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.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

American Goldfinch: Common Bird With Uncommon Habits

goldfinchI love the fact that there is always something new to observe in nature. Take goldfinches, for example. I have often watched them devour milkweed seeds from an acrobatic, upside-down position. Recently, I spotted several bright yellow males perched atop dandelion stems, plucking the seedheads at a frenzied pace. Previously, I had only seen them snag dandelions in mid-air.

Of all our native songbirds, American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are perhaps the most consistent vegetarians. Thistles are a favorite food source and nest material. Sunflower seeds are another top meal choice, something you have probably observed if you offer these popular seeds in a feeder. Aside from our freebies, goldfinches also eat seeds from grasses, weeds, teasel, mullein, and ragweed, along with birch and alder buds, maple sap, and berries. An uncommon agility allows them to extract seeds from any position. Their short, pointed, conical bills are well-suited to crack open hulls and other tough packaging. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Dirt On Adirondack Moles

star nosed moleMy dog watched intently as an area of soil in our backyard vibrated and formed a slight ridge. Suddenly he began digging, revealing a mole below ground. Before Cody could pounce, I grabbed his collar and pulled him away. This was not the first time I’d rescued a mole. When I lived on a country estate years ago, my landlord disliked the mounds and ridges on his lawn and set traps — the kind that spear moles. I would sneak outside at night and spring the traps. Moles are fascinating creatures specialized for underground living. Though they resemble rodents, they are insectivores, and are more closely related to shrews. Shaped like an Idaho potato, moles have a reduced pelvis and hind legs, enabling them to turn easily in narrow tunnels. Powerful shoulders and front legs and shovel-like feet with heavy claws and a sixth digit aid in digging. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Adirondack Phoebe: Summer House Guests

phoebesPerhaps the phoebe selected her nesting spot during the few days my family was away from home at the end of April. Otherwise, I can’t quite figure her decision to build a nest atop the back porch light, right next to a doorway used regularly by three children and a rambunctious puppy.

To protect the nest, we took to unloading the minivan on the other side of the house, avoiding the back door altogether, and moving into and out of the adjacent garage as quietly as possible. No doubt, we’re not alone in changing our habits for the sake of a resident phoebe family. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Your Dog And The Adirondack Forest Preserve

dog on leash

Dog owners should act responsibly and always ensure that their dogs are under the control; for the safety of the dog and wildlife, and to allow an enjoyable outdoor experience for other recreational users.

Wildlife approached by dogs may feel threatened and defend themselves, causing injury to the dog. Porcupines, racoons, coyotes, bears, moose and deer can all cause injury to dogs when cornered. Also there is a danger of rabies, distemper or other wildlife diseases being transmitted to the dog.

Dogs harassing wildlife can be seriously detrimental, especially in winter. Animals may be injured or killed if caught. This is more likely to happen to young animals, which may also be separated from their parent losing protection and nourishment. Also, animals may be injured while fleeing a pursuit, too. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

Unintended Consequences: North Country Starlings

starlingIt’s the classic story of unintended consequences.

In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin released 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park with the hope of establishing a breeding population. Just in case the experiment wasn’t successful, he released another 40 the next year.

Schieffelin was a big Shakespeare fan and he wanted to bring to the New World all the European birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays. Starlings appear in Henry IV, Part 1, in case you are wondering. Schieffelin was also a member of the American Acclimatization Society, a group that advocated shifting species around the globe. It apparently seemed like a good idea at the time and had the support of a lot of scientists. Now we know it’s not. But it’s too late. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Adirondack Wintergreen

wintergreenI give a lot of tours at my 80-acre homestead, and have found that most visitors are delighted for the opportunity to connect nature with real life. Those of us who spend much time rubbing elbows with nature might say that it is real life, but for many people the connection is a serendipitous anomaly.

“Remember teaberry gum?” I like to ask as we walk along a wide, sunny woods path. “That stuff that used to be around when we were kids, in the red package?”

They always nod, even the people who are probably too young to have ever encountered teaberry gum on the shelves at the corner variety store. They suspect I’m leading up to something big and don’t want to miss out.

I reach down and pluck a shiny leaf from a wintergreen plant growing along the edge of the footpath, snap it into several pieces, and rub it between my fingers to release the oils. After taking a whiff myself — both as a show of good faith and to ascertain that it is sufficiently aromatic for a show-and-tell specimen — I offer it up for sniffs all around. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Anatomy of Bird Feet

raptor footAs spring’s crescendo of birdsong mellows now to a steadier summer trill, I listen for melodies I don’t recognize and try to figure out which birds are singing. I look through binoculars at their feathers, the color variations along head and chest, the size of their beaks, the shape of their wings, and the tilt of their tails in my flailing attempts to distinguish one species from another. Rarely have I considered feet in my casual observations, although this part of a bird’s anatomy can be highly specialized for various uses.

“When you look at the foot of a bird, they’re not all the same,” said Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “All the birds basically started off with three toes forward, one back. From that, they’ve evolved in a number of different ways for various reasons.”

Birds walk on those toes – not the entire foot. The backward-bending joint we may consider a knee is actually the birds’ ankle. The feet consist mainly of bones and tendons, with very little muscle and few blood vessels. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Striders: Summer Insects Who Skate On Water

Water Strider Scanning a sunlit pond floor for crayfish, I was distracted by seven dark spots gliding in a tight formation. Six crisp oval shadows surrounded a faint, less distinct silhouette. The shapes slid slowly and then, with a rapid motion, accelerated before slowing to another glide. I can remember seeing this pattern as a child, in my first explorations of pond life.

