Friday, February 27, 2009

Out of Service

Dear Readers -

Due to circumstances beyond my control, we are losing our internet service here at the VIC on 1 March. Hopefully it will only be for a couple weeks. But, this means I will be unable to blog for a while (until I visit the library again, which will be on the 8th or 9th of March).

I will miss keeping you all up to date on the latest nature happenings here (especially now that spring is just around the corner and things are happening), but I hope those of you who are my followers will not give up on me.

If anything really cool happens between now ad 5 PM Saturday, I will let you know. Otherwise, I will "see you" in a couple weeks at the library!


The Howl-leluia Chorus Returns

Last night as Toby and I were strolling back homeward past the golf course, we heard a bark, then a series of yips, followed up by a full-fledged howl. I know it was a coyote, but for a fleeting instant as it howled I imagined it might be a wolf. Then the rest of the clan chimed in - yipping away and barking. And way in the distance, eastward, we hear a lone yip replying. The golf course gang was fairly close - I could almost distinguish the positions of individual members when they vocalized. Toby was very alert - ears perked, gaze focused. But then human voices broke in, screaming and talking. I tried to track them down, but never saw anyone. Hm. There were only so many places they could've been, but not a trace was found. I even heard their foot steps running down the road (the same road we were walking down). It was enough to make one think they were ghosts!

OH, and yesterday I had a redpoll at my office window bird feeder! It's the first one of those we've had since December.

This morning dawned sunny and mild, with the clouds scudding northward in the strong winds. It is ever so odd to see clouds moving in the opposite direction they usually travel. And the wind was gusting from the east - usually it's from the west. The sky is now dark grey. A storm is on its way.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Robin Red Breast

Did I mention I saw a robin on Monday? I was cruising through Lake George en route to Glens Falls and it flew across the road in front (barely) of my car. First robin of the season. It'll be hard-pressed to find worms under 2' of snow!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Latest Bat News

...and it's not good.

North Country Public Radio had another update yesterday morning on our local bats and white-nose syndrome. Our intrepid reporter (Brian Mann) was in a cave over in Vermont that "they" are now calling the epicenter of the disease (previously the signs indicated it started somewhere around Albany). Al Hicks (NYS Wildlife Biologist who is THE go-to guy for this problem) estimated there were 5-10,000 dead bats in the cave; they said the bodies were 3-4" deep on the floor of the cave! Sick bats were fluttering out of the cave, clinging to icicles and crashing into snow banks. The disease has been found in caves in New Hampshire and West Virginia now, too. It is an epidemic and it is spreading with lightning speed!

And there's still nothing that can be done!

The fungus has been identified (a new species), but they don't know how it got here, or from where. And they don't know why/how it is killing the bats, other than the fact that the bats are starving to death.

If we all thought the bugs were bad last summer, I fear we will be in for an even greater shock this year. Not only will we be facing more mosquitoes and blackflies, but agricultural pests will be on the rise as well. Which will probably mean a greater usage of pesticides. People will finally start to appreciate just how much we benefited from having bats around.

I feel so helpless! I love bats and they are so important. I want to help, but if all the experts can't figure it out, there's nothing a lone naturalist can do but spread the word.

So, if you should find bats in your house this year, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't kill them!!! The bats that survive this plague will need all the help we can give them to survive (afterall, bats reproduce at such a slow rate it will take years for their numbers to come back...if they ever do). Contact someone to remove them for you. If it is only one bat in your living room, open a window, close the doors, turn off the lights, and leave the room - the bat will fly out on its own. Alternately, you can gently place a large can over the bat, slide a card underneath, carry the whole thing outside and release the animal with your good wishes.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

View from the Window

It's been slow here lately - hence no posts. Stormy weather, cold winds - who wants to go out in that unless he has to? Even the dog shook his had and said no - trying to dodge past me back into the house last night!

But today the sun is shining and I snapped these photos from my office window ("Don't jump!" my co-worker said, as she walked by and saw me crouched on my desk leaning partway out the window.)

This first shot is the overall view (for now you will have to imagine this photo - I've tried for two days to post the pictures, and it's just not working - I'll keep trying and maybe someday they will show up): fox and bird tracks (surprisingly, no squirrels). As I tell the kids when they are here for tracking classes, I can just about always guarantee fox tracks here. The birdfeeders provide a cafeteria for the foxes: all sorts of small mammals are snarfing down the fallen seeds, day and night. Easy pickings for a fox - much easier than hunting through the deep snow in the woods!

But the really neat "tracks" are the wing prints made by the chickadees as they forage for the fallen seed, courtesy of the greedy pine siskins who hog the feeders.

