what comes next. For me, this means the start of a new year and with that, the start of a new bird list.

For many years I’ve been atop the Ebird listings in my home county. My county is where I have always done the bulk of my birding. I haven’t the means or the time to travel any further than that to maintain a sighting list. Even so, for the last few years, family and work obligations have kept me from doing much birding. EBird, that Cornell database of bird sightings from literally everywhere, has also become more popular and more used. Those two facts combined to drop me further down the leaderboard than I am used to finding myself.

Now truth be told, I am not much of a lister when it comes to my bird sightings. But I am rather competitive, so finding my name further down than the top of the list simply does not sit well with me. As a result, I am planning to start 2012 with some serious birding, in hopes that during the new year I will have again have the time to put into keeping my name atop the county list.

This week I am planning my assault to regain my top slot. That means figuring out where I will bird over January 1 and 2, planning the route and configuring the GPS to get me from here to there in the fastest time possible. It means having the camera ready to record anything exotic or so unusual that no one will believe that I saw it without documentation. It means studying and re-studying my bird books to make sure I can quickly ID every distant and fast-moving speck of a bird in an instant (ha!).

Now I have no idea if work, family and better birders will keep me from seriously working my list in 2012, but I’m determined to get a good start on the year. York County is not a birder’s paradise, either, so those of us crazed enough to seriously bird here (likely for the same reasons I have—lack of means and time) will never be at the same level of competition as those souls from, say, Cape May County in New Jersey.

None of that is the point. The point is I can start a new list with the new year and maybe, just maybe, in 2012 I will get to see oodles of really good birds. And see my name back at the top of the county list again. Hope—that’s what the new year always brings.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

It's only time

Christmas fern
Is it my imagination or is it already possible to tell that the days are longer? Here in my corner of Pennsylvania, the days only lengthen at this time of year by a minute each day.

In fact the sunrise is now actually later than it was on the solstice, when it rose at 7:26 a.m. Sunrise is now at 7:29 a.m., on its way to a sunrise of 7:30 a.m., where it will remain until January 9, when it will inch back one minute. It’s the sunsets that are arriving later now. Still the earliest sunset was not on the solstice but from December 4-11, when the sun set each day at 4:42 p.m.

Today the sun sets at 4:50 p.m., and it’s only when you add up the daylight hours between the sunrises and the sunsets that you can find the shortest day on December 22. I am nearly always up before sunrise in all seasons of the year, but I can already tell when I return to the cabin in the evenings that it’s not as dark as it was during that long, dark week after Thanksgiving. So the day feels longer to me, though the actual length of the daylight hours is hardly different. Somehow, those few minutes seem to make a big difference.

My photo today is of the common Christmas fern, which is lovely even in winter. The fern retains its bright green color, even though the fronds no longer stand up and are nearly hidden by the fallen leaves.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Not a white Christmas

Old bridge and steers - near Bowmansdale, Pennsylvania
It didn’t snow on Roundtop for Christmas this year. In fact, the ski area on the mountain was not even able to make enough snow over the past few weeks to open for the season yet. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is normally their biggest week of the year, so when they lose Christmas week, much of the season goes with it. I’ve lived on Roundtop Mtn. nearly 20 years now, and I believe this is only the second time the ski area hasn’t been open for Christmas week (though they’ve had some close calls).

As I am typing, it is raining again. The rain today will certainly push 2011’s rain total above 60 inches, which is nearly twice what this area normally sees. Given the weird weather this year, I’m about half afraid 2012 will bring no rain at all.

Snow or no snow, Christmas on Roundtop is both fun and hectic. Without skiers, the holiday was much quieter than is typical—unless you count the nightly raccoon attacks on the bird feeders, which has shortened my sleep every night this week. I’d be happily content to let the raccoon eat all the bird seed and even the feeders themselves, if only Baby Dog wouldn’t wake me up with her barking to announce their arrival.

I did take advantage of the quiet to wander through the brown forests of the mountain. Not much is going on. The woods are still and quiet and brown, and I’m starting to find the snowless winter difficult to photograph in any way that I find interesting. Better lighting would help or at least clearer skies, though I find it hard to get very excited about winter without snow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Odds and ends

This is the last of my Sunday snow photos, a view from my back deck. I’ve always had a soft spot for that big rock. Boulders of all sizes are common in this area of Pennsylvania, but they appear where they choose, sometimes a forest is dense with them, while nearby there are none. That rock is “mine,” the largest on my property. I have a few other almost-boulders, too, but none are larger than this one.

Don’t expect any sun photos tomorrow, neither setting nor rising, to mark the solstice. I am socked in with rain and fog. Solstice means the days will again grow longer, but I won’t be able to see evidence of the return of the light until the sky clears.

It always seems a bit odd to me that the days begin to lengthen just as winter begins. To me it would feel more appropriate if longer days began midway through winter—to mark the beginning of the ending of that season. I understand the science behind how the seasons operate. I just feel, emotionally, that they should operate differently.

The fog on the mountain makes sounds travel further than usual, but I think that distance distorts the sounds I hear, too. Last night I’d almost convinced myself I heard wood frogs in the distance. It’s warmer than average for late December, but it’s not warm enough for that. Those little frogs are buried in some nice deep mud by now. They may deign to reappear in very late February if there’s a warm spate of days. Late March is more likely.

Sun or no sun, frogs or no frogs, autumn will end today, and by the time I wake in the morning, a new season, a new day, a longer day will be here. Let the season begin. Winter is here.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A little light at night

Snow on marcescent American beech leaf
The snow of Sunday morning is gone, leaving in its wake weather warmer than normal for late December. The ski resort will likely not be able to open for at least part of the Christmas week, traditionally its biggest week of the entire ski season.

Crews make snow for 2-3 nights, then it rains and ruins it all. They make snow again for 2-3 nights and then it warms up and the newly-made snow melts. My weather forecast predicts rain and above freezing nights over the next few days. The crew needs temperatures below freezing by at least a few degrees for most of the night in order to make snow.