Water strider shadows are far larger than the insects casting them. To visualize the surprising proportion of legs to body, it may help to think in human scale. For mathematical simplicity, picture a six-foot-tall man lying flat on the water surface. Imagine that attached near his hips he has a pair of seven-foot-long, stick-skinny legs pointing back at a 45 degree angle. Just forward of these spindles he has another pair pointing forward at a 45 degree angle; these are nine feet long. A pair of three-foot-long arms point forward and each has a single claw protruding from the palm. » Continue Reading.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Adirondack Fisher Cats Don’t Fish; Not Cats

fisher catThe “fisher cat” is neither of those things. Doesn’t fish. Isn’t a cat. In fact, a lot more of what people think they know about the fisher is wrong. It’s almost like we made up the animal.

The fisher, Pekania pennanti, is a big forest-dwelling weasel, related to the American marten, and native to North America. The common name has nothing to do with fish, but instead derives from French and Dutch words for the pelt of a European polecat, to which it is distantly related. Native American tribes had their own names for the animal, many of which translate roughly as “big marten.” » Continue Reading.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Twilight Singer: The Hermit Thrush

If you take a walk in the woods on a summer evening, you may be treated to the ethereal, flute-like song of the hermit thrush, often the only bird still singing at dusk (and the first bird to sing in the morning).

In 1882, naturalist Montague Chamberlain described it as a “vesper hymn that flows so gently out upon the hushed air of the gathering twilight.” The hermit thrush, once nicknamed American nightingale, is among North America’s finest songsters; its beautiful song is one of the reasons Vermont chose the hermit thrush as its state bird. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Do Mice Get Cavities? All About Mammal Teeth

rodent skullWhen my daughter was four, she once asked, “Do mice get cavities?” We were coming back from the dentist, so teeth were on her mind and so were mice, since her pet mouse had recently escaped. Later in the day, she asked if ducks had teeth; such is the ranging nature of her intellect.

Why all the toothy questions? Because our teeth are interesting. Ask a dentist. And so are the teeth of our wild neighbors. Teeth can tell a lot about a species’ line of work — particularly what they eat and how they catch their dinner. Teeth are action-oriented; incisors nip and gnaw, canines stab and hold, premolars cut, sheer, slice, and grind, molars mash and crush. Teeth forms hint at a species’ evolutionary story, and crown wear can tell much about the age of an animal. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Wetlands: A Great Duckweed Migration

The word ‘migration’ conjures images of vast wildebeest or pronghorn herds crossing plains in unison, or hummingbirds traversing the Gulf of Mexico. When charismatic birds leave our Northeastern forests, migration is typically the explanation. But how can a group of plants disappear, without discarding leaves, stems, or other evidence of their presence?

Duckweeds are in the subfamily Lemnoideae and are the world’s smallest flowering plant. Their small oval leaves float on ponds and quiet backwaters. Root-like fibers dangle in the water. Although I’d noticed them on St. Michael’s College experimental ponds, as an entomologist, I’d never paid them close attention. Until they disappeared. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Scarlet Tanagers: A Precious Stone with Wings

tanagerOne day last spring, I pulled into a parking lot in Thetford, Vermont, and saw a flash of brilliant red. Instantly, I knew it was a male scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). He was perched in a cluster of bushes and everything around him – the fresh spring leaves, a nearby robin, the recently revived grass – paled in comparison. Nothing could compete with his blaze of color.

This time of year, the male scarlet tanager has a ruby-red body, flanked by jet-black wings and an equally black tail. He’s like a precious stone with wings. The female is olive yellow, with brighter yellow on her throat and face. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Commentary: Convention Unlikely to Undo Protections for Forest Preserve (Part II)

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseWhat follows is the second of three essays about the vote coming this November on whether New York State will hold a Constitutional Convention.  This is part two of a commentary by Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie. An essay opposing a convention by Adirondack historian Philip Terrie will run on Sunday afternoon.

Part I of this two-part article discussed the history of the forever wild provision since its adoption by the Constitutional Convention of 1894. The absolute nature of the prohibition has made it the most amended section of the New York State Constitution (Peter J. Galie & Christopher Bopst, The New York State Constitution, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 312). Despite the number of amendments to the provision during the last 120 years, most of the forest preserve has retained its wilderness character, and the preserve has expanded significantly since it was first created. The preserve has functioned both as a success story and a point of pride that New Yorkers can take in their state constitution. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Commentary: Constitutional Convention Will Protect Forest Preserve

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseWhat follows is the first of three essays about the vote coming this November on whether New York State will hold a Constitutional Convention.  This first commentary in support is by Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie. Part two of Bopst and Galie’s essay will run Sunday morning, followed by an essay opposing a convention by Adirondack historian Philip Terrie on Sunday afternoon.

On November 7, 2017, New Yorkers will be asked whether they want to convene the state’s tenth constitutional convention, to consider amendments and revisions to the state’s 120-year old constitution. The question, which is automatically placed on the ballot every 20 years (N.Y. Const., art. XIX, sec. 2), causes considerable angst among those concerned a convention may jeopardize protections currently enshrined in the constitution, such as the beloved forever wild provision. The first part of this article will provide a brief history of the forever wild provision, and in particular how this provision has been treated at state constitutional conventions. The second part of the article will discuss how and why the provision has remained over one hundred years after its adoption a viable and vital part of our constitutional tradition while other constitutional prohibitions have not. The viability and vitality of the provision augur well for the likelihood that it will retain its significance should a convention be called in 2017. » Continue Reading.


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