Friday, August 29, 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The doe

Soon ripe
An old doe spends her nights across from my cabin. I say she is old, but I don’t know that for sure. I do know she is a big deer and produced no fawns this year, a combination that usually equates to an older deer. She has gotten rather tame, if still appropriately wary.

I see her in the pre-dawn and post-sunset times, when it is dark enough that I have to look twice to see her, to make sure that what looks like legs aren’t really saplings, that her sleek coat isn’t a boulder. Often, it is the flick of her ears or tail that gives her away. Last night she stood in an open area just off the lane and watched as I walked past with Sparrow. She believed herself invisible and watched us pass.

Sometimes she stands in the open, in the middle of the lane to watch, knowing she can take a few steps and disappear into the forest. I saw her lay down for the night in knee-high undergrowth, turning invisible in an instant. This morning Skye and I woke her up. I didn’t see her but I heard her snort and then heard her footsteps as she moved deeper into her patch of forest.

She seems hale and hearty, though it is odd that she isn’t with other deer. She seems content to stay in the narrow band of forest between my cabin and the ski slopes. I have seen her nibbling grass around the boulder that sits in front of my neighbor’s house. A pond is nearby, and even closer is a small spring, hardly more than a seep, in her little woods.

Perhaps she is the one who nibbles my juniper bushes in winter. Perhaps she is the one who gets any apples that are too far gone for me or my chickens. I consider her a neighbor, too, though that is a temporary arrangement. Winter is coming, and winters are hard on old deer, even should the winter be a mild one, and even if she stays as healthy as she looks this morning.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Evening watch

I have been on nighthawk patrol every free evening this week. So far I have had little joy in that regard. Last night I had just one, so I am a tad jealous of people seeing 20 or 30 of these pretty birds scooting across a darkening sky. Still, I have no complaints. Standing outside in nice weather, no one else around, just watching the evening approach is its own reward.

The barn swallows have left the mountain, though I saw a few near the neighboring orchard yesterday. The yellow-billed cuckoo still calls from deeper in the forest. The eastern pewees call as well, but they are a late migrant and this is still early in the season. Robins are beginning to leave. Small groups of them move through the trees; often half of these groups are young birds, still spotted, still with yellow lores. I also had two flocks of cedar waxwings, a total of 25 birds. One flock stayed nearly half an hour in the top of a nearby tree, occasionally taking to the air to circle briefly before returning to the tree top again.

Last night a ruby-throated hummingbird zoomed around my shoulder. I wondered what attracted it until I realized it was investigating the red bulbs in my taillights. Hummingbirds are so predictable.

So the season is turning, slowly still, but inevitably. No longer do I ask myself if something I see is a migrant or simply an outlier. The answers are visible in an evening sky.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Practice needed

Clearly we’re going to need to practice our evacuation plan.
Yesterday afternoon a tornado warning popped up very unexpectedly. Not that they are ever expected, but even the morning’s weather forecast didn’t hint at this possibility. The path of the warning area included my cabin, so I got ready to inhabit my basement with the dogs for a while.

What a fiasco that turned out to be!

First, an explanation: my basement is really just a partially underground area for the utility mechanicals of my abode. The end with the door is about 2 feet below the ground surface. The back end of the area is about 5 feet underground. I don’t have stairs down into it, so that first nearly 2 foot step is a big one.

So here I am with a tornado warning and multiple dogs trying to get them into the basement. The puppies were afraid and didn’t want to jump down those two feet. So I got Baby Dog, my big dog, to go first. She went in, but as I was then trying to get Sparrow into the basement, Baby Dog jumped out, all the while Skye is practicing his mule impersonation, planting his feet and pulling backwards for all he’s worth. Before I knew it I was as tangled as a Gordian knot with leashes and dogs.

The tornado warning expired before we eventually got in there. Fortunately, the tornado never touched ground. But if this had been an actual emergency, we’d all have been killed before I got the dogs into that basement. Clearly we have some work to do before the next one.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sparrow's big adventure

My puppy Sparrow had a big surprise last evening. Actually, it was a surprise for me, too. We were taking a walk at dusk and were on our way back, just a short way from the cabin on the lane up the mountain. I had her on the long lead, and she was ahead of me, goofing around and sniffing stones and twigs the way she usually does.
Suddenly, just ahead of her, three deer dashed across the lane. She stood still, ears up, watching them go but made no move to chase them or bark at them. The deer were very close, even for me several steps behind her. She looked after them, already disappeared into the dense undergrowth of the forest. 
So we started to move again. We moved ahead about 3 steps when a fourth deer charged across the lane, now even closer to us than the first three. Her reaction was the same. Perhaps she was just as surprised as I was, too surprised to do more than watch them. These were the first deer she’d ever seen. Several times before I tried to get her to look at deer that I saw but they were always too far away to interest her.

