Friday, March 29, 2013


Goose and killdeer (and grass)
If I look quite closely, in just the right light, I can almost see grass starting to turn green. It’s still subtle and not very convincing, but the turn is beginning. Grass is quick to turn green. Even after weeks of dry weather in August, the lawns are green again within hours of a summer rainstorm. In spring, it perhaps takes a bit longer for that first, fresh hint of bright green to push its way through the browns of winter, but the change still happens quickly.

The temperature here has yet to break 50 degrees, though it edges a bit nearer to that mark every day. By tomorrow, when the clouds disappear and the sun is free to cast its warmth and brightness over the mountain, it will happen. The killdeer are already here, and the geese are searching for likely nesting spots. Yesterday, the phoebe returned to call again in the early morning. Spring is slowly pushing its way onto the forest around me, one little change at a time.

So, for me that means it’s time to put away the snowshoes, which I barely used this year. I will also start to put away the winter sweaters, too. I might keep one of them available for a bit yet. The weather might still turn cold for a day or three. It’s also time to clear the decks of winter detritus and get the front and the back ready for a lounge outdoors. Well, perhaps I can wait a bit on that last part.

From my perch on the mountain, enough signs of spring are about now that even a winter that arrived late but then never seemed to end is over. Time for me to come out of hibernation and get organized for the new season ahead.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Much of the snow that fell on Monday is going fast. Last night, under a gorgeous full moon, the forest was mostly snow-covered with large things like boulders and downed trees visible above the white blanket. This morning , the snow still more than half covers the woods, but it’s going fast.

A full moon with a bit of snow cover brightens the landscape to the point where I could almost read by moonlight. The extra light brings out the residents, too. Geese honked and scolded most of the night. A raccoon visited my birdfeeders but didn’t fiddle with the chicken pen. Deer stepped daintily through the snow, heads down, looking for bare ground that might produce something for them to eat. The night seemed nearly as busy as the day.

I took a walk shortly before dark last evening. The wind had calmed, and the day, while not warm, was comfortable enough without the biting wind. In winter, evening walks can only be done in full darkness, and now the same walk with enough light to see my surroundings was a pleasure. After dark, I notice sounds more than sights. Usually I stick to known paths, as even with a headlamp footing isn't easy to gauge. 

I can’t yet walk up on the ski slopes. They are either still snow-covered or ankle-deep in melting, muddy snow. So for now I confine my walks to the dirt roads and trails. It’s enough that I have daylight left to foray around the mountain. I travel less distance in daylight, paying more attention to the sights like some tourist, surprised by nearly everything I find. I wander from edge to edge of the old road, inspecting this or that or nothing much. It's the same route, but it sure seems a lot different. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gray and white

Tufted titmouse
 Snow certainly always brings birds to my feeders. And during snows the birds tend not to grab a seed and then disappear for hours. They arrive and stay for hours, hopping into a tree only long enough to eat their precious seed or wait for an opening before diving into the feeders again.

Yesterday’s snow was no exception, so I will show you two of the regular visitors to my feeders. The first is a tufted titmouse, a tiny little bird that grabs a seed and then lights on a nearby twig to eat it. When gone, it immediately returns to the feeders for a second seed and then repeats the process. I’ve always thought they must use nearly as many calories as they get from their single seed in their flights back and forth.

My second gray bird today is the dark-eyed junco, a winter-only resident from the north, who seems to view this part of the world the way people around here do a winter in Florida. Pennsylvania is south to this little bird.

Dark-eyed junco

Both the junco and the titmice are regular winter visitors to my feeders, and both are as common as chickens during winter. I still like to see them.
Yesterday I got about 6” of snow, a good amount here for this time of year. The snow is already melting. In fact, late yesterday afternoon the snow was melting and falling at the same time with the temperature at 33-34. I also found it odd to hear robins singing during the falling snow, with twittering juncos providing back-up vocals. I don’t get that one every day. Not only was the idea of snow and robins a rarity, so was the simultaneous presence of both the summer and the winter residents. March 2013 is proving to be unusual in several respects. It certainly makes me wonder what’s going to be ahead in April.

