Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Moon

...unless it really is made of cheese, in which case it would be Bleu Moon. :)

But seriously, folks, tonight is the night we get to experience what has commonly become known as a Blue Moon, the second full moon that occurs in one month. This phenomenon actually happens about every two and a half years (actually, it's closer to every 32 months), so it isn't really all that uncommon.

However, it turns out that what we consider a Blue Moon is not what the originators of the idea of a Blue Moon had in mind. In the earlier part of the 1900s (1932-1957), the Maine Farmer's Almanac came up with the moniker Blue Moon to describe the third moon in a season that had four full moons. Huh? Usually, each season has only three full moons (four seasons, twelve months, equals three months per season, usually with one moon each month). Because the lunar cycle is 28 days, there are always a few days left over each month, so eventually they add up to 28 days and voila, a fourth moon appears during a given season. Rather than call this fourth moon the Blue Moon, though, they decided to give that title to the third moon - I have no idea why.

Anyway, apparently someone wrote an article about the Blue Moon in a 1946 issue of "Sky and Telescope" magazine and misquoted the Almanac, stating that when two moons occur within a single month, the second one is a Blue Moon. This idea stuck - most likely because the error was repeated until it became familiar.

So, if you are a purist, tonight's Blue Moon really isn't, because in fact it is the first full moon of the winter season.

Of course, none of this actually explains why it's called a Blue moon; after all, it's not blue.

The moon only appears blue when atmospheric conditions are right. These conditions involve dust (soot, ash) high in the atmosphere in copious quantities. For example, the last time genuinely blue moons were reported was after Mt. Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in June 1991. Blue, and even lavender, moons were seen for quite some time around the world.

Tonight, however, folks in Europe, Asia and Africa will get to see a sort of reddish moon, thanks to the partial lunar eclipse that is also occuring. Those of us in North and South America will miss this due to the time the eclipse is occuring. If you want to see it, you'll have to hop on a plane pretty soon and head to the other side of the planet.

And for those who are curious about the photo, I took it last night. It wasn't blue; I played around with the photo this morning before posting. A girl's gotta have a little fun now and then, eh?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Da Boids

The evening grosbeaks were here in droves this morning, calling from the tree tops in that finchy way they have. I filled and hung the feeders and went about the business of opening the building for the day. Then I grabbed the camera and tried to get some pics.

Grosbeaks are not brave birds.

I took several shots through the windows, but they just don't come out well, y'know.

Aren't they just about the handsomest birds you've seen?

So I grabbed a cup of seed and went out on the deck, sprinkling seed on the railings. Of course, all the birds took off.

Chickadees and nuthatches are brave, though, so it was only a matter of a minute or two before they came back, bringing a few goldfinches with them. One little chickadee looks to be in pretty bad shape. It kind of reminds me of a chicken that's been picked on by the other chickens - henpecked.

I wonder if his feathers will protect him enough through these subzero days/nights we are having.

The grosbeaks, however, stayed in the trees. After ten minutes or so (I'm standing out there sans coat, hat, about 4*F), they drifted down to the lower branches, but just wouldn't come feed. They so obviously wanted all that seed I put out, but not one was brave enough to get it.

Finally, as I was getting ready to call it quits, a couple took the plunge, but only to the seed farthest away from me.

I still didn't get any really good shots, though. BUT! I'll accept this as a challenge.

I did finally get a couple fair photos of a white-breasted nuthatch, which has been on my list, so it wasn't a total loss.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Strange Weather

Like much of the state, we had some strange weather this weekend.

Saturday, the rains came - over 3/4" by Sunday morning. I lay there in bed Saturday night/Sunday morning listening to it pour. I was mighty glad to be in a house, and not having to find shelter in the woods somehwere.

Sunday, however, dawned sunny and bright. It was downright mild. Saw a neighbor out in a t-shirt! A quick tour of the yard showed just how much rain we had. Y'see, I have one of those big blue plastic barrels under a seam in my gutters to catch the liquid that leaks out - sort of a modified rain barrel. This container holds, oh, maybe 40 gallons? 50? Well, Saturday morning, before the rains, I noticed it was maybe a quarter full - ice from past drips. When I looked at it Sunday morning, the ice was a good 5-6" above the rim! After several attempts, I was able to heave it over, dumping out the liquid and then lifting the container off the ice:

Pretty impressive, no? That's a heck of a lot of ice, and I can tell you that it weighs a ton!