After the fourth one, no more deer passed. I moved forward and counted my steps from where I was to the deer tracks in the dirt road. I counted just 14 steps, which put Sparrow about 10 steps from them. I wonder what she’ll do the next time she sees deer?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jupiter and Venus near kiss

Yes, I know it’s a terrible photo. Though I’d heard about this conjunction of Jupiter and Venus sometime last week, the reality of it did not penetrate my Monday morning fog. So when Skye and I exited the dark, pre-dawn forest and came into the open, I was completely unprepared for the sight in front of me. All I had with me was the camera in my phone, a very poor substitute for a good camera and tripod. Perhaps if it hadn’t been a Monday morning I’d have been better prepared.

The two planets looked nearly close enough to kiss, and seeing the two together was enough to make me gasp at how beautiful they were. The horizon was already beginning to pale, but at 5:40 the two were still brilliant, bright and sharp. A prettier sight in the heavens I have only rarely seen.

I think this morning was the closest approach, but the two will stay pretty close for several more days. If you have a clear morning, don’t miss it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Early morning screamfest

 Early this morning, after the stars had faded but when I could still see Venus in the east, I heard a red-tailed hawk scream. Redtails are the most common hawk around Roundtop, but they aren’t usually active this early. Or if they are, they are usually being harassed by a mob of crows. This morning, no crows were in evidence.

The redtail was to the north of me, at least 100 yards away, hidden behind the first rows of forest just past a small parking area for the ski resort. And then a second redtail screamed just over my left shoulder, and I saw an adult bird glide through the still-darkened forest to land in a dead snag. That appearance of the second bird explained the screaming, if not the early morning hour. One screaming redtail usually means a second is nearby. Redtails scream to communicate with each other, so when you hear a scream look for its source but also look for a second bird.

It was dark enough this morning that I heard the call of a great horned owl far up the mountain in between redtail screams. That owl might well have been a factor if closer, but at this distance the two redtails were screaming at each other and were not being worried by (or worrying) the owl.

Typically, screaming is used to defend territory. During nesting season this is particularly prevalent but that time is past for this year, which is usually begins here in late March. The nestlings are usually out of the nest by the end of June at the latest. In other words, nesting or hungry fledglings likely had nothing to do with this early morning screamfest.

Queen Anne's Lace
The likely cause for the screaming boils down to two options—one of the two might well have been a strange bird that caused the local bird to announce its ownership of the invaded territory. The second option might be a nearby predator with the first hawk calling on the other local forces to come help. Or, perhaps the two were a pair and simply hunting for an early breakfast together. Redtails will scream at human intruders, too, but this one was screaming before I was anywhere nearby. The second redtail that zoomed by me was unperturbed by my presence, so it’s unlikely the first redtail that was further away was paying any attention to me.

It is certainly possible another great horned owl was over by where the first redtail. The two species are notorious rivals but only come in brief contact at twilight or dawn. I didn’t hear a second owl or solve the mystery of the early morning screaming, but I’m glad I got to experience it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pardon my anxiety

Some much needed August rain is drenching the mountain here at Roundtop this morning. The forest is the deep green of later summers. After eight days without rain, local farmers were starting to worry about fall crops, but today’s rain has come in time to see them through for another week or so.

So far, August has brought fairly moderate temperatures in what is normally a very hot and dry month. That’s a good thing, but I must confess to a vague feeling of anxiety, too. A nice August frequently means a hot September, and with that idea rattling around my brain, I’m finding it difficult to fully and completely enjoy this nice August. I would rather deal with a hot August and a normal September than to have the beautiful month of September diminished by a late heat wave.

Cool mornings, crystal clear days, nights descending towards a chill—September is a month that suits me, a welcome respite after surviving another summer. Were I still a child, I wouldn’t have these memories of hot Septembers following cool Augusts ripping through my consciousness. I tell myself not to curry trouble, especially trouble that hasn’t and may never happen, but people search for patterns in life, and the pattern of hot Septembers after nice Augusts is rising into my awareness.

I will try to ignore this thought and simply enjoy these cooler days. Pardon my anxiety. I didn’t mean to cloud anyone else’s day.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sky events

Supermoon at sunrise
Last night’s full supermoon made the forest almost as bright as day, or at least dawn. The night was bright enough to see color in the leaves at 2 a.m., not just their darkened shapes. I was tempted to see if the moonglow was bright enough to read by. Certainly, it would have been close.   An ill-timed nap on Sunday afternoon meant I was awake enough late into the night to notice just how light the woods were.

