Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Where field meets the forest

The winterless winter continues, with no sign of actual winter anywhere in my forecast. It’s as though November moved in and never plans to leave. At least a month like, say, August, hasn’t yet tried the same trick. I’ve long since put my down parka in the closet. Last year I lived in that thing.

I’ll bet some, if not all, of the forest animals are thrilled, if that’s something they can be. I see deer everywhere in the fields in both mornings and evenings. This morning I saw 14 in 2 groups. Last night I saw 7 in another group on the mountain.

Winter is hard on the deer, normally. This year that is certainly not the case. The grazing is still probably not the best, as the grasses are all sleeping through winter. But the deer don’t have to paw through snow and ice to reach it. Some winters deer huddle in their “yards” and can’t or don’t move beyond its confines. In really severe winters they can die in there when they run out of food. This year even the ponds and puddles have open water, at least by around noon or so.
I think an easy winter is likely to make for a strong breeding season for them. Certainly there isn’t any winter-caused hardship.

Other animals and the birds are likely seeing the same kind of benefit. Birds will survive the winter fat and happy, ready for a new breeding season, too. The winter residents will be in good shape to start their trips back north.

This kind of winter may not be my cup of tea, but I’ll bet it’s theirs.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The non-winter here on Roundtop Mountain continues, with only momentary blips of winter to report. Mostly, January was like a very long November. The snow lasted but a few days and has now retreated to a few tiny patches that are hidden from the sun.

The daytime temperatures are well above freezing, and most nights the temperature does get below freezing, if not always by very much or for very long. By morning, ice in puddles is hardly more than skim ice that is long gone by noon time.

The patterns created by the slowly freezing water caught my eye this weekend. They remind me a bit of tree rings, though I suppose freezing rings would be more accurate. You can see how the freezing starts out with just a little ring and then as the night gets colder, the rings get wider and the water is apparently freezing faster. In a normally cold winter, I don’t see freezing rings. The puddles freeze too fast and are pretty much ringless, with a solid sheet of ice. Not this year.

The warm winter has gotten me to thinking about what the spring might be like. Will winter bother to make an appearance in February? If the winter continues as it has so far, will birds return north much earlier than usual? Will the snow goose and tundra swan migration come long before the end of February? This will be an interesting spring to observe, I think. I’m just not quite ready to start looking for it just yet.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Winters should not be soggy but today is just that. Soggy and foggy and mushy underfoot. Although it is warm enough to be a spring rain or a spring day, it doesn’t smell like spring. Nor do the woods smell like winter. To my nose, the air doesn’t smell like much of anything at all.

At this point in the season, daylight remains into the evenings quite a bit longer than just a week or so ago. The mornings are lighter earlier, too. This morning I saw crows, the first time I’ve seen any bird in the mornings before work for many weeks. In winter, they are the first bird I usually see in the mornings. Sometimes cardinals come early to my feeders but they are skulkers and wary. Crows are obvious and seem to think they have to inspect their territories first thing in the morning to make sure nothing awful, or even anything at all, happened while they were sleeping.

This small group of them was plying the stone parking lot at Roundtop, no doubt scavenging for lost French fries or other edible goodies dropped by skiers last evening after dark. The crows aren’t picky and will try to eat anything dropped by humans. To them the parking lots are just fast food joints—no work, no waiting—just food appearing on the ground, free for the taking. They want to be sure they get first pick of whatever is available. It’s good to see them again, good to have something to look at so early in the morning. I watch them for a few moments and then leave them to continue their scavenging.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


One warm day with fog was all it took for the snow to disappear literally overnight. Oh, a few patches of it remained this morning, but with rain in the forecast for tonight, whatever may remain will certainly be gone. The feeder birds have already disappeared, gone back to their natural food supply and ignoring my offerings. I’m sure they will return whenever the next blast of winter reappears.

The warm winter evenings have tempted me outside my cabin on more than one occasion lately. When the wind is calm, walking in the woods at night is a rare pleasure. Two nights ago I could smell the snow, all crisp and cold. I didn’t take a headlamp, as white snow underfoot is just as good or even better. A thin slice of moon curled just above the horizon, a deep orange.