Monday, March 25, 2013


View out the back of my cabin
 It's probably been a good 10 years since I've had this much snow this late in the season.  Since I took this photo I've gotten another inch or so, and it's still snowing, if not as heavily as it was earlier.  At this point I have pretty close to 5 inches of snow. 

The feeder birds are fast emptying the feeders, and the chickens are unhappy--typical for a snowstorm. 

Road up to cabin

I caught the second raccoon--a vicious, large one that snarled and tried to attack from inside the live trap.  He was removed to the same spot as the one I caught the day before.  He was the ringleader of the raccoon gang.  I have since discovered I have a third raccoon, which I haven't yet tried to trap.  With the gang broken up, this one so far seems to be doing normal raccoon things, which I don't much mind. 

This one is still rolling the railroad ties from around the bottom of the chicken pen, but seems more interested in finding chicken pellets that find their way outside the pen than in digging or chewing its way inside the pen. So unless that changes, this one is no different than the myriad of other raccoons that inhabit and have shared my forest neighborhood. 

I'm willing to let it alone as long as it doesn't change that tune.

As you might expect from my photos, spring is definitely on hold.  The peepers have stopped peeping.  Spring greenery was next to nonexistant anyway, so no tender spring growth will be shocked or killed by this storm. And though late snows rarely last long, this one might hang around longer than most as the weather forecast doesn't include much of a warmup for the rest of this week.  I guess I'll just have to keep wearing my midwinter sweaters for a while longer yet.

Thursday, March 21, 2013


I got one!  Soon this raccoon will be released on a mountain far, far away from my little cabin. 

Last night I heard the trap snap and rattle around 1:30 a.m., and I got up to investigate. I was surprised to hear the trap go off, as I didn't have any bait in it. The night before I'd put cherry pie filling on the pressure plate, but the raccoons managed to eat the cherries off the plate without setting off the trap.

Last night my trapping plans were put on hold by an escaped Doodle the rooster and the stupid chicken. Unlike the other hens, the stupid chicken won't let me get near her, let alone pick her up, and she has a habit of not being able to figure out how to go in the door of the chicken pen. Doodle isn't tame either, plus he's something of a sneak.  Doodle scooted out in the morning while I was feeding the flock, and the stupid chicken scooted out yesterday afternoon as I was trying to lure Doodle back into the pen with blueberries.

So eventually, I got both chickens back into the pen, but at this point I was nearly late for an evening meeting. The meeting ran very long, and by the time I got home I decided not to take the time to bait the trap for the raccoons.  Apparently, raccoons prefer no bait in the trap.  More likely, I suspect some scent of cherries remained or perhaps a smidgeon on the plate itself and the investigation of where the cherries were led to this bandit's capture.

A second raccoon also haunts my chicken pen, and that one remained in the area even after this one was caught. I know that because the railroad ties I've placed against the bottom edge of the chicken pen were shifted or rolled when I got up this morning, and they were still in place after I discovered bandit #1 in the trap.

So progress has been made, and I'm hoping bandit #2 will soon be joining his friend elsewhere. I'm hoping that capture doesn't take long. I'm more than ready to return to sleeping through the night without being awakened by a raccoon attack.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

No comet, no spring

Last night I went out in search of comet PanSTARSS again, to no avail. I went to the spot in this photograph, though after sunset, of course, to look for it. I think I was too early as the western sky was still pretty light. I wasn’t able to stay past 8 p.m., unfortunately. If I had to guess I’d say that 8:15-8:30 would be the right time to check the next time.

The snow of winter’s last day is already mostly gone, just a few snowballs or patches of it are left. The temperature shows no sign of warming up in honor of the new season yet. I was hoping to be able to put away the warmest of my midwinter sweaters. Instead, I’m still wearing them. I guess my garden plans will have to wait a while longer yet.

The cool weather seems to have halted spring migration, too. I haven’t heard any more phoebes or spring peepers. I did see four loons heading north the other day. I’m pretty sure they were common loons, though at the altitude they were flying, the identification isn’t certain. Red-throated loons are possible but not nearly as common, so calling these common loons is a pretty safe bet. Flying loons are the only kind I get to add to my “yard” list of species seen. I’m not sure even the biggest of the snowmaking ponds is large enough a runway for them to take off.

