Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Don’t take my word for the gloom. Here is the proof. Sometimes fog is attractive and makes for interesting photographs but not always. And the mountain right now is in that “not always” mode as far as I’m concerned. It’s too foggy and too gloomy. Last night and this morning rain also pummeled the forest to the point where I couldn’t have the camera out for even a few seconds.

Winter appears to be essentially over, though I can’t say that it feels much like spring yet either. As winters go, this one wasn’t worth writing home about. True, winter did put in a brief appearance here, unlike last year when it was entirely missing in action . Winter started late, not getting underway in much of a real sense until mid-January. The first two weeks of February brought actual winter temperatures, if precious little snow. But now? The temperatures are March-like and the rain presages April showers. So is this what winters will be like now? Perhaps four weeks of actual winter instead of three months of cold weather?

It’s a sad state of affairs, that’s all I can say.

I can only hope that four weeks of cold weather was enough to damp down the mosquitos and ticks that will arrive with summer temperatures. I know the stink bugs are still around. I find them in odd places around the cabin—behind a painting on the wall, between the pages of a book, in a desk drawer.

In the meantime, I dodge puddles and clean mud off the dogs’ feet. I should probably store the snowshoes again someplace where I don’t need to see them for the next 320 days (at this rate of winter). My sweaters already seem too warm. It’s a depressing time, to be sure. I’m as gloomy as the forest looks today.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Mist rising on the Yellow Breeches Creek, Monaghan Township, York County, Pennsylvania
Although the nights are still frosty, spring can’t be far away. In addition to the dead skunk I saw at the end of last week, I can now add groundhog to my 2013 list. They are up and out of their burrows, whether Phil saw his shadow or not on Groundhog Day.

The countryside is not, to my eye, very attractive at the moment. November is just as brown but has an advantage of not yet having been beaten down by winter snow and rain. Everywhere I look the landscape seems twisted and dull, dull, dull. It’s still too early for even the moss to turn green. Skunk cabbage isn’t up yet here, either, though I’m sure that’s getting close.

Sunday was warm and sunny here, and that brought out the first of the migrating vultures, both turkey and black vultures. I saw several groups of turkey vultures and one nice-sized group of black vultures enjoying the thermals the sunshine created. Likely the weather was nice enough to move a few raptors, as well, though I didn’t see any. The first of the spring hawkwatches are already opening, but even they aren’t seeing much other than vultures at the moment.

The landscape feels very “in-between” right now. Winter seems to be fading, but spring isn’t yet here. Snow geese are gathering at Middle Creek Wildlife Area in Kleinfeltersville, Lancaster County, but they don’t stay very long. I likely won’t get there to see them this year, but if you’re nearby don’t miss it. If you’ve never seen tens of thousands of snow geese at once, there is the place. Their arrival is one of the wonders of the natural world, and sound of that many waterfowl is amazing. Best viewing is in the late afternoon until darkness falls. The geese spend the days feasting in the surrounding fields and return to the lake as evening falls. At the moment, their numbers are estimated at 40,000. Some 3000+ tundra swans are also at the site, as well as several thousand Canada geese.

Friday, February 22, 2013

No photo today, but...

Instead of a photo, I'm attaching a link to an article about the Great Backyard Bird Count that featured a video interview with me.  Marcus Scneck, the outdoor writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, came out to the cabin last Saturday as part of a couple of pieces he did about the backyard count. Pennsylvania ended up with the second highest number of birds recorded for the count.  My total on a cold and windy day sure didn't help that total very much.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Deer trail in winter

Usually deer trails are not as well-worn or as visible as the one in today’s photo. Frequently the trails peter out within a few feet or disappear into a tangle that deer but not people can navigate. This one is the exception.

With snow gone, at least for the next 24 hours, the path deer take through the woods on their way to an open field stands out. In summer, undergrowth will make this trail as difficult to follow as most of them, and the only reason the path is so visible now is that a day or so of above-freezing temperatures allowed deer hooves to leave a muddy trace of their presence.

