Monday, August 29, 2011

Power-less

Roundtop Ruminations will likely be offline for a few days.  I'm out of power thanks to Hurricane Irene, and the power company reports it will likely be days before it is restored. Please check back the end of the week, and I'll try to write an update (or perhaps I'll be lucky and will have power again by then!)

Fortunately, I didn't have any damage at the cabin.  I'm just time-traveling back to the 19th Century this week.

Cheers from Carolyn H., Dog, Baby Dog and the chickens

Friday, August 26, 2011


“Calm before a storm” is a cliché, but it’s also often a true one. Whether it’s the day before a big snowstorm or the hours before a bad thunderstorm or the day before Hurricane Irene arrives, the calm has arrived in my area. For Roundtop Mtn., the forecast about what to expect from this storm has changed about three times a day since Tuesday.

I don’t know what will actually happen here, though some rain and a breezy or even gusty Sunday is likely. If the storm isn’t too bad here, I will likely go looking for “hurricane birds.” When a hurricane rides up the coast the way Irene is doing right now, it’s pretty common for birds who normally are never far from the ocean to come inland to shelter from the storm. For some reason, Caspian terns seem to be the species I see most commonly during these episodes, though I never know what else can or will turn up. Since I don’t often get to go to the ocean, having a few of the ocean or coastal birds come to me is a treat.

For now, the storm isn’t close enough to see even the highest or thinnest cirrus clouds. The morning was as clear as you could want, if a tad misty down along the creek. Tonight I will do what I always do before the calm turns into the storm. I’ll check the cabin an extra time, make sure I have a few extra supplies and then settle down to wait out the storm, just like those hurricane birds.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Earthquake wrap-up


Calm morning
Yesterday’s earthquake was a surprise but once everyone figured out it wasn’t caused by something terrible at nearby Three Mile Island, people around here settled down and got back to business as usual.

When I came back to my desk after the earthquake I looked at the USGS earthquake site to see how big the quake was and where it was centered. When I saw a quake down in Virginia, for a few moments I thought my quake hadn’t shown up yet. I simply couldn’t believe that a quake centered 200 miles away could be felt so strongly here. I thought the center was going to be somewhere very nearby.

At the cabin, nothing appeared damaged or fallen. I found a few cockeyed pictures on the walls, but they might have been like that before the quake. I tend not to notice things of a household nature all that much. Dog was about half wound up but he’d been flirting with bad behavior for a day or more, so that might not have been from the earthquake either.

The earthquake made for a good topic of conversation but fortunately this area didn’t sustain any damage or injury. The last time this area had such a strong earthquake was back in 1944. For my 85-year old father, this was his first experience of one, since he was over in the European Theater in 1944.

I did notice yesterday that deer were out in the fields in the middle of the day in more than a few places. I have no idea if the earthquake had anything to do with that, either, though it is unusual to see them then instead of around dusk or dawn.

All in all we did fine. I just hope we don’t have any more.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Earthquake!

A 5.9 earthquake was centered in someplace no one has every heard of in Virginia and even 200 miles away I felt it.  And now, reports are coming in from as far away as Canada and Florida that they felt it too.

Gee, I've had a tornado this spring, an earthquake this summer, and I hope I don't get to add hurricane to the list before the week is out (Irene).  Eighteen inches of rain in 3 days from Hurricane Agnes back in 1972 was mroe than bad enough!

At work in Harrisburg the building swayed, and if I'd heard a noise, I would have assumed something had hit the building. or was bouncing like a trampoline up on the roof. So I went outside to check and I saw light poles dancing around. That's when I knew for sure it was an earthquake. 

Apparently not at all what it seems to be(e)


If people watched me doing what I do, they’d probably think I was crazy. This morning I spent some time watching what I first thought was bumblebee digging around in a purple thistle. How many people do that? I was initially interested for at least a couple of reasons.

This particular insect was working very hard to get as deep into the thistle as it could. Sometimes it was so deep into the flower that it was essentially invisible. And the bee, or perhaps “bee,” looked a bit odd to me. It was smaller than the average bumblebee. The markings on the back looked different. So I started to investigate bee species, trying to find out what kind it might be.

As a result of that investigation, I think this might not be a bee at all but a bee mimic. The fly species Eristalis anthophorina and Eristalis flavipes are both bee mimics and the photos I found of them are the closest matches I’ve found to this creature. There are many species of these bee mimics, also called flower flies. Here’s a link to some information about these flies, which are seen at least as far south as western West Virginia but apparently are more common in Canada and the more northern states. However, information about them is spotty at best, at least online.