A screech owl squealed not far from the cabin through much of the night, too. I was tempted to get up and see if I could find that little bird, but I resisted that temptation as well. It likely would have been a fool’s errand, unless the bird flew. Screech owls aren’t very large, are the color of tree bark and even in a supermooned, brightened forest were likely to be invisible.

More than a supermoon, I look forward to the annual Perseid meteor shower, which is due tonight and tomorrow. This year it’s likely to be rained out in my area, and even if the rain has stopped, the clouds are likely to still obscure the sky. Such is life, and this won’t be the first Perseid meteor shower I’ve missed due to poor weather. Often, the December meteor shower, the Quadrantids, is a more intense show, but the weather then is usually quite cold, and even a better show can’t compare to laying out in a field of summer grass watching meteors stream by overhead. It’s just not the same in long johns and a parka.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Approaching summer's end

Red sky reflection
Summer must be almost over. Here I thought I had one more week of adventure camp after this one, and instead I find that tomorrow’s camp is the last one for the year. If camp is over, summer’s end can’t be far behind. I am fine with this as long as the upcoming fall lasts "forever."

On some level, I know that summer is not yet over and will in fact officially last another six and half weeks. Theoretically, summer weather can now last more or less through the end of September. This is a far cry from the days of my youth when you started school a few days after Labor Day in fall clothing. It was a big deal to have summer weather last through the first week of school so we could wear summery clothing instead for a few days. No longer, of course. Now, you wouldn’t even have to buy fall clothing until after school starts, let alone before.

But still, the end of camp is a sure sign that the end of summer, official or otherwise, isn’t far away.

This morning I had another red sky sunrise, which at the time I thought was odd since the last forecast I heard didn’t include the possibility of bad weather. However, I soon learned that the forecast now includes thunderstorms and showers, which certainly seems likely since the sunrise warned me about that before I heard the forecast.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Early morning bee

Honey bee on a joe pye weed flower
Since I first heard about honey bees’ colony collapse disorder, I’ve paid attention to bees. Before that, I pretty much ignored them and avoided them when possible. Since 2006 when the disorder first became public knowledge, I keep a lookout for them and try to gauge if I am seeing more or fewer of them.

The winter of 2012-13 saw bee colony losses above 31%, slightly higher than the previous six year average of 30%. For the purposes of their studies, the US Dept. of Ag. considers "winter" losses to run from October through the end of April. One difference noted by the researchers was that more colonies appeared to be dwindling away, rather than outright and sudden collapses. Winter 2013-14 produced better results, with colony losses at just over 23%. Despite the improvement, the losses this past winter are still above the 18% that beekeepers consider economically sustainable, and researchers still don’t know why 2013-14 was better. It may be nothing more than a yearly fluctuation.

While colony collapse disorder is complicated and seems to have multiple causes, one of the largest contributors is the varroa mite, an Asian bee parasite that first appeared in the U.S. in 1987.

This summer I’m seeing fairly average numbers of honey bees. I see them on the woodland blooms around the cabin, such as this joe pye weed in today’s photo. The next door orchard is less than a mile as away as the bees fly, so certainly some of the ones that are around Roundtop are from there, though I also occasionally find a hive tree. It’s a good day when I can start one by seeing a few honey bees. It makes me feel as though there’s still some hope for the world.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Summer zooming by

Northern red salamander
Where is this summer going? It’s zooming by. I only have a few weeks left of adventure camp. The days are growing shorter, and I needed my headlamp this morning. The millipedes are out, and they are a late summer resident on Roundtop Mountain.

The kids at adventure camp caught a huge crayfish this week, one whose pincers were a good two inches long. The salamander is, I believe, a northern red salamander. For a while I thought it might be a juvenile long-tailed salamander, which Beaver Creek has in abundance. But after studying photos of both, today I’m going with the red salamander.

Kids at camp catch a variety of things. Crayfish are the most common. Nearly everyone catches one or more of those. Salamanders are caught less frequently, though nearly every group of kids catch at least one. Other kids happily ignore crayfish, salamanders and minnows and prefer to catch water striders (or water skppers or water spiders). I don’t know why. They certainly aren’t that exciting to me, but there’s a reasonable minority of kids who think netting water striders is the coolest thing they can do. Whatever. As long as they are enjoying themselves.

Now that summer is past its early days, the millipedes are starting to appear. One thing I’ve learned in the years I’ve been doing adventure camp is that kids are fascinated by millipedes. They will happily line up with flattened hands and let millipedes walk across their hands, sometimes racing to the end of the line after the millipede reaches the next set of hands to line up again. It’s a kid thing. I mean millipedes are kind of cool but I never put them in the way cool category of things. Kids, however, are thrilled with them.