I recieved some cute birdseed-men from my boss for X-mas, so they have been put out for the birds. The only animal I've seen show any interest so far, though, is Toby.

It was a beautiful day, so we walked down to the river. One neighbor took advantage of the soft and very-packy snow:

Every year he makes a giant snowman - says he does it for the kids on the school bus. Whatever the reason, it is impressive to behold. Frankly, I admire him for hauling shovelful after shovelful of heavy wet snow up the ladder!

We didn't encounter any interesting tracks on this walk, but I did see water vapor steaming off the side of a tree:

It was difficult to capture "on film", but I think you get the idea.

The roads, of course, had been turned to slush. Yuck. Toby was about as happy walking through this as I was.

Oh, well - within 24 hours it had been replaced by snow. Yes, we got about five inches of very fluffy snow, starting sometime during the night and continuing until this morning. This was good, because the yard had become a crusty minefield, which neither Toby nor I wanted to cross. I packed down some of his trails while it was soggy, but the colder temps and the fluff have made the yard traversable once more.

And today we are back to sunshine! Everything is very white, thanks to the snow and the blustery winds, which plastered the snow against every vertical surface out there. But, as lovely as it looks, it is COLD! It was -5*F when I got to work, but with the winds gusting to over 40 mph, the windchill is much, much colder. It's now about noon and we've almost hit 1*F. I think I'll be enjoying the beauty through the protective layers of the office windows today.

The Tracker's Library

More than one person has asked me for book recommendations on the subject of animal tracking. So, I thought I'd take a moment to share some of the books in my arsenal, and give you my opinion of each, for what it's worth.

These are two of my favorite books, both by Mark Elbroch. These are heavy books, for they are printed on good-quality paper and full of color photographs. The mammal book covers not only tracks, but also scats, dens, and feeding signs. If you find a clump of feathers, signs of a bird kill, this book can help you determine if it was a bobcat or a coyote that plucked the bird. Lots and lots of good information. The bird book is likewise filled with good info, but I have found that for me, at least at this point in my tracking skills, bird track ID is difficult. Sure, crow tracks are easy to ID, and turkey and grouse, but to tell a chickadee from a goldfinch, that is much more challenging. But, if you want to become expert at this, then this is the book for you.

Tucked into the pages of my copy of Mammal Tracks and Signs is a yellow ruler. This is a hinged ruler, that opens up into two rulers, one for vertical and one for horizontal measurements. This ruler is ideal for anyone who is recording tracks photographically, for it measures length and width simultaneously, and if you are making a record of tracks, a ruler is much better for measuring than your foot, your thumb, your lens cap, or a quarter. I got this ruler from Keeping Track (see below), but a carpenter's ruler (the ones that fold up) will work just as well.

The first real tracking course I took was with Jim Bruchac (he runs the Ndakina Education Center in Greenfield Center, NY; see his website here). Jim, who is part Abenaki, used to do Native American storytelling as part of an overnight school program we have here, so I was familiar with his interests and his teaching style. A few years ago I signed up for his weekend-long tracking class and learned an awful lot. Much of his training was with James Halfpenny, who is a tracking instructor out west.

One of the difficulties with learning tracking is that just about every book out there teaches it differently. While teaching techniques are not in question, terminology is. For example, one instructor may define "stride" as the distance from one foot print to the next (left or right, front or hind - it doesn't make any difference), while another will measure it from where, say, the left hind foot lands to where it lands the next time, and a third instructor measures "stride" as this funky diagonal length. One of Halfpenny's goals it to get everyone on the same page, so that when someone refers to the "stride length" as, say, 17 inches, everyone knows exactly what this measurement is. His is a rather scientific approach to tracking.

