Friday, March 30, 2012

What replaces "yard" work at the cabin

"Bouquet" of rue anemone
This week I’ve spent some time each evening dragging around giant branches, tops of trees and cutting back the multiflora rose that’s not-so-slowly taking over the area behind the cabin. This spring the clean-up is worse than usual. The remnants from Snowtober still litter the woods, and not just around my cabin.

Those downed treetops have dried a bit, and I’m now able to drag them around a lot easier than I could shortly after the event. They are still large and heavy. One that looks like at least half of a tree, keeps getting lodged between other living trees as I try to drag it away from the side of the cabin. I moved it another 10-15 feet before it got stuck. I think I’m going to need a chain saw to move it any further. Or perhaps I’ll just sharpen the hatchet and try that. At least that 20-foot monster is no longer up against the cabin.

Cutting back the multiflora rose, that gorgeous invasive and thorny bush, is an ongoing issue. This year, I saw the start of the growth and moved in quickly. Then in 24 hours the size of the patch doubled. Last night when I wore out after dragging limbs and treetops around, I worked on that for a while.

The forest still comes right up to the doors and decks of the cabin, but I have to keep working with the brush to keep the forest from covering the cabin. As it is, last year I got behind in my brush clearing when the rains of April went on and on, and I never did catch up. It was a jungle back there, and I couldn’t even walk through it. This year, I’m trying to prevent that from happening. We’ll see if I’m successful or not. So far I’m almost holding my own against it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

March or May?

The redbud tree starting to leaf out. Although redbuds are not a flowering tree, the appearance of their red leaf buds sure looks like a flower more than it looks like just a leaf.

Redbuds tend to have a weak and wild growth pattern. They never get very large. They nearly always look twisted, as though the small branches were damaged by something that stunted their growth. That’s just how they grow. When you see the trees in their red bud phase, that twisty, growth pattern looks pretty and exotic. When the trees finally leaf out and are all green, the trees look like something that should be cut or culled because you know that tree is never going to amount to anything. I’m guessing that more than a few of these trees have met their end that way. Someone simply didn’t know that those gorgeous red buds in the spring really come from that awful stunted-looking mass of twisted branches.

Here on Roundtop this year’s appearance of the redbud is a good 30 days ahead of their normal appearance. The local redbud are still a day or so from their peak size and color, but even that won’t make much of a dent in those 30 days. Oddly the dogwood, which often bloom at the same time as the redbud, don’t appear nearly as far along or ready to bloom. Of course, the dogwood really is a flowering tree.

When the redbud and dogwood are both at their peak at the same time, the forest here at Roundtop is simply gorgeous, a riot of white and bright pink along the edges of roads and trails. It doesn’t look as though that will happen this year. Chalk that one up to another difference caused by the atypically warm and early weather this year.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

One quiet evening

Gilbert Rd. bridge, Monaghan Twp. York County Pennsylvania
Unless this chilly air lasts for more than a day, I’m not going to turn my heat back on. This morning I was up and about in the cabin and as I was sitting down to breakfast, I glanced at the thermometer on the kitchen table. It was 59 degrees and I hadn’t even noticed. If I don’t notice it, I’m not going to turn the heat back on.

Around the cabin I’m starting to hear, though I haven’t yet seen, a few more early arriving bird species. The towhee has returned. Last night a belted kingfisher rattled its way over the trees, en route from one pond to another. The chipping sparrows are twittering, too. I’m expecting blue-gray gnatcatchers momentarily, if I don’t miss them this year. They are never numerous at Roundtop and always show up when I least expect it. I’m trying not to expect them, but I am anyway.

Baby Dog and I walked over to one of the ponds last evening and found a good spot to sit down and enjoy the sun and the view. Twenty-three Canada geese wandered over slowly and warily, all in the water but gathered in front of us. A few of them made that “I’m keeping my eyes on you” sound that’s just a single low note, drawn out a bit. If I make a “wrong” move that warning note turns into a honk of alarm and the group will scatter. The geese are curious about Baby Dog—I think that’s what makes them draw near—but they aren’t about to put up with any funny business.

