Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Quiet NYC

Earlier in August we postponed a 3-day trip to New Jersey/New York City when the temperatures soared above 100 degrees. That trip was re-scheduled for this much for waiting for better weather.

We set off Friday morning at 10:00 with the thought that we'd sneak in a visit and scurry back ahead of Hurricane Irene. Friday - just 2 days ago -- was beautiful here. By the time we reached the NYC area the skies were gray, the temperature was near 90. We opted for the Tappan Zee Bridge rather than the George Washington Bridge since parts of NYC were already being evacuated. Traffic slowed just a bit as we crossed the bridge, but we made good time and picked up the pace as we headed south on the Garden State Parkway. Northbound the traffic was bumper to bumper for miles and miles. 

After a quick visit with relatives in Piscataway, New Jersey, where the the traffic was congested as is typical, hurricane or not, we headed back north to Guttenberg, NJ. Guttenberg is a tiny 4-block wide community west of the Hudson River. It was once a farm, now it is the most densely populated incorporated place in the country.

Midtown Manhattan as viewed from the west side of the Hudson River
just south of Guttenberg,NJ. The bright lights of 42nd Street
are seen in the center of the photo.
The colorful Empire State Building is to the right.

As we turned in for the night we were not yet sure of our plans for Saturday, except that we were heading back to New Hampshire ahead of the oncoming storm. Saturday morning was calm. Srini and I walked down the block to a corner store for coffee. The wall-to-wall television coverage of the hurricane suggested we had just enough time to zip into NYC for a few hours of sightseeing. A 20-minute and $2.50 bus ride from Guttenberg dropped us at the Port Authority in midtown Manhattan. We emerged onto streets full of cabs, but strangely void of people. 

We joined a handful of people in Times Square. Quite possibly the fewest number of people ever to gather here in the history of the City. We took a quick cab ride to Rockefeller Center. Here city workers were gently lifting out palm trees from giant planters, laying them on their side, where the trees will rest until Irene passes by.

Palm trees being removed from planters at Rockefeller Center

 No one at the GE Building, the centerpiece of Rockfeller Center,
where NBC broadcasts many shows.
The observation deck at the top is open 365 days a year, except today.

Most of the stores were already closed in anticipation of the storm. The subways were closing at noon. We took another quick cab ride to Central Park, just for a peak. A few tourists were still taking rides on the horse-drawn carriages. The Port Authority was mostly empty. We hopped a bus back to Guttenberg. New York City in 2 hours and under $20 - it can be done, but only in the event of a hurricane.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thirteen Morning Glories

Morning glories are morning flowers, perhaps that is why I like them so. I like mornings. We planted Heavenly Blues this year at the base of the deck with a six foot trellis for climbing. The plants have climbed higher and higher all summer, all the way to the top of the deck and they keep on stretching toward the sun. The deck stair railing is now lined with their vines and heart-shaped leaves and today along the top, 13 sky blue flowers trumpeting a glorious late summer morning.

Just beautiful -- have a look.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Northern Water Snakes

Often I wake at 4:00 am and lie in bed for awhile thinking about the day ahead, perhaps a work project or a blog post or lately all the peaches to be harvested and eaten or canned. Usually I fall back to sleep for another 30 minutes or so before finally rising for good at 5:00 am. My internal clock is hardwired for these times, probably from the many early bird surveys that required early wake-ups.

During the 30 minutes of extra sleep I often have weird dreams or at least the weird ones that I can remember. This morning I woke at 4:00, Kodi at my feet, cool air wafting in the window. I immediately started thinking about water snakes and my blog. Water snakes were just in my dreams. Kodi and I were at some sort of nature center. He was off-leash and running down to the driveway. There, a naturalist was using two sticks to pick up two HUGE, water snakes. They puffed up and hissed and nearly struck at Kodi who was sitting nearby curious of course.

I've been seeing a lot of water snakes this summer. And I was fretting that I hadn't had time for a blog post for 7 days. So, I put the two thoughts together and here is a little bit about northern water snakes.

First, water snakes are big -- 2 to 4 feet -- but they are not huge (that was just in my dream). They are thick-bodied and as with many animals they only harm if they are disturbed. Otherwise they slip quietly away into the water. The water snake is non-venomous; not to be confused with the venomous water moccasin which lives in the southeastern U.S., and is not in New England.

At one of our favorite local haunts where we take Kodi there is a rock-covered causeway that crosses a large wetland. Shrubs and other plants grow among the bigger rocks at the edge of the causeway where it slopes down to the water. When I walk along the causeway I always see at least one water snake, sometimes three, curled in the weeds, basking in the sun and waiting for an unwary frog or salamander or small fish to linger too close.

Dogs, people, bicycles pass by and the snakes barely move unless you get a little too close, but mostly they just hang out. So, clearly these are not aggressive snakes. If handled they will act aggressively and will bite, but that seems like a reasonable response.

