Friday, June 28, 2013

Farmer lilies on parade!

Long time readers of Roundtop Ruminations know that I love farmer lilies, and this year is an especially good year for them. They line the two-lane rural roads, often in groups of several hundred blooms. Travel another 100 feet and there’s another group of them that’s just as large, perhaps this time on the opposite side of the road. I easily pass thousands of them every day. I enjoy them no less because they are so common. Those huge, intense blooms are simply show-stoppers.

Yesterday was another day at adventure camp for me. We managed to get all the sessions in, though the last one was shortened a bit by an impending storm. The kids caught two green frogs, a minnow nearly large enough to qualify as a fish, a long-tailed salamander, water striders, assorted bugs - mostly helgramites - and the usual couple dozen crayfish that ranged in size from nearly microscopic to big enough to eat (we didn’t). The kids enjoy themselves and the activity and that’s what’s important.

That said, I was surprised by the low level of water in the little creek. True, it’s been a bit dry, but Roundtop has had its share of thunderstorms over the past few weeks that drop a quick inch or even two onto the ground. Right now the creek is as low as I would expect to be in August. I had another 1.5 inches of rain yesterday. I hope that helped. If not, the stream is going to be looking really bad when August actually does get here.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

no cicadas, no noise

Farm lily in the morning
With the arrival of summer’s heat, I can already see a change in the animals around my cabin. Even animals that are not nocturnal are limiting most of the activity to early morning or late evening. Birds, too, are much less in evidence from late morning until evening. Therefore midday is a quiet time. If I can stand the heat, I find it calming to be outside then.

Insects seem to be the only living things that don’t appear to notice the heat. They still buzz around the cabin, oblivious to the heat. Although much of southern PA is currently dealing with 17-year cicadas, Roundtop is not one of the areas where they are active this year. My county of York is not due to have them reappear here until 2021. Many people call them 17-year locusts, but officially they are the periodic cicada. They appear in either a 13-year or a 17-year cycle, living exclusively underground for all but two weeks of the 17 years. Once out, they shed their skins and become adults. They mate, the females lay eggs and then adults disappear. The eggs hatch before summer is over and then the nymphs disappear into the ground, living on plant roots for the next 17 years. Dog loved to eat them, pulling them off the trunks of small trees and gobbling them down like candy.

In the short time the adults live above ground, the males “sing” loudly. It’s not an unpleasant sound, perhaps somewhat eerie, but during the time they are out, the sound is loud enough to impede conversation in a normal tone, even if a person is standing next to you. It’s a relief when the singing season is over the forest returns to its usual sounds.

But as Roundtop is one of the cicada-free zones this summer, my midday sounds are few and not very loud. A slight breeze through the leaves is the only sound and that is one I never tire of enjoying.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Summer insects

The dreaded three H’s—hazy, hot and humid—have taken up residence on Roundtop. By my reckoning, they have already worn out their welcome. I’m the kind of person who would be willing to put up with 90 degree temperatures if they lasted just one day out of the year. As we have already passed that milestone this summer, I am now officially ready for winter to begin again.

I understand that I am probably in the minority with that desire, at least in this area. Although Pennsylvania usually boasts a full four seasons, most residents seem to prefer the hotter ones. Of course, I live at a ski resort, so I know I’m not the only person who likes cold weather. We may be in the minority, but at least I’m not a minority of one.

Hot weather comes with more insects, the good kind and the not-good kind. Specifically, I’m thinking of lightning bugs and mosquitoes. Who doesn’t love lightning bugs? When I was a kid one of the joys of a summer evening at grandma’s were our nightly expeditions out in the yard, armed with a jelly jar with holes poked into the lid. While the grownups chatted inside or on the front porch, all the kids and cousins roamed the yard catching lightning bugs, seeing who could capture the most. This year, I have plenty of lightning bugs around the cabin, though most of them seem to be in the upper reaches of the forest canopy. I’d have a tough time catching many of them. Is this because I live in the woods or have lightning bugs decided they prefer a higher altitude these days?