In his video training set (seen above), you learn exactly how the animals move, and thus how each track pattern is made. This becomes immensely important in learning how to read tracks. Halfpenny and Bruchac teamed up to write a series of pocket guides for animal tracking, each booklet specific to a specific region of the States (e.g. Tracks and Scats of the Northeast). There were some errors in the first editions, but hopefully they've been corrected in subsequent ones.

Paul Rezendes' Tracking and the Art of Seeing is one of the classics in tracking literature. Every tracker should have this book, for it has lots of photos and lots of background information. It covers behavior as well as movement. And, one of the best bits, it also covers scats - very important to trackers. The downside (in my humble opinion) is the confusing way he measures tracks - see my notes above regarding James Halfpenny. The Field Guide to Tracking Animals in the Snow is a book that resides in our library here at work. I don't know if I've ever read it or not. But, looking through it now I see that it has some good info in it, much of which coincides with Halfpenny's teachings (gaits and movements). Just flipping through it I think I would recommend this book, too (I will now be adding it to my reading list this winter).

Olaus Murie's book is part of the Peterson Field Guide series. Murie was quite famous for his natural history studies. The book gives some good basic information for ID, but as far as a teaching tool goes, I'd recommend something else first. The Stokes Nature Guides are always chocked full of interesting information. The number of animals covered may be limited, but they give you lots of good background and natural history. This is one I would recommend for filling in the gaps.

Jon Young is the founder of the Wilderness Awareness School out in Washington State. I've taken two of their courses: Kamana I and Kamana II. These are their naturalist-training classes (it goes up to level four). For the average person who has little or no knowledge about the natural world, these courses are likely to be highly worthwhile. For me, I found most of it to be old hat - I wasn't learning much. I signed up for the programs to hopefully learn more about tracking, but I don't think they really get into serious tracking info until the third and fourth levels, and financially, those are a bit beyond me at this point. That said, Animal Tracking Basics is just what it says: a basic book for learning tracking. It has a lot of good information, although I did find a couple errors. One of the best things about Jon Young's publications is his knowledge of using bird behaviors to enhance one's tracking skills. They are covered in this book, but he also has an audio series for learning bird language (not bird songs, per se, but reading bird behavior). You can find these books and CDs here.

Keeping Track is a non-profit tracking organization in Vermont, established by Susan Morris, who is quite well-known for her tracking prowess. I've taken a couple courses with Susan and she does indeed know her stuff (bobcats are one of her specialties). One of the goals of Keeping Track is to teach people how to monitor local wildlife populations in order to make better planning decisions for their communities. This book gives the reader tips on how to photograph tracks. It has some good info in it, but most people could probably live without it. You can learn more about Keeping Track here.

The SAS Guide to Tracking is great if you become a hard-core tracker. This is for people who want to learn how to age tracks, and how to read all the minute nuances that tracks can tell. If you want to track something across a dry creek bed, this is the book for you. For most of us, this book is over the top, but for those few who become totally obsessed with tracking, it's a good one to have. Along with this I would add John Brown's tracking books - he, too, gets into the wee little details that most of us will never be able to see.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is take a class with a good tracker. Any class that is less than half a day long is not likely to be worthwhile... not if you really want to get to know how to track things. The best classes (for those who are serious about learning tracking) are multiple day courses, and ones that actually get you outside following tracks.

Here at the Newcomb VIC, I offer tracking classes throughout the winter, mostly for school groups, but also for the public. Because most people are not as obsessed with tracking as I am, my classes usually run about two hours - more than that and people get bored. I spend about an hour or so inside review tracks and gaits, and then we go outside looking for tracks to ID and to see if we can learn what stories they have to tell.

A really close second to signing up for a good course is to just get out there and do it yourself! At first you may find all you can do is simply identify footprints, but, as with all things, practice makes perfect. In order to make the most of this, you also need to learn a) what animals are in your area, and b) what their behaviors are. For example, if you live in Tennessee, you probably won't be tracking martens, no matter what the tracks look like. And if you are following a track that goes from tree to tree, odds are it's not a deer (they don't climb trees).