For the moment, the pace of the spring explosion is slowing. I find that a relief after the speed of last week. It’s too early for spring to be this far along, and I need some time to catch my breath and get used to it. Spring is always a busy time at the cabin. Brush needs cleared or cut back before it takes over and makes walking around the cabin impossible. A few rails on the deck need to be hammered back into place, and one step will probably need another nail before too long. Snow shovels need put away and “stuff” that I keep close by so I can get to it quickly and easily during winter can now be put somewhere out of sight for a while.

Clearing away the clutter of winter and making room for warmer weather takes time and a fair bit of work. I need to sweep away my winter mindset and get ready for the activity of spring. I just need a minute or an evening to put myself in the right gear for the new season.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Icy morning

Yellow Breeches Creek, off Gilbert Rd., Monaghan Twp., York County, Pennsylvania

I had ice in the chicken water this morning, the first time the temperature has dropped below freezing for several weeks. With the weather the way it’s been, it wouldn’t surprise me if this turns out to be the last time that happens until fall. The chickens didn’t seem to notice or mind, likely secure in the knowledge that I would fix that ice problem before the important business of their breakfast.

With the chill came a strong breeze, finally knocking down the last of the broken and teetering treetops from Snowtober. It is not a day for sitting outside and enjoying the last few days of March, even if it is sunny. Perhaps tomorrow.

Roundtop Mtn. and its neighbor, Nell’s Hill, have turned fuzzy, as new leaves are starting to bud and burst. Normally, this happens in early May. My experience thus far is that once the leaves begin to appear, even a prolonged cold spell won’t slow them down or stop them. Of course, leaves have never appeared in March before, so I’ll have to see if that holds true this year as well.

I’m pretty much astounded that spring is arriving so early, and I can’t say I like it very much. Still, this early arrival is certain to account for an interesting season, and while it’s likely not to be interesting in a good way, I am glad to document whatever is going to happen. I’m also glad that after years of living on the mountain, I have a pretty good grasp of what a normal spring should be, so that this year I’ll be able to tell the difference.

Monday, March 26, 2012

More explosions

 After a warm and sunny week, the weekend at Roundtop was a washout—until around 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon when the sun finally appeared. At that point, it was too late to do much exploring in the woods, and everything was still wet and dripping anyway. I did, however, retire to the back deck and spend an hour or so enjoying the feel of the sun on my neck.

I also saw the northbound migration of several black vultures, with a few turkey vultures that did not appear to be local adding to the mix. A red-tailed hawk that may or may not have been a local bird circled in a northbound direction, too. But the real drama came from the local pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers who were involved in a screeching match over something. 

The pileated woodpeckers circled around the cabin, causing an awful racket. They would disappear, still screeching, to the north only to circle around from the south and swoop through the forest again, still raucous. The red-bellied woodpecker mostly ignored the pileated woodpeckers, holding its ground on a dead limb. When the pileated swooped by, the red-bellied would toss off some woodpeckery and possibly vulgar retort, and the whole drama would begin again. Who ever said the woods are quiet?

More flowers popped up in the woods, with coltsfoot, which is normally the earliest of the blooms, finally making an appearance. My favorite local fern, still growing out of a crack in a boulder along the edge of the lane to the cabin, has begun to unfurl its fronds. The rue anemone (or is it a spring beauty?) is blooming as well. When the leaves are no more unfurled than these are, I can’t tell the two apart, even when I have an identification guide in my hands.

The trees are beginning to leaf out, even up on Roundtop Mtn. Down in the valley and off the mountain, there’s no “beginning” about the leafing. They are out and are a good 6 weeks earlier than they should be, to boot. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bloodroot - one day wonder

Yesterday was the day the bloodroot bloomed. Today, when I get home in the evening, most of them will be done for the year, their petals will be drooping. Perhaps a few petals will already lay on the ground.

For one day, they are brilliant wildflowers, larger than most woodland wildflowers.. For the other 364 days of the year, they are in hiding. In a rare year, I’ve had bloodroot last for 36 hours. I don’t expect this will be that year.

Most of the smaller wildflowers last for a week or more before their blooming is over. Not the bloodroot. All its effort goes into one sunny day and then it’s over. I am lucky as I almost can’t miss them and their day. Without a yard to deal with, I have forest right up to edge of the cabin. Bloodroot line the end of my driveway, right next to the dog-toothed violets.