If spring birds are at a premium right now, the arrival of spring butterflies and moths are equally at a standstill. Usually, I could expect to see eastern blue butterflies or a few nondescript moths hovering around my porch light. Not yet, not this year. Winter started late this year and now it looks as through spring will too.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Last snow of winter

Even if the snow (and sleet and freezing rain and rain) I had yesterday turns out not to be the last snow of the season, it will be the last snow of winter.  Spring arrives tomorrow, so I feel rather confident of that prediction.
This snow is not, strictly speaking, an onion snow. In this area, an onion snow is technically a spring snow that arrives just as the first onion sprouts are pushing through the ground.  Onions are the earliest of the spring plantings.  The onion sets, as they are called, are planted as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring.  If you are planning onion seeds, you would have started them inside already, probably back in January.  Over the years and here where I live, the term onion snow has morphed a bit to mean the last snow of the season, whether or not the onions are planted.

In any event yesterday I had about three inches of snow before the precipitation went through nearly every other permutation of precipitation that is possible. This morning I noticed that the raccoons weren’t out around the chicken pen overnight, which means I got a good night’s sleep for once.  One small deer walked down the middle of my driveway and chewed on the juniper bush for a while. The juncos arrived to check out my birdfeeders. They found them empty, as they have been for nearly two weeks before the raccoons began their nightly attacks. I was impressed that the juncos remembered I used to have bird seed for them.  I took pity and put out another scoop of seed. I hope that gesture doesn’t come back to haunt me.

I enjoyed watching, too, the dismay of the white-breasted nuthatch.  Normally, that one feeds from a tube feeder and I haven’t replaced that one because of the raccoons. The poor nuthatch could see the food in the platform feeder, but kept looking for the tube feeder and didn’t seem able or willing to attempt eating somewhere other than the tube.

The mountain is especially quiet again. Skiing closed Sunday for the season.  The skiing action is never noisy, but I do get used to the distant sound of kids calling to each other or whooping as they head down the hill. The slope lights are off too, now, so when you factor in the overcast and foggy sky, it is quite dark without even the reflected light from the slopes.  I enjoy the change, but it will take another day or so for the current reality to feel normal again. If the clouds ever clear, perhaps I’ll even get to view that comet.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Pileated woodpecker

Winter didn’t have much of a bite this year, but that hasn’t kept it from refusing to give up the stage. This weekend and today I’ve had a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain.  On Saturday I saw robins in the snow, though they didn’t appear unduly deterred by the weather.

The days never got very bright, and the gloomy skies that characterized so much of this past winter continued.  I’ve been trying to see this Pan-STARRS comet for days now, foiled each time by poor weather. Northern areas have had good aurora borealis displays, too, and if any of them reached this far south, I would never know it.

The landscape is dull and brown. Any thought the tender shoots had of pushing through the ground is on hold until the weather improves, which doesn’t look as though it will happen this week.  So is March 2013 a lamb or a lion?  So far it’s neither. Perhaps it’s more of a housecat or a full grown sheep .  Not a lamb and not a lion and more than a little dull.

My photo today is of a distant pileated woodpecker that was working furiously on that stump.  He didn't stay around long enough for me to switch to my long lens. Pity.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Just another day in March

March is a month of wild variations in weather here on Roundtop and around Harrisburg. Even before climate change, historical March temperature averages often varied 10-12 degrees from year to year. In 1945, for example, the average temperature that March was 51 degrees and the year before in 1944, the average was 37 degrees. So no matter what this March brings, it won’t tell much about the area’s climate, let alone be an indicator for more widespread changes.

One day March brings snow, the next day comes close to being t-shirt weather. The closest thing to a constant in March is the breeze, which rarely subsides. If not exactly roaring like a lion, it’s still strong enough to make whatever the temperature-of-the-day is feel about 10 degrees colder.

I do know that it’s cold enough to silence the spring peepers at the moment. And the one phoebe that announced its presence a few days ago hasn’t reappeared either. It has probably moved north and is not going to be one of the ones that summers here.

