Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Suitable Yard

Today reminds me of a cartoon that I saw years ago. A guy is on the phone, telling the weather forecaster to come over and shovel off of his driveway a foot of "partly cloudy." The forecast for today was 1-3 inches; when the snow finally petered out by noon nearly 8 inches of fresh powder had fallen. More wintry than we expected. Kodi and I took advantage with a long snowshoe hike at one of our favorite local haunts. Kodi had a huge smile on his face as he raced through the deep snow.

I've been away since Wednesday. The four dozen redpolls must have moved on while I was gone. Four male and two female purple finches spent some time at the feeders around midday, along with the usual flock of American goldfinches. The squirrels are not yet out today; they prefer to stay hunkered down in their dens during these winter storms.

A female downy woodpecker kept her male counterpart away from the suet. She wanted it all. When a female hairy woodpecker arrived, she tried to ignore it, but the heavier and bigger hairy caused too much of a stir so the downy left. A pair of red-breasted nuthatches visited the suet last week. I've been watching for them today, but they too must be staying put in a tree cavity in the back woods. Here's a decent photo of the pair from last week through my home office window.

A friend was needling me the other day for taking down our pine trees, while we complained about a neighbor taking down a big red oak. In our defense I noted that we still have many pines on the north side of the house - plenty for the red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches, brown creepers, and red squirrels, which like pines. Plus, we kept the red oaks in our woods and removed the pines, thus releasing the oaks from the over-topping pines. The oaks should grow bigger and broader, producing more acorns for all kinds of wildlife. Our neighbor had the one big oak and replaced it with some non-native plants. I think our strategy is better. Seeing the nuthatch pair reinforced for me that our yard is still diverse and has suitable habitat for these little birds.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Finding Treasures

My young nieces and I snowshoed around the back forty at my parents Winterberry Farm yesterday. This was the first time, I think, that they were on snowshoes. They both walked well on their plastic shoes.

We made discoveries along the way. I showed them the rabbit tracks and the rabbit scat under the brambles. These would be Eastern cottontails and they seem to be everywhere here. They noticed a ridge pattern in the snow and wondered how it came to be. We snowshoed to the pond and saw a small area of open water along its edge. We saw huge turkey tracks.

Eastern cottontail scat among the brambles

We saw holes in the snow made by squirrels digging for acorns. Then we discovered the remains of a deer in the woods. Only the fur was left. We brought a sample back to show everyone. I broke off a twig from the spicebush to let them sniff the spice.

Remains of a deer in the woods

Back at the house my oldest niece talked excitedly about the snowshoe hike and the treasures (her word) that we found, especially the deer fur. This is what I like about snowshoeing - the pace is just right for finding treasures.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Redpolls and Finches

Four dozen redpolls showed up at the feeders today. This goldfinch-sized finch is another one of those "irruptive" birds that come down from the north in some winters. The redpolls feed side-by-side with the more regular American goldfinches. You can identify them easily by their small yellow bill, black around the face, and most distinctly a bright red patch on their forehead. Redpolls have a bit of streaking and the adult males have a splash of pink on their breast.

When so many arrive at once -- and they do seem to move about in big flocks -- there is only so much space on the thistle feeders. Redpolls are voracious eaters so many spend a lot of time on the ground, while others claim space on the feeders. The gray squirrels are a little defensive of their feeding space beneath the feeders, keeping the redpolls on one side of the feeder post, while they occupy the other side. This photo through my office window is not great, but you get the idea.

When the squirrels leave, the redpolls spread out.

There was more splash of color as two pairs of purple finches arrived too. They first showed up last Friday. As the bird guides say, male purple finches look like they've been dipped in red raspberry juice. It was certainly a red finch day here.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Into The Wind

The only time I wear high heels is when I am snowshoeing. Seriously. Our MSR snowshoes have these "televators" that you lift up under your heel when climbing steep sections of trail. This reduces fatigue on your calves. It is THE only time that I wear shoes with raised heels! The televators came in handy today as we headed north to Crawford Notch for a repeat hike of Mounts Avalon, Field, and Tom - a trio that we hiked in August.

Crawford Notch creates its own weather. We arrived at the Highland Center parking lot at 8:00 am; many other hikers were gathering there too with similar ideas. The winds whipped through the notch, making the 7 degree ambient temperature feel much colder -- well below zero. The surrounding mountains, including our trio, were in the clouds. We met up with our hiking party: the same group that hiked Mt. Moosilauke, plus one. Six of us in all plus Kodi.

