Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday's odds and ends

The leaves are starting to take on the hues of autumn, though here in southern Pennsylvania the best color won’t be for a few weeks yet. Today, it’s not easy to see the color through the morning mist, still rising after a night of rain.
Last evening I was suddenly surprised to see how far into the forest I could see. No longer is the ground hidden by summer plants. I can see at least twice as far as I could only a month ago. The change is a welcome one. By summer’s end I always feel a bit claustrophobic or shut in by the greenery. I prefer the open sky of winter, and the start of that is already noticeable. In another month, I’ll be able to see the western mountain again. In the meantime, seeing 50 feet into the woods is an improvement over 10 feet or so.

September is shaping up as a bit warmer than normal, though in studying the temperatures this month, I’ve noticed that it’s not the daytime temperatures that are particularly warmer. It’s the nighttime temperatures that have boosted the mean temperatures for the day. Much of that is due to the cloudy or rainy nights that kept the temperatures from falling very much. More than a few days this month featured a daytime temperature that was normal but a nighttime temperature that was only a few degrees cooler than the day, which caused that day to be 8-9 degrees above normal solely because it rained overnight or stayed overcast.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


A non-name creek on a misty morning in late September
While sitting on Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch during a slow period recently, the gathered veteran hawkwatchers started to talk about how hawkwatching has changed over the years. Notably, we all remembered the bad old days after DDT, when bald eagles especially were very scarce. At that time I had a cabin near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, and the regulars there had a tradition of toasting each eagle we’d seen with some alcoholic beverage down in the parking lot after the day’s hawkwatching was over. Often there was nothing to toast, and when we did toast the eagles, it was rarely more than one or two. A good day was perhaps three. We gave up the toasts after the day we saw seven, as none of us was fit to drive afterwards. And yet now at Waggoner’s Gap and elsewhere eagles are common, and a good day is more like 20.

Our discussion on the mountain drifted away from eagles and moved into other species of birds. We all remembered the first black vulture we’d seen on a Pennsylvania hawkwatch, an event that only occurred perhaps 15 years ago. Now, in this area, no one lifts a finger when a small flotilla of these birds that used to be a more southern species drifts by. Someone joked that if we all live long enough we’re likely to see the first magnificent frigatebird fly by. Well, perhaps in a thousand years.

It’s not just my area that is seeing the shift. Black vultures move ever-further north, but even turkey vultures are counted in much higher numbers at the Canadian sites than they were 30 years ago. Back then the year’s results were often under 100 birds, where now a normal year at an Ontario site produces well over 1000 birds.

The shift is seen in non-raptors too. In my area until perhaps 10 years ago, no one ever saw a Carolina chickadee. We had the black-capped chickadee. Then I started seeing birds that were clearly a mix of Carolina and the black-capped. On Roundtop the black-cappeds hung on far longer than EBird wanted to allow (I think my elevation helped), but now even I see only Carolina chickadees. Even a bird I would call a mix is rare.

This shift of southern species into areas that used to be outside their range is ongoing. Carolina wrens? Even as recently as 10 years ago they weren’t common here. I can remember my grandmother telling me that she never saw redbirds, as she called the cardinals, when she was a girl, which would have been around 1900-1910. In my own lifetime, they have always been common.

The plants and insects that feed these traditionally southern species shifted first. Pawpaws are moving northward, and they were always a tree that was rare here on what used to be the northern edge of their range. They are still uncommon but less so. More traditional species, like the eastern Hemlock, are losing ground.

