Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years.
He has written numerous articles on natural history for a variety of magazines and wrote a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News for nearly ten years.
Tom has also written several books which focus on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. Along with writing, he also spends time photographing wildlife.
It is always difficult to predict when the ice will go out on a given body of water in the Adirondacks, however, it is easy to say when that waterway will be occupied by a loon, as this symbol of the northern wilderness always seems to arrive within hours of the ice disappearing.
The urge to return to its breeding territory is especially strong in male loons. Because of a recent population increase in this species, there can be intense competition for the remote sections of the large lakes and back country ponds that are highly attractive to this bird with the haunting voice. » Continue Reading.
The awakening of the many forms of life that passed the winter in a deeply dormant state begins with the melting of the snow, the retreating of the ice sheet covering our waterways, and the thawing of the soil. Because of fundamental physiological differences among the species and the various preferences that each creature has for a wintering site, some animals are quicker to respond to the onset of favorable spring conditions than others.
In the forested regions of the North Country, the wood frog is among the first to return to an active state and announce with a distinct chorus of voices that spring has come to the Adirondacks. Unlike other frogs in the Adirondacks, the wood frog does not spend the winter embedded in the muck that covers numerous bodies of water. Rather, this amphibian burrows deep into the leaf litter that covers the forest floor to protect itself from the frigid conditions of this long season. Also, unlike many other cold-blooded vertebrates, the wood frog fails to get below the frost line.
This small, forest dwelling frog with the black mask across its face is among the very few forms of vertebrate life that can experience freezing without perishing. The body of this frog has adapted by producing several substances that allow for a lowering of the freezing point of the water molecules within its body.
Additionally, even if the actions of these compounds fail to prevent ice crystals from forming, the wood frog will not die. With the formation of ice in its body, the wood frog’s heart stops beating, its blood no longer circulates throughout its systems, and oxygen fails to be delivered to its cells. In this type of cryogenic state, the wood frog can remain alive throughout the winter and awaken once its body warms to a temperature that is above freezing.
As soon as the upper layer of soil thaws, releasing the wood frog from its icy tomb, it spends a few days acclimating to an active state before heading to the small, vernal pool of water that serves as its breeding ground. Upon arriving at such a seasonal body of water, the males begin to announce their presence by emitting a clacking noise that is described by some as several ducks that are not quite “on-key”.
Within a span of a few days, such small bodies of water may contain dozens of wood frogs. While these amphibians can be heard anytime of the day, late afternoon is when more voices are added to the chorus, and by evening on those occasions when the temperature is well above the freezing point, every male is contributing to the unique noise that can carry for nearly a hundred yards. Additionally, the intensity of this sound increases during times of warmer weather. Sunny days which can elevate the temperature of these small, seasonal pools can also make the wood frog more active and vocal.
While some amphibians, like the spring peeper, persist in announcing its presence for well over a month, the wood frog seldom remains in its breeding surroundings longer than a week to ten days. Shortly after the last females have had their egg masses fertilized, these temporary occupants abandon the pools and begin their travel to their summer ranges. Wood frogs are reported to migrate up to a half mile to reach a favorable spot on the forest floor in which to spend the summer.
Spring is a season of sound in the Adirondacks. While birds have the most musically complex songs, and the most melodious calls, the voices of several amphibians add to the diversity of this springtime, vocal ritual. It is impossible to state which amphibian produces the most appealing mating call; however, it is certain that the love serenade of the wood frog is the first to grace the air and signal that the spring peepers will soon be calling here in the Adirondacks.
Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature and is a regular contributor on natural history here at the Adirondack Almanack.
Patches of snow that remain in open areas and along forest edges, and the reluctance of the soil to completely thaw have impacted the seasonal routines of numerous forms of wildlife, including the woodcock. Yet, despite the adversities created by the weather, most woodcock are already engaged in breeding, as can be easily noted by visiting certain settings after the sun has set.
The woodcock is a plump, mottled tannish-brown bird that is seldom seen during the day because of its extremely effective protective coloration, and its preference for remaining inactive when the sun is above the horizon. It is during the fading twilight of evening, and as the sky begins to brighten before dawn that this odd-looking bird ventures from a sheltered spot on the forest floor and begins to forage. With its long, hook-tipped bill, the woodcock is ideally adapted for extracting earthworms from the soil. By inserting this lengthy beak into the dirt, the woodcock is capable of sensing any nearby worms, or other soil invertebrates. The high concentration of nerve cells that exist within its bill are attuned to the minute vibrations generated by worms as they ever so gradually move through the soil. Once it detects and locates an invertebrate, the woodcock quickly attempts to insert its bill directly over the potential meal, grab hold of it, and then pull it from its earthen surroundings.