By summer, underbrush impedes such off-trail meanderings, which accounts for the rarity of such an adventure. I try to look at everything, to memorize the sky, the moon. I draw the winter scents deeply into my lungs, somehow hoping they won’t disappear as soon as I’m inside again. I never know how long it might be before another chance to wander at night comes my way. Better to take advantage while I can.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Foggy morning

View from the backyard of dad's farm (west), taken on Saturday
Fog still obscures Roundtop mountain this morning. Trees are just shadows of their clear-day selves. The distance is entirely invisible, lost in the grayish white of snow and fog. Sounds are amplified or distorted, seemingly disembodied from any one place.

It’s as though nothing exists beyond a middle distance. My cabin, the trees that surround it may as well be the only thing in this world that’s closer to a dreamscape than a landscape.

Dog and I penetrate the shadows carefully, slowly, avoiding the ice. Dog is elderly now and more cautious than he used to be. He slips once but recovers. I move haltingly, afraid to slip. The headlamp does me no good. We move slowly, going half the distance, or less, than we usually do. He is glad, I think, when we turn around and head back. I know I am.

The fog is pretty, in the way that things that are different are pretty or at least interesting. After a day or so the novelty wears off, long before the fog does.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Snow! (and ice and fog and ice fog)

Odd, how a few inches of snow has changed my mood, softening my anxious mind. Winter looks like winter for the first time this year. The season is as it should be, for at least the next little while.

Winters should not feel and look like November, or like a winter in Georgia, when I live on a mountain in Pennsylvania. Now that I have snow, winter feels like itself again. I only hope it’s not a momentary aberration.

The dreaded ice storm did not materialize, though this morning produced a bit of freezing drizzle. I even have an ice fog, as you can tell from this morning’s photo. That is an uncommon occurrence here. Fog usually comes with warmer temperatures.

The feeder birds suddenly remember where my feeders are and have arrived hungry and demanding. So far, no unusual or even uncommon species are in evidence, just the usual suspects—titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, a wary blue jay, the odd starling and the like.

In this era of warming trends, it’s comforting to know that winter is not yet dead. Doom and gloom can wait for another day. Or year. Or decade.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Snow! (I hope)

This may turn out to be the last non-snowy photo you see on Roundtop Ruminations for a while. If the forecast holds true, I will see 3-5 inches of snow tonight.  If the forecast is not true, I will end up with ice.  I'm trying to ignore that as a possibility.

I enjoy a fine, snowy winter.  To me that also means birds at my feeders, a warm fire, dogs and cats at my feet, a good book, warm sweaters and a mug of something hot and steaming or compfortably alcoholic, depending on the time of day.  I can do most of those things when there's no snow, but snow completes the picture for me.  A non-snowy winter is simply less fun and a lot less pretty, despite the clouds in this photo.  A pink sunrise is glorious whatever the season. But sunrises soon fade, replaced by lots of brown during the rest of the day.  Snow on the ground is something I can enjoy all day long.

This time of year, 3-5 inches of snow would normally not be something to crow about.  This year it's the best we can manage so far.  Therefore, I will.crow in anticipation.  And continue to ignore the possibility of ice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Woodland surprise

I must confess that when I first saw what you see in today's photo, I didn't think it was what it turned out to be. 

I'm finding this brown winter difficult, sometimes, to photograph. Landscapes, particularly, aren't satisfying me at all, so I decided to wander across my little patch of forest and look for small things that came my way.  And that's how I found this.

When I first saw it, I thought it was a curled up catepillar.  Readers from this region certain know about wooly bear catepillars that local legends say predicts the weather by the size of their red and black bands.  That legend aside, when you pick up one of those, they curl up into a defensive little fuzzy ball. And when I first found this, I thought it was some catepillar, though obviously not the red and black wooly bear, that was doing the same defensive move.

But then I touched it and turned it over and discovered it was the underside of a piece of fungus or mushroom, species unknown to me. I still can't tell you what kind it is. Only this piece of it was left.  Somehow it hadn't rotted or turned black in the winter.  I just liked how it looked, a little not-caterpillar curled up among the leaves.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is it real or is it...?