Unless a meteor hits the earth fairly soon, I will not live to see the world shift back to the climate of my own youth. The shift is well apparent and still accelerating. It’s only because I notice such things—and usually associate with others who also notice—that the change is so noticeable to me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Foxes, Raccoons and No Bears

Last night, for the first time in months, I heard the foxes barking at each other again. One was only a few feet from the front door of the cabin. The other was further up the mountain. The one closest to the cabin barked for a long time before its mate answered back and it went off to join it. That was enough for me to forbid the chickens to be out this morning.
Today it is dark and raining a bit. I’ve noticed before that warm, cloudy nights are favored by predators. And when daylight comes, those same predators stay active for an hour or so longer than is usual for them. The gloomy morning must seem a bit like early dawn to them. In my area, the predators I most worry about are foxes, raccoons and great horned owls, primarily—or at least those are the ones I most keep an eye on. The skunks, screech owls and opossums don’t cause much trouble for the chickens.

Rarely, I hear coyotes sing but never from right on Roundtop Mtn. Perhaps ten years ago now, I saw a coyote here, twice, but it was all by itself and not that near the cabin. And, I didn’t own chickens then.

Bears, though common across in the ranges across the valley, haven’t been seen around me for some time. Perhaps 10 years ago now, one that possibly had cubs several months later wandered through and was seen a couple of times over on Moore’s Mountain. More recently, A few times in the past couple of years, a bear or two tried to cross the wide valley, now filled with farms and suburbs. They never made it this far, but if they had not tried to raid suburban bird feeders they might have, as they were all within a mile or two of a mountain’s safety.

Roundtop Mtn., Nell’s Hill, Flat Mtn., Wright Knob, Pinetown Hill and the forests around me are like foothills or pre-foothills of the continuous ranges of the Appalachian Mtns. across the valley to the north. I like to think of this little grouping as an island of mountains surrounded by the ever-encroaching modern and urbanized world. So far we are holding our own.

I am surrounded by more than enough forest to support several bears or more, but no doubt the last was killed years ago, and since then the wide valley has thus far kept them from repopulating this little “island.” It’s the fox and the raccoons I have to most watch out for, at least when it comes to my chickens.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On the move

Corn and clouds, Mt. Airy Rd., Monaghan Twp., York  County PA
Everything and everyone was on the move in some way this weekend.

The weather was so lovely here in southern Pennsylvania this weekend that anyplace I went I saw people outside. Even people who apparently don’t spend much time outside were outside this weekend, judging by the number of picnickers, walkers, anglers and boaters that I saw. People were all over the ski slopes, the most ambitious walking up the mountain. Roundtop was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, except in the middle of ski season.

I was busy, too, though I spent more time that I would have liked working around the cabin. This weekend the overnight temperature forecasts made me think it was time to bring most of the houseplants that summer outside to the inside. I set up my bird feeders for the fall and upcoming winter season and was already forced to clear the back deck of leaves, twigs and other accumulations from recent storms. Some of the debris has been there for a while, but it’s only when cooler weather arrives that I have much ambition to do anything about it.

The nights are already down into the 40’s and the days may or may not reach 70 degrees. Some of the trees are starting to turn color, though none of them are very far along yet. The annual plants are dying back and have reached the point where in some places I can walk through the woods without benefit of a trail again. Even the overhead canopy of the forest is thinner, and though I don’t have much of a sky view, I can already tell if it’s sunny or cloudy, which is a big improvement over midsummer.

Birds are moving across the mountain, too. Songbirds, raptors and hordes of grackles are moving south, as are blue jays and crows. Jays and crows fall into that category of birds that both do and don’t migrate. I still see a few chimney swifts, but most of them are gone already.

The first of the golden delicious apples—my favorites—were ready this weekend. Soon the corn will be harvested too. It’s a busy time of year for everyone, whether migrating or not.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Purple asters and honey bee

After the last few years, anytime I see a honeybee I feel a little progress has been made moving back from the brink. Colony collapse disorder has decimated their ranks. Last evening I saw not one but two different honeybees flitting through the purple asters. It’s possible that both bees are from the neighboring orchard, just a mile away through the woods. It’s just as possible, perhaps even more likely, that these are wild or at least feral bees with a hive of their own not far away.
Some of the more recent research on bees suggests that the colony collapse disorder didn’t affect wild bees as much as it has the domestic ones used by beekeepers. Since the disorder is related to or caused by pesticide levels and other toxins, it makes sense that wild bees would be less affected. Wild bees are much harder to study, and the research on them is limited, even to the point of not always knowing ranges and the species within a range.

