Sunday, January 27, 2008

Time off...

I've been "on vacation" for the last week. One of those "use it or lose it" deals with vacation time. It was great. I got a lot of sewing done, basked in the warmth of my wood stove, and went skiing with Toby.

Skiing with a dog can be a challenge, especially when one's dog cannot be off-leash. I rigged up a couple leashes, tied them around my waist, and we were off.

I think Toby likes skiing - he gets to go fast - much faster than when we walk through the snow along the roadsides! Downhills are great fun, unless he decides to slow down, which is even worse if he does it while crossing in front of me and thus getting run over by the skis (luckily, I don't go very fast). The biggest problem was when Toby spotted the herd of deer, which unfortunately happened just as we were starting to go down a rather long and steepish slope. Gravity and dog both work, and I was gathering speed much faster than was comfortable. In order to take control of the situation again, I executed a spectacular fall, bringing us to an immediate halt. Whew! The deer were long gone, but the excitement lingered for the dog. I brushed off the snow and decided we would stick to more level areas of the golf course.

I think I see more skiing in our future.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My Favorite Marten

I am particularly fond of weasels. I used to have pet ferrets, so I find weasels to be endlessly fascinating. Sadly, most of us rarely get to see these slinky mammals.

Here in the Adirondacks, we have six native weasels: short-tailed (aka: ermine), long-tailed, mink, marten, fisher, and river otter. I have been lucky to have seen each species over the years I have worked as a naturalist, the last to be added to my life list being the marten.

Both the short- and long-tailed weasels are quick-change artists: they are brown in the summer and white in the winter. And both sport a black tip on the end of the tail. The least weasel, which may or may not be present in the northern most part of the state, turns all white in the winter. The only time I have seen a weasel in its winter coat was unfortunately a roadkill. Never-the-less, their tracks abound in the winter snow.

I must say I was very disappointed with my first mink. Somehow, in my mind they were much larger than they are in reality. I suspect this was due to mis-identification of critters when I was young. Still, minks are the weasel I have probably seen the most. My most memorable mink encounter was a couple winters ago. I was snowshoeing along one of our trails at work, and I stopped to look into the water along the bridge crossing the Rich Lake Outlet. As I looked, I saw a string of bubbles rise to the water's surface. Within moments, a mink surfaced on a rock, shook, and dove back in, only to re-emerge a short distance along. It scooted across the rocks and into a hole near one of the bridge's supports. Over the course of that winter, I kept an eye on this location. Come summer, this mink had an entire family with it - five young and two adults were now seen swimming and feeding around the bridge.

The marten, ah, the marten. The photos here are of my first marten. About four winters ago I had put out some homemade "suet" at our bird feeding station here at work. A marten discovered this mix and for a few weeks was almost a daily visitor to the back deck. That was definitely the Year of the Marten, for not only did I see this one, but I frequently saw one down near the town's pump house along the Hudson River when Toby and I went for our walks. FYI: the marten, AKA the American marten (Martes americana), is often mistakenly called a pine marten (Martes martes). The pine marten is a species from northern Europe. Two entirely different species. One should consider oneself lucky if one sees a marten - they are very secretive animals.

Our other very secretive weasel is the fisher. This weasel is our largest native land-dwelling weasel. We have a beautiful taxidermied specimen at work of a male that weighed about 19 pounds. This was an exceptionally large fisher. I've only seen a fisher twice, and both times they were in the road. One dashed across the highway in front of my car early one spring morning as I was driving to a meeting. The other was feeding on something in the middle of the road one blizzardy winter night over near Long Lake. Both the marten and the fisher were hunted almost to extinction in New York. Today, thanks to the DEC and it's wildlife management programs, both are recovering well. As a matter of fact, the fisher has even expanded its range beyond the Adirondacks, and it accounts for many of the supposed "black panthers" people spot down state.

Lastly, we have the river otter, our most playful of mammals, and our largest weasel. This water-loving weasel keeps a large home range, often travelling several miles up and down it's chosen watercourse. I've only seen an otter once since I've been up here (captive ones not counting), but I see their tracks and slides all the time along the trails here at work.