Nature does this to me a lot. I started out this morning just looking for something to photograph. With the mornings growing darker each day, the areas I can explore before I head to work are shrinking with each lessening minute of daylight. Those areas are now so familiar to me that it’s hard for me to see them with a new eye or to photograph something there that you readers haven’t see before. But then a purple thistle caught my eye and what seemed like an ordinary bumblebee gathering pollen suddenly turned into something entirely new. How can anyone grow tired or bored when something so simple as a bee on a thistle turns into something entirely different and new?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Clear


I keep telling myself that it’s too early for fall weather, to not expect the lovely, low humidity and pleasant temperatures to last. It’s more than early enough in the year to experience another round of hot, humid and generally unpleasant weather.

In more than a few past years, on those rare occasions when August weather is nice, September weather is not. I’d rather have a great September than a pleasant August, so I am suspicious of what to expect in another few weeks. Or perhaps I am just naturally wary of unexpectedly good things. Be that as it may, today my suspicions are starting to cave in.

Fall migration is underway, with Broad-winged Hawks and good numbers of Bald Eagles on the wing. Goldfinches are more common than robins this week. Mushrooms and fungus are appearing. A few leaves and bushes are yellowing and don’t appear to be suffering from either disease or damage. This morning I had to wear a sweatshirt over my t-shirt. It feels like fall in so many ways that I am almost shocked when I look at the calendar and read it is only August 22. I should still be stuck in the middle of a heat wave, melting in the high humidity and complaining about the thick haze of summer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Golden

Bolete
I found myself this Friday morning with a few extra minutes to wander around the mountain. The morning was clear and fine, if trending towards hotter again. Weather needs to be pretty bad for me to avoid wandering because of it, and this morning was pretty far along the good side of that scale.

When I wander in an area I know well, I have to pay close attention or my familiarity can keep me from seeing details that are different. I am usually aware this can happen, which helps. With only a few extra minutes in my morning, I didn’t have time to go down into the mountain valley below me or even traipse along one of the woods trails. I had only enough time to wander the edges of the forest, a spot I see about three times a day—leaving and returning to the mountain and walking the dogs in the now nearly dark mornings. So this little patch is about as familiar to me as my own living room, which is why I really wasn’t expecting to find anything I hadn’t seen before. But I did.

This morning I found several lovely yellow mushrooms. I believe the one here is a bolete of some variety, possibly an edible variety, though I have no intention of testing that. I was just drawn to the lovely yellow gills on the underside of the mushroom, and the lovely yellow light of morning on it.

Afterwards I noticed the morning light on the goldenrod weed. Goldenrod gets a bad rap as the plant that many think causes hay fever. Ragweed, which isn’t nearly as pretty, is the allergy culprit, not goldenrod. When you see the one, it’s hard to imagine how the two could ever be confused.

Tall goldenrod
 Goldenrod is mostly considered a weed in North America, probably because it’s not usually planted by humans and grows profusely anywhere it wants to. In some places and among some gardeners that bad rap is beginning to change. In Europe, goldenrod is a frequent garden plant, but here not many gardeners favor it, though some inroads are being made. The goldenrod family has many species, at least 50 in North America. The one I’ve pictured today is the one most common to my area, the tall goldenrod.

And lastly, the golden light of a late summer’s morning, long shadows over grass, to go with the golden mushroom and goldenrod. During late summer, a bright golden shade of sunlight rules the mornings. In July the light is a more lemon-yellow. By November, the light will have a reddish or bronze cast to it. But in August the light and at least a few of the plants are simply golden.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Still evening

If anything is as still as a summer evening, I can’t think what it might be. Spring weather is so variable that a still evening is rare. Fall evenings are gorgeous though often come with a northwest breeze or the slow but continuous dropping of a leaf or two or twelve. Winter evenings are dark so quickly that who really knows?

A still summer evening can last for hours, the light changing minutely, minute by minute. It’s easy to lose an entire evening just sitting and watching the evening change. Nothing much seems to happen but it’s a joy to sit and watch the day end and the night deepen. Some days I wish I could just sit and watch the day end every evening. I can feel my pulse slow and muscles relax. Even the sounds of the forest slow and become fewer. The nighttime sound of cicadas eventually take over, beginning before the last of the day’s sounds have ended, overlapping for a few brief moments.