Folks often bring us photos they've taken of bird prints (or animal tracks, or plants, etc.) that they want identified. We usually claim that bird prints are those of raptors, and certainly many an owl has left a gorgeous set of wing, body, and even face prints in the snow while hunting. But I know that the prints in my yard are not from raptors - most likely they are from blue jays or crows. Just like with footprints, size can be an important clue. Before you snap that photo, get a ruler into the shot.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love is in the Air

What a glorious weekend this was! The sun was out, the sky was blue, and despite the wind, it was perfect skiing weather. Yep, Toby and I hit the golf course for our first skiing of the season Sunday morning, and again Monday morning. Toby has a ski-joring harness, which hooks via a bungee-type cord to a special belt I wear. I was a bit trepidatious at first, since I haven't been on skis for a year and I wasn't sure how sturdy the snow surface would be, but the crust held us both and off we went! Toby enjoys it because he gets to zip right along - no limitations at the end of a 6-foot leash, held back by a human who refuses to go faster than a quick walk. Well...sort of. I still won't let him take off into the woods (although preventing his curiousity-driven dashes is a bit harder when one is being dragged along on two slick sticks strapped to one's feet).

Our big find (and not a camera in sight to record it) was one, probably two, and possibly even three, actual coyote mating sites! Coyotes tracks ran all over the golf course, and in one spot they unmistakenly showed that mating had occured (complete with blood drops on the snow). The second spot was also highly suggestive of the act, and a third area was a possible, but it could also be that the animal just sat down for a while and sifted about. Either way, it was all very exciting to find. Another peek into the secret lives of our local wildlife.

The birds can feel that spring is in the air as well. Chickadees have been singing their spring-time song for about a week and a half now. And this morning, when Toby and I headed out for our constitutional, the quality of the sunlight, combined with the chorus of birds (bluejays, pine siskins, chickadees), made it seem that at any moment a daffodil would erupt from the ground by someone's foundation! There are even patches of bare ground under trees and along south-facing slopes!!!

But, alas, it is not to last. Snow is in the forecast for the rest of the week. So, today we shall revel in the last of the sunshine and file it away in our memories to get us through a few more weeks of snow.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Close Encounters

As I drove across the Hudson this morning on my way to work, I saw a deer coming downstream on the ice. I pulled over to get it's photo, and by the time I got out of the car, a line of turkeys was coming down the ice as well. The deer stopped and turned, looking at the turkeys.

Apparently seeking companionship (?), the deer set out in hot pursuit.

The turkeys were not impressed. They turned around and beat a hasty retreat back upstream.

Bambi followed. "Maybe if I casually cross the ice, they won't notice."

Finally, the Feathered 13 made their escape.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Mighty Hudson

Our part of the Adirondack Park is the Headwaters Region of the Hudson River. The highest source of water for the Hudson is Lake Tear of the Clouds, a small pond that is perched on the southern shoulder of Mt. Marcy. As the crow flies, Mt. Marcy is maybe six miles or so from the nearest road downstream - you cannot drive to Lake Tear. Water drains from Lake Tear, becoming Feldspar Brook, which joins up with the Opalescent River. The Opalescent flows into The Flowed Lands, which drains at two locations: south as the Opalescent, and west as Calamity Brook. Where Calamaity Brook joins the outflow of Henderson Lake (a beautiful paddle only recently opened to the public), we see the first mention on maps of the Hudson River. The Opalescent "rejoins" the Hudson just south of Sanford Lake, which is part of the Tahawus Mine complex (a subject for another day).

The first place where the casual visitor to the source of the Hudson can easily reach the river is at a place known locally as the Swinging Bridge. If you drive up the road to the Upper Works (also known as the southern entrance into the High Peaks Wilderness Area), you will pass on your right the old Blast Furnace (which is being restored, although it has remained in very good condition, considering it is well over 150 years old and has been abandoned to the whims of the forest for most of that time). A short distance beyond the furnace is a pull-off on the right. This is the trailhead for Lake Jimmy, Lake Sally and Mount Adams (which sports a recently restored fire tower). A quick stroll down this trail (less than a quarter mile) brings you to the Swinging Bridge, under which the Hudson trickles. In the summer you can just about stand with one foot on each side of the river.

The next location for viewing the Hudson is at the Hudson River Information Center in Newcomb.

As you come into town from the east (on Route 28N, about 6 miles from the turn-off to Tahawus and the Blue Ridge Road), you see a turn to the right for the High Peaks Golf Course. Take this road to the end (about half a mile). At the end there is a building with some interpretive panels about the Hudson and its role in local logging operations. Feel free to sign the visitor register. But the best part is the view of the river. This is what it looks like about now, looking upstream:

and downstream:

As you can see, it has become significantly deeper and wider than it was at the Swinging Bridge. Well, actually you can't really see that here, what with all the snow, but come back in the spring after the snow has is impressive.