Mosquitoes are not a well-loved insect, with good reason. I have about 8 good reasons why I don’t like them scattered on my legs right now. I know that bats love them, and I like bats, so I try to be tolerant, but it’s a tolerance accompanied by gritted teeth.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer ramblings

Summer has only just officially arrived, though to my eye it already looks midsummer-ish. Leaves have changed from the bright, neon green of spring to the deep emerald green of summer. All the vegetation is thick and lush, and none of it has yet taken on that August shade of brownish green.

That nursing raccoon has returned. Last evening she appeared on my front deck at 7:45 p.m., when the chickens were still out. The chickens were on the other side of the cabin, a full half hour from going to roost, but at that time of the day they are usually foraging near the pen. As far as I know, neither raccoon nor chickens knew the other was nearby, but I am taking no chances. The chickens are in lockdown again, or so I hope. They love to be out of their pen, scratching around the forest, and anytime I open the pen door, even if only to replenish food or water, they rush the gate, thinking they are about to be let out. Have you ever tried to juggle 6 chickens? That’s what trying to keep them inside is like.

Doodle the rooster isn’t tame enough to catch. One of the chickens, dubbed Dumbbell, isn’t catchable either, and worse, she doesn’t seem to know how to go into the pen unless she follows one of the other chickens. I can have the door propped open and she will walk past it every time. The others are easier to catch, but they aren’t usually the ones first out of the pen, so I don’t usually have to deal with them.

The raccoon, and for that matter the chickens, are after the outside cat food. I currently have a wild momma cat and a small kitten that I’m trying to get tame enough to live trap. So far they are like quicksilver and very wary of the live trap. There’s also one of last year’s kittens still around, but only rarely. I’ve given up trying to catch him.

Never a dull moment. Sometimes I’d like to have a few dull moments, just to see what it feels like.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A day at camp

Weather cooperated and even produced a gorgeous day on Thursday, so I got to spend the day down at a little stream letting kids catch crayfish, frogs, salamanders and minnows. The kids had a blast and caught quite a haul. Dozens of crayfish were caught, most small to medium-sized, including the smallest crayfish I’d ever seen. The tiny thing was only a shy half an inch long. The biggest was about 3.5 inches.

A pickerel frog was caught (pictured), as was a helgramite, two minnows and a small long-tailed salamander, the most common species the kids find. We have more nets this year, so nearly every kid gets to use a net and they didn’t as often have to work in pairs as in previous years. That might have contributed to the high count of crayfish that were caught. I do release some of the prisoners between each session of camp, so likely some of those caught were repeats.

The kids also found a huge spider sunning on a boulder in the center of that stream that served to keep the kids from venturing too far upstream. I believe it was one of the many species of wolf spiders. I am hobbling with my bad knee at the moment, so I wasn’t able to get close enough for a more positive ID. It was big, I know that. Usually I have trouble keeping the kids to the section of the stream where I can keep an eye on them, so the spider served as a good boundary guard for the afternoon.

I have given up trying to get the kids to be quiet as they walk the .75 mile from their base camp to the stream. They are too wound up, and even if they were quiet a group of 10-12 kids is probably in and of itself too many for them to see much wildlife as they walk. I can hear them coming for at least 100 yards before they arrive. To them, more space simply means they have to yell louder to make themselves heard.

When the kids are at the stream, bird calls stop, but the kids aren’t gone a minute before ovenbirds, phoebes and pewees are calling again. At least I get to hear the sounds of the forest in between the groups. A few minutes of birdsong makes for a restful interlude before the next group arrives.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

At the corner of summer

Common mullein
Summer is about to officially appear, arriving after the year’s longest day and shortest night. Roundtop already has the look of summer. The tiny first buds of spring are long gone. The summer flowers are beginning to appear. Common mullein is beginning to bloom, though the plants are still no more than 3 ft. tall, not yet reaching their full height of 4-5 ft.

