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.