Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dreaming of a Drought

A drought, the desert, arid land -- these all sound very desirable right now. Instead, we have rain, rain, and more rain. Rivers are running down our driveway and yard, water is filling roadside ditches to the brim, area rivers are rising to flood stage and beyond. We are deep into the third major rainstorm in  less than five weeks. The already saturated ground is refusing to take any more.

So we wait. Thursday, April 1st promises to be dry and 70 degrees. That better not be April Fool's. Maybe March and April got confused this year. It is April showers, not March monsoons, that bring May flowers.

One bright spot, Zane our foster dog does not mind water or rain. In fact, he seems to enjoy it. Especially the part back in the basement when he gets rubbed all over to dry his coat. He pushes in for more rubbing. Aria, on the other hand, would just as soon stay in. Zane has been with us since Saturday afternoon, three days now. We'll decide soon whether to adopt him. We are leaning yes. Today we checked off one key criteria. Aria wandered into my home office and climbed on the futon while Zane was lying on the rug nearby. This means she likes him! or at least affirms that he is okay.

So far we give him five stars. He is quiet as a mouse at night, not worried too much about food, is plenty energetic, gets slightly startled at some new things which we think is good, and is capable of self-entertainment. Today he played with the squeaker Roo for some time, although he ended by chewing off one of Roo's toes.

Tomorrow promises more splashing around in puddles and ponds.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Yellow Spring

The yellows of spring are emerging. As Ken, at arts, birds, nature, has said, yellow is the true color of spring, offering the first glow of the season. 

Yesterday we went on our first outing with Zane, our foster dog, and Aria to the Exeter River. Aria kept pace, knowing that we'd eventually get to some water. She's been there before. Aria retrieved a stick from the water and as soon as she got back to shore Zane took it away. We repeated this a dozen times. Both enjoyed the game, we think.

Along the edge of the woods road that leads to the river grow silky dogwoods, willows, and other shrubs. One of the first plants to sport its spring yellows -- the willow -- was aglow. The pollen-bearing male flowers were open and ready to be pollinated by early bees and flies. A brisk wind kept all winged insects away.

Some flowers were just emerging from their covering of soft, silky hairs.  This "fur coat" keeps the flower parts warm in late winter and early spring until they are ready to open.

Perhaps the willow is a little premature in its opening. The sun is not forecast to shine again until Thursday. Another Nor'easter is barreling up the coast, the third of the season. We are bracing for heavy rains and high winds, again. Spring's glow is flickering just a bit.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fostering Zane

Zane, a one-year old black lab/Australian Shepherd mix is living with us, at least for awhile. He came home with us yesterday from the NH SPCA. We are fostering Zane while he recovers from non-contagious demodectic mange. If he settles into our home, and most importantly, if Aria accepts him into our pack, then he will likely stay forever.

He is a beauty -- black satiny coat, small stature, confident, curious, playful, and well-adapted considering he spent the last seven months in several different shelters. Zane arrived at the SPCA about six weeks ago from a shelter in Indiana where he landed as a stray in August. The guess is that he is about one year old. Last night and this morning he pulled out each of the toys from the toy basket. Overnight he slept silently in his crate next to our bed. He is not food motivated, thankfully. 

Aria is still scoping him out. He's received a few snarls from her when he tries to approach too close while she is sitting. She is the matriarch so we expect her to establish the pecking order.

Zane has the head of a lab and the body of an Aussie. The strong will of his Aussie heritage shows through some. He'll need training -- to learn sit, no jumping, come. He's not quite house-trained. And we are not sure about the name Zane. If we keep him that will likely change. Any suggestions?

For now, we are giving him lots of love; he is very affectionate. The final decision will come from Aria. If she comes to like him, then Zane will stay.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Purple Spring

A phoebe. Many fresh beaver chews along the wetland edge.

  Small groups of purple crocuses blooming among the wild meadow. Tulip leaves unfurling. Ruby red rhubarb sprouts emerging in the garden soil. Overwintered cilantro green and aromatic.

Raking the perennial beds free of last fall's thatch and layer of leaves,
revealing vole, mole, and chipmunk runs.
Wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Sixty degrees.

Signs of spring in our southeastern New Hampshire yard.

Tomorrow colder, cloudy,
nighttime temperature to go below 20 degrees.
This is March.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March Weather

For a brief period in late morning, while I was looking out the window in between my exercises, large snowflakes were falling. Gusts of wind blew them here and there, like bits of ash floating off from a campfire. As the wind slowed, the flakes fell slowly to the ground and melted on impact. The ground is wet again, after heavy rain yesterday -- more than 2 inches.

Last week the sun shown bright and warm for a few days; almost to 70 degrees one day. By Sunday, clouds, rain, snow, and cold returned. This is March.

The months of November and March are similar. A light snow falls, covering woodland flowers and fallen leaves. Hardwood trees are mostly bare. The sky and woods are often gray. But the mood is different. The beech leaves that hung on through late fall and winter, have now mostly fallen. The trees and flowers are readying for the burst of spring growth. A March snowfall is just the last of winter letting go.

Hepatica, Williams Woods, Charlotte, Vermont
March 21, 2010

Now, just past noon, it is already looking brighter, more spring-like. The sun is peering through the thinning clouds. A speck of blue is visible here and there. The warmer winds of March are blowing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Walking Dogs

Yesterday I spent 2 hours walking and feeding dogs at the NH SPCA -- our local "dog shelter." Srini has volunteered there for nearly 10 years, but I never went through the rather simple, but careful, training. Since we've adopted two dogs from there, and my work schedule allows, I thought it was time I helped too. Also, after our experience with Bella, I wanted to be around more dogs, to regain confidence in them and me.

This is a nice facility for the animals. Spacious, clean, friendly. The staff and volunteers arrive at 8:00 sharp. There is a large room for cats and smaller rooms for rabbits, mice, ferrets, and sometimes birds, and snakes. A beautiful barn and fenced fields house the horses and the occasional goat.

It is the dogs though that get immediate attention. While volunteers take out the dogs for a morning walk, the staff clean the kennels. I walked Rascal, a coon hound mix. He had no manners, pulled like crazy, and ignored all my instructions.

Nearly once a month, the SPCA receives a transfer of dogs from a shelter from elsewhere. The newest batch arrived Sunday from Alabama. These shelters apparently have less space and less ability to adopt dogs out. The NH SPCA accepts dogs with good temperament and has a good record of finding homes for them. When they arrive though, they are a bit unruly.

After Rascal, I walked Zane, a friendly happy Aussie mix. Then Penny, another unruly hound/cattle dog mix. My arm was getting tired. These dogs just need some love and some training. I gave a little of both. I finished with a 5-month old schnauzer/lab mix. She too was a little rambunctious, but at least she was small. After each dog was walked and back in their now clean kennel, we mixed up their food and medications, as needed. Some dogs eat every last morsel and look for more. Others eat some and leave some and just want more attention.

Another group of volunteers will come in the afternoon to walk the dogs again. Other volunteers help with the cats, or horses, or small animals. Some volunteers have given thousands of hours here. My first 2 hours went well. I'll go back next week. Once you meet the dogs, regardless of their wildness, they become friends. But you hope they leave for a nice home before your next visit, because that is the goal.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Whimsical Walk

We greeted the morning in Charlotte, Vermont at my sister's co-housing community, which I have written about here and here. Before dawn male cardinals whistled loudly defending their territories. The song sparrows too. A dozen crows cawed loudly to each other, discussing the days plans. Eventually they departed the tree at the edge of the field in ones and twos. This is still farm country, so the crows have plenty of fields to ply their trade.

After a breakfast of cereal with fresh milk from Dawn the Jersey that lives here, we drove up the road to Shelburne Farms. This 1,400-acre environmental education center on the shores of Lake Champlain was once a summer estate of the Vanderbilt-Webb families. Even in its early days in the late 1880s, the estate was created as an agricultural demonstration area. Donated to a non-profit in 1984, the place remains an educational working farm.

Shelburne Farms, The Farm Barn,
Constructed in the 1880s as the headquarters for the model agricultural estate;
The view is to the east toward the Green Mountains

A network of trails, maintained for the public,
winds through the property, with views to the west into the
Adirondacks of New York
and a sweeping view of Lake Champlain

Some of the winding trails offer a bit of whimsey. We hiked up Lone Tree Hill, past woodland carvings, and through Whimsey Meadow. Aria was happy to be with us on the walk, but her arthritis and weak hips kept us on the shorter trail route.

At the base of Lone Tree Hill
My nieces looking across to New York from atop Lone Tree Hill

 Whimsey Meadow

Friday, March 19, 2010

First Peent

Yesterday morning, before dawn, we heard our first peent of the year. It was exactly a year ago that I wrote about woodcock peents and twittering. They've returned on the same day and to the same place - a little field along Bald Hill Road that we walk near with Aria. A few ducks flew overhead in the darkness. Aria used to look up at the sky on these mornings; she could hear the whir of their wings and track their flight. These days she keeps her nose to the ground -- her sense of smell still works well.