I probably did miss them a time or two when I first moved into the cabin and didn’t know they were there. I know I learned the hard way, years ago, that they only bloom for a day. I distinctly remember coming into the cabin, busy from something or somewhere and noticing the flowers. Perhaps it was already getting dark. Perhaps I was just in a rush. “I’ll take a photo tomorrow” or maybe I said “on Friday” when I would have more time. I remember returning “tomorrow” or “on Friday” and found that they were already done and over with. Bloodroot don’t wait and they don’t give you a second chance to get that photo.

In case you’re wondering, yes, the blooming is early, almost a full month early. The bloom dates for this flower over the past years were:

2011 – April 19
2010 – April 6
2009 – April 20
2008 – April 21
2007 – April 25

The spring explosion continues, now with appearances by rue anemone, coltsfoot and the unfurling of fern fronds. I’ll be posting those photos soon enough. But for now I didn’t think anyone would mind if I posted another photo of the dog-toothed violets, now that I have several of them blooming.

Dog-toothed Violet

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring explosion!

Foggy morning on Roundtop

I can’t be the only one who thinks that trees leafing out in late March instead of early May verges on a scary abomination. Overnight, trees down off Roundtop Mtn. are past budding and are into the early leafing stage. It feels bizarre to me, and I despair of people who exclaim happily, “isn’t the weather wonderful?”
No, it is not wonderful.

We are a full 9 days before the end of March, a full two weeks before the time of a normal last frost, and now the appearance of leaves on trees is going on 6 weeks earlier than it should be.

Stink bugs, ticks and mosquitoes are out. As stink bugs are worst in the early fall, having them be numerous now is Not A Good Thing. An acquaintance reported picking 20 ticks off herself and her dog this past week. That is Not A Good Thing. Mosquitoes? Yikes! 
Fire danger is high and the forests are dry and crunchy. Yellow violets are blooming before the bloodroot (which will bloom for its one day of splendor later today) and both will be blooming 20+ days early.

Songbirds, especially warblers, normally migrate when the particular species of bug that normally appears in the particular layer of the forest canopy they inhabit first emerge. The bugs’ appearances are timed with the emergence of particular tree leaf buds. The bugs are here, the buds are here, but the birds can’t adapt to changing climate conditions so quickly. “Their” bugs will be gone when they get here. What will they eat as they try to fuel their migration north into the boreal forest? They are all probably still down in South America, happily fueling for the trip north, unaware that their “gas stations” in the eastern forest will be empty by the time they arrive.

If this is “wonderful” weather, give me something else.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Premature flowers

Dog-toothed violet, trout lily or yellow violet - take your pick
Between morning and evening yesterday the forest exploded in new spring growth. One result of that is the premature bloom of the dog-toothed violet, also known as a yellow violet and known locally as a dog-toothed violet. A patch of them, perhaps 4 feet by 5 feet, grows just outside the cabin steps.

To my eye, it would seem that a patch this size should produce dozens of blooms but that never happens. I might see 6-8 blooms at once, and today’s photo is the first of them. One advantage of having a blog like mine is that over the years I go back and find out when these flowers bloomed in previous years. To what I expect will be no one’s surprise in this year of the non-winter and early spring, 2012 marks the earliest I have ever recorded their blooms.

To be precise, they are blooming nearly 3 weeks earlier than the previous early record and more than a month earlier than the latest. Here’s the breakdown:
     2007 - April 25
    2008 - April 14
    2009 - April 8
    2011 - April 12
    In 2010 I didn’t record their flowering, though I noted the leaves were visible on April 7. Likely, the first flowering would have taken place several days afterwards.
    2012 - March 20

The rest of the forest is suddenly starting to grow, too. My bleeding heart bush went from nothing to 3-4 inches above ground in one day. Mayapples are now above ground, if still tiny. And there are all sorts of tiny bursts of greenery on the forest floor that are still too small to be identifiable, at least by me.

Down off the mountain even the trees are starting to leaf out. That hasn’t happened at the cabin yet, and I hope that’s still a ways off. I’m not ready to lose my view for the next 7-8 months. In a normal year I lose it for about 6 months and that’s bad enough!