For me, the best bit about tracking are the stories. When you get good at reading tracks, you can pretty much tell what the animal was doing. Was it simply going from point A to point B, or was it stalking something? Is it a female in heat? Did the animal hear something and change its gait to take advantage of this (to find food or avoid being eaten)? When did the coyote first see the hare and begin chasing it? Did the owl catch the mouse?

I hope this bibliographic review has been helpful. I'd suggest looking at more than one book - what works for me, may not work for you. Talk to other trackers and see what they recommend. Then get out there and observe - there's no substitute for it.

If you live in the Saratoga region, you might want to keep your eyes open for tracking classes with Vince Walsh, founder of Kawing Crow Awareness Center. I took a class with him last winter at the Paul Smiths VIC and will be going to another one in a couple weeks (9 Jan) at the Wilton Preserve. Vince is an enthusiastic tracker and a good teacher - I recommend his programs. He will be at the Paul Smiths VIC 6 March (9:30 - 2:30); pre-registration required.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bibliophilia Strikes Again

Santa, baby - slip a field guide under the tree for me
Been an awful good girl, Santa, baby,
so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Santa, cutie, a '68 natural history, too, Oo-oo
And an out-of-print tome, Santa, baby
so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Think of all the fun I've missed
Thing of all the insects that I must've "dissed"
Next year I could be more knowledge'ble
If you'll check off my Christmas list (I'll be adding more books to it).

Santa, baby, I wanna lot, but never a yacht for two
Been an angel all year, Santa, baby,
So hurry down the chimney tonight.

Santa, honey, there's one more thing I really do need
A weed
Identification book
Santa, baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.

Okay - the spoof can only go just so far, but it was fun to try and stick in something for each of my new books! Some of these I purchased for myself this month, but others were birthday and Christmas gifts.

I'm especially looking forward to putting the Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates to use. My dad had a copy of this book to help with his new fly-fishing hobby, and when I saw it I knew I had to have a copy, too. Think of how much more interesting I can make our aquatic studies programs at work once I can tell one stonefly nymph from another, and can relate some nifty factoids about them as well!

All of this bodes well for future blogs, too. One can never have too many reference books - that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

A Cool Yule

The weather couldn't have been nicer earlier this week while I was off from work. Although the chores were piled up high in the house, I had to ignore them (ah, the tragedy) to take advantage of the sunshine.

First, I had to try and get more shots of the snow buntings. I sprinkled seed on the snow near the house and then I waited by the window inside. Even though the sun was out and it looked like a lovely day, a strong and bitterly cold wind was blowing, which meant I couldn't just sit there with the window open waiting for the birds to arrive. Every so often, though, I would check the status of the birds, and if snow buntings were feeding, I'd try to ease the window open to get a few shots.

The bird books might tell you that snow buntings are not afraid of people, and maybe they aren't, but they sure are skittish birds. The slightest (and I do mean slightest) noise and they take off.
A two-fer: good views of the front and back.

Up on the roof. The bits of snow you see flying in the air to the left

are from the wind blowing the snow off the shed roof.

You talkin' to me?

This was my closest shot, but it was taken through the window,
which is why it is so dark. Pity.

Last Sunday Toby and I went ski-joring (that's me skiing, and Toby, in theory, pulling me along via a harness). It was a beatiful morning and there was enough snow to ski upon, yet not so much that Toby would flounder.

We walked to the overlook and strapped on the gear. From there we headed out, across the overlook, through the boneyard and onto the golf course.

We didn't see much - which was surprising. Our first find was this:

Deer had dug up the pile of grass clippings left behind from the crew that kept the overlook cut all summer and fall. Would they eat the mouldering clippings, or were they in search of something else? Perhaps they could sense the heat of decay, and therefore dug through in hopes of finding green grass below?

Once we hit the golf course, we saw some snowshoe hare tracks:

The hare(s) had hopped out of the trees (low-growing balsam firs mostly), onto the course, then it looked like it/they turned around and headed back into the trees.

Skiing with Toby can be a challenge, because he likes to follow his nose, which often takes him into the trees - not necessarily a place I want to be.