When crews make snow, the lights along the slopes are lit, and when they aren’t, all the lights are off. You would think I would see a big difference whether the lights are on or off, but most of the time I don’t. Over by my cabin, I get a fair amount of winter light from the night sky. It’s actually lighter at night in the winter without Roundtop’s lights than it is in the summer when all the leaves are on the trees.

Of course, a few leaves remain on the trees most of the winter. The American beech tree retains many of its leaves right up until the dead ones are pushed off the twigs by the new growth in spring. A few years ago I learned this is called marcescence, which means the leaves wither but don’t fall off.

Theories abound about the purpose of marcescence, but from what I’ve read nobody really knows why some leaves don’t fall off. Certain species, like beech, are more prone to it than other species. Younger trees and the lower branches also seem more likely to display marcescence.

Still, the vast majority of the trees have lost all their leaves, and that lets the light of the wintry night shine all the way down by my cabin.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Snowy surprise

I woke up to a bit of snow on Sunday morning, which was something of a surprise. On Saturday afternoon, snow showers were the order of the day, but the snow was so fine I could only see it against a background of dark green spruces. By late evening, the snow showers seemed over, and I even saw a few stars when I ran the dogs outside for the last time.

So I was not expecting to wake up to a pretty little dusting of snow the next morning. Fearing the snow would not last through the morning, I took this photo before the day was well lit, and the snow still threatened to obscure the western mountain. The dogs were just as excited as I was, more so actually.

My dogs forget everything they have ever learned when they see snow. They forget their names, let alone any of those tedious commands I spend so much time trying to teach them. The term “domesticated” does not apply to them when snow is on the ground. They turn wild as quickly as I turn off a light switch, wolfishly dipping their noses into the white stuff and racing along a trail. They are shocked, dumbfounded even, when they reach the end of the long lead and are forced to a neck-rattling stop, leaving me with a sore arm. Truly, snow makes them feral.

I, myself, am too domesticated to turn feral so quickly. I need a couple of days, at least.

Perhaps some would disagree.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Unexpected weirdness

I can’t really give you a good reason why I like this photo of vines twisted around a couple of saplings. I just do. Perhaps it’s the way the morning light warms the background, perhaps it’s the twists themselves. No matter.
Last night I was watching a TV show on DVD on my computer. The show took place in a rural setting, and in the background of one of the scenes I could hear a red fox barking. Now, this sound was probably added in some studio, simply as a way to add more “atmosphere” to the scene. I probably wasn’t even supposed to notice the sound, but being the kind of person I am, I did. And so did my dogs.

Dog and Baby Dog went nuts. They are attuned to the sound of a fox barking as much as I am. We have suffered many fox attacks on my poor chickens in the middle of the night. A pair of local foxes lives near the cabin and frequently bark to tell each other where the other is. I’ve had them gallop under the cabin, under one side and out the other. I’ve had them race down my driveway.

Well, those two dogs thought I had a red fox in the bedroom. They started barking, which soon turned into howling and later degenerated into lunging, utter chaos and full-scale destruction. The cats scattered and hid under the nearest piece of furniture. I had to the turn the DVD off to get them to calm down.

That’s the first thing they’ve ever paid attention to on the TV or computer. They totally ignore dogs barking on TV. They ignore wolves howling. Nothing else on TV has ever made me think they even heard the sound. But they sure heard that fox.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Frosted moss
After several mornings with a heavy frost, today the forest at Roundtop is somewhat warmer ahead of a showery afternoon. As is to be expected on such a day, the sky is grey and heavy with clouds. Though warmer, the day is still not so very warm. With a bit of a breeze and the dampness in the air, the day is verging on raw.

Even though the sun is now well above the horizon, I wouldn’t want to bet I could get a decent photo in this light. So today I am posting a photo from yesterday, a lovely moss, dusted with frost. I must confess that although I love mosses, I am virtually incompetent at identifying them. Partly the fault is in the available guides, partly it’s the mosses themselves, which often require a microscope or at least an excellent hand lens to be reasonably sure of them. I look at the super close-up moss photos and find I don’t have a glass that lets me see them in that fine a detail. Photos in field guides taken from further away all look the same to me. A good moss class is probably what I need, but there’s not much hope of finding one of those that’s free, within a reasonable driving distance and at a time that’s convenient for me to attend. So I remain incompetent at identifying them. Instead I will have to be content merely to admire their delicate beauty.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A fern in frost

Christmas fern (frosted)
In my winter landscape, not much has a color other than some shade of brown. So when I’m out in the woods, anything that is non-brown is quick to catch my eye. One thing I always know to look for is the Christmas fern.

Christmas ferns stay green all winter, though they flatten out and don’t stand up the way they do during the growing season. Because they stay green, they were favored as household Christmas decorations at least as late as the 19th Century, particularly in those pre-electricity, pre-Christmas lights days that seem unimaginable today.

And really, those days were not that long ago. Even my father claims (though my mother always denied) that he did his schoolwork by a kerosene lantern because rural electrification did not arrive until he was in high school. Going into the forest to cut the fronds of the fern that soon came to be called a Christmas fern was a family tradition, as much as going to a farm to get a tree is today.

I’ve always tried to picture, and usually my imagination fails me, those Victorian ladies in their corsets and long skirts out in a forest delicately snipping Christmas ferns with their sewing scissors to decorate their living rooms and hallways. I just can’t make that whole picture work. But so they did, or so I’m told.

Today’s Christmas fern captured my eye because of the frost on the fronds, but I would have been just as glad to see it for its greenery alone on this grey day in an otherwise brown landscape.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sunrise snowmaking

As the season is now in that time where little is green or growing, I set off this morning looking for tiny things to photograph. I looked at the designs made by frost. I looked at brown and dried things, some of which were unrecognizable in their current state (though I’m sure I knew what they were when they were green). I looked at twisted vines, frost-stunted mosses, and Christmas ferns laying flat on the forest floor.

