Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Last day of the old year

Last sunrise of 2013, Mountain Rd., Monaghan Township, York County, Pennsylvania
The last day of the year rolls around again.  Winter is settling in at the cabin.  It’s snowing right now, flurries for the moment.  More snow is expected Thursday and Friday, if only a few inches.

In the natural world tomorrow will be little different than today. The forest around my cabin will take no note of the day.  The forest’s cycle is different from our own and follows an older path, the one humans knew best before we started more artificial calendar systems.  We were, I suspect, trying to tame or dominate nature back then by creating calendars based on some human events rather than by following the natural rhythms of the year.  Choosing when to begin a year and creating months probably made our ancestors feel as though they had some control over their world, when they had so very little of that.

In reality, the winter solstice is a more reasonable event to trigger a new year. When the day reaches its shortest point and the night its longest, beginning the long swing there and back again is a natural spot for a new year to begin.  The summer solstice might do as the start of a new year, too, as I could argue that moving from the longest day of the year to the next year’s longest day is also a good spot.  I would agree, though to me the winter solstice is slightly better.

Though I try to see and follow the natural world as best I can, my feet are also in this world, the one that says tomorrow is the start of a new year.  So tomorrow is the day I will start a new bird list for 2014, rummaging around looking under bushes and in the air trying to see what’s out and about.  I do know what I see tomorrow will be little different than what I see today.  But I will look anyway.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Wild birds and tame

Tufted Titmouse
A hard, cold rain dissolved the snow that fell a few days earlier.  Now I am left with a gloomy, overcast sky and a fierce, biting wind.  In short, it’s not a great day for photography, which is why I’m posting a few photos from late last week.  They will have to do until the light improves.

I had a brief few hours of nearly warm weather before the rain arrived, which I used to quickly clean out the chicken pen and fill the bird feeders.  The chickens were suitably grateful.  Whenever I add new straw to the coop, no matter how I scatter it, they spend an hour or so fluffing and getting it just so.  I call it “rearranging the furniture” to suit their liking.  Afterwards, it looks the same to me as when I was done with it, but obviously my efforts don’t meet their exacting standards.  They aren’t happy with how I scatter the straw, so they have to re-do all my handiwork.

The feeder birds are less exacting. They are happy if the feeders are full, though sometimes the titmice and the chickadees toss seed out of the feeders until they get one they really like.  The chickens usually hop their way up 7-8 stairs to reach the back deck.  They clean up whatever the wild birds leave behind, leaving nothing for the squirrels.

Carolina Chickadee

Friday, December 27, 2013

Wacky weather

Nature's Christmas tree
I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.  Mine was fine, too, thanks, once I finally got ready for it.  The snow the previous weekend hit at exactly the wrong time as far as Christmas preparations go.  So the weekend before the holiday was spent doing all the things that would normally take two weekends.  That made for a very hectic time, but it’s over now and winter life will soon return to normal.

The last snow melted in a December heat wave but was soon replaced by more yesterday.  The heat wave itself was interesting—record-setting heat for one day or perhaps one and a half days.  Then rain.  Now back to normal cold weather again. That one day of heat was enough to take December 2013 from the coldest on record to one that is thoroughly average over the past 70 years, if still below the range of the more recent averages.

The temperature on December 22 hit 70 degrees in Harrisburg, though at my cabin it was a good 5 degrees below that.   The Harrisburg high was more than 30 degrees above average and 5 degrees higher than the previous record.  Two days later the temperature was below normal again, and a day after that, the temperature was 52 degrees colder.  No wonder I have three different coats populating the backs of my kitchen chairs.

Baby Dog doesn't notice the weather too much, unless it's raining buckets (she doesn't like to get wet).  The chickens, on the other hand,  refuse to exit their coop if snow covers the ground.  They just don't like it. I don't like it when the ground is half-covered with ice and snow.  Either I want to wear my Yak-trax or leave them at home.  I can't easily put them on once I'm outside or in the middle of a walk. So it's all or nothing with them, and often it's icy or snowy around the cabin when it's clear beyond the edge of the forest. It's all much easier if the ground is completely snow-covered. Or not.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Icing stream

The December thaw is underway at my cabin.  The carpet of snow is shrinking and may well disappear by Sunday.  It’s not a surprise that I’m getting a thaw. It’s more unusual that most of the month was as continually chilly as it has been.

Baby Dog and I enjoy our nighttime walks just before bed.  I like to check around the cabin to make sure all is well and to look and see what’s going on around me in the forest.  This year I’ve noticed one thing lacking—I haven’t been hearing the call of a great horned owl.  For all the years I’ve lived at the cabin, the sound of a nighttime owl, usually the great horned but sometimes the screech owl, often accompanied our forays.  This year I haven’t heard an owl call since September and that one was quite distant.  More typical was 2012 where hardly a week went by without hearing one or two. I hope this is but a temporary lack, a miscommunications between their schedules and mine.

With just 11 days left in 2013, I’m already looking ahead to a new birding year in 2014.  As I mostly enjoy birding in the forest on Roundtop, the odds aren’t high that I will find a new species for my 2013 list.  And that means that I’m looking ahead to 2014. I will likely participate in the Greenbirding challenge for other people like me who don’t chase birds all over the state or country or county trying to gather up more species than anyone else.   I will try and gather up species at Roundtop—saves on gas, for one thing.  For another, not driving someplace to find a bird gives me more time to bird.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sun pillar at sunrise

Sun pillar 
 This morning brought no new snow, which is almost a rarity this week.  The morning also brought something else unexpected—a sun pillar. Sometime in the past I know I posted another photo of a sun plilar, but I can’t find it at the moment or I’d include the link to it.

 This morning I also find myself indecisive. I can’t decide which photo I like the best, so rather than pick just one I’ll post all three of the ones I liked best.
Sun pillars are also called light pillars.  They can be above or below the sun and are longest and brightest at sunrise and sunset.  They are caused by ice crystals and aren’t vertical rays of the sun at all.  Moon pillars are also possible, though I find them even less common than sun pillars.  And as I’m not very good with nighttime photography, I’ve never gotten a photo of one of those.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Shades of gray and white

Looking onto Pinchot Lake
Another day, another inch or of snow.  2013 may not end up as the December with the most snowfall, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up being the December when snow fell on more days than before. I haven’t gone more than 2-3 days without snow so far.