Here are photos of the three water snakes that I saw on one such walk across the causeway.

The water snake is blackish with splotches of red that darken as the snake ages. The scales are keeled (not smooth as in a black racer). This is one of our most common snakes. If you are near water look about for a basking snake and it is surely a northern water snake. Any time now (from August to September) the females will give birth to 20 to 40 live young. No wonder they seem to be doing well.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pine Cones

Whenever it rains hard during the summer, pine cones seem to rain down, the cones knocked from branches in the upper canopy of tall white pines before the cones are fully mature. On non-rainy days, squirrels and insects nibble at them, causing more to rain down. Sometimes woodland trails and our road are littered with cones. We've had some good, good rains this summer and there are lots of squirrels, so consequently there are a lot of fallen cones.

White pine cones are interesting. They are rather like green frogs and bullfrogs in that they take two full years to mature. During the first spring female flowers (which become the cones) are pollinated by the male flowers (which wither and die after releasing their pollen into the wind). You will recall all the yellow pine pollen that floats in the air and in puddles after a good spring rain. So, after pollination the female flower forms a small  "cone," about the size of your thumb by fall.

My friend Karen Bennett, who knows all things about trees, provided great info for this blog post, including the tip about thumb-sized female cones. The female cones remain about the same size through winter. When the second summer comes around, the female cones start to grow and expand. They reach maturity at five inches or more by fall. Everyone can recognize a mature female pine cone -- brown and woody (see photo below). Once mature they open fully and drop their seeds, if the rain and the squirrels and the insects haven't gotten them first.

In summer, before the cones have matured, you might see these on the ground, again felled by rain, squirrels, or insects.

Both cones in the above photo are female second year cones, not yet mature. When the cone first starts to expand in spring it is green, then changes to a purplish color, before becoming woody and brown in fall. Squirrels are after the 2 seeds tucked into each papery scale.

Some years are great seed years for white pine. This does not seem to be one of them, despite the cones strewn on the ground. You know a good crop year when you look into the top of a big white pine and see the upper branches laden with female cones.

Monday, August 8, 2011


On Saturday Kodi and I were walking through College Woods in Durham, one of our favorite local haunts. Kodi has a few favorite swimming holes and finds squirrels to tease. The place is full of gray squirrels. At one spot along the trail I heard a drip, drip, drip. I looked about and saw the ground littered with the hulls and seeds of beechnuts. A squirrel was systematically harvesting beechnuts over my head. I assume at some point it would climb down the tree and start eating and caching the huge harvest. I wondered if it would share the harvest with other squirrels.

Beechnuts are from the American beech, Fagus grandifolia. Beech fruits are a little more than 1/2 inch in size and covered in a bur. Inside are two small, sweet triangular nuts. The tree is easily recognizable with its smooth, gray bark, unless it is infected with beech bark disease (which many are) then its bark is pockmarked with cankers. When hiking in the White Mountains I always check beech trees for bear claw marks, beechnuts being a favorite food of black bears.

It seems a little early for the beechnut harvest, but animals always know when fruits are ripe or just about to be ripe. Take the chipmunks in our vegetable garden. They snatch a tomato just before its ripe for picking. One feature of chipmunks is that they are so easy to live trap - just bait the trap with a tomato! I caught two this weekend and moved them elsewhere, to a nice wooded stone wall where they can eat beechnuts instead.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Yard Walkabout

Early August and summer seems to be zooming by. So much going on this time of year that I've been missing days at a time here at Spicebush Log. Then I got a nice comment from my blog friend John, which inspired me to take a break from my work and walk about the yard. Just a 15 minute walkabout and here is what I saw.

First to the vegetable patch to check on the okra -- a favorite of my Indian relatives. A few more to pick today; note the lovely hibiscus-like flower; hibiscus and okra are in the same family, Mallow.

Then the celeriac (which I am growing for the first time) looked like it needed some organic fish fertilizer tea that I have brewing in the garden, so I gave them a drink. Then to the melon patch to check on the size of the watermelons and cantelopes. My young niece Lia and I are having a melon contest later this summer to see who grows the best melon (size, taste, and looks will all be criteria). I check my melons every day. Hot and sunny July was a good month for melon growth.

A walk by the hazelnut bush revealed a handful of Japanese beetles so in the collection jar they went. Thankfully their numbers have declined of late. I paused briefly to look at the cool hazel fruit (nut) that is still ripening.

As I continued my walkabout I saw and heard the usual buzz of activity among the flowers. Among the diversity of insect life, a beetle, a fly, a skipper butterfly, and a dragonfly caught my eye.

Last stop, the peach trees. The fruits are still hard and small, just slightly bigger than a lime. Two baby robins sat silently in their nest tucked into the crotch of the old peach tree. They will be off on their own by the time the peaches are ready to harvest.

What a refreshing break from my work - thanks for the inspiration John. Lia -- don't forget to check your melons. For other readers - what's in your yard?

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