Because the ground is still partially frozen, or covered with patches of snow in many of the deciduous and mixed forest edges preferred by the woodcock, this bird temporarily concentrates its evenings and early mornings in places in which the soil has thawed and worms have become active. Open, south facing hillsides and wetlands where the sun and high water events have caused the snow to melt are places sought out by the woodcock in early spring. Alder thickets are particularly attractive to this bird as they provide a dense layer of ground cover as well as a wealth of soil invertebrates during the spring. Even in summer, when hot and dry weather forces worms and many soil bugs in open and dry sites deep into the soil below the reach of this bird, alder areas provide conditions favorable to a foraging woodcock.
Although the woodcock’s coloration and markings perfectly match that of a deciduous forest floor or the ground in an alder thicket, the males come into an open, grassy setting before they eat in order to announce their presence. The loud, sharp, nasal-sounding note bleated by the male is a far cry from the melodious tunes produced by many of our feathered songsters, yet this call serves a similar purpose. After repeating this short squawk for several minutes, the woodcock then takes to the air to perform an aerial display that is also part of its mating ritual.
The tips of the woodcock’s primary flight feathers produce a distinct whistling-twitter sound when air quickly flows past them. This is why a woodcock makes a similar twitter noise when it’s flushed from a daytime resting spot.
The aerial display of the woodcock is difficult to follow in the dwindling twilight, especially on overcast nights. When the sky is clear, however, and a full moon has ascended above the horizon, it is possible to watch this bird circle the forest clearing that it has claimed, and perform a series of dives that bring it back to its singing perch on the ground. Taking an evening walk to a forest clearing near an alder thicket or to a stand of young hardwoods after the daytime breeze has subsided, and the first stars of the night (which are usually not stars, but planets) are just becoming visible, often results in noting a woodcock’s presence.
A fair number of these occurrences, however, center on hearing the characteristic sounds made by this plump, short-legged bird, rather than actually seeing it. It is the distinct vocalization made by the woodcock as it stands in the open, yet shrouded by darkness, that alerts other woodcocks in the area, and the humans attuned to the sounds of nature, that the process of creating another generation of woodcocks is already underway.
The persistent northerly wind that has kept spring at bay this year has also impacted the migration schedule of numerous birds. However, the urge to return to the breeding grounds is extremely strong, and there are always hardy individuals that travel northwards during those brief periods when the headwind dies and the air becomes calm.
Among these impatient migrants are pairs of Canada Geese that have overwintered in the windswept corn fields of southern New York, and across the Pennsylvania and New Jersey countryside where they have found an adequate source of food. Historically absent from most waterways in the Park prior to the mid 1800’s, the Canada goose has become an abundant species of waterfowl in many sections of the Adirondacks populated by humans. When accompanied by its brood of young, a pair of adults avoids the heavily forested shorelines that characterize most bodies of water throughout this section of northern New York. It is large, open fields, especially those in which the grass is periodically mowed that attract this hefty herbivore. Golf course fairways near a pond or river, large athletic fields adjacent to a marsh or stream, and community parks and sprawling lawns that border a lake are all ideal settings for the Canada goose.
The abundance of grasses, leafy weeds, grains and select soil bugs that serve as food to these honking giants attracts them to such open places. Additionally, this long necked bird is better able to scan the immediate surroundings which provide it with the opportunity to detect a predator when one is still a long distance away. Even though many of shorelines in the Adirondacks are still covered with snow, and ice continues to exist well out from the water’s edge, pairs of Canada geese may be seen is spots of open water as they begin to return to the region. Upon their arrival, the pair seeks out a secluded location in which to make a nest. A remote section of a marsh along a stream that has caused the ice to disappear for the season is frequently selected. An open, sun-baked patch of low shrubs and collapsed sedges near the edge of a river is another type of setting that might be chosen for a nest, as is the roof of an abandoned muskrat house that sits back from the shore in a snow free spot.
While these sites lack the grasses and other herbaceous plants that typify a well maintain lawn, such marshy communities still contain an assortment of non-woody vegetation useful to this grazer. Because the growing season has not yet started, the older adults that take up residence in such locations for the month long period of building a nest, laying eggs, and incubating them depend on their experience at locating various seeds and other wetland edibles to keep them sufficiently nourished.
Once their eggs hatch, the parents begin the process of relocating the family to a setting in which grasses are starting to grow.