The woods are nearly uniformly brown right now. Even the moss on the stones of the old fence has taken on a faded look. Mosses are one of the earliest to brighten up in the spring, though, so when that happens I’ll know spring is truly upon me.

For now, winter’s grip is pretty tight, with snow and freezing rain expected tomorrow and over the weekend. In fact, February is shaping up as colder than normal by a few degrees. That’s the first month that’s been below normal for some time. Still, “normal” is only taken from the average of February temperatures for the past 30 years. When I look at February averages going back to World War II (and some even earlier dates), this year’s February is pretty average and not actually below normal. At least it’s not another month of warmer weather. I suppose I should be glad of that, however small a thing it is.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not much walking

Snow flurries over Roundtop Mountain
Although spring is knocking at the door, winter is putting up a fight this year. I awoke to frigid winds and near-blinding snow squalls this morning, a drastic change from the day before. I avoid much walking on days when the wind makes my face go numb, and this morning fell into that category. Even the chickens were slow to descend off the roost this morning. They wanted no parts of that either.

I also had the excuse of ice created by yesterday afternoon’s light snow and rain. The ground was slippery and hard but not to the point where I could comfortably wear my Yak-Trax either. So I didn’t take much of a walk this morning and for once the dogs didn’t seem to mind. They were just as eager to return to the warmth of the cabin as I was.

Some days the outdoors just looks better from the indoors, and this was one of those days.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Unfortunate signs of spring

Even though it’s snowing as I type, I’m afraid that it looks as though spring is approaching. This morning I saw several signs of the season’s change.
1. Several hundred common grackles invaded the tallest trees just above my cabin this morning and made an enormous amount of noise. To my ear they sounded like a very rusty piece of large machinery squeaking on the mountain. In fact, for a second I thought one of the snow grooming machines was the cause of the noise. To be fair, the birds did not seem to be traveling from south to north, but rather from west to east. Since the storm that is now bringing snow to the mountain was approaching from that direction at the time I saw them, it’s possible the birds were coming from some large field and simply moving ahead of the storm. At least that’s what I told myself before I saw...

2. A group of 7-8 black vultures circling over the orchard as I headed out to work. Black vultures are the southern cousins of the turkey vulture and are a recent invader from those climes, heading north on the wings of climate change over the last 20 years or so. While it is common to see the first turkey vulture of a new year on any winter day with a very slight warming trend, black vultures are likely to wait for an actual thaw before making their first appearance in my area. Vultures can travel good distances in a day, and frequently move south to north and back again several times as weather dictates. So seeing them today doesn’t mean they are here to stay, though I see them but rarely in January. Their arrival in February usually means spring isn’t far behind. But, these were circling just ahead of the impending storm, so I could possibly write off the sighting as storm-related, except that I saw a...

3. Dead skunk in the middle of the road. Folks, this one is the dealbreaker. The birds might be written off as traveling ahead of the storm, but the skunks are out and about, and there’s no denying what that means. Spring isn’t far away. Unfortunately.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Snow-covered but barely

E. Mt Airy Rd., Monaghan Township, York County PA
Last night saw the cabin covered in a pretty little snow. For once, I had more than dusting, if still not enough to ski or snowshoe. Snow stuck to every surface, too powdery for snowmen. The first breath of breeze will downgrade the prettiness, revealing what was this morning a vast expanse of white.
Sunrise over a snowy pond
 Dog tries to eat the snow. Baby Dog runs like a crazy dog, burying her nose as she goes like a canine snow plow. The chickens are not amused and step daintily from their coop, raising their feet high with each step. Deer have been to the juniper bush again. Their tracks tell me they arrived after the snow stopped and after a trip to the pond for a drink of water.

Snowy cabin at night
A pretty little snow qualifies as a short step up from a dusting, but not by much in my book. I ended with a tad over 2 inches of snow. The snow is a bit like a china doll—pretty to look at but not much for playing with .