It's also exciting when we come to a hill. Sometimes he bounds ahead, pulling me along at breakneck speed. Other times, he goes slowly, or even stands still, which means I'm likely to crash into him, so I'm whizzing along yelling at him to "go-go-go...MOVE!". It gets really exciting when he moves to the side and I zip past him, right over the rope, and end up dragging him behind. Needless to say, I avoid hills as much as possible.

On Christmas Eve, we enjoyed another bright and sunny day. We headed for the river.

Some of my neighbors have fantastic views of the mountains from their houses.

A couple years ago, this tree was home for a family of black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus). No one had inhabited it since, at least not on a regular basis.

The river was frozen over (no surprise there). There were some great tracks across the surface - I suspect mostly coyote, but some could also be deer. While the animals were willing to trust their weight to the ice, I wasn't, so my track ID was done from the safe distance of the shore.

Tracking to Toby means smells - for which he doens't need snow. He always knows where animals have been, and what they've been doing; unlike me, he doesn't need footprints to tell him the story. Still, all footprints in the snow must be thoroughly investigated.

When we finally rolled out of bed Christmas morning, the sun was disappearing behind the clouds. A hard frost had hit overnight - not surprising in retrospect, since the evening was swathed in fog. So, I added a few more frost photos to my collection:

The rest of the day, because it was so-so weatherwise, was spent finally taking care of some of those household chores. I can finally move through the kitchen again without having to navigate an obstacle course.

Frigid Friday - Weekend Weather Report

Because we were closed on Friday (yesterday - Christmas Day), this post is coming to you on Saturday instead.

We have about 10 inches of snow out there, but last night (this morning?) it rained, or sleeted, or something. Whatever it was, it left a crust of ice on everything, so snowshoeing and skiing will be a loud affair if you decide to go out on the trails today.

Here's the forecast from the NWS:

Today: 100% chance of sleet before 1 PM and rain, snow and sleet from 1:00 - 4:00 PM, and snow after 4 PM. The wind is going to kick in at 11-14 mph, with gusts to 35 mph (from the east). High near 35*F.

Sunday: 40% chance of snow and sleet - basically, it looks the same as today's forecast, but with a smaller percentage. The wind should shift to the south and become a calm 6 mph. High near 35*F.

Monday: 60% chance of snow after 1 PM. West wind 5-9 mph, with gusts to 20 mph. High near 26*F.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fingernail Moon

As I turned into Winebrook last night, nearly home, the waxing crescent moon was perfectly framed by the trees on either side of the road, lighting up a midnight blue sky. I knew that when I got home I'd have to grab the camera and tripod and try to get a shot of it.

Toby greeted me at the door, dancing and wiggling, and disappointed that I didn't drop everything to say hello and scratch his ears. No - I was too focused on getting my camera gear together.

Out the back door we both went, Toby to explore, me to photograph. Framing the moon was not as easily done in my yard - the trees were taller, and by now the moon was lower. I finally found a spot and set up the tripod. Two legs sank in the snow while the third remained high on the packed snow of the snowshoe path. No mittens. Metal tripod. Temp hovering around zero. Hands very sensitive to cold. Things were not going well.

I finally got the tripod set, and realized I didn't have the connector knob on the bottom of the camera. No sweat - I'm only going to take a couple shots - I'll just hold the camera still on top of the tripod.

Yeah, right.

After a few bad shots, I tromped back into the house and got the knob.

So, long story short, here's a shot of the moon in the dark:

and a shot with a little more light so you can see the trees:

It's amazing how you can see the entire moon in these shots, not just the crescent! It almost looks like an eclipse in action.

By now my hands were so cold they were starting to go numb. I grabbed the burning cold tripod and with Toby racing ahead (it's dinner time!), I stumbled through the back door and began the slow, painful process of thawing out my hands. Next time I will wear the mittens.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Merry Caddis to All

A seasonal poem for your pleasure. . . courtesy of my dad.

By Richard Frank

T’was the night before Christmas when down by the stream
The full moon looked out on a chill winter scene.
A lone trout was sipping a midge in his brook,
Untroubled by worries of fishers with hooks.

