Monday, February 27, 2012

Bird Crops

On our early morning walks with Kodi, Srini often asks a question, the answer to which I'd forgotten (which happens a lot). This leads to a bit of research and sometimes a blog post. Like most mornings, today we walked into the hayfield along Bald Hill Road. Kodi leads us there and then he moves slowly, tail down and ears back, as he sniffs each clump of little bluestem grass. Kodi carefully studies the scent of wild turkeys or more likely the coyotes that are tracking the birds. The thought of wild turkeys led Srini to ask about a bird's crop and whether that helps to grind up acorns that turkeys devour in the fall.

I had to refresh my understanding of a bird's digestive system. A sketch by David Allen Sibley in National Audubon Society's The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior helped:


Many birds, but especially pigeons, doves, and "gallinaceous" (turkeys for example) have large crops. A crop is an expandable pouch that is an extension of the esophagus. It serves as a storage chamber, much like a chipmunk's cheek pouches. Birds stuff extra food into the crop where it can be digested later from the safety of cover. A bird with a full crop may look like it has a huge Adam's Apple--a large protrusion at its throat.

Food stored in the crop eventually makes it way into a bird's two-chambered stomach. First into the proventriculus where digestive juices begin to soften up the food, and then into the gizzard. It is the strong, muscular gizzard with rough skin-like ridges and an accumulation of grit that finally grinds the food--such as acorns--into smaller bits. The gizzard in birds acts like the grinding molars in mammals or similar to a millstone grinding wheat into flour.

Pigeons and doves have a particularly unique crop. When pigeons are born they reach into their parents mouths for "crop milk." This fluid, rich in protein and fat, is produced in the crop of both parents by a sloughing of fluid-filled cells from the crop lining. Young pigeons rely on this milk for their first 5 to 10 days, before switching to regurgitated plant and insect matter.

Bird digestion is actually quite efficient, so food stored in the crop doesn't last long.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tom & Atticus

Water Street Bookstore in Exeter was packed last night, filled with people eager to meet Tom Ryan and Atticus M. Finch. We arrived early but not as early as most everyone else. One benefit of our timing was that Atticus suddenly appeared trotting down the sidewalk, a few yards ahead of Tom. I bent down to rub his back and ears; he ignored me but I think appreciated the rub anyway. It was my first in person encounter with Atticus, a handsome, confident, miniature schnauzer and Tom's best buddy and hiking companion. Meeting Tom would have to wait, as he and Atticus needed more walk time before the event started.

We settled into our seats not long before Tom and Atticus entered the bookstore to great applause, especially when Tom lifted Atticus into the crook of his arm.

 Tom & Atticus are introduced at Water Street Bookstore
(Photo by Dale Wisler)
I first "met" this extraordinary pair more than three years ago through their blog, The Adventures of Tom & Atticus. It was Tom's writing and their adventures together that inspired me to start a blog. I've been so humbled by Tom's support of my own Spicebush Log. What an honor to finally meet them both last night at the bookstore.

Last night Tom re-told stories of his life, about his family, his Newburyport newspaper--the Undertoad, life with his adopted miniature schnauzer Maxwell Garrison Gillis, and the special bond with Atticus over the past 10 years. Tom and Atticus are on book tour for Tom's book, Following Atticus, forty-eight high peaks, one little dog, and an extraordinary friendship, which was published last September. A book that is receiving well-deserved rave reviews.


Atticus is part of the star attraction of this duo, although on book tour Atticus rests or sleeps on a soft blanket beside the lectern while Tom tells his story that extends all the way back to his own childhood. Tom was funny and entertaining and enthusiastic about being in front of a large crowd, even though by his own admission it hasn't come easy. After-all, he and Atticus often prefer to be out on the trail by themselves hiking in the wilds.

At one point Atticus requested a drink of water and another time Tom picked him up while he was narrating part of his story. Atticus laid his head down on Tom's shoulder, perhaps a tender hug and reassurance that they both need during these public talks, which must require some stamina by both.

Tom & Atticus at Water Street Bookstore
(photos by Dale Wisler)

After Tom finished speaking, there were a dozen or more questions from the audience. Importantly people asked about their health -- good for both. Many of us then formed a line for the book signing. I was feeling a little nervous, like I was meeting my in-laws for the first time. I had not met Tom yet, although I knew them both so well through emails, Tom's blog, and his book. And I had already introduced myself to Atticus on the sidewalk. When I introduced myself to Tom at the signing, he gave me a big, gentle hug and one for Srini too. Any nervousness on my part disappeared as I felt the warmth and grace of this man who cares so deeply about a little dog named Atticus.

Following Atticus generates almost as many tears as smiles, but this is an upbeat story, about overcoming, or at least confronting, fears, family dysfunctions, illness, and other life struggles. I look forward to following Tom and Atticus on more of their adventures together and Tom assured us last night that there is more to come.

Happy trails Tom and Atticus.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Coyotes Calling

Two nights this week we've heard coyotes calling behind our house, either from the wetland edge or the Mitchell hayfields. Even with the windows closed on a February night their calls seep into our bedroom. The first time was earlier in the week at about 1:00 am, a pack of coyotes howled and yipped. Last night at 3:30 am I heard one lone coyote howling. I wished I was out there nearby watching them silently. They are such beautiful animals--weighing 30 to 50 pounds with thick fur and a bushy, black-tipped tail. Their wolf DNA expressing itself in their large size, compared to their cousin, the western coyote.

Lying in bed I pictured the lone coyote howling, its head tilted back and long, narrow nose pointed skyward. It howled to locate the rest of its pack--its lifelong mate and their adult offspring. Or perhaps it was warning a non-family member to stay out of its territory, a territory of 2 to 25 square miles that the family pack defends vigorously by howling and scent marking. The other night it was several pack members yipping and howling, likely re-uniting after they each hunted on their own. I imagined the variety of foods that they found on their respective hunts: berries, woodland mice, road-kill, garbage, a cat, a chicken, a songbird.

Christine Schadler wrote an informative article on the eastern coyote in New Hampshire Fish and Game's Wildlife Journal, which can be read here. You'll see beautiful pictures there too, including a side-by-side comparison of a wolf and coyote.

The alpha pair is in the midst of their breeding season. The number of pups born in 63 days depends on the food supply. Typically the female will give birth to 4 to 6 pups, in good years maybe more. Hunting coyotes mostly increases the number of offspring, since fewer adult coyotes means more food for the pups, so more survive.

Coyotes adapt well to our human landscapes. I welcome them into my neighborhood, thrilled to hear them howling to each other or yipping as they re-unit after a night's hunt. Even Kodi seems to be adjusting to their presence, methodically sniffing the tips of small twigs that a coyote might have brushed during the night.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Mindful Walk

We walk down Bald Hill Road, Kodi and me. Overturned recycling bins line the roadside,
the blue bins just emptied by the trash hauler. The ditch is littered with beer cans,
tossed aimlessly from a car as if someone missed the recycling bin.
Do they laugh, I wonder, when they throw their empties out the window.

Specks of mica in the road pavement sparkle in the midday sun.
A bluebird sings from a sugar maple tree. No one has tapped the maples this year.

We walk onto the Cole Farm, through Vern's old orchard. The scraggly pear trees
are covered in lichen, they are passed their prime, as Vern has now passed.
His land conserved for all to enjoy. We walk the same paths that Vern walked,
through the fields and forests into the dark pine and hemlock glade where Vern wandered
to find solitude and respite from memories of war. The wind blows through the tree tops,
the swaying pines whine as they rub against each other.

We walk on to the Greenway to see the logging underway. Today, however
the machinery is idled. The weather has warmed, the road is too soft and muddy
for heavy equipment. The loggers wait for a colder day to return to their livelihood.
How they manage the stress of unpredictable weather I do not know.

The loggers have been busy since I last visited with the forester to see what should be cut,
to make habitat for hares and grouse and chestnut-sided warblers and other animals
that like new, young growth.The site looks clean, they worked hard to make it
so. Cutting and hauling wood is rough on their bodies and at first looks rough on the land.
The land recovers with time, more quickly when the logging is careful as it was here.

I can see Bald Hill from the new, big clearing. Kodi too looks out across the opening,
a clearing that is soon to be home to birds and insects and other sun-loving animals.
Turkeys scurry down a freshly cleared woods road, but not quick enough before Kodi
catches a glimpse. He chases but gives up, the turkeys run fast, fast enough to outrun
a coyote, or a dog.

The logged area draws my attention because it is so raw. Yet most of the forest remains,
the mature oaks and hickories, Vern's dense stand of hemlocks and pines, and much else.
Mud cakes the bottom of my boots. I think again that it is too warm for middle February.
Kodi wanders too far to eat something that he should not. I am not patient and try to
calm my wandering mind.

The clearing

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Missing Snow, Finding Beauty

When I return home from hiking in the wintry north I often feel at a loss for a few days. I miss being in the midst of snow-covered spruce where snowshoe hare tracks bound across the soft powder and sometimes the only sound I hear is my heart thumping.
This winter especially it seems so dull back home where the bare ground is covered in decaying brown leaves, the trails ice-covered, and the woods empty of snow.

Thus, this morning I set out on a nearby trail to find beauty amidst the brown and the gray. Kodi always finds joy, whether he is rolling around on hard-packed snow at 4,300 feet or sniffing about in the dead leaves at sea level. Today, to his delight, he found a small piece of deer bone. I too was delighted by what I found on our walk, when I really looked again at the woods and the wetlands. Even the common sights and sounds and the subtle colors of a brown mid-winter's day were lovely when I stopped to look and listen and absorb.

Oaks and pines cast long shadows across the frozen marsh

A flock of noisy crows flies across the wetland, over the still silent heron nests

Wooden nest boxes await the return of cavity-nesting wood ducks and hooded mergansers

Rock and reindeer lichens look healthy in their respective habitats bathed in a warm winter sun
A turkey vulture soared effortlessly and silently on its bowed wings overhead, while the soft notes of a foraging nuthatch floated over from a nearby red oak. I was shielded from the wind as I watched the nuthatch creep along a thick branch in search of insects. I'm sure the nuthatch prefers the snow free woods, and today it felt good to me too.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mount Pierce

We completed our first winter hike in the Presidential Range today, climbing the 4,312 Mount Pierce. Dozens of others had the same idea, given that the forecast called for clearing skies as the day progressed and this is one of the easiest winter hikes to the alpine zone. Crawford Path--our route to the summit--was a well-packed highway and yet we enjoyed solitude in the deep woods along much of the trail as we ascended.

Srini and Kodi cross the bridge on the cutoff from Mt. Clinton Road parking lot to Crawford Path
Kodi and Srini depart from a rest spot at the juncture of Crawford Path with the Mizpah Hut cut-off
 Kodi was thrilled to meet fellow canines on the trail including two playful golden retrievers
and then two gorgeous female Alaskan malamutes

As we drove north on Route 16 in the morning, Mt Chocorua and then Mt. Washington were brilliant under clear blue skies. Our destination though was Crawford Notch, which was socked in, as is often the case. This did not deter anyone from setting off on their various hikes and climbs from the Notch. We set out hoping the skies would clear by the time we reached the summit. As we climbed the views remained hidden.
But it was still beautiful in the woods. Off-trail the snow was deep in the woods, perhaps 5 or 6 inches of fresh powder over a crust. The evergreens were bowed down with snow. 
As we neared the alpine zone the wind increased and visibility declined. We added layers and goggles and pushed on to the junction with the Webster-Cliff Trail.

We turned right onto the Webster Cliff Trail and climbed the 0.1 miles to the top of Mt. Pierce. We initially missed the trail, but another hiker led us in the right direction. 

Kodi kicks up his paws in the alpine zone--he loves the intensity of the wind and the cold snow.
The trail is actually up hill and to the right of Srini and Kodi
 The summit was well-cloaked in clouds and fog

Several hikers continued on to Mount Eisenhower. We had planned to attempt that hike, but the visibility was low and with high winds we were not confident in finding the trail. Instead, we retraced out steps, finishing the hike in four hours. A fine hike despite the limited views.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Mourning Dove

It was a mourning dove, the pile of feathers beneath the tall white pine. The feathers that I showed yesterday in my blog. You can tell by the gray tail feathers with white tips and a black marking part-way.  A few buff-colored breast feathers are also evident. Have another look.

