Almanack Contributor Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Adirondack Scat: The Scoop on Poop

It’s a glorious day. You decide to go for a walk. You step out the door and head for the hills. You are ready to take in everything Ol’ Mom Nature has to offer, so you’ve equipped yourself with binoculars, field guides, and a hand lens. You have your heart set on finding flowers, spying birds, or maybe, just maybe, stumbling upon that elusive moose. Anything could happen . . . the sky is the limit. Odds are, however, that you aren’t prepared to peek at poop.

I suspect that we all snigger at the mention of poo because we were raised to think of it as something “dirty.” And, well, I suppose it is, technically, so this is why those of us who study natural science refer to the offending matter as scat, or droppings—words that are less likely to elicit tittering. Still, when I work with kids, I do use the vernacular “poo” or “poop” because it helps move the stuff little further from its tarnished image—when words become familiar they become less taboo. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Forest Economies: It’s Maple Sugaring Season!

It’s bright sunny days like we’ve had for most of this month that bring maple sugaring to mind. There’s just something about the quality of the light that says it’s sugar season. And sure enough, Wednesday morning I heard the first newscast from a sugar house. So, I thought I’d jump in with the best of ‘em and write a post about the sweetness of spring: maple syrup.

Maple sugaring and natural history go hand-in-hand. At least it has seemed that way to me, for most places where I have worked have operated some sort of sugaring operation. One ran a small scale commercial operation (see photo), but the majority were simple demonstration set-ups, where visitors walked a “sugaring trail”, each stop featuring a different time in the history of sugaring, from the Native hatchet in a tree with a wooden bowl on the ground to catch the dripping sap, to high tech tubing that brought the sap directly to the sugar shack.

My favorite, however, was the final stop on the sugaring trail we had in New Jersey. The guys on the staff built a device called a “lazy man’s balance”, consisting of a long arm (log) balanced across the fork of an upright log, with a kettle suspended from one end and a heavy rock tied to the other end to act as a counter-balance. The kettle was filled with sap and dangled above a fire, which boiled off the water. What made this set-up so fascinating to me, however, was the simplicity of the engineering: as the water evaporated, the kettle lost weight. As the kettle lost weight, it would rise a bit higher from the fire. This ingenious device would allow the syrup to condense without scorching.

One of the best things about visiting a sugar bush is getting to sample the merchandise, so to speak. While commercial outfits provide samples in hopes that you will buy some syrup or sugar to take home, nature centers have a different take on it: they just want you to try the stuff. The best sample tables not only give you a taste of maple syrup, but they also test your tasting skills. For example, one place where I worked had samples from sugar, red and Norway maples, Vermont Maid and Golden Griddle (the former has something like 3% real maple syrup, while the latter has none), and a syrup we made from potatoes. Visitors would spear a chunk of Italian bread on a toothpick and dip it into a cup of syrup to taste it. The goal was to pick out which was the real maple syrup. I grew up on the real stuff, so it always amazed me when people couldn’t pick out the real from the fake. And, just for the record, the potato syrup was often picked as the real McCoy.

Which brings us to sugar versus red versus Norway versus black maple. All maple trees produce a sweet sap that can be tapped and boiled to make a sweet golden syrup. So why the hoopla over sugar maple? Because sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has the greatest quantity of sugar per gallon of sap. In other words, you need a lot less sap from a sugar maple to produce a gallon of syrup than you would from a red, black, or Norway maple. And how much is that? The general rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of sugar maple syrup. For red maple, you need upwards of 80 gallons of sap to get that single gallon of syrup. On the other hand, red maples (Acer rubrum) are a lot more common across a larger portion of the US than sugar maples, so for many folks they are the tree of choice.

Sugar production doesn’t start and end with maple trees, however. If one travels to Alaska, or Siberia, one will find syrup produced from birch trees. Birch syrup has a different flavor, so don’t dump a bunch on your pancakes and expect it to taste the same. It is described as being a bit more spicy and reminiscent of sorghum or horehound candy. And if you think maple syrup is expensive, birch syrup is even more so. This is because it requires almost 100 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup, there aren’t many people producing it, and it is therefore considered a gourmet item.

