Monday, November 28, 2011

A Mild Month

After the Halloween snowstorm of last month, we've had warm, mild weather. The nighttime temperatures have dipped below freezing a few times, but mostly it's been warm. Insects are still flying around. Beaver are still freely swimming in open water and chewing exposed tree trunks on land.

The cilantro in the garden is still lush and aromatic and tasty in pesto.

People are jogging and cycling and hiking in light clothing, some are in shorts. Everyone is smiling and thrilled with the warm weather. Thanksgiving weekend was pleasant to be outdoors. We made a fire pit in our yard and sat around a campfire in the evening, barely needing a coat. This all sounds and feels so wonderful. Yet something needles in the back of my mind. This is not really that good. It should not be this warm on the cusp of December in New England. I don't really want insects flying around right now - some of them are pesky and should be killed by cold temperatures by now. Next year we may see a surge in invasive plant and animal infestations that do well as the climate warms.

So, I worry some, while enjoying the foggy mornings, mild afternoons, and pleasant evenings. I just hope plants don't start budding too soon and the migrating songbirds keep heading southward.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Witches' Brooms

Have you ever seen a thick bundle of twigs in a shrub or tree? These are "witches' brooms" -- the term apparently comes from the German word Hexenbesen, which means to bewitch (hex) a bundle of twigs (besom). The idea of a witch riding a bundle of twigs has waned, but the name remains, and maybe the idea too thanks to Halloween and Harry Potter.

Anyway, back to the bundle of twigs. Most any woody plant can form a witches broom, sometimes they are inconspicuous and sometimes obvious. I notice them a lot on wild highbush blueberry bushes.

Abnormal shoot growth results in this mass of twigs from a single point on the plant. The causes vary and include fungi, parasitic plants, insects, environmental stresses, and sometimes mutations. The broom on highbush blueberry is likely caused by a rust fungus, Pucciniastrum goeppertianum. Rust fungus have a secondary host, and in this case it is balsam fir. So, if you are trying to grow these two plants, best not to have them near each other.

Yet another fungus -- commonly known as yellow witches' broom -- infects balsam fir, with chickweed as the secondary host. Some witches' brooms are caused by mistletoes or dwarf mistletoes, parasitic plants that cause a similar reaction. You might see these in softwoods.

These are rather mysterious phenomenon, the causes are not always known for a given broom. A broom here or there on a plant will not kill it, so just another interesting part of nature's diversity.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pitch Pine Point

A brisk, beautiful, blue-sky day. The oaks dropped a lot of leaves today, whisked away by the wind. If you bundled up against the wind it was a great day to be outside. Having a dog helps. Kodi begs to be outside and it doesn't take much coaxing to get me to go for a jaunt somewhere away from my desk.

At one point today we ended up at Wagon Hill Farm, a nice conservation area on the shores of the Great Bay Estuary in Durham, New Hampshire. There are sweeping views of the Bay, stands of arching oaks, and large fields mowed late in summer to allow birds to nest and forage. Bluebirds chirp from a few remnant apple trees. We made our way to a narrow point that juts out into the Bay. Wave action and a bit of overuse by humans is causing this sandy point to erode away over time. Still, it is a favorite little spot, in part because of the pitch pines.
A dead pitch pine with live pines behind at "pitch pine point"
at Wagon Hill Farm, Durham, NH

Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a beautiful native pine (okay, another one of my favorite trees), that does well on sandy soils. The tree is well-adapted to fire: bark with thick plates and deep furrows, seeds that readily germinate in soils exposed to fire, and epicormic branching -- shoots grow from the bark (especially if the crown is killed by fire). Some of the squat, stiff cones are serotinous, remaining closed until the heat of a fire melts the glue that holds the cone scales tight.

Fire is now curtailed in most places within the pitch pine range in the eastern U.S., allowing other trees to encroach and eventually overtake pitch pine. Some of the best examples of pitch pine are in "pine barrens," in New Jersey, Long Island, and Cape Cod. Here in New Hampshire, the Ossipee Pine Barrens are managed (using prescribed fire) by The Nature Conservancy. A map and guide of the hiking trails at their reserve is available here. In addition to the pitch pines, these barrens harbor rare moths and butterflies and birds that are in decline including whip-poor-wills, common nighthawks, and rufous-sided towhees.

Elsewhere you might fine a pitch pine here and there. Look for them as you hike throughout New England and points south. Here are some more photos from the pitch pine at Wagon Hill.

The bark and the cones should tip you off that it is a pitch pine. Another key feature is the 3 needles per bundle. The other native pines that you commonly see in New Hampshire are the white pine (5 needles) and red pine (2 needles).

The thick bark is evident in this photo from a different day.

Pitch pine often takes on a bonsai appearance, another interesting trait of this beautiful tree.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Red-Panicled Dogwood

Some days you long for something bright and beautiful in the woods, to flush away a gloomy mood or break the monotony of a gray day. Today was one of those drab, drippy days, nothing special going on, except for the drone of dreary news on the radio.

Here is what cast away any glum thoughts I had today - a bright and beautiful flower-fruit stalk of the red-panicled dogwood (Cornus racemosa). A panicle is essentially a multi-branched flower. Doesn't it just lift your spirits, with its bright red panicles?

The white fruits of this dogwood are loved by birds, so not a one is left on the shrub. Another name for this shrub is gray dogwood. Now you see why I prefer red-panicled! It is often found in moist soils in swamps, along streams, or in other wet places. Sometimes it does well in drier places too. It makes a nice yard shrub, but forms a thicket so give it space.

We have other common dogwoods in our woods and wetlands including silky and red-osier, but look for the red panicles and you'll know what you've got. And it will brighten your day.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Leopold Bench

It's been said that if you see a Leopold bench in someone's yard you know something about the people that live there. Aldo Leopold (1887 - 1948) helped launch the conservation movement in the 20th century through his inspiring work and writings. You can read an earlier blog that I posted on Leopold's Legacy last spring.

In 1935 Leopold bought an old farm along the Wisconsin River in Baraboo, Wisconsin; with his wife and five children he restored the prairie and woods to the overworked land. "The Shack" as the farm was known is where he pondered a "land ethic" and "land health." He built a simple, but elegant bench from four pieces of wood, a bench that he must have spent many hours on contemplating the relationships of people to each other and to the land.

I learned more about Leopold's bench from my friend Carl Wallman, who owns Graylag Cabins and Harmony Hill Farm, and is chair of the Northwood Area Land Management Collaborative (NALMC). Carl hosted a Leopold bench making workshop in October -- read and see highlights of the workshop here. I could not attend the workshop, but recently Carl showed me how to make one and provided me with sturdy 2-inch thick hemlock from his property.

Here are the results.

This bench went to my parents at their Winterberry Farm. They inspired me to be a conservationist and I wanted them to have my first Leopold bench.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Clearing Away a Halloween Storm

We're at my parents this weekend, making a small dent in clean-up after the great Halloween Storm of 2011. Their farm and Amherst, Massachusetts in general, took a beating. Branches snapped off trees all around the house, along the road, in the backyard, along the field edges in the back forty.

With a chain saw, loppers, and a tractor we cut, trimmed, and hauled many loads of brush to a now huge brush pile at the edge of the woods. Tall pines lost limbs generating lots of material but the soft wood of pine cut like butter compared to the hard wood of hardwoods, such as sugar maple and red oak. The butternuts and catalpa also lost a few major limbs.

 Photos of storm damage by Kyle Vincent

We cleared most of the fallen wood around the house after about 8 hours of work over two days. Our hands, arms, and shoulders are sore. My Dad takes it all in stride, happy to be driving his tractor and clearing brush at age 89.

Kodi was not so interested in all this work so we took him for our favorite walk up to Rattlesnake Knob. The trail passes through a beautiful oak - beech forest. We were concerned that the trees might have suffered in the storm. Most came through unscathed and looked as beautiful as ever.

The trees on the mountain mostly escaped damage from the storm. Perhaps these trees had already dropped most of their leaves or the temperature was slightly colder. The snow was probably heavier in the valley below.

We made some progress clearing fallen debris, but my Dad has many more days of work. If he can be outside on his tractor he doesn't mind the work.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Another day spent partially in the great outdoors, where I encountered another favorite tree! There are so many. Today it is musclewood, also known as American hornbeam, ironwood, blue beech, or Carpinus caroliniana. I prefer the name musclewood given its bluish-gray, smooth, and sinewy bark; it looks like rippling muscles.

Most of the year I notice the musclewood because of its bark. It grows in moist, fertile soils such as in wooded floodplains or rich uplands, preferring partial shade. This small tree thrives in the understory, beneath the canopy of other trees.

This fall, though, I've really taken notice of its attractive spreading branches and broad crown and flower structure. Paired flowers turn into small nutlets that are tucked into a leaf-like bract. These bracts are clustered on a long hanging stalk. Wow, that is such a technical description for something that is so much more beautiful. Have a look. The first three photos were taken in late September, the fourth photo was taken today.