Today’s photo shows a local stream that’s starting to freeze over.  The lake beyond is already frozen, and near the mouth of the stream, where I took this photo, the slow-moving stream has reached the point where its flow is stopped by freezing temperatures.    It was snowing as I took the photo, as well as fairly early in the morning.   Gray and white is the color scheme of the day.

At the cabin the fresh and powdery snow tells the tale of who visited overnight. A deer walked down the center of my driveway, walked right up to my front steps and continued past and up the mountain. A rabbit moved down the lane, not stopping as it hopped down the hill. Baby Dog gallops past me, racing around like crazy. The icy conditions have shortened our morning walks, or at least slowed them, the past few days.  I don’t think she likes that, but she has better balance on her four legs than I have on my two.  We go at my pace, not hers.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Too many snowstorms to keep them straight

A snowy sunrise at Roundtop Mtn.
December 2013 is proving to be unusually snowy for this area.  Many years I don’t even have snow on the ground for Christmas.  This year I’ve already had several snowstorms, and though none were huge, little ones of 3-5 inches every few days start to add up.  And I can’t tell you which of the last three storms today’s photo came from.  All these little snows are starting to look alike to me.

The latest storm brought both snow and ice.  Fortunately, the ice came after the snow, so I have a crust atop the snow rather than the other way around.  Good neighbor Roundtop plowed out my driveway on Sunday morning, perhaps noticing that I looked a bit glum with the task of shoveling the driveway yet again within three days.

After the storm was over, I tried to let the chickens out, but they weren’t having any part of it.  They wouldn’t set foot on that white carpet just outside their door.  They are still on winter egg break, and I am now down to my last egg.  I was hoping an afternoon of frolicking in winter sunshine might kickstart egg laying again, to no avail.

Bird activity at my feeders is high, and I haven’t see anything at all unusual there. I know not to expect winter finches this year, but even the common larger birds haven’t yet put in an appearance—no blue jays that I’ve seen, and only the occasional cardinals.   I heard the blue jays screaming all around the cabin; they just haven’t partaken of the feeders. The titmice, chickadees, nuthatch, Carolina wren and juncos are wildly active at the feeders all day long, even when it’s not snowing.

I’ve had a few years here at the cabin where winter started early, and snow stayed on the ground throughout. T hose years aren’t many, though.  This winter season might just turn out to be one of them.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Birdwatching is enjoyed by everyone in my cabin, even the furred residents.  These two are dedicated birdwatchers, each with a different preference for which feeder to observe. Mouse prefers the tube feeder, perhaps because it’s closer than the others.  Ben prefers the platform feeder, perhaps because the birds are larger there. They never seem to tire of the sport.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More snow!

More snow fell on Roundtop yesterday.  This time the precipitation was not mixed with sleet or freezing rain or anything but snow.  About 5” fell atop the mixed precipitation from the day before, so today snow is above ankle deep.  For early December that’s actually a fair amount to be on the ground already.

With the ground snow-covered, birds flock to my feeders.  The small peanut feeder seems to be a big hit this year.  I’ve also noticed fewer northern cardinals than I’ve ever had. I have but a single pair that visits, and they don’t arrive regularly. In past years, I usually had 3 or 4 pairs that were often the first birds I’d see each morning.  This pair don’t arrive until well after dawn and often spend a while staring at the feeders before joining in, as though they don’t quite know what to make of it.

Carolina chickadee
So far, I haven’t seen any sign of other animals.  The deer must be keeping close to wherever they rode out the storm.  And a trip around the perimeter of the cabin late yesterday didn’t show any raccoon or rabbit tracks, either.  Temperatures are plummeting and will be cold for the rest of the week.  I have finally put away my heavy fall jacket and pulled the parka out of the closet.  There’s no indication I’ll be able to return to wearing the jacket anytime soon. Winter is here!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Snow!  The cabin looks like a winter wonderland today. I got about 5 inches of new snow atop the 2-3 inches plus ice that I had yesterday.  I parked my car down the mountain near a paved and plowed road earlier today so I wouldn't have to worry about getting it out up here.  It's a not too far walk away, and perhaps I'll try to get it moved later today.  Or perhaps not.  I'm enjoying the quiet and watching the multitude of birds gorge at my feeders.  

None of the feeder birds are unusual this year.  The winter finches haven't come south, and I haven't (yet) seen a snowy owl at the cabin.  I keep hoping that perhaps in this year of so many snowy owls, one will somehow find its way to this mountain. It's unlikely, I know, but I can always hope and if any year is likely to bring one here, it will be this year.

My cats are enjoying "bird TV" at my feeders, too.  They are poised at the windows watching in rapt attention.  Baby Dog is sleeping in between bouts of running madly in the snow.  The chickens are, I think, the only naysayers, safely ensconced in their coop, not even deigning to visit the snowy ground.  The girls are still on their winter egg break, and I am now down to my last two eggs.  Rather than buy eggs at the store, I will do without until the girls decide to start laying again.  It can't be soon enough for me.

Monday, December 09, 2013

A bit of this and that

I had a bit of snow last evening and a bit of ice this morning.

Of course, a bit of snow is a fun thing, while even a bit of ice is anything but.

A bit of snow makes the dog run with her nose skimming along the surface of it.  A bit of snow makes the chickens feel as though they are crossing the great divide, and they avoid it like the plague.

A bit of ice turns my porch into a skating rink, and clearing off my car takes so long I should have gotten up an hour earlier.

Snow and ice brings nearly every bird in the neighborhood to my feeders.  Chickadees, titmice, Carolina wrens, the shy cardinals, the downy woodpeckers.  The juncos, who prefer to eat off the ground, teach themselves how to negotiate the tube feeder, but it’s not easy for them and requires a lot of investigating hops from twig to branch and back again before they figure it out.  Success!  Who says you can't teach a junco a new trick?

Friday, December 06, 2013

Foxy morning

This morning I watched a very wet red fox rummage through the tall-grass field atop Roundtop.  I suspect it was looking for mice, though I didn’t see it find anything.  Although foxes usually hunt at night, I often see them and other predators in the early mornings, especially on overcast or stormy mornings, as this one was.  I’ve seen great horned owls well into the morning hours, plying their way through trees, scattering squirrels and small birds in their wake.

