Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Nor'easter

The wind started about 10 pm Thursday night, just as we lost power. We went to bed, but could not sleep as the wind howled and rain lashed the house. The house shook, trees fell with a crash and a thud. Each time we cringed, hoping a tree would not fall on the house. Gusts of wind swirled around the house; one blew open a window above our bed that we had not latched shut. Sometime around 1:00 am we drifted off to the sleep as the Nor'easter moved off-shore and the winds died down.

We woke Friday morning, hearing a neighbor's generator. His basement floods during rainstorms that knock out power. He must run the generator to keep the sump pump running non-stop. During the December 2008 ice storm, when we lost power for three days, we finally bought a generator. We found one at a Home Depot in southern Massachusetts, more than 100 miles away, just as the power returned. So, this time we were ready, sort of. We forgot to get gas for the generator. By 9:00 am we were driving to find gas, along with everyone else. The lines to the gas pumps were long.

Someone reported a gust of 91 mph in Portsmouth. As we walked around the neighborhood, and remembered the sound of the wind during the night, we knew that the wind was fierce. Large, live white pines - some two feet in diameter -- were uprooted and lying on the ground. Some fell harmlessly in the woods, many took down powerlines, at least one hit the front of a house up the road, breaking two windows. They must have been terrified when it happened, a tree crashing against their house during a ferocious midnight storm. Utility poles snapped. This just from the power of wind and water. There was no ice, no wet snow. Temperatures were above freezing.

The damage and power outage is widespread -- more than 300,000 of us without power in New Hampshire. Most people are prepared now, after a growing number of intensive storms during the last few years. By mid-day Friday we could hear a chorus of generators. Neighbors were helping neighbors clear fallen trees and making runs to the gas station to get more gas for the generators. Town crews were busy clearing fallen debris.

Today is day two without power. Fallen trees still lie across some lines in our neighborhood. We expect to be without power for a few more days. A local bakery in a neighboring town has free Internet access, good coffee, tasty bagels, and comfortable chairs -- a nice place to write this blog. Here are a few photos from the aftermath of the February 25, 2010 storm.

 

 

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Pair of Pileateds

About mid-morning, as I was tapping away at my computer, I looked out the window to see a few flurries falling. A precursor to the 3 to 5 inches of wet snow expected tonight, followed by another storm on Thursday. The goldfinches arrived just as the flakes began to fall, as they have done in advance of recent storms. The birds looked dull, blending in with the gray tints of mid-winter.

As I stared out the window, letting my mind wander from my work, a sudden flash of color caught my eye. A female pileated woodpecker worked a 10-inch white pine twenty feet beyond the feeders. Her bold red crest and solid black back in sharp contrast to the flat, gray woods. As she flew to the backyard I followed her path as she landed on a red maple. Just as I glanced through my binoculars, the male flew in with great sweeping wing beats and landed on the same maple that the female had recently left. For the next hour they flew from dead or dying tree to dead or dying tree in the small woods behind our house. The male spent 10 minutes near the base of a six-inch dead white pine. He chiseled and flicked large pieces of bark over his shoulder, eventually clearing four feet of bark from the tree.

Aria and I walked back to the woods to stretch our legs and I took a few photos of the recent woodworking by the male pileated woodpecker. Insect trails and fresh woodpecker holes were clear and bright in the exposed wood. The woodpeckers seem to know in advance which trees have insects beneath the bark, as they rarely visited healthy, live trees. As we walked back to the house, the pair of pileateds flew overhead, gracefully moving through the canopy to the next big dead tree.

 
  
 

Just as we settled back in - me at the computer, Aria on the carpet near my feet -- the flock of goldfinches at the feeder disappeared suddenly. That always means one thing -- a predator has swooped in. There on a branch was a male sharp-shinned hawk. A beautiful bird, which sat for a few minutes, letting me get a good look through the binoculars. He was small for a hawk-- like a slender robin -- with a small bill and head, orange legs and feet, slate-gray back and head, slightly notched long, square tail, brightly barred breast, and a bright yellow spot at the base of its bill. The small birds stayed away from the feeder, so the sharp-shinned left to continue on its hunting rounds.

Sometimes I wonder if I should go back to a "regular job" -- one at an office, with regular hours and people to talk to. Then I think how I'd miss seeing a pair of pileated woodpeckers flick chunks of bark or a sharp-shinned hawk rest on a branch, taking walks throughout the day, listening to nature when I pleased, or writing this blog. Thanks to Srini for working the regular job and doing the long commute, so I can pursue my interests and work and play from the breakfast room/office. Aria's tail is going  thump, thump, thump as she dreams - she agrees.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Droplets of Sap

On Saturday the annual ritual of maple sugaring got underway. Forty-five sap buckets now adorn the sugar maples (and a few red maples) that grow along the stone walls on Bald Hill Road. 



Someone up the road is collecting the sap, "borrowing" the Mitchell maple trees for the season of sap collecting.

 
 
A droplet of sap fell into the bucket every 3 to 4 seconds under sunny skies at mid-afternoon today. The temperature reached into the high 40s, after an overnight of below freezing.  Many more drops need to fall - 40 gallons worth -- to make a gallon of syrup. The conditions were good today, with the cold night--warm, sunny day combo. The weather the rest of the week -- clouds, rain, and snow -- will likely bring the flow to a very, slooooow drip. The season is just getting underway though, so plenty of time for the sap to flow and collect in the buckets along Bald Hill.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mindful Breathing

I started breathing in 1960, and yet nearly 50 years later I am still learning to breathe. Living here where the air is clean allows us to go through life ignoring our breathing. Inhaling and exhaling is such a natural, involuntary act, that we mostly never think about it. Yesterday I began a journey to learn to breathe, to focus on my breath, to engage in "mindfulness of breathing."

A few miles up the road, tucked into the pine woods along the meandering Piscassic River, lies the Aryaloka Buddhist Center. I've visited their website many times, but not being a Buddhist, I had not stopped in for a visit or a class until yesterday. Of course anyone can visit anytime, they always welcome visitors. I just never ventured down the side road that leads to the Aryaloka, which is part of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

For quite awhile I've thought about meditating. Until now I felt that my woodland walks provided ample space for meditation, or that my yoga offered similar benefits. However, I never focused on my breathing and I certainly was not mindful of my breathing, unless I was out of breathe. And often my mind was wandering, unfocused, with lots of "internal chatter." So, on Saturday I joined 11 others in my first class on Mindfulness of Beathing, one of two forms of meditation taught at the Aryaloka.

Our teacher, Viriyalila, welcomed us as we sat around in comfortable chairs on the second floor of a renovated barn, the sun shining in through big windows. Tea and coffee and fresh fruits were available throughout the day and a healthy vegetarian lunch was served. Most everyone was there to learn how to focus the mind, to block out distractions, to calm the restless mind. None of us said we were there to learn how to breathe.

During the course of the session Viriyalila led us through five 10-15 minute meditation sessions. First though, we had to "take our seat." We knelt on large square cushions and sat on a set of smaller cushions or a small bench to minimize strain on muscles and joints. You don't want to be disturbed by physical pain during meditation. People with joint pains can sit in an upright chair with feet flat on the floor.

After we all nestled into our positions, made adjustments as needed, and placed our hands comfortably in our laps, we started. Viriyalila tapped the meditation bell in front of the 2-foot high bronze Buddha and lighted candles, and started us on our mindful breathing. Part of settling into the meditation posture includes a body scan -- a long and deep body scan or a brief tuning in to where you are sitting, focusing on your body. This was my favorite part of the day. Viriyalila talked softly as she asked us to think about the soles of our feet, our five toes, our ankles and legs, and on up through the other parts of our body. This "felt" good.

The rest of the day we learned and practiced the four stages of mindfulness of breathing: counting at the end of each breath, counting at the beginning of each breath, watching the breath come and go without counting, and then focusing on the sensation where the breath first enters the body. I focused on the tip of my nose and it started tingling like I was smelling fresh mint in the garden on a spring day. The counting in stages one and two occur at the same time, but the experience is completely different - counting at the end of a breath versus counting at the beginning of a breath. That is a bit startling.

At the end of each 10 to 15 minute session we shared experiences. We all felt our mind wander during each of the stages, and as Viriyalila spoke intermittently and softly during each stage she brought us back, helping us concentrate our minds on breathing. This is normal and part of the meditation process, and is not failure. Like any exercise, at the beginning it seems like work.

Several people asked what to expect, how to feel, how to measure success. Viriyalila gently expressed the idea that each person is different, each experience is unique. I was just happy that I could breathe.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spruced Up

Every once in a while one needs to spruce up the place a bit - move some furniture, hang a different picture on the wall, change the bedspreads. I usually feel the urge after I complete a work project, or when I get cabin fever, or when some other event calls for a change. All three seemed to converge in the last few weeks with the loss of Bella, completion of a Stewardship Plan for the Isinglass River Conservation Reserve, and a smidgen of cabin fever.

So it was today that I got the urge to redecorate the Spicebush Log. No major changes, but the photo was looking a little faded and dusty. My new headline photo is of the rock polypody, one of my favorite little ferns. It remains stoic throughout the year. During the cold months, it curls against the wind, ready to be refreshed by the sun's warm rays. The polypody is common and grows on most of the large boulders throughout our northern forests. It will forever remind me of my daily woodland walks with Bella.

Nature refreshed the outdoors this week too. On Tuesday she dropped about 8 inches of fresh powder. The goldfinches knew it was coming. They zoomed in like a hive of wild bees -- all 70 of them -- for a late lunch. Within an hour they were gone, and the snow fell harder. The snow is not staying long as temperatures are creeping toward 40 F today. Vancouver weather!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Dog Fix

If you need a dog fix for the day, head on over to Tom & Atticus. They are on Cape Cod for a few days of writing (Tom) and relaxing (Atticus). Tom has great photos of Atticus and the beach (with Atticus) at sunset and sunrise.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Walking the Wrack Line

We spent a bit of President's Day at the beach for the second year in a row. Last year to the day we discovered the beauty of the beach in winter for humans and dogs. Today half a dozen other people and their dogs strolled on the beach.

Today was a high, high tide, just a day past a new moon. We walked the wrack line on an incoming tide, stepping quickly out of the way as big waves broke hard against the shore pushing water higher up the beach. As the undertow pulled the water back into the sea in a great rush, "the wrack" -- small rafts of seaweed and other debris -- was left behind. The wrack line is a winding trail of detritus that marks the irregular pattern of tidal wave action at the high tide line. Each new wave brings more material, shifting, swirling and mixing the clumps left behind.

As the tide recedes, the wrack left behind becomes dry and brittle and a bit unsightly until the next high tide refreshes the beach. Walking the wrack line, on the incoming tide, as the waves wash over the detritus, is the best time to admire the beauty of the wrack. A fresh wave cleanses the colorful seaweeds and rounded pebbles, leaving them fresh and shiny.






Meanwhile, Aria played in the surf,
and walked the wrack line,

until Srini found a stick,

and then she went back to the surf.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Season of Ice

Pawtuckaway State Park lies less than 20 miles west of our home, and is thus one of our favorite hiking destinations. The 5,500-acre park has an unusual array of rock formations, rare plants, uncommon wildlife, and a feel of wildness that is unique in southeastern New Hampshire. An ancient volcano left behind a circular, low rocky ridge, known as a ring-dike, which forms the Pawtuckaway Mountains. Our visits always take as to Round Pond, past the huge boulder field left behind by glaciers, and on up to the North Peak.

This is a relatively short hike of about 5 miles round trip, yet the trail leads through some rugged terrain. Past Round Pond the trail continues wedged between an active beaver marsh and sheer rock walls that are popular with climbers. Several winters years ago we watched a bobcat hunt for small rodents in the wetland. In summer the rock faces are bustling with climbers. Today the marsh and rock walls were silent.

Much of the snow was gone; mostly ice remained. The trails were frozen or packed hard with a thin veneer of snow. Meltwater flowing over the rock walls on warmer days was frozen in place. The cold blue ice contrasted with the dark rocks and deep shadows below.



As we climbed toward the summit of North Peak, a raven called, alerting its mate to our presence. Their nest site sits precariously on a ledge midway up a sheer rock face. Already they seem to be gathering more sticks for the coming nesting season, still a month away. Bobcats live in these rocks too. We've seen their tracks in years with more plentiful snow, better for seeing the light touch of a bobcat wandering the wilds of Pawtuckaway.

Once we reached the North Peak, we crossed paths with two other solo hikers, one with a friendly, jubilant golden retriever. During the hike up and back to our car we saw no one else, just the wind whistling in our ears.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Slower Days

Aria and I both noticed the sun streaming in through the windows in the late afternoon yesterday. She was lying nearby as I worked on the computer. Aria is still getting used to the change in our home pack, as are we. She is venturing back into rooms and places that Bella was controlling. I still catch her glancing around to see if Bella might come bouncing back in. Although Bella dominated Aria, Bella would instigate play and Aria often joined in as best she could, given her arthritic body. Aria is now more subdued.

It will take time for all of us to adjust to the absence of Bella. Aria sometimes kicked up her heels on our walks, as Bella bounded about. In the last few weeks, without Bella, she has slowed, showing her age of 12+ years. In some ways Bella served as Aria's eyes and ears, since Aria has lost much of those senses.

Aria is still playful. She has always been a night owl. She lazes a bit in the morning, but after dinner and later she wants to play. Her favorite game is searching for her hidden squeaky toy, until she settles down with a moan. The old body aging faster than her mind.

Yesterday we took a walk in the warm, afternoon sun on one of our local trails. Aria sniffs as she walks slowly. She looks and listens as I do, expecting to see a pesky spaniel running across the field.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Icy Trails

While Washington D.C. is buried under several feet of new snow, we could use some fresh powder up this way. Unfortunately the recent storms have moved out to sea before traveling up the coast to New England. The ground is bare in spots and trails are icy.

We spent a few days hiking in the White Mountains over the weekend. Our snowshoes were strapped to the back of our packs as the trails were all packed down from many previous hikers. The flats were as easy as walking on sidewalks. Water that flows down many mountain trails in warmer seasons is now frozen solid. As we got into the steeper pitches, Srini strapped on crampons and I tried on my new microspikes by Kahtoola.

These are light, easy to put on, comfortable to walk in, and offer great traction on packed and icy trails. I am sure they aren't sufficient for high mountaineering, but for my needs so far they are perfect.

The ice climbers were happy about all the ice. We walked up the Champney Trail to Champney Falls, an extremely popular spot for climbers. They started to funnel into this small, narrow canyon by 9:00 in the morning, and by afternoon apparently it gets a little crowded in there.



The day before, we hiked the "UNH Trail" loop up and around Hedgehog Mountain, a nice little, but scenic, 2,352-foot mountain. It was there that we toasted our hot chocolate to Bella as we gazed out at Mt. Chocorua to the east, Mt Passaconaway to the south, and the Tripyramids to the west - all mountains that we have climbed in warmer weather.

Mt Chocorua

Mt. Passaconaway

Mt. Tripyramid - South, Middle, and North Peaks

If the weather holds we may be back up there next weekend to climb to the top of Mt. Chocorua, which offers one of the best views in the White Mountains. We are getting hooked on winter hiking.

Monday, February 8, 2010

One Year

One year ago today I started the Spicebush Log. Several other blogs inspired me, especially Tom and Atticus, who continue to enchant with their hikes, day and night, into the howling winter winds of the White Mountains. I celebrate my one year blog anniversary with a mix of pride and sadness.

During the past year I "met" several new friends -- Ken and Deb and Tom -- through my postings, and as a result maintain a cadre of fellow bloggers that I read regularly. My goal in creating the Spicebush Log was to have a place to write about what I observed as I explored the outdoors and other venues. If I gathered in some regular readers along the way, that was a bonus. I seem to have a few -- thank you. I enjoy the writing, collecting photos to help tell a story, and focusing more clearly on what I see around me. The first year feels good.

A source of many of my stories was Bella, our adopted English springer spaniel. I started the blog a few months after she turned one. She required lots of exercise and was the reason I spent so much time outdoors, walking trails through many different habitats. We had our favorites. Bella liked the places with varied topography with wooded hills and valleys that she could run up and down. If we met other dogs along the way, all the better.

We adopted Bella from the New Hampshire SPCA two years ago, when she was about 14 weeks old. By then she had already been through a traumatic life experience. Bella taught us that springers do not like to be left alone. She went with me everywhere for two years. In her previous life, before winding up at the SPCA, Bella bit into an electrical cord, electrocuting herself. Maybe she had been left alone too long or maybe just briefly. Springers think that three minutes is three hours. Bella's owner surrendered her to a local veterinarian, maybe because he could not afford her care, or he thought she was going to die, or for some other reason. The vet cared for Bella for two weeks, bringing her back from near death. Bella had surgery to remove a burnt tooth and part of her lip, damaged by electrocution. Once healthy again, the vet surrendered her to the SPCA.

Bella arrived at the SPCA a day or two before Sunday, the weekly day that my husband, Srini, volunteers. A friend there suggested he check Bella out. We brought Bella home a few days later on Thursday, February 21, 2008. Bella loved people and other dogs; she was energetic, healthy, and great fun.

For the first year we indulged Bella -- she slept on chairs, sofas, and beds. But something changed when she turned a year old. Unexplained aggressive behavior started to emerge. She guarded food, places and people, at times with great ferocity. This continued throughout 2009, building and receding, but slowly escalating over that time and becoming more unpredictable. Most of the behavior occurred within our home and was directed toward us or Aria, our 12-year old Shepherd that we have had since a 12-week old puppy.

We sought advice from numerous trainers and vets. We implemented all the recommendations, mainly geared toward establishing calm but assertive dominance over Bella. As months wore on we began to adjust our home life. Bella was controlling movements of Aria and acting out against us, almost in jealousy if we showed any affection toward Aria. Our home was becoming stressful. When I was with Bella on one of our daily walks she was carefree and happy. But even outside I started to see signs of aggression. As dogs approached our car or if we stopped for a snack and Bella sensed any competition for food, she acted out against the intruders. During the past year, Bella bit Srini three times, all unprovoked, and she nearly harmed several other people.

Thanks to some friends we found a wonderful kennel last fall, owned by a woman (Nancy) who is quite experienced with dog behavior. She knew about a particular line of springers in which the breeding was messed up. Some breeders were neglecting to select for temperament and continuing to breed springers prone to dominant aggressive behavior. Bella loved this kennel, where she was around other dogs and people all day, in a structured environment. We started boarding her there each time we left on a short vacation.

After an unprovoked bite a few weeks ago, we knew we had to let Bella go. Her aggressive and unpredictable behavior was dangerous. Even so, this was an emotionally difficult decision and in the days that followed we often second-guessed ourselves, wondering if it was the right thing to do. Except for this issue Bella was in perfect health, but this issue loomed large.

In the end, it was our love for Bella that helped us make our decision. Bella was tortured by the need to control resources -- whether me, food, or places. It is better that she had a short, happy life than a long, stressful life for her and those around her. We provided the best home she could have had. Finding another home for Bella was not an option as the issues would have emerged there too. Medicating, muzzling, or confining Bella were options that we never considered, since those choices would benefit no one, especially Bella.

Nancy cared for Bella at the kennel in her final days, as Bella played happily with several other dogs. It was the best ending it could be for Bella's short, full life.

So, I dedicate my first year of blogging to Bella. Despite her issues, she leaves a big hole. The tears still come easily, and only with time will the pain pass. I cherish the two years that we spent together; she stayed close to me on every walk. To see pictures of Bella click here for our Picasa web album of her.

