Monday, December 28, 2015

Geese finally heading south

Note:  This photo was taken yesterday. Today is not foggy, though it's still overcast and the light isn't good so far, for photos today.

I should have known something was up when I counted 71 Canada geese on Roundtop's largest pond this morning around dawn.  The usual count is about 35-38.  And the local geese didn't seem too happy to be sharing the space with the new interlopers.

Since then, and even now as I type this, I hear the sound of Canada geese far overhead.  Occasionally I see a flock, hundreds of birds to each one.  This is the first time I was sure the geese I was seeing were migrants.  They are only two months late.

I have suspected that a couple of the flocks I'd seen throughout November were migrants but I wasn't entirely sure. Migrating geese are noisy, usually honking the entire time they fly, and except when they are taking off or landing, they usually fly quite high.  Sometimes the geese I saw in November were honking like migrants, but they weren't particularly high or there weren't many in a flock.  I thought it was possible they were birds up off the Susquehanna River rather than long-distance flyers.  But not today.  These birds, so far multiple flocks of them, are heading south in full cry.

No doubt the first blast of semi-wintry weather that's just a few hours away from falling here is the cause.  The precipitation will fall as sleet this time, and the weather maps show it edging ever closer to Roundtop.  So those geese that have been languishing in the warm northeastern weather have finally decided it's time to move south to avoid the wintry weather.  It's about time.  Past time.  A lot past time.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Have a foggy, foggy Christmas

 Wait!  That’s not how the song goes.
And this is not how Christmas is supposed to look, either.  But here it is.  Foggy and warm enough to sit out on the porch, if you don’t mind a little drizzle. 
Foxtail with raindrops, like a miniature Christmas tree with bulbs
I’m already tired of El Nino, which shows no sign of let-up or allowing winter to return to normal.  I want cold and snow, though it’s hard to argue about the lack of a heating bill.  Still, this is not the kind of weather that makes me want to put a warm, winter stew over the fire.  It’s not even good hot chocolate weather.
What it is, is about as foggy as it can possibly be.  These photos were taken shortly before noon today, not at dawn or dusk or even first thing in the morning when fog is usually thickest.  No, this is noontime fog.  It’s the kind of fog that makes me glad I don’t have 100 miles of driving ahead of me today.  A quick trip down the mountain and into town at 35 mph is about as exciting as I want it to be.  And 35 mph is about the only safe speed today, which makes me glad I’m not on an interstate somewhere.

Fog for Christmas is a new thing for me, I think.  At least I don’t remember any other year with fog, let alone fog like this.  So now I am back in my cabin, where I plan to stay for the rest of the day, cooking up the last batch of Christmas cookies and hoping that Christmas day will bring something other than more fog. 
I hope all of you and yours have a very, Merry Christmas and a great holiday!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Hemlocks--still here but under assault

Holiday preparations clearly are affecting both my writing and photographic time this week.  I love Christmas, but I am ready for the event itself and for the preparations for the event to end.  I hope that once the holiday is over, my days will return to normal, so I can spend more time writing and taking photos again.
The photo today was not taken at my cabin but in Michaux State Forest.  This is, I believe, a little feeder stream into Tom’s Run.  It’s already been a week since I was there and I’m only now downloading the photos.  One thing I noticed on my walk that day was that live hemlocks, Pennsylvania’s state tree, can still be found in abundance.
The state’s trees are under assault by something called the wooly adelgid, which sucks fluid from the base of the hemlock needles, eventually killing the tree.  They look a lot like wooly aphids that can infect houseplants.  Like so many other devastating pests, this one is not native to North America.  It came from Japan, and our native hemlocks have no immunity against it.  And like wooly aphids, the pest can be killed with a soap/oil mixture.  Unfortunately, the preventative needs to be applied at least once a year, not to mention just how does one spray all the hemlock trees in a forest? 
Currently, the pest is found in 56 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.  They can kill a tree in 4-10 years without treatment.  The state is moving ahead with the soap/oil treatment and is apparently thinking about introducing a beetle that can kill the adelgid.  This worries me, as I can only hope the beetle doesn’t end up causing other problems, as so often happens.  The beetles are expensive, too, I’m told.
The hemlock is a foundation tree in our forests. A healthy tree supports many other animal and insect species.  Clearly, a forest without hemlocks would not support the same species as a forest with hemlocks.  A forest without hemlocks would be an entirely different ecosystem. 
On my walk, I did see some dead hemlocks—most looked to have been dead for years and may well not have died from this pest.  The other hemlocks I saw still appeared healthy, at least for the moment. I hope they stay healthy.  I can’t imagine a Pennsylvania forest without them. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