Monday, March 19, 2012

More sounds than sights of spring

Warm weather is starting to bring out new growth in the forest at Roundtop but not very much yet. The ferns haven’t started. I haven’t even seen coltsfoot or bloodroot, both of which are among the earliest blooms. The forest floor still looks brown and bare.

Rain has been is somewhat short supply lately, and I wonder if that’s what’s holding back the burst into spring. The temperatures have been more than adequate to get things moving. The only lack might be rain, and the near constant fog may make the forest seem damper than it is. In fact, the ground is pretty dry and last fall’s leaves still crackle underfoot.

Late March is often a muddy month, caused by the melting of winter’s snow. This year, without snowfall, March feels dry and a bit brittle. April rains usually add to my sense that spring is really little more than an extended season of mud. It’s still early to be thinking about April showers, but the first half of the muddy season isn’t producing any mud. I think April rains will be even more needed than usual this year to hopefully at least partially compensate for the lack of snowmelt.

This weekend I’ve heard gray tree frogs calling further down the mountain. I have to listen closely to tell what the call is, partly because of the distance. To my ear, there’s something about their bubbling call that tells me I’m hearing something else. If I’d heard the call during the day, I might say it’s some bird call that I don’t recognize. At night, the only other option is some species of owl, but even a saw-whet owl, notorious for its odd sounds, doesn’t make a sound like that.

This spring, I apparently have a bumper crop of them, as their sound now outnumbers the spring peepers, at least on Roundtop Mtn. The eastern gray tree frog, the species that lives at Roundtop, is small but not tiny. They are about 2-2.5 inches long, perhaps a little less. They are spotted and sometimes are more greenish than gray, though always with a bright yellow or orange area on the pale underside. They like moist woods, which is typical of the area along Beaver Creek, in the narrow valley between Roundtop Mtn. and neighboring Flat Hill.

What is unusual this year is that I usually hear them after the spring peepers are done with their spring songs. I hear them typically sometime in April, though I confess I don’t keep track of exactly when. This year they are singing in two-part harmony with the peepers—another thing that’s different about this year with no winter. I’m sure that’s just another difference in what will be a long list of oddities.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Reflected moon

The first hints of new spring growth are appearing on Roundtop, though sadly not in a native species just yet. The invasive autumn olive has teeny tiny leaves on its bushes. The native smaller trees, such as the dogwood, are starting to develop fat buds that will burst into something before too long. The warm weather is starting to have its way with the forest growth this almost-spring.

Contrarian that I am, the phrase “beware the ides of March” come to mind because I have a difficult time believing temperatures won’t rebound to semi-normal at some point. In this area it’s rare that abnormal temperatures last through two or more seasons. A warm winter does not promise a warm spring, and sometimes even seems to bring its opposite in the next season.

An appearance of winter once gardens are planted and fruit trees are blooming is not what anyone wants to see.
Has my photo today caused consternation? I decided that I’d better put a hint in the title of today’s post before people thought I was posting an upside down photo. I even toyed with the idea of flipping the photo around so the trees are right side up, but that just looked weird, as the shoreline of the pond then appears to be in the sky. The pond is rarely so still that a reflected image appears so perfectly to be the normal view.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

When March is like May...

Snowmaking pond on Roundtop Mountain, sunrise, March 15, 2012
I apologize if readers are tiring of sunrise photos. With last weekend’s time change, the mornings are again no longer bright enough for photos of much else. My blog has always focused on my sightings in the forest and the changing seasons on Roundtop Mountain, so what photos you see here are what I am seeing every morning, too. And I’ve always liked sunrises, so I don’t get tired of them.

One thing about the circling of the years is that nothing ever stays the same for long, so brighter mornings aren’t far off. Last evening I saw that the dog-toothed violet leaves are now above ground, their waxy brown and green leaves barely noticeable amidst last fall’s oak leaves. The yellow violets themselves won’t be too far away, then, and I will keep looking for the first of those. This 3x4 patch of violets is right outside my cabin door, so I examine the site at least once a day.