I always listen for the first call of one of the local owls. Sometimes the call is from a great horned owl, sometimes from the screech owl. I almost never hear both calls on the same evening. The great horned owl is almost always distant. The screech owl can be either close or further up the mountain. Even when that call sounds as though it is right next to me, I’ve never been able to locate the bird in the thick forest, and it never stays nearby for long.

I’ve heard people say that the sound of a train in the distance gives them a sense of all being right with the world. I can understand their thinking, but for me it’s the first evening call of an owl. Last night it was the screech owl, this time not close but far up on the mountain, the sound carrying a long ways down the hill to my cabin and me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Morning moon
I’m already noticing that the morning light in the forest is no longer always good enough for a photograph. Even on a perfectly clear morning like this one, the sun’s light only lit the upper reaches of the canopy, while the ground was still dark.

I watched the light travel slowly down the length of a tall oak tree for a while, hoping it would reach the bottom of the tree before I had to leave, but it didn’t. Out in the open the light is still good enough for a photo, but even here the morning is dark enough to show the moon in the western sky.

So I will soon have to re-plan my daily photographs and switch from a morning photo to one taken in the evening. When that happens, even the possibility that my photo might match with my writing topic for the day dims even further. Usually when I take a photo for Roundtop Ruminations, I think that photo will also provide the topic for the day. But often when I sit down to write my post, I’ve thought of something else, so the two don’t match all very frequently anyway. Since I can’t match the two when the photo is taken barely an hour two before I sit down to write, you can imagine how infrequently the two will match once a full 12 hours has passed between taking a photo and uploading a blog post. Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The vanishing act

Black angus cattle at sunset
Barn swallows are gathering on the wires along the old snowmaking pond. Soon they will be gone, headed south for another season. One morning they will be there, lined up like clothespins on a line, but when I return to the cabin in the evening they will be gone, all at once.

Not many species of birds migrate in this all or nothing pattern. Most have a window of migration peculiar to that species. Some of the windows are early in the season, others as late as the first snow. A flurry of activity usually accompanies the first decent frost, as though they need that reminder to get themselves airborne. Some of the migration windows are pretty tight, lasting for just a week or so; others stretch out over the entire fall.

Swallows all leave here on the same day, though I often see the more northerly birds still heading south when I am sitting on a hawkwatch in early September. The day the barn swallows leave Roundtop varies by just a day or so each year. Likely weather plays a part. Most commonly they will be gone on the 26th or 27th of August.

At this point, just under two weeks before they head south, they start to gather on the wires in the evenings, a few or several more each night until the day comes when they all vanish. Other summer species are still on the mountain and will be for a while yet. I still hear the pewee’s haunting echo in the early morning or after sunset.

Migrating shorebirds will sometimes stop to spend an hour or a night on the mountain. I never see many of them, and none ever stay very long. This area has plenty of other spots more suited to shorebirds—the Susquehanna River, the bigger lake at Pinchot, to name just two. I’ve often wondered why even the few I do see stop here when those other, better sites should be visible to an airborne bird that chooses instead to land at a small pond atop a mountain. Are they so exhausted from a long day’s flight that they can’t fly for another 5-10 minutes? They rarely appear that way. Maybe they think the ponds will prove a bonanza for a single, hungry shorebird. Their stopping here is a mystery all their own, a secret I can never penetrate.

Perhaps that’s part of why I enjoy migration so much. It’s a visible rendering of one of the world’s best mysteries. Each year, scientists uncover a bit more of the mystery, though that doesn’t diminish it. If anything, the explanations make the mystery all the deeper and that much sweeter. One of nature’s most awe-inspiring events happens right over our heads, twice each year.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wandering

Green heron at sunset

Last evening I set off into the woods an hour or so before sunset. The shadows were already long and inviting. The sky was a deep, clear blue with no humidity to shorten the distance or obscure the view.

I followed no path and had only a vague notion of where I was going. What I really wanted to do was walk where I hadn’t walked recently, where ticks, high grass and higher temperatures had defeated my ambition for a while. It’s one thing to wear long pants to avoid ticks when the temperature is cool, but doing so when it’s 95 is more than I am willing to do. Now that the season is heading towards fall and the grasses are drying up, ticks are already fewer in number, and now I am willing.