Fun Weasel Fact: weasels have five toes on their front feet as well as their back feet. This can help you identify weasel tracks (if you can actually see footprints). More on animal tracking to come.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sundogs and Iridescent Clouds

Have you ever seen a halo or circular rainbow around the sun? Sometimes it is close to the sun (a couple fingers' width), while other times it is huge - at least two hands' breadth from the sun. I always thought these were called sundogs, and that they were created in the same way regular rainbows are created - sunlight shining through water droplets. As it turns out, I was both right and wrong.

According to Wikipedia: A sun dog or sundog (scientific name parhelion, plural parhelia, i.e. "beside the sun") is a common bright circular spot on a solar halo. It is an atmospheric optical phenomenon primarily associated with the reflection or refraction of sunlight by small ice crystals making up cirrus or cirrostratus clouds. Two or more sundogs can often be seen on opposite sides of the sun simultaneously.

So, based on this, the photo on the left is actually a photo of sundogs, while the one on the right is merely the halo. (Photos are also from the Wikipedia entry on sundogs.) While I've seen these halos plenty of times, I've never seen the bright spots, or actual sundogs.

Another interesting atmospheric phenomenon that I have looked for for years is iridescent clouds. I came across these in a book entitled "The Color of Nature," by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty. According to them, "Most clouds look white because they are made of water drops or ice crystals that scatter all colors of light in all directions. But occasionally, when conditions are just right, thin, high clouds will scatter colored light, creating beautiful bands of color. These clouds, known as iridescent, or opalescent, clouds, are made up of uniform drops of water, each of which is about the same size or smaller than a wavelength of red light. The drops scatter light of different wavelengths at different angles, creating the colors shown here. Bands of color may appear at the edge of a cloud. When a cloud with small, uniform water drops passes in from of the sun, the colors circle the sun, a phenomenon known as a corona."

The photos (included here) amazed me and I started my search. I asked other naturalists I knew if they had ever seen these; the answer was always no. Then lo! and behold! two summers ago (2006), while headed home from our morning walk (the dog and I), I looked up and saw iridescence in the clouds behind a tall white pine. I was awe. And the next morning, I saw the same. It happened several times that summer. Hm...something must not be right, thought I. Afterall, what are the odds that I never see the things and now suddenly they are almost as common as fleas on a dog? I did some "experimenting" - that is to say, I took my glasses off the next time I saw the shimmer of colors in the clouds. And the colors disappeared. What a disappointment - it seems the various treatments on my lenses were affecting the wavelengths of light reaching my eyes, enhancing the colors in the clouds.

Does this mean I didn't really see the iridescence after all? HM. I have new glasses now, so my search continues.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Common Redpolls

One of the perks of my job is a great view out my office window. A few years ago I put up a plant hanger outside my window; in the summer a hummingbird feeder graces this spot, and in the winter, I put out black oil sunflower seeds.

Early on this winter, when it was technically still autumn, we were hit with waves of winter birds: redpolls, goldfinches, snowbuntings, and even Bohemian waxwings (not at the feeders, but in Newcomb in general). Almost as suddenly as they arrived, they moved on through and disappeared. Lots of folks down-state are getting lots of life birds this winter.

Still, today the redpolls have returned to my window feeder. Mostly I have the old standbys: black-capped chickadees and nuthatches, both the red- and white-breasted varieties. It is nice to see the redpolls again - it reminds us that winter is still here (despite the recent rain and near-tropical temperatures).

Why a blog?

Many folks who are naturalists tend to be the "back-to-nature" sort of people. We eschew technology, preferring the simplicity of earlier times. I am often in this category. In a perfect world, I think I would be doing the whole homesteading "thing" - living off-the-grid, raising all my own meat and vegetables, etc.

BUT! This isn't to say I don't appreciate some of the technology that's out there. As an environmental educator, I enjoy sharing my knowledge of the outdoors with other people who are interested in learning. It used to be that one could only do this by writing books or letters, or in one-on-one encounters with visitors. However, in this very modern age, we now have blogs, spaces where we can post our thoughts and musings, where we can share our interests and our knowledge with others who might be like-minded.

So, I am taking those first tentative steps into the blog-o-sphere. I hope to interests and intrigue visitors with nifty notes about the natural world around me: the Adirondack Park. You will probably meet my dog here, "listen" to me expound on the trials and tribulations of my veggie garden (this will be Year Two), and hopefully you will learn something new with each visit.

That said, please bear with me while I navigate my way through the early steps of making this blog a fun place to be.