There was another first yesterday. I pumped up the bike tires and took my first cycle ride of the year. Srini has been egging me on, since he rides almost daily at noon with some colleagues at work. He thought I should be getting my bike legs so he won't leave me trailing far behind when we ride together. So, I am finally underway.

I was thinking about the woodcock when it first arrives in the spring. How does the bird feel when it emits that first peent?  Does it need to stretch its legs and wings before commencing the full aerial mating dance? Is there a concept of soreness until they get into the swing of the season? Since they just flew here from somewhere farther south, their body should be good to go. Unlike me. The early morning peents and twitters sounded better than my legs felt on my first ride in the afternoon.

This morning, though, I feel no soreness. Like the woodcock, I've now got the momentum -- he for singing and dancing, me for riding.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tick Country

The sixty-degree day under full sun brought out the blacklegged ticks. Yesterday I pushed my way through thick brush on one of my project sites - an overgrown gravel pit. By the time I finished walking the property, I had picked off two dozen ticks crawling on my carhartt pants. The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), once known as the "deer tick," is the one that transmits Lyme disease. Here are a few of the ticks that I found crawling up my leg.

(click on photos to enlarge -
in real life these ticks are the size of a sesame seed)

Note the four pairs of dark legs and oval or tear drop-shaped body. These are all females -- they have a two-tone reddish and black back. Males are dark brown and do not typically feed on a host.

The female ticks that I encountered overwintered and are now looking for a meal. Once they get a blood meal -- from a deer, a human, or other animal -- they drop off and lay thousands of eggs in the leaf litter. My goal was to ensure that I did not donate blood to their cause. I checked myself carefully after getting home and repeated the body check before bed. More than 50% of the blacklegged ticks in our area carry the bacteria that causes Lyme.  The tick must be embedded (i.e., feeding on my blood) for more than 24 hours to infect. So, I am very, very careful. And I don't worry when I walk in the woods.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Chippy Hole

The one-inch or so round hole goes nearly straight down 11 and a half inches. It is easy to miss in the greening lawn. The entrance is not marked by piles of excavated dirt. Aria goes straight for the hole. She takes a strong sniff, trying to force her Shepherd nose farther down the narrow hole. These are her favorite - the chippy holes.

Chipmunks are active now. It is mating season. They've emerged from their winter rest period. From mid-November to mid-February they are mostly unseen, spending those months underground in light hibernation. During this winter torpor they feast on nuts and seeds and other foods that they stored in their burrow the previous fall.

An individual chipmunk constructs a network of chambers and tunnels that may go 3 feet deep and extend 20 to 30 feet or more. The chipmunk starts by digging a working entrance. As it continues to dig it back fills this entrance, eventually emerging some distance away. This new, clean hole, excavated from below, becomes the "real" entrance. Along the way, the chipmunk creates a nest chamber, several food storage chambers, side pockets, and various escape tunnels.

Listen for loud chips, a series of chips, or a chip-trill. These are the calls of the chipmunk. They are busy now, refreshing food stocks and looking for mates. Soon the females will retreat below ground and await the birth of their young after 31 days. This cycle is repeated in July, when chipmunks breed for a second time. 

Chipmunks are active only during the day. Despite this, Aria never quite catches the chippy popping out of its hole. They are always too quick for her. She still revels in the game. Now that spring is here, the game is afoot.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Morning Sun

The sun is shining through the trees as I write this morning. A sweet sight, after three days of steady rain finally ceased last night. Our yard feels like a floating peat bog -- spongy, bouncy, and saturated.

Swollen rivers, flooded fields, overflowing wetlands are already receding and draining. Newmarket lies at the mouth of a 42 mile river and its watershed that gathers water from parts of 14 towns. Here the Lamprey River and smaller tributaries are still raging.

 The Lamprey River in downtown Newmarket

 The Lamprey River at Packers Falls, Durham

 The Lamprey River at Wadleigh Falls, Lee
 The Lamprey River at Route 87 Bridge, Epping

Closer to home, my daily walk on Bald Hill Road has been fractured by a repeat blow-out that first occurred two weeks ago. The repair did not last, but who knew we'd get another 7 inches of rain.

Bald Hill Road, Newfields

Several roads remain closed here and in neighboring towns. Many commuters have an even longer commute this morning. Some homes are stranded between low spots in the road. Water still flows across these roads.

