Thursday, January 31, 2013

Windy and Warm

At 5 AM this morning the temperature was 55 degrees Fahrenheit, a light rain was falling, and the wind blowing. Gray clouds were on the move all morning, booking from southeast to northwest. By late morning, blue sky had replaced the dark clouds. By mid-day it felt like a different day, except for the wind, which kept up its bluster into the evening.

Between the wind and the warmth and the rain, a lot of snow melted in the last 24 hours. Fields and south-facing slopes are suddenly nearly snow free.
Snow has melted away from the tops of the row cover in the vegetable garden. Seedlings of spinach, chard, beets, cilantro, and arugula are waiting out the winter beneath the cover. I assume the plants are resting until day length and temperature stir their cells to re-start green growth. My hope is that we'll find some fresh greens come March, unless the meadow voles get to them first.

Reemay row cover over low hoops -- protecting tender seedlings of spinach and other greens
The air temperature dropped steadily during the day -- 20 degrees in 12 hours. At sundown the temperature was 35 F.

For the past several weeks the Asplundh tree company has been clearing trees and limbs from beneath powerlines in our town. We were pleased that they took down several trees that we had flagged, especially since we kept the wood, while they chipped and removed the tops. This work is done under the auspices of our electric company -- Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH) -- to help reduce the chance of storm-damaged trees knocking out power. Well, despite all the recent work, we lost power today for several hours. Somewhere along our local grid the high winds knocked a tree across a power line. I heard a few generators start-up in the neighborhood. I waited. With all the Asplundh trucks already in the area, I assumed the outage wouldn't last long, and it didn't.

Now if only we'd get some snow.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fog and Drizzle

The road was slick this morning as we walked with Kodi in the pre-dawn darkness. We walked tentatively in the fog and drizzle, with the temperature hovering just below 32 degrees. The plow truck must have gone by earlier, leaving a spray of salt and sand down the middle of the road. He passed by again at 7:30 am, driving too fast, sprinkling just a pinch of salt (and sand) in his wake. Given the icy conditions, a slow healthy shake would have been more suited to the conditions. The truck whizzed by again an hour later, a few minutes before the school bus passed by.

I serve on my town budget committee, so I am sensitive to the cost of plowing and treating icy roads. I know what is in the budget. We vote on the town budget in March for the fiscal year that runs from July to June. If you thought predicting a week's worth of weather is difficult, try estimating how much sand and salt is needed for your town roads a year from now, and how much it will cost per ton. I empathize with our public works department. Still, perhaps a good, slow shake of salt and sand on the first pass this morning would have sufficed, rather than three pinches on three passes. By the way, if you want to get to know your town, join the budget committee.

The fog only thickened as the day wore on. I felt it seep into my body and brain. On my walk with Kodi I focused close in. Amidst the grayness, I suddenly saw the textures of tree bark more clearly: the cinnamon-reds of hemlock and red oak bark; the symmetrical ridges and furrows of white ash; a peeling yellow birch; and the pale bark and irregular fissures on basswood trunks.
I noticed, too, the prevalence and patterns of lichens, coating tree trunks, branches, and stumps everywhere I looked. Lichens, composed of an alga surrounded by fungi, are greener and brighter in the rain and fog. I learned from Mary Holland, author of Naturally Curious, that the fungi becomes more transparent as it absorbs rainwater, allowing the photosynthesizing green alga to shine through the normally opaque fungi. Lichens really are more brilliant when all else looks gloomy. Have a look.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Wetland Walking

We've had more than a week of continuous below freezing temperatures, with a few nights dipping down below zero degrees Fahrenheit. This cold snap arrived on the heels of a January thaw. The thaw turned snow into slush and melted pond ice, making it thin and dangerous for crossing. This recent cold spell has caused wetlands and waterways to freeze up solid. The wetland behind our house is rock hard, the ice thick and opaque. It's been many winters since we've had such great wetland walking conditions. With a warming trend ahead, we spent as much time out on the ice as possible these past few days, bundled against the cold winter wind.
Day after day this past week, as the sun and wind whisked away snow cover, the ice froze ever deeper. A frozen wetland suddenly offers a whole network of trails (stream channels in ice-free periods) and places to explore. So I explored, walking among the hummocks of tussock sedge and between thickets of alder and buttonbush, with relative ease.
Animals that hunt below the ice, among the sedge hummocks, or along the wetland edge, leave signs of their meals behind. I found an otter latrine on a snow-covered mound of tussock sedge, so noted by the piles of scat filled with fish scales, the main winter diet of river otter. While walking in the middle of a frozen pond along the Sweet Trail, we passed a large exposed rock, with small piles of muskrat scat. The dark cylindrical droppings appeared to be filled with bits of vegetation, likely cattail, bulrushes and other aquatic plants. In the middle of the frozen wetland channel behind our house I looked down at two pea-sized, Army green droppings. I consulted Mary Holland, author of Naturally Curious. She suggested mourning dove droppings, and I think she is right.
If you aren't interested in the fine details and clues waiting to be discovered in animal droppings, then there are plenty of other wonderful things to see and hear while wetland walking.