The landscape still looks barren and cold. It doesn’t take many warm days for grass to turn green, and I haven’t yet seen any sign of that yet. At night I still get occasional flurries, even on days when midday verges on being warm. In other words, it’s a typical March here so far.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A walk along Beaver Creek

Late note: The first eastern phoebe sang outside my bedroom winter this morning. A few spring peepers chorused last evening, too. Spring is here.

This past Sunday was a gorgeous day throughout much of the eastern U.S. Temperatures were warm and the winds calm. It’s not uncommon to get a day or two like that in March, but it sure feels as though we don’t get them very often on a weekend day when they can be enjoyed to the fullest. This one was not to be wasted.

So Sunday Baby Dog and I took a walk down the valley between Flat Hill and Roundtop Mtn. I was eager to get out and see how Beaver Creek was flowing and see how the valley looked after winter. Would I see any signs of spring?

The warm weather made the going muddy, but we proceeded down the mountain slowly. Or at least I did. Baby Dog would have bounded down at top speed if I’d let her. The valley was still brown with winter, and though I walked the length of the valley, I didn’t see any spring growth, not even the ubiquitous skunk cabbage.

Even the mosses still had a dull cast, though I did find one patch of it that was bright green. Beaver Creek flowed well, if not yet over its banks. Spring rains haven’t appeared here yet, and the snow I had this past winter wasn’t enough to create a torrent. In a way that was good news for my walk. The valley is often quite muddy in spring, and if this year is a normal one, the valley may become close to impassible in April.

Mosses were much in evidence, though I find them difficult to identify. Good sources are either expensive, non-existent or require a microscope and more expertise than I have. However, a few of them seem reasonable to attempt. The first is an atrichum moss; its reddish color is something of a giveaway. The reddish shade occurs when the moss curls up to protect itself from cold or drought. You can see a few areas where the moss is already uncurled.

The last photo is an acrocarp-type moss, though I don’t know the exact name. It’s essentially a “sheet” moss that covers a big area.

 It didn’t take but a few days for the warm Sunday to be the harbinger of spring sights and sounds. When the phoebe sings and the peepers peep, the arrival of spring is a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Raccoons 1, Chickens -1

Beaver Creek pond
Coyote urine doesn’t work as a raccoon deterrent—at least not here on Roundtop where the raccoons apparently don’t see enough coyotes to have developed the notion of what coyote urine means.

On Friday night I lost a chicken to a raccoon or raccoons. A raccoon ripped the roof/door off of my chicken pen around midnight, and even though I was out there in seconds the chicken was already gone. Since then I have nailed shut the roof door. I have no idea how I will clean the pen now, but I’ll worry about that later. I am blocking the front pen door with two large railroad ties. The raccoons can move those two ties about an inch but so far that’s all. I’ve entirely removed my bird feeders and cleaned up anything that the raccoons haven’t yet found around those feeders. I’ve duct-taped shut another cleaning entry to the chicken pen.

And, I’ve been spending the evenings in my car with a BB gun waiting to sting the butt of the next raccoon that crosses my path.

On Saturday night I did get a shot at the raccoon. It’s a big one. I don’t know if I hit it, though it did make a sound when I shot. It might have been surprised by the sound of the BB gun, though. My nephew volunteered to lead a posse of buddies with their .22 rifles to put an end to the pests. I’m not against that, but the raccoon has not reappeared since Saturday night, and I’m not sure the posse wants to spend night after night sitting in my driveway waiting for a raccoon to reappear. I’m going to give the BB gun stakeout a week before I deputize my nephew.

On Sunday, Baby Dog and I headed down in to the valley to see how Beaver Creek was doing. We had a good early spring walk, and I’ll have more about that tomorrow.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sunday the geese flew north

Canada geese heading north and very high (taken with 300mm lens)

Sunday the geese flew north. And the tundra swans. By the thousands. Maybe by the tens of thousands.

It started on Saturday evening not long after dark, with the tundra swans. I heard that familiar “whoo-whoo” sound. And then, directly over the cabin where I have a bit of open sky, I saw them. A snowy white vee against the ebony sky, heading north. That flock was a big one, about 200 swans. If there’s anything more beautiful than seeing swans flying north at night, I can’t think what that might be.