The blooms appear slowly on the cone stalk, rising from the bottom to eventually reach the top of the cone. By the time the blooms reach the top, the stalk will be at its full height. I always thought it would be pretty spectacular if the entire cone was blooming at the same time, but mullein doesn’t work that way. Several rows bloom at the same time, but the lower rows are done by the time the blooms appear higher on the cone. So a few rows of small yellow flowers blooming at the same time is the way of this plant.

I saw my first snake of the summer on Sunday. It was a black snake, moving under a bush too quickly for me to even snap a photo with my phone camera. The chickens were nearby and either didn’t see it or didn’t care about it. I tried looking under the juniper bush, behind the juniper and around the juniper bush but never saw more than the back half of the snake. I’m guessing it was about a 4 ft. long snake, not one of the larger black snakes.

Generally, I don’t see many snakes here. I’ve seen water snakes, ribbon snakes, garter snakes and a milk snake, a few or several snakes a year. Black snakes are the most common. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that a few copperheads are around, but I’ve never seen one here. I hope that continues, and especially I hope that continues during my sessions with the kids at camp. Last year a boy momentarily caught a brightly colored juvenile eastern water snake in his minnow net, and until it escaped and I got a good look at it (moving faster than any snake you could imagine), I wasn’t completely sure he hadn’t netted a copperhead. I was greatly relieved to see he had not.

Copperheads like rocky areas and wetland areas; a stone-covered stream bank would fall into their preferred habitat. When I’ve seen copperheads on hikes, they have been in rocky areas with no water nearby. But all land-based snakes will head down to streams in dry times, because that’s where dinner is likely to be found.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Spring passes, summer nears

Since big storms blew through last Thursday and cancelled my camp session, the weather has been gorgeous. Low humidity, big puffy cumulus clouds, a slight and welcome breeze—I couldn’t ask for more pleasant weather. And the good news is that the weather is supposed to continue this week, especially on Thursday when I shouldn’t have a weather problem to dampen camp.

I haven’t been down to the little stream for a few weeks. I did travel down sometime in April. At that point the weather was drier than is typical. Since then it’s been rainier than is normal, which will mean wet and muddy walking and a muddy stream. I don’t mind getting muddy myself, and I sure don’t mind getting the kids muddy, but if the stream is too muddy, the kids won’t be able to see crayfish or the other stream denizens. So I hope the mud in the stream will be mostly clear by then.

I’ve been rereading H.D. Thoreau’s journals, my favorite of his writings. This time I’m reading a journal entry per day, matching his days with the same day here on Roundtop. Today, he’s complaining about haze and humidity at his place and notes that “The season of hope and promise is past.” Even further north, where he lived, spring has passed and is replaced with summer. In spring, all things seem possible again. In summer reality sets in or at least returns after a time of spring ebullience. That’s how it seems to me right now.

The projects that suddenly seemed do-able again after winter don’t get done on their own. In my case, most of them are still awaiting some effort on my part. I always run out of time or energy, and another weekend goes by with little improvement. Such is life, I guess. Even on the longest days of the year, there isn’t enough time to get everything done I’d like to get done. Chores and errands still need done. My day’s worth of energy only lasts so long. Time is a vicious mistress and waits for no one.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Thoughts on a wet morning

Honeysuckle on a wet morning
Tomorrow, if the weather cooperates (and unfortunately it appears it will not) will mark my first week of the new season of adventure camp. For some years now I have led groups of kids, 8-15 years old, into the forests around Roundtop for a bit of exploring. It’s the kind of thing that many of my blog readers probably did regularly when you were kids. You probably did it on your own, perhaps in a stream behind your house or over at grandma’s. Today’s children, consigned to living in suburbs and subdivisions, ferried from school to soccer, rarely get to do that.

Small groups of kids will hike down to a stream a bit less than a mile from the main camp. We will hop over vernal pools and get muddy and wet. We will catch crayfish and frogs, perhaps a turtle. Some will complain that the walk is “too long.” Some will be amazed at finding a crayfish. Some will jump right in and have caught several before their time is up. Some are more timid and will be content only to peer at the little lobsters that I keep in a bucket until we release them. If we catch a salamander or a millipede, I will show them how to let it walk across their hands.