In any event, this honey bee and its partner over on the next batch of asters seemed happy enough and didn’t mind that I got close to them to take photos. I didn’t even see the bees at first, deep as they were in the small blooms.

Purple asters are also called fall asters around here, and fall arrived on Roundtop Mtn. a week or so ago, despite the calendar not catching up to the “boots on the ground” reality until Saturday. It’s time to put away the last of the short-sleeved shirts and bring out the long sleeves. The cats, who abandoned my bed during summer, are back and cuddled tight against me at night. It must be like sleeping in a straight jacket as I have no room to turn at all. Who knew a couple of 8 lb cats could be so impossible to move?

Evening and early morning now requires a sweatshirt. The golden delicious apples will soon be ready; perhaps the first will be available this weekend. The leaves haven’t started turning yet, but with these cool evenings that can’t be far away. This weekend will be time to bring in the plants that summered outside and add another bird feeder to the deck. Fall is here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Wednesday at Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch was another good day on the mountain. The wind was strong in the morning, prompting some of the hawkwatchers to haul out last winter's gloves against the strong northwest air. The wind did keep many of the migrating hawks away from the ridge and further away, so I didn’t get any new hawk photos. Still anytime I can see 10 bald eagles in a single hour is a good day on the mountain. Also migrating were Sharp-shinned hawks, some Osprey, American kestrels and Cooper's Hawks for a grand total of 710 for the day.  Chimney swifts, Monarch butterflies and Black-throated green warblers all showed up, too

Because I didn’t get any new hawk photos, this morning I will post one of the other “hawk watchers” who are a regular fixture on the rocks.  This chipmunk is just one of several that dash between the rocks on Waggoner’s Gap. They are over and under the rocks, almost underfoot, wending their way from wherever they live out to the rock where American chestnuts, almonds and other goodies are arranged for their dining pleasure. This week a new nut—the pawpaw—was placed out there. That was soundly rejected by the chipmunks, who nosed each one before moving on to the next. Eventually, they worked their way through a dozen or more of the pawpaw nuts (or are they seeds?), rejecting each and every one. That prompted a return to the chestnuts, which promptly were gobbled up or stuffed into their cheeks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Little Hawkwatching

Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk
Kettle of Broadwings
 Until bad storms and heavy rains called a halt to my hawkwatching, I was having a good couple of days at Waggoner's Gap hawkwatch, near Carlisle PA. Waggoner's Gap is across the valley to the north from Roundtop.  On clear days I can see Roundtop from the hawkwatch.

Mid-September is the time of year when the highest numbers of hawks are seen.  On good days we can typically see several thousand migrating hawks. Most of the ones seen now are Broad-winged Hawks, which frequently travel in groups, always searching for the next warm thermals to take them ever higher and higher.  In this area a big kettle is probably something more than 100 birds, though kettles of 500-1000 are not unheard of, if not the norm.  The birds will be in south Texas in about 10 days and will winter over in central and South America.

Even though now is the time for Broadwings, other species are moving too, notably Sharp-shinned Hawks, Ospreys, falcons (we have American Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon) and Bald Eagles.  Golden Eagles will migrate late in the season.  This has been a good year for Bald Eagles so far. At one point on Monday I saw three moving together.  The photo below is one of those. Bald Eagles don't get their full plumage of a white head and white tail until they are about four years old.  Although the adult birds are gorgeous (and huge!), I always like to see the brown juveniles, because that means there's young blood for the future.
Adult Bald Eagle

Sunday, September 16, 2012

September Sunrise

I've been hawkwatching this weekend.  So far, the hawks have been quite cooperative.  Today, Bald Eagles,     American Kestrels,a raven or two and several hundred Broad-winged Hawks--most very high but still beautiful.