Our route took us up the Avalon Trail to Mt Avalon (3,442') and then on to Mt. Field (4,340'). Then a descent on the Willey Range Trail to the A-Z Trail with a side trip up to Mt. Tom (4,051), before the descent back to Crawford Notch. The weather got better as the day progressed; the clouds dissolved and the bluest sky emerged. But the wind did not abate and temperatures remained in the teens, although on the summit of Mt. Tom we were sheltered from severe wind gusts. We wore snowshoes the entire way -- all 7.2 miles. The trails were fairly well-packed by previous hikers, except here and there where snow drifted over. Kodi hiked far more miles - running up and down many sections of trails several times. Gray jays visited us on Mt Field and Mt. Tom. Kodi chased the birds around the summit as best he could.

In the area of the A-Z Trail up to Mt. Tom we saw many fresh (pine) marten tracks. As we descended from Mt. Tom on the A-Z trail I was near the front with Kodi. At one point he wandered off trail, sniffed around the base of several trees, then sat quietly beneath a balsam fir looking up into the tree. I glanced up looking for whatever he smelled or saw. And there about 20 feet up in the fir tree was a marten!! This is the first marten that I have seen in the wild. He or she peered down at Kodi from its perch, watching his every move. All but one person in our group arrived in time to see this very cute member of the weasel family, with its golden-brown face, small, rounded ears, and dark tail. Marten are a threatened species in New Hampshire, although their population is expanding, so we hope to see more of them on future hikes. I did not get a photo, but here is a link to a picture of a marten on Wikipedia.

It was a fabulous day to be out, despite the wind. What follows are a series of photos from our hike today.

Kodi atop Mt. Avalon; the clouds linger into mid-morning

Srini gives Kodi a hug atop Mt. Avalon

The view from Mt. Avalon into Crawford Notch

The trail signs are nearly buried in the deep snow pack

The spruce and fir are coated in fresh snow

On the way from Mt. Avalon to Mt. Field, the intense blue sky emerges

And Mount Washington is visible in the distance

And a black ghost walks in the white forest

A rainbow of colors reflect off the fast-moving clouds overhead

Nearing the summit of Mt. Field

A view just below the summit of Mt. Field

Then from the top, another view to Mt. Washington

Mt. Field - a windy spot, but friendly to gray jays;
the birds capture our attention

And some people like to feed them

While Kodi likes to chase them around the spruce-fir thickets

A view of Mt. Field from near the summit of Mt. Tom 

We arrived back at the Highland Center parking lot by 3:20 pm;
the sky was now clear but the wind still whipped through the notch

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Brown Creeper Sings

A touch of spring today, with temperatures soaring into the low 60s. The sun never felt so good. Some snow melted, although the snow pack in our yard is still two feet deep. I heard a brown creeper sing its spring song in the backyard today.

On the morning walkabout with Kodi, I heard two male cardinals singing dueling songs from their tree-top perches. The females, I presume, were hanging out somewhere in the underbrush. New Roots Farm tapped a few sugar maples; the first taps that I've seen as the maple syrup season gets underway. Such welcome signs that winter is losing its grip and is slowly, but steadily, melting away.You could smell spring in the air.

Today was just a teaser though. The winds are already gathering force as the sun goes down. It is back to freezing temperatures for the foreseeable future. Well, there is nothing we can do about the weather, so we are off to tackle another 4,000-footer or two this weekend, winter gear and all.

Monday, February 14, 2011

75 Bohemians

Yesterday we went on a pre-Valentine's Day outing -- first to Seapoint Beach in Kittery, Maine (more on that below), then on to Freeport and our favorite outlet store Patagonia. We don't shop much, but we scoot up there once every few years to catch good deals on Patagonia clothing. It lasts forever and some of it is made from recycled plastic or organic cotton. Before leaving town we had lunch at the Azure Cafe on Main Street - highly recommended.

Anyway, just before we got in our car to head home, I noticed a bunch of birds in a nearby tree. Even with my naked eye I could tell they were waxwings -- with their upright stance, brownish crest, and their high-pitched notes. As I lifted the binoculars I noticed something a bit different. This was a flock of 75 Bohemian waxwings, a somewhat uncommon winter visitor from the north. Bohemians are slightly bigger than the more common cedar waxwings. They also have beautiful rufous undertail coverts (feathers); these feathers are white in cedar waxwings. Both waxwing species have yellow-tipped tail feathers. Bohemians also have a colorful white and yellow edging in their wing feathers.