March is the time to visit a sugar bush near you. And you might want to take in more than one, because each sugar operation may offer something a little different. Here in the 21st century you can see the whole spectrum of a sugaring operation from a sugar shack that’s deep in the woods and uses horses and sledges to haul the sap from the trees to the evaporators, to a high tech operation that uses a vacuum set-up to suck the sap out of the trees, and then applies reverse osmosis to remove water before the sap even sees the glint of an evaporator pan. A perusal of maple operations in the Adirondacks will turn up outfits at both ends of the scale. So get out your mud boots, grab a road map, and hit the woods – you won’t want to let this springtime tradition pass you by.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tracking Adirondack Natural History Firsts

As spring works its way northward, at about sixteen miles a day, we start to take note of the changes around us: birds absent since last fall return, buds swell on trees, the first flowers push through the thawing ground and begin to open. Many nature enthusiasts keep lists of these seasonal events, recording the arrival of the first robin, the opening of the first pussy willows, the songs of the first frogs. This study of seasonal events, whether formally or informally done, is known as phenology.

The word phenology comes to us from the Greek word phainomai, which roughly translates as “to appear” or “to come into view.” » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Honey Bees in Winter: Think You Got it Tough?

It was a bright, sunny, and cold day in early January. I was down in Wilton for a tracking workshop, and as we headed out across an open expanse, I discovered a dead honey bee lying on top of the newly fallen snow. Why had this bee been out in the middle of winter, and on a day that was so cold? I had no answers, and neither did anyone else, so I took a photo of the poor thing, set it back on the snow, and rushed to catch up with the disappearing class. I have since discovered some interesting things about bees in winter.

As we all know, the honey bee of gardening fame is not native to this country. Apparently it was the Egyptians, some 5000 years ago, who first started to keep bees in hives so they could have a steady source of honey for personal use. Over the ensuing years, bee keeping spread around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe and Asia. When explorers became settlers here in the west, honey bees soon followed.

Now, I am not a bee keeper. In fact, I grew up terrified of bees. But over the years I have studied bees from a naturalist’s point of view, and have discovered many fascinating things about these fairly docile insects. I’ve come to appreciate their social system and am often fascinated by their behaviors, to the point where I have even contemplated keeping a hive. I’ve since given up the idea of a bee hive in favor of encouraging native bees in my yard and gardens, but this makes honey bees no less interesting.

Which brings us back to the lone bee on the snow. It turns out that honey bees, whether in man-made or wild hives, will sometimes leave the hive on warm days in the dead of winter. The reason? They’ve “gotta’ go.”

Honey bees are very clean creatures. They will avoid soiling the hive at almost any cost. But when winter closes it fist on hives in northern climes, a bee can be faced with some important decisions. Fortunately, bees are able to “hold it” for quite some time. I’ve read accounts that claim bees can easily retain their fecal matter within their bodies for four to six weeks! When the first warm day comes along, out from the hive they zoom, dropping their loads as soon as possible. Bee people claim that the snow around the outside of a bee hive will be brownish-grey in color from all the released fecal matter.

But what happens if the weather doesn’t warm up? Suppose a cold snap has gripped the region, with weeks and weeks, or even months, of cold cold temperatures. What is a bee supposed to do? Some bees bite the bullet and head out any way, only to freeze to death after they leave the hive. Other bees opt to keep holding it.

As you might imagine, retaining one’s fecal matter for weeks on end is bound to cause problems. The bees start to swell, and they start to get sick. When they can hold it no longer, they end up letting loose in the hive, splattering fellow bees, honey, and comb with contaminated fecal matter. When this happens the whole hive is bound to sicken and will often perish. Perhaps it is best for the hive if these bees just go outside and freeze to death instead.

Bee keepers can tell when their bees are having a rough time of it when the snow at the base of the hives is black and yellow from contaminated feces, instead of the brown-grey that surrounds a healthy hive. The ground will also be littered with the swollen bodies of dead bees.

Looking back at the photograph of my dead bee, I can’t tell for sure if the abdomen is abnormally large or not. I am inclined to think that it is at least somewhat swollen if only because I have yet to discover any additional reason why a honey bee would be flying around on a cold winter’s day.

When I think of the horrible death experienced by a nearly exploding bee, it makes me grateful for simple things, like indoor plumbing. And it makes me appreciate even more the little things we all take for granted, like honey on our muffins and in our tea.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viper’s Bugloss: An Adirondack Roadside Attraction

When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.

Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.

Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.

I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.

Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).

Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.

Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.

A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.

For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.

Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.