 Bennett Road, Durham

Surprisingly the last two storms were not record rainfall events. Here is a table from a UNH/NOAA website:

In recent decades, as more land was developed in the watershed, it reduced the ability of the land to absorb water. More roads and driveways and rooftops also caused water to run off faster. We then forced this water into culverts that are too small to handle the force of nature. Clean-up and repairs start anew.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Six Inches

Winds continued to buffet the house during the night. Rain fell steadily. Since Saturday more than six inches of rain has fallen during this Nor'easter. The rain, wind, and flooding are nearly as bad as the storm of two weeks ago, with even more rain this time. Yet few people lost power in this storm. Maybe all the trees that were going to fall fell. Although winds gusted to over 40 mph during the night, we did not get gusts up to 60 and 90 mph. That made the difference in the two storms.

Our house perimeter drains are working overtime.

Some water seeped into the basement overnight, after 5 inches of rain fell in 24 hours. Though not enough to cause any problems; nothing that our Fein wet/dry vac can't handle easily. But, it is still raining....The wetland behind our house, which we can usually just see through the trees, has crept closer to our backyard. The sun is expected to emerge tomorrow and clear skies are coming for the rest of the week. This will let us dry out. Until then, though, rain continues through today.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another Nor'easter

Heavy rain and high winds arrived in the night. No trees fell overnight, that we noticed. The roadside ditch in front of our house is full of water, nearly overflowing into the yard. The second Nor'easter in two weeks is sweeping up the coast, bringing lots of rain. Tomorrow is a new moon. Strong winds will make an already high, high tide, even higher. The storm is expected to move off-shore tomorrow.

Darkness lingered this morning, as we set the clocks forward for "daylight savings." For those of us that like mornings, this is always a setback. Aria prefers her morning walks during daylight too. Her aging eyes no longer see well in the dark. She would prefer to sleep in on these dreary March days.

Yesterday we took Aria to a small park along the Exeter River. She does not especially like to walk in the rain, but she loves water. As soon as she smells water she starts to run. She greets the water with a big smile.

The rain is with us all day. A day then, to finish the taxes, read, and make soup. Later today when it is 6:00 it will really be 5:00 or vice-versa. It always takes a few days for my body to sort this out.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


On my almost daily 4 mile walk up Bald Hill Road and back again, I regularly see or hear a handful of birds. White-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, American goldfinches, tufted titmice, and increasingly cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers, are the most common. This fits with the trends just released in a new report -- The State of New Hampshire's Birds.

Pam Hunt of New Hampshire Audubon did an exhaustive review of the population trends of the 186 species of birds that breed in the state. The trends are a mixed bag. Sixty-nine species are increasing or stable. These tend to be birds that live here year-round or migrate a short distance, only as far as the southern U.S. This batch includes the six birds that I see regularly on my Bald Hill walk, since I see them year-round.

Another 65 breeders are declining. These birds typically migrate long distances to Central and South America or the Caribbean. Many are ground nesters, or feed on the wing for insects, or require large areas of forest. Many nest in grassy fields or shrub thickets. The balance of the breeding birds -- 52 species -- have uncertain or unknown population trends.

Overall, about one-third are doing okay, one-third are declining, and for a bit less than one-third of the species we don't know enough to say. Here is a table from the Report showing bird trends by habitat type.

A lot of birds that require shrubs are declining. These are birds that did well after farms were abandoned in the late 1800s. Abandoned pastures, row crops, and hayfields were left fallow and over a decade or more became "old fields," grown in with shrubs and small trees. By the mid 1990s, many of these old fields had succeeded to forest or were developed into houses, roads, or commercial sites, with the trend continuing to present time. As a result we are seeing fewer cuckoos, nighthawks, whip-poor-wills, kingbirds, catbirds, mockingbirds, field and song sparrows, house wrens, woodcock and grouse, among others. Only a few shrub birds are increasing or stable: American goldfinch, cardinal, willow flycatcher, and indigo bunting.

I was curious what other birds that I see regularly around my yard or on my walks are showing population increases. The report shows that these "regular birds of mine" are doing okay: wild turkey, turkey vulture, Cooper's hawk, pileated woodpecker, crow and raven, eastern bluebird, mourning dove, and pine warbler. I was surprised to read that blue jay, northern flicker, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, veery, grackle, and dark-eyed junco are in decline.