As southerly winds eventually usher in more spring-like weather, flocks of Canada geese can be heard and seen flying overhead in their characteristic “V” shaped formation. These are the birds that are headed much further north than the upper portion of New York State. The Canada geese that have established breeding populations in many sections of the Park over the past several decades have mostly returned from their wintering areas despite the icy conditions that remain along our waterways. While a few pairs may occasionally be seen on scattered patches of open water that currently exist on some of our lakes and ponds, many pairs of Canada geese have already retreated into the semi-open thickets in marshes and other wetlands that they have selected to serve as their home for the next month or so.
The creation of open spaces along lake shores and river edges that are carpeted with lush, green lawns has been an alteration of the Adirondack environment much to the liking of property owners and community residents alike. For the Canada geese it is also a most welcome change to the shoreline, as it provides this large species of waterfowl with the opportunity to raise the young birds that will begin appearing by early to mid May.
The deep snow pack that formed this winter and its persistence in remaining has created hardships for many forms of wildlife, yet a few creatures have benefited from this substantial crystalline covering, especially the mice.
Life for a small, ground dwelling rodent in winter is a challenge that many individuals fail to survive. Not only must a mouse find enough to eat in order to maintain an internal temperature near 100 degrees, but it must also avoid the many predators that target this round-eared critter. After most other small creatures, like the chipmunk, wood frog, jumping mice, salamanders and snakes have entered their dormant stage in autumn, only a few ground dwelling forms of prey remain active for our carnivores to hunt. This substantially increases the pressure on these familiar small rodents. In their attempt to avoid being seen by a fox, coyote, bobcat, fisher, hawk, owl or other meat eater, those mice that have not taken up residence indoors tend to confine their travels as much as possible to places under the snow’s surface. Limiting their foraging activities as much as possible to the crevices and hollows under fallen logs, around large rocks and stumps, and beneath other objects on the forest floor helps to conceal these critters from the view of the larger animals that are always on the prowl for prey.
While the keen senses of hearing and smell of most predators, especially the fox and coyote enable these highly perceptive animals to detect the movements of a mouse under the snow, their ability to capture one depends on the depth of the snow, as well as surface conditions. Rapidly and accurately digging through more than a foot of powder becomes a major challenge for any quadruped. The noise generated in flinging aside the snow instantly alerts the quarry to an attack, and causes this potential meal to quickly retreat from that spot. Unless a predator attacks with lightning speed, it will never be successful in apprehending a roving mouse beneath the snow pack.
A crust on the surface presents an even more formidable barrier to snagging a mouse as it moves in the shallow spaces that exist between the forest floor and the snow that covers the ground. A dense crust which forms after a late winter thaw is especially beneficial, as it can act like a coat of armor over the domain of a mouse.
Hawks and owls are particularly adversely impacted by the presence of a substantial layer of snow throughout the winter. These hunters rely entirely on snatching creatures that are traveling on top of the snow, or are moving just below the surface. While their razor sharp talons are effective weapons in quickly killing prey, they are useless in digging through the snow to search for an animal that has recently burrowed down into the powder to escape an attack.
Aside from offering protection from its numerous natural enemies, snow also provides mice with protection against bitter cold temperatures. Snow is an excellent insulator, and a layer of fluffy powder effectively traps the heat contained within the soil, making a far more favorable microclimate beneath this seasonal blanket than the air above.
It is difficult to say when the snow will eventually disappear for the season. For outdoor enthusiasts that enjoy bare ground and for the region’s numerous predators, it can’t come soon enough. But for the mice, a snow pack that lingers well into April is ideal, for this is when the intensity of the sun’s rays begins to thaw the soil and awakens most dormant critters. As these creatures begin to repopulate the forest floor, in an often still lethargic state, the appetite of the predator community begins to become satisfied, and hunting pressure eases on the mice.
So far, this has been a near perfect snow season for our mouse community, and undoubtedly, there are now plenty of mice to begin their extensive breeding season. With their normally high rate of reproduction, it can be expected that there will be an over abundance of these small, ubiquitous rodents by the time mid autumn arrives, and countless individuals will be looking for a warm home in which to spend next winter.
A warm southerly breeze in mid-March brings with it loose, granular conditions on the ski slopes, a layer of mud on dirt roads, and the return of the Adirondacks first seasonal avian residents and among these are the male red-winged blackbirds.