So I wandered through the long grasses between the forest and a pond, scaring up frogs and scattering dragonflies of various sizes and shapes. A green heron squawked and flew into a tree on the edge of the woods. A belted kingfisher rattled, flying low over the pond, slaloming its way between a flock of Canada geese and a lone mallard in eclipse plumage.

The shadows lengthened and still I walked, up into a pine forest that whispered on the northwest breeze, past the scolding crows. I walked past the tornado-damaged trees and the drooping brown-eyed susans. I hopped over a tiny, no-name stream, running full again after a rainy week. I heard the patter of a groundhog’s feet as it galloped across a ski slope to get away from me. I saw the doe and fawns grazing up on the hill, raising their heads and twitching their tails as I passed.

I saw the sun fall low against the distant hill and the first stars of evening join the nearly full moon in the sky above before I found my way back. It was only the darkness that brought me back to the cabin. If not for that, I might still be walking.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Can I call this fall yet?

Beaver Creek
The soupy weather of midsummer is in the process of disappearing today. The humidity is falling down to normal levels and will even be low tomorrow. Nighttime temperatures will be below 60 for the first time since June, and the breeze is from the northwest. It’s too early to call this the start of fall, but I’m certainly tempted to do that anyway.

Summer is certainly on the downside of the season, and the signs are looking good for cooler and less humid weather ahead. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not a moment too soon. This is all a long way of saying that today’s photo may be the last day of “soup” in my photos for some time. I hope so. I hadn’t quite planned on living in a rain forest or a jungle when I moved to Roundtop Mtn. I had in mind crisp breezes, cool summer nights, solitude and the constant sounds of the surrounding forest. I was half right.

And lest you think the second week of August is too soon to be thinking about fall, which officially doesn’t start for another six weeks, let me report that the first of the fall hawkwatches have opened for the season, the chimney swifts are already migrating and the barn swallows are thinking about it. Shorebirds are migrating, too. Just because the sun hasn’t reached the fall equinox yet doesn’t mean the season isn’t on its way.

In fact this might be a very pretty fall locally, given the amount of moisture that fell in the spring and has fallen in the past two weeks or so. That would be a nice switch from the past few years, too, when the fall colors have been spotty at best or drab at worst. We’ll have to see what the next few months bring, but so far, the signs are positive. For today, that's good enough for me!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Sunday morning

Beaver Creek trail
On Saturday night, my area was “treated” to a downpour. I got off lucky here on Roundtop, getting just over 1.5 inches of rain in 30 minutes. Only a few miles away, more than 3 inches fell, and several miles further away, flooding resulted from the nearly 6 inches of rain that fell in an hour. That’s why I say I was lucky. I didn’t get that.

When Sunday morning arrived, the entire area was fogged in, and the humidity was oppressive to the extreme. My forest was simply dripping, but I still felt the need to go for a walk, so I headed the few miles down the mountain to Gifford Pinchot SP. The trails there tend to be wider than the ones at Roundtop, so I figured I wouldn’t get so wet. And, truth be told, I was looking to walk someplace that I don’t see every day, just for a slight change.

The forest at Pinchot isn’t really very different than the one up on Roundtop. Certainly, the tree species are much the same. The trees where I walked on Sunday tend to be a bit smaller than those at home. The underbrush tends to be not quite as thick. The result of being surrounded by smaller trees and less underbrush is that I can see further into Pinchot’s forest than I can at home right now, a small but welcome change that makes photography a bit easier and more interesting, at least to me.

The haze from the humidity was so thick that breathing took an extra effort, and I felt as though I was breathing something thick and solid enough to eat. Who needs to eat when you can breathe in humidity and get your calories that way? Truly, I have had soup that was less substantial than Sunday morning’s air.

I was the first person to walk the trail on Sunday. I brushed aside many cobwebs, all outlined in dew and raindrops. The mud was empty of human tracks, and I saw few signs of animals in the squishy mud yet either. The creek ran muddy, not surprisingly. The forest had the look of midsummer, still very green but with few flowers or brightly-colored fungus to add different shades or contrast to the woods.

My walk was largely a silent one, except for the sound of water dripping from the leaves and the shrill cry of a distant blue jay.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Shorter days

The cool morning and leftover humidity from last evening’s showers made for a foggy morning here. At Roundtop, the fog was so thick that photography was not an option by the time I headed off the mountain. When I reached the neighboring orchard, the fog was already starting to lift.