These are all kids whose parents have the means to send them to camp for a week. Some will have traveled abroad or gone to the Grand Canyon, but I have yet to find any who know much about their own backyards or the forests near where they live. Most never get the opportunity to play outside on their own. It’s pretty sad, and it causes me no little amount of worry. I worry because their lack of knowledge of the natural world does not bode well for the stewardship of our planet when it is their turn at the helm.

We will be gone by then, those of us who grew up with our hands and feet in local streams, who haunted small patches of woods after school. The world will be theirs to do with as they will. It’s unlikely my efforts will make much difference in the long run, though it’s an effort I feel I must make regardless. To do nothing is to give up and surrender. And so I do what I can, trying to fan the flames of hope that perhaps it will make some difference to some child, on some day.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

More than a little rain

The forest is greener than green and the cabin’s surrounds are muddy. Torrents of rain fell yesterday evening, a real gullywasher. This morning I carefully pick my way around the cabin and Roundtop, trying to avoid the worst of the mud. It’s the kind of morning where being squeamish isn’t going to do you any good. You will get muddy. It will get on your shoes and your pants. Even with boots. April showers in June indeed.

Baby Dog and I don’t wander far off a trail or a road, and still we come home muddy. Baby Dog does not like baths any better than she likes mud, so that makes for a struggle. The rain doesn’t seem to have slowed down the more feral residents of my mountain. I heard one of the red foxes barking not long before the deluge last night. The raccoon was still out and about, though as a nursing mother raccoon, she has mp choice. She has to be.

A rain-soaked deer sprang up in front of me by one of the snowmaking ponds, dashed across the road, paralleled my walking route, and then circled around, still at a full run, to get to the opposite side of the pond and head up the slopes. I see what I think is this same doe every morning, either by the pond or down on one of the dirt roads. I’m pretty sure she’s hiding a fawn somewhere nearby, so her big circle was designed to take her back towards wherever the little one was hidden. I have a rough idea where that is, down to within perhaps a hundred yards. I don’t feel the need to disturb the fawn just to see if I’m right.

More rain is in the forecast. We need it, as the area is still below where it should be for rainfall. But I’m not looking forward to more mud.

Monday, June 10, 2013

In spring are already signs of decay

Spring is still mostly in full bloom, with bright green foliage and a seemingly unending and ever-changing supply of flowers. And yet, some flowers are already done blooming and have moved into the next step in their life cycle. The sight of this flower was a reminder to me that even in spring blooms end.  It's not just in fall that plants finish up their business for the year and prepare to close shop for winter.
Spring's early-bloomers have already developed seed pods or hips, the “fruit” part of the flower. I’ve also discovered that while I can identify a fair number of flowers when they are blooming, once those blooms fade, so does my identification skill.

Are these the hips of dame’s rocket, of wild pink? Perhaps something else? I don’t know the answer, and for that I blame my flower ID books. They show all kinds of flowers in bloom, but have virtually no information about how those same plants look after they are done blooming. Perhaps it’s the birdwatcher in me who knows birds have multiple plumages depending on their age and gender, and I expect to find photos of each of those in my bird books. So why are wildflower books only about the flowers and not the rest of the plant, before and after the blooms? Aren’t those “plumages” too?

So I am unable to positively identify these flower fruits, today. The lack will bother me until I can figure it out—unless one of my gentle readers can provide an identification and save me from hours of research through a mind-numbing array of reference guides? Ah well, if not, you’ll simply have to wait until I can figure it out.

Friday, June 07, 2013

April showers in June and...