No ice, no snow, open water

Sunrise over Pincho Lake - December 13, 2015
Non-winter is in place here on Roundtop Mtn.  The ski resort hasn’t yet been able to make snow, as the nighttime temperatures are well above freezing.  I haven’t turned on the electric heat in the cabin, though on a few damp mornings, I had a fire in the fireplace.  For the past week I haven’t even needed that.
Birds are not flocking to my feeders.  They are apparently still able to find natural food in the forest.  Oh, a few of them show up in the morning and again in the evening. I think it’s more to check that food is available than from any real sense of needing it.  By this time turkey and black vultures have usually departed at least some ways to the south.  Yesterday, I saw 9 of them twirling around the top of Roundtop. 
El Nino, the apparent cause of this warm weather, is showing its impact.  How long this record-breaking, strange weather will last is unknown.
Today, a northwest wind is driving down the temperature, though it’s still above 50°.  The northern robins, a Labrador subspecies I believe, still forage through the forest.  When I was younger, they were called woods robins locally, browner and larger than the summer robins that breed here in that season.  I saw a flock of 14 yesterday.  I usually find them by sound.  They tend to hang together in a loose flock, skimming through the forest.  I see them mostly in the mornings and evenings.  Most winters I see them into January, though they do disappear during the worst of a winter.  In February they often reappear on the first sunny day. They are always able to find open water—perhaps from a spring-fed pond, a puddle or an open stream.  So far this year, the pickings are easy and open water is everwhere.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Returning to Camp Michaux

On Monday, I decided to return to a spot I hadn’t visited all year.  Michaux State Forest is about a 17 mile drive between mountains with lots of hiking trails and a couple of state parks, lakes, reservoirs and lots of hemlock and white pine.  It’s mostly undeveloped forest, with some cabins in areas that are not on state forest land.  I love the smell of the pines, especially in winter or what’s passing for winter so far this December.
Stone, moss-covered steps in foreground.  Site of Zwingli cabin between the two trees
One thing I wanted to do was revisit the site of the camp that I attended as a 'tween and young teenager.  Camp Michaux was first a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) camp and then a POW camp during WWII and lastly a church camp from 1946-1972.  Sometime not long after the camp closed, they removed all the buildings, which hadn’t changed since the CCC days—wooden clapboard barracks with metal bunk beds, an outdoor shower area (discretely fenced), a dining hall and a swimming pool.
I'm in the second row, second girl on the right (white headband)
So it has been about 40 years since the camp was occupied, and it’s amazing how quickly the forest has reclaimed the area.  The two-lane paved road that was the main entrance to the camp is now covered with pine needles, branches, a few small downed trees, and the macadam is only visible as a narrow path down the center.  The stone steps down to the cabins are filled with more pine needles and seem more like natural rocks than steps.  Even the stone block foundations are barely visible anymore.
Main "road" into camp. Macadam now mostly invisible
I walked down what used to be the main camp road and found the spot where the cabin that I stayed in used to be.  Nothing looks particularly familiar anymore, and I am rather happy about that.  I’m surprised that the reclamation is happening so quickly.  I’m happy that the forest is taking over what was originally its own.  At this rate, in another 20 years or so, even the little I found that remained will be gone, and nothing will remain but the forest. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Hunkered down

 It’s hard to take photos in a heavy rain, which is why you haven’t seen many blog posts from me, now that I am mostly recovered from a hard cold.  The rain is accompanied by low clouds and fog, so the lighting is terrible.  Sunrise is now at 7:11 a.m., and with the rain and overcast skies, the chickens do not arise for a good 30 minutes after the sun’s alleged rise.
If I’m lucky, I can find enough light around noon to snap a quick shot, but they are nothing to write home about.  The wet darkens the tree trunks, which would be a nice effect if the lighting was cooperative, which it isn’t.
Pennsylvania’s rifle deer season started on Saturday, so traipsing around in the woods, even if the weather was cooperative, is not the thing to do right now.  I heard a lot of gunfire the first 30 minutes of the season, far less later in the day, and not more than 1-2 shots since then.  The deer are hunkered down, as much from the rain as the hunters.  Most of the hunters I’ve seen are waiting for the weather to improve before resuming their hunts.  My own family hunters reported not seeing a thing even though we routinely see three buck promenade across the grassy boulevard that leads down to our pond our at the farm.
Here on Roundtop, I saw the old doe this morning.  She lives in a narrow band of forest between my cabin and my neighbor’s cabin.  She is used to hearing the squealing of my neighbor’s elementary-aged girls and the barking of my dogs.  When flushed by one or the other of us, she just crosses the lane and finds another spot a few feet away.  I hope she makes it through doe season in another week or two.  I like having her around, though she is an old doe who didn’t produce a fawn this season.  I like watching her.  She is about half-tame, whether from habituation to us or because her age makes her less inclined to bolt like a youngster.  She would be tough-eating for a hunter.  I am torn between wanting her around and thinking that perhaps a quick shot would be kinder than a long and painful decline from age in a harsh winter.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Old rock, "new" rock