I typically notice these mostly night-time predators during post-dawn hours only on overcast mornings. I’d love to know how and why they view these overcast skies as good times to continue their hunts.  Is it simply more comfortable physically for the night hunters to stay out when the mornings are dark? Does the poor weather that’s now going to continue for several more days make them sense they should hunt now before the poor weather gets even worse?  Does a morning hunt mean their nighttime hunting was unsuccessful?  I wish I knew.

What I do know is that the forecast for my mountain contains several dreaded words, especially dreaded when they are all listed together—snow, sleet and freezing rain.  Those words mean the forecasters have no idea what kind of precipitation will fall or for how long.  The mostly likely translation is “ice storm,” and we all know how much fun they are.  So I will hunker down, resign myself to a weekend of accomplishing little or no outside work and hope the power remains on. Winter is coming, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Shades of brown

This morning everything is brown.  So many shades of brown, some pale, some deep.  It’s only this time of year, I think, when I see and remember just how many different shades brown can be. Each season has its color or colors.  Midsummer is deep green (there’s a reason why it’s called forest green).  Early spring is a pale, bright shade of green. October has several colors, all in tones of red or yellow or orange.  Now is the brown time of year.

Brown is not a shade I normally think of with a great deal of fondness. It’s a bit dull—certainly not a showstopper.  And yet, I’m always impressed with the subtlety and extent of its reach.  Browns can be warm or cool, nearly black or almost white and everything in between, too.  Brown is the color of earth and tree bark, of most sparrows, of deer in winter. Did you ever notice how many shades of browns are named for animals of a similar shade—seal brown, camel, beaver, fawn.  Brown is a shade that really gets around.

This morning, brown was the only color I could find.  Each fallen leaf was a different shade of brown, each dried stalk of what had been summer’s greenery is now a shade of brown.  Grass is brown, even the sandy rocks that dot the mountain are brown.

Here on Roundtop, the brown time of year can be long or short.  Snow might soon cover the landscape—or not. I never know if winter will be white or brown.  Often, it’s more than cold enough to snow, but the season turns into a dry one and so the brown remains.  When that happens the browns eventually lose their nuances of shade and by spring the attractive hues I see today are gone. I’m hoping for snow instead. I’ll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


I have reached that point in the year where it is dark when I get home from work in the evening and nearly dark in the mornings when I leave.  By the time I leave the cabin, only the earliest of the feeder birds have appeared—the cardinals and the nuthatch.  The titmice and the chickadees have yet to put in an appearance.  Out in the open, away from my feeders, only the crows are in evidence, though occasionally I still hear the twitter of a bluebird, perhaps yet at its hollow branch where several of them cuddle for the night.

I begin to feel like a vampire, seeing daylight only on the weekends.  I don’t mind wandering around the mountain at night, but I confess I miss seeing birds and other animal activity that only comes with the day.  This time of darkness doesn’t last too long, and for that I am grateful.  I’m sure I wouldn’t mind it as much if I wasn’t confined to an office during most of the week.  As someone who thrives on observing the natural world, I can tell you that not being able to observe much of it for a while isn’t easy for me.  I feel I’m missing the most interesting part of the day.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Opening salvos

Frosty Christmas fern
Pennsylvania’s rifle deer season opened this morning.  I heard four or five shots by the time I left the cabin.  The shots came from several directions, not from the same shooter. Most were across the mountain from me or at least down in the narrow valley between Roundtop and its next mountain neighbor.

One shot was close, not too far down the mountain.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the six-point buck that foraged for acorns in my side forest earlier this fall was shot. I haven’t seen that buck for a few weeks now.  Once that little group of deer depleted the acorns, they moved elsewhere.  I shall probably never know if a hunter took that deer or not.  Even if the doe and the summer fawns return later to the same spot to forage, a buck might well move on once mating season is on the wane.  So not seeing him with that group wouldn’t necessarily mean anything.  The buck will soon be dropping their antlers, too, making it difficult to pick one out at any distance.

I am particularly enjoying the weather right now.  The nights are below freezing, though the days still inch above that mark.  The air has been calm, and no rain or snow has fallen recently.  I can shrug into a mid-weight jacket or run outside with only gloves and a hat for outerwear and still feel comfortable. Even the evenings are comfortable enough to linger outdoors after dark.

Baby Dog and I stand at the end of the driveway and survey the mountain.  We look into the distances above and below us and look for anything that moves.  I always know when Baby Dog has spied something because she barks at it.  Baby Dog never learned the virtue of silence.  Mostly we don’t see anything. It’s just enjoyable to just stand and look.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Almost winter

Snowmaking on Roundtop
Winter is almost here.  Roundtop is making snow and will soon open.  I’ve already had the first ice storm of the year, a dusting of snow, gusty winds and now a cold, raw rain. See what happens when I go away for a few days?  Season-changing weather and multiple types of precipitation.

Around my cabin, I’m still getting used to the idea that I should dig out my Yak-trax to traverse the front deck and steps.  I’m not ready for that. I’m just not ready.  And it’s not just that, either.  Suddenly, the birds appear at my feeders in droves, or at least almost-droves.  They are emptying the feeders daily instead of weekly now. Autumn’s slow emptying of the feeders is over with, and I’ll have to add winter’s daily filling to my daily morning chores again.

The chickens are on their winter egg break with a vengeance.  Unlike other years, when I would get a few eggs during this time, production has shut down entirely.  Usually, I get enough eggs during the break to keep myself in eggs, if not to sell, but this year I’m down to my last few of them.
he deer are already chomping on my juniper bush.  Not a single fawn remains in spots, and their coats are that winter-brown again.  The good news is that I haven’t seen the raccoons for a while. I think it is too early for them to be hibernating, but they are apparently staying closer to the den, and for now that is good enough for me.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The forest around me is preparing for winter.  The life of the forest and the surrounding landscape is sinking into the ground, safe below the surface, to hibernate there until spring. What’s seen above the ground is almost uniformly brown, with the shades varying from pale beige to the deepest color of espresso.

