Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mid-November Musings

What a contrast - the blinding sun is shooting shards of light through the window while I sit here bundled up in two blankets and I still have a cold nose! Yes, it is November in the north woods.

Winter seemed to arrive overnight this year. On Saturday after work I had to make a dash to Long Lake in search of club soda (Toby inhaled a whole bag of Glycoflex soft chews - medicine for his stiff joints - and promptly threw them up all over the carpets; I was told club soda was the way to go for removing such stains), and on my way home I glanced at the thermometer on the car's computer and it read almost 60*F at about 6:15 PM!!! The next morning, however, the ground and pavement were dusted with snow. The heart breaker was the worms: hundreds of worms had crawled out onto the pavement during the night to avoid drowning (we had 1.1" of rain between Saturday morning and Sunday morning), and then the temperature plummeted, catching all those worms a long way from home. I was amazed to see that a few were still trying to inch their way across the roads, despite the below-freezing temperatures! By evening the roads were worm-free. Either the birds finally found this frozen feast, or the worms all warmed up enough to make it to safety.

Yesterday morning we had a meeting at the Tupper Lake library (a very nice and cozy library, by the way), and as the meeting wrapped up, I noticed a large, dark bird soaring over the lake just outside the picture windows. When I said "what's that?" the other naturalists rushed to the window to take a look. "Does it have a white tail?" someone asked. And the bird banked, giving us a glimpse of a definitely white tail: a bald eagle! As we continued to admire it, we saw that it had that mottled look of a juvenile just getting it's adult plumage. What a treat for a cold and blustery day!

Later that afternoon, one of the staff from the Ecological Center stopped by to look for signs of beavers. She said that they have documented two colonies on Rich Lake, but this year they hadn't found any signs of food being put up (or I should say "down", since beavers stick their food into the mud under the water) for the winter. Because I have seen lots of recent beaver activity along the Rich Lake Trail, I offered to take her out and show her where cutting was taking place. Sure enough, the shorelines were littered with chewed sticks, and we found at least two trails where the beavers have been harvesting and dragging wood down to the water. Still, no matter how much she looked, she couldn't find a food pile. This could be because the water is quite high, thanks to the rain we had over the weekend. But now that she has an idea of where the beavers are harvesting, she said she would take a kayak out and look in the area for tell-tale larder signs.

Meanwhile, the birds have stripped all the berries off the winterberry bushes now. In the 'burbs of Newcomb they are devouring the mountain ash berries and have started on some of the crabapples.

Newcomb is a town full of apple trees. Old apple trees. Apple trees that were likely planted 50 to 100 years ago. Or more. I'm guessing than a good many of these trees were planted in the days when folks made their own hard cider, or apple jack. Apples used for this stiff drink did not have to be apples of good flavor. Still, some of the trees around here produce apples that are quite edible. I came across one this morning behind the group home that is loaded yellow apples about the size of a child's fist. This makes me wonder if among the many apple trees there might be some cherished heirloom varieties. Maybe I will contact a couple of the folks in the Park who grow heirloom apples and see if they might want to come and take some samples - see what we have. You never know - heritage strains are often found in unlikely and hidden places.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What is That?

I love third graders!!! They are full of curiosity and so eager to examine everything! What's this? What's this? Old decaying leaves...fungi of all shapes and sizes...pieces of bark...bits of was all fair game! We surrounded the glacial erratic, and spread the spores of puffballs and lycopodia alike. This was a group that needed very little encouragement to get out and explore!

This item though, threw me for a loop:

I had no idea what it was, so I brought in inside, all soggy and crumbly, and commenced my search for an answer. (For reference, it is over a foot long, maybe 15 inches). Answers come from some unexpected places. I showed it to our handyman and he knew right away what it is: part of a fern, from the root end. Armed with this information, I grabbed my Fern Guide (Edgar T. Wherry) and started to flip pages. Sure enough, it is the rootstock of a fern (or, perhaps, the rhizome, according to Fern Finder by Anne & Barbara Hallowell).

According to Wherry, the wood ferns (Dryopteris spp.) have a "stout, scaly rootstock, holding old stipe-bases." This seems to fit what we found.

On my next trip out towards Pickerel Pass I will have to keep my eyes open for ferns and see if I can find any attached to similar rootstocks and thus obtain a definite ID.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Morning After

This morning the other half of yesterday's school group arrived for their chance at uncovering the diversity and abundance of wildlife off our trails. This group really took their time and looked. We had some great discoveries, including one boy who, thanks to hunting trips with his dad, found deer tracks pressed into the wet leaves in the mixed woods! That takes a practiced eye. And even though we passed through the same habitats as yesterday's group, we found plenty of new things to record. Some lent themselves well to photography, while others were too mobile to allow me a clear shot.

Girls looking under rocks. That's actually the title of a book, I believe. Anyway, some of the girls were a little squeamish about touching stuff, and some were taken aback by the aromas that issued from underneath rocks partially buried in swampish muck. New doors were opened for them. By the end of the program, even the most fashion-conscious of them expressed an interest in exploring their own yards back home. Another success story.

The image of this girl in the wetland along the shore of Rich Lake was just too good to pass up. She was one of our most engaged students today. She told me how much she loves being outside and how spending time exploring sure beat playing video games indoors. This was music to my ears!

I apologize for the quality of these shots - the beast just wouldn't stand still! I believe it is some kind of wasp, but I'm not 100% sure. What was fascinating to us was its coloration: dark with white/cream-colored stripes/bands on antennae, legs and body, including what I think was a white/cream-colored stinger. If anyone has an idea of what it might be, please let me know.

Snowshoe hare scats! I was very excited to find these. We are lucky to find hare tracks once in a while during the winter, but this is the first evidence I've had of their presence outside of winter. The girls were somewhat less enthused with the discovery, and were especially appalled when I picked the scats up to show them up close. Oh, well...what can I say? I guess I'm just a scat fanatic!

On a side note: many thanks to those of you who have left me comments and who visit my blog on a regular basis! It's always nice to hear that one's efforts are appreciated!

I encourage everyone to take some time these next few days while the weather remains mild to go out and explore the late-autumn woods. Or even the late-autumn yard! It can be a real eye opener to discover that many animals are still active, hording food, grabbing last-minute morsels to see them through the winter, and foraging among the seed heads in gardens and berry-laden shrubs in wetlands and yards alike.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day Off the Trails

What better way to spend Election Day than to go for a ramble off the beaten path? We had a group in today from the Lake George region and we took them bushwacking through three different habitats to record all signs of wildlife they encountered. Here are some photos commemorating the morning's exploration.

At this time of year, there aren't a lot of insects or other animals readily visible in the landscape, so we have to look for them where they lurk for the winter. Looking under the bark of dead and decaying trees is always a good place to start.

If we take the time to look really carefully, we find where animals have stopped for snacks. This mushroom was likely dined upon by a member of the rodent family. Mouse? Squirrel? I'm leaning towards squirrel.

One boy brought me a mussel shell and a berry. While not animals, they were good finds. He then tossed the shell into some water, where it landed right-side-up, making a perfect boat for a berry sailor. To me it looks like a bright red pearl nestled in it's shell.

Fresh beaver chews! We came across several of these at Pickerel Pass - the beavers must be working overtime to get in food before things freeze for real this winter.

And even though it was a cool, damp and overcast morning, the view of Goodnow Mountain was nice, especially with its reflection on the still waters of Rich Lake.