Can you tell by looking that this isn’t natural snow? I hesitate to call it fake snow, which in my mind implies plastic or some other non-snow material. This is manmade snow from the ski resort that blew over to the bottom of my lane during fierce winds yesterday.
During this snow-less and mostly warm-ish winter, the neighboring ski resort has been forced to make snow when they can, which hasn’t been all that often. They make snow by shooting aerated water over the ski slopes when the temperature is below freezing. Voila! Snow results.

I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me in October when the ski resort was going to make snow. It’s the kind of question for which guest service people like to make up snarky answers that of course are never delivered to the callers. The second question in a similar vein that we often get is “It’s 31 degrees (at my house at 6 a.m.), why aren’t you making snow?” The answer to that one is a tad more complicated, but usually boils down to the fact that the ski resort isn’t at their house, and it doesn’t do the resort much good if the temperature isn’t below freezing throughout the majority of the night (as opposed to just at 6 a.m.). The ski resort is at the mercy of Mother Nature like everyone else.

When you look at this manufactured snow up close, the flakes look a lot like naturally falling snowflakes, but there are some differences. Typically, the natural snowflakes are more complex, with more points and more variety to their shapes. At least most of the time. Even natural snowflakes have several general types that are shaped by temperature, ice and wind. There’s the dendrite snowflake, the plate snowflake, the plate-dendritic snowflake that starts as a plate-shaped and ends as a dendric type. There’s simple prisms, stellar plates, sectored plates, stellar dendrites, and at least a dozen more types of more and less complexity. Manmade snow always has fewer points and less definition but sometimes natural snowflakes are just as lacking in complexity and diversity.

This morning, after I took this photo, I had the natural kind of snow, too. Typical of this winter, it didn’t last long.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nature's Ice Sculpture (Weird)

Who am I to call Grandmother Nature’s ice sculptures weird? Perhaps I’m just not able to appreciate her handiwork in all its complexity. Interesting? Of course, but the artistry needs a bit of work, in my opinion.

Winter made a brief visit to the mountain this weekend, with temperatures dipping below the ‘teens overnight and that made even worse both by a substantial wind and the rapid drop from above normal temperatures. Our bodies just aren’t made to get used to quick changes in temperatures.

Never fear! Winter wasn’t moving in after all, just checking out the accommodations (and apparently finding them not to her liking) because today the weather is warmer again.

The warm winter is having an adverse effect on my sleeping. Not because I toss and turn. Oh, no. It’s because the raccoons are still around and attempting to forage in my bird feeders at night. Last night Pig the raccoon (or its latest incarnation) attempted the raid five different times. That means Baby Dog’s wild barking woke me up five different times, and both meant I had to go to the door, turn on the light and save the day by shooing Pig off the deck and away from the feeders.

Pig is not the dumbest raccoon on the block as each attempt was slightly different. The first time was the straight on approach across the deck railing. The second was the most inventive, mounting the assault from a nearby tree. Pig was balanced precariously on a branch that was much too small for his girth. That attack never would have worked, even had I not shushed him away. The branch would have broken or Pig would have fallen or simply been forced to retreat.

The next time, the assault came from up the stairs, as though tiptoeing across the deck was the answer. That didn’t work either. The next time was an assault up the railing of my raised deck. Truthfully, I’ve forgotten what happened the last time. By then I was a bit punchy from the constant awakenings.

Tonight? The birds will have to do without their crack-of-dawn feeding tomorrow morning, because that feeder will not be outside overnight.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dark and stormy

 The morning the sky is dark and angry. Snow blew sideways, like scores of white ribbons waving in the wind. Large white flakes didn’t so much sting as bite. I turned my back to avoid those bites. Dog was soon dusted, like a canine sugar doughnut, though his thick and long fur protected him from the biting snow.

As quickly as it started, the snow was over, leaving only the angry clouds and a momentary covering of snow on the ground. And the wind. And the much colder temperatures. Winter has returned to the mountains.

