Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Autumn's progress

The autumn color change is underway in a few areas on Roundtop Mtn.  In the lower, cooler spots along a stream or a run, gold and yellow leaves are beginning to be evident.  Higher up, where I live, the trees are still green.
Some leaves, though not many, have already fallen, decorating the mountain lane with a bit of color. As yet, this is not enough to open up the leafy canopy and extend my visibility.  Leaf fall is often a slow process, especially at the beginning. However, I’ve had nearly 6 months of studying every tiny hole in the canopy around my cabin, so by now I know it well and am ever vigilant for the slightest change.
I am at least 3 weeks away from the main leaf fall and probably longer.  When I first moved to the cabin, some 20 years ago, the main leaf fall occurred in late October.  But as climate change has progressed, it now happens in early November, once as late as November 11 but more reliably around November 5-7, at least for the last few years.  Still, by late October the canopy is much opened again, just from the leaves that fall earlier than most of them.
As the season progresses, leaf fall is lot like a continuous snow flurry, cascading off the trees to cover the forest floor until they are shin-deep in some places. On a day when many leaves drop, walking through the forest is a lot like walking in a falling snow.  Falling leaves make a gentle rustling sound, best heard when surrounded by a forest.  The effect is not the same with just one or a few trees.  When the whole forest is “molting” the sound is similar to the sound of wind through the trees in summer, but with a drier tone.  I love to walk through the forest and feel the leaves falling all around me, making that lovely fall sound.  It’s best heard on a day without wind, but as long as the breeze is a mild one, I can still hear the leaves when they fall.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Rainy fall morning and weekend auction

The calm before the auction
Roundtop Mtn. is enjoying its first fall rain today. The dry forest is getting a nice, gentle rain, so far perhaps .25 of an inch. For people to the east of me, the storm is less friendly—it’s a real nor’easter that’s barreled up through Florida and North Carolina, soon to inundate New Jersey and later Boston.

This is the kind of day when I keep the chickens in their pen, at least until noon. Nighttime predators stay out often well past dawn on rainy and dark, overcast days. I guess the hunting is better for them once the daytime animals appear. The predators seem to be able to tolerate daylight (or what passes for daylight on a dark morning like this one) as long as the sun is well hidden. In the past, before I paid attention, I’ve lost chickens to a fox and a raccoon, both foraging well past the time they are usually in their dens for the day.

 Sparrow checks out some of the goods!
This morning Sparrow and I walked nearly right up to a deer that hadn’t gotten up for the day, yet. Sparrow never saw it. I only saw the deer because of my headlamp, and even then I was careful not to look right at her. Wild animals often tolerate a human’s presence as long as you don’t directly look at them. If you ignore them or only glance at them sideways, often they remain where they are, as did this deer. But as soon as you look at them, they are gone! Birds are the same way, as anyone who’s had a bird flush only when they raised binoculars will know.

Today my photos were taken at my family’s farm. After a year’s work, we are having an auction of the contents this weekend. Neither my parents nor my grandparents ever had sale when the previous generation passed, so we have a lot of stuff. I’ve been amazed at just how heavy those old iron farm implements are. Some I can barely lift, let alone use or manipulate. Those oldtime farmers must have looked like body builders!

Monday, September 22, 2014

What the wind brought

Today’s northwest breeze is pushing a lot of migrants southward.  I’ve seen Broad-winged Hawks and Black Vultures, as well as flocks of 20-25 little somethings that are too small or too distant to identify.  Waterfowl will be appearing soon, though I haven’t seen any flocks of those yet.  The first week of October is about right for their migration.
The wind brought down a very large, dead limb not 10 seconds after Skye and I walked past that spot.  The limb was light because it was dead and pretty much hollow but it still may have been deadly if we’d been struck.  I heard it crash through the lower part of its tree when it fell but knew instantly it was far enough away that we would be safe. I’d like to think that had I been underneath it, that crack would have alerted us and given us enough time to get out of its way.    I’m not sure that’s the case, but I’d like to think so.  Skye set up a ferocious barking at the downed limb, which was curled and coiled like some large, if stiff, snake.  It was fortunate the limb was as light as it was, as I had to move it to get the car back out of the driveway.