My apologies for the lack of posts.  I’ve been harboring a cold and have done little except wrap myself in a blanket and drink gallons of hot tea.  I am over the worst of it now and so am beginning to venture out again, if not venturing very far just yet. 
 An advantage of not being able to venture too far is that I am looking more closely again at the forest around my cabin.  Today, the boulders that line the lane and my own front forest caught my attention.  In summer the rocks are nearly hidden by annual growth, and it’s only in the leafless seasons that I can see them well.
The weathered and cracked boulders are the most typical of the rocks here.  These are desk-sized rocks that have been exposed to the elements for who knows how many years.  Exposure to ice and rain are doing their best to break them into the smaller rocks that are even more numerous all around on the forest floor.  These little rocks were former boulders, still working their way down in size into ever smaller rocks. The boulders are home to moss and lichens, too.  Sometimes a small fern, usually a Christmas fern, manages to find enough of a foothold to grow in one of the cracks.
And then I have what I call the “new” rocks.  They are not new in the sense of overall age. Likely, they are as old as any of the other rocks around the mountain.  But they are newly exposed to the elements and so are not yet cracked and worn or split into small pieces. 
These rocks were exposed less than 50 years ago, when the lane up the mountain was first built.  My lane is not the first road up the mountain, and it may have even been created from an older, narrower road that ended at a sadly gone log cabin. (I was fortunate enough to see that abandoned cabin in the first years I lived here, before it was damaged by a large tree and then vandalized by late night partyers.) Today, these newly exposed rocks line the lane.  They are smooth and bright, usually square-ish.  Weather has not yet taken its toll on them and won’t for who knows how many more years.  But now that they are exposed to sunlight and rain, that slow destruction will begin.  None of us will see that, of course, and perhaps humans won’t even be around the earth anymore when that happens.  But it will happen.  Time is patient.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Embracing the dreariness

I am enjoying a dreary November day.  It is a bit foggy and overcast, so the day is dark.  The air is still and the trees are bare.  It’s chilly.  I had a fire in the fireplace this morning and may need one again before long.  For now, I am wrapped comfortably in a wool sweater, my hands warmed by a cup of hot chocolate.  This is how November should be.  At least it’s what I think of when I think of November. 

Novembers should be chilly and raw, not sunny and bright like an October afternoon.  So in an odd way, the dreariness makes me happy. Today feels like a normal November day, dreariness and all.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Dark and dreary

It was so dark and dreary this morning that I was late getting up.  I kept waiting for some semblance of daylight to appear, and it never did.  A black cloud hung heavily over the mountain, so even at 7 a.m. I needed a headlamp for a little while, and Doodle the rooster didn’t crow until almost 7:30 a.m.
The rain, while not heavy, was cold and the breeze blew little slivers of it onto my face, stinging it.  Even the Shelties were happy to turn around and head back to the cabin this morning and that has to be a first!  Birds were hunkered down in whatever shelter they could find, but a great horned owl was still calling just before 8 a.m. 
By afternoon, the day improved, and the sky soon filled with turkey vultures and a pair of red-tailed hawks.  The little birds came out of hiding too.  It is, after all, November and this is how November is supposed to be.  Or even colder, though it’s still sort of early enough in the month to let that pass for now.  Here on my mountain, November is a transition month.  It can be a leaf-less repeat of October, or it can be winter.  So far, this November is milder than average, but with the coldest part of the month still ahead, it’s too soon to complain about just how mild it’s going to be.

Instead, on this chilly and blustery morning, the dogs got a bit of a walk.  When we returned to the cabin, we had a fire in the fireplace, and I had a cup of hot chocolate, and that was enough to scare away the chill. 

Monday, November 09, 2015

Early morning frost

Roundtop has had both frosts and freezes this fall, but this morning was the first hard frost where I could get a photo.  Even though the temperature was a chilly 27 for a few minutes this morning, as soon as the sun rose above the horizon, the warmup began.  Now, just 3 hours after the early morning frost, the temperature is already up to 50, and the frost is long gone. The photos are all that is left.
I like the shadow of the rising sun’s rays on the oak leaf.  You just know that frost will be gone momentarily.  The photo captures the coming warmth of the day in the sun shadows while still showing the result of a cool night. Most of the leaves are down now.  The few that are left are no longer even bronze but are more like a deep copper.  The color is not much different than the color of the bark of the trees, so the forest is nearly monochromatic today.  Even so, I find this a pretty time of year. The long vistas are back.  I can see the mountain to the west, the pond to the north.  I can even monitor the chickens’ whereabouts instead of just hearing their scratching.

I can see the sky again, and monitor the coming rain without having to leave the cabin to find a patch of open sky.  Already the air has a chill, nearly raw feel to it.  I was forced to clear as many leaves off the decks that I can, to avoid a sodden mess when the rain comes.  Likely, my work will only be partly successful, as more leaves are already coming down.  I hope the most of them are removed, but one good wind gust before the rain will be enough to negate my work. 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