Under a winter's sun, frozen ponds and lakes boom and yelp and screech as ice expands and contracts. I remember one of the first times I heard a frozen lake boom in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. We thought the lake would open up and swallow us. Mostly though, frozen wetlands are still and silent and beautiful, especially under a winter's clear blue sky. The sun casts long shadows and the wind creates patterns in the ice and snow. Plants are frozen in place. All arranged as if in a series of still-life paintings.
The Sweet Trail, that stretches four miles from Newmarket to Durham in southeastern New Hampshire, meanders past a series of large beaver-influenced wetlands. During one of our recent winter walkabouts we veered off the woodland trail and onto the wetlands, walking across frozen ice and stepping over beaver dams to reach the next flowage.
We wandered among a colony of great blue heron nests, which sit idle, waiting for the return of the large, graceful birds after Spring thaw. Their nests seem perched precariously atop the dead trees, especially as seen up close in winter. Many of the standing dead trees in this wetland have lost their top-most branches, limiting their appeal to herons. In time, this colony will need to search out a new wetland that has suitable tree-tops. 
Kodi and I took a long walk on the wetland this morning. It could be the last wetland walk for awhile, as another winter thaw is on its way. An animal's track left during the last thaw is locked in the frozen ice. Those tracks will likely melt away this week, along with our wetland walks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Deer Leg

We woke yesterday morning expecting several inches or more of new snow. The weather forecast was for 2-8 inches. But nothing; the storm moved off-shore near Cape Cod, before reaching this far north. I was mildly disappointed as some fresh snow would have been nice.

What we do have is COLD. Four degrees this morning. A trend that will continue for several days, at least into the weekend, which coincides with a full moon on Saturday.

The clouds cleared out early yesterday morning, after the snowstorm petered out to the south. Blue sky helped raise the temperature into the 20s, although stiff winds kept it brisk outside. Woodland trails are now a mix of hard, crusty snow and icy patches on well-worn routes. Kodi and I returned to the Sweet Trail, where Kodi has a nose for animal parts. Last year he discovered the remains of a moose carcass; yesterday it was a deer leg partly buried in the snow.

He was proud of his prize and I let him play with it for a few minutes, before I took some photos and then hung the leg in a tree. Kodi was dismayed that we left it behind.
Deer have many glands, including several on their legs. The interdigital glands are found between the toes of each foot. They discharge some smelly, fatty oils, alerting other deer to their presence and social status. The metatarsal gland is located on the outside of the hind legs, just above the hoof. A round ring of whitish hairs highlights the gland. Interestingly, biologists are unsure of exactly its purpose. The tarsal glands are found on the inside of each hind leg, at the hock. They are covered by a thick tuft of long hair. Deer urinate on the tarsal glands, making them nice and smelly to their fellow deer. No wonder dogs (and other canids) are prone to chase deer, with all those fatty smells coming from the deer.

You can see the locations of all three of these glands in the following photo collage.
With the knowledge of where the tarsal and metatarsal glands are located, you can now easily determine that this was a hind leg that Kodi found and also whether it was the left or right hind leg. I'll leave that for you to ponder (until tomorrow), just as Kodi is dreaming of that leg that is now hung up in a small pine tree.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Winterberry Farm Wanderings

Kodi and I are visiting my parents for a few days at their Winterberry Farm in western Massachusetts. There is less snow here, but still enough to see a few animal tracks. The big coyote--based on the track patterns--still patrols the edge of the woods. Kodi notes its presence (as he has on previous visits). Each time we step out for a walk in the back forty, he goes a little farther down the hill or deeper into the woods. Yet, he is tentative. Here he is following the coyote track into the woods. He stops, sniffs the air, ears back, tail tucked way down, right paw a few inches off the ground. This is his "I'm not too keen on coyotes" posture.
We went no farther. The coyote track continued on downslope through the woods. Kodi turned, tail up,  and ran back toward the house to check for fallen suet under the bird feeders. Much safer territory. Later in the day he managed to follow the coyote track another 100 feet or so, but soon turned again, and trotted back toward the house. While Kodi was sniffing the coyote track, I peeled a small twig from one of several spicebushes in the woods and inhaled the spicy scent.