The small annual plants on the forest floor are really fading now—turning color or just disappearing onto the ground.  Some tulip poplar leaves have turned color and are beginning to litter my driveway.  Most of my houseplants are now inside, and the rest will need to come in tonight.  Tonight the temperature will drop into the lower 40’s and that’s just too cool for a houseplant.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Bird Buffet

The pokeweed I found this morning is the largest specimen I’ve ever seen.  It’s 10-12 feet tall at least—more like a pokeweed tree than a bush.  It is just covered with fruit right now, which the birds love and fight over.  I’ve never seen so much pokeweed fruit in one spot before.

This morning a blue jay was being chased from the tree by a small bird that was too fast for me to identify.  A little bit higher I saw an immature black-throated green warbler, but they are insectivores, not herbivores, so it wasn’t that little beauty.  It’s possible the warblers were gathering insects on the plant and didn’t take kindly to a nearby blue jay, but I don’t think it was that bird.

Pokeweed is largely toxic to humans, though various parts of it are edible, at least at certain times of the year. I’d have to be pretty hungry before I attempted it, though.  The plant is not toxic to birds and is in fact something of a bird magnet.  I’m already planning to “plant” myself near here sometime over the weekend to see what else shows up at this bird buffet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Early morning


The sound of great horned owls, the higher-pitched female and the basso profundo of the male, echo across the forest before dawn’s first paling.  They call back and forth to each other, one further up the hill than the other.

The last hour before daylight and the first hour of night is when they are most active and most vocal. I have lived on this mountain for more than 20 years now, and their presence has been a constant, though I have rarely seen them.

When I have seen them, it has nearly always been on a dreary, dark morning, when an overcast sky tempts them into staying out later to hunt for prey.  When that happens, crows may already be up and spoiling for a good early morning mobbing of the predator.  Sometimes, they meet up with another nemesis, the red-tailed hawk, which inhabits roughly the same ecological niche and eats much the same prey.  Those two are natural born enemies.

This morning was far more typical.  I heard the pair but never saw them, invisible companions.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ch-, Ch-, Changes

The hours of daylight seem to me to be diminishing pretty fast right now. Not only do I need my headlamp when I start out walking the dogs, I am still using it when our morning walks are over. Now, I can find only the barest hint of dawn in the east when our forays are done.
The chickens no longer wake me; crowing is later every morning. That is good news. Occasionally, in summer Doodle would crow starting around 4:30 a.m. It doesn’t hurt my feelings that my old rooster now doesn’t wake until around 6 a.m.
The lessened hours of daylight do interfere with my walks now. Most importantly, I can’t see as much, which translates into having less to write about. My headlamp only brightens enough for walking, not enough for inspecting every plant and rock. I also find myself staying on ground where I know the footing is pretty even. The headlamp isn’t good for illuminating little bumps and holes that I can easily see in daylight. It’s better if I just avoid areas with rougher footing until the weekend when I can walk in daylight again.  It goes without saying that even ground is less interesting than the rougher land, but a twisted knee is even worse.
Sometimes I hear an owl. Usually it’s one of the great horned owls calling to its mate. It’s too dark to see even the early-rising crows. The forest birds aren’t awake until I’m out feeding the chickens. One thing I have noticed is now that breeding season is over, the local residents are vocal again. Even the noisy chickadees turn quiet when they are nesting. No longer. They are busily scolding me and the chickens and the cats sitting in windows. They probably scold caterpillars, too. Summer is a long time for a chickadee to be silent, and they are making up for lost time.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fall Ruminations

Kralltown Rd., Washington Township, York County, Pennsylvania, September 15, 2014
Fall is beginning to make an appearance around my cabin. The trees still look green, but the annual foliage on the forest floor is beginning to show signs of color. Poison ivy turns first, and a few of the other plants are beginning to follow suit. Nothing is very pretty or dramatic yet; the change is only just beginning—greens fading towards a dull yellow or orange. The big trees are the last to turn color and that still won’t happen for a few weeks.