The dying of summer’s greenery puts the land in sharper relief.  What was hidden by a shield of foliage is visible again.  Only the skeletons of summer remain.  The earth seems to be taking a breath or perhaps holdings its breath.  Pre-winter is quiet, a respite between the glory of autumn and the stresses of winter.

I like this time of year, this pre-winter of November, when I can actually feel the landscape slow down and prepare for slumber.  Nothing is hidden during this time—not by snow or leaves. Everything stands in stark relief.  Even the rolling of the hills stands out more.  It’s a pretty time of year, I think, though not showy like October (well, most Octobers).

Monday, November 18, 2013

All the leaves were brown and the sky was gray

The weekend was so gray that noon looked the same as dawn. I couldn’t even find a bright spot in the overcast where the sun was supposed to be.  The chickens went to roost around 3 p.m.—they thought evening was approaching.  Photography was not an option.

By this point in the late fall, the only leaves left are brown. The forest is completely bare, though these apple trees are still holding onto their leaves, but as brown as the leaves are, it’s hard to see how. This morning around 1:30 a.m. a fierce gust of wind blow through, clocked at 46 mph on Roundtop. None of the forest leaves made it through that gust.  It blew hard enough to wake me up. I held my breath hoping it wouldn’t get any worse and just that quickly the wind died as fast as it appeared.

Even before the wind, the trees were largely displaying their winter skeletons.  With the help of the weekend’s full moon, I could walk without a headlamp and still usually manage not to trip over my own feet, though I know the ground well and that helps. Overall, the forest is brighter at night now than it was a month ago, and that means my nighttime forays with Baby Dog are possible again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

an impromptu shooting party (with dogs)

  Over the weekend family and friends got together at my family’s farm to enjoy the chilly sunshine and test our shooting skills, which were largely negligible.  We got some of my father’s lesser used guns and decided to use up some ammunition.  We took the dogs along and some thermos’s of hot chocolate. Brother set up the targets against the dam of the pond and we set to work.

I hadn’t done much shooting for some years.  Others had never shot a gun, so with one exception it was a pretty lame group.  The cute little six-shooter pistol didn’t help as something was wrong with its sights, and they couldn’t be adjusted.  My father tended to be attracted to unusual guns, so we also got to shoot a .22 rifle with what dad called a “carnival” loading system, similar to what is found on guns at carnival shooting booths. I have no idea if that’s what’s it’s really called or not.

Fortunately, my brother is an avid hunter and was there to teach and help with the particulars.  He also did all the loading of guns and cleaned them afterwards. The dogs enjoyed being out in the woods with their people.   They ran around like crazy at first but soon settled down patiently.  The bank of the pond protected us from the wind, but the hot chocolate still didn’t last long.  It was a fun way to learn a bit and get rid of some ammunition at the same time.  We all said we’d like to do it again, but now that there’s been some snow and it’s gotten quite chilly, we may not want to stand around in the woods for two hours for a while.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Snow this morning!  A dusting of snow fell on Roundtop, starting just before dawn.  It started shortly before Baby Dog and I started our early morning walk and continued past sunrise.  I was expecting snow flurries, but an actual dusting, even a light one, was an added treat.

Snow at the cabin!
In this area of the U.S. November is a month that can be wintry or warm and is frequently both at some point during the month.  This year, or at least this week, the weather is falling on the wintry side.  It’s unlikely the snow will last beyond noon, and snow in mid-November doesn’t predict anything about the rest of the winter. Still, I was thrilled by the season’s first appearance of snow.

Oddly, Baby Dog, who usually loves the snow, seemed less than thrilled. Perhaps that is because the snow melted on her fur, leaving her slightly damp after our walk.  She was a lot more interested in getting back to the cabin and curling up in a warm spot than she was in the snow.  Maybe it just wasn’t deep enough for her to play in, but in any event this little dusting wasn’t good enough for her.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On the doorstep of winter

November is often a gray and windy month, so the past few days were completely normal ones for this time of year.  The raw wind brought down most of the leaves that remained on the trees.  Even the old oaks around my cabin are looking pretty bare today.

The sky is now open enough that I shortly after midnight I saw a fireball out the window to the north.  It wasn’t the biggest or the brightest fireball I’ve ever seen, but it was still exciting. I believe it made a sound, which is why think I woke up just in time to see it.

The colder weather brought changes around my cabin this weekend. I’ve added extra straw to the chicken pen.  The girls are molting this week, so they aren’t laying any eggs.  I’m hoping they will finish their molt before I run out of eggs.  When they do start laying again, they will do so at their winter level, which means I will only get perhaps half the number of eggs they laid during spring and summer.

Young animals will soon be experiencing their first winter. These summer calves will likely spend much of the winter in their barn.  They are still pretty small, and the cold weather will likely be a bit hard on them.  The spring calves are larger and at this point every month they are older than the summer calves will make the winter easier on them.  A feral cat at Roundtop had a litter of kittens just a week or so ago.  It’s hard to imagine any of those will survive the coming cold.  It’s not a good time of year for them to be born.

The smaller forest birds are beginning to use my feeders in earnest now.  For the past month, I’ve only had to fill the feeders once a week. Now, I have to fill them at least every other day.  Come winter, I’ll have to fill the feeders probably twice a day.  Now, the titmice, downy woodpecker, nuthatch and chickadees are emptying them pretty fast.  The juncos, which are suddenly common around the mountain, haven’t yet visited, nor have the larger residents like the cardinals, the red-bellied woodpecker and blue jays.  They are likely to arrive with the first snow or ice storm.  And that’s probably not far off, either.  Winter is coming, and for the first time, it’s starting to look as though it isn’t far away.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Falling, falling...

About three-quarters of the leaves around my cabin have fallen now.  My guess is totally unscientific, by the way.  It’s breezy today too, so perhaps even more of them will have fallen by evening. My views have opened up quite a bit, if not yet fully.  I can see the mountain to my west. I can see over towards the new pond.  I can see past my property line and over to the abandoned ski slope.   It’s great to have more open views again and to be able to see into the forest.

The old oaks are still holding on to their leaves; they are notorious for that.  The oaks, however, are also the tallest trees in my forest, so their leaves don’t much impede my view at eye level.    