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sunset walk with geese

With the days growing longer, my evening walks with Dog or Baby Dog are no longer restricted to well-worn paths or roads. It’s not yet light enough for me to wander through the woods in the evening—even with a headlamp the footing is too chancy and difficult to see. But in an open field, the last light of the day lingers long enough that a walk across doesn’t feel like tightrope walking.

So Baby Dog and I took advantage of good weather and the last remaining rays of daylight to visit one of Roundtop’s pond. We saw 58 Canada geese. Or, I should say, I saw 58 geese. Baby Dog was much more interested in nosing through the grassy stubble than in watching geese. Even when they took flight and skittered from the open water to the ice, honking all the way, Baby Dog was unimpressed.

I was happy to see them. Except for the old pair who has already taken up residence along “their” pond, I haven’t seen the local group for a while. And the local group has added several to their flock since they were here last. Sunset already held a few of the clouds that will bring snow to the mountain later today. I was glad simply to be outside, even if in failing light. At least it was light if only for a few minutes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

159 (years) and counting

I sat at the kitchen table this morning, as I do most mornings, reading the words of Henry David Thoreau. I am enamored of his journals even more so than I am his works like Walden. I like to follow along with Henry’s entries, reading a day at a time, measuring his words against what I see outside my own door. This morning: “ hear the lisping tinkle of chickadees from time to time and the unrelenting cold-steel scream of a jay, unmelted, that never flows into a song, a sort of wintry trumpet, screaming cold...” He wrote this on February 12, 1854.

I can’t say that I ever thought of chickadees as lisping before, but I love the idea. The blue jays are perfectly captured, even as three zoom in to my own feeders, descending like fighter jets onto an aircraft carrier, scattering the chickadees (and everything else) as they screech to a halt on the feeder’s platform.

This morning the fog of yesterday is lifting. The sky is still overcast but threatening to clear. That won’t last even if the sun succeeds. Tomorrow, a bit of snow is predicted, possibly even a tad more than another dusting. Not enough snow for snowshoeing, but possibly enough for cross-country skiing, if I don’t mind scratching the bottoms of my skis a bit.

I will be glad of the snow. I noticed this morning how dark the woods were on my early morning walk with Dog and Baby Dog. For the first time in weeks I needed a headlamp again. Since early January snow has illuminated my path in the pre-dawn hour, and this morning I had only darkness.

Monday, February 11, 2013


Roundtop Mtn. didn’t see much of the blizzard nor’easter that pounded New England. The storm did not bring the ice that was predicted, and the snowfall amounted to little more than another dusting of snow. Strong winds followed in the storm’s wake but produced no damage.

Yesterday, before the snow was obliterated by some freezing rain that fell overnight, Baby Dog and I made a big circle around the cabin environs. I was tempted to walk down the mountain to venture along the creek but decided against it. The way down looked pretty slippery, and I was not wearing my Yak-Trax at the time. So Baby Dog sniffed at every leaf and I stared at tracks of deer and raccoon, relieved not to see any fox tracks. I haven’t heard any foxes barking for a while either. Foxes come and foxes go, such is the way of them around the cabin. For the moment, the chickens are enjoying their freedom.

I’m glad Baby Dog got a good walk yesterday, as freezing rain this morning kept our excursions to a minimum. Even with Yak-Trax I wasn’t inclined to venture far. The accompanying fog and general gloom didn’t encourage me to walk further either. Add in the lethargy naturally produced on Monday mornings by rising earlier than I do on the weekends, and shortening the morning walk wasn’t a difficult call at all.

I should add that my lethargy might also be due to a lack of sleep produced by Baby Dog’s frantic barking, multiple times throughout the night. Twice she was outraged by a foraging raccoon, once by 3 deer calmly walking right next to the cabin and once by something I never saw, though it might have been a helicopter noisily flying by at roughly the same time. It doesn’t take much for Baby Dog to sound an alarm. Some nights are worse than others, and this was one of “those.”