Then from above a small sleigh did appear
Pulled by a brace of eight tiny reindeer.
It swerved of a sudden and down it did glide,
Settling its runners along the streamside.

The fat, jolly driver dove into his sled
And emerged with his three-weight held high over head.
"Thank you, my elves, for this wand smooth as silk.
This break will be better than cookies and milk."

So saying, he jumped from his sleigh with a chuckle,
Hiked up his boots and cinched up his belt buckle.
Santa meant business that cold winter's eve.
A fish he would catch – that you'd better believe.

Looking upstream and down, he spotted that trout,
Then he open his flybox and took something out -
"Size 32 midges are only for faddists;
I'll go with my favorite tan reindeer caddis."

So he cast out his line with a magical ease
And his fly floated down just as light as you please.
And it drifted drag free down the trout's feeding lane,
But the fish merely wiggled a fin of disdain.

"Oh, Adams; oh, Cahill; oh, Sulphur; oh, Pupa;
Oh, Hopper; oh, Coachman; oh, Olive Matuka!
I've seen every fly in the book and the box.
I'm old and I'm wary and sly as a fox.

To catch me you'll need an unusual gift,
For a present this common no fin will I lift."
Old Nick scratched his head, for his time it grew short.
The reindeer behind him did shuffle and snort.

He looked once again in his box for a fly
When a pattern compelling attracted his eye.
"The Rudolph!" he muttered and grinned ear to ear
"Far better to give than receive, so I hear."

So he cast once again and his magic was true,
And the trout it looked up and knew not what to do.
"This fly has a body of bells don't you know,
And if that's not enough there's a shining red nose!

I know it's fraud and I know it's a fake,
But I can't help myself. It's I gift I must take!"
So he rose in swirl and captured that thing,
Flew off down the stream. Santa's reel it did sing.

"Ho!" shouted Santa, "You're making my day.
If the heavens were water, you'd be pulling my sleigh."
So, Santa prevailed and released his great rival
First taking great care to ensure its survival.

He then mounted his sled and he flew out of sight
Shouting, "Merry Caddis to trout and to all a good night!"

Snow Birds

Yesterday afternoon, upon returning from the vet's office (Toby had an appointment), I took the camera for a walk in the yard. The sun was out and lowering in a bright blue sky, casting long shadows with its orange glow. Because it was so beautiful outside, it was fairly easy (at least for a short while) to ignore the bitter winds (we had a high of 4*F yesterday).

The first thing that caught my eye was all the tracks around the feeders. Crows, I thought, without giving them a second glance.

I moseyed across the yard, photographing dried flowers and shadows,

when a bird's voice grabbed my attention. It was a single note, and not one I recognized. Tew. I looked and looked, and finally gave up. As I continued walking, the note resumed. Determined, I started to scan all the tree tops. Finally I saw it: a bright white belly perched on the very tip of a balsam fir at the edge of the yard. (How do they manage to hang on?)

My first thought was "snow bunting," but I've only ever seen snow buntings in clusters on the ground/field/yard, or in flocks whirling above the ground/field/yard - never a lone bird and never perched high in a tree.

I moved around, trying to get a better angle, where I could see more than the bird's underpinnings. When I turned back towards the tree, it had flown away...of course.

But lo! and behold! it had landed in the cherry tree. So, I tried sneaking up on it. Eventually, I got an angle that was as good as it was going to get, and decided to try a video - maybe the bird would do something and I'd capture it "on film" and then be able to get a confirmation on its ID.

And there it is: the black tips on the wings when it fluttered! It was a snow bunting.

Later on, while back in the house warming up, I saw two snow buntings lurking under the feeders. It wasn't crow tracks I had seen, but bunting tracks!

A closer examination showed the paired hopping tracks - crows walk. Well, they will hop, too, but crow tracks are typically walking tracks: left, right, left, right, left right...

Snow buntings are very skittish birds (although at times not skittish enough - recall the hawk that took one out last winter), making them difficult to photograph. Photographing them through my window isn't a great option - the images are cloudy. So, I raise the window - and the birds fly off. And when one's dealing with near- or subzero temps (with our without a windchill), one really doesn't want to leave one's window open for extended periods of time.

