Thursday, January 29, 2009

Seeing Red

Every summer we are visited by a photographer who shares with us his photographs and his stories. He somes up from "down below" and spends the summer up here camping and snapping photos.

Last summer he watched a red fox for many evenings. One of the things he noticed was that the fox had one leg that was all bloody. Eventually, the fox turned up with the leg missing...possibly chewed it off to stave off infection, or to remove a limb that was no longer useful. Here is one of his photos of the fox:

(Photo courtesy of George Seymour)

If you really look at it, you will note that the fox's hips are slewed at an angle...just enough to get the one remaining hind leg centered under the body. Many animals that end up with three legs actually do very well. Note how healthy this fox's fur is - moving as a tripod is certainly not slowing it down! Hopefully it made it through this winter as well.

Red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) are rather common up here, although we also have grey foxes (Urocyan cinereoargenteus), which I have only seen out the other end of town. Sometimes the difference can be difficult to ascertain, because the body fur of each species can show great variation. What, then, is the fail-safe clue? The red fox, whether it is red, blonde, or silver-black, always sports a white tip on its tail. The grey fox (which can often look reddish) has a black tip on its tail.

The most interesting fox tails I have found, however, are at the doctor's office. In the hallway, as you walk to the examining rooms, he has a rack (like a coat rack) hung with various animal skins (where else but in the Adirondacks, eh?). The red foxes he has hanging there have rings on their tails! I've never seen the like before or since. Very odd.

Many thanks to George for letting me share his fox photo with you all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


According to the Weather Gurus somewhere over there in Vermont or down in Albany, we are supposed to get socked with upwards of a foot of snow before tomorrow morning.

As I lay there in my bed this morning, listening to the school closings and trying to convince myself to get up, I had images of still having to walk the dog and no doubt shovel a wall of snow from the driveway. Needless to say, I rolled over and dozed off again. Fortunately, the snowfall was very little this morning, so when I finally hauled myself out of bed, with forty-five minutes to get ready for work, walk the dog, feed myself and the animals, and shovel, I was able to forego the latter!

But now, about 4:00 PM, the snow has changed. It went from very fine, itty bitty flakes to big, ol' honkin' flakes, which are now building up rather rapidly on the ground. Our snow stick is almost up to 30" (it was about 24" this morning). But that's okay; somehow I find it much easier to shovel snow when I get home after work than I do when I get up in the morning! And it's been a while since we've had any significant snowfall, so we really shouldn't complain too much. The only down side is that there probably won't be many tracks to look at for tomorrow's school group. Should be good snowshoeing, though!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm So Proud!

When you get a group of kids who catch your excitement for tracking, it is magic!

One of the groups I had today really got into the stories and finds on the trails...even to the point of getting down and sniffing red fox urine!

For those of you who don't know, red fox urine is very skunky - if it is really fresh, the smell is quite strong, as in dead-skunk-in-the-road strong. If you have an active red fox den nearby, you will likely smell it long before you see it.

And right now it is breeding season for red foxes, so scent marking is going on all around. It's very exciting.

Y'see, tracking is more than just looking at footprints. It's looking at how the animal moves, figuring out what it was doing, trying to get inside the animal's mind. It's looking for scat, for browse, for hair (we found fox hair on the trail!!!), for scratches, for kill sites. It's detective work at its finest - CSI eat your heart out.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pine Siskin Wars

When the pine siskins are mobbing the feeders, they do a wonderful display with their wings and tails, fanning them out and flashing their hidden colors, which are really quite beautiful.

So this morning I thought I would attempt to capture it "on film." Well, wouldn't you know that the birds decided to be civil today! I finally ended up with two shots, however, that do show the colors.

As I sat there perched on my desk, waiting for the perfect shot, I marvelled once again at how the siskins sit and gorge at the feeders. And they were throwing an awful lot of seed on the ground. Now, I'm willing to believe that there are plenty of dud seeds in a bag, but it seems they were tossing out twenty for every one they ate, which seemed a bit excessive. And then suddenly, all the birds were gone. I had noticed the occasional chickadee flying up from the ground under the feeder, so I craned my neck to look directly down from my window, and there were the siskins, and chickadees, feeding on all the seeds on the ground. Could it be that the siskins, whom I had previously categorized as greedy pigs, were being altruistic and casting seed upon the ground so others could eat as well? HM. Every story has more than one side.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Spot of Color

When the world is white and grey,
a spot of color can brighten your day.