And then I turned around and saw the sunrise and decided the little things can wait another day, perhaps for a grey day when winter’s poor morning light foils any attempts at photography. But had I not spent those minutes looking for those little gifts of the forest, I wouldn’t have seen the sun rise in all its glory over the eastern mountains.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter mountains, winter fields

South Mountains

Clear and cold, a perfect almost-winter weekend at my cabin, at least as far as the weather goes. After the surprise snowstorm in late October, I spent time on Sunday getting the chickens ready for winter. The early snowstorm gave little notice and the work I did to get them through it was just a stopgap measure. This time I did the job properly, so now they are protected and ready for winter.

I didn’t do this work any too soon. This morning the chicken water was frozen solid. Fortunately, in winter I have a second waterer so I can switch them back and forth between frozen and not-frozen. I bring the frozen one into the house, set it in a sink or bathtub and let it thaw. Twelve hours later, I repeat the process.

Sunday, the weather never got above freezing at my cabin. Roundtop made snow all weekend except for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. When they turned the guns off, I checked my thermometer, thinking the temperature had finally reached 32. Maybe over on the sunny ski slopes the temperature got too warm to make snow, but at my cabin it never got there.

The mountain and the area around my cabin look like early winter now, lacking only a cover of snow to complete the picture. In my mind, the brown November landscape starts to take shape once the harvests are over.  The harvest was finished in October, and the the brown November landscape is just showing up in mid-December this year.

Friday, December 09, 2011


Snowmaking for the new ski season has started at Roundtop!

I first heard the sound of the snowmaking guns shortly before 9 p.m.  last night, and it took a few minutes for the sound to register.  It's a bit like remembering what a robin's song is the first time you hear it in the spring after months of not hearing it at all.  Finally, it occured to me that I'd been hearing the sound for a few minutes. Snowmaking!

My cabin is on the west side of the mountain, and over there the sound isn't all that loud.  If you've ever heard grain being milled, that's a similar sound, just a constant hum.  It's only when I walk down around the slopes that the noise can get pretty loud. It's not so loud that I can't deal with it, but it is too loud for the dogs. It hurts their very sensitive ears. 
This morning I discovered that I'd forgotten another aspect of the dogs and the snowmaking guns. They can't hear me over the guns even when we're not close enough for the sound to hurt their ears.  For a few minutes I just thought they were being exceptionally bad, and then I remembered.  Some days I'm not sure which of us needs more training--them or me.

If the weather holds, Roundtop will probably open for skiing sometime next week. When the weather stays cold, it doesn't take the snowmaking crew very long to cover the mountain well enough to open for business.  Even after the mountain is open, they will continue to make snow to build up the base.  Later in the season they will make snow to cover up any melting spots. 

In the first photo, you can just barely see what looks like windblown snow at the top of the mountain. That's from the snowmaking.  Natural snow still covered the top of the mountain but melted off the lower section during the day on Thursday.  The snow you see in the foreground of the second photo is the remains of the natural snow I had on Wednesday night.You can also see one of the snowmaking guns on the right side of the second photo.

It won't be long before the skiers arrive!

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Snow arrived with a bang and a flourish last night. The temperature dropped some 20 degrees in a matter of 90 minutes. The bang was provided by thunder. At the time I heard the thunder, it was still raining torrents, and though the snow started within minutes after the thunder, I’m not sure I can accurately call it a thundersnow. Close, but no cigar.

It was a vicious storm, thankfully gone this morning. It’s a rare day when I’m under both a winter storm warning and a flood warning. I ended up with less snow than was predicted. What did fall is now pasted to the sides of the trees and makes them, at least to my eyes, look almost like white birch trees instead of the oaks that make up the bulk of the forest at Roundtop.

The extreme change in weather brought another kind of flood to my doorstep. The wintering birds arrived at my feeders before dawn, first demanding food and then announcing its presence. The birds even arrived before the squirrels, for once. The unseasonably warm weather let the birds find natural food later into the season than is typical. Obviously, judging by their instantaneous arrive, the birds knew the feeders were armed and loaded even if they didn’t partake of them. Add a dollop of snow to the landscape and suddenly dozens of them appear.

The calendar won’t proclaim winter for another few weeks, yet, but at least for the moment, that season has arrived on Roundtop.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011


It’s gray today. Or perhaps grey.  I'm never sure.  And foggy, when it’s not raining. In other words, the day is about as gloomy as a day can be. Sound travels better in the thick air, making distant sounds audible and nearer sounds louder and jarring. Baby Dog skittered and barked when something over by the paintball fields clattered to the ground, not even making a loud sound. Even her barks sounded louder to me.

Early this morning a pileated woodpecker, loud on any day of the year, announced its presence as it flew from tree to tree, landing for just a moment or two before taking off for the next tree. It was, apparently, on some kind of woodpecker mission about something, but its goal was not clear to either human or canines.

A great blue heron stalked the edge of the pond, eyeing me warily but not flying off. Most of them have migrated, though a few always hang around. I’ve even seen them in snow, standing in a cold, rushing stream and looking miserable. The warm weather so far this December has likely kept this one from rushing further south and gives it no reason to look miserable, at least not at the moment.

Over by another pond, I hear the rattle of a belted kingfisher, another bird that can be seen more or less all year when open water remains. They disappear in an instant when everything freezes shut but somehow manage to reappear just as quickly on the first warm day when the water is flowing again, even temporarily.

I saw turkey vultures last evening, 6 or 7 of them. They rarely disappear over the winter entirely. Even after a heavy snow, I can often find them on the first sunny day after a storm. Where they go during the storms is anyone’s guess and something I’ve always wondered about. It can’t be far, but it’s not here.

For the moment, Roundtop is a stopping point for these birds. Most will stay as long as the weather holds. The woodpecker will stay regardless of the weather. The heron and the vultures are likely from further north, as the local birds of those species moved out several weeks ago. The presence of these birds here today tells me winter is approaching, even if it gives no immediate sign of arriving.