The closed in leafiness of summer is one of the reasons why that’s not my favorite season. True, the leaves can help keep the cabin from getting baked by the sun, but all those leaves don’t help even a tad when the humidity is high, which it often is here.  I’d much rather have cooler weather and a view.  The only real downside to the newly visible view is that the hours of daylight are so short I don’t get to enjoy it for very long.

My animals seem to enjoy the cooler weather, too.  The chickens race from one end of the driveway to the other, flying and hopping and flapping like crazy whenever I left them out.  In summer, I am likely to find them clearing a spot for a dust bath or lounging under the cabin.  Racing around isn’t on their agenda then.  Baby Dog is much the same, racing from one end of the lead to the other, pretending not to hear me when I tell her to do something and always angling to stay outside a little while longer.  In summer, she’s always angling to return to the sofa.

The downed leaves also mean I must get serious about my outside projects before winter.  I have the old chicken coop to take down and remove.  It is falling apart, but for some reason that seems to make disassembly harder, not easier.  The current chicken pen will be placed mostly under the cabin for winter.  That certainly helps protect my girls from the worst of winter weather, and I like to think it gives them some warmth from the cabin, as well.

The gutters need emptied of leaves, as do the decks.  Summer’s hot weather gives me an excuse not to do much, but I sure have to make up for that once fall appears in earnest.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Chickens are birds too...

A rainy, early November day is certainly a cliché in this area.  Today is living up to the cliché. The sky is dark and gloomy, bringing down many fall leaves.  In this weather no photos were possible, which goes to explain why I’m posting a photo of several of my chickens.

The chickens had just discovered my bird feeders, no small feat in itself, as my back deck is well above head high and only accessed from the ground by 8 steps.  They apparently wandered up the steps and so found themselves at the bird feeders.  They soon began to clean the deck of seed tossed out by the wild birds. I have yet to see the chickens up on the table where several of the feeders are located. However, I am thinking that won’t be far away.
Once up on the back the deck the chickens discovered I was inside, with cats and Baby Dog. They thought that was pretty interesting, too, and probably wondered why they couldn’t come in as well. One or the other of them has tried to follow me in the front door more than once but end up being deterred by said cats and dog.

Chickens, I have learned, are much smarter than they are usually given credit for. They are not dumbbells.  And, they have a wide variety of sounds, each with meaning.  Doodle, my rooster, always alerts the girls to airborne danger—two days ago it was a Cooper’s hawk—and how close the danger is. When something is very close, the sound is more insistent and the girls (and often the cats, too) run for cover.  Other times, he warns that danger is near but not immediately overhead and that’s enough to stop the hens in their tracks to eyeball the potential intruder until they decide if hiding will be needed. The chickens are nearly as much fun to watch as the wild birds.  

A rainy, early November day is certainly a cliché in this area.  Today is living up to the cliché. The sky is dark and gloomy, bringing down many fall leaves.  In this weather no photos were possible, which goes to explain why I’m posting a photo of several of my chickens.

The chickens had just discovered my bird feeders, no small feat in itself, as my back deck is well above head high and only accessed from the ground by 8 steps.  They apparently wandered up the steps and so found themselves at the bird feeders.  They soon began to clean the deck of seed tossed out by the wild birds. I have yet to see the chickens up on the table where several of the feeders are located. However, I am thinking that won’t be far away.

Once up on the back the deck the chickens discovered I was inside, with cats and Baby Dog. They thought that was pretty interesting, too, and probably wondered why they couldn’t come in as well. One or the other of them has tried to follow me in the front door more than once but end up being deterred by said cats and dog.

Chickens, I have learned, are much smarter than they are usually given credit for. They are not dumbbells.  And, they have a wide variety of sounds, each with meaning.  Doodle, my rooster, always alerts the girls to airborne danger—two days ago it was a Cooper’s hawk—and how close the danger is. When something is very close, the sound is more insistent and the girls (and often the cats, too) run for cover.  Other times, he warns that danger is near but not immediately overhead and that’s enough to stop the hens in their tracks to eyeball the potential intruder until they decide if hiding will be needed. The chickens are nearly as much fun to watch as the wild birds.  

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Recording my bird sightings

I’ve been meaning to blog about something I more or less fell into some months ago, but now I’m continuing to do it deliberately.  Every Saturday morning I spend the first half an hour or so of the day birding around Roundtop and recording my sightings in e-Bird.  My Saturdays are terribly busy, and sometimes the only free time I have is early in the morning before stores open or most people are awake.  The time I take my mini-birding run varies somewhat.  I start whenever the first birds are starting to move around in the new day.

I count every bird I see and can identify and log it in BirdLog, an app for my phone that automatically submits whatever I record to Cornell’s e-Bird.  The advantage is that I don’t need to be near a computer or WiFi to record my sightings.  Sometimes I drive slowly around Roundtop, counting bluebirds and starlings. Occasionally I’ll see something more interesting, like the first juncos or a vireo. Sometimes I walk around the cabin.  With BirdLog I can add to the checklist as I go along, save it, and then submit it whenever I’m done. I don’t have to write down my sightings, juggling binoculars and notepad.  I don’t have to worry about not having a notepad. I don’t have to worry about losing my handwritten list, translating my abysmal handwriting or even finding the time to sit down and enter data in e-Bird. When I hit Submit on my phone, it’s done.

Over the space of the months, I’m actually recording more birds than I did before.  Before I started using BirdLog, I tended to ignore the common birds around Roundtop, perhaps adding them to a list only when I also found something less common. I also tended not to enter birds I saw every day at Roundtop, mostly because I didn’t consider my daily sightings as birding in the strictest sense.  The way I’m entering sightings now gives a much better picture of the resident birds and their seasonal fluctuations.  If I don’t see anything unusual, so be it, at least I got out and got in half an hour of birding, even if I didn’t go on an official birding trip to someplace.

Then, if I do have time to drive to the river or the nearby state park, that’s great!  If not, at least I got to see something, even if I didn’t have time to go on an “official” birding run somewhere.

Monday, November 04, 2013

A forest walk

I’ve noted several times that the autumn colors this fall aren’t very exciting.  This weekend saw many more leaves fall, though the ones that are left put on a bit of a show, a last gasp if you will.  The sky was a mix of clouds and sun, which didn’t help bring out the colors, but I’m grateful that it wasn’t raining, so I did get to enjoy what colors there were.