Today,though, I was most taken by the colors of the sunrise here on Roundtop.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Large and small

My new batch of Rhode Island Red hens have produced their first egg.  Isnt't that little thing the cutest little brown egg you ever saw?

Pullet eggs, the first eggs from hens that have just started to lay, are always small.  They will soon be normal size within a week or two or three.  The large egg is from my one of my 3-year old chickens.  A chicken's eggs get larger as they age, and my old girls are now laying jumbo eggs. The little egg is about two inches long, roughly half the size of the jumbo egg. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Pinchot Lake, September 12, 2012, 6:30 p.m.
Tonight a rare occurrence at Carolyn’s cabin: a evening free of other obligations and clear weather. So tonight I plan to do a little outside work, and though I don’t have to mow in my forest, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do.
First off tonight, I will clear out the pipe that drains the basement during heavy rainstorms. This is a chore I have to do many times in the fall. This cleaning will take care of the accumulation of summer’s leaves and twigs that clog the “stream” that’s created by the draining basement. Then once the leaves begin to fall, I’ll need to do the job every week or two until all the leaves are finally down and not being blown around.

My chicken pens also need attention. Last night the first egg from my new chickens was produced, a lovely little brown thing about two inches long—about half the size of the eggs produced by the 3-year old chickens. So I need to make sure the nest boxes for the new girls are deep with new straw and that they are happy with the arrangements. The rest of them will begin to lay any day now, too. The first pullet eggs from a chicken are always small, but they reach normal size within a week or so.

I also need to put anti-skid tape on all my outside steps and around the front deck. This is a yearly job, as that tape works well but never lasts more than a year. Those wooden steps are slippery when wet or iced up or snowed under. And the tape doesn’t stick well below a certain temperature, so I have to remember to do this chore before it gets too cold.

If I have time I will take a look at chopping down some of the undergrowth behind the cabin. I worked on that in the early summer, before July’s heat made that job too much to any sane person. Fighting off the multiflora rose is a never-ending job. Sometimes I think I’m making progress, sometimes not.

And I need to redo my bird feeders in preparation for the heavy feeding season in fall and winter. My feeder arrangement is different every year, partly because I’m always trying new things, partly because my feeders never last more than one season. Raccoons, opossums and the weather all take a toll.

Naturally, I won’t get everything done tonight, but it will feel good just to have the time and nice weather to work on it all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Not fair

It’s a shame, I think, to find that once the temperature turns so comfortable I can fully enjoy being outside again it now gets dark so early in the evenings. As a result I don’t have much time to take advantage of the lovely weather. Now would be the perfect time for daylight to last until 9 or 10 p.m. Too bad it doesn’t work that way, but if I ruled the universe, it would.
I fantasize about lovely evening rambles down along Beaver Creek, watching the shadows growing golden and long. I think of an unhurried walk, stopping to look at plants or watching the chipmunks play. And instead it gets dark. It’s just not fair.

In a few weeks, when we change the clocks again, it will be even worse. Oh, I do walk in the dark, sometimes, but I certainly can see a lot more and the forest is a lot more active during the day. I don’t walk down the mountain to Beaver Creek in the dark—the footing on those paths is not conducive to that even when I wear a headlamp. Maybe if I was 20 and not decades older than that and didn’t have a bad knee, but since I don’t rule the universe, that’s not going to happen either.