Monday, December 05, 2011

December ain't what it used to be

Early December sunset from the cabin
Though December is barely started, already I can say that my warmer than normal November is turning into a warmer than normal December. The forecast for the next week or so continues that trend, though several upcoming days appear to be headed more towards normal than above normal. The result of the temperature and the rain forest-like precipitation experienced at Roundtop this year is that the forest around my cabin doesn’t look much like December. If I was being especially curmudgeonly today, I’d say it barely looks like late October.

Of course, that would be the late October of 20-30 years ago, not the late October of the past 5-10 years. Taking more recent history into consideration, I’d say the forest looks like almost mid-November. Still, I finally have back my full view out the western windows to gaze on all winter. Sometime in May, the woods will grow so thick that I won’t see a sunset again until roughly this point of the year. I actually have more sunlight in winter than in summer, despite the fewer hours of daylight now.

With one week of deer season gone and the second just starting, so far the semi-tame doe and her two fawns have survived. I saw all three of them this morning, safe at the bottom of my lane for the night. The problem is that they don’t stay where they are safe. They wander out on the abandoned ski slope to graze, but so far the hunters have ventured deeper into the woods and the trio has been safe.

Hunters seeking venison for the winter tend to get less picky about the deer they will take as the season progresses. At first, they want that good-sized buck, by which they normally mean a big deer with a big rack of antlers. If, after several days of hunting, such a creature does not materialize, they downsize their expectations to any sized buck with a legal rack. If that one doesn’t play out, by the end of the season they have doe season for several days, where just about anything goes. So this white-tailed family has a ways to go before the toughest thing they will have to deal with is the upcoming winter.

What worries me is that their tameness could be their undoing. Deer are curious, and these are no exception. It’s their curiosity that has caused them to become half-tame. I wouldn’t be surprised if they would walk right up to a hunter or a tree stand, just to check it out and see what it was. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to deer, mostly because it’s hard to tell one from another. I have watched this doe and her fawns all summer, from when the fawns were tiny, spotted things, just testing their feet for the first time on a dirt road and watching me walk by with the dogs. I think of them as neighbors now and hope they remain so.

Friday, December 02, 2011

A frosty morning

The temperature dropped low enough for a decent frost last night, as you can see from today’s photos. November was unseasonably warm and frosts this season have been few and far between. Usually by this point in the year I’ve lost count of the number of frosts I’ve had.

The warmer weather has lulled me into poor thinking. In a normal year, the temperature slowly but steadily declines, week by week, after the fall equinox. Each little drop in temperature is a signal to me that winter is coming, and certain household projects should be accomplished in preparation. With the weather staying warmer than usual, it was easy to put off some of those jobs for (yet) another week. And now, suddenly, it is December.

The temperature is now just a bit warmer than is normal for here, which still feels a bit like a rude awakening. I’m rather far behind my winter readiness schedule, and I have no one to blame for my own procrastination. What is likely to happen—and likely to happen very shortly—is that winter will arrive with a bang. In other words, if I don’t get moving and quickly, I’m going to find myself hip-deep in snow, with the chickens still in their late fall quarters and stuff outside that should be inside.

So this weekend, I am resolved to ignore the warmer temperatures and get to it. No wandering around the woods this weekend, no hours of birdwatching or looking for things to photograph, just a weekend of work around the cabin (and with a few minutes of birdwatching and photographing, I hope). Just because the cold and snow is arriving late this year doesn’t mean it will wait for me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Along North Lewisberry Rd.

The morning light was especially lovely this last day of November. For some reason, I was late heading off the mountain, which resulted in the morning being brighter than at the time when I usually leave. I made myself even later by stopping to take a few photos of the light playing across a field. I figured that since I was already late, there was no harm in being a bit later, and light like this doesn’t come around every day.

Some days I have to consciously decide to spend more time enjoying my surroundings. It’s so easy, and so empty, to race from one thing to another. Now that I am older, I am more inclined to somehow make a few more moments for that enjoyment. My time on earth grows shorter with each passing day, and really, if I don’t enjoy myself along the way, what’s the point? Trying to make someone else happy is a fool’s errand, whether that person be a boss or a family member. If they aren’t happy, that’s their own problem to fix, not mine.

Still, I have to remind myself to slow down. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I tend to be way too logical and way too linear. What the shortest, fastest, most efficient way to accomplish this task? That thinking leads to nothing but frustration as nothing ever operates at maximum speed or efficiency. Often, I think that faster and more efficient will lead to more “free” time to enjoy my surroundings. Over the years I’ve found that life doesn’t really work that way. There’s always some other task to do. Better to notice the morning light in those few moments when it is especially lovely than to expect it to be there when I have more time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Goodbye, 60 degrees. I’ll see you again in March or April. It’s been nice to have you around but you’ve kind of overstayed your holiday. I really don’t expect to see you for day upon day in November, especially not at the end of November.

For a very brief moment at sunrise today, the sun made an appearance. This was immediately followed by rain and a steadily dropping temperature ever since. It’s not cold enough to make snow on the mountain yet, but I’m thinking it will be in another week.

The rain this morning was enough to keep the hunters away from Roundtop. I didn’t hear any shooting or see any vehicles inching their way up the mountain. The deer, assuming they weren’t shot, are in hiding and were not in evidence anywhere this morning either. And so the dogs got their normal early morning walk by the light of my dimming headlamp. It was only a week or so ago that the morning walks still had some beginnings of the morning’s light. Now, it’s as dark as midnight again. The darkest days of the year have arrived.