From here, if you get back on Route 28N and continue westerly for about, oh, two miles, you will come to the Hudson again, this time driving right over it (the Route 28N Bridge). This is the view upstream:

and downstream:

(these were taken last night, so you see a bit of sunset there).

Conveniently located right by this bridge is Cloudsplitters Outfitters. In the summer you can rent a canoe, a kayak, or even an innertube, and you can float and paddle a mile or so stretch of the Hudson at this location. It is quite scenic and makes for a pleasant couple of hours. If you head downstream beyond the bend as seen from the bridge, however, you are on your own, for soon you will encounter Ord Falls and the Hudson River Gorge, and you will be committed to many miles of rugged river, from which there is no exit until you reach North Creek. It's a long and dangerous route, not for the casual paddler.

From up here in the moutains, it is hard to imagine the Hudson as a river over a mile wide, where salt water flows in and out with the ocean's tides. One of the best ways to get a feel for the entire Hudson River is through the Hudson River Almanac, an electronic journal edited by DEC Estuary Naturalist Tom Lake. People from all walks of life contribute to the Almanac by sending Tom their observations of natural happenings from all along the more than 300-mile length of this mighty river. From the terminus we read about stray manatees and striped bass, eagles riding the ice floes, and the pull of the tides. From up here at the headwaters, tales of otters and moose, trailing arbutus and fallfish, float down to the readers below. It's a nifty publicaton and free to anyone who wants to receive it. Visit: for more information.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

It's Like Christmas Every Day

Every day is an adventure when you strap on your snowshoes and head out on the trails - you just never know what you may find.

It was so tropical yesterday (high of 49.5*F) that the first snowfleas (Hypogastrura nivicola) put in an appearance. It was great, because the third graders I had with me got to see them for the first time ever, watching as the fleas "jumped" all over the place. Sadly, the photo I took did not come out, so you will have to imagine where a pepper shaker exploded all over the snow, and all the little bits of pepper are jumping about into the air.

Snowfleas are actually a primitive insect called springtails (not fleas at all), and they measure no more than 1/8 inch. The snowflea has no wings, and it doesn't actually jump. Instead, it tucks a pair of modified legs under its abdomen, and little hook-like structures hold the "legs" securely in place (the spring is now wound up). When the hooks relax, the spring is released: the "legs" push against the ground and zing! up goes the critter into the air. Not all springtails have this launching apparatus - only those that live in the leaf litter do (snowfleas).

Snowfleas eat the mold and fungi found in leaf litter where things are decaying. They are attracted to wet surroundings, and we usually only see them in the winter, when on mild days they they prepare to migrate. At this time upwards of a million of these critters rise and make "haste" for new digs, probably because the food ran out where they had been living.

This morning Toby and I had a great find (no photo of this, either). As we cruised through the parking lot of the medical center, we came across a circular splatter of feathers, and one small gobbet of meat: some bird had bit the dust. I suspect the bird was a blue jay, although none of the feathers were blue any more (could be because they were soaking wet; blue in feathers is due to structure and light, not pigment, so water can change the color). I tried to acertain if the bird had been done in by another bird or a mammal, based on how the feathers were removed (plucked or sheared), but the feathers had been driven over by enough vehicles that nothing was certain. Still, a nifty find on a dreary wet morning.

And finally, today I had a group of 6th graders in who were phenomenal! And they were here long enough that I could not only go into great tracking detail indoors, but we could also do our one-mile trail! I didn't have high hopes for good finds today, thanks to the rain and melting snow of the last 36 hours. I was pleasantly surprised. We saw otter trails, fresh beaver chews, and even followed a large canid (probably coyote) down the trail, marvelling at its footprints,

and oogling the lovely pile of scat it left behind (we so seldomly encounter scats here). I'm not sure, but those white "beads" might be parasite eggs.

We even came across a pile of beechnut husks that something had recently emptied for a mid-winter feast.

And now, for your "listening" pleasure, and by way of celebrating today's find, I give you one of my all-time favorite songs - the Scat Rap, which I think was written by Doug Elliott (although I could be wrong). This is dedicated to all the folks out there, who, like me, get excited about finding animal scat.

Scat Rap

It starts with an “s” and it ends with a “t”,
It comes out of you and comes out of me.
I know what you’re thinking, you can call it that,
But let’s be scientific and call it scat.