This week should be the big Broad-winged Hawk migration through southern Pennsylvania. More northerly hawkwatches are already starting to report daily counts above 1000 hawks each day. Likely in this area, the big push will be tomorrow or Thursday. The birds won’t reach the U.S.- Mexico border for another 8-10 days. And it will be the better part of a week before they arrive in Veracruz MX. By the time they get down there, the flocks (or "kettles" as we hawkwatchers call those flocks) could hold tens or thousands and even hundreds of thousands of birds.

I’m noticing the chillier nights, which make for great sleeping weather, as long as the animals don’t take all the room on the bed, which they often attempt to do. The big question I wrestle with each year is when should I "migrate" my houseplants from outdoors back inside the house? The Christmas and Easter cactus are the easiest ones to gauge, as I try not to bring them back inside until they have set buds. My houseplants do best when they are not in the house but outside. Sometimes I think they are only just barely being kept alive inside during the winter. So I tend to wait until the last minute, or even the last second, before bringing them inside. I know the time for them to be outside is soon ending. I just don’t know which day it will be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Evening visitor

Northern walking stick
Another sign of fall appeared on the outside wall of my cabin last evening, a northern walking stick. Mid-September is when they mate, so it’s not surprising to find them out and about now. They have the best camoflauge of just about anything. I had to enhance the photo a bit just so it wouldn't blend into the background. This one was perhaps 2 inches long.

I haven’t been able to decide if this one is a male or a female. The males tend to be dark brown and the females a kind of brownish green. I’m leaning towards this one being a female, but it’s neither as brown nor as green as some I’ve seen, so I might be wrong. The females are a bit larger, too, and as walking sticks go, this one was in the mid-range, so that didn’t help either.

The oak forest that surrounds my cabin is perfect habitat for them. Oaks are their preferred food source. Walking sticks are mostly nocturnal, which is how I came to find this one when I took the dogs for a final outing of the day. As a side-note, I am still getting used to the lessened hours of daylight. During mid-summer darkness meant it was time to begin to get ready for bed. Without thinking, I automatically did that earlier this week and then discovered it was still only 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Weatherlore and predicting the winter

Now that I’ve officially proclaimed the start of fall (ahem!), it’s time to start looking to the signs for the winter ahead. Collecting natural weatherlore is something of a hobby of mine. I find it all very interesting and some of it is even right. My own experience suggests that you can’t bank on one piece of weather lore to tell the story, but when you get a couple or several of them lining up in one direction or another, there’s often something to it.
Even for me, it’s a bit early to predict what the winter ahead might look like, so I thought I’d report on some of the more interesting bits of lore I’ve collected and will use in the weeks to come to attempt to predict the severity of the upcoming winter.

"If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry." August 2014 here on Roundtop was a bit colder than average but not by very much. I might say this means an average or slightly colder than average winter but nothing to get your knickers in a twist over.

"For every fog in August there will be a snowfall in winter." Hmm, we did have a fair amount of fog on those gloomy August days.

If anthills are high in July, winter will be snowy." I didn’t really look.

"Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in." Truthfully, the onion skins look pretty normal to me, but I’m no expert.

I’m sure you’ve all heard some of the other ones—thick animal coats equal a tough winter; squirrels frantically gathering nuts, thick corn husks are all supposed to equal tough winters. My animals are only just starting to shed so it’s too soon for me to tell about that one. The squirrels aren’t doing much of anything unusual yet and the corn husks, well, I’m about as much an expert with those as I am with onion skins.

For many of the truisms, it’s still too early to see. October and even November weather is what most of them go by to predict the winter ahead. So stay tuned. At the moment, the signs are very vaguely pointing towards an average or perhaps a slightly colder than average winter, but nothing looks dire. At least not yet.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Going, going, going...