For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Adirondack Winter: Musings on Snow

By the time you read this post, you may be getting sick of snow. We shouldn’t really complain too much, though, for up until this week, we have had very little snowfall in 2010. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had to shovel my driveway before this week. February has been downright dry and snowless, so the windfall of white stuff this week has brought should be a welcome sight, even if we don’t appreciate it until summer, when hot dry days take their toll on available surface and ground water. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Adirondack Amphibians: The American Toad

Every fall when I lead groups of students through the woods on a biodiversity investigation, we always have to be careful not to step on toads. It’s a challenge, for once we are off the trails, the forest floor is one big closet, full of hiding places that small animals, like toads, can use, and which we, with our clumsy feet and our eyes towering four to six feet above the ground, never see. More than once we have stumbled upon wee tiny toads and great giant monster toads. Size not withstanding, they are all one species: the American toad (Bufo americanus).

Throughout history, toads have gotten a bad rap. For some reason, reptiles and amphibians in general have been relegated to the realm of “evil” animals. European sensibilities, especially during the Middle Ages, are largely responsible for this. Fortunately, some cultures, primarily Asian, took a more enlightened view of frogs and toads. Still, what we need to remember is that concepts like “good” and “evil” are strictly human. Animals are neither good nor evil, for that implies intent. No, animals are just animals, going about their daily lives doing what they must in order to survive.

That said, the toad has some pretty nifty ways of taking care of itself. Contrary to popular belief, one cannot get warts from a toad. Sure, they are covered with warts, but these aren’t the same as the warts people get. Human warts are caused by a virus. The “warts” on a toad are actually poison and mucus glands, the former containing a milky substance that is chock full of chemicals that can irritate the mucus membranes of other animals. This is a great defensive mechanism. The two biggest poison glands are on the back of the toad right behind its head, the exact location where a predator (say a coyote) might chomp down in an attempt to grab a potential food item. The predator’s teeth puncture these glands and the animal gets a mouthful of poison. The poison will likely make the animal sick, and could potentially kill it. Hopefully the toad lives to see another day.

Here’s another defensive mechanism of the toad: bloat. Let’s say you are a toad and you are hunkered down in your daytime den – a nice cool, damp hole in the ground. A nosy predator comes along and grabs hold of your head and tries to pull you out of your home. What do you do? You gulp down a lot of air and swell up – hopefully increasing your girth enough that the predator cannot pull you out. Or maybe a snake caught you unaware from behind. There you are, your backside partway down the snake’s gullet, so you puff up, hopefully making yourself too big to swallow. This is a great strategy…unless the snake is a hognose, which has teeth in the back of its mouth that are just perfect for puncturing inflated toads, in which case there’s not much you can do.

Toads are pretty ubiquitous – you can find them just about anywhere: in the woods, in your back yard, along a stream. They aren’t too fussy about habitat as long as there is a semi-permanent body of water in which they can lay eggs, and some dense patches of vegetation for shelter and hunting. This is one reason why toads readily adapt to living in our gardens. All they need is a shady toad abode (could be an overturned pot) and they will happily patrol your garden for pesky pests like slugs.

When spring arrives, the air soon fills with toad song. The sound is often mistaken for an insect by those who are not nature savvy. It’s a trilling sort of sound, which can last sometimes 30 seconds or more. I read that you can imitate this sound if you whistle and hum at the same time. I tried it last night and I think it is safe to say I won’t be calling in any toads any time soon. Anyway, when you hear the toads trilling, it is time to stake out your neighborhood pond and see if you can see any action. Males, recognized by their smaller size and dark throats, will group together, trilling their hearts out, waiting for a receptive female to come along. When she does, the males all jockey for position, the hopefuls trying to latch on to her back and become fathers.

The female lays her eggs in double strings of sticky gel. These strands are often loosely wound around submerged aquatic vegetation. They won’t be there long, for most will hatch within a week. This is an uncertain time for toads, for life in a pond is rife with danger. The pond could dry up. Raccoons and herons are constantly looking for meals. Cannibalism lurks around every corner. What is a tadpole to do?

Fortunately, toadlets have a couple fallback positions. First, they, like their parents, have chemicals in their skin that make them less appetizing to predators. And second, they can recognize their siblings. This is pretty amazing when you consider just how many siblings they might have. A single female toad produces on average 4,000 to 12,000 eggs. Even if only a quarter of the eggs hatch, that is several hundred siblings. Knowing your siblings can save your neck, because if you hang out with your family, your back is guarded and you only have to watch out for cannibals coming at you from one side.

With all the dangers a toad faces, it’s not surprising to learn that most live only a year or two. Some robust toads might make it to ten years, and one toad lived a long life of 36 years in captivity. Even with poison glands providing protection, it’s a rough world out there. And since toads provide a great service to us by consuming pestiferous insects and slugs, I figure it’s the very least we can do to watch our steps when stomping through the woods.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ruffed Grouse – Wild Chicken of the Adirondacks

This winter has been a good one for grouse. At least in the tracking sense it has been a good one for grouse. Almost every day I have found fresh grouse tracks in the woods, along the roads, down driveways. I’ve even flushed a couple of the birds, their thunderous take-offs turning a few more hairs white, but mostly it’s their tracks I’ve seen.

The ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is one of two grouse species that call the Adirondacks home. The second is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), which is an uncommon boreal species found in only a very few pockets within the Park. Therefore, I will stick to the ruffed grouse in this piece since that is the one most readers are likely to encounter. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Nut Trees: Hazelnuts in the Adirondacks

Several years ago, I received three little hazelnut trees from the Arbor Day Foundation. I don’t recall actually ordering them, but there they were in the mail one day. I planted them and waited to see the results. A couple years later, three more hazelnuts showed up in my mailbox. Those, too, went into the ground. Over the years they’ve moved about the yard (not under their own steam), finally coming to rest along the southwestern boundary. Every summer and fall I look at the four remaining shrubs and ask “where are the nuts?” No answer has been forthcoming.

So recently I went on-line to see if I could find out any further information about hazelnuts. Where are they native? What do the flowers look like? How do they pollinate and produce nuts? The Arbor Day Foundation was a good source of info, and it should be, considering it has been in the hazelnut business for several years, trying to produce a hybrid hazelnut that will thrive throughout the United States, whereas the native species were historically only found in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada, and into the prairies. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Adirondack Naturalist’s Backyard

Over the years, I’ve slowly been converting my backyard into a little oasis for wildlife. This may seem like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where wilderness areas surround us on all sides. After all, it’s not like the wildlife is hurting for natural foods in our area. My goal, however, has been to change my yard from a barren wasteland (a carpet of perfectly weed-free grass) into a diverse habitat composed of native vegetation.

First I added some free-form gardens, floating in the middle of the yard. Admittedly, these gardens are not hosting many native plants, but I do try to avoid those species that are aggressive invaders. The primary goal of these gardens was to provide some color and relief to an otherwise blah yard, but I also wanted to provide nectaring areas for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and winter seed sources for chickadees and finches. One of our native plants fills this bill very well: bee balm.

Then I started to remove the invasives that dotted the property, like honeysuckle. All around the yard I have replaced these aliens with a variety of native shrubs: nannyberry, native hawthorn, pin cherries, sumac, dogwood. These plants, after they out-grow their twiggy sapling stage, will create a hedge full of shelter and food for birds and insects. I’m hoping their growth is rapid, for the yard looks empty without the honeysuckle border, and I’ve lost some significant shade.

And then there are the birdfeeders. Some naturalists prefer to go the route of providing strictly native food sources and forego artificial food stations. This is very noble and I salute it. However, in my yard it will be a while before the native vegetation starts producing. The crabapples were a hit for a while, but now they are slowly rotting away on the tree. And besides, I like watching birds as they visit my feeders, so I join the millions of other Americans who put out food for our feathered friends.

It is so easy to get sucked into the latest and greatest at the birdfeeding store: feeder pole “systems” that you can build upwards and outwards to accommodate a glorious variety of feeders; bird baths (regular for summer, heated for winter); squirrel deterrents (baffles of all shapes and sizes; feeders that fling squirrels into the air or bounce them up and down at the end of a bungee); misters (for those birds that prefer a shower over a bath); suet; peanuts; mealworms; mixed seed; gourmet seed…the list goes on and on.

But my favorite part of the wildlife-friendly backyard, however, are the homemade bits, like the feeder pictured at the top. This was a gift I received this winter, and it is one of the coolest things. The woman who made it apparently was looking for something to do with her juice bottle caps. She cut a triangle from a piece of scrap wood, nailed the caps to it, on both sides, added a few small dowels for perches and a larger dowel at the bottom for a “trunk,” painted the whole thing and put a string at the top. Voila! A nifty homemade feeder! With a little ingenuity, not do we have a cool suet-type feeder, but we’ve also managed to keep some stuff out of the landfill; you can’t get much more wildlife-friendly than that.

About the only thing my yard is missing is a water source, a pond or stream that would attract frogs, dragonflies, and assorted other water-loving creatures. The ideal aqueous feature would have a shallow bit where birds could bathe without worrying about drowning, and a deep area where tadpoles could shelter in the winter. It would have cattails, duckweed, pickerel weed, native floating heart. It wouldn’t have to be large, but it should circulate, getting a constant source of oxygen and keeping the mosquitoes to a minimum. A little waterfall would be nice.