The mourning dove's low, mournful cooah coo coo coo could be confused by the deep hoot hoot hoot of a great horned owl. We heard both birds yesterday morning. The mourning dove is a common sighting, the owl not so much. Just at dawn as we walked in the Mitchell field hoping to catch a glimpse of the owl or at least hear another hoot, a mourning dove zoomed by at eye level. It flew fast and straight like a bullet. I often see mourning doves foraging for seeds on the ground below our bird feeders or perched in the sunlit black gum tree preening their feathers.

According to those who track bird numbers, there are about 350 million mourning doves in the United States. They are the most common dove in this country and a popular target for hunters who shoot 20 million mourning doves each year. There is no dove season in New Hampshire; hunting them is most popular in the south and midwest.

A college friend of mine, Kay Neumann, is working with others in Iowa to urge that State to require a switch from lead shot to steel shot when hunting dove. She notes several reasons why this is needed:

  • Research shows that as many doves die from ingesting lead shot and resulting lead poisoning as are harvested during hunting seasons (approximately 17 million birds annually).
  • If doves are cleaned in the field, carcasses may be left behind offering a food and poisoning source for many raptor species.
  • Federal law bans lead shot for all waterfowl hunting, on public and private land. Research confirmed that this ban has saved millions of ducks from dying of lead poisoning, resulting in cost effective conservation.
According to Kay, 42 states have dove seasons and less than half require the use of non-toxic (steel) shot. These decisions are influenced by groups like the National Rifle Association. Many hunters are in favor of the shift (Kay herself is a hunter), but apparently not enough to help influence the political process. For more on this topic visit Kay's organization, SOAR (Save our Avian Resources) here. If 20 million doves are shot each year that is a lot of lead in the environment.

I am glad there is no dove season in New Hampshire, but if there were I hope hunters would rally behind the use of non-toxic shot.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Feather Quiz

I went in search of owls this afternoon in the woods and wetlands behind our house. Kodi joined me as we tramped across frozen wetlands and beneath tall white pines. I was impressed that he went all the way and back again because we did encounter coyote sign. And you know by now how Kodi feels about coyotes.

Our afternoon trek was prompted by the owls that we heard on our predawn walk this morning. For the first time in our neighborhood we heard the deep hooting of a great horned owl. Two actually. The second one hooted in response, but more softly. Then two barred owls called to each other, perhaps in response to the hoots of their bigger cousins.Great horned owls are likely nesting by now so I was keen on searching for some sign of a nesting pair.

Alas, I did not see any owls or owl sign. There was lots and lots of deer scat, some coyote scat, and one bird that was no more. Which brings me to the title of this blog post: a feather quiz. Here is the pile of feathers that I found on my walk through the white pine forest with Kodi. Take a look and see if you can identify the bird. It is a common bird and has one feature somewhat in common with the great horned owl.
I'll post the answer tomorrow. Extra points if you know what feature I am referring to.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

North Kearsarge

At 6 am Sunday morning the thermometer read 2 degrees F and I could see the prayer flags blowing on the three season porch. It was cold outside the cabin, but inside we were cozy warm inside our sleeping bags lying not far from the wood stove. The temperature was going to be slow to rise that day so we lingered in bed, until it was time to make coffee, stoke the wood stoves, and ready our gear for the day's hike.

Sunday was day two of our three days in the mountains with my nephew. Our destination was North Kearsarge in North Conway, a not-so-high mountain at 3,268 feet, with a relatively easy 3.1 mile trail to the summit. We had never climbed this mountain before, but it is a popular trail so we thought it a good choice on a cold, windy day. 
There was more snow in the woods than I expected, given how little is left in southeastern New Hampshire. The snow up north though has a thick crust, so walking off trail is tricky--you either crash through the crust or skate on top, so we stuck to the trail.

The trail to North Kearsarge was heavily used and hard-packed. Less than an inch of new snow had fallen in the last day so there was a dusting on top of the icy trail. With microspikes we were able to easily climb and then descend without any trouble.

We were prepared for the cold temperatures (about 8 degrees when we set out) and the high wind. However, the sky was mostly clear and the south-facing trail to the summit offered plenty of sunshine to warm our bodies as we hiked. 

The trail passes through a hardwood forest with many paper and yellow birches, then begins to climb along a ridge of mostly tall hemlock trees.