Today I checked the NH Bird Listserve and perhaps by chance my friend Scott had 54 Bohemian waxwings in his yard on Saturday. He's a fabulous photographer (and naturalist);  see his great photos of these birds on Flickr. While there, also notice Scott's photos of flying squirrels in a bird house. He's got many more great photos of other wildlife on his site -- spend some time there.

As I mentioned, we stopped at Seapoint Beach in Kittery on the way north. I've mentioned before that winter is the best time to visit a beach. Sounds crazy, but there are few people, good parking, and cool birds to view off-shore. Also, the few people that do visit bring their dogs and Kodi has a fabulous time. He ran along the beach with two small dogs. I am certain they were laughing as they chased each other.

Meanwhile, I glanced out into the ocean to look at the sea ducks. The water was a little rough and the birds a bit far off. Nevertheless, we got nice views of a common loon, bufflehead, red-breasted merganser, common eider, black duck, surf scoter, and common goldeneyes. By the time we left no one else was on the beach. That does not happen in summer. I noticed that Tom and Atticus are thinking the same thing -- spending a week on the Outer Cape Cod beach. The coast is cold and stark in winter, but as Tom says, something draws you to it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Winter Wren

This is the first year that I have seen a winter wren in winter. So far, I've seen two. I am surprised that this little wren - the smallest of our wrens - chose this winter to stay here in the north, so cold and snowy. A reference on New England Wildlife by DeGraaf and Yamasaki, says that the winter wren is not particularly hardy and does not winter north of Massachusetts. These wrens are apparently redrawing their winter range map.

A few weeks ago I saw a small brown bird with a stubby tail in the underbrush near the Exeter River. My first thought was a young bird, but of course this was the middle of winter, so not an option. This bird flew among small seeps and overturned root balls of big white pines. Last week I saw a similar bird in our back woods. I watched the bird make a rapid but short flight into a seep and then to an upturned tree root. I got a better look at this bird and realized that both sightings were of a winter wren. A small, dark brown bird with a stubby, upturned tail and a quick flight; a bird that flies furtively in the understory.

The winter wren is one of my favorite birds during the breeding season; its song is long and melodious. They live in conifer or mixed wood forests -- preferring spruce-fir forests -- usually near water. They hang around in the dense understory of upturned roots, fallen limbs, rock crevices, seeps, mossy hummocks along streams. You won't find them in a forest with an open understory lacking these features. Year-round, winter wrens glean insects from the ground. I think the wrens I saw were looking for insects in the woodlands seeps, like the one below that is in our back woods.

The open water in these woodland seeps (typically a few feet in diameter) attract other animals. A mammal entered this seep, then left muddy footprints when it climbed back out. I noticed this on several seeps in our woods. Maybe a squirrel or a raccoon. The snow is crusty, so track patterns are hard to read.

We need a fresh snowfall. Instead, tomorrow looks to be warm -- warmer than it's been for more than a month. Look (or more likely smell) for skunks - they are emerging from their winter dens about now. The warm temperatures on Valentine's Day will surely bring them out in search of mates.

Friday, February 11, 2011

To Egypt

Today belongs to the people of Egypt. What a stunning turn of events over the past 18 days. People young and old, rich and poor, toppled their autocratic government in a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. What an inspiration for the world. There is hope.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Leaf Remnants

I was up in Maine for a few days for work-related meetings, without Kodi and my daily walks with him. Today he and I resumed our winter walkabouts. It felt good to be outside again in the crisp air, beneath a blue sky, with chickadees singing, a downy woodpecker pecking on a basswood trunk, and a skein of geese flying over.

In the backyard Kodi rolled on the crusty snow, rubbing his face, neck and back on the cold snow. I walked in bare boots on the well-packed snowshoe paths in our yard. If I strayed from the path I sunk to my knees in soft snow. The paths are strewn with remnants of leaves and lichen and bits of bark and twigs. While I was gone wind and sleet shook them loose from the trees above. Even in early February, some leaves still hold tight to their branch (or did until this week). They've lost their luster now and lie along my walking path as remnants, thin and pale, decaying more each day, soon to nourish the trees from which they fell.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Squirrel Watching

Four chubby gray squirrels visit our feeders daily. They hang around beneath the feeders foraging for seeds tossed out by the birds; the baffle on the post prevents them from climbing up to the feeders. The four seem to travel together, racing and chasing each other up the nearby white pine when the mood strikes or when Kodi gives chase.