With the temperature some 20 degrees above normal for this time of year, the evenings feel a lot more like May than March. I worry that such abnormal temperatures spell the start of even worse climate changes in the not very distant future. I dislike that this was a year with no winter, and yet I am taking advantage of the warm weather for however long it lasts. My doors were open last evening to let the warm temperatures and lovely air inside, and this morning I am wearing sandals. I’ve never worn my summer sandals in March before, and this year may well be my only opportunity for it. Make hay while the sun shines, the old adage says. Or perhaps if life gives you lemons, make lemonade is more appropriate.  If March brings May weather, dress like it's May. So I am.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A morning in March

Old Dorsey Lane, Monaghan  Township, York County, Pennsylvania
Gradually, I am growing accustomed to this past weekend’s time change, but I still dread and dislike the “spring forward” part of it. Gaining an extra hour in the fall is fine, though. Best of all would be never to have to do one or the other again, though I suspect that is unlikely. Still, the number of countries that now does not do daylight savings time is growing and is now up to 70, a bit more than a third of all countries.

At Roundtop, the weather this week is more like May than March, a good 20 degrees above normal. I am already seeing (and smelling) stink bugs (ugh!). The first mustard sallow moths, three of them to be precise, appeared on my cabin wall last night. For the record, the moths first appeared last year on March 18.

New plant growth is still missing from the mountain, which leads me to wonder if plants are smarter than insects. The season could still dish up some unhappy weather surprises, though it won’t this week. Maybe the plants suspect something is afoot and are staying hidden until that unknown something passes.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Into the sun

After months of slowly watching the morning light replace the black of night on my morning walks, it comes as shock that the weekend time change tosses me back into the night again. It just doesn’t seem fair. Bad enough that I am now rising at “4:30 a.m.” instead of 5:30 a.m. The return to darkness only makes the switch all the more difficult.

On a brighter note, this morning marked the first appearance of an eastern phoebe this year. I stepped outside the cabin and was greeted by that familiar call. The bird was singing and sitting beside the deck. Almost immediately, the bird was swooped by an unhappy pileated woodpecker, perhaps thinking the phoebe was singing too close to its nesting territory.

The local sharp-shinned hawks are more visible this weekend, as well. As I was eating breakfast on Saturday, one flapped easily over the back deck, no doubt trolling for its own breakfast. From how the bird was moving, a likely breakfast candidate was not yet in evidence.

And still I haven’t seen any signs of new green growth. Even down in the valley, only very small patches of grass look green. Up on the mountain, there is no sign of that, even where there is grass.

My neighbor the ski resort closed on Sunday. Hardly any snow is left on some of the slopes, and I believe the snow was worse than I’ve ever seen it while the resort was open. Over on the side of the mountain where I live, I don’t ever hear much sound from the resort, but this morning I could tell the mountain was quieter. Spring is here.

Friday, March 09, 2012

A little different

The day is gray and windy. Spring greenery is not yet making an appearance. I’m tired of photographing brown on brown scenes. So, instead, for something a little different, I’ve decided to introduce you to one of my fantasy houses.

Even though my cabin in the forest is pretty much my fantasy, that doesn’t stop me from dreaming about other fantasy houses, or perhaps an imaginary second fantasy house because I never want to leave my little cabin. But if I ever win the lottery I would soon have a stable of fantasy houses, both near and far.

This property isn’t far from my cabin. Down off the mountain, it’s surrounded by orchards. I love log cabins, so that’s what first caught my eye about this place. I like that it's set back off the road. I like that it still looks old, even down to the old outhouse, with everything perfectly spruced up and painted. My place virtually never looks this perfect.

Probably the only thing I’d change is that I’d get rid of what little yard there is and extend the pasture fence up further. I don’t do mowing, and I never will. This place needs a few goats and chickens, but really, that’s the easy part.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

Slowly spring

Apple orchard, E. Mt. Airy Rd., Monaghan Twp. York County, PA
No spring greenery is yet in evidence on Roundtop Mountain or even 500 feet or so below the mountain in the neighboring apple orchards. The temperatures are spring-like for the moment. The day has that feeling of balminess that often comes the day before a storm.