The snow has melted away from the small drainages in these woods, exposing a skunk cabbage here and there. The flower is still closed up tight against the cold, just waiting for the earliest days of spring to open its "hood."
The temperature hovered around 20 degrees Fahrenheit all day. Not too cold for a small, dark spider to crawl on top of the snow.
Tomorrow we'll set out again to wander the back woods and fields. Kodi wants to be outside here, even if it is just to check on overnight animal movements in the yard and mark the boundary where the coyote patrols. Kodi wants to be brave, but it's not his strong suit.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Fresh Snowfall

My wish was granted. After the recent January thaw, it turned colder, and snow fell on Wednesday. Five inches of white, heavy, beautiful snow. Winter has returned. Kodi and I ventured out into the back woods, as the sun was rising and highlighting winter's beauty.



Sunday, January 13, 2013

Shades of Gray

The river ice is gray and melting. A duck walks on water where the river widens and deepens, but it only seems so, as the ice beneath its feet is covered with an inch of meltwater.
A cardinal sings from the top of a red maple; the bird's redness concealed by the fog among the trees. The air is damp and still. A flock of slate-colored juncos flits among the bushes along the river's edge. I note their whereabouts by the flash of white tail feathers and their rapid, chip notes.

Underfoot the snow has turned to a gray slush, while the sky above is a dull, dirty white as far as the eye can see. I hear the rapid wingbeats of a male mallard flying overhead, its bright green head muted against the grayness all around. From somewhere above I hear a lone gull call, like a fog horn in the sky.

Amid the slush and fog, Kodi flashes his white teeth. He zigs and zags in the soft snow, racing in circles just for the pure joy. He urges other dogs to join in, while he lifts my spirits above the fog.

Friday, January 11, 2013

January Thaw

A January thaw is making woods walking a little tougher this week. Kodi and I wandered around in the back woods, along the wetland edge, and into a neighbor's white pine forest. I went in my winter boots, without snowshoes. The snow is still nearly a foot deep in places and soft, so snowshoes would have kept my socks dry.

The deer trail parallels the wetland edge. We follow the same path as the deer, as did some wild canids--a fox and a coyote at least. One coyote left its scat next to a small stub of a tree.
A pair of pileated woodpeckers is working the dead and dying white pines. I don't see them, but I can tell from the piles of wood chips and sheets of bark at the base of the trees that they've been here. With their powerful bills and neck muscles they can remove large sections of bark quickly, then pick off the ants and other insects from the exposed trunk.
Fallen pieces of lichen-covered bark and tiny bits of needles and wood litter the snow-covered forest floor -- a work of art to my eyes.
A deer had scraped its antlers against a small eastern red cedar growing beneath the canopy of tall white pines. Perhaps the deer will drop its antlers soon. I must keep my eyes peeled for the drop, although I've never found one.
The snow will disappear quickly in the coming days, given the forecast for rain and temperatures well-above freezing. Let's hope a snowy winter returns after this January thaw.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sky Creatures

Yesterday afternoon, around about 3:45, Kodi sat on top of the snow in our yard chewing on a bone. It was part of a deer leg that he found in the woods behind, a few days ago. Such findings are always big events. Our lab, Fargo, from years ago would prance around for awhile to show off any wild bone that he found. Kodi, on the other hand, dashed back to the yard and set about gnawing on the deer bone. He cracked the bone to get to the soft marrow (like suet) inside, eating bits of bone along the way.

While Kodi was engrossed with his bone, I looked up at the blue sky and watched a parade of high wispy cirrus clouds float by from west to east. I could see a porcupine and a horse, and a large creature with feathery arms and legs that morphed into a two-headed creature. What do you see?

A creature with wispy limbs and a billowing robe
morphed into a two-headed being.
The upside-down horse
and the mare's tail
An upside-down porcupine
Today the sky is a solid milky-gray paste, not a sky creature in sight. I'm ready to catch the next cloud-gazing day with blue sky and high wispy cirrus clouds. Kodi is looking for his next winter bone.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An Ideal Trail

Last year I wrote a short article called An Ideal Trail for a local land trust newsletter. As part of my research for that story, I discovered this quote by Anne Lusk, a Vermont greenways advocate:  “People are different on a path. On a town sidewalk strangers may make eye contact, but that’s all. On a path like this [Stowe, VT] they smile, say hello, and pet one another’s dogs.” 

That sums up my sentiments exactly. Why is it sometimes so awkward to pass a stranger on a sidewalk -- do you make eye contact, look away, say hi -- and yet so easy to stop and chat with strangers on a trail in the woods, especially if we both have dogs. Maybe dogs are the key! And often I meet people that I haven't seen in a long time on a trail.