This lovely amaryllis was a gift this last Christmas. It came into bloom over the weekend - what a great greeting when we came in to the office this morning!

Thursday, January 15, 2009


If you wait around long enough at the feeders, and have your camera set for taking multiple shots while you press the shutter release once, you just might end up with some pretty nifty shots.

Here we have a blue jay coming in for a landing (in the shade, unfortunately):

And also an evening grosbeak doing the same:

This blue jay was either stretching up to force some seeds into its gullet, or was taking a peek in the window:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Strange Growths

You never know what you will encounter when you go out the door and into the "wild." You might stumble across unusual tracks, or hear the song of a woodland bird that is new to your ears. Maybe a new flower is in bloom, or a large hatch of mayflies occured. Perhaps the new light of dawn is bathing the world in gold, or a full moon appears like a search light across a snowy expanse. The possibilities are endless and it's all free for the taking!

Well, here is a recent strange encounter: bizarre growths on the side of a birch tree. Actually, strange growths on two birch trees. It's been a while since my "Forest and Shade Tree Pathology" course, and since I wanted to be sure I identified the causative agents correctly, I sent photos and an enquiry off to Professor John Castello, the current pathology professor at SUNY ESF. Here are our findings:

This is the first one I came across. The black growths seem to erupt from the bark of the birch like some alien bursting forth (which, in a sense, I suppose it is).

Part of what grabbed my attention was the shear size of the thing - I placed my glove on the upper-most growth to act as a reference for size. Maybe it's a burl in the making. Hm.

I had an email from Professor Castello this morning identifying this as the "sterile conk of Inontus obliquus." So I zipped on-line for information on this fungus. Apparently it is very common on birch species, although it has also been found on alder, hickory, beech and hophornbeam.

The black "stuff" that is erupting from the trunk is fungal tissue "erupting from bark cankers" (this from, a forest disease website from Canada. The tree's trunk is often thickened at the site of the disease, where the tree reacts like a body with cancer: rapid reproduction of wood and bark. There are fertile fruiting bodies, but these are annuals (where as the black bit is perennial) and are difficult to find due to rapid deterioration from insects and weather damage.

The bottom line is that this fungus causes a very severe white heart and trunk rot - not good news for those in the timber business.

One website( I found claimed that Inontus obliquua has medicinal properties. According to the article, written by Kahlee Keane, "This birch fungus known as chaga or "tsyr" has been part of Russia's traditional medicine since the sixteenth century. In recent years its therapeutic qualitites have been validated by such people as Dr. Kirsti Kahlos, a pharmacognycist at the Huinveristy of Helsinki who has been looking at the action of a triterpenes called inotodiol found in chaga. Kahlos and other recsearches have found this constituent active against influenze, inflammation of the stomach and intestines, as well as specific tumors."

So, there you have it.

The second birch tree had an entirely different appearance. It looked as though steps were growing from the trunk all the way up the tree, alternating from left to right.

Up close, the bark had been stretched and broken into patterns that immediately brought to mind the growth pattern of turkey tail fungus (Tramedes versicolor).

From the step-like swellings along the trunk new twigs seem to be sprouting.

Professor Castello suspects this is the same disease...perhaps the black fungal tissue just hasn't erupted from the trunk yet.

Cold Birds

The poor birds were COLD and HUNGRY this morning (-11 when I got to work; probably colder at 7 AM out the other end of town where it's all open)! They must've used up a lot of energy keeping warm last night. I had gotten up early, so Toby and I went out to fill feeders. Two little pine siskins were clinging to the thistle feeder. They refused to move, pecking slowly at the seeds within. I stood there, a little more than a foot away and waited for them to fly off (siskins are usually pretty skittish birds), but no dice. I reached into the bag of seed and held up my hand next to the birds - I could've touched them if I moved my hand a half inch closer. One took off, but the other still hung on. Finally, it's stress levels must've gone into overdrive and it, too, flew off. I filled the feeder with the remaining thistle seed, and added more sunflower seed to the sunflower seed feeders, peanuts to the peanut feeders. Although it was subzero out, standing there in the shelter of the house and facing the morning sun it wasn't too bad - but once out in the wind it turned pretty brutal.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