Instead, I try to pack as much as I can into the few minutes of daylight I have. Still, the chickens need attending to and the dogs have to go out. Sometimes evenings are more of a rat race than they are relaxing. Such is life, I guess. I have to make time to take time slowly and do the best I can.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Avian Adventures

I can always tell when a great horned owl is around because the eastern screech owl that hangs out near my cabin is silent. Great horned owls will prey on the little screech owls, and they aren’t the only ones. Barred owls, long-eared owls and short-eared owls would all take a screech owl if they can find them. And that doesn’t count the mammals, such as mink, weasel, the ever-present raccoons and skunks, not to mention other large birds, such as crows. Screech owls have a tough go at keeping away from predators. So many things would be happy to eat them.
So this morning the screech owl was silent, and the big great horned owl hooted from higher up on the mountain, not as close to the cabin as the screech owl, but close enough that the smaller owl wasn’t about to draw attention to itself. Barred owls are also common in this area, just not around my corner of Roundtop Mtn. I have occasionally heard one down in a swampy area at the bottom of the mountain, but not for a while and never very often.

The presence of the great horned owl wasn’t worrisome enough to silence Doodle, my rooster, this morning, but the big owl never answered back the way the screech owl will. I still let my chickens out of their pen this morning, though the big owl could easily feast on one of them. The chickens love to be out in the woods and if the weather is bad or they feel threatened, they hide under the cabin. So far, that’s worked fine. Doodle finds a low branch and perches on it, with the girls below him pecking on the ground. He’s watching for danger so they can forage, but he’s only about two feet off the ground, so I have to wonder how much he really sees. It looks impressive, though—a big Rhode Island Red rooster alert for danger while the girls calmly feed and look for worms. Doodle is all about looking impressive.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Season-changing storm

View from Waggoner's Gap, looking north

It’s fall now, whatever the calendar says. On Saturday afternoon a severe storm front moved through the entire east coast, scouring out the wretched humidity and dropping the temperature a good 20 degrees. Behind that storm, the weather is crisp and cool at night, requiring a light blanket on the bed. Behind the storm, the migration floodgates opened, bringing raptors and songbirds south.

I spent Sunday at Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch, enjoying the show. Merlins and American Kestrels, 23 Bald Eagles and 12 Ospreys, Sharp-shiinned and Cooper’s Hawks, a Red-shouldered Hawk and nearly 200 Broad-winged Hawks all moved south. And it wasn’t just the raptors that migrated either—more than 100 monarch butterflies, 15 red-breasted nuthatch, nearly 300 chimney swifts also crossed the mountain.

It’s time to pull the long-sleeve shirts out of storage and put away the short-sleeved ones. Time to think about making soup and stews again. Time to finish that knitting project. Time to get the cabin ready for cooler weather.

So, in my book, it’s now official. Summer is over and fall is here. The calendar will catch up to the season eventually.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Early morning

At this time of year I start my morning walks with Dog and Baby Dog a full hour before sunrise. I can’t see even a hint of morning in the east. Instead of being greeted by robins or the even-earlier rising crows, the call of the screech owl is now what greets me as soon as I step out the door.

The screech owls range all over Roundtop, sometimes closer, sometimes further away from my cabin. Lately, one bird has been very close, but I still have never seen it, even when I use my headlamp to try and catch a glimpse of its eyeshine.

Once I turn my porch light on, Doodle, my rooster, wakes too and starts an unlikely duet with the screech owl. The owl calls and Doodle crows, back and forth, half a dozen times or more before Doodle wins. Doodle, refreshed after a night’s sleep, always wins. The little owl probably figures it’s too much effort after a long night of trying to make a living off the insects and mice in the forest. With all the katydids around right now, the owl can probably do pretty well for itself and by night’s end is probably looking for a good nap.

The constellation Orion is high in the early morning sky right now, too. We tend to think of Orion as a late fall constellation that rises as darkness falls, but if you get up early enough, you can see it now. You could probably see it in August, too, but I usually don’t get up that early!

After half an hour or so of walking, the eastern sky starts to lighten. The Canada geese wake up and fuss a bit over on the big pond. At first I thought something might be after them, but they act like this every morning. It’s just how they wake up. Eventually, crows sound out the start of day and the sun appears on the horizon. The mountain is waking up to another day.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

They're heere!

