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.