We spent last weekend at a rustic cabin in the White Mountains, where we celebrated Bella's love of the outdoors, away from cell phones, computers, and electricity. We gathered around a wood stove and snuggled in our sleeping bags, and explored miles of trails, and thought of Bella running, with ears flapping and tail wagging. On top of Hedgehog Mountain we toasted our hot chocolate to Bella.

Bella, October 2009, on one of our daily woodland walks

Bella at the beach, running with new friends, February 2009

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cabin Bound

We are off to a rustic cabin in the White Mountains for a few days -- no electricity, phones, computers, or running water. Cold and clear weather is in store for us. The wood stove will be stoked often. Lots of winter hiking is planned. The Spicebush Log will resume on Monday.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Seventy Goldfinches

Yesterday I counted 70 American goldfinches outside my window. They clung to the nyjer and sunflower seed feeders and were scattered across the ground. Their drab olive winter colors blend into the equally drab yard splattered with spent bird seed, making them hard to count. Seventy seems about right though, after they all flushed in unison several times.

Today only 40 are visiting. The goldfinches come for a few hours around midday. They seem to be late risers and leave before late afternoon. Goldfinches are nearly pure vegetarians, or granivores to more precise. They eat seeds, and lots of them given that I filled the tube feeders three times yesterday. Goldfinches are especially well-adapted to eating seeds with their short, conical beak and agile feet and body. They eat seeds by clinging to a plant or feeder right side up or upside down. Rarely do they eat insects. Even their breeding season is tied to the peak production of their wild foods -- particularly the seeds of thistle, but also birches, alders, conifers, and other shrubs, wildflowers and grasses.

Goldfinches molt twice a year, in fall and spring. Soon enough the spring molt will start, and the males will begin to sport more and more patches of bright, lemon-colored feathers. Actually the lemonfinch is probably a better name - gold-colored they are not. Now nyjer seed, that is gold given its cost.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cedars and Waxwings

Have you ever wondered how waxwings got their name? Two waxwings are found in our area - the common cedar waxwing and the occasional Bohemian waxwing - the Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers a nice visual comparison here (scroll down to "field marks" and click on the picture of the cedar waxwing).

Both species are plump with a long crest, short bill, silky plumage, and yellow band across the tip of the short tail. Waxwings are named for the "waxy" secretions at the tips of modified secondaries. The shaft (or rachis) of these wing feathers have flattened extensions that contain a dense concentration of red pigment.

Waxwings feed almost entirely on sugary fruits. They fly about in flocks in search of berries, stopping in open woods, at field and wetland edges, among ornamental plantings, and under powerline corridors. When young waxwings eat lots of berries from exotic honeysuckle bushes, a reddish pigment forms in the tail band, turning it orange. The appearance of waxwings is clearly intertwined with their diet.

The other part of the cedar waxwing's name comes from its fondness for Eastern red cedar fruits -- waxy bluish fruits that are often covered in white powder. The Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, is really a juniper and not a cedar. The new leaves of red cedar are pointed and prickly, while the older leaves or needles are short, scaly, and blunt.

The scale-like older leaves of Eastern red cedar

Eastern red cedar grows as a small tree, most notably in abandoned farm fields and pastures. A line of red cedars seen along a field edge or row of fence posts shows how the tree spreads through bird droppings.

A row of Eastern red cedar along a stone wall and field edge

Bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds, among many other birds relish the fruits of this juniper. White-tailed deer browse on the lower branches, leaving a noticeable "browse line," and exposing the grayish brown bark that shreds in long strips. The rot resistant wood is used as fence posts and cedar chests -- the aromatic wood deters moths from eating holes into winter woolens. The heartwood (inner wood) was once the sole source of material for many pencils.

If you come across an Eastern red cedar in the forest, you will know it started growing when the site was still a field, as they do not germinate in shade. If you are near cedars in fields or field edges in the fall or winter, listen for a high-pitched, short, thin whistle and look for a flock of birds, and you are sure to see the beautiful waxwings gorging on red cedar berries.