This jet black bird with the red and yellow patch on its upper wing, known as an epaulet, is quick to return to its breeding grounds when air currents become favorable for migration. Despite the presence of snow on the ground, ice on many of our waterways, and periodic outbreaks of bitter cold, these birds exhibit an eagerness to get back to their breeding areas. Immediately upon their arrival, the males begin to lay claim to favored sections of marsh and the weedy shorelines of rivers, ponds, and lakes, especially those that are covered by cattails. It is in such areas of tall aquatic grasses, shrubs, sedges and weeds that the females will be looking to establish a nesting territory when they arrive during the first few weeks of April.
Unlike many birds, the red-winged blackbird does not form a pair bond with a single individual, rather the male services the reproductive needs of all of the females that happen to set up a nesting territory within the boundaries of their section of real estate. It is not uncommon for a prime chunk of marsh, held by a single male, to encompass up to three female nesting territories.
Those individuals that arrive first tend to gain control of the best parcels of marsh. These are the older and more experienced males that average from 3 to 6 years of age. They have learned what areas are likely to attract the strongest and hardiest females, as well as what settings are most likely to allow for a successful nesting season. In this way, these males can best ensure that their genetic information will be passed on to future generations of red-wings.
Once a male selects a territory, he will defend it by loudly announcing his presence with a distinct vocalization. The phrase, “O-Ka-TEE” is often used to describe this call. Additionally, the male opens its wings slightly to expose its epaulets. This visual cue is given to alert other nearby males that he is dead serious about defending his area. It is akin to a human brandishing some type of weapon while standing on his front porch when confronting an unwelcome visitor. Finally, the male is quick to attack any other male that fails to heed the warnings.
Over a several day period, regular skirmishes with neighboring males over the exact boundaries ensue until ownership claims become established. Because most wetlands are still covered in snow and ice, these birds are forced to find food outside their breeding territories. It is not uncommon in mid to late March to note small flocks of male red-wings in poplar trees that border open, south-facing hillsides where foraging conditions are better. Also, when the wind comes up from the north, preventing other migrants from arriving and creating bitter cold conditions, the males congregate in more sheltered locations rather than guard a breeding territory that is currently devoid of any rivals.
Yet, as soon as the weather turns more spring like, these birds quickly return to their patch of marsh to immediately challenge any intruder that has just arrived from the south. Since the first birds back have had a chance to recover from their bout of long distance flight, they are generally at an advantage when they confront recent arrivals that are more physically drained.
During years when frequent spells of unseasonably cold and snowy weather hinder this birds ability to forage, these early migrants may experience significant nutritional stress. This is why birds are careful not to return too early in March.
It is impossible to predict the type of spring we will experience based on sightings and signs in nature. The arrival of numerous flocks of red-winged blackbirds earlier than normal is only a reflection of a period of favorable migration conditions as St. Patrick’s Day approaches. The awakening urge that males are experiencing is strong, and the battles that become a part of this process have now begun in the marshes of the Adirondacks.
Anyone living in a town or hamlet in the Adirondacks knows that the gray squirrel is a common member of the wildlife community within the Park. This bushy-tailed rodent ranks among the most frequently seen creatures, especially if a few individuals in the neighborhood are maintaining bird feeders. Yet, as common as this skilled aerialist may appear, the gray squirrel is not as widely distributed throughout the Park as it would seem.
The gray squirrel is a creature that is heavily dependent on acorns for its staple source of food. It is in mature stands of oaks that the population of this species reaches its natural peak. In areas where oaks occur only sporadically, the gray squirrel has a far more challenging time surviving. » Continue Reading.
It has been a tough two months for the white-tailed deer throughout the Adirondacks, and the snowstorm this past weekend only added to the continuing misery experienced by this popular big game animal since mid-January.
With its long legs, the white-tail has the ability to travel through a snow bound forest when there is up to 12 to 16 inches on the ground. As the snow pack becomes denser, crusted, or deeper, the mobility of this hoofed creature becomes greatly restricted. » Continue Reading.
Most Adirondackers agree that one of the best aspects of winter is the total absence of pesky, flying bugs outside. Freezing temperatures and an extraordinarily dry atmosphere that would desiccate any fragile-bodied organism combine to prevent such smaller forms of life from becoming active during this harsh season in our northern climate. Occasionally, a spider, housefly, or lady bug may be noticed throughout the winter, especially in a kitchen or a room with a large window that faces the early afternoon sun. Much to the surprise of most individuals, another bug that may be encountered while in a warm, indoor location this season is the female anopheles mosquito. The Adirondacks supports a multitude of mosquito species, with nearly all passing the winter in the form of eggs. After their eggs have been laid during the summer, the adults eventually die. This leaves only their eggs, or in a few species, their larvae to give rise to next year’s adults.