Last night, before winter arrived, I took a late evening walk in the warm rain, only partially protected from the wet. I don’t mind the rain or the cold that came today, but I don’t do wind very well. I’ve tried to learn to enjoy the experience of it, to take some enjoyment in its fierce wildness, but I’m not doing very well with that. When the wind arrives, my favored response is to retreat to the warmth of the cabin and wait for it to grow calm again.

I have tried to analyze this aversion, in some hope that I can find a way through or around it. To no avail. When I’m in the woods, I use all my senses, sight and smell and hearing. When the wind roars, that is disrupted. Watering eyes limit seeing, and even when I can avoid that, I find the birds and animals I look for are hunkered down, away from the wind and not very interested in being out and about or seen. The only sound I can hear is the wind itself. Bird calls, the stamp of a deer are all covered by the wind.

The wind tears at uncovered skin, reddening it, making it numb. My hands are covered, my face is covered, my eyes hide behind goggles. I may as well be a deep sea diver, so covered and so protected, so distant from the experience am I. And yet even with all that, the wind finds tiny openings, a pinhole perhaps, to force its way past my armor.

Wind reigns supreme and I retreat. The warm, calm cabin awaits.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Foggy morning
Fog has ruled the mornings here on Roundtop the past few mornings. It’s the kind of fog that might make for a good photo at 10 a.m., but certainly not at 7:30 a.m. when I am out and about. So today’s photo is not current. I took it earlier in the week when the fog wasn’t so soupy.

The spate of mild January weather is soon to end with a bit of snow and a lot of wind. It will come as a shock to all, from me to the wintering animals. I miss having a snowy winter and I worry about how this might signal yet more climate change. Still, the balmy temperatures are easier on my heating bill and make the outside chores a lot easier. And that’s all about to come to a screeching halt. I am trying to prepare myself for the sudden change, but winters are much easier to grow accustomed to when the temperature changes little by little.

At least I know the change is coming and can prepare for it in some ways. How much can the deer do? The summer fawns know little of winter’s harshness, and the old does are likely not looking forward to it. The squirrels should be fine. Those fat little rats with bushy tails eat more birdseed than the birds do. The winter birds have largely ignored my feeders for much of the winter so far. Now, they will have to push the squirrels away to get anything. I’m confident the local birds at least know where my feeders are, even if they haven’t partaken of it much.

So, though it’s long overdue, winter appears poised to make an appearance. Whether it will take up residence just for a few days or for the duration is anyone’s guess.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Yellow Breeches Creek - Bowmansdale, Pennsylvania
Winter is a good time for listening. Last night fog reflected light from the full moon and made the winter woods nearly as bright as dusk. I could see as far into the forest as hills would allow. The air was damp, ahead of more rain (!) tomorrow, but the wind was calm. Standing outside, I listened to the call of a very distant great horned owl somewhere far down in the valley.

Somewhere nearby, I’m certain, other people must have been around. Perhaps an employee of the ski area, locking the lodge door after closing for the night, though I didn’t hear a sound or see a sign of anyone. For all I could sense, I was alone on the mountain, with only the owl or the occasional snap or crunch to break the stillness. The deer, likely were feeding just out of sight.

I have long loved the quiet of a calm winter night. Summer’s nights are never so still or so quiet. The leaves whisper too much, like the town gossip. Perhaps they have much news to spread in the half year of their existence. In winter, covering the ground, they are quiet, unless an unwary deer awakens one with a misstep.

In winter, the silent woods makes my senses seem stronger. I hear only distant sounds, a train whistle, the pounding of the train on the rails, a dog on the other side of the mountain. In warmer months, those all are too faint to compete with the rustle of millions of leaves. But not in winter.

I am surprised, often, by just how quiet the night can be. I don’t hear shouts or calls from people, even those that live within a mile. Surely those would be as loud as a dog’s bark. I don’t hear doors slam either, not car doors or house doors. In fact, I rarely hear the sound of a car at all. Are those quieter than a tree falling or a train whistle?

And so I stand outside, listening not for breaks in the silence so much as to the silence itself. I find the quiet comforting. The quiet tells me all around my little corner of the territory is well. Winter is a good time for listening.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Bad boy!

