Thursday, February 28, 2013

February End

The temperature reached into the low 50s today and, in combination with a bit of sun, the slush disappeared from the driveway. This week's weather of cold rain and wet snow pushed us into the "we are ready for spring" mood.

During a walk in UNH's College Woods around mid-morning, I noticed that springtails (also known as snow fleas) by the thousands had flung themselves on top of the snow. Something they do when temperatures rise above freezing and the sun shines, if just a bit today. Closer to home, I saw the first chipmunk of the season on a stone wall along Bald Hill Road. Things are waking up, stretching, and emerging from their winter hideouts.

With spring fever at hand, it seemed like a good day to switch up the blog to a more spring-like look. And what better way to cheer the winding down of winter than a sweet spring peeper. With nighttime temperatures still at or below freezing, and more than a foot of snow in the yard, we won't hear peepers for awhile. We can dream though.
To encourage your own thoughts of spring and all things frog-like, check out this advance story at the Northern Woodlands magazine on The Annual Frog Symphony. You can literally listen to them all at once alongside beautiful illustrations. And another gentle nudge to consider subscribing to Northern Woodlands--the best magazine of the region.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Weasel, Rabbits, Possum, and a Blackbird

We spent the weekend visiting my parents and celebrating my niece's birthday in western Massachusetts, about 120 miles west and 50 miles south of where we live here in New Hampshire. The difference in latitude and longitude is noticeable in the timing of sunrise and in the types of plants and animals. The sun rises later there, so we wait a bit longer to take Kodi out for an early morning walk.

My parents farm is a mix of pasture, cropland, hardwood forest, and shrub thickets along wetland drainages. Coyote sign is usually abundant, something that makes Kodi wary of venturing too far into the back forty. Surprisingly, on this visit we saw little sign of coyotes, including no tracks in the snow. Kodi, therefore, was more adventuresome. It helped that he spotted several eastern cottontails that squirted out from thickets of multiflora rose. Fewer coyotes means more rabbits, and we saw rabbit tracks in several places, as well as two rabbit kills.
Eastern cottontail tracks
The only tracks around the remains of the two cottontails, was a network of small prints, smaller than the rabbit tracks. After some sleuthing in the field and research in references, we concluded that the predator was a long-tailed weasel. The weasel's erratic track pattern looped here and there along a field-shrubby wetland edge, typical of the long-tailed weasel's haunts. Their primary foods are meadow voles and field mice, with rabbits third on the menu. So, despite being about one quarter the size of a rabbit, the weasel hunts and kills bunnies.
Long-tailed weasel tracks
We saw lots of turkey tracks and one tom turkey displaying to a harem of three hens. An opossum wandered past the shed during the night, leaving behind its signature tracks in a dusting of snow.
Opossum tracks
The most significant sign of spring was the lone male red-winged blackbird that had staked out its territory in the same wetland drainage where the weasel hunted. That is my first blackbird sighting of the year. Mud, maple sugaring, and other signs of spring are here too. Although when we arrived back home there was another four inches of heavy wet snow in the driveway, the third weekend storm in a row. Winter lingers here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bluebirds in Winter

Most of the eastern bluebirds that spend summers here, head south of New England for the winter, some as far south as Cuba. Handfuls of bluebirds stay through winter along the coast and around Great Bay in southeastern New Hampshire, where the climate is more moderate, although only slightly so. Their winter diet favors fruits of sumac, bay, cedar, juniper--any shrub that bears fruit. The pickings are slim this deep into winter.

So, it is always a treat to see the brilliant blue of bluebirds in late winter. These must be the hardy ones, able to survive the wind and cold. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that wintering bluebirds will roost together in a cavity. They reported one case where 14 bluebirds roosted together with their bills all pointed toward the center, like a football huddle.

