Friday, February 28, 2014

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Rabbits and Coyotes; Honey Bees in Snow; Long Mountain Too

A visit to my parent's Winterberry Farm in western Massachusetts often turns up interesting wildlife and other nature sightings, sounds, and experiences. My young nieces were also visiting this past weekend and on my walkabouts with them we always find signs of life and death.

On this visit it was a coyote-killed (I think) cottontail rabbit. All that was left were scattered bits of fur.
Eastern cottontails are plentiful there and one day I heard coyotes howling at dawn, so not surprising to find the two in a meet-up that did not end well for one. Rabbit pellets dot the field edge where shrubs provide cover and food. Here are some twigs well-chewed by the local rabbits.
Not far from the rabbit remains, we found a dozen or more honey bees lying still in the snow a few feet from their hives. I've seen this before, and wasn't sure why the bees would leave the hive in mid-winter.
A few of the bees were still moving so Lia (the 11-year-old) suggested we bring a few back to the house to see if they revived. Sure enough as soon as the bees warmed up they were active again. I was the one to trudge back to the collection site and release them; only one flew off, the others lay still again.

After further investigation via the Internet, I concluded that these were cleansing or house cleaning flights by some of the bees. On warmer, sunny days they fly out to defecate or carry out dead bees. This is critical to the health of the hive. Some don't return if the conditions turn cold; those bees clearly sacrifice for the good of the whole hive.

I grew up on this land, roaming about as a kid in the woods, wetlands, fields, and on Long Mountain--the mountain across the road from our house. When I visit now, I still look toward the mountain at dawn. There are many memories in that view, and many new stories to be told.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Mount Major

I've hiked the 1,786-foot high Mount Major in Alton, New Hampshire, a few times, but only in summer and it had been awhile since I was last on top of this mountain in the Belknap Range. My nephew Reid and I wanted to do another hike before he headed home to Chicago (although he is delayed due to the latest snowstorm), so we, and Kodi too, summited Mount Major. It was a bright, breezy, blustery, brisk, beautiful day, under a blue sky.

We parked in the well-plowed parking lot on Route 11 about four miles north of Alton Bay (where a dozen ice fishing bob houses were still set up on the ice). A few other hikers had arrived at the same time, but we did not see them the rest of the day.

Mr. Weldon Bosworth has created an excellent map of the Belknap Range Trails. As part of a fundraising campaign to preserve several key parcels around Mt. Major, the Forest Society gave this map as a gift to people who donated to the campaign. Here is a portion of that map showing the trails that we hiked today.
We started out on the Main Trail (blue) then took the Brook Trail (yellow) to the summit and returned via the Boulder Trail (orange). The trail was well-packed; we used snowshoes although you could have hiked in bare boots. The round trip was about 4 miles, which we finished in about two hours. The Brook Trail followed a gentle gradient through a lovely hardwood forest with a few small stream crossings, winding around the north and west side of the mountain. The last bit was steeper, although not overly strenuous.
The yellow trails reaches the ridge and joins with the blue Belknap Range Trail, which leads to the summit of Mt. Major. when we reached the ridge we felt the blustery winds. Kodi loves wind and crusty snow as you can see, where he is rolling on his back, legs in the air.
We broke out of the trees into the full force of the wind as we reached the summit. We lingered for just a few moments to take in the wide view of Lake Winnipesaukee and the mountains that rim the lake.
We took the orange trail down, which descends quickly onto the leeward side of the mountain. Here, out of the wind, we took in one more view of the lake from on high.
I was reminded again of one of the reasons I love winter hiking. With the hardwood trees bare of leaves, you can see things close and far through the forest.
The orange Boulder Trail is was a steeper and boulder-strewn route compared to the gentler Brook Trail. I'd recommend the exact route that we hiked today.
It was a beautiful day in the woods (at the lower elevations) and enjoyed by all in our party of three. So much that we'll come back again to the Belknap Range.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hiking Tom-Field-Avalon in Fresh Powder

We hiked yesterday, opting for clouds, limited views, temps in the mid-20s, and no wind over conditions today: blue sky, expansive views, but bitter temps (low teens), blustery winds, and wind chills in the minus 20s and 30s. It was a good call.

The recent snowstorm dumped about two feet of snow on parts of the White Mountains, including Crawford Notch where we hiked. My nephew Reid and I hiked the Mt. Tom-Mt. Field-Mt. Avalon threesome, one of my favorite routes in the Whites. We got underway on the Avalon Trail at 9:20 am, and fortunately several other hiking parties had laid down a fresh snowshoe track ahead of us.
We typically hike this loop clockwise, but when we reached the Avalon-A-Z Trail junction we saw that no one had yet traversed up the Avalon Trail. We were not in shape to be the first to blaze that steep trail, so we followed those who had gone ahead on the A-Z Trail. Yesterday everyone was going in the same counter-clockwise direction.
The trail got steeper and snows deeper as we climbed into a winter wonderland. At one of the steeper pitches, a small band of boreal chickadees cheered us on.
We saw the first of many gray jays that we would see during the hike on top of 4,051-foot Mt. Tom. Although there were no distant views, the scenery up close was spectacular and with little wind we lingered for a bit.
More jays, deeper snow, a bit colder on the way to the 4,340-foot Mt. Field.
And great beauty atop Mt. Field.
The descent from Mt. Field down the Avalon Trail, with a quick side trip to Mt. Avalon, was fast, fun, and wild at times. At one point I was sliding down head first and another sliding fast on my bum. The snow was all powder with up to four feet deep in the woods, so stepping off the track resulted in falling into a deep, soft hole. The temperature remained in the mid-20s and winds were light all day. We finished the 7.5 mile hike by 2:40 pm with a bounce still in our step. Winter hiking is much easier on the body, especially when deep snows smooth out the trail, covering boulders and loose rock that slow progress and pound the knees in snow-free periods.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Bounding Otter

Our favorite go-to place with the dogs this winter is the Piscassic River Wildlife Management Area, not far from our house. The snow-covered trails are usually packed down by snow machines so that we can easily walk or run and pause to look at animal tracks.

Each time we visit we see new sign. Deer tracks are always the most common sighting. Usually a red squirrel gets chased up a tree. The land is a mix of hemlock forest, field, and a complex of large wetlands. On Sunday we were treated to the track of a bounding river otter. This otter seemed to be on a mission as the trail was straight and purposeful. Maybe it was looking for some open water--there was none as far we could tell--so that it could catch a dinner of fish or crayfish or other aquatic morsel.
In the next photo you can see where the otter placed its feet.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Wildlife Stories in Snow

The bobcat track followed the stream bed, crossed a field, led into a floodplain forest, and then the wild cat jumped down to the frozen edge of the Cockermouth River in Hebron, New Hampshire
Above left: the bobcat sat to look out over the Cockermouth River, got up and walked along the log, then jumped down to the Cockermouth River: Above right: the bobcat walks along the river; Below right: a close-up of the bobcat track in the snow--no claws showing & more rounded than a canid.

We followed the bobcat tracks along the river a short distance, then we paused at the stump of a tree sticking out of the ice along the shore. Our leader for this wildlife tracking workshop, Dan Gardoqui of White Pine Programs in Cape Neddick Maine, said that the bobcat stopped here to mark the stump.
Dan stands in front of the marked stump; I knelt down to sniff about half way up the stump
and got a strong whiff of cat urine. Powerful stuff.

We saw the tracks of several other predators, crisscrossing the same territory of fields, forest, and river. This included coyote, red fox, gray fox, mink, weasel. There were red and gray squirrel tracks, and signs of flying squirrel, and mice and voles, but not enough, it didn't seem, to satisfy this crowd of meat-eaters. 

The small mammals take risks. A large field held a network of tiny tracks--either meadow voles or short-tailed shrews (they have similar track patterns). Some of the trails stretched across the entire field--more than 150 feet. That is a long way for a dark-colored animal to travel at night on white snow. There's danger afoot.

Short-tailed shrews maintain a larger home range than voles and they have a toxic venom for catching prey and they smell bad to other animals that might try to eat them. So, I am thinking that the risky behavior we observed on this snow-covered field was indeed that of shrews, as they likely travel farther and have more protections than voles.

We saw signs of birds too. A ruffed grouse left its print in the snow. Mostly it walked slowly, but then in one spot it put on a burst of speed-walking--you can tell in the photo below when grouse walked slowly and then faster--maybe to reach the safe cover of a hemlock bough.

We found the droppings from a pileated woodpecker beneath a dead white pine tree. In the photo below, the tree worked over by the woodpecker is on the right. On the left, zoomed into the pile of wood chips flicked off by the woodpecker, is its bird dropping. The picture doesn't show it properly, but the dropping is full of wings and skeletons of carpenter ants, the pileated's favorite food.

Throughout the day we took time away from looking at the tracks at our feet to look up at the buds of shrubs and trees, and the gorgeous winter, blue sky overhead.
So many stories painted in the snow on that day earlier this week. Yesterday's snowstorm would have erased those stories and now new ones are surely written in the fresh snow.

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