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.


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. » Continue Reading.


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. » Continue Reading.


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. » Continue Reading.


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 clubmosses were closely related to ferns because they reproduce by spores and placed them in a category of plants called fern allies. That also was incorrect. Advanced technology and DNA sequencing have revealed that clubmosses evolved separately from ferns and are not closely related. However, clubmosses are still called fern allies or fern relatives in field guides. » 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 longer and less predictable than my cursory observations had led me to believe. First of all, for some species, fall migration begins long before the first ears of corn are ready to be picked. Take, for example, the yellow warbler, whose massive breeding range extends from parts of Mexico to Newfoundland and into Alaska. It is among the earliest songbirds to arrive in the spring and among the first to embark on the return journey. » 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.  By putting off blooming until late in the season, these plants have a virtual monopoly on the attentions of bees and other insect pollinators. » 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 of the hawk watchers: the broad-winged hawk. It was a bird I had never seen before, and although it is a common nesting species in the forests of the Northeast, the total number of broad-wings I’ve observed since then doesn’t come close to the number that soared past us that day. Whereas most hawks travel alone or in groups of three or four, broad-winged hawks migrate in flocks called kettles that can sometimes number in the thousands. » 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 on the fly. How do webs do this? Static electricity. It turns out spider webs are attracted to the static charge on flying 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 training in architecture, may have visited the Bernese Oberland during his time abroad. It would be there, she believed, he would have observed the Swiss cottage style that he emulated at great camps Pine Knot and Sagamore.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jumping Mice: Long Tailed Leapers

TOS_JumpingMouseThe woodland jumping mouse, as its name indicates, lives in forested areas. It is hard to observe, but common in the Northeast. If you have a chance to see one up close, perhaps courtesy of a cat, you’ll notice an extremely long tail and large hind feet. The fur is bright yellow to orange on the flanks and face and white on the belly. A broad, brownish-black stripe runs down the back. The tail is 4.5 to 6 inches long and has a white tip (this tip is the easiest way to distinguish it from its cousin, the meadow jumping mouse.)

The mouse walks when moving slowly, but relies on its jumping ability to travel quickly, and to cover distance. How far can this little mouse jump? Accounts vary, but most agree it can jump at least six feet horizontally and two feet high. It uses a four-footed hop. Both front feet are planted at the same time, both back feet an instant later. The large hind feet with long ankle and toe bones provide leverage when pushing off, thrusting the body into the air. The forelimbs are folded into the chest. The long tail trails behind, assisting in balance. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Burying Beetles: Nature’s Undertakers

burying_beetleI don’t often shake down my cat for a dead mouse, but I did think it was fair, considering that he is always shaking me down for his cat food. I wasn’t going to eat his mouse. I needed it as bait, to see if I could catch a burying beetle.

Burying beetles, or sexton beetles, are nocturnal and they spend much of their lives underground. You’re most likely to find them under small dead animals, such as moles or mice, in a field, that is if you get there before the crows, raccoons, ants, worms, or bacteria do. » Continue Reading.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Puddling: Butterflies at the Bar

Puddle_of_butterflies(1)Toddlers aren’t the only ones fond of mud puddles. Butterflies and moths often gather at puddles in large groups. I witnessed about thirty tiger swallowtail butterflies around a puddle on a woods road one spring, their yellow, black-veined wings twitching slightly, contrasting with the brown mud. Another time I saw a crowd of swallowtails around a pile of damp wood ashes in my yard.

This curious behavior is known as “puddling.” Although butterflies and moths get most of their nutrition from flower nectar, puddling provides another way to obtain nutrients, and replenish fluids. The insects use their long tongues, called proboscises, to deliver the fluid or other material into their mouths. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wild Blackberry Season In The Adirondacks

TOS_BerriesThe bank in front of our house is a dense tangle of arching canes and thorns as large as cat claws. I wriggle further in, lips pressed against the pain of scratches and fingers straining for that last, fattest, blackest berry. I brush it, and it falls into the gloom of leaves and grass, never to be retrieved. Disentangling myself, I take my bowl of berry plunder back to the house where my dad will make the best pie I know: wild blackberry.

Wild blackberries are delicious, grow like weeds, and ripen in August, just in time for my birthday. They belong to the rose family along with raspberries, strawberries, the stone fruits, and unexpectedly, almonds. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Horntails: The Wasp and the Fungus

TOS_horntailNo one could fault you for running away, screaming in terror, if you saw a large, flying, cigar-shaped insect armed with a “stinger” bigger than a sewing needle. Thankfully, the female pigeon horntail wood wasp is harmless. That spear on its rear isn’t meant to pierce skin. It’s for drilling into wood; and it lays the foundation – literally – for a remarkable inter-species relationship.

Tremex columba is the scientific name for this member of the Siricidae family. Adult females measure one and a half to two inches, males slightly smaller. The female’s “stinger” is actually a specialized egg-laying organ called an ovipositor. This slender, hollow rod is divided top to bottom, both halves articulated. Serrations on the tip allow the wasp to saw into tree trunks, much like an electric knife cuts meat. Two additional segments on either side sandwich the ovipositor in a protective sheath. The whole apparatus originates midway down the underside of the wasp’s abdomen. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

150 Years Ago An Adirondacker Languished At Andersonville

Rollin O. Sanford, farmerRollin O. Sanford died on July 29, 1864 while a prisoner of war at the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. His only son, Rollin J, was born that very same day in Hopkinton NY, twelve hundred miles to the north, in what is now the Adirondack Park. While there are countless stories of tragedy and heartache that occurred during the Civil War, this story seemed especially poignant, since it involved our family.

Rollin O. Sanford, described as a large and powerful man, was the tenth child and youngest son of Jonah and Abigail Greene Sanford. He was a farmer in Hopkinton, married to Ermina Roberts, with whom he had two daughters, Lillian and Jeanette. “Nettie”, the younger daughter, died in November 1863 at age two, one month before Rollin went off to war. Years later Lillian wrote about the death of her little sister and how her father “held Nettie in his arms as her little life went out”. » Continue Reading.


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