It was another weather-caused headlamp trip on my morning dog walk, but within another day or two, the headlamp will be needed whatever the weather turns out to be. Sunrise changes by just a minute each morning, but since I get up at the same time each day, that little minute or so becomes very noticeable in just a very few number of days.

At this point in the year, I’m losing two minutes of daylight a day. Sunrise is one minute later each day and sunset one minute earlier. That adds up quickly in a week. When the days were longer my rooster would wake me up in the mornings, but now I think turning my bedroom light on wakes him up. For the past week he has started crowing within a minute of that light going on. Tomorrow, I’m going to try and fool him. I won’t turn the light on and see how long it takes him to catch on!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

It's headlamp time, again!

Today I was forced into it. I had to wear my headlamp to start off my morning walk with dogs. Of course, the sky was overcast and foggy, and sprinkles of rain had fallen just an hour or so before, but still. The shortening hours of daylight are the one thing about cooler weather that I don’t look forward to. Two things I had missed about the longer hours of daylight greeted me this dark and gloomy morning—I heard both the great horned owl and the screech owl call this morning.

And if you needed more signs of the diminishing summer (if not yet the advancing fall), here are a few more. I saw a large flock of grackles and blackbirds, several hundred easily. They gather together, or “stage,” before heading south. It’s early for them to start that, I think, but by late September or early October, the size of the flocks can swell into the tens of thousands, making a huge amount of noise and mess before leaving for Maryland. Poor Maryland. The birds often winter there, never traveling a mile further south than they have to. I’m just glad they don’t stay in Pennsylvania. A few weeks of those flocks is bad enough.

I also saw a small, yellowing tree. It’s far too early for the yellowing to be caused by autumn, so it’s likely a weaker tree hurt by the heat and the lack of rain that plagued July. Still, a yellowing tree looks like autumn, whatever the actual cause of the change in leaf color.

Oh, and the first hawkwatch has opened for the season.  Fall is beckoning.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


The look of the forest around me is already starting to turn towards late summer. The early flowers have gone to seed. The tadpoles have turned into frogs. The color of the leaves has deepened from the bright green of spring to an emerald green. The days are noticeably shorter, and the angle of the sun is different.

Little signs of the season’s change are evident if you look for them. I look for them. I am always surprised at how quickly the changes are noticeable. The year has only four official seasons, though most people are aware enough of the natural world to notice that each of the 12 months has a rhythm that is particular to it alone. And even within those 12 months, the year marches on and changes are evident.

This time of year I can usually notice changes weekly, though overlap, for lack of a better word, exists. A week of extra hot weather or a few days of rain can make the routine of one week disappear (or advance!) more than will happen if that week’s weather is “normal.”  Before August is over, the leaves will change again, turning from emerald green to a kind of dull, dusty green.  Once that happens, fall and the brilliant color changes of fall won't be far away.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tiger Swallowtails

July is over, thank you. July, with its 100+ degree temperatures and lousy birding, I won’t miss you a bit. August on the other hand has potential. August is the month when shorebird migration goes into full swing. And yes, August can be hot and dry, too, but the year’s highest temperatures here are recorded in July. Goodbye July. Good riddance.

So ignoring the fact that yesterday was still July, I decided to start my seasonal shorebirding early and made a trip to Susquehanna River to see what could be seen. Now, obviously, inland Pennsylvania is never going to be a shorebirding hotspot, but that’s never stopped me from looking. And yesterday, I did manage to find a small flock of 8 semipalmated sandpipers, a great egret and a couple of great blue herons. So I came home happy with the addition to my year list. And I also saw a female osprey carrying a good-sized fish down the river and a common yellowthroated warbler with a juvenile, a good sign of local breeding.

Back up on the mountain, I have no signs of migration to report—just the ever-growing size of this year’s white-tailed fawns and a blue jay with a penchant for the red-tailed hawk call. Unlike most blue jays, whose mimicry is usually off just enough to quickly realize that the call is coming from an imposter, this one has the call down perfectly. Of course, the bird usually ruins the impression by giving its own alarm call right after the perfect red-tailed hawk call. Still, this bird has the red-tailed hawk call right, if not the good sense to move before scolding with its own.

My photos today are of tiger swallowtails, a butterfly that was very common last year but almost nonexistent this year.  So I was happy to find several over at Brunner Island.