Pine siskins kept us company all weekend. We heard their wheezy twitters coming from the tops of hemlocks and spruces. The siskins were busy working the softwoods on the slopes of North Kearsarge. In the cool shade of the hemlocks ice flows bulged and formed sharp, menacing icicles among the rock outcrops.

As we climbed higher the blue sky grew more intense and we crossed paths with many animals tracks including red squirrels, a large male fisher, several snowshoe hares, and a ruffed grouse.

The track of a large male fisher.
Snowshoe hare tracks were plentiful up high
It was a gorgeous blue sky day with great cloud formations

Just below the summit we paused in the spruce forest to don our winter parka, balaclava, and goggles. From there we emerged into the bright sun and strong winds. The abandoned fire tower still stands and was a handy rest area on such a cold, windy day. The wood steps and interior floor are heavily pockmarked from the many microspike-wearing hikers that visit in winter.


Kodi very much wanted to follow Srini up the fire tower steps to explore, although he didn't mind hanging around in the wind and the cold. Still, he was quite happy to see Srini come back down.

Alas, the clouds had moved into the High Presidentials by the time we climbed to the top of North Kearsarge. Views were not terrific to the west and north, but we still had clear skies around us. We did not linger long outside the tower. So, soon we retraced our steps, invigorated by the wind and the sun and the great day of hiking.
After finishing the 4-hour hike to North Kearsarge we drove north to Pinkham Notch. The high peaks were socked in, but the usual hustle and bustle of hikers and climbers and skiers was evident. The weather forecast for the day atop Mt. Washington predicted the coldest day of the year with hurricane force winds. We were sipping warm cups of coffee in the AMC dining hall as we read the forecast, glad that we had chosen a small peak for the day's hike.

On Monday morning we finished out the weekend of hiking with a short jaunt down the Rob Brook Trail off Bear Notch Road. Also called the Nanamocomuck Trail, it meanders down to a wetland with fine views of Mt Carrigain to the northwest and Mt. Chocorua to the southeast, although not so good that morning. As I observed elsewhere during the weekend, the trees were heavy with cones and seeds along this trail too. Here is a red squirrel dining table with spent spruce cones scattered beneath the tree and on the trail.
And overhead beech trees were still holding the open husks that once held the three-angled beechnuts.
The Nanamocomuck Trail was a fine ending to three days of winter hiking, which is quite addictive by the way.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Three Days in the Mountains

My nephew Reid visited us from Illinois for three great days of hiking in the mountains. We stayed at our friend's cabin off Bear Notch Road--a quiet, secluded spot in winter and ideal as a base camp for day hikes in the White Mountains. We stoked the wood stoves as temperatures dipped into the single digits by Sunday morning. Ice crystals formed on the window, Kodi rolled on the cold, crusty snow, and a gorgeous gray fox trotted by the window one morning.

On Saturday we hiked one of our favorite trails: the 4.8 mile UNH Trail Loop to Hedgehog Mountain. This trail winds through northern hardwood and spruce forests, passes alongside huge boulders, and offers great views of surrounding mountains. The well-packed trail made for easy walking although we wore microspikes, which helped in several icy spots. We applied Musher's wax to Kodi's paws, which worked marvelously all weekend.

 Kodi waited while Reid adjusted his microspikes
  A light snow fell as we climbed through northern hardwoods and then spruce forests
Pileated woodpeckers and loggers had been busy working the woods
This loop trail offers various views of Mt. Chocorua and the great Mt. Passaconaway. Although it was cloudy all day, we caught a brief glimpse of the sun as it lit up the top of Mt. Chocorua as viewed from the East Ledges.
The spruce trees were laden with cones--a food bonanza for red squirrels--and the dark green needles made for a rich contrast against the snow and gray clouds.
The southerly section of the trail between East Ledges and the mountain summit, passes by a huge rock wall and other giant boulders. And further along, the trail climbs toward the summit with Mt. Passaconaway rising up to the south.
Our final grand view was looking northeast toward The Moats with the sun catching the west-facing slopes. A logging operation, silent on Saturday, was visible in the foreground. And at our feet, in the ice cold snow tiny snow fleas (springtails) dotted the ground like specks of pepper. 
Tomorrow's post will re-count our hike up North Kearsarge on one of the coldest days of the year.