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, May 16, 2016

Adirondack Snakes: Smelling With A Forked Tongue

TOS snakeDid you ever use your hands to scoop the air toward your nose when someone takes a pie out of the oven? Snakes are doing the same thing when they flick their forked tongues.

“They are manipulating the air, bringing chemicals from the air or the ground closer so they can figure out what kind of habitat they’re in, whether there are any predators nearby, and what food items are around,” explained biologist William Ryerson. This time of year, a number of our native species may also use their tongues to track the pheromone trails of potential mates, sometimes over long distances. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Signs Of Spring: Robins On The Nest

the outsider robinWe noticed the first robin in our yard this year in early March. Normally these famous spring harbingers, who move in comically stilted hops across our front lawn, don’t show up until at least April Fool’s Day. Their earlier-than-usual arrival made me wonder how robins decide to begin a spring migration.

The American robin, with its celebrated rusty-red breast, is a short-distance migrant. These members of the thrush family – the brightly-hued eastern bluebird and the melodious hermit thrush are cousins – move based on a number of factors, mainly related to food supply and the weather. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Astronomy: The Transit Of Mercury On Monday

mercury transit the outsiderIt’s just a tiny black dot moving very, very slowly. But if you’re interested in astronomy, this is an exciting dot. It is Mercury, the smallest planet in our solar system, passing between the earth and the sun. The transit of Mercury is a relatively rare event, so sky-watchers are hoping for clear skies between 7:13 am and 2:41 pm on May 9.

“To us, it’s a very neat thing to see this phenomenon, and perhaps to take photographs during the course of the event. We can’t get enough of it!” said William Vinton, president of the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation. Weather permitting, he will view the event with his students at St. Johnsbury Academy. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Molting: Bird Feathers Flying

“Boy, he’s really red! I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that red before,” my wife said admiringly of a male purple finch crunching sunflower seeds at the feeder. He was a nice burgundy. The male goldfinches were getting yellower, but still looked scruffy. The birds made me optimistic that spring would finally get here. The next morning it was ten degrees.

Birds molt for a basic reason: feathers wear out. All that flying, preening, dust bathing, weaving through limbs of bushes and trees. For a bird, ratty feathers can be a death sentence. Feathers, which are made of keratin, like your hair and nails, have to be replaced. There is another reason to molt: it allows birds, mainly male birds, to don more colorful plumage for mating season.

Why males? » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Understanding Maple Syrup Color And Flavor

the outsider maple syrupSome years sugaring season goes by the book, which is to stay things starts cold, and over the course of four to six weeks spring arrives gradually and consistently. In such a scenario, the syrup usually starts out light colored and sweet, then as the weather warms and the microbial load in the sap increases, the color gets progressively darker and the flavor more complex. (What’s happening is the microbes are converting the sucrose in the sap to invert sugars, which leads to more caramelization and a different flavor profile.) Around the time the buds break, the biochemistry of the sap changes and it starts picking up some sometimes nasty off-flavors.

Then there are years like this, which don’t follow the script. I make syrup in southern Vermont, where we saw highs spike up into the seventies and lows plummet into the single digits. While the syrup color sort of tracked with the crazy temperatures, our last boil of the year produced syrup that had a light amber color and a dark, late-season flavor that left a weird aftertaste in your mouth. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Adirondack Fungus: Turkey Tails

turkey tailDuring my walks through the woods these days, I am often accompanied by curious children. These children, who are my own, notice many things that I often do not, and they are filled with questions. Who made that track? Why does this grow here? What kind of mushroom is that? With fledgling naturalists – including one who wants to grow up to be a mycologist, an entomologist, or a zoologist, depending on the day – it’s nice to have a few things in the woods I can identify easily at any time of year. Enter Trametes versicolor, the turkey tail fungus.

This common polypore has a name that’s indicative of its appearance. The fruiting body (the part of the fungus that we can see and which contains the reproductive spores) looks much like the tail of a Tom turkey strutting his stuff for prospective hen companions. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Loons Are Returning To The Adirondacks

Loon in Adirondacks.JLM. (1)When I was a child, I looked forward to spending summers with my grandmother at our family cottage on a Canadian lake. Every year, as soon as I was out of the car, we would run to the point to look and listen for loons.

As an adult, I still watch loons. But it wasn’t until this past fall, when the loons began to migrate, that it occurred to me that I had no idea where they were going.

