Almanack Contributor Guest Contributor

Guest Essayist

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Blobs on Ice: Jelly Fungi Add Color to Winter

TOS_JellyFungusThey look like blobs of shiny tar, a melted lollipop, or a crayon left in the sun too long. They come in vivid colors from orange to yellow to white to black to pinkish. They have a disconcerting ability to mimic human body parts, such as ears and tongues, with Daliesque artfulness.

Jelly fungi.

They got their name because their tissues have the texture and consistency of, well, jelly. In some cases it’s more like rubber. The various species often carry imaginative common names: witch’s butter, snow fungus, jelly ear.



Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mystery Middens: Red Squirrels In Winter

TOS_squirrelIn the woods behind our house, there’s a pile of cones and gnawed apart bracts – easily two feet deep and twice as wide – built against the trunk of a tall hemlock. We’ve watched over consecutive winters – when the newly discarded bracts stand out against the snowy white backdrop – as the heap continues to expand.

This pile, called a midden, is the work of a single red squirrel. Red squirrels are active year round and generally easy to spot – and even easier to hear as they scold passersby in their high, chattering voice.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Ice Storms Impact Trees

TOS.treesandiceIce storm.

If you live in northern New England, those words can send a chill up your spine. They portend demolition derbies on the roads, power outages and the ominous cracking sound of limbs breaking and trees falling in woods, parks and urban streets.

Snow we’re up for. Ice, not so much.



Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Subnivean Zone: Life Under The Snow

TOS_under_snowEvery animal must develop its own way of dealing with winter. Migrate, hibernate, or insulate; these are common strategies. For a few small mammals, survival depends on the snow itself, and the deeper the better.

The subnivean zone is the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack. The word subnivean comes from the Latin “sub” (under) and “nives” (snow). Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. Under the snow, these tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above.



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Tree Farmer’s Year in Review

TOS.ChristmasTreeWalking through a large chain store this past October – at least a week before Halloween – I stumbled upon a display of decorations. Not witches and pumpkins, but trees and bells. There’s no question that retailers are intent on pushing the start of the Christmas season earlier and earlier, but we Christmas tree growers still have them beat; for us, it’s a nearly year-round endeavor.

Spring is one of the busiest times on a Christmas tree farm, yet it sometimes requires an agonizingly long wait before work can get started. It can take weeks of warmer weather to thaw the soil enough to plant the next rotation of trees.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter Solstice Will Be Marked With Meteors

TOS_WinterSolsticeEvery year, I eagerly await the winter solstice, which this year falls on this Sunday, December 21. My anticipation is driven not from an affection for winter, but a hunger for sunlight. I want the ever-shrinking days of autumn to be over and done and the slow, steady march towards late-evening sunsets to begin. So really it’s not the winter solstice I await, so much as being on the other side of it.

But this December I’ve decided to pay attention and learn more about the day itself. Turns out to have been a good choice, as this year’s solstice proves to be more interesting than most.



Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Beavers Survive Adirondack Winters

TOS_BeaverOne fall a young beaver, probably a two-year-old kicked out by its parents, built a small lodge in the old mill pond below our house. On cold January days when temperatures were below zero, I looked at the snow-covered lodge and wondered if the beaver was still alive. But when the ice melted in late March, it was swimming around again.

Mortality rates are higher among young, lone beavers than established adults. Winter is especially daunting: no sooner had the mill pond beaver taken up residence, than it had to prepare for months of cold and food scarcity. How did it survive?



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Do Toads Avoid Croaking in Winter?

TOS_ToadOne warm fall day, while standing outside a lodge I manage, I noticed movement inside one of the window wells around the basement. Realizing that something noteworthy was about to happen, I ran inside to alert our guests.

Together we all crouched to watch the methodical shaking of the earth below us. Slowly the ground moved a little to the left, then to the right, then there was a pause, then left again, right again. Eventually something reached the surface. I reached my hand out and gently touched the rough, bumpy, and very well camouflaged back of an American toad. It continued to emerge, fully exposing its body. The guests and I started pondering all sorts » Continue Reading.



Monday, November 24, 2014

This Thanksgiving Pass the Crickets

TOS_cricket_pieAs you put together a dinner plan for this Thanksgiving, perhaps you’re looking for something to add a little variety to the traditional holiday meal, or ways to eat healthy food while supporting good environmental practices. How about adding insects to the menu?

Along with crackers and cheese, grasshopper fritters make excellent appetizers. Or consider adding sautéed crickets and greens as a side to your potatoes, turkey, and gravy. What about cricket flour fruitcake instead of the typical pumpkin pie?



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Old Trees: Methuselah In Your Backyard

TOS_OldTreeThere’s something in us that can’t help but be impressed by an old tree. Perhaps we’re simply in awe of something that has outlived generations of humans and will outlive us.

We acknowledge this when we compare the giant sequoia groves to a cathedral. When we compile state lists of big old trees. When we give names like Methuselah to the longest-lived specimens.

Most trees are not destined to live long lives. Ninety percent of the trees in a forest will never become very big, or very old. Some will lose the race for sunlight and food. Others will succumb to insects, wind, fire, or logging.



Monday, October 27, 2014

Louse Flies: Avian Blood-Suckers

TOS_flatfliesWhen you find a bird feather in the woods and stoop to pick it up, does your mom’s voice echo in your brain? Can you hear her say, birds have lice, don’t pick that up? Mom was mostly right. Birds can have lice (though you won’t catch lice from a bird). But what Mom probably didn’t know is that birds have something far creepier lurking in their feathers. It’s six legged, leathery, and flat. And it sucks blood.

The good news? It does not want to suck your blood.

Avian hippoboscid flies – also called flat flies and louse flies – survive on bird blood. Estimates vary for the number of different species in our region, » Continue Reading.