November's forest light

The first few days of November have been atypically warm, more like mid-October than the blustery weather that is more expected.  I find it hard to complain much about 70 degree weather and gorgeous late fall light.  The fall colors that remain have faded from brilliant yellows and reds into shades of bronze, but the mountains are still beautiful.
The leaves of summer now litter the forest floor, and it is impossible to walk quietly.  The leaves, as yet undampened, are as crunchy as crumpled paper and as light and airy as snowflakes.  The Shelties are belly-deep in leaves, and they are above ankle deep for me.  So it is difficult on this rare November day to grouse about temperatures so far above normal.  Instead, I simply enjoy the afternoon, marveling in the golden shades of light.
So many leaves are off the trees now that for the first time, I can see the mountain to the west of me, though it is not yet as clear a view as I will have when all the leaves are down.  I can see partway down the mountain, now, and the porchlight from across the valley bobs in and out of view at night with every slight breeze.
The sweet little fawns of summer have no clue about the winter ahead or the fall hunting seasons.  They stand still as I drive by, Baby Dog hanging out a rear window staring at them.  But she doesn’t bark and the now spotless fawns don’t flee.  A few birds of summer remain or perhaps they are birds that nested much further north than here that have now reached this area in their flight south.  A palm warbler, about the same color as its surroundings, pops up among a host of goldfinch, juncos and song sparrows.  We stare at each other for a second or two and then it is off.  I hope the warm weather is an aid to its southbound journey and that its travels are safe. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

Leaves falling down

This is the week of leaves falling down at Roundtop.  Leaves are everywhere, floating down like rain and crunchy underfoot.  So far no rain has dampened them or turned them into a sodden mess, the first step of decaying into new forest soil.

For the first time since May I can see the outline of Nell’s Hill to the west.  I can not yet see the porch light of my nearest western neighbor, who lives a mile or so down the mountain, across the narrow valley, across Beaver Creek, over the swampy area and starting up the next mountain.  When I can see those lights, I’ll know winter is approaching and that all the leaves are down.

So far this season, I have seen little signs of waterfowl migration.  I would have expected that to have started by now, but not even migrating geese have been spotted.  The local geese honk and fly over on their nightly rounds, pretending or perhaps thinking about migrating.  The instincts are there for them, even if they don’t head south.  A quick trip to Pinchot Lake this weekend saw it empty of any waterfowl, except for seven geese.  Those were certainly local birds, too.  Migration is late, perhaps a result of the warmer weather this week.
So this past weekend was a very nice one for the time of year, a tad warmer than it’s been and with no rain.  The photos with today’s post were all taken this weekend.  You can see that the brilliant falls colors are gone.  The leaves are not yet faded into all browns, but the drama of the season is past. It was a good time for enjoying the weather.  Not many more days this year can I expect the weather to be so balmy or so conducive to outdoor work.  I’ll take these lovely fall days however I find them.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Falling leaves

It’s official.  The peak of fall colors is past and the leaf drop has begun.  Of course, a hard rain last night and strong breeze today will push things along faster than is typical but that’s how it goes.  This is the week when I wade ankle deep through the forest’s leaves that litter my porch and deck.  I sweep the leaves every evening but for at least a week it does no good. Every day there are more.

One year I refused to sweep the leaves for a week, and I was soon knee deep in them on my front porch.  Having tried that once, now I sweep them daily until the leaf drop is over.  What I like to do is to study the leaves a bit and to name the species of trees they come from.  In my forest, white oak, red oak, tulip poplar, hickory and American beech are the most common species. I also find a few others, like chestnut oak, sassafras and wild cherry.  Sometimes I find an American chestnut, but these are likely from a younger tree that has not yet succumbed to the disease that devastated this species.

The leaves are blown from all over, who knows where, really, so if I find an unusual leaf, trying to then locate the tree it came from is pretty much impossible.  That doesn’t stop me from looking. Sooner or later I will be successful with one of them.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Color passing its peak


The fall color is now past its peak here on Roundtop.  The colors were gorgeous on Saturday and Sunday morning, when these photos were taken.  This year is a far cry from the drab shades in 2014, which were hurt by both wind and rain at just the wrong time.

Around noon on Sunday, a strong easterly breeze blew up, taking the first round of fall color with it.  Several more rounds of wind or rain will be needed before all the leaves are down, but the leaves that remain this morning are no longer as dense as they were.

I can, in a few places, see bare tree limbs.  On other trees, green leaves have reappeared, as the most colored ones have fallen. It will be another 10 days, perhaps a bit longer depending on the weather, before the trees are winter bare again.  As of last evening I could not yet see the outline of Nell’s Hill to the west of my cabin. I could see, barely, where the sky’s brightness stopped, but that’s hardly the same as seeing the neighboring mountain itself.  With more rain and wind predicted for mid-week, I may well see its outline or the mountain itself before the weekend.

The falling leaves produced an afternoon’s entertainment for the cats, who jumped at the window or the glass door, whenever another batch of them fell. Apparently, they thought the falling leaves were prey or perhaps it was only the motion that kept their attention. Poor Baby Dog was trying to sleep and was startled from it every time a cat pounced against the glass.  Finally, she grumbled and headed upstairs, where presumably she couldn’t hear the sound of paws against glass.
Outdoors, the smell of fall fills the air around the cabin.  It is a crisp smell, not yet with the bite of winter but no longer the sweeter smell of summer. I could smell moisture with it, and the musky scent of old leaves on the earth.  Every now and again came the whiff of my neighbor’s fireplace, with wood furnished by a downed tree from the front of my cabin. The air right now has an exclusively October smell and one that doesn’t last long enough for me.  Autumn is here.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Morning light

Morning sunrises this week at Roundtop are especially stunning, and there are several reasons for this.  Perhaps most obvious are the clouds.  For a really spectacular sunrise or sunset, at least a few clouds along the horizon are needed. The clouds turn the most amazing colors as the sun nears the horizon.  This week the clouds have been most cooperative.