Friday, February 08, 2013

Snow over forest

The big nor’easter that will pound New England later today is apparently not going to make an appearance over my cabin.  Still, the local animals seem to think something is up and are acting accordingly.

Last evening nearly 20 deer were feeding in the grassy field across from Roundtop’s north parking lot. This morning, Baby Dog and I scattered deer throughout our walk.  One raced from the open water of the snowmaking pond up the slope of Drummer Boy, staying just ahead of the approaching snow groomer, which is a large tracked vehicle not unlike a bulldozer on tank treads.  Two more ran ahead of us a bit later in the walk, clattering first up the paved road, then through the stone parking lot, pausing only to stare or glare at us once they reached the edge of the forest.

We see deer on our morning walks fairly regularly, but to see so many and to have them so near is not typical.  The deer gave every sign they were filling up their bellies while they could.  Anyone who feeds birds and sees them in a “feeding frenzy” before and during a storm will understand.  Deer do the same thing.
What I find interesting about the animals’ activity is that they are acting this way even though this storm will largely miss my area.  The forecasters are saying this area is in a “dry slot” between the two storm systems.  Apparently tonight I might see an inch or so on the back side of the big storm, but nothing more. So, what’s going on here?  Are the forecasts wrong about the storm missing the area?  Are the deer (and presumably the birds, too) wrong to jump into feeding frenzy mode?

It’s a bit too soon to know, at this hour, if either the forecast or the heavily feeding forest fauna is off the mark.  I suspect the animals can sense the storm as it is brushing the southern edge of my county at the moment.  They don’t have built in radar, so they probably can’t tell that the storm will likely sweep by without causing much difficulty here.  They can feel its approach, sense its nearness and are acting accordingly.  Or perhaps they know something the forecasters can’t predict.  Perhaps I should be more worried than I am.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The earliest birds

The Carolina wren first sang at 6:14 a.m. this morning. I checked to be sure of the time. At that hour no hint of dawn yet colors the eastern horizon. With the snow cover, even just the dusting, the forest is not dark at night. The white snow brightens the woods all night long, making a headlamp largely unnecessary at any hour. In other words, 6:14 a.m. is no lighter or darker than 2 a.m., and in fact, if the wren sings at 6:14, it might just as well sing at 2 a.m.
Still, despite the lack of visual cues, 6:14 a.m. was the first time this wren decided it was morning and proceeded to sing. I used to think northern cardinals were the earliest morning singers in winter, but the Carolina wren has altered that view. It makes me wonder, though, just how a wren knows it is morning when actual daylight is still a good hour off, and the hour it chooses to begin to sing looks the same as 2 a.m.

Doodle, my rooster, for example, doesn’t crow until there’s the barest hint of morning color in the sky. Unless, that is, I turn on my bedroom light in the middle of the night. Then he seems to think morning has come, and I’m likely to hear him crow a few times before I turn my light off again.

Birds are supposed to be sensitive to the so-called false dawn that is not visible to human eyes. False dawn begins about an hour before the actual sunrise. All I can say is that if the Carolina wren is sensing a false dawn, it is remarkably sensitive. This morning the sky was overcast and even foggy, so even the faint false dawn was shrouded by that. Still, the wren sang heartily, as it does every morning. Perhaps it is just hungry, its stomach telling it that food is needed. Mine does the same thing, sometimes.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Another day, another dusting

Another day, another dusting of snow. How many dustings does it take to make an inch? I don’t know, though I do know it’s more dustings than I’ve had so far. I’ve had a dusting of snow every day for the past five days now, and I doubt there’s more than half an inch of snow on the ground.

I do rather like these little snows. Every morning the snow is fresh again, a thin carpet of white covering the forest. Oh, these little snows can’t compare to an actual snow, the kind of snow where I could go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, but they are far more preferable to no snow at all.