The causes for bird declines are varied and sometimes unknown. Loss of habitat to development, natural changes in habitat, pesticides, predators, high levels of mercury, acid rain, excessive logging, and a raft of other issues could be affecting birds. There is no one cause. Birds that travel thousands of miles to avoid winter here, face multiple pressures as they fly to and fro. These birds will be arriving soon. I'll be paying more attention this year, to see who is up and who is down.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Aria's Diet

On January 1, 1998 we drove home from the Granite State Dog Training Center with our new puppy. She was 12 weeks old, one of two puppies still available from a litter born September 30th. Aria, as we named her, immediately came to me when we entered the center, climbing on my lap. We had not yet decided for sure to go home with a dog, but that sealed it. Aria's parents were large and beautiful. Although her mother, Misty, was a bit nervous, they both had good temperament. In the years since, we learned that like mother like daughter.

Aria at 12 weeks old

For most of her life, Aria -- now 12 and a half --  has been a bit of a nervous Nellie like her mom. On the drive home with her that first day, we stopped at a bookstore to buy The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete. We decided we better learn how to train this little bundle of energy. While Srini went in to buy the book I stayed in the car with Aria. She sat quietly at my feet. After a while I looked down and noticed that she had silently coughed up her entire meal of dry dog food. Nerves. For many years Aria hated going anywhere in the car. She literally would get car sick. Loud noises -- especially thunder -- bothered her too. And she was a picky eater. Sometimes she would go several days without eating. Watching her buddy Fargo, our 2 year-old lab, inhale his food did not seem to teach her anything about eating. But she loved chewing on him.

Aria chewing on her best friend Fargo, winter 1998

For many years we fed Aria a mix of dry food and canned food made by Iams or Eukanuba. When she felt like eating, she would eat this food. Sometimes, she would pass it up entirely or leave half in her bowl. Over the years Aria often got urinary infections and in winter her skin was dry and itchy; she scratched a lot. We gave her baths and fish oil. Not until about three years did we change her food to Nutro Natural Choice. Suddenly she liked to eat and she has eaten nearly every meal since. Her coat in winter is gorgeous and she never scratches. Summer is another story. Aria loves to swim. If her fur remains wet she gets a little mildewy. Regular brushing and an occasional bath helps. It seems unlikely that it is connected to diet, but it was also about that time that she started to like car rides.

Aria, May 2009

We should have thought of a diet change sooner. All of are other dogs -- Bradie, Fargo, and Bella -- mostly inhaled their food and then looked for more. Aria was never motivated by food, which made training a little challenging. These days she has a taste for Iams dog biscuits and sweets. With a modest nudge she also eats most of her meals.

Monday, March 8, 2010

North Kinsman

Sunday morning, under a sunny and warm winter sky, we set off with three friends on the Lonesome Lake Trail. Our destination was North Kinsman; at 4,293-feet it is one of the 48 4,000-footers in New Hampshire. Expecting colder temperatures, we quickly shed layers as we steadily climbed three long switchbacks. The snow-covered trail was well-packed, a result of the huge popularity of this route into Lonesome Lake and beyond. We passed a steady stream of people coming out - many had stayed overnight at the Lonesome Lake Hut, which has bunks for 48 people. A not so lonesome spot!

After 1.2 miles we reached the frozen lake. In summer the trails skirt the lake shore, in winter the "trail" leads straight across the lake to the hut. People were coming and going. We stopped in the middle of the lake to look back at our first view of the snow-covered Franconia Ridge.

A Boy Scout troop was just leaving the hut as we arrived; they sounded a loud bull horn to gather the troops. Wilderness this is not. But the day was beautiful and everyone was in good spirits. After a brief rest at the hut, we set off on the next leg of the hike -- 2 miles on the Fishin' Jimmy Trail. This is a rugged climb, with many ups and downs, and several long, steep stretches. In winter the deep snow pack smooths out the trail, such that we did not notice mossy brooks, exposed ledges, and steps on the steeper parts. On our descent, we sat and slid down several sections of Fishin' Jimmy.

Near the end of a long, difficult climb on Fishin' Jimmy, the trees are shorter and open up a grand view of Mt. Lafayette, the highest point on Franconia Ridge.

We reached the top of North Kinsman in time for a late lunch. From a popular lunch ledge just below the peak, we soaked up the sun and the spectacular, sweeping view of the Franconia Ridge.

Franconia Ridge; Lonesome Lake -- one of our waypoints -- is in the middle of the photo
The valley bottoms are mostly bare of snow. The woods and higher elevations are still snow-covered. If you step off the snow-packed trail you can easily sink into three feet of snow. The trail markers and trail signs are buried under the deep snow.


We finished our 8-mile round trip hike in the late afternoon, under a clear blue sky. Although I've hiked many of the high peaks in summer, this was my first winter hike up a 4,000-footer. A fine start to what I hope will be many more winter hikes.

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