These are the days when it’s nearly dark when I leave the cabin in the mornings and quite dark when I return home. The birdseed disappears daily, but I won’t get to see the birds until the weekend. I hate that. I always imagine the rarest of the rare arriving at my feeders when I can’t see them. Logically, I know this is unlikely, particularly in November, but logic isn’t the point, is it? Sometimes November can be a hard month, even when it is 60 degrees.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Odds and ends

The weather is unseasonably mild, or at least it has been over the long Thanksgiving holiday. Even on Roundtop, where the temperature is nearly always 4-5 degrees cooler than down in the towns, the temperature hovered near 60 degrees. I took advantage of it to do some more cleaning of the brush and tree tops that came down during the October snowstorm. Mostly, I’m just dragging what I can further into the woods. Most of it is too heavy to load into my car. As long as I don’t have snow on the ground, this is a project I can work on all winter.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat outside on my deck, facing the sun’s warmth, comfortable without a jacket. The woods was quiet, except for when a blue jay or the crows split the silence. I doubt I’ll be able to do that again until spring, at least not without a jacket. Since the snowstorm, the weather has been unseasonably mild, and I know I’ve thought a few times that “today” would be the last time only to find out there was another “today” or two left in the season.

Today in Pennsylvania is the first day of rifle deer season. A couple of trucks edged slowly up the mountain past my cabin just before 6 a.m., setting the dogs to barking though even on a good day they don’t need much of an excuse to start that. Later on, when it was light, I heard a few shots, though none were close enough to be the hunters I saw.

I did see a total of 8 deer this morning, none with antlers. Three of them were the doe and twins that hang out around my cabin. The others were in two groups, racing across the road in front of me, no doubt spooked out of their beds by the unfamiliar presence of hunters. It was a reminder to me that the deer will now be on the move to avoid hunters and can appear anywhere and at anytime as a result.

While I was cleaning up the brush this weekend, I started noticing all the fungus on other pieces of downed branches. November is a good time to see fungus—the leaves are down and no underbrush obscures the view. And, truth be told, there aren’t many exciting birds left around the mountain or any wildflowers, so November is the time when there’s not too much else to look at either. Still, I like the textures and patterns on them so I don’t mind if they aren’t as exciting as a wild geranium or an American redstart.

The first photo is, I believe, the turkey tail fungus, though it’s still small compared to other turkey tail fungus I’ve seen. The colored bands that mark the growth of the fungus are supposed to resemble the bands on a turkey’s tail. The orange fungus might be sulfur shelf, also known as chicken of the woods, but I’m not sure because it’s still much smaller than others I’ve seen, at least so far. I’ll have to keep an eye on them and see if they grow.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Milkweed pod
Chilly, rainy, gray November day.

Dog and Baby Dog curl up by the fire.

I hold steaming coffee laced with hot chocolate.

Dog and Baby Dog seemed to appreciate the rubdown they both got after their morning walks more than the wet and raw walk itself.

The rain didn’t stop the half-tame doe and her twins from making an appearance this morning. I first saw her eyes glint in my headlamp and wondered what animal it was. When I got a bit closer, I could just make out her silhouette in the gloom. She didn’t mind my headlamp or our passing. She is used to all of us and is often the recipient of a few withered apples that come my way here and there. I often find their hoofprints in my driveway, sometimes right up to the front door or beside the chicken pen. What must the girls think when three big, four-legged creatures amble by their pen?

November is a time of settling-in, of slowing down. The days are short, the evenings long. More time is spent inside than out. The woods are quieter; few birds sing other than the irrepressible cardinals. Perhaps the bluebird will sing a brief morning song, just a few notes really, at the coming of the dawn.

By late February or early March, the itch for warmer weather and longer days will take hold of me again, but for now the slowing down, the quieter days, are a welcome counterpoint to the long and busy days of summer.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Snow-damaged forest

Over the weekend, I tried to take a few photos that show what the damage left by “Snowtober” looks like around my cabin. I’m not really happy with any of the photos but these will have to do. The real problem, I suspect, is that when I look around I can see the tops of trees and large branches on the ground everywhere, but when I take a photo you can only see a small portion of my view.

And it’s not just around my own cabin that’s damaged. Literally everywhere I go, I can see pale wood exposed and branches down where trees are broken. I stood in one spot at the top of the mountain yesterday and soon counted 16 trees with visible breaks. It’s going to take a long time before the forest looks “normal” again.

Small birds and animals will likely appreciate the sudden appearance of more cover. The downside of that is that the predators are probably going to be less successful in their hunting for a while. They aren’t going to have clear views and they’re going to have a lot of cover to search through to find anything uncautious enough to allow them to approach close enough for a kill.

Eventually, the branches will rot and create more soil for the woods. Rotting takes a long time, though. Perhaps 15 years ago, I was forced to cut down a large oak tree that loomed ominously over the cabin. I’d avoided taking down that beautiful, 125-year old tree for a few years, but a winter blizzard where the oak leaned precipitously during the gale-force winds that accompanied the storm finally convinced me I had no choice. The stump from that oak is still standing, if no longer as dense as it was originally.

The smaller branches and treetops from this storm will likely rot faster than a huge stump, but it still won’t be fast. I’ll be looking at this damage for years.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Mostly red oak, with one tulip poplar and one unidentified leaf
This morning I had to chip ice out of the chickens’ water. The pieces were a little more than .25 inch thick, a sign the temperature dropped below freezing early in the night and not just in the hour or so before dawn. For me this means two things.

The first is that I will soon have to bring one of the chicken waterers inside at night. I switch the waterers every 12 hours during the winter, once in the morning and again in the evening, so one is always or nearly always free of ice. I bring the frozen waterer into the house and put it upside down in my bathtub. After an hour or two or three, the ice melts enough for it to fall out of the drinking area, clattering into the tub. When that happens I know it will be ready to put back out with the chickens the next time the water needs switched.

The second thing the overnight ice means is that it will soon be time for the ski area to start blowing snow in readiness for the start of the new ski season. The snow blowing probably won’t start until after Thanksgiving this year. After a quick look at the forecast, the temperature won’t stay this low long enough for a decent run at snow-blowing. And it might rain a bit next week, another negative. But it won’t be long, I’m sure of that.

Yesterday when I got home I discovered a huge limb or the top of a red oak tree blocking one side of my driveway. Somehow and luckily the limb missed the cabin and the chicken pen, by a distance of no more than 6 and 4 ft., respectively. The limb was what I hope is the last casualty of “Snowtober.” Apparently, it clung precariously to the red oak after the storm and yesterday 25+ mph wind was the last straw.