Of course, when you strive to attract wildlife, you must accept it when wildlife avails itself of your offerings, and this includes deer. I must confess that deer are not ranked high on my list of backyard desirables. I have a five-foot fence surrounding my yard, which is there to keep the dog in, but it also serves to keep the deer out, most of the time. It won’t do much if a deer is determined, though. Or a bear. The downside of this fence, however, is that I don’t get foxes, coyotes, or snowshoe hares. Weasels can get through, but they usually don’t visit.

Wildlife friendly yards don’t have to be a drain on the wallet. The biggest key is to stick to native vegetation. Remove invasives and non-natives. Provide diversity in species and structure. Have food, shelter and water readily available. Most of your investment is likely to be in sweat and elbow grease. In the end you will have a little piece of paradise that you and your wild friends can all enjoy.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Great Backyard Bird Count – Coming Soon to a Feeder Near You

One of the great family-friendly activities of the winter will soon be upon us: the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which this year runs from Friday, 12 February, to Monday, 15 February. The brain child of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this four-day long bird watching event is one of the easiest citizen science projects out there. Anyone, regardless of age or birding ability, can participate.

Citizen science programs have a long history at the Lab of Ornithology. Back in the mid-‘90s, I signed on to do my part for their wood thrush and golden-winged warbler projects. Those projects were quite involved, requiring participants to get aerial photographs of their research areas, determine acreage of irregularly shaped plots, measure the distance to the nearest water and roads…and this was all before setting out to look for signs of the actual birds.

The GBBC, on the other hand, is very easy and user-friendly. All you have to do is look for birds in your backyard. You can do this for as little as fifteen minutes, or for as long as your interest holds. You can do it for one day of the weekend, or record observations for all four days. You can watch for birds at each of your bird feeding stations (do you have more than one?), or you can choose to observe the visitors to just one tree or shrub. As for me, I will probably spend some time watching each of my stations (I have two, with a total of about twelve feeders), as well as the feeders at work.

Maybe you are unsure about participating because you don’t know a black-capped chickadee from a black-backed woodpecker. Not to worry. You can go on-line to www.birsource.org/gbbc/ and check out their simple bird ID pages. You can also print out a checklist for the most common birds in your region, which will help narrow down your options. For example, it is highly unlikely that a flock of northern parulas will be buzzing through any Adirondack backyard in February, so you won’t have to worry about telling one warbler from another.

One of the important aspects of your observations is recording the numbers of each species you see. This can be tricky, so the Lab has put together a really simple rule to help you out. Let’s say you decide to record the birds you see between 10:00 and 10:30 AM. You see two goldfinches at 10:01. At 10:15 you see twelve. At 10:17 there are 32. By 10:30 they have all flown away. How many goldfinches do you record? Thirty-two. In other words, to eliminate the possibility of counting the same bird(s) more than once, you only report the greatest number you saw at any one time.

Counting large numbers of birds can be a bit of a challenge. Some birders are very good at estimating how many are in a flock; others are not. I read an article once that said that it is easy for humans to eyeball numbers in pairs, threes, and fours. Fives get a bit harder, and anything above five is nearly impossible. So, if you can fix in your mind what five birds look like, then you can guesstimate how many of those fives you see in the flock as it shuffles and flits about. Good luck.

You will want to keep track of your sightings on a piece of paper, and when you are ready, simply go to your computer and pull up the GBBC website (see link above). Open the tab labeled “Submit Your Checklist” and follow the easy directions for reporting your observations. Afterwards, you can “Explore the Results” to see what birds other people found. Are you wondering where all the pine siskins are this year? Here’s a good way to find out. The genuinely curious can check out the results from past years as well.

The website is chock full of all sorts of interesting bird information. There is a whole series of activities just for kids, and there’s even a page dedicated to educators. For those who enjoy looking at really great bird photographs, there’s a gallery of photos taken by past GBBC participants. My favorite is a really funny photo of a very soggy orange-crowned warbler caught in the act of taking a bath.

This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the GBBC. If you haven’t participated in the past, I hope you will take up the challenge and participate this year. Not only is it a great way to spend time with your family and feathered friends, but it also helps provide a snapshot of where the birds are across North America, a practice that has turned up some interesting trends in population shifts and declines.

And if being a good Samaritan isn’t enough of an incentive to get you to participate, check out the list of prizes the Lab is giving away. There are plush birds that chirp when you squeeze them, assorted feeders (you can never have too many), a bird camera (takes photos for you while you stay toