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

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

September 1 blues

September sunrise with setting moon

Summer is giving me at least one more blast of hazy, hot and humid weather over the next three days.  But in other ways the oncoming season of autumn is ever more evident.  The barn swallows have left the mountain, no longer plying the mosquitos above this little pond.  They left on or about August 27 or 28, as regular as ever. The swallows are the first to go, though I haven’t heard the yellow-billed cuckoo for a while.

I now frequently see red-leafed poison ivy, tall stands of purple thistle and less undergrowth as the annual plants begin to die back.  Mullein is brown and looks burned.  The constellation Orion is high in the morning sky before dawn once again. Even my chickens are producing fewer eggs than in the early days of spring.

Now, if only the temperature would follow suit.  It will, I know, and likely by Friday, but I’m impatient.  After all, it is September.