According to Eric Hanson, a conservation biologist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the common loon, Gavia immer, makes its way east from our region, out into the New England coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Some adults might leave their breeding lake in September, but usually to a nearby lake at this time. The bulk of adults migrate to the ocean in October, while chicks usually remain until early November. By some instinct, juveniles find their way to the ocean without the guidance of adults. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Springtime Skunks: Amorous And Odoriferous

skunk the outsiderDriving home from work the other day, I saw my first road-killed skunk of the year. And if this year is anything like the last few, it won’t be the last one I see this season. While April showers do indeed bring May flowers, it’s also true that warm weather in March and early April is a certain sign that skunks will turn up dead in the road in great numbers. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

How Northeast Caves Are Created

solution caveTo enter the cave, we donned hard hats and descended a vertical drop with the aid of a rope. We crawled on our knees and bellies through a wet, narrow passageway, emerging into a large underground chamber that contained a small lake. By the light of our headlamps, we could make out interesting cave formations ― icicle-like stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling and stalagmites growing up from the floor. In the cool, damp darkness, we heard the slow dripping of water. Our underground adventure left us covered with mud ― our skin and clothes were caked with it. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Adirondack Wildlife: Weasel Evel Knievels

weasel the outsiderMy friend Gordon Russell sent me a letter recently describing a wildlife encounter. He had been following deer tracks along a stone wall when a movement caught his attention. “Almost before its image could travel to my brain,” he wrote, “the white head of a weasel vanished in between the stones.” The animal popped up again, disappeared, and then revealed itself a third time, next to where Gordon was standing.

Gordon looked at the weasel. The weasel looked at Gordon. Gordon squeaked. And then: “my day exploded.” » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How Bees Make Different Honey Flavors

The sun is climbing higher each day and I know that it won’t be long until my honey bees are out seeking nectar and pollen.

From early-blooming red maple trees. Then sugar maples, apple trees, dandelions. From blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. From clover, staghorn sumac, and basswood trees. From milkweed in the abandoned field. From the coneflowers, thyme, and sage in our perennial garden. From asters and goldenrod; jewelweed and Japanese knotweed. For a bee, the warmer seasons are a Mardi Gras parade of nectars.

The European honey bee has been in North America almost as long as the Europeans who brought it. It is a miracle of nature, pollinating plants with abandon, while turning their nectars into one of nature’s most delicious substances. In a good year a hive can produce 60 pounds or more of surplus honey. But mileage may vary, as they say. Much about production, and flavor, depends on weather and location. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

In Cold, Wet Woods, Needle Ice Sprouts

ice needle the outsiderThe bare ground of the trail wound through dead leaves and patchy snow. At a short overhang in the trail, I noticed spiky threads of ice growing up from the soil in crunchy clusters. A careless boot revealed how fragile these formations are; the fine ice threads crumbled readily. This was needle ice, a common sight in the woods this winter.

Curious about the phenomenon, I got in touch with Dr. James R. Carter, a professor emeritus from Illinois State University. Dr. Carter has spent the last ten year observing these ice formations. His photographs and descriptions of different examples of needle ice are available here.

Carter explained that while needle ice somewhat resembles frost, it is a completely different phenomenon. Frost forms when water vapor is deposited onto a growing ice crystal; the water molecules move directly from the gas phase to the solid phase without ever becoming a liquid. Needle ice, on the other hand, forms from liquid water when a process called ice segregation occurs in the soil. » Continue Reading.


Monday, February 22, 2016

Forest Product Biochar Enriches Soils, Improves Productivity

enriching soils with biocharAt this time of year, many a gardener’s daydreams turn to the springtime promise of sprouting plants. Seed catalogs start arriving in the mail months before the soil will be thawed and drained enough for planting, and we use this downtime to plan for the coming season.

At Green Fire Farm in Peacham, Vermont, Michael Low is also planning, not only for this year’s crops, but for biochar to help those crops grow. He harvests about 50 cords of low-grade wood each year on his 67-acre homestead, and turns the wood into his own version of black gold. Biochar is charcoal used for agricultural purposes. Its advocates laud its potential to retain soil nutrients, sustain moisture levels in both drought and heavy rain conditions, and sequester carbon in the ground. For evidence of biochar’s usefulness, they point to the terra preta of the Amazon region, where biochar-enriched soils have maintained high fertility for thousands of years. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lichens: Not Technically A Plant

Lichens: Not Technically a PlantOn cold winter days, feeding sticks of firewood into my woodstove, I sometimes pause, my eye caught by lichens. Splotchy circles, lacy tendrils. Soft gray, muted gray-green, black. They mottle the bark. When I look out the window next to my desk, I see splashes of lichen on the roof of my workshop, and on the stone walls across the road.

Lichens are virtually everywhere. They live in some of the harshest environments on our planet, from Antarctica to the high Arctic, deserts and high peaks, in forests tropical and temperate. They can grow not only on rock, but in it, between grains and crystals. According to Steve Selva, a lichenologist and professor emeritus at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, there’s even a type that grows on barnacles. Selva has spent four decades studying lichens. He created and still contributes to and maintains the school’s extensive lichen collection. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Goshawks: An Apex Adirondack Accipiter

Goshawk: Apex AccipiterThe Boke of St. Albans, a 15th century sportsman’s handbook, decreed that only a nobleman could hunt with a falcon, but a mere yeoman might settle for a goshawk. These days it is the very wildness and willfulness of the goshawk that bestows a badge of courage on those who would train one.

“In the talons there was death,” wrote T. H. White, who chronicled his naive attempt to “man” one of these “murderous” raptors in The Goshawk. “He would slay a rabbit in his grip by merely crushing its skull.” » Continue Reading.


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