This morning I had a rude awakening. When I came home last night the sky was clear and I was braced for another subzero night. But when Toby and I headed out for our walk about 7 PM, no stars were to be seen. Hm, thought I, the clouds seem to have moved in. Well, this morning I opted to sleep in, since all I had on the agenda was driving to Glens Falls and the weather was predicted to be sunny and mild. When I finally got up and slogged into the kitchen, I saw my car was buried in snow, as was the end of the driveway! With Toby on his leash, we forged out from the safety of the garage - we must've had about 6" or so (say 5-8") overnight. Hm! Fortunately it was very light and fluffy, so shovelling was a breeze, even the near-foot of packed snow the plow left behind (no town crew going around on a Sunday morning to plow out the ends of our driveways).

What came to mind, as I stared at all this snow, was all the phone calls I fielded yesterday about the skiing and snowshoeing conditions. As of yesterday, they were great. As of this morning, they are probably still good, but there will be a bit more snow to go through for the first folks out on the trails. Still, it looks like it will be a fairly nice day - just be careful on the roads, which are a bit slick (or were at 10:00 AM when I headed out).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tracking Conundrum

Friday (yesterday) was a great day to be out! Today should be good, too, but it was -14 when I got to work this morning, so I think I will let it warm up a bit before I take my chances.

Snow conditions, despite the mixed precipitation earlier in the week, are actually quite good (no crunching). I was breaking trail most of the way yesterday, but it was only a few inches, so it was not a trial. For those who are interested in skiing, I am thinking the conditions are pretty good.

Tracks. Yesterday was a great track day - lots of stuff. The down side was that I couldn't figure out what they all were. We had the usual suspects (deer, squirrel and mouse), but then there was this other set of tracks, all over, that I just had the hardest time with. Conditions were not good for toe/foot patterns to show, so I couldn't count toes, and could only just barely make out any heel pad in only a very few tracks. The gait didn't fit any of the "preferred gaits" for our regular animals. The behavior didn't fit any of the animals I tried to make it out to be. So, here are some shots of the mystery tracks and my thoughts on what might have made them.

At first I was thinking large canid, but the stride was too short (stride length at a walk can give you a rough idea of the size of the animal). Also, foxes and coyotes usually travel at a trot and this gives a very characteristic pattern: an almost straight line of evenly spaced holes in the snow. These tracks were doing more of a 2x2 pattern.

Every time the animal detoured to shurbs or trees or logs, it passed under or through them. Had it been a fox or coyote, one would expect to see yellow snow at these locations. No yellow snow. At this location, the animal appears to have stood up on the side of the little hummock on the left, perhaps to look around and get a better idea of the surroundings.

I took lots and lots of photos of the tracks at every location they turned up, and finally got a shot that showed (when I got inside and looked at it on the computer) some foot patterns. The strong crecent-shaped heel pad suggests fisher.

While I tend to be used to fishers using a loping pattern (1x2x1), the 2x2 gait is very common for members of the weasel family. Also, weasels have scent glands all over, so this might explain the animal's travels under and through vegetation.

Here are some tracks by another member of the weasel family: the river otter. Note the definite tail print at the base of the tree.

The other highlight of the trek was along the Sage Trail. I had about reached the half-way point (where the Santanoni Connector joins the Sage), when I heard the tell-tale laugh of a pileated woodpecker. I stopped and listened. I decided to backtrack and see if I could find it; I didn't have to go too far. In the distance I could see it climbing a tree in search of insects. It passed to the back side of the tree and out of sight. Then I saw what I thought was a second pileated on the next tree over! I couldn't confirm that it was a second bird because the first one was no longer visible, so, I watched and waited. I kept thinking how much it reminded me of a pterodactyl! Must be the pointy head. After about five minutes or so, luck was on my side: the first bird reappeared. I have never seen a pair of pileateds together, so this was very exciting. I took a couple photos, but I was so far away that you really have to look for the birds (dark blobs in lower left and upper right corners of the photo below). I tried to move closer, but that was enough to scare them away. Still, it was a good find.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sunshine and Snowshoes

It looks like today will be the calm before the storm. We are enjoying sunshine and relatively calm winds, so it was a day to hit the trails. I strapped on a pair of MSRs and headed down the Rich Lake Trail.

Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! I certainly wasn't going to take any animals by surprise! Apparently the rain we had over the weekend (Saturday night) was enough to make the snow very crunchy. Still, the critters have been out and there were plenty of good tracks to see, especially around the building.

Our friend the red fox has been very busy. Fox tracks ran hither and yon all around the the trails and woods within, oh, maybe a 300' radius of the building. Could it be that our birdseed is feeding plenty of mice and making for good hunting?

Squirrel tracks were also in abundance, which is no great surprise, but I didn't see any hare tracks. It seems to be hit or miss with the hares every winter - either there are lots of tracks or they are rare. Hard to know from one year to the next, although out the other end of town they are as common as fleas on a dog!

I was surprised by some large canid tracks. Too big for fox, so they must've been coyote, but I find it odd to see a coyote travelling solo around these parts. I suppose it's not unheard of, but our coyotes tend to be a bit more social than their western cousins. It stopped around several low branches, presumably to scent them, but it left no telltale golden snow behind.

Hopefully the 4-8" of snow "they" are predicting for the next couple of days will be fluffy and will cover the crunch. We shall keep our toes crossed.

One of the great plants of winter is witch hobble (Viburnum alnifolium), notable for its naked buds. Most plants' bud have protective sheaths around them that provide shelter from the drying winds and freezing temperatures of our northern winters. But not witch hobble. Its sulfur-colored buds are left exposed throughout the winter, giving us a glimpse of the leaves that will unfold when springtime rolls around.

Meanwhile, back at the ol' homestead, the deer have been making inroads on my shrubbery. I saw their first forays over the weekend when Toby and I headed out for our PM Stroll. When we got back, I found the bundles of old orange snowfencing the previous owners had left behind and tied them to the fence and around the hedge. Unfortunately, I put it up a bit too high (thinking that as the winter progressed the snow would get deeper and the deer would then reach the upper branches). Even as I finished the last few ties, I thought to myself "Self, what do you want to bet the deer will crawl underneath and still get the cedars?" Sure enough - in less than two days I saw deer tracks between the cedars and the dog fence: the stinkers had crawled underneath and had gotten to the good stuff! Grrr. I will have to get more fencing and put a second layer around the bottom.

Meanwhile, the ruddy "dears" decided yesterday to sample the shrubs in the beds out front: lilac, aronia, sand cherry. I discovered this yesterday as Toby and I waited in the garage for the door to raise and let us begin a walk. Being shorter, Toby saw the deer first - right out in the driveway. With a mighty bark and a short charge (he can only go so far on a six foot leash), he drove them away, but not before they had sampled the shrubbery. I subsequently hung three canisters of "Deer Fortress" from the shrubs - we'll see if that makes any difference.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Giving Thanks in the New Year

One of the tenents of the Kamana Naturalist Program is giving thanks for those things that make our lives possible: the Earth, the waters, the birds, insects, fish, and other animals, the plants, the trees, the sun, the moon, the stars, the rain, our get the idea.

The Thanksgiving they use is based on the Thanksgiving Address of the Mohawk People, and it is through the work of one man, Jake Swamp, that the Thanksgiving Address and its idea is spreading today.

Jake, whose Mohawk name is Tekaronianeken, is a member of the Wolf Clan and is sub-chief of the Kahniakehaka (People of the Flint), aka the Mohawk Nation. He founded the Tree of Peace Society in 1984 and he travels around the world planting trees and sharing the Thanksgiving Address (as well as other teachings). If you are interested in learning more, check out the Tree of Peace Society at their webpage:

I met Jake several years ago at a tree planting ceremony down in Greenfield Center at the Ndakinna facility ( He gave the Thanksgiving Address in the Mohawk language first, and repeated it in English. It was very moving.

Anyway, if you are looking for an additional way to connect with nature, you should check out the Thanksgiving Address. One of the things the folks at Kamana recommend is starting each day by giving thanks to all around us, and ending each day with thankful thoughts. By doing so, one develops a greater appreciation for the roles played by each living thing on this planet and how we are all connected. It's a good way to start (and end) the day.