..Or at least they are passing through. This morning as I stepped out the door of the cabin, I was greeted by the familiar tin horn sound of a red-breasted nuthatch!  I didn't get to see the bird but it was nearby and I heard it clearly.  If that's not a harbinger of fall, I don't know what is!

A few weeks ago I was at the Hawk Mountain-sponsored Kittatinny Roundtable, which brings together hawkwatch site coordinators from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  There, we speculated that migration might happen early this year because of the drought.  So far, that hasn't really been the case with raptors, though this stuffy, humid weather is likely as much to blame as anything.  Without this constant layer of clouds and humidity, the birds may well have started to move.  Raptors prefer better weather for migration, preferably the day after a cold front passes, when they will have a tail wind and the higher pressure makes flying easier. They may well be sitting up north, eager enough to move south but held up by the rain, clouds and humidity.

Smaller birds, like the red-breasted nuthatch, migrate a bit differently.  They often fly from treetop to treetop, not always moving at much altitutde, so weather can be less of an issue for them.  They may also be hungry enough to have to move now, while the raptors are still well-fed enough to wait for more typical timing. And yet, the signs are there that birds would like to be moving; a fair number of Northern Goshawks have already been seen, and those are a late-season migrant normally.  Red-shouldered hawks, a mid-season migrant, are also starting to show up as they pass hawkwatch sites.

I fully expect that the day this weather truly clears to be an outstanding time to be on a hawkwatch.  And not just for raptors either, as most raptor sites also see lots of songbirds and other avian migrants.  Right now that nice clear day might be Friday, but the jury is stil out on that.  Maybe it will hold off until the weekend, when I could share in that fun.  

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Almost didn't go

Roundtop on Sunday morning
I almost didn’t go hawkwatching on Sunday because when I went outside it was so foggy and overcast that I couldn’t even see the top of Roundtop Mtn. But since I’d planned the day for hawkwatching, I decided to go anyway.
Then just as I was getting onto the Pennsylvania turnpike to head towards the hawkwatch at Waggoner’s Gap near Carlisle, a few drops of rain sprinkled my windshield and I almost turned back. But I got on the road anyway. About halfway to Carlisle, it really started to rain, but then I couldn’t turn back because the next interchange wasn’t until I reached Carlisle. So I got off at Carlisle, figuring I’d turn around and come home, but I couldn’t turn around at the interchange, so I pulled into the first spot I could, turned around and decided to check the radar first.

Radar showed just a small blob of rain, a tiny little blob, only around Carlisle, so I decided that since I was almost already at the hawkwatch, I might as well drive up the mountain and see what the day looked like from there. So I got there around 9 a.m. to a semi-socked in view from the gap. I could see down to the ground but only just.

No one else but the site’s hawk counter was there. We talked for a few minutes. Dave hadn’t seen any hawks yet. He said there were a lot of grackles migrating and then we saw a whole flock of them, hundreds even, out at the far end of the hawkwatch. Since there wasn’t anything else to look at, we looked at those. Then we both saw a bird at the front of the grackle pack land in a dead snag. Dave stood up to look at it and said, “Does that bird have a yellow head?”

So I stood up and looked at it and just that quick “a yellow-headed blackbird!” Yellow-headed blackbirds are a western species, only rarely found in the east. We both got good looks at it but Dave didn’t have a camera and I didn’t have my camera unpacked (and it was too far for my lens, anyway). A yellow-headed blackbird was a first Pennsylvania sighting of the species for both me and Dave. I’d seen one years ago in New York at the Derby Hill hawkwatch and the times I’ve birded out west. Dave the counter said It was also the first sighting of the species on Waggoner’s Gap.

We didn’t see many hawks on Sunday—the clouds were really low, no wind, lots of overcast—but Dave, the few regulars who eventually showed up and I had a nice variety of hawks. I saw 5 Bald Eagles, a couple of Broad-winged Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, a Merlin, a Northern Harrier and some red-breasted nuthatches (non-hawks). Someone brought up a pound cake and shared it with everyone there. It was a good day all around.