Sharp-shinned hawk - likely a male
This bad boy was likely the reason I was foiled this weekend in my quest to add a few new sparrow species to my 2012 bird list.  Mr. sharp-shinned hawk was plying the air around my cabin on both Saturday and Sunday.  I was hard-pressed to find even one unwary junco out and about, let alone anything else.

The local crows spent the weekend alarming the forest, screeching at the sharpie and adding to the cacophany that was also augmented by pileated woodpeckers and blue jays alike.  The little birds hid.  The larger birds were outraged and were not above letting everyone know about their outrage. Even the squirrels got into the act, though their constant chattering did not stop them from foraging at my bird feeders.

Life in the forest is not always quiet and serene.  Sometimes it's as noisy as a chain saw.  This was one of those weekends.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Darkened times

Pinchot Lakte, drained
Sometimes I wonder what the point is of looking forward to the weekend. They are over in the blink of an eye. That seems especially true in winter when the days are so short.

One of the reasons I like to rise early, whatever the day, is so that I don’t waste what is already precious little time. I confess that rising before dawn’s light can be more difficult in winter. Climbing out of a warm bed is never easy and is only made worse by darkness. In winter, I try to time it so that by the time I’m dressed, the animals fed and me with coffee in hand, light is already beginning to seep through the darkened woods.

This time of year, the only time I get to see the birds that come to my feeders is on the weekends. It is starting to be light enough in the mornings that it won’t be long before I can enjoy breakfast and the birds at the same time. Maybe even next week if it’s not cloudy in the mornings. At least I hope it will be next week.

Weeks will pass before the evenings are light enough for me to enjoy them. These days, I couldn’t live without my headlamp, and I run through batteries like water. Every now and again I remind myself that if I’d lived 100 years ago, I’d be doing the same things I do today but it would take twice as long to accomplish them since one hand would be carrying a lantern. That’s cold comfort.

The lack of daylight is winter’s cruelest twist, I feel. Cold weather has never bothered me. I prefer the cold to the heat. It’s the short days that rub, that make time slip away even faster than it usually does.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Not looking very much like winter

January has only just started, but I’m already wondering how much winter I’m going to see this year. So far the season is not impressive. Open water? Got that. No snow cover? Got that. One day of winter temperatures sandwiched between 50 degree weather? Got that.

Even looking out a full week, nothing is on the horizon or further west that signals an approaching storm or spate of winter-normal temperatures. It’s mid-November all over again. Even the winter birding feeding has slowed, as though the feeder birds are still finding natural food.

Winter could still arrive with a vengeance, but even if it does, winter is unlikely to last much past late March. So instead of winter weather beginning by Thanksgiving and lasting until late March, a span of some 16 weeks, a winter that begins in mid-January is one that will last only about 9-10 weeks. And even that assumes actual winter weather will begin by the middle of next week. It seems as though the weird weather of 2011 is stretching over into 2012, too. I just hope 2012 doesn’t bring another tornado, earthquake, the hurricanes or another 6ft. of rain to Roundtop Mtn.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Hooded merganser (male)
After the horse roundup I wrote about in yesterday’s post, I proceeded on to the Susquehanna River to do my planned new year’s birding. Overall, I had a successful, if not an outstanding day. I ended up with 33 species of birds, well short of the 40 I believe is possible in York County in early January. High winds kept the count of little birds less than I’d hoped; high water kept me from reaching one area where I’d planned to bird heavily, and a variety of duck species were also nowhere to be found.

2nd year Bald Eagle

That said, the day was certainly not without some great sightings (if not great photos). My first not great photo today is of a male hooded merganser. Many people think the male wood duck is the prettiest North American duck, but the male hooded merganser can’t be far behind. These little diving ducks are pretty shy, too, so I was glad to get any photo at all, especially since I was shooting from inside the car and from across a road. After a few shots I tried to get closer, and all that accomplished was that the duck slipped out of sight and hid in the underbrush.