I could barely drag the limb from the driveway, it was that heavy. And it’s not a lot of fun, either, trying to drag a 10-12 ft. tree top far enough into the woods on a cold, dark and windy November evening so that I can park the car. Truthfully, if that limb had hit a person (for person, read “me”) it would have killed them. If it had hit the cabin, I’m sure it would have broken the window and very possibly damaged the roof. The chain link fence around the chickens may or may not have survived. When I got home the chickens were calm enough, indication that the limb likely fell earlier enough in the day for them to have calmed down already. I’m not expecting any eggs today, though. That’s certainly the kind of event that can stop them from laying for a day or two.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


November has reached the point where it feels and looks quintessentially Novemberian to me. The sky is grey and heavy. The leaves have fallen. The air is chilly, if only just beginning to verge on raw. The day lacks only, perhaps, that “wintry mix” of precipitation to make it not only quintessential but a stereotypically quintessential November day.

Notice that it’s more than leaves on the ground underneath these apple trees. The ground is littered with yellow apples, probably Yellow Delicious apples. It’s enough to make my heart sink. My farmer neighbor has lost a lot of his crop, and selfishly, that probably also means the ones he has will sell out quickly, depriving me of extending the enjoyment of that most perfect of all apples.

I have eaten Golden or Yellow Delicious apples from other areas. They aren’t half as good as local Pennsylvania Yellow Delicious. A good Pennsylvania Yellow Delicious apple is large and has a wonderful “sandy” texture to the fruit, in addition to the wonderful flavor. I don’t know if it’s the soil here that’s just perfect for them or if they lose something in the shipping from the west.

In any event, readers will likely notice more of my photos are not taken on the mountain right now. When I leave the cabin in the mornings, the light is darker than I like for photos. Soon, too soon, the decreasing daylight will force me to take all my blog photos for a week over the weekend. That’s one thing about November I don’t like. So I am extending my own photo season by taking photos out and away from the cover of the forest. I’m at that point in the season where the few minutes it takes me to reach the orchard on my drive down into the city, is enough to give me slightly better light, even on a quintessentially gray November morning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eastern bluebird

My photo today was not taken today.  Yesterday Blogger was being difficult and wouldn't let me upload any photos.  Today my morning walk with Dog around Roundtop was rainy and foggy.  In fact, it was so foggy that at one point I took a wrong turn.  Even with my headlamp I couldn't see where I was going and almost ended up walking into some bushes. You know it's pretty bad when I can lose my way within yards of the cabin.  Even Dog wondered what I was doing.

For early November the weather is downright balmy and that is bringing out the nighttime visitors.  Both raccoon and oppossum have paid 2 a.m. visits this week.  Baby Dog can't sleep through any visits and barks wildly so I am forced to get up, go to the door and look out.  That's all it really takes to chase off a visitor.  Baby Dog believes this is my job, perhaps my only job, around the cabin.  Her own fierce barking isn't good enough, though the visitor is usually gone by the time I reach the door.  She simply will not stop barking until I've gone to the door and assured that we are all safe from attack.  She has me well trained.

If the visitor returns, and if it's a raccoon it usually does, I have to repeat this procedure every time.  Last night the raccoon returned at least 3-4 times between 2-3 a.m., though by the second or third trip the last of my bird seed had disappeared and there was nothing for it to eat.

The raccoon is fattening itself up for what passes for raccoon hibernation during the winter.  They don't go into anything like a full hibernation but they do hole up for extended periods of bad weather.  That can't come soon enough for me.  I sure could use a full night's sleep without any interruptions.

Monday, November 14, 2011

One thing about “Snowtober” that can be turned into a positive is that no one who uses wood for heating should run low this year. I’m still cleaning up the mess from that storm. Even the areas that I’ve cleared still look pretty bad. Removing the downed branches from my driveway and pathways has only created hedge-high brush piles that look nearly as bad.

This weekend, the tree guy came and took down a broken limb and cleaned the branches off my cabin roof. I also discovered another tree, this one leaning ominously over the cable for my internet, and he agreed to take that one down another time.

The rest of my own winter preparations are proceeding, if ever slower than I would wish. The chickens are now moved partially into their winter quarters, which is under my raised cabin. They get less daylight in there, but they are somewhat protected from bad weather, as well. I still would like to move them a bit further under the cabin and will need to cover part of the pen with my winter tarp, but at least progress was made.

The hours of daylight diminish ever faster now, which is part of the reason why I never seem to make as much progress as I’d like. The forecast was for a sunny Sunday afternoon, so I waited to start my outside work until then, forgetting, perhaps conveniently, that darkness comes shortly after 5 p.m. now. So that pleasant afternoon is a lot shorter than it was just a week or so ago.

The leaves are nearly all on the ground. On Saturday I broomed off the front and back decks. This morning, both looked as bad as they did before. I haven’t had much rain since leaves began to fall in earnest, so they are all still fluttery and dry. A little breeze blows them onto the deck time and time again. Until I get another soaking rain or two, the leaves will continued to clutter the decks and follow me inside.

Yesterday I found a white oak leaf in my kitchen sink, another on my bed and yet a third in the bathroom. They are like puppies, always on my heels and suddenly appearing in very odd spots.

Friday, November 11, 2011


 I couldn't decide which one I liked the best, so I'm posting four of them.
This is the scene I came home to last evening on my way up to the cabin. Sunset (or sunrise) reflected over water has to the best, don't you think?

Here where I live, my best sunrise and sunset photos always seem to be taken in November and early December.  At first, I thought that was because the times I was out and about corresponded to the times of sunrise and sunset.  That's not it.  One major reason why these are the best is because of  the position of the sun on the horizon at sunrise and sunset.  In summer and later in winter, the sunsets and sunrises don't reflect into the pond so much because they are further south or further north.  Even that doesn't appear to be the entire story, though.  Summer sunsets and rises are often hazy with humidy and so the sky isn't as crisp as it appears this time of year.