I walked down through the woods along Beaver Creek, passing the spot were I worked with the kids at adventure camp. Then instead of following the woods road, I detoured into the woods and walked where no path or road exists. I enjoy wandering this way, though it’s only just now possible again.  In summer, the undergrowth makes such wanderings difficult.  When I can’t see my feet, tripping is inevitable and sometimes dangerous.  Now that the area has had a good freeze or two, the undergrowth has disappeared, and wandering holds fewer dangers.  Leaves covering holes or depressions can still be an issue, but I can find those most of the time.

This time I wandered along the banks of the creek for half a mile or more, finding a deep hole that I’d never noticed before—deep enough for native brook trout or at least a fish larger than a minnow.  I didn’t see any, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

Up at my cabin, the forest is again pretty open, not the way it will be in another week or two, but open enough that I no longer am living inside a green bubble, open enough that I can see the sky and open enough that if I stand in the exact right spot, I can see the porch light of my “neighbor” at the base of the mountain to the west of me, a good mile away.

I’ll be posting more photos from this walk throughout the week. Now that we’ve changed the clocks, photos are limited to those taken on the weekends only.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Walking in the woods with leaves

Taking pretty fall photos this year is more challenging than I’m used to.  I have to take photos shortly after sunrise or just before sunset to tease out much color.  For most of the day, the leaves simply look dingy, which is not typical at all.  Most years, sunset or sunrise light is too strong, and a gray day shows off the colors better.  Not this year.

Yesterday’s late afternoon light made even dingy trees look a lot prettier and more orange than I expected.  And what better color than orange to post on Halloween?

This year’s leaves will soon all be on the ground. Today a bit of a breeze is helping to bring them down. I notice that even a slight shift in the wind direction brings a new flurry of leaf drop.  Today, the direction is SSE, a direction I haven’t had for a couple of weeks, and that seems to be all that is needed to speed up the leaf fall.  Today, the wind speed is no stronger than it’s been for a week or more, but the wind direction is different than the more normal NW or westerly direction. That change means the wind strikes the leaves from a different angle, and for some leaves that’s all it takes to bring them down.

Walking through a forest when the leaves are falling is fun.  I can feel and hear the leaves dropping all around me and on me.  I have to resist the automatic urge to bat them away, like I would with an insect.  Instead, I walk into the falling leaves, feel them light on my jacket, tickle my face and then crunch underfoot.  A thousand leaves are falling all at once, and you need a whole forest to get the full effect.  Now’s the time to try it.    

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gloomy morning

Not taken this morning 
I’m not used to mornings being as dark as it was this morning, though in a few days time I’m going to have to get used to it.  This morning darkness wasn’t caused by the impending time change or by me getting up earlier than usual.  The sky was overcast and the clouds low, almost misty. The effect made the morning as dark as night. Even at 7 a.m. I needed a headlamp when I went to feed the chickens.

Likely the extra dark morning is why I didn’t hear a peep or see any forest dwellers other than Doodle, my rooster, this morning.  Baby Dog and I took our usual walk, and even the headlamp didn’t help much.  I kept remembering Robert Jordan’s description of “the Ways” in his Wheel of Time series, an underground passage where light didn’t penetrate and travelers who got too far behind the leader never found their way out.  That’s what this morning felt like.  The darkness seemed to gobble up the light from my lamp and didn’t illuminate but a few feet in any direction.  Even Baby Dog seemed subdued and hung by my heels more than she usually does. This kind of darkness is a far cry from a clear night’s darkness that is hung with familiar stars overhead to keep me company and guide my way.

October is soon coming to an end, and with it the last of the leaves will fall.  When I’m not encircled by clouds, I can see, barely, portions of the slope of Nell’s Hill to the west of my cabin.  I can see it clearly all summer whenever I walk out of the woods and onto the abandoned ski slope, but 50 yards or so of forest separates it from my view during the leafy seasons. Even after the leaves fall, the view is striped by tree trunks but that seems a minor veiling.  Certainly, it’s nothing compared with the gloomy gray blanket that covered the mountain this morning.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Time's a wasting

The only way I can make the dull fall colors of 2013 look bright is to take a photo when the sun is low during the first shining of the day. In most years, early morning light on the mountain to my west would look almost too bright, nearly hurting my eyes. Not this year.  Maybe winter will be more interesting.

And that reminds me—I’m going to have to buy new snowshoes.  The plastic on my 15-year old snowshoes finally broke and doesn’t appear to be repairable.  I haven’t had enough snow the past several years to even use my snowshoes except once or twice.  But I know how things go.  The very year I don’t have snowshoes I will get one of those rare, four foot snows and will desperately need them.  Rather than deal with that, it’s simply easier to buy a new pair. Buying a new pair is just as likely to keep a big snow away, too, which is also how things go. I’ve heard this called the snowblower effect, too. If you buy a snowblower, it’s almost certain there won’t be any snow the first year you have it.  But if you don’t have a snowblower—expect a blizzard.

As you can tell, now that the leaves are falling, I’m already looking ahead to the winter. My bird feeders are in place and are used by the local chickadees, titmice and nuthatches.  I’m already starting to plan how to winterize the chicken pen, and I’m picking up and putting away various things around the cabin that have been outside since April—chairs, a bench, that kind of thing.  I’ve already seen snowflakes once this year—briefly for about five minutes or less.  The next batch of those are likely to be more sustained and then are likely to be followed by actual flurries, perhaps then a dusting and before I know it, there will be snow on the ground.

I’ve been fooled before by autumns that seem to last forever.  I can get lulled into thinking that this season will last for at least another week or two, only to suddenly come face-to-face with winter’s first wrath. This is not the time to procrastinate!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dull fall colors

Franklin Township, York County PA
No getting around it; this fall just isn’t producing much in the way of pretty fall colors. Some individual trees are showing half-decent color, but the overall appearance of the mountains is pretty drab. A fair number of  trees have lost their leaves entirely, so the chances that the remaining leaves will suddenly brighten up seems highly unlikely.