Local Canada geese all veed up during flight practice with the young ones
Ruffed grouse, Pennsylvania’s state bird, will be nearly gone from the state by 2050 and will be gone by 2080, where it will only be found in Maine and perhaps the Adirondacks in the lower 48.  And that’s just one species, out of as many as 314 that could be threatened by continued climate change.

Such is the conclusion of a new report from Audubon about the future effects of climate change on birds in the U.S.  As many as 314 species, nearly half the species found in the U.S., are threatened. Using three decades of citizen-science observations and climate models, Audubon’s chief David Yarnold says the study is conservative in its predictions.  At http://climate.audubon.org/ you can read about which species will be affected and see the species projections by state or province.  There also you can ready how the science was conducted and learn more about what can be done. 

The report was discussed on NPR this morning at and in today’s New York Times, to name two spots.
Birders have long seen some evidence of this.  In the past 20 years I’ve seen the black-capped chickadee morph into a black-capped/Carolina chickadee hybrid and then the black-capped disappeared from Roundtop entirely, replaced by the Carolinas.  That’s just one example.  Another is the ever-growing range of the black vulture in my area, and the turkey vulture appearing ever further north.  Red-tailed hawks and Canada geese, to name two, no longer migrate the way they used to. Often then stay where they are or move late and then don’t go very far south for the winter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Fall arrives!

Fall arrived here on Sunday morning, September 7, 2014.

Of course, I know that’s not the official start of fall.
On Saturday evening, the air was still muggy, a situation even worse than humid. Worse, than muggy, the air was cloying. I’ll bet fish could have breathed that air.
But when I woke up on Sunday morning, it was cool and clear, that kind of crystalline clarity that comes in September and heralds a new season. In the space of a mere 8 hours, the season changed.  I had no easing of summer into fall this year.  No sirree, it happened fast!
It’s true that Roundtop still looks like summer, but that will soon change. I spent a few hours watching fall migration on Sunday, though that was slow. The weather change likely happened too late in the day to incite many songbirds to move south overnight. And the daytime migrants probably didn’t start with the crack of dawn, likely taking time to have a bit of breakfast before heading south.
Even so, I saw a few migrating birds—tree swallows mostly. The other birds I saw—Red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures—could easily have been local birds, despite their altitude in a clear blue sky. More likely, this evening I’ll notice something new, something only migration could bring near my cabin. It’s an exciting time of year, and I never tire of it

Friday, September 05, 2014


 I’m awaiting the change in weather, the appearance of north winds and the drop in temperature and humidity. I will have to wait another day, until Saturday, for that to happen.  The year’s strongest slam of summer is underway, gripping my mountain in heat and humidity.  But I can wait it out.  I can last another day or so to wait for more pleasant weather, for a day when the hawks will fly and the songbirds will start to move south again.  For 24 or perhaps as long as 30 hours, I can wait.

Until then I am confined within the false fall of air conditioning, trying to avoid the humidity that turns everything and everyone to dripping water-logged shadows of our regular selves.  It will only last another day.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Dreaming of fall on a summer's day

Southeast and warm winds really put a halt to fall bird migration over the long holiday weekend. At least that was the result at Roundtop; I haven’t checked other areas. So instead I did some outside chores around the cabin, notably cleaning out and moving the chicken pen. It should be okay in its current spot until it’s time to move the pen next to the cabin—the girls’ winter quarters.
For now, summer is still here, though I like to think it’s the season’s last, longest stretch before cooler temperatures appear. Sometimes seasons, like people, hold on tightest just before they let go. So, a week of practically the hottest temperatures of the summer is not unexpected before the season turns.
As I find fall often the "best" season of the year, it can’t come too soon for me. It’s the season when the air conditioner is removed from the window and when the sweatshirts return to my closet. The nights are chilly and need a comfy quilt. Best of all, the leaves turn color and soon fall, leaving me with a nice view out the back of the cabin again for the first time in six months. But that’s still a ways away. For now, I’ll settle for the low humidity of fall and daily temperatures that don’t top 80. It won’t be long now.