Perhaps less thought of, but just as important, is where the sun is when it breaks the horizon.  At Roundtop the sunrises are nearly always “better” than the sunsets.  Partly this is because, except in midwinter, I have a better view to the east than to the west.   However, the real reason is where the sun breaks the horizon this time of year.

We all know that here in the northern hemisphere the sunrise or sunset falls at different points along the eastern or western horizon.  In winter, the sun rises much further to the south than it does in summer.  What this means at Roundtop is that from roughly October to early February, the sunrise reflects across the main snowmaking pond, which doesn’t happen in summer.  That reflection of the sunrise over the pond contributes greatly to good sunrise photos.

Even without the pond, the angle of the sunrise itself creates a different color to the light in these waning seasons.  It’s not just the leaves that make people talk about a “golden” October.  The light from the sun’s lower sky angle is much more golden now than in the summer months, when it is more lemony than golden.  Artists are very aware of the changing color of light, often to their great annoyance as the colors seem to change even as they work.

For me, all this simply translates into better sunrise photos during this time of year.  And that’s always a good reason to have a camera ready.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Dreams of daylight

This morning as I was walking the dogs, I was feeling a bit disconnected from the forest around me, and wondering why since I was, at that moment, walking in the woods.  For a moment or two I blamed the Shelties who were particularly full of themselves and not inclined to listen this morning.  But then I realized that it wasn’t them.  It was the dark.

I have reached that point of the year where I am only home and in the woods when it is dark. As a result I miss so many of the things I notice and love about the forest.  Stumbling in the dark with a fading headlamp isn’t conducive to noticing what I usually see and hear.

Currently, I hear no forest birds, though occasionally a distant great horned owl calls from way up the mountain.  During daylight the forest birds keep up a running conversation of what’s going on around us—the alarm calls when a hawk soars overhead, the cawing of the crow family with all their variety of vocalizations, a stamp from one of the increasingly tame deer.

I also can’t see much, even with the headlamp isn’t fading.  As just once example: Have you ever noticed while walking through a wood how the dirt or mud changes as you near areas where people live? Have you noticed how the soil changes in different areas of a mountain? How the soil is different from the north side to the south side?  From the top to the bottom?

None of that is possible to notice for me now in the dark.  And this morning the stars were hidden by clouds, and about all I could tell about the kind of clouds that were up there was that they were blocking the stars. I miss the daylight conversations of the birds, the subtle differences in the soils, seeing the different shapes of the rocks that face the north or the south side of the mountain, the changing vegetation.  Night has its charms, but perhaps not as many as daylight and certainly not to the exclusion of daylight, as my schedule dictates today. So I sighed a bit, cautioned the Shelties yet again, and walked on.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fall colors

Nell's Hill

The colors of fall are growing more intense. Each day the colors are more vibrant, and some days I could swear the colors deepen from morning to night. Of course, the golden glow of sunrise and sunset really brightens the shades.

Over the weekend, the area was treated to the first “hello” from old man winter.  We had a brief but intense period of snow, sleet and/or graupel.  Oddly, up on the mountain where I am, less of that fell than almost everywhere else.  I had a brief moment, lasting perhaps 30 seconds of sleet or graupel.  It was after dark when the precipitation fell and it melted almost immediately but there it was.

Now, the brief moment of colder weather is fading, and warmer weather is returning for a brief moment.  That’s the way of fall in this area.  We jump from fall to winter to fall and maybe half a day of summer and then winter again.  It’s impossible to dress appropriately for a full day unless I am near my closet. What’s fine in the morning is terrible by afternoon, or vice versa.

The first frost has also come and gone.  I didn’t have an obvious frost at the cabin so was surprised to see whitened grasses when I left the cabin.  That didn’t last long either.  At least not this time.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Fall color is near its peak here on Roundtop Mtn., though some areas are still pretty green.  The low-lying valleys and gullys may even be at the peak of fall color.  With the first frost possible on Sunday night, leaves not yet at peak soon will be.  Some leaves are already falling and beginning to litter the lane up to my cabin, but the big fall of leaves is still about two weeks away.

At the moment I am hoping I can continue to dodge acorns, beech nuts and especially walnuts and hickory nuts that are falling all around me.  I would not want to get hit by a walnut seedpod, that’s for sure. Those things are bigger than golf balls.  I hear all manner of nuts land on the roof, the car (so far no dents), rocks and the lane itself.  Often, I can hear them crash through a layer or so of leaves before they hit the ground, but not always.  So far, I can report no injuries to me or the dogs, but we have all had at least a couple of near misses over the past week.