So, I shoved the window upwards as quietly as possible, and the birds took off. I eventually tracked them down - sitting on the snowy roof of my neighbor's garage. They blended in so well that had they not moved, I never would've seen them.

This morning they were back, with a bunch of their friends. The only pictures I could get were through the window. It was -10 and I didn't feel like letting what little heat the house had escape through an open window.

So, snow buntings...what can I tell you about Plectrophenax nivalis (aka: snowflake)? They are considered to be the largest of the buntings, and have the longest wingspan (twelve inches).

As one might guess from the color of the feathers, this is a bird that makes snow its home. It is a circumpolar species, an arctic specialist, occurring on land all around the northern parts of the northern hemisphere. The tundra is its stomping grounds, and it will winter further north than any other bird, with the exception of the raven. As a special adaptation for living in these brisk environs, the snow bunting has feathered tarsi, which are the part of the foot above the toes (you would probably consider the tarsus to be the ankle, but in truth, it is equivalent to the part of your foot that is the arch).

The male returns to the tundra in April (when temps of -30*F are not unheard of) to stake out a nest site. The early return is a reflection of the value of real estate, for these birds nest in rock crevices and the best sites are few and far between, resulting in some fierce competition. Those who get to the north first are more likely to get the best crevices, which provide the best protection from arctic predators.

The downside of these deep rocky abodes is that they are chilly, which can be deadly for developing eggs. To increase the odds of their progeny's survival, the female will remain on the nest incubating the eggs while the male brings her food.

And what are these little black and white birds eating? From late fall through early spring, their diet consists of seeds from grasses and "weeds." Once the warmer weather hits, buds and invertebrates are added to the diet. It's no wonder, then, that when the snowflakes arrive in our area in the fall that they will hang out beneath the bird feeders. To help them out, I sprinkled some sunflower seeds on the snow this morning, so they wouldn't have to wait for the rejects flicked from the feeders by goldfinches, chickadees, and grosbeaks.

Are snow bunting populations doing well? It depends on who you read, but according to Audubon, their numbers have decreased 64% in the last 40 years. Climate change is labelled as the primary cause.

We see snow buntings in fits and spurts here in Newcomb. They may arrive in the fall, or not. They may be around for a few days, or a couple weeks. They are not a species upon which I would set my clocks - their arrivals and departures are not dependable (like woodcocks and bluebirds). Perhaps this is why their appearances are so delightful - a little gift on a cold, wintry day.

Frigid Fridays - the Weekend Weather Post

Weather update for the weekend of
18-20 December 2009

Friday, 18 December:
Sunny with a high of 18*F and a low overnight of -6*F

Saturday, 19 December:
Sunny with a high of 22*F and a low overnight of -1*F

Sunday, 20 December: Cloudy with a nigh near 23*F and a low overnight of 4*F

The rest of the week looks like it will be overcast; no new snow is currently in the forecast.

**Weather is subject to change without notice**

Current snow conditions: We have almost a foot of snow. The initial snow was fluffy, followed by some perfect packing snow earlier this week. This has subsuquently frozen and been topped with about four inches of new fluff.

This just in: There is at least two feet of snow at Marcy Dam, with estimates of at least three feet of snow on Mt. Marcy. Do not attempt to do backcountry hiking in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area without snowshoes. They are required by law.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another New Toy

Our friends Nancy and Lois, the owners of the WildBirds Unlimited shop down in Wilton, recently donated a BirdCam to the Newcomb VIC. After gorging ourselves at our volunteer breakfast this morning, we broke it out and set it up on the back deck. We had it set for taking videos, and here are some of the images it captured.

First, we have a lot of chickadees.

And if you look closely at the very end of the second clip, you'll see a hairy woodpecker come in to feed on the solidifed bacon grease we put out this afternoon. Yum - all the birds are lovin' the fat!

More to come as we work out the wrinkles.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Coming Soon

We get a lot of phone calls this time of year asking about snow conditions. The VICs used to have a weekly snow report on their website, but with the departure of our PR person, that option is no longer maintained.