My second photo today is of a young bald eagle, likely a second year bird. It was high and soaring in less than optimal light, so the markings are not as distinct as I’d like. Bald eagles can virtually be counted as common these days, a fact I still find amazing. Back in the bad old days after DDT, bald eagles were rare in the east. Seeing one was a cause for a major celebration. Now, in migration I’ve had days when I’ve seen more than 20 in a single day. And on this trip I saw 2, both younger birds.

So my 2012 York County bird list is started, if not yet firing on all cylinders. Next, I need to concentrate on finding some of those missing ducks and sparrows!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

I don't see this every day

Fireworks from the deck of my cabin
As readers of Roundtop Ruminations might remember, my plan for the New Year’s weekend included some birding to start the new year off properly. I birded a bit on January 1, after watching a midnight fireworks display put up by the ski resort from the front door of my cabin.

I’d also planned to go birding a bit more extensively on January 2, as I wouldn’t have my family’s traditional pork and sauerkraut dinner to attend in the middle of the day.

True to the plan I set off in the morning, heading towards the Susquehanna River, about 10 miles from the cabin. While on the way, I was driving past this farm that raises alpacas. The farm is run by what some would call a gentleman farmer. That simply means someone whose main livelihood does not come from farming. For a while the folks raised horses and then the horses gave way to sheep and a few years ago the alpacas arrived.

Anyway, as I was driving past, I looked up their long, long driveway (close to .25 mile) and saw two horses walking down the driveway along the fence. Both horses had expensive blankets on. It was only half a second after I’d passed the driveway that I realized the horses weren’t inside the fence but actually walking down the driveway all by themselves. So I stopped the car and backed up. By this time, the horses had reached the end of the driveway to appear on the public road.

So I got out and walked up to the grey horse (the other was black with a lot of white markings) and caught it by the halter. I tried to catch the second horse but he tossed his head a bit so I figured I’d better just take one at a time. I started to walk the one horse up the driveway and saw a gate to the big pasture where the alpacas were. Rather than walk the whole way up the driveway and then go back for the second horse, I figured I’d put the first one in the pasture and then go back and see if I could catch the second horse. By this time, the second horse had crossed the road, and a car came by (filled with teenaged skiers who avoided the horse but kept on going).

Then the second horse showed up next to me, following his friend, though I wasn’t leading him. So I opened the gate (the alpacas are on the other side of the pasture, which must be 5-6 acres). I lead the grey horse in and the second horse follows. Then I release them and go out, closing the gate behind me. The horses start running across the pasture, having a wonderful time. They reach the alpacas and they run a bit, too.

So now, I figure I’d better let someone know that I put these horses in the pasture with the alpacas. I was going to call the police, but out at the road, I saw a sign for the farm and it had a phone number on it. So I called. After 5-6 rings a man answered and I told him his horses were loose and that I caught them and put them in the pasture with the alpacas. And the man said, “They’re not my horses.”

Now would be a good time to report that this was not my first livestock roundup. In fact, in this rural area, they happen rather frequently. I’d say once a year is about right. Usually, it’s cows or sheep that escape, though these were not even my first horse adventurers. This past spring I encountered a tiny calf that had wandered out onto a road by easily walking underneath an electric fence that kept mamma on the other side. That little one was herded back in without further incident. The strangest roundup happened years ago near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary when friends and I were returning from an evening dinner only to find a bison calmly lying in the middle of the road. That one had broken out of its pasture and was enjoying the warmth of the macadam on a chilly November evening. In those pre-cellphone days we were lucky to find the owners at home and left them to manage the animal.

But on this day, I discovered I’d just put two horses in a pasture where they didn’t belong with a herd of alpacas. Half-panicked, I apologized profusely to the man and told I’d seen the horses walking down his driveway from up by the barn somewhere and I just assumed they were his. “No,” he said. “I think they belong up the road. I’ve been trying to call but I’m not getting an answer.” I apologized again, and said I was afraid they’d get hit out on the road. To my great relief, the man didn’t seem upset that I’d just put two strange horses in the pasture with his alpacas. When I eventually rang off, the man was going to try and find the horses’ owners, and the two escapees were still in pasture with the alpacas. So I got back in my car and went birding. Isn’t that something? What a way to start the new year!