By evening the dogs and I have tracked up the driveway and the lane. Then each morning I see who and what has been padding around the cabin while we are sleeping. The deer return to the juniper bush for a few bites, and their chomping is starting to result in a visibly chomped bush. I see little cat feet and raccoon tracks. I see lots of small bird tracks, though I can’t really tell a chickadee track from a junco track. To me they are all just little bird tracks.

In the early afternoon, before the snow is too much tracked up, I can see what the chickens have been up to and where. Doodle, my rooster, follows One-Eye, my old chicken, wherever she goes. She doesn’t much like snow and can usually be found under the cabin where the snow doesn’t lurk. Sometimes Doodle, who has huge feet by the way, travels over to the new chickens’ pen and parades around it, no doubt hoping to find a way in.

Even these little snows help to make the season feel like winter. The temperatures at the moment are actually below normal, though not aggressively or uncomfortably so. The days don’t break freezing, though the afternoons near that mark, and the nights settle down into the teens. The wind has finally eased up, and being outside is enjoyable again.

After last year’s non-winter, a season that approaches normal is welcome, at least by me.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Snowy weekend

Snow fell all weekend here on Roundtop Mountain, though except for a few hours on Saturday evening, the snow was simply flurries. After an entire weekend of snow less than an inch has fallen. Every time I went outside or looked out the snow was different—sometimes it was big flakes, sometimes small, sometimes it was quite a flurry, sometimes only a flake or two was falling. Saturday evening the flurries increased to a snow squall. Even though there isn’t much of it, this snow was difficult to drive in, and many accidents resulted. This snow extremely powdery and so quite slippery since there’s little traction for tires or feet. I fell twice on hidden ice, fortunately to no injury.
I love the snow and so spent most of the weekend at and around the cabin. I knew there would be less snow down in the valley and around the towns, so I decided not to go there after Friday evening. I stayed by the cabin, never venturing anyplace where I might see bare ground.
And so I was surrounded by snow all weekend, even though I don’t have enough on the ground for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.  There's just enough snow to track the chickens from the front of the cabin to rear, to notice that the deer were back chomping on the juniper bush again, and for the entire landscape to be white. The western mountain was snow covered. The forest behind my cabin was snow covered. The driveway to the cabin stayed snow-covered. It was lovely.

Tonight, perhaps even more snow will fall, though still just an inch or so. Winter is finally here and acting like a normal winter this week. It couldn’t be any lovelier. Well, maybe if I could go snowshoeing.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Goings on

No name creek, still running full after the rain, near my cabin
Now that the wind has stopped roaring, I’m trailing around the cabin picking up debris and returning items blown off the deck to their proper places. The extra chicken waterer got blown over to the juniper bush. The cats’ water dish ended up under the steps. This is turning into something of a scavenger hunt.

Though roaring no longer, the wind is still blowing and sometimes gusting. Suddenly 25 degrees seems very cold. A snow squall this morning gave me a brief moment of hope that my windblown items would be covered by snow, negating the need to find them all this morning. However, the squall soon cleared, and instead of retreating to the warmth of the cabin, I continued my hunt.

I discovered the deer are still eating my juniper bush, even though the snow cover disappeared with yesterday’s rain. Someone told me once that deer only eat juniper bushes when nothing else is available, when snow cover is very deep. Someone should tell that to the local deer, as their muddy hoof prints, newly frozen, and the skinned bush belie that tale.

Wintry weather does not dampen the spirits of two the forest’s inhabitants. The northern cardinal has started singing in earnest again, and the Carolina wren never stopped. The wren is the earliest rising of the winter residents. I’ve heard one singing when the morning is still just half a step away from being fully dark.

The raccoon has reappeared, usually at 3 a.m. when I am awakened by Baby Dog’s howls of outrage. One good thing about mid-winter is that they disappear for a while. Not true hibernators, they do den up and stay in their dens during the coldest part of winter. I’m sort of hoping that their reappearance is temporary, and that the colder weather chases them back into their dens. I sleep better when they are not around. Or when I remember to bring the birdfeeder inside for the night.