And that was just the beginning. After that came the first of Canada goose flocks. I heard many more flocks than I saw, and I saw quite a few, even with the forest trees hiding many from my view. I heard them while I was on raccoon patrol—more about that tomorrow. The sound of the flocks went on for hours, perhaps all night. Certainly every time I was outside I never had to wait more than a few minutes before I heard the sound of another flock.

During the day on Sunday, even more flocks passed overhead. Mostly Canada geese, with an occasional flock of swans joining in. Sunday evening, I heard and then saw my first flock of snow geese. To my ear their honking is a bit less harsh than that of the Canada geese. Again, the sound went on for hours, well into the late night, until I was forced to bed.

Spring is here. It arrived with the geese and the swans heading north.

Friday, March 08, 2013

I hate springing forward

Don’t get me wrong. I like the longer sunlight in the evenings as much as the next person. What I don’t like are those first few wake-up alarms when my body screams at me, “WHY are we getting up at 4:30 a.m.?”

This morning on my nearly dark walk at 6 a.m. with Baby Dog, I kept thinking, “this is going to be 7 a.m. in a couple of days.” I’m going to have to wake the chickens up to feed them in the mornings. Again. Just as I’m starting to notice the barest hint of dawn in the east, I will be getting up an hour earlier and reverting to walks in utter darkness.

Arizona and Hawaii don’t change to daylight saving time. Neither do Guam, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lots of countries don’t change either, though most of them are around the equator where the hours of daylight don’t vary much. At latest count, 159 countries do not observe the annual time flip-flop and 82 countries do.

Hawaii falls into the tropical camp of non-changers. Arizona, apparently, doesn’t like it because it’s so hot there that people don’t do much outside until after dark, and the last thing they want is more daylight in the evenings.

The time change only started in WWI, so it’s hardly a tradition of very long standing. The original idea was that the switch saved energy, but from what I’ve heard that idea is controversial and the savings are something like a mere 1% of electrical consumption. There’s little argument about people preferring longer daylight in the evenings, though.

Still, I am not looking forward to Monday morning. Or Tuesday. And probably not Wednesday either.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Disappearing snow (and coyote urine)

Roundtop this morning after yesterday's snow
Yesterday’s snow has already melted quite a bit. In fact, if I’d know how fast it was going to melt, I wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort to shovel it. This morning the cloud cover is lifting and a bit of bright blue sky is visible, a sight that’s enormously welcome. I’ve grown tired of overcast skies this winter. Skies here in winter are historically a lot more sunny than cloudy, and this year’s gloom only makes the lack of snow and winter temperatures feel even worse.
This morning looks a lot more like a typical winter scene here, even if the snow is melting and the temperature edging towards spring. For the moment I will enjoy the snow—that’s about all the longer it will last. Yesterday I got almost 5 inches. Today I have something less than 2 inches already. By tonight I expect the snow cover will already be spotty where sunlight struck it.

I have been forced to buy coyote urine to try and deter the raccoons that are pillaging around my cabin. (Thanks to Marcus Schneck, the outdoor writer for the Patriot News for suggesting it). So far it seems to be working, though with the snow melting, I will need to reapply it around my chicken pen pretty often. I’ve used it for two nights now, and so far I haven’t been awakened by raccoons or Baby Dog’s frantic barking at the raccoons. I just hope the bandits don’t get used to the smell and start ignoring it.

Oddly, the neither the household dogs nor the cats seem to mind it. The cats are actually interested in the smell. One somehow climbed atop my jelly cupboard where I had placed it to check it out. The dogs pretty much ignore it, if they even notice it. So, I find it a bit odd that it’s a raccoon deterrent. But I’m not complaining, as long as it works.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

All I got for winter...

...was one little snowstorm.  And even this one might be over, though it doesn't look that way on radar. 

When I went outside the cabin to shovel and take these photos, a turkey vulture glided high overhead, and a killdeer screeched from nearby.  Neither of those two birds are known for liking snow.  They must think the storm is over.  And given that this is March already, it is becoming more unlikely that I will see another plowable snow this season.