Even after tonight’s rain the temperatures will be warmer than average, if still seasonal. . Spring peepers are peeping now in the wetter, low areas. New spring greenery can’t be far behind. The wheel of the year is turning, but it turns slowly, a little at a time. Yesterday the killdeer appear, today the spring peepers, tomorrow another surprise for anyone who cares to look.

Maybe the first coltsfoot will bloom; perhaps nothing more than some small, nondescript green shoot will break through the ground. Perhaps the blue-gray gnatcatchers will arrive. Or maybe the snow geese will fly over the mountain, just ahead of the rain.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Spring is sprung

S. Lewisberry Rd., Monaghan Twp. York County, PA
Last night I heard the whistle of tundra swans over the cabin, heading north. Theirs is one of those sounds that is easy on the ears and so evocative of nature and the wild. Along with the call of a loon and the scream of a red-tailed hawk, the soft whooing whistle of a flock of northbound swans conjures up images of the wild landscape to which they are returning. It is spring when the swans fly north.

Signs of returning spring are common here on the mountain now. The first red-winged blackbirds have appeared. The males come first, seeking to find the best territory from which to attract a mate. Common grackles arrived over the weekend.

Last night, while listening to the swans and trying to see them in the dark, I saw two sets of eyes high up in an oak tree next to the cabin. My cabin is 28 ft. tall and these eyes were close to twice the height of the cabin. I went inside for my binoculars and after my eyes adjusted better, I discovered two young raccoons. I was surprised to see them so high up, let alone in a tree with no branches below the height of the cabin’s roof. But there they were, peering down at me while I was peering up at them.

This morning a fox rushed at my chickens, a scene I witnessed as I was returning to the cabin after Baby Dog’s walk. The fox had no luck and soon saw me and rushed off into the woods. When I got to the chicken pen to check on them, I saw Doodle the rooster all puffed up at the front of the pen, trying to make himself look taller and meaner than he is. He was trying to protect his girls from the fox. The chickens were upset by the fox but unharmed. I think I should place the extra layer of chicken wire around the front of the pen tonight. Fox don’t give up very easily, and I’m sure this one will be back.

Spring is here now and foxes and raccoons both think the chickens are an easy target.  Hopefully not.

Monday, March 05, 2012


Stream on Dorsey Lane, Monaghan Twp. York County, PA
You know it’s got to be March when the temperature swings 40 degrees in a single day. This whole week at Roundtop either was like that or is going to be like that. It’s the kind of weather where I end up with four different jackets tossed on the back of the kitchen chairs.

I start the morning with a heavy jacket, a cap and gloves, move to a lighter jacket by noontime, am down to no jacket or a shell for the hottest part of the afternoon and then repeat the entire process by the last time I run the dogs after dark. The kitchen looks as though I’m expecting company for dinner.

I prefer weather when the same jacket or coat lasts me the entire day. I can probably forget about that happening again for at least a month or two.

This morning I discovered that my chickens are smarter than I’d guessed. Their waterer had ice in it, and I was getting ready to switch it out with the second one. I have two, and there’s always a second one inside so the ice can melt. During the mid-winter I switch the two every 12 hours so the chickens always have fresh water.

This morning one of them started pecking at the skim ice in the overnight waterer. It wasn’t long before she’d opened it up enough to get her morning thirst quenched. Of course, she couldn’t do this on nights that are so cold that the water freezes into a solid brick of ice. But I was surprised she’d figured out how to get through the thin ice. Who says chickens are dumb? They aren’t, at least not when it comes to food, and apparently, also, water.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Spring arrives to fog

Fog rules the morning here on Roundtop Mtn. Oh, and spring has arrived. Last night I heard the honking of a huge and high flock of migrating Canada geese. The sound is distinctive and different from the everyday honking of the geese.

I suspect the height of the flock has something to do with it, as well as the sheer number of geese. They honk continuously when they migrate, as though the flock is a traveling cocktail party with everyone talking at the same time. And they do sound happy, or at least eager, to be heading north again.

Then this morning, I heard the call of a killdeer or two. These birds are early arrivers, too. A few will nest in the stone parking lots at Roundtop, but for most the mountain is just a stop on their longer trip.

Together, hearing the migrating calls of geese and those of the killdeer, the evidence is irrefutable. Spring is here, if only as yet in its infancy.