Most mosquito egg masses tend to be laid in dry, shallow depressions on the ground that will eventually develop into small, temporary vernal pools from the melting snow pack.
The adult anopheles, however, is quite different from its relatives, for rather than perishing with the onset of cooler weather in late summer or early autumn, this delicate-bodied insect retreats to some sheltered location and slips into a deep state of dormancy, known as quiescence. Like many other bugs, the adult anopheles alters its body chemistry prior to becoming dormant so it can withstand freezing conditions.
In quiescence, the organism remains in a profound state of inactivity until environmental conditions around it become favorable again. Should a period of unseasonably warm weather occur in mid to late winter, a bug that is quiescent will likely awaken and leave the safety of its winter shelter.
Most bugs in the Adirondacks experience a dormant condition known as diapause, which is triggered by the decreasing amount of daylight, and is terminated when the length of daylight returns to a specific level. This prevents those bugs from prematurely awakening during major thaws in winter, as the anopheles sometime does.
Adult anopheles mosquitoes typically spend the winter in places that are well protected from wild swings in temperature, and have as moist a microclimate as possible. The very back chambers of a woodchuck or skunk den are such sites, as is a deep crevice in rock outcropping that extends a dozen feet below the surface. The nooks and crannies within massive piles of brush on the forest floor may also serve as a sanctuary for the anopheles mosquito. This unwelcome bug will also utilize a corner in a garage where unused household items are tightly piled, or in a basement where old clothing, or once treasured objects have been shoved into a large, uncovered bin. The anopheles may also retreat deep into a wood pile that is housed in a sheltered location.
Should a person happen to retrieve an item from the basement bin, or the pile in the garage that contains one of these mosquitoes in a state of suspended animation, and exposes it to the warmth of their home, the unnoticed insect will eventually awaken. It then doesn’t take long for it to instinctively assume that spring has come, and decide it’s now time to look for a meal of blood.
Out in the wilds, it is believed that a substantial percentage of mosquitoes succumb to the cold and dry conditions of winter; yet enough eventually survive to begin their reproductive cycle and establish a vibrant population once spring finally arrives.
If you happen to encounter a mosquito over the next two to three months, it is undoubtedly a female anopheles. The males, like other mosquitoes, are unable to survive the winter season. The anopheles can also be identified by the way in which it holds its body in a straight line when drawing blood from a host. Our other mosquito species characteristically bend their head down toward the host when feeding, leaving their abdomen parallel to the surface on which they have lit.
In our house, it is difficult to ever observe a mosquito, as my wife maintains the philosophy that the only good mosquito is a dead mosquito. Photo: Anopheles Quadrimaculatus mosquito common to our region and the eastern half of the United States.
Early March is the time of the year when the snow pack in the Adirondacks typically reaches its greatest depth, and winter gales are the most frequent and powerful. Yet, this period of wind and deep snow produces some of the most favorable conditions for the varying hare, also known as the snowshoe rabbit, a common denizen of our dense conifer forests.
For a creature that can easily remain on the surface of the snow, a thick blanket of powder provides the varying hare with the opportunity to access vegetation that is ordinarily out of its reach. Standing upright on its powerful hind legs, this herbivore is only able to gnaw on the buds and bark of twigs that occur up to a foot above the surface on which the animal is located. Should a snow pack that is three plus feet deep develop over an area, the hare will then be able to reach the edible parts of saplings and shrubs that exist nearly four feet above the forest floor. » Continue Reading.
To the people that study birds, the crow is something of an enigma. While it is often regularly seen in the Adirondacks, its wary temperament makes close-up observations a challenge. Additionally, each crow’s individual pattern of behavior may be either slightly, or vastly different from that of the other members of its flock. This creates difficulty in developing general statements regarding the crow, such as what do crows do during the winter. In some ways, the crow is a bird that is more like a human than any other feathered creature.
With plenty of snow on the ground, a moon that is only a day or two past being full, and the possibility of breaks in the clouds, this weekend promises to be one of those occasions when enough natural light will exist to venture outside and explore the nocturnal side of nature in the Adirondacks.
While it may not be wise to bushwhack through a thick cedar swamp or a dense grove of hemlocks, regardless of how bright it may be, there is generally enough illumination around the time of a full moon in winter to travel through more open settings. Stretches of seasonal roads, well-used snowshoe paths, and hiking trails that extend into hardwood areas or around forest clearings are sites where travel is possible hours after the sun has set. » Continue Reading.
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