Huddling against the wind seems to be the best way to survive the cold winds of winter. My friend Laurie Hill sent the following photo of bluebirds huddling outside her window in Newfields, in the next town over from ours.
Laurie says there were eight bluebirds huddled together when she first looked out last Sunday; here there are five. It is remarkable that these birds, dependent on scarce fruits for food, are able to survive these conditions at all. I hope Laurie continues to see these birds well into spring, which will mean they continued to survive the winter winds of 2013.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Firewood and Woodstove Update

This week I received an email from Nathan in northern Minnesota who had recently installed a Jotul Oslo wood stove in green majolica enamel, just like ours. So, it seemed like a good time to post an update on our stove, after 11 weeks of winter use. The stove is awesome. Easy to load wood and build a fire through the side door and easy to clean the ash tray and front door window as needed. The wood fire heats our entire house--the oil furnace now runs only to heat hot water. Our house is quieter and warmer, and we are using far less oil.
Sitting in a rocker in front of the wood stove watching the fire, Kodi at my feet, is peaceful and calming. I could spend a lot of time just staring at the fire. Apparently I am not alone. Sarah Lydall at the New York Times writes about Norway's love of firewood in Oslo Journal: Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians. Norwegians spend Friday nights watching a 12-hour show about firewood, which includes a few shots of people chopping wood and 8 hours of watching a fire burn in a fireplace. One viewer apparently said, "I couldn't go to bed because I was so excited...When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher." The show is inspired by Lars Mytting's book, Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood--and the Soul of Wood-Burning.
So, about the firewood part. Lydall writes in her piece that 50 percent of the viewers of "National Firewood Night" called in to complain that the wood was stacked with the bark facing up and others complained that the bark was facing down. When we bought our first cord of wood last fall, I read oodles of Internet posts about bark up or bark down. It is apparently a global concern. The best advice I read was by Carl Debow at Northern Woodlands. He recommends: bark side up (on top) if the wood stack is open to the weather and bark side down if covered. Although looking at our wood stacks, I think the bark up or down is random.

Nathan from Minnesota wrote to me about two different problems. His Oslo was installed in a corner. In those set-ups, Jotul recommends (perhaps code requires?) that you not use the side door, only the front door. Nathan said, as others have complained, that ash flies out when the front door is used. This is a problem that our friends have with the Jotul Castine, which only comes with a front door. I suggested to Nathan that he consider a heat shield on the wall and floor along the side door if feasible and allowed by code, to allow use of the side door. For others thinking about these stoves -- go for one, like the Oslo, with a side door, and install it to allow safe and routine use of the side door.

Nathan's second concern: potential small cracks in the enamel on the stove top. He thought he overheated the stove, which can cause cracking. The other potential cause is dropping water on a hot enamel stove. We avoid the use of those fancy enamel pots for water, just for this reason. The chance of spillage is too great. So, one downside of buying the enamel stove is the need to be careful with liquids if you plan to cook on the stove. But for us, the trade-off is worth it, as the green enamel adds beauty to our living space.

We have used about two cords of wood so far, since December 4th. This week we started drawing down on the third cord. The fire burns hot as I watch the flames flicker. Perhaps I have a bit of Norwegian in me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Skeleton Puzzle

On Sunday I brought home a fragment of an animal skeleton from Seapoint Beach. At first it looked like a baby dragon, but that's just too much George R.R. Martin on the brain. Then I discounted a bird, and thought fish skull. I posted that thought and some pictures on Sunday. That got my friend JoAnne thinking about every possible bird, fish, mammal, invertebrate that she could think of, as was I.

Nothing seem to fit, until JoAnne's husband suggested that it might not be a skull. Well, that was it, I was thinking about the wrong part of the skeleton. With much searching on the Internet, I finally found a picture that matched my skeletal fragment. Thanks to Dr. Karen Petersen in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle for the pictures of comparative vertebrate anatomy. If you check the website and compare them to the following pictures of my beach finding, you'll see the answer (my answer at the bottom of the post, so here's your chance to solve the puzzle before I do!).

The skeletal fragment from Seapoint Beach matches the gull pelvis shown on the website linked above. The roundish end is the anterior end of the ilium, which in birds is fused with the other pelvic bones: the ischium and the pubis, as this diagram shows. Well, that was fun, although as to which species of gull, I will leave to others to study.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Winter Winds

Any hint of spring that I felt on Friday disappeared in a gust of wind. Another few inches of snow and gusty winds for the last 24 hours showed that winter is still here and full of gusto. Today, if you bundled up sufficiently, it was another beautiful winter day worth celebrating.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Beach in Winter and a Puzzle

Yesterday we visited Seapoint Beach in Kittery, Maine at low tide. I've mentioned many times that winter is the best time to visit the beach. Seapoint Beach is open to non-residents of the town from October 1 to May 14, so we all get to enjoy this wonderful beach. It is a favorite for dogs too, especially at low tide when there are vast expanses of beach for chasing tennis balls and other dogs, followed by a mad run into the tidal waves.

At low tide Seapoint Beach is a broad swath of dark brown sand and after rough seas often full of wrack--piles of various seaweeds and shells and tiny organisms that get rolled together at the high tide line. Yesterday the wrack line was wide and deep.
At the far end of the beach a spit of land juts out into the ocean, separating Seapoint and Crescent Beaches. The rocky shore along the spit collects fragments of shells and seaweed, and other debris.
Crescent Beach is steeper, with little sand, and mostly rounded rocks of various sizes. 
There is so much to see at the beach, both far and near. You can cast your eyes out into the ocean where buffleheads and loons and other wintering waterfowl swim and feed, and then beyond to ships and fog, and the mysteries of the sea. Close in, patterns in the sand and wrack change with every tide. The tides bring in bits of this and that, and sometimes you find a little treasure among the flotsam and jetsam. I found one such treasure that I've been pondering since yesterday. I offer it up as a puzzle to solve, as I really don't know what it is. Help me if you can.

It is a fragment of a skull, likely from a fish(?). The "snout" end is about 1.5 inches wide and the length from the snout tip to the widest part at the other end is 3.5 inches.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Tiny Hint of Spring

Every February on a warmish, sunny day, I get the faintest hint of Spring in the air. Today was that day. It's just a tease mind you, as winter could continue for many weeks and with much cold and stormy weather. Today though, it felt like a transition, however small. Nearly a foot of snow still covers the ground, and yet there was a whiff of Spring in the air, carried in on a gentle breeze from the South. It was warm enough to forego a hat and the winter coat on the afternoon sojourn.

As Kodi and I finished a mid-afternoon walk, just as we turned into our driveway, a turkey vulture soared low over the trees. I could see its bald, red head with my naked eye as it peered down at us (although more likely it was smelling for carrion with its keen sense of smell). The vulture circled back a few times, soaring effortlessly, with the occasional few flaps of the wing to keep it on course.

Vultures were always more of a southern bird, but like the cardinal, Carolina wren, mockingbird, and tufted titmouse, their range is moving north. Still, it is unusual to see them during cold spells in winter. Thus, the vulture sighting over our house today, I took as a harbinger of Spring.

The seeds have been ordered, including a new one this year -- watermelon radish. Now, if that doesn't beckon for Spring. Cardinals are singing, barred owls are courting, and skunks have emerged in time for Valentine's Day to look for a mate. Love and visions of planting, if not Spring quite yet, are in the air.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mute Swans

On Tuesday, a friend and I snowshoed at Wagon Hill Farm in Durham. A conservation area with extensive frontage on the Great Bay estuary. In winter it is common to see a pair or two of buffleheads bobbing and diving just off-shore, as we did this week. The bufflehead is a small, round duck that winters along our coast and in bays, then heads to far northern Canada to breed and nest in old woodpecker holes. The male has a large patch of white on the back of its glossy purple and green head.

While we watched the bufflehead, a large flock of Canada geese floated out from a small cove. Great Bay is a major winter refuge for ducks and geese, with 5,000 to 10,000 spending the winter. Buffleheads and other "diving ducks" dive down to feed on clams in the soft mud. The geese feed on eelgrass roots at low tide and fly off to cornfields during the day to find waste grain.

We stood looking out at the shimmering water, then noticed three large white birds floating in the water just off-shore to our right. These were mute swans. Buffleheads are small and cute, and a welcome winter visitor to the Bay. Mute swans are big and beautiful, but non-native, and therefore not so welcome in the Bay.
Mute swans cause trouble to native birds in a couple ways. They are highly territorial, chasing away all intruders from the bay, pond, or marsh where they nest. This makes good nesting habitat off-limits for native ducks and geese. Also, if you ever tried to canoe near a mute swan nest, you should know how to swiftly paddle away, as they will attack the canoe with their strong wings.

Adults hold their wings raised over their back when they swim, some suggest it is an aggressive posture. One of the three that we saw was swimming near shore with wings raised, keeping a close eye on Kodi as he wandered down to the water's edge.
Mute swans eat a lot of vegetation, pulling up vast amounts of aquatic plants by their roots, which can be destructive to the habitat. Around 1910, mute swans were introduced from Europe to adorn parks and estates in the lower Hudson River Valley. By 1936 they were living in the wild and their population has expanded up and down the east coast ever since. State wildlife agencies attempt to control their populations through removal of adults and shaking ("addling") eggs in the nest.

The mute swan's size, pure white body, and orange bill with a big black knob at the base are distinctive. They swim with their neck slightly curved and their bill pointing down. When they swim with their wings raised they do look like a water ornament. But perhaps one we could do without in the Great Bay.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Pile of Feathers

I’ve been thinking about blue jays this winter. Small flocks of blue jays use to visit our bird feeders regularly in winter. They seem less common this year; just a handful of jays visited the feeder only once. On my regular outdoor wanderings, I’ve seen relatively few.

The blue jay belongs to the family Corvidae – along with crows, ravens, magpies, nutcrackers, and our friend the gray jay. Corvids in general tend to be noisy and gregarious, so the woods seem a little quiet with so few blue jays. Occasionally I find blue jay feathers scattered about or in a pile -- the leftovers from a woodland hawk’s meal. The feathers are strikingly beautiful, a reminder that blue jays are a handsome bird, often overlooked because of their sometimes brash behavior.
Jays are known to be noisy at times, especially when alarmed. They raise their blue crest when agitated. The blue jay is an excellent mimic; the red-shouldered hawk's "keeyuur, keeyuur, keeyuur," is a common part of its repertoire. Just as often though, blue jays are silent. They fly quietly across open areas, and move soundlessly near their nest. A pair of jays mates for life, with the male bringing food to the incubating female and then to the nestlings.

Blue jays favor acorns, stuffing up to five at a time in their throat and beak. They fly off, sometimes up to a mile away, to bury each acorn. This "planting" of acorns protects the nut from insects and other predators, allowing any forgotten acorns to sprout and grow into new oak trees. On occasion, blue jays eat bird eggs and nestlings, but mostly they eat nuts and insects.
I consider the blue jay a year-round resident bird, but actually many of them migrate. And no one really knows why they migrate. If it is too cold or there are too few acorns, some blue jays head farther south, but not all of them. Blue jay populations fluctuate a bit from year to year, and the west nile virus knocked them back several years ago. New Hampshire Audubon reports that blue jays are one of the species showing a long-term decline, unlike crows, ravens and gray jays, which are increasing or stable.

The blue jay is a favorite prey item for the Cooper's hawk and its numbers are increasing. I see them several times a year near our bird feeders. That may be why the blue jays stay away, less chance ending up as a pile of feathers. I do hope blue jays rebound, as I miss their beautiful blues and noisy chatter in the winter woods.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Mt. Pierce via Crawford Path

Hiking Crawford Path is always a marvel considering that in 1819 Abel Crawford and his son Ethan Allen cleared this path all the way to treeline. Then in 1940, Abel was the first to ascend via horseback the 8.5 miles to Mt. Washington.
The forecast for yesterday from the Mt. Washington Observatory was for sunshine from dawn to dusk. After Winter Storm Nemo dropped 1-2 feet of snow, it was a perfect day to hike into the high Presidentials. We chose the 4,312-foot Mt. Pierce, a steady but relatively easy hike up Crawford Path. Snow clung to the trees and hikers ahead of us had packed down a perfect snowshoe track.
Shadows and snow created beautiful scenes along the trail. For me, winter hiking is as much about pausing to enjoy the buds, birds, snow patterns, and animal signs, as taking in the grand views.
We were surprised at how few hikers we saw along the way. Perhaps many people were still tired from shoveling snow or were still trying to dig out. There were a dozen or so other hiking parties of twos and threes and a few solo hikers, but often the hike to Mt. Pierce is crowded with hikers. Many of the folks yesterday were continuing on to Mt. Eisenhower. They had a clear, if windy and bony path to the peak. Compared to a year ago, when we climbed Mt. Pierce, the visibility yesterday was crystal clear. Here's a comparison of the view in February 2012 and 2013. 
The short climb from Crawford Path to the top of Mt. Pierce was windswept, leaving mostly exposed rocks and ice. The views though, were spectacular.
When we reached the summit, a couple was getting ready to descend, lamenting that they hadn't seen any gray jays. No sooner had they dropped down out of sight, then two gray jays swooped in. Kodi was excited to see the jays, chasing them around the stunted spruce.
After a final look around the windswept summit and gazing out at Mt. Washington and its lower brethren, we too began our descent in search of a more protected spot for some hot soup and a sandwich.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Blizzard 2013

The blizzard of 2013 was slow to arrive yesterday. We waited with great anticipation into the evening. The winds were relatively calm and the snow was light when we went to bed. By morning the snow had arrived and was still falling. Wind whipped the snow into deep drifts.