So here's another reason to enjoy November.  It's hard to argue with a sunset like this one!!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Full moon rising

November’s full moon is my favorite. Oh, I know that most people would say the Harvest Moon of October is their favorite. That’s the one full moon everyone seems to know about. There’s this whole romantic notion surrounding the Harvest moon—walks among falling leaves and the like. But for me November’s full moon is my favorite. October’s full moon comes too early in the fall for me to take much benefit from it.

November marks the first time since May or so that enough leaves are down for the moon’s glow to penetrate into the forest around my cabin. Last night the sky was so clear and the moon so bright that I could see my shadow at 10 p.m. Dog and I walked in the woods, still balmy from the day’s warmth, without the need for a flashlight.

I saw the doe first, as I am taller than Dog. She stood by herself, without the twins, just off the lane. Her head was up, ears forward, as still as a tree. We walked ever closer, and soon Dog caught her scent and then saw her himself. He stood on his hind legs to get a better view, no mean feat for his age. That made her twitch her tail and start to move deeper into the woods, soon disappearing into the tangle of brush and understory.

I saw the doe after he couldn’t any longer. She stood, thinking she was hidden, behind a boulder, peering at us. I ignored her. Dog was less inclined to call the event over and done with, his nose to the ground trying to find where she’d gone. In the distance a few of the Canada geese honked, took flight long enough to circle around the mountain top and then land again. I could hear them splash down in the water, the sound no longer muted by the presence of leaves.

It’s a good feeling to be able to see and hear across a wider distance again. I’m glad summer is over. November’s full moon is my favorite.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Small and sneaky

American coot
This small and sneaky American coot was spotted this past weekend while I was taking advantage of the hour longer weekend created by the change back to standard time.  I saw 6 of them, 3 each in two different places, though I'm pretty certain they weren't the same 3.  Coots are interesting birds. They aren't ducks; their feet are lobed not webbed.  They don't fly very well and really have to work hard to get airborne, often running on the water to get started.

Here in Pennsylvania they aren't hunted and are considered inedible.  In a handful of states, hunting them is considered sport and the birds are heavily hunted, though the meat still isn't eaten.  I read one report that indicated about 720,000 were killed for sport in a recent year, especially in the south.  I come from a family of hunters and hunted myself when I was younger.  I've never understood the idea of killing something you didn't (or couldn't) eat.

I saw two of the coots move into the sticks you can see in the background of this photo and walk out of the water, balancing just above the water line.  Coots are related to moorhens and even remind me a bit of the southern waterbird, the jacana, when they are out of the water.  I see them often enough in open water, but they seem to especially like areas where they can hide in bushes and shrubs along the the edge of the water.  They aren't glamorous by any means, but they are still a cool bird to see and watch. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Changing for the seasons

The color change this autumn seems more variable than is typical. By that I mean that I can still find spots where the leaves are green and haven’t changed at all. In other spots a lot of the leaves are down and the trees completely bare. And yet on other trees the colors have faded but the leaves still hang on. Some variability is always present; this year it simply feels to me as though there’s more of it than usual.

Take today’s photo, for example. I took the photo on Sunday, but the overall impression of fall barely registers in it. The dominant colors are the green of the spruce tree and the paler green tree in front of it. Yes, you can see leaves littering the lane, but the main impression is still greenish. And yet just a few feet away the trees were mostly bare, with that vaguely spooky look twisted branches have in winter.

Migration is largely over for the season, as it should be. Oh, yes, the rough-legged hawks and golden eagles will still fly, but the songbirds are gone—except for the newly arrived northern robins, who have already migrated for a thousand miles or so and seem to think they have now arrived in the south. They have displaced the local robins, who headed off a month ago, feeling that same need to travel to warmer climes as the northern robins.

For them the difference is one of perspective, I think. Perhaps both feel the need to travel south by a thousand miles or so, no matter where that drops them off. For the local robins that puts them in Georgia or northern Florida. For the Canadian robins, that same 1000 miles or so puts them in my woods. Many will stay through the winter, often flocking up with their cousins the bluebirds, seeking out puddles of open water or soft ground.

I am back to my normal pre-winter preparation pace, after the shock of suddenly dealing with a large, early-season snow. Although the chicken pen is mostly moved to its winter location, I still need to do more with it, and I will, just not this week. The fallen leaves are now ankle deep on my decks. The front deck was just broomed off on Sunday but today looks as bad as the back deck, which I didn’t touch this weekend. Fighting off hordes of forest leaves is a battle that won’t end for weeks yet.

My snow shovel is still in my car, put there when I had to dig out from my parking spot. I think I’ll just leave it there now until March is over. No need to remove it at this point, when I’ll only need to put it back into the car within a few weeks anyway. Some winter preparation jobs just don’t need to be repeated, even though winter hasn’t arrived yet. There’s enough to do yet to get ready for winter without doing it over again.

Monday, November 07, 2011

No drama

My weekend wish for no weather drama was granted. The weather was calm in every aspect, which gave me the chance to more fully observe the season than is possible in the middle of a snowstorm with no electricity. Today’s photo looks to me like a quintessential November evening—thick clouds in an overcast sky, geese in the forefront and the remnants of fall’s brilliant autumn display turning to duller, deeper shades in the background.

Over the weekend I was raided by raccoons again for the first time since early spring. In the few moments it took me to stagger our of bed in the middle of the night, awakened by Baby Dog’s frantic barking, one very large raccoon managed to destroy not one but both of the new bird feeders I’d gotten for this year. It’s because of raccoon predation that I virtually never have a bird feeder that lasts more than a single season. It’s not common to lose both of them within a few weeks of setting them out, though. One of them might be repairable or at least usable. The second has disappeared entirely. The next night an opossum showed up, no doubt disappointed that nothing was left to raid.