So, I am going to take on some of this responsibility by posting a weekly snow report here, on this blog. Look for it on Fridays.

Because of logistics, the snow report will only be for Newcomb. If you are planning a trip elsewhere in the park, I recommend you look up the weather report for that area on the National Weather Service's website. Just enter the city, state of your destination.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dang - I Missed It

I was kind of looking forward to looking at the Geminids Sunday night/Monday morning, but it was heavily overcast and the only white things shooting across the heavens were snowflakes (although some of them were pretty impressive).

Still, I did see one "shooting star" Saturday night while standing on the back steps waiting for Toby to return from his rounds of the yard.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

First Snowshoe Hike of the Winter

The sun was out and so was I. It was time to strap on a pair of snowshoes and hit the VIC's trail system. A couple people had already broken trail earlier in the week, but I was the first staff to go out since the snow arrived.

My official goal this trip was to put up ski signs, but as always I made it a priority to look for animal tracks and other interesting signs of winter. I was surprised at just how much ice was on the water at the lake's outlet. A week ago it was raining and the only ice to be seen was on puddles first thing in the morning.

I was excited to see how the snow and ice had impacted The BeaverWorks, so I made them my first destination. The lower dam, next to the Sucker Brook Trail, is now really obvious: the snow-covered ridge of the dam stands out like a sore thumb. Normally, as in "pre-beaver", the Little Sucker Brook remained flowing along here most of the winter. Now we have sequential frozen ponds.

The front of the big dam has a suspicious "slide" on it. I suspect that instead of being a genuine slide, from an otter, for example, it is actually just a spot where the water kept flowing over the top of the dam, preventing snow from building up. There was no water flowing over it today.

This is the view across the top of the big dam. I'm not sure I would trust my weight to the ice, but no doubt some small critters have already given it a try, and more will likely continue to do so as the winter wears on.

A week ago you could see the lodge and food pile across the pond. Nothin' doin' today, that's for sure. I hope the beavers are all snug in their home, for they are certainly frozen-in now.

I had nothing with me that I could use to show scale, so you'll have to take my word for it that this hole was made by a red squirrel. Not only will they scamper along on top of the snow, but they will also tunnel right through it when the situation arises.

Mouse tracks were quite numerous. Note the tail drag, which makes them pretty easy to ID:

Ruffed grouse tracks are pretty hard to mistake for anything else. These chicken-like birds shuffle through the snow leaving pretty distinctive paths behind:

As I shuffled along the Sage Trail, I heard a loud whacking sound, and soon located a male hairy woodpecker working away at a tree.

He was quite industrious, but the little tree in front kept getting in the way of a good photo!

I finally moved off the trail so I could get a better view, but I must have gotten too close, for after about thirty seconds, he flew off to another tree, where I could hear his renewed search for food.

Next year's leaf buds were already green and swollen on the blackberries...just like the pussy willows in my yard last week.

For the last few weeks, ash seeds have been obvious all over the ground. They continue to fall, for they are scattered on top of the snow now. I picked this one up and noticed noticed something rather odd about it: it has three "wings." In cross-section, it would look like a beechnut.

Normally, ash seeds are flat, having just the one papery "wing" above the seed. Here you can see a regular ash seed (on the left) next to the mutant one I found:

Why is this seed different?

At one point the snow was just covered with balsam fir seeds. Had they blown out of cones whose scales had opened? Or were they leftovers from a squirrel's meal?

Some little critter, probably a squirrel, was flinging all sorts of debris from the hole at the base of this tree.

The snow was littered with seeds and cone scales.

Looking carefully at the seeds and cone scales, I saw they were not only scattered on the ground at the base of the tree, but they were also stuck in the snow on the side of the tree.

So the squirrel must've been snacking from up in the the branches, dropping debris below.

I ended my walk at the back deck, which was covered with wee little bird tracks; this set probably belongs to a chickadee.

So there you have it: the first snowshoe hike of the season. Conditions are good, so all are invited to come and hike the trails at the Newcomb VIC!