Today Kodi and I walked the Doe Farm conservation area in Durham, a favorite haunt that we had not visited in a long, long time. The woods road and paths on the property are groomed for x-country skiing  by a local group and by now are well-packed by skate-skiers. Kodi loved running straight out on the wide flat surface. Part way in we met up with my friend Chris and his daughter's dog, Shadow, a 15-month golden retriever.

While Kodi and Shadow played energetically as new best friends, Chris and I caught up on happenings. He lives in the same town but we usually only run into each other on this very trail, about once a year. He was recovering from recent emergency back surgery, remarkably well, perhaps because he's kept himself in great shape for his job as an undercover law enforcement officer. He catches people smuggling contraband and fishing illegally, and such. He retires soon and he has great stories. 

Chris and I parted ways and the dogs, all smiles, reluctantly separated and followed. The Doe Farm trail winds its way down to the Lamprey River and then along an old oxbow of the river. It is along the latter stretch that we often see people ice-fishing; today there were two young men tending their tip-ups. They had chairs and a sled and buckets for bait and fish, set out on the middle of the oxbow. Kodi and I were on the trail 100 yards away up on a river terrace, but Kodi is naturally curious and trotted out to investigate their set-up.

The guys were happy to see Kodi, although Kodi wasn't sure what they were up too. He sniffed around their ice camp, perhaps smelling their fish or the bait. Once Kodi is on the scent of food he's hard to retract. One of the guys pulled out a piece of pepperoni (not sure if that was his lunch or his bait), brought it all the way over to me, enticing Kodi back to me. I went a little way farther down the trail before giving Kodi the pepperoni. As soon as he gulped it down he turned and ran back for more. He knew where that came from. Fortunately I was able to call him back this time, before he got too far. 

Another quote from my article was from Mariah Keagy, a former Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) trails crew supervisor, who said: “a well-designed trail is not noticed, but sits elegantly on the contours of the land, allowing us to enjoy everything else.” On the the Doe Farm trail we met a friend and friendly strangers, happy dogs played in the snow, and Kodi got some pepperoni. For him it was an ideal trail. Me too.


Friday, January 4, 2013

Wild Turkeys

Just as I was noting the absence of wild turkeys from our neighborhood, a flock of 15 appeared today. As I drove onto Bald Hill Road from our road, there they were, feeding along the road. In the fall, that stretch of road is covered with acorns, but I assumed the snowplows had pushed them further under the snow. Maybe the turkeys were finding some fragments of nuts, or maybe they were pecking at grit.

Since I was driving and only have the iPhone camera, the photos are what they are.
There was one big male -- with a long "beard" on his breast and some big spurs on his legs. He kept a wary eye, while the others poked around for food.
A reminder that you can report observations of winter turkey flocks to the NH Fish and Game Department by clicking here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cold

It's cold. Two degrees Fahrenheit at 6:00 am. Too cold to stand still. Our pre-dawn walk is brisk, and still the cold seeps through multiple layers of clothing. The cold hobbles Kodi when he tries to walk on top of the snow. He starts to crawl, pulling up one leg at a time to escape the extreme cold on his paws. On these cold, cold mornings he mostly sticks to the dry road pavement.

Otherwise, the cold doesn't bother Kodi. That doesn't prevent him from curling up on the sofa with his pillows once we're back inside. We were cold outdoors, but inside we're toasty. The wood stove is generating great warmth, as long as I keep feeding it chunks of dry, seasoned wood.

Once the temperature outside reached a comfortable 10 degrees by late morning, Kodi and I set out down the road on a trek to the Cole Farm and Piscassic Greenway, a nearby conservation area. Bald Hill Road is a beautiful stretch of road in our neighborhood, lined with stonewalls, old maples, and fields. A small flock of bluebirds added a burst of color. Sometimes, like today, we hike more than a mile on the road to reach the conservation area. Kodi likes to go that far.

Shortly after we entered the conservation area, where he can walk off leash, Kodi started sniffing beneath a huge white pine at the edge of the field. I didn't see anything at first, but then his nose led me to a pile of feathers. Surely the work of a hawk -- maybe a red-tailed, one that hunts these fields regularly. Here is the pile of feathers.
If you look close you can see that there are some pure white (wing) feathers, with the rest mostly light and dark gray. Some of the bigger feathers are slender and 7 inches or more in length. Not many native birds have pure white feathers. I'm wondering if this is the remains of a guinea hen. The neighbor to this field has a flock. I find guinea hens to be annoying noisy (I assume that is their purpose), something that a hawk would find useful! Many guineas have spotted feathers, although these feathers have no spots. So, if anyone has a different idea about the i.d. of this bird, please post a comment.

Animal tracks are much more evident with the recent snow, as are these dramatic encounters between predator and prey.