I have seen the first junco of the new season—exactly one.  It sped away, flashing its white outer tail feathers.  That sighting on Monday is still the only one I’ve seen.  The late sunrise and early sunset may be a factor here.  I have yet to get the fall color photo I want because the sun isn’t high enough to be where I want it to be by the time I leave the cabin.  And I can’t get in the cabin and change shoes after work fast enough to catch the evening light on weekdays now.  I simply will have to wait for the weekend and then hope the leaves are not already disappearing.  I am sure that by next weekend, not much of the color will be left.   Winter IS coming.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Speaking of deer...

Last evening as I returned from a meeting, what do I see but one of the summer fawns I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  This sweet, stupid young deer was by itself, calmly cropping grass along the edge of Roundtop’s main parking lot, right in front of the lodge.  Presumably, its four regular cohorts knew better than this poor soul, which has yet to survive a hunting season of any kind.

Roundtop doesn’t allow hunting around its ski area, though it does elsewhere on the mountain.  This little soul is likely in more danger from cars than hunters at this point, but it’s never good when a wild animal is so unwary around human surroundings.  So many dangers—cars, hunting not far away, being spooked by any one of a thousand things into something solid that could injure it, to name a few.  Last evening, fortunately for this little one, none of that happened. It continued to browse the grass until full dark and I could no longer see it.  Full dark, by the way, was not far away; I had to brighten this photo quite a bit, which is why it doesn’t look so good.

This morning, rain showers descended but before that happened the impending rain clouds produced a very attractive sunrise.  As I was driving to work, the sunrise looked even more interesting in my rearview mirror, but I was already off the mountain and on my way and couldn’t take advantage of it any more.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Not invisible any longer

Someone should tell the local Roundtop deer they are no longer invisible.

They used to be invisible when they were bedded down just next to the paintball picnic pavilion when it was midsummer and the underbrush was lush.  Now, with that thinner or nonexistent, I see their eyeshine and their ears in my headlamp every morning as I walk the dogs.  They don’t bother to get up. If I make a second round of the snow-making pond, they will still be there.  With hunting season on the horizon, not to mention poor weather, they will soon need a better hiding place and one that protects them somewhat from whatever cold weather throws at us this year.  Five of them bed down in the same place every night—a large, old doe; two somewhat smaller doe, and two summer fawns that have now lost their spots for the most part.  Maybe they just aren’t ready to let go of summer yet.

Summer has “let go” in other ways now.  The mountains are starting to show color and should be near their peak next weekend, if the weather stays chilly.  I can see a progression of the color from morning to evening now, and each morning brings more shades of autumn to the forest.

I hear both screech owls and great horned owls pretty regularly and often close to the cabin.  I never hear the two on the same day.  The big owl preys on the smaller one, which gives a wide berth to its competitor. I have yet to see white-throated sparrows or juncos, though both can be expected at any moment. The juncos are readily identified because of their white outer tail feathers.  The sparrows take some looking at and that with binoculars.  I was making a run to the recycling bin on Sunday morning, a 3-minute drive, and saw a small flock of sparrows, too far for someone without binoculars in hand to identify.  They could have been anything, but I’d like to think they were white-throated sparrows.  Even if they weren’t, those little sparrows will be here before long.

Thursday, October 08, 2015


Sunrise at Roundtop.  October 8 2015
It won’t be long, another 7-10 days, and the leaf color at Roundtop will be at or near its peak.  Looking at the trees today, that’s a little hard to believe.  The leaves are changing slowly, with still more green than color.  The morning light is fully that of October’s golden rays, though.

I wouldn’t say the leaf change is late.  Timing seems pretty normal at the moment.  I think it’s more than I’m still in the summer mindset of being used to having greenery around me, and the autumn changes isn’t yet far enough along to jog me into a fall mode. And yet I know the prime color season and the first frost can’t be far away.

Perhaps it’s because I haven’t yet seen a junco or a white-throated sparrow to officially mark a new turning in the year’s spinning.  A friend, further east of here, has already had the little sparrow at his feeders, so I know it won’t be long before the new tribe of sparrows arrives.  Now that summer’s ubiquitous chipping sparrows have left, the mountain is rather free of little birds.  For the moment, the mountain is dominated with medium-sized birds, like bluebirds and blue jays and the larger Canadian robins that arrive after the local ones have headed further south. With the leaf canopy thing, various woodpeckers seem more prevalent, but likely it’s just that I can see them better again.

So I’m waiting to be kicked into fall. I just don’t quite feel it yet. Maybe next week.

Monday, October 05, 2015

rainy, chilly but could be worse

The week-long rain and overcast is finally over. The sun peeks through clouds occasionally this morning and shows every sign of soon winning the day.  I am fortunate that hurricane Joaquin didn’t arrive here and add to the already soggy ground.  For a while it looked as though that might happen, and that could well have been catastrophic.  Instead, Roundtop is just starting to dry out, and the weather feels like fall.

The temperature reached as low as 55 in the cabin this past weekend, while I resolutely refused to turn on the heat so early in the season.  I try to go until November 1 without heat, though I have given in, occasionally, on the last week of October.  I’ve never given in on the 3rd or 4th of October, however, and I wasn’t about to start this year. And now that the outside weather is returning to normal October ranges, I don’t have to think about it.  This weekend, the weather was cold enough that all the cats and half the dogs cuddled on the bed with me.  If you’d seen that bed you might have thought it was January.  In a blizzard.