Kodi has become quite the squirrel watcher. Especially since once last week he caught up to one that was slow bounding back to the tree. Kodi surprised himself that he got that close and the squirrel easily wriggled free of his paws. Now Kodi jumps on the bed in the first floor spare bedroom and stares longingly out the window at the feeder. His body tenses if the squirrels are there, while he is indifferent to the birds.

Kodi watches two gray squirrels 

The squirrels return again and again, so they are not really pestered by Kodi. They seem to catch on to his game and will likely not linger again when they see a small black bear-like animal race toward them.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Snowshoe Tales

Breaking trail is hard to do. I drove over to Pawtuckaway State Park this morning for a snowshoe hike with Kodi. Our destination was North Mountain - a favorite route that leads past Round Pond and another unnamed wetland, and through a huge boulder field, before beginning an ascent up the North Ridge.

The first leg of our hike followed along a woods road to Round Pond. A snowmobile had passed through recently, providing a well-packed trail for us both. At Round Pond the trail heads north and no one had snowshoed that way recently. A faint snowshoe track was visible, but it was left before the last storm of a foot or more of new snow. So, Kodi and I started breaking trail. At first Kodi led the way. Then he grew tired of the deep snow and followed along behind. Before leaving home I added  the "tails" to my MSR snowshoes. These provide more flotation when breaking trail in deep powdery snow.

The woods were quiet, with only the whispering of the wind among the hemlocks. A breeze dislodged clumps of snow from the hemlock boughs. The snow drifted down like puffs of white smoke.

We crossed the path of an otter trail that led from one wetland to another.We huffed and puffed to the base of the first steep, rocky pitch. No one had gone that way recently. The trail was buried in snow. Kodi turned back and I followed. Neither of us were inclined to tackle the ridge. We hiked back the way we came, our way easier now as we retraced our own tracks.


I paused beside huge boulders, some as tall as a house. The glacier plucked these huge boulders from other parts of North Mountain and dropped them here. Rock climbers descend on this boulder field in fair weather, to practice bouldering and climbing. Today, it was just Kodi and me among the boulders, in the Devil's Den and along the Yellow Dog Wall.

We paused at Round Pond for a snack until Kodi caught a scent that he did not like. Tail down, he trotted down the trail, back toward the car. I gathered up my pack and once again turned to follow Kodi. He kept his tail down for some distance, perhaps until the scent was no longer in the air. And that is our snowshoe tale for today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day 2011

The report out of Punxsutawny is that Phil the groundhog did not see his shadow and therefore spring will come early. Now, a woodchuck (aka groundhog) in his right mind would not be out on a day like this - cold and snowy. Plus, his hole would be socked in with deep snow. In mid-winter, sensible woodchucks are sound asleep and snoring comfortably in their underground dens. Anyway, it is a group of men in top hats having some fun making the prediction in Punxsutawny and they are just being hopeful.

Until spring arrives - early or late -- I am enjoying this season. Today is another fabulous snow day. With great sympathy to those who have to drive in this weather, I love all this snow. Kodi does too. We discovered this morning that he is faster than a gray squirrel in powdery snow. But the squirrel wriggled away and scampered safely up the tree anyway.

More than four dozen goldfinches chow down on the Nijer seed and black oil sunflower seeds, requiring me to fill the feeders twice a day, at least. One tree sparrow, with its rust head and black dot on its breast, showed up at the feeder today amidst the storm. And then the petite red-breasted nuthatch darted in for a seed. A pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a few juncos, a mourning dove, and a tufted titmouse round out the feeder visitors.

A fox is living in a driveway culvert just up the road. During each snowstorm - and I am losing track of the number of successive storms -- the plows bury the fox den. By the next day though the fox has dug its way out. Kodi tentatively sniffs the hole each time we pass. Most mammals seemed to be hunkered down this winter.

To prepare for the snow still to fall today, we finally removed some of the snow from the front roof. Srini used the roof rake to pull off the snow, now more than two feet deep up there. The front fence is barely visible above the snowbanks and the shed is now engulfed in snow; I wonder how many mice have made snug nests in there.

From here it looks like spring is a long way off.

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