I always have resident Canada geese here on Roundtop, but ever since September, the number of them that appear to be residents is increasing. Roughly 17 live here full time. That’s 3 pairs of parents and the surviving number of goslings from the spring. In October that number grew to 36, and on Friday evening I counted 75. I don’t know where the other ones are coming from or why they suddenly prefer Roundtop’s ponds to wherever they came from. But they are here now and will likely remain until the pond is iced in.

The nights are cold enough now that skim ice forms in puddles or the chicken water, though the ice still disappears pretty quickly in the morning. So far, I haven’t seen ice on any of the ponds yet. I think even a slight breeze ripples the ponds too much for them to freeze when the temperature is only a few degrees below freezing.

For me, the quiet weather this past weekend was much appreciated. I have long understood that living where I do, as I do, puts me a lot closer to the vagaries of poor weather than more urban dwellers experience.  For the most part, I enjoy that closeness even when the weather is poor.  Having a town or a city shield someone from nature just makes it easier for them to feel that nature is something "other," something apart from their everyday life.  I never want to feel that way.  Our earth needs more understanding about its mechanics, not less.  That said, for once I was glad the weekend didn't provide me with anything extreme to experience. 

Friday, November 04, 2011

Early November sunset

I am hoping this weekend doesn't bring any drama--no snowstorms, no power outages, no half of a tree falling onto my roof.  I'd like a nice, quiet weekend with decent weather and perhaps a few hours of birding. Maybe an extra hour of sleep, too.

Do you think that might be arranged?   I sure hope so.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Clean-up continues

 Clean-up from the October snowstorm continues everywhere in my area, though today the only snow left is the plowed piles. In fact, now that the snow is gone, it’s even easier to see the damage left in its wake. I am finding that when I take a photo of the damage, it doesn’t show very much. One photo of a damaged tree or even a few trees doesn’t give any sense of the extent. I can say that this is worse than any ice storm I’ve had—and I’ve had quite a few of those.

I suppose I could look on the bright side and say that all those downed clumps of branches should provide nice cover for the smaller woodland birds and animals. And the deer won’t have to wait for the acorns to fall off the trees to get a nice meal. The more open forest will get more sun next summer and that might alter, at least somewhat, which plants and flowers will flourish over the next several years.
The forest is a constantly changing entity, even when the weather is calmer than it’s been this year. One year is drier or wetter, the next hotter or cooler. A couple of years of hotter than average weather or wetter weather is all it takes to favor slightly different plants within the forest. And that slight alteration can then affect breeding success or populations of the birds and small animals. This time around it’s going to be several years of a more open forest as a result of this storm. It’s always something.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Damage from the snow

Downed red oak
Who would have thought that 10 inches of snow could disappear so quickly? Oh, it’s not all gone, but it’s mostly gone. Only patches remain. And the debris.

I have been picking up what feels like truckloads of broken trees, downed branches, downed twigs and leaves. The forest will not look as it did before the storm for a long time, I am sure of that. Not all of the damage is on the ground, either. Many, many trees are broken, with the branches still partially attached to the trees, sometimes hanging precariously to the trunk. Now, when I look out my north window, I see an open vista, where before I saw a tangle of trunks and branches. And what will happen over the next year or so? Likely, some of the trees will become infested with something and end up not surviving over the long term.

I couldn’t help but notice the species of the branches I am picking up. Two of them were not a surprise to me, though the third was until I thought about it a bit. Tulip poplar is one of the species I am picking up a lot. This one is not a surprise. Tulip poplar is a soft wood, a tree with notoriously shallow roots. And it has large leaves, which makes it even more likely to break when those leaves are covered with wet snow. The second unsurprising species is the American beech. I have several in my front forest. They are a beautiful, gray-barked tree, notorious for being “dirty” as I’ve heard them described by people who have them on their properties. Dirty simply means that the trees drop their lower branches regularly.

The third species of tree I’m seeing during this clean-up (and the one pictured in my photo today) is the one that surprised me. It’s the red oak, a lovely hardwood tree, perhaps second only to its cousin the white oak in size and stateliness. So why was such a strong and hardy tree one of the ones to break the most?

Though both are hardwoods, white oaks have a stronger and harder wood than the faster-growing red oak. The ship “old Ironsides” was made of white oak, which is waterproof. Red oaks are less dense and not waterproof and the wood is used in furniture or other primarily indoor uses. White oak wood is often used in fence posts or for other things that will be used outdoors. Red oaks produce acorns every other year, while white oaks produce them every year. This year the red oaks are heavy with acorns.

I believe the lesser density of the red oak wood, combined with it being the year for lots of acorns, were the main factors in causing more damage to this species than to the white oaks or even hickories around the mountain. How this damage will affect the diversity and even the composition of the forest itself over the next years has yet to be determined, but is something I will keep an eye on.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Cabin "driveway"
"Snowtober" was not a welcome visitor to Roundtop Mtn. The forest now looks like a war zone. With so many trees still carrying the season’s leaves when this storm began on Saturday, the extremely wet and heavy 10 inches of snow that fell broke scores of branches and often the trees themselves.

Center of driveway

Although I am out of power and my internet/TV cable now lies on the ground, I was lucky at the cabin. I didn’t have any structural damage. I can tell you that it’s a very scary sound to hear a loud, close crack and then hear the branch or half a tree fall to the ground or the roof. I would cringe, and the cats would run under the bed. The dogs headed for their beds.
The good news from this storm is that the forecasted 20 mph winds did not materialize or the damage and broken trees would be far worse, I expect. So far no one knows when power will be restored, and my internet won’t be restored until the electricity is back and running. So posting here on Roundtop Ruminations will likely be spotty for a while.

I cleaned up some of the downed branches yesterday, but will need a tree guy to help with the larger branches or the ones that are still attached to the trees. And getting one of those on the phone today, let alone scheduled, is proving to be a challenge.

So, it could be worse. At least it’s not terribly cold. The temperature will get above freezing today and will likely reach 50 tomorrow or Wednesday. Much of the snow is already disappearing. The chickens are okay, too. Doodle even crowed this morning. Getting back to normal again is going to take a while, though.