The deer that were living next to my cabin and growing tamer by the minute seem to have moved on.  I don’t know why, though two possibilities jump to mind.  One is that they may have exhausted the supply of acorns and hickory nuts in that patch of woods.  The other is that now that leaves are falling and the forest understory is opening up, perhaps they are skittish of being seen in the more open forest.  Perhaps all this time they thought they were hidden when they were perfectly in view, and now they know they aren’t hidden.  Whatever the answer, they were not around this weekend.

Despite the wind and chill temperatures over the past week, this October will be warmer than average.  Those 10 days of very warm weather at the beginning of the month were the cause of that.  With the more seasonal weather of the past week, October 2013 will still be warmer than average, but it will fall into the once-every-five-years or so level of warmer instead of the warmest ever.

At the cabin, the heat is now on, though I still keep the indoors fairly cool.  58-60 is a good comfort range for me.  I wear a sweater and sometimes a beret or a knit cap.  As long as my nose and fingers aren’t cold, I’m comfortable.

Friday, October 25, 2013


This weekend I will be forced to turn the heat on in my cabin. This morning it was 54 degrees in the cabin, and frost covered the plants outside.  Even though my artificial start date of November 1 to turn on the heat is still some days away, I am going to break down and do it today. 54 is just a little too frosty as an indoor temperature for me.

I was toasty enough under my covers, protected by a thick crazy quilt covered with several cats. They cuddle with a vengeance, to the point where I feel as though I’m caught in a strait jacket and can’t move a toe.  Perhaps I’ll have more room when it’s warmer inside.

I do find I am comfortable if the inside temperature is 60 or 62.  The trick, if there is one, is to slowly adjust to the cooler temperature.  If you are used to the higher temperatures that utilities tout as “comfortable,” walking into a room of 60 degrees won’t feel comfortable.  However, if you resist turning on the heat when the temperature inside drops below 70 degrees, you’ll soon find that the human body is quite capable of feeling comfortable at a lower temperature.

One time when I felt hot enough to expire was when I’d been winter backpacking for a week or so and on my way home visited a diner for a good meal.  Even though the other customers kept their coats on, I was sitting by the door peeled down as far as decency would allow.  And I was still sweating like the proverbial pig.  I’d quickly gotten used to living in below freezing temperatures, and a return to a normal temperature seemed terrible.  That said, 54 inside is still too chilly for me. The heat goes on tonight!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Full moon setting

The race is on! Will the leaves show some pretty colors for a day or so or will the breeze knock them down before there’s much more to see? Leaves are falling without much help from a breeze, so it won’t take much of one to bring them down by the thousands.

Every evening when I return to the cabin, more leaves have fallen and the views overhead and into the forest are a bit more open.  Tonight, I may well get a freeze as my first frost of the season.  Typically, I have several frosts before a hard freeze, which is often called a killing frost.  This year I will apparently head directly into freezing territory.

I have been resisting turning on the heat in the cabin, with the result that it was 59 when I woke up this morning.  I broke down and lit a fire in the fireplace.  That’s not the same as turning on the heat, is it?  I’m still going to hold off on that one for a while.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Too close an encounter

Full moon rising
Last evening I came close to hitting the young four-point buck that has taken to living around my cabin.  I was returning home after a late meeting and turned off the lane and onto my driveway.  At that point, the lane continues up the mountain, and my driveway dips down for a few feet before leveling off.  While I’m in the dip I can’t see too far on either side of the car, so naturally that’s where the buck was. He jumped up and ran across the driveway right in front of me.  Fortunately for him and me, I missed him.

I’ve enjoyed watching the deer up close when I’m outside the cabin.  They ignore me and I pretend I’m ignoring them while I’m really watching them.  I just hope they soon learn not to ignore the car.
My western view is starting to return. I can now see the top of the mountain to my west, though as of this morning, not the rest of it.  It’s a start.  This fall is definitely not turning into one of the pretty ones, as far as the leaf colors go.  It may, in fact, be the least colorful fall I’ve ever seen.  It’s certainly the least colorful I can remember.  I just hope this is the bottom of that barrel and for the next 50 years or so the colors are a lot better than they were this year.

Monday, October 21, 2013

October colors

Taken at Pinchot Lake October 20, 2013
This autumn is one where the only way I can get the fall colors to show up in a photograph is to take a photo at sunrise when the low angle of the sun could make green leaves look golden.  It certainly makes drab color look pretty spectacular, doesn’t it? Trust me, it’s not this pretty in real life.

I am hoping that a bit of predicted frost later this week will improve things, assuming the leaves don’t fall before then. At my cabin, even on days without a breeze, the leaves are still falling. One by one they drop to the ground without any help from even the faintest breeze.  A little breeze sets them to falling by the hundreds. Leaves litter my decks by the thousands, and will even after all the leaves are down, until snow or a wet rain pins them to the ground. Until then, they swirl all around the forest but always manage to end up on my decks.

For all that many leaves have fallen, I haven’t yet regained my western vista. I can see the sky above the mountain to the west, but not the mountain itself. I check at least once each day for the first glimpse of the mountain—so far no joy.  It won’t be long, though. I can hardly wait!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

No improvement in fall color and nearly invisible deer

A foggy morning isn’t improving the lackluster autumn colors this morning. To my eye, the leaf canopy is already starting to look a bit thin, so I’m even less optimistic that this fall might produce even a day or so of pretty colors than I was before.  That’s what a dry August and September will do, even when the temperature isn’t overly hot.

At the moment acorns and hickory nuts are dropping everywhere and anywhere.  The big nuts hit the ground with a thud and hit my car with a sound that makes me wonder if they will dent the top of the car.  When the nuts hit the roof, they roll down with a clatter, which usually sets Baby Dog to barking in warning—she has no idea what the warning is for, but she is sure she doesn’t like the noise.
Can you see the deer?

The deer seem to grow bolder by the day, and considering how bold they were three to four days ago, that’s saying something.  This morning I turned after feeding the chickens and found the big doe standing in the middle of the driveway, just in front of where I park the car.  She couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away, watching what I was up to. She disappeared before I could snap a photo.