By Sunday the rain mostly stopped, and though the sky was still overcast, the clouds were higher than earlier in the week, a promising sign.  I took advantage of the improving weather to go to the Apple Harvest Festival in Arendtsville PA, an annual two-weekend event of outrageously decadent food and hundreds of craft vendors and activities. I did manage to avoid the worst of the fried foods, where items that never occurred to me to fry, are.  Naturally, every stand has something apple-based—apple sausage, apple pancakes, apple fritters, turnovers, bread, coffee cake, apple crisp, caramel apples, fried apples and dozens more. I settled for the hot spiced cider, which tasted even better than usual on a raw day.  Even the non-apple staples like pulled pork or pit beef tastes better prepared outside over a wood smoke fire.

To me the festival marks the start of the Christmas shopping season, though I often come home with things for my house and not for someone else’s. My intentions are good, though.  This year I really coveted a finished tree-branch coat stand, and if it hadn’t been so heavy and needed to be carried out of the festival grounds, wrestled onto a shuttle bus and then walked to my car, I would have come home with it. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

I went early in the morning, hoping to beat the crowd, which worked for a couple of hours, though by early afternoon the crowds were near the normal crush.  I suspect that for most of the attendees, myself included, the day marked the first time we’d had our coats out since the spring.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fog is here to stay for a while

Heavy rain and fog makes the ever-shortening days feel even shorter.  This morning the chickens weren’t even out of the coop when I went to feed them and let them out.  They made a few noises when I talked to them, but that still didn’t encourage them to come out.

I have not yet been plagued by marauding fall raccoons, but a local opossum has discovered the chicken feeder and waddles around occasionally.  I tend to see opossums and raccoons most in spring and late fall.  Sightings are rarer in midsummer around my cabin.

Opossums don’t hibernate and winter is, understandably, difficult for them to survive. That’s why I see them more often then and often in daylight, too.  They come out when the day warms up to look for food. Around my cabin the chickens scatter their feed all over the place or sometimes leave untouched the produce scraps I give them.  Both raccoons and opossums will take advantage of that.  It’s far too early in the season for either species to find food gathering difficult.  Likely the opossum I had was just wandering through the area, perhaps hoping to keep the location of my cabin in its memory banks until winter makes for slim foraging.

I am starting to see some color change in the trees around the cabin. The overall effect is still all green, but individual trees and branches show color.  Once this rain and Hurricane Joaquin clear the area and clear out the fog, I’ll try and get a few photos. For now, it looks as though rain and fog will be covering the forest at least though Monday.  In other words, the fog photos aren't going to go away too soon!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Around Roundtop, signs of fall are emerging almost every day.  Mostly I see the change in the smaller plants—the trees have yet to show much color.  Grasses and annual plants are turning shades of purple or red.  Dry weather has caused some leaves to fall, littering the ground with brown leaves but not the colors of fall. The western mountain shows some hints of color change in individual trees or branches, but I have to look close to see even that.

The forest around my cabin is thinning out, though.  I can see deeper into the woods, and I am ever hopeful for when I can first spot the outline of the mountain to my west.

In the early evening or sometimes in the early mornings I hear the calling of the great horned owls.  I hear both the higher pitched call of the larger female and the lower call of the smaller male.  Sometimes I think I hear a third owl but I can’t be sure of that.  It is still probably a bit early for their courtship, which begins in October, though that month is now but a few days away. Perhaps they are thinking about nesting, though.

Great horned owls are monogamous and famous for fiercely defending their territories.  All the years I’ve lived at Roundtop I’ve heard them calling. It’s only been rare times I’ve seen them, even when the calling is close to the cabin and I try to spot them with my headlamp.  After all this time, it’s possible but not very likely it’s the same pair.  They live an average of 13 years in the wild but the record in the wild is 28 years. I haven’t lived here that long yet, but I’m getting close!  Likely at least one of the birds I hear is a descendant of the owl pair I heard when I first moved here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Fun with snapping turtle

Snapping turtle in the middle of the road

Hawkwatching wasn’t the only thing I did on my vacation last week.  I “rescued” a huge snapping turtle, the largest one I’ve seen in years. Of course, the turtle did not appreciate my attempts to save it from its own folly, but I don’t expect thanks from snapping turtles.

Here’s how it happened. I was driving home a few miles from the cabin not long before dark.  I was on one of those lightly traveled rural roads typical of my area—a few houses, a few fields and medium-sized patches of forest.  I come around a curve and see a large blob in the middle of the road and soon see it’s a huge snapping turtle, stopped halfway across the road, straddling the double yellow line.

In another few minutes it would be dark and even an aware driver could mistake it for something else, let alone the distracted driver, chatting on a cell phone or thinking about dinner.  So I stopped my car, turned on the flashers and went to investigate. Yep, it’s a big one with a mouth that opened to be the something you could drop an espresso cup into. My appearance didn’t encourage it to move.  At all.