Here are a few first photos. The snow at our bedroom window was piled high.
When we opened the garage door to venture out the imprint of the door was visible in the 2-foot high snow drift. Kodi couldn't figure out how to get out.
The snow in the driveway was knee-deep, and mid-thigh at the end of the driveway where the town snowplows had passed. Kodi porpoised his way through the snow.
Here is the driveway measurement as of 10 am today (Saturday).

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Winter Survival

Two winters ago in February we stood atop Mt. Field in Crawford Notch under a clear blue sky. Snow covered the spruce and fir trees; the temperature was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a cold, beautiful day. We shivered and gulped down hot soup from our thermos. A couple of gray jays arrived in the small clearing as soon as we opened our packs to pull out snacks and sandwiches. The jays were not shy about coming in for a handout. I prefer to let them eat wild foods, but I do love to see them up close, especially among the snow-covered evergreens and against a deep blue sky.

Gray jays on Mt. Field
For a few minutes I forgot how cold it was, until my toes went numb. I’m always amazed at how cold we humans get, despite multiple layers of clothing, while many animals live outside year-round without much added layers. Our dog, and hiking partner, Kodi hikes to the top of 4,000-foot mountains in winter, without any extra clothing. He gets impatient with us, as we struggle to put on our layers of winter gear.

Happy Kodi atop windswept Mt. Avalon, without extra clothing!
Some animals adapt to the cold by migrating south, hibernating, curling up in a tight ball in a den until the weather improves, or putting on extra layers of fat, but our resident birds – like the gray jay – look the same and stay active year-round. So, how do they survive the cold temperatures and howling wind? And hasn’t it been excessively windy this winter.

To stay warm in our northern winters, birds shiver, limit their exposure to wind, and huddle together. Birds can reduce the blood flow to their exposed legs and feet to reduce heat loss (I’d like to have that adaptation, but then I’d have scaly legs). They also tuck their bills into their shoulder feathers. Often you’ll see birds sunning themselves; mourning doves commonly sit on a branch in our yard absorbing the afternoon sun. Perhaps most importantly, birds fluff up their feathers to create insulating air pockets, much like we wear a puffy down jacket.

Lastly, birds must eat, almost constantly in winter. The cute and curious gray jays eat just about anything: insects, berries, seeds, lichens, small mammals, nestlings, and of course raisins and nuts and other human foods. They eat dead things and are renowned as “camp robbers,” eating anything left out at a campsite. Gray jays have other curious winter adaptations. They begin nesting in mid-March, when the temperature is well below freezing. How that helps with survival in the north I don’t know. Gray jays have the largest salivary glands of any songbird; they use the sticky saliva to glue bits of food to tree branches, under bark, and elsewhere for later consumption and as a winter food cache. The dried cranberry that a gray jay took from our hiking friend’s hand might still be stuck to a spruce branch high atop Mt. Field, although apparently gray jays remember well where they cached their food.

A gray jay on Mt. Field flying in for a snack
In his wonderful book, Winter World, Bernd Heinrich writes about the tiny golden-crowned kinglet that winters in our north woods. Heinrich spent many hours in the cold to discover that kinglets hover at the end of small tree branches to feed on nearly microscopic caterpillars. He is in awe of their winter survival skills, as he sits inside his cabin, heated with a wood stove, while a winter wind howls outside. Golden-crowns have two nests, one after another beginning in mid-April, with up to 11 eggs per nest. Heinrich concludes that this adaptation is a hedge against their high winter mortality rates. The cold does kill. He concludes that kinglets have “…no magic key for survival in the cold and winter world of snow and ice. Those that live there are lucky and do every little thing just right.”