Thursday, October 23, 2014

Woolly Bears: Winter Forecast Flops?

woolybearAutumn is coming to a close. The brilliant fall foliage is past peak, if not already layered in the compost bin. The last geese are honking their way toward winter homes. Predictions are proffered (sometimes cheerfully, mostly not) for how cold and snowy this year’s winter will be.

Sources for seasonal predictions vary. The Farmers’ Almanac and traditional old-wives-tales are often cited. How soon those geese head south, for example, is supposed to indicate how difficult winter will be. We trust these bits of folklore because they often have a scientific basis and seem to work.



Monday, October 13, 2014

Backyard Compost: A Hot Mess

TOS_compostAt the New Hampshire University Organic Dairy Research Farm in Lee, even the heat for the wash water is organic and locally-sourced.

The heat comes from the farm’s composting facility, a building that looks like an eight-bay garage but actually contains cutting-edge composting technology, as well as a whole lot of rotting stuff.

Of course, compost heat doesn’t require sophisticated technology or the attention to detail that doctoral students provide to farm chores. However, managing heat generation is tricky. Even academics and professional composters can’t always get everything in the right balance for perfect decomposition.



Monday, October 6, 2014

The Odor Side of Otters

TOS_RiverOtterWe slid our canoe over the beaver dam and paddled into the upper, smaller pond. A breeze rippled the water and rustled the reeds lining the shore. Suddenly I spied four long, sleek brown figures cavorting in the water ― otters! They submerged quickly near the shore, probably into an old beaver bank den with an underwater entrance. This was one of only a few times in my life I’d seen these secretive, often nocturnal, creatures.

We had likely seen an otter family ― mother and young, known as kits. Once the kits were able to swim well enough, at about three months of age, the family would leave this pond and assume a nomadic lifestyle.



Thursday, October 2, 2014

Clubmoss: An Ancient Forest At Chipmunk Height

TOS_Club_mossYou’ve discovered a tiny evergreen forest of what look like diminutive hemlock or cedar trees barely taller than a chipmunk. They’re spread across the cool shade cast by a canopy of hardwood or coniferous trees. This Lilliputian forest is actually a clump of clubmosses.

Clubmosses are among the oldest plants on Earth, having evolved over 390 million years ago. Long ago, clubmosses weren’t so diminutive. They were tree-like and towered over tropical forests, reaching 100 feet tall. Those ancient giants are long extinct but they continue to affect our environment; their remnants persist as fossil fuels.

Ironically, clubmosses are not mosses, although eighteenth century botanists thought they were. In the nineteenth century, botanists surmised that the » Continue Reading.



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird Migratory Quirks: Geese and Juncos

TOS_Bird_migrationThis has always been my perception of bird migration in the fall: the days grow short and cool and then, one day, I notice a v-shaped caravan of Canada geese flying southward. Then another and another. Within a few weeks of that first sighting, I hear their melancholy call one final time for the season. Then they, and all the summer birds, are gone. It’s a mass exodus for warmer climes, over and done in the blink of an eye and long before the snow flies.

But what of the geese on the unfrozen mill ponds in January? Or the robins at the birdfeeder in December? It turns out that the process of migration is much » Continue Reading.



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Late Bloomers: Asters At Summer’s End

TOS_AsterLiving this far north, we’re attuned to signs of a waning summer: shorter days, cooler nights, red maples in low-lying areas turning their trademark color. But when the asters bloom, I know the curtain is coming down on summer.

The asters are some of the latest blooming flower species in our region. Not every species waits until virtually the last minute, but many do.

You might think that they’re cutting it close. In an area of the world where a killing frost can come seemingly out of nowhere, a late bloomer might be taking a chance. But evolutionarily, it’s not a bad tactic, said Arthur Haines, a research botanist for the New England Wild Flower Society.  » Continue Reading.



Sunday, September 14, 2014

Birding: Broad-Winged Hawk Migration

TOS_BroadwingHawkIt rained heavily the first time I had planned to go on a hawk watch, and the trip was cancelled. But the rain brought with it a weather front the next day that created the perfect conditions for fall hawk migration. And migrate they did. Hawks and falcons and eagles and vultures soared southward along mountain ridges in numbers I have never seen in the 30 years since then. Carried aloft by rising currents of warm air and light winds from the north, many of those birds may have traveled a hundred miles that day without ever flapping their wings.

Despite the diversity and impressive numbers of raptors, there was one species that stood out to all » Continue Reading.



Saturday, September 6, 2014

Note to Flies: Avoid Fuzzy Socks

TOS_WebImagine you’re an insect cruising through the air. Suddenly, you realize you’re heading straight for a spider web. You’re doomed. But wait – you can still escape by slipping through one of the gaps. Spider webs are, after all, more gaps than web. You aim between the sticky threads – it’s going to be a close call, but you’re going to make it.

Then, as you pass through, the threads snap towards you … and you’re a spider’s dinner!

It sounds impossible that the threads of a spider web could actively reach out for prey, yet recent studies show that it is not only possible, but may be yet another ingenious spider strategy for capturing insects » Continue Reading.



Sunday, August 31, 2014

Historical Biographies and William West Durant

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat follows is a guest essay by Sheila Myers, who is working on a historical novel based on the life of William West Durant.

In science there is an expression that theories can never be proved, only disproved. I teach science, and that may be why a comment I read while researching William West Durant for my novel about his life provoked me to find out where this famous builder of Great Camps in the Adirondacks drew his inspiration. This then led me to uncover some fallacies in his biography.

It started with the dissertation by Mary Ellen Domblewski (Cornell University, 1974). In it she conjectures that Durant, having no formal » Continue Reading.



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