The birds are happily emptying my feeders.  Two carolina wrens, two white-breasted nuthatch, a blue jay, three titmice, three chickadees, two downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and an ever-changing assortment of juncos are all acting as though the food is free.  Well, to them it is. 

The snow is heavy and wet, a real snowman-making kind of snow.  For some reason I was expecting powder, not this heavy stuff.  That really slows down the shoveling. I'm taking a lot of breaks.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Snow, maybe, and raccoons, yes

Snow flurries were a constant presence this weekend at Roundtop. Sometimes the flurries threatened to turn into a squall, but most of the time they drifted like ash from a distant fire, one or two at a time and never amounting to much.

But today it appears I might get to see an actual snowstorm this year, though when storms come in March the snow never lasts. This storm, should it appear as forecast, does not look to be an exception to that rule. At the moment I’m cautiously optimistic, while trying not to get too excited. The forecasters are predicting anything from 0-10 inches of snow, and even they are complaining about the lack of clarity in their forecasts.

I’m withholding my enthusiasm until the feeder birds start to mob my feeders. If that happens, I’ll know a storm is on its way.

At the cabin I’ve been dealing with the nightly prowls of two raccoons, one smaller than the other. They appear twice a night, the first time early in the evening and the last time around 4:30 a.m. I figure I get them heading out for their night of pillaging and again on their return from pirating. I have taken to going to bed earlier simply so that when I’m awakened by the hysterical barking of Baby Dog at 4:30 a.m. I have already gotten a decent night’s sleep so it won’t matter if I can’t fall back asleep again.

Last night I had to chase the smaller one off my front deck. It had retreated to a corner of the railing cap and was trying to make a stand there, but when I came out and waved my arms it suddenly decided that climbing down the deck post wasn’t impossible, after all.

For a couple of nights now they have attempted to breach the chicken pen, to no avail, though they have succeeded in digging a small hole at one spot so they can reach under the pen and touch the chicken feeder—not that the girls leave much food by nightfall. This morning I placed a heavy piece of railroad tie scavenged from Roundtop’s dump over the spot. The tie is pretty heavy, so I’m hoping they can’t move it. The chickens themselves are up in their coop at that hour and seem secure in there. Half the time the raccoons don’t even wake the chickens, and it doesn’t take much for the girls to set up a squawk.

I am shortly going to visit a local sporting goods store to invest in some coyote urine, a remedy Marcus Schneck, the outdoor writer for Harrisburg’s newspaper, suggested to me this morning. He claims a few drops around the perimeter of the cabin should do the trick. I’ll let you know how it works.

Friday, March 01, 2013


It has already begun, this march to spring. I have heard the first killdeer. It squealed at Baby Dog and me this morning as we walked across the stone parking lot at Roundtop. The birds nest among the stones, and by April tiny balls of miniature killdeer fluff will be scurrying, almost invisible, around the lot. It is too soon, today, for nesting to begin just yet, but I think the birds are beginning to stake out their territory.
A friend is already reporting he is sick of the abbreviation FOY, which in electronic birding lingo means first of year. Birders reporting a new species seen in the current year frequently report the species is a FOY for them. March is the time when summer species begin to arrive. The killdeer was a FOY for me. I’m pretty sure I’ve already heard a FOY red-winged blackbird, but when I stopped to listen the call didn’t repeat so I didn’t record it.

This morning the light has improved with the clearing sky. The gloomy overcast is lifting. This winter has seen far too many low clouds and overcast skies for my liking. In years past I would have said they were untypical of winter days in this area, but the past several years have seen many like them, so perhaps gloomy overcast winter skies are no longer untypical. I hope these are only a momentary trend and not yet another sign of climate change.

February is over already, and though the last few days of the month were above normal in temperature, the month still finished out a full degree below average—below the average of the last 30 years, that is. If you discount the official “normal” espoused by weathermen and look at February temperatures over a longer time, 2013 is slightly above normal. The 1961-1999 average for February was 31 degrees, and adding in all the records I could find for Harrisburg, which are consistent back into the 1930’s before the data I found started missing some years, the average for February should be about 30.94. So this year’s average of 32 degrees is still above all that, if below the official “normal” of 33.