This morning three of them stood at the end of the driveway, nearly invisible among the leaves and tree trunks even though they were close.  When the deer stand still, they are easy to overlook.  They bolted across the driveway in front of me as I pulled the car out of the driveway.  At this rate, they will be eating out of my hand before next week is through.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fall colors on a dreary day

Gifford Pinchot State Park

On a dreary fall day, the autumn color looks even more drab and less advanced than it does in sunshine. I took this photo on Sunday, mostly so I could better notice the change from then to the upcoming week. To me, photos help me notice changes that I can’t remember from day to day. Were the leaves on this twig yellow yesterday?  Are they more yellow today?  A photo lets me compare the two in a way that my memory can’t.

I certainly hope the color improves before the leaves fall. Autumn can be such a gorgeous time of year.  I don’t like to think it may be another year or three before I get to see nice color again.  365 days is a long time to wait for something and to hope that it or me will still be around to see it.

Nature provides a lot of “big events” throughout the year, some of which simply aren’t repeated until the next year.   Autumn leaf change is one of those.  In addition to hoping for good color, I also hope for that color to stay on the trees for a while. Sometimes one day of great color is all I get. Other times the color hangs around for a week or 10 days, which at least reduces the wait time until the next year by a tiny bit.

Unfortunately, here on my mountain, snow has been one of those rare events the last few years.  I am no longer guessing or taking bets on what will transpire with that anymore. The 11 inches of rain I had last weekend is also a rare event, but one that I hope doesn’t become any more common it is now. Other natural events are often less showy. The 36 hours that the bloodroot blooms is one of those. If you don’t look and don’t know where to look, you’ll miss that pretty spring flower.

I probably miss a lot of other natural events, those both big and small.  Each year I try to add to my stock of events to pay attention to.  I chew them over, compare this year’s event with those past and wonder about their differences. Each small change affects the wheel of the season’s turning in some way.  Things change all the time, but the wheel of the seasons still turns.        

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

October sunrise over Roundtop

October sunrise at Roundtop Mtn.

I suspect this fall will not produce great leaf color here on Roundtop this year. So far it certainly isn’t much, though the leaves still have a ways to go before they reach their peak here.  The color will certainly improve, but how much?

The rain last weekend brought down most of the leaves off the trees stressed by six weeks of no precipitation. That amounts to something less than half of the total leaves (unofficial guess). The remaining leaves vary from green to dull yellow with a few red areas thrown in.  Green still predominates.

The recipe for good fall color is a warm summer and a moist fall.  Roundtop really fails the moist part this year, but how much will the heavy rains of last weekend improve the situation? Is it a case of too much too late?  Or, was this rain just what the remaining leaves needed to bring about some nice fall color?

I don’t have a crystal ball, so at this point I can’t say.  I do know that I will enjoy seeing what transpires as the next week or so progresses.  If the color turns out to be a dud, I will know that a rain after weeks of no rain in early fall isn’t enough to produce good color.  If the color turns out to be pretty nice, I’ll know that rain was just what was needed.

Whatever the answer, the result will be one more piece of nature information I will have to make guesses about future years.  Nature has more lessons to teach than can be learned in a lifetime, though each new piece of knowledge deepens my understanding and my connection to the world around me.  That’s the best, I think, that any of us can hope for—that we just keep learning nature’s unending lessons.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Got him!

Finally, the rain has stopped!  In the space of just 36 hours, I picked up somewhere between 10.55 and 11.74 inches (yes, you read that right) of rain.  That much rain is usually reserved for the remnants of hurricanes, not your average autumn low pressure system. Because the area had been so dry, my basement didn’t get wet until the rain total was somewhere near 10”, and then I only got about half an inch of water down there, which was easily pumped out.

The roads were bad on Friday, and the creeks were high enough to make me wonder if the bridges were safe to cross, but overall it could have been worse.  Still, I’m glad it wasn’t.

Grumpy, the giant snapping turtle I photo’d on Friday reappeared in the same spot on Saturday morning.  I don’t know if it commutes from one side of the road to the other, or if it still hadn’t found a way across the road in the first place.  If this keeps up, that turtle will soon get run over.  The spot where I find it is right along the edge of the road on a curve, and for cars coming in the opposite direction, they may well not see it in time to avoid it.  It does help that the road is one where it’s not uncommon for 20-30 minutes to pass between cars.

The deer that are feasting on various nuts around my cabin grow ever bolder. This young buck watched me for a good minute before moving out of my driveway.  The photo isn't great because at 6:45 a.m., it's still pretty dark--too dark for a clear photo.  I try not to look at the deer when I see them, as being stared at makes them nervous. It also helps if I don’t pay much attention to them. In this case I was feeding the chickens, except for the moments when I was snapping the shutter.  The deer always seem curious about what I am doing, but they don’t show much fear.

Now that the latest rainstorm is over and the clean-up I needed to do around the cabin because of it, my big ongoing work over the next few weeks will be brooming the leaves off my front and back decks.  The rain brought down so many leaves they were ankle-deep.  As many leaves are still on the trees, that scenario will repeat several times until all the leaves are off.  It’s work I don’t mind, as it keeps me outside and gives me a chance to surreptitiously watch the deer as they are watching me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Surprises, even on a rainy day

 For a while, I thought my photos today would all look like a Monet painting.  I know I said I liked a dreary October, but 6 inches of rain goes well beyond dreary.  What I have now is flooding around the area, with roads closed, and the rain still falling, if a bit diminished over the torrents that dropped overnight.  Baby Dog did not get much of a walk this morning.

Even a dreary day can have lots of surprises, though.  I hadn’t gone far this morning when I came across these deer.  Apparently for them, breakfast is more important than being completely soaked.  And that newly awakened and moistened grass probably tasted a lot better it did the day before. They didn’t much care for me to stop and look at them.

Then, when I reached the bottom of the mountain I found a huge snapping turtle. I’d bet the shell was at least 15 inches long, and if someone wanted to disagree with me and say it was 18 inches, I wouldn’t call them a liar.  I wasn’t about to get close enough to measure it.  That head was as big as a softball, and those claws must have been going on 2 inches long.  The edge of the road is 3 ft. wide, because I remember that’s how much the township widened it last year. Normally, I try to shoo turtles off the road, and I’ve done that with smaller snapping turtles, but I wasn’t going to fool with this fellow.

Who would have thought a morning like this one would provide something other than rain on a windshield?