April showers are falling in June this year. Technically speaking, the rain is from the fallout of Tropical Storm Andrea. Mostly, it’s been a fairly gentle rain, and I haven’t seen anything more intense than a moderate rain. Without good spring rains Roundtop has been rather dry, and an inch or two of rain is much appreciated and much needed.
So this morning fog shrouded the mountain, and water dripped from every surface. As I am more than 3 inches below normal for rainfall, the ground should well be able to soak up an inch or two of rain. This storm likely won’t bring anything more dramatic than that to Roundtop.
Outside work around the cabin will have to wait until the weather clears, making the upcoming weekend a good time to cook a few dog biscuits, catch up on reading Richard Crossley’s new raptor guide and to try and decide what model of “lady’s” chainsaw I want to buy. I need a small one that’s light enough for me to handle to do some minor jobs around the cabin. Small branches, the odd dead sapling or monkey vines litter the area and so could use a clean-up.

Sometimes small saplings don’t die and threaten to turn into small trees in spots where I don’t need one. The American beech are especially prone to this. I have three large trees of that species around by cabin, and the “children” pop up all the time. Usually, they die on their own, succumbing to lack of light or water. Usually, I just wait for them to disappear on their own. But sometimes they don’t disappear and then spring rolls around and they are growing somewhere that overhangs the driveway or perhaps they got crushed beyond repair by the FedEx truck but somehow still didn’t die. So I have things to get cleaned up around the cabin. And for things above a certain size, I need a chainsaw.
I don’t plan to take down trees of any size, just things in the range where something more than loppers are needed but not things requiring a lumberjack. But first, I have to decide which chainsaws to look at and then I need to go heft a few of those to figure out which one I want. And then I have to save the money to buy one. So, the buying won’t happen this week or probably not even next week.
Maybe, if I get really bored or desperate, I’ll even do some much needed cabin cleaning. Or, maybe not. Chainsaw research is more important.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Not a field of grain

Spring slides into summer, and a choppy slide it is. A little here, a little there, a back slide for a few days. At the moment Roundtop is in a back slide towards the spring we never quite had. The nights are cool, the days take until noon to warm up. It’s comfortable weather, with long June evenings. I can appreciate the long hours of daylight in weather like this. The skies are not yet fully dark even at 9:30 p.m.

But when the temperature journeys and stays into summer’s heat and haze, the long hours of daylight becomes something simply to endure. Then, I wait for sunset and the relief from the heat that usually brings. But not today. Today, I can enjoy the long evenings

This morning on my walk with Baby Dog, I discovered a patch of carpet moss. From close-up the female moss structures look like a field of ripening grain. When conditions are dry, the moss capsules open and release the spores. The weather has been dry for spring here, but I don’t know if it is dry enough for the capsules to open. Even if it’s dry enough for them to think about releasing the spores, a hard rain is predicted for the tomorrow and the weekend, so the moss might change its plans.

Baby Dog isn’t much interested in moss, especially when she just spied a deer slipping back into the cover of the woods. Moss doesn’t move, deer do. Enough said.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Thank you

Oxeye daisy
I want to thank everyone for their thoughtful words about the loss of Dog, my faithful friend. He was the smartest dog I’ve ever known, a constant joy and source of trouble. He learned a new command after being shown it one time and remembered it months later even if we didn’t practice it. Dog created trouble just for the fun of it, I think. Of course, his version of fun typically corresponded to trouble for me.

Baby Dog and I are finding the cabin rather quiet and empty right now. Baby Dog no longer has to bark impatiently while she waits for me to bring Dog back into the cabin after a walk. She is strangely quiet and only an invading raccoon or a fearsome deer makes her break silence.

Dog was 12 and diagnosed with cancer in January. I’ve known since then that this time would come, though I can’t say that knowledge made the end any easier. He had good days and bad days and was pretty good through the Memorial Day weekend. He began to seriously decline the Tuesday after the holiday and by Friday I knew this time he would not bounce back.

On our last day together we shared some ice cream, a treat he had been denied for a while because of the special diet he needed in his last months, and then went to see some cows—a favorite activity for him.

Baby Dog and I both miss him.

Monday, June 03, 2013


May 11, 2001 - May 31, 2013
Loyal, brave and true