You’re walking through the woods and your nose goes “ooooo”;
Must be some critter’s scat’s near you.
It may seem gross, but it’s okay,
They ain’t got no place to flush it away.

Down the trail something’s lying on the ground;
Nature’s tootsie roll all long and brown.
Don’t wrinkle your nose, don’t lose you lunch,
Break it apart, you might learn a bunch.
Don’t use your fingers, use a stick;
Keep sanitary now that’s the trick.

If you wanna find out what animals eat,
Take a good look at what they excrete.
Stuck in the scat are all kinds of clues,:
Parts of the food their bodies can’t use
Like bones and fur (2x)
Hard berries and seeds (2x)
Crawfish shells, ouch! (2x)
Grass fibers and weeds (2x)

'Possum up in a ‘simmon tree
Eating all the ‘simmons he could see,
Backed his butt into the weeds,
His scat was nothing but ‘simmon seeds.

Down by the creek on a hollow log,
Scat full of berries and bones of a frog.
Late last night he was out with the moon;
Wading the creek it was Mr. Raccoon

You’re driving your car by a woods or a field,
Scat goes splat on your windshield.
It’s full of seeds, all purple and white;
You just got bombed by a bird in flight

Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold,
Scat on the trail two minutes old.
Two minutes old, is this a joke?
No, it’s still warm, look at it smoke!
Cat scat, rat scat, bat scat, too;
All god’s chillun do scat a lot, too.

Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold,
Scat in the woodlot nine days old.
Nine days old, how can you tell?
Getting kinda dry and not much smell.
Dog doo, frog doo, hog doo, too;
All god’s chillum do a doodley do.

Pease porridge hot, peas porridge cold,
Scat in a cave 1000 years old.
1000 years old, could that be right?
Sure that’s no jive: petrified copralite.
Mole scat, vole scat, bear scat, more;
There’s so darn many kinds of spoor.

Sneaking through the woods, be quiet now, shish!
Take a quiet step—something goes squish.
Don’t put it in your mouth, it ain’t delish.
Let’s put some in a Petri dish.
Look through a microscope, what do you see?
Microscopic organisms 1, 2, 3.
Bacillus, streptococcus, and E. coli,
They eat scat and then they die.
Don’t you worry, no need to cry,
They ain’t that different from you and I

If you want to know who was out and around,
Take a long hard look at the scat on the ground.
It tells us what they eat, tells us who they are;
That’s what we know about scat so far.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

For a Good Time, Call...

It's a pity the group I had today was so young (2nd graders), for the find-of-the-day was a bit beyond them.

As I took the second group up the short path to the picnic area to play a rousing game of "Fox and Hare" (essentially tag on snowshoes), I noticed this little treasure:

It is fox mating season, and here we have a wonderful clue for this - a female red fox in heat leaving her sign behind. Not only did she urinate in this spot (always good for picking up a date), but she left a small drip of blood behind as well - a sure sign she is in heat.

How cool is that!?!

Meanwhile, I had permission to take the camera home with me over the weekend to try and get some good track photos for use in a PowerPoint show. We didn't find much the first day because it snowed and the plows went through, obliterating any evidence of tracks. Things were looking up last night and this morning, though.

Of course, Toby went along (hence, the "we"). Okay, technically, I was out walking the dog and the photo-taking bit was a side-line.

But taking the family pooch along when you are tracking isn't always the best idea because Rover will do his best to be in the photos.

Afterall...if YOU are looking at it, then it must be worth ME looking at, too!

But who could say "no" to this face?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Daily Dose of Tracking Trivia

It's time for the Daily Dose of Tracking Trivia.

Today was almost tropical by current temperature standards! But sadly it's been snowing (about half an inch) since early morning, so many of the cool tracks from the last couple of days have been filled in. Still, I was able to get a few new shots.

We came across this little nest today. I've been passing it all winter and it wasn't until today that I saw it...with the second group of the day! Some time between the first group passing it and the second group reaching it, something knocked a bunch of debris on the ground right underneath it, which drew all our eyes. Looking up from the debris, we saw this cute little nest.

After looking through the nest ID book, I think this might be the nest of a black-throated blue warbler. It was about three feet off the ground, and has lots of birch bark woven into it - both good clues for this warbler. I couldn't see if the inside was lined with fine black rootlets and hairs, though.

Today I went into greater detail about hare browse with the kids. This track, right near the snowshoe trail, was ideal for discussing browse: as you can see, the hare stopped and sat here (the two smaller front feet stick out in front of the larger back feet), and snipped the tip off the right-most branch of this woody plant. (I need to work on my track photography skills - what I know from using the "old-fashioned" SLR with film must now be adapted to the digital SLR. So, my apologies for having so many dark track photos.)