Some forestry fact sheets describe musclewood as a "weed," given its "small size and poor form." I beg to differ. This graceful tree with its lantern-like fruit clusters reminds me of a Japanese garden, of peace and tranquility. It is one of my favorite trees.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Brown Snake

My favorite snake was sunning itself in our driveway around midday. The small, docile northern brown snake (Storeria dekayi dekayi) is a common snake here. Unfortunately it is one that we often see flattened on the road when we walk with Kodi down Bald Hill Road. Today though, this one-foot long, slender brown snake was alive and well and living in our yard.

A basking snake is one indication that this is a warm November day; snakes should be hibernating by now or heading there soon. I nudged the snake toward the edge of the driveway so it was safely out of the way of vehicles. He (or she) was a little stubborn, perhaps wanting to stay on the warm pavement.

Note to self: another reason why we live here. Beautiful snakes live among us.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

November Beauty

Now and then we think seriously about selling our place and moving to town, where we could walk to the library, restaurants, and other amenities. We've just been through another such phase. We toured new apartments in the renovated Newmarket Mills along the Lamprey River in our downtown. The apartments were beautiful and a stone's throw from Main Street. Alas, they do not allow dogs and they are expensive.

Apparently rentals (at least places that you'd want to live in) are expensive most everywhere. The economics don't make sense, especially when we own our own place. So, we ponder the trade-offs. Living in town reduces, but doesn't eliminate, the need to drive. We could participate more fully in community events, given the walkable qualities of our downtown. But the outlay is just too high and there are other compromises.

This afternoon, after spending a beautiful November day walking dogs at the local animal shelter and cleaning up the yard in preparation for winter, we took Kodi for a walk in the neighborhood. Not far from our place is Bald Hill Road, a beautiful rural road bordered by stonewalls and mature trees with open fields beyond. Today we watched a flock of four bluebirds fly from tree to tree along the stonewall. A few crows chased a red-tailed hawk from the same trees, where a pileated woodpecker was also feeding.

This too is why our occasional thoughts about a move end the same way. It is just nice where we are. We hear coyotes and foxes at night, animals large and small live among us, and we can walk out our door to see the stars at night or to pick flowers or vegetables or peaches from our yard.

There is no perfect place to live. The goal I think is to be happy in the moment and make the most of wherever you live. It is a beautiful day in November here on our small piece of the planet.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

White Oak

One of my favorite trees is the white oak -- Quercus alba. Wildlife like it too. The "sweet" acorns have less tannin than many other oaks and are rich in fat. Animals need to wait longer than kids for their annual "acorn candy" as good crops come only every 4 to 10 years. White oak acorns have a bowl-shaped, shaggy cap. In the photo below, white oak acorns are on the left and red oak acorns are on the right.

White oak trees have shaggy, ashy-gray, sometimes "white" bark. It is the leaves in fall though, that make the tree stand out. The leaves turn a deep red, maroon or purple color. Their leaves seem softer with round lobes, compared to the robust, pointy-lobed leaves of red oak. I noticed that white oaks fared okay in the recent snowstorm, whereas the heavy leaves of the red oak laden with snow wreaked havoc all over.

A white oak tree in fall (November 2, 2011)

The fall colors, highlighted by the oaks, are still gorgeous. Squirrels and blue jays are busy caching acorns and other nuts. The cheek pouches of chipmunks are bulging with seeds. Flocks of small birds are passing through, fattening up on insects slowed by the cool temperatures as they head south. A gray squirrel is building a winter nest of red oak leaves at the top of a white pine at the edge of our yard. Lots of activity outside as animals prepare for winter. Take some time to stop and watch, it is fun to see them bustling about.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

First Snow Thrills Kodi

Halloween Storm 2011

Tuesday morning, still no power. Saturday night, as heavy, wet snow fell, we heard a loud pop and then the lights went out. Given the weather forecast we were prepared, although it was still unexpected and more widespread then one could predict.

The oak trees were hardest hit by the heavy snow. They were still carrying all their leaves, this combined with the wet snow was too much even for healthy branches. Many, many roads in southeastern New Hampshire are lined with beautiful oak trees, although it was only a branch here or there that fell. The damage doesn't look that bad, and yet our utility company (PSNH) said it experienced the worst damage to its infrastructure in 140 years.

We have a generator that can run the whole house, a feature that we've used nearly three times a year as these major storms occur more frequently. We fire up the generator for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening for meals and showers and to warm the house and cool the fridge. One neighbor has run his generator continuously since Saturday night. Waking during the night we hear the loud drone of that generator. Another neighbor with three kids seems content with just a wood stove.

Halloween was canceled or postponed -- so lots of tricks and we have to eat all the treats.

Winterberry Bird Scat

A week ago--on a coldish January day--a small flock of robins ate all the berries from one winterberry shrub in our yard. They flew off as q...