A car approaches and I wave at it to slow down, point at the turtle and get it to go around.  A second car does the same thing, this one containing a young woman who asks what it is.  And then a third car where the occupant agrees that it’s a large turtle. The turtle still hasn’t moved in any meaningful way.
Almost across!
 I return to my car, extract my 5’ long hiking staff and approach cautiously.  I push gently at the turtle with the end of the staff. Naturally it snaps, opening that mouth that’s a good couple inches across. However, the snapping action does move it several inches off the double yellow line.  So I repeat my push, get the same unhappy snapping response, and the turtle is moved another few inches toward the side of the road.  I repeat until the turtle is off the side of the road and in the grass on its shoulder. I tried to get it further off the road and off the shoulder but it was having none of it.   At this point it refused to snap or move any more, and I decided that would have to be good enough.

Apparently it was, as when I returned to the road the next morning, I did not find a flattened turtle. I can only hope it learned its lesson and decides not to cross the road again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What I did on my summer vacation

View to the north from Waggoner's Gap--a bit of haze in the distance

Ah, vacation!  Too short and never long enough!

My vacation last week was spent outdoors a lot.  I went hawkwatching at Waggoner’s Gap hawkwatch and saw oodles of raptors.  This time of year I can expect to see upwards of 1000 Broad-winged hawks in a day, but I also had good views of many Bald Eagles, a Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and assorted Sharp-shinned Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrel.
A few Broad-winged hawks in a 'kettle"

One of the fun things about a hawkwatch is that raptors often do interesting things as they are migrating.  We saw two Bald Eagles lock talons and fall some feet cartwheeling before breaking off and continuing southwards.  We also watched a young Peregrine Falcon harassing local turkey vultures several times for no obvious reason.  Also unusual was the eastern skink that appeared, missing most of its tail, which in and of itself is not unusual as they can drop their tails in the face of danger.

Feet with skink
Dropping a tail can be dangerous for a skink or any of the lizards that can do so.  The tail is a place of fat storage and losing that fatty tail is not a good thing to happen close to winter.  The tail can take up to a year to regrow, so this one will be mostly tailess through the winter, when the loss of fat storage can be fatal.  A skink can only lose its tail once, I’ve read, so it’s at a disadvantage for future encounters with predators, one likely cause of losing the tail in the first place. And apparently, prospective mates don’t much care for tailless mates, so reproductive success is not good when the skink is tailess.

The skink did provide some amusement during times when the birds weren’t flying.  It makes me hope this one beats the odds and makes it through the winter.

Friday, September 11, 2015

September morning

September finally looks like September this morning—no more August humidity or July heat.  I just hope September stays for the rest of the month now and those other two months will disappear until next year.

With summer’s hottest months hanging on for so long, I have nothing to report yet about conditions pointing towards fall. I can say that after 3” of rain, which was much needed if not all at once nor in the monsoon-like torrent that fell, the mountain is crisp and clear again. Overnight the temperature dropped into the 50’s for the first time since June.

Hawkwatching season has begun and that’s what I will be doing for much of next week.  Today, on this beautiful, clear day between two rainy days, hawkwatchers who are already sitting on a mountaintop somewhere should be treated to a good migration day, likely a decent Bald Eagle day, too.  I’m not complaining at all about their good fortune, as I expect to have some excellent days myself during the next week when Broad-winged Hawk migration will peak in my area.

I’ve already heard from the Cape May area this morning that overnight a goodly stream of songbirds is already moving, particularly thrushes of several species. The birds know summer is over. I just hope the weather gets that message now.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Note to summer: Go away!

Sunrise September 6, 2015, Gifford Pinchot State Park 
Someone, please tell summer, “it’s over!”

If the heat doesn’t break soon, this September is already heading towards being the hottest ever in my area.  Currently, the monthly average temperature is 13 degrees above average.  So even when the heat breaks and presumably normal temperatures arrive, that won’t come close to getting the average temperature back to something approaching average.  It would take a good 10 days of some seriously cool weather for that to happen, and such weather is not anywhere on the forecast horizon.  And so we swelter.

Naturally, this much heat with limited rainfall has dried out the forest around my cabin.  I was even skittish about setting up my little picnic grill in the middle of the driveway on Sunday, but I did it anyway, keeping a bucket of water on hand just in case.  Fortunately, nothing untoward happened and the wind was calm.  Even so, I am done with grilling until rain comes along and dampens the dust.

As you might expect, signs of the approaching autumn are in short supply with summer refusing to go away.  Bird migration is still early and progressing but slowly.  The barn swallows leave the end of August no matter what the weather, and now I believe the yellow-billed cuckoo has departed, too.  I would hear those birds perhaps 2-3 times a week over the course of the summer, and it has now been 10 days since I heard them call.  They are the only new species that appears to have left the mountain.  I haven’t heard the wood thrush recently either, but their song is much less evident in the second half of the summer. They might still be around.

The mountain is dry and dusty and smells of dust.  It’s a far cry from the lush smells of spring or even a midsummer morning after a rain.  I await rain to reawaken the good mountain smells, but that won’t come for days and even then the chance is not a good one.

Misty sunrise at Pinchot Lake