Rabbits and hares have very sharp incisors, and when they nip off twigs, they leave a perfectly cut 45 degree angle behind. This compares to deer (or moose), who, because they have no upper incisors, cannot make a nice clean cut. Instead, deer (and moose) cut through partway with their lower incisors and then tear off the remaining bit, leaving a ripped strand of bark behind. I'll see if I can scrounge up some shots for visual comparison.

I also "recorded on film" today the details of our mink ID from yesterday. First, we came across a series of 2x2 tracks (as noted yesterday).

After narrowing down our choices to marten or mink (otter are too big and heavy for these tracks; ditto for fisher, plus fishers tend to use a different gait more often; and the short- and long-tailed weasels are too small to have made these tracks), we continued down the trail, where we found a tunnel under the bridge and more tracks. I was leaning towards mink at this point because a) it is near water, and b) yesterday we could see toe prints here, and martens have feet that are way too furry to show much in the way of toe prints.

Then we had the lovely slide, seen here with the ruler so that you know it is too small to be an otter slide.

As Mark Elbroch wrote in his book Mammal Tracks and Signs: "Animal tracks are an animal's story." This is what I love about tracking: trying to tease out the story of the animal that left the tracks behind. What was it doing? Where was it going? What was its goal when it passed through here? Like learning the trees and birds, it makes being in the woods familiar. When you know all the neighbors, visiting is a lot more interesting.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

More Fun on the Trails

I find it is harder to impress 8th graders. They are too cool to actually participate...or maybe they are just too focused on fashion and technology...or maybe, just maybe, it was too cold for them today.

Still, I had a good time out in the 1*F weather, because I found red fox scat on a fox trail that was scatless yesterday (and we so seldomly find scats here):

Fox scats are pretty easy to identify. They typically end in a narrow taper and often have a bit of a curlicue at the end. This one didn't show those traits, of course, but I knew it was fox because it was smack in the middle of the fox trail. This particular fox visits our bird feeding station nightly - must be hunting the mice and voles that snack on the fallen seeds. A regular fox cafeteria, I imagine - easy hunting.

And then we found a mink slide:

At first we just saw the "mystery mustelid" tracks (2x2, like a series of colons : : : : :). By process of elimination, we narrowed it down to mink or marten. Next we found where the animal had come up from under a bridge, where a little snow cave marked the end of a pseudo tunnel. This made me lean even more strongly toward mink, since minks live near water and I've seen mink tracks in this particular area in the past. But then we encountered the slide - and what a beautiful slide it was! You could see where it bounded (: : : :) over the crest of the hill and then, whheeeeeee, down it slid to the trail packed by snowshoers!

Of course I made them all sniff the fox scent post. I suspect, however, that 90% of them just went through the motions and did not really take a sniff. Oh, well. You can lead a horse to water...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tracking, Again

Today's school group was from Schroon Lake, and we lucked out with some great weather (cool, but sunny), and some great tracks.

My favorites today were the snowshoe hare tracks. This is the first time I have seen the actual toes on the tracks. Usually hare tracks only show the outline of the foot because it is so furry. But the hares that have been out lately have had their hind toes all spread out and you could see them perfectly! This photo was digitally enhanced so you could really see the toes:

But even in non-enhanced photos, the toes show up pretty well:

The red foxes have also been moving around. I finally got some good shots of the "perfectly straight line" they leave as they trot along:

Wild canids often trot as their regular gait. When moving at a relaxed pace, the hind foot lands directly in the track made by the front foot (a direct register). The same is true with walking - on the ground a walk looks the same as a trot. The neat thing is that wild canids leave these nice straight lines of tracks - one foot after the other - plop, plop, plop. Rover can't do this. Neither can Fido. The domesticated dog is too fat and cannot get its leg perfectly under its body, so a dog's trot (or walk) does not show a perfect direct register and is certainly not in a nice straight line.

Fox mating season is in full swing (the female is in estrus for about three weeks, and the mating season runs from January through March). The red fox we were following today was leaving one scent post after another.
As I explained to the kids, leaving a scent post isn't the same as just peeing. If the animal is just relieving its bladder, there will be significant yellow snow. When the animal is scent-marking, though, a little goes a long way.

Of course, I made them all take a sniff.


"That's gross!"

"Do I have to?"

It wasn't until the dad in the group started to talk about fox scenting posts and how his dad used to collect the stuff and make his kids wear it (presumably to cover their own scent while hunting or trapping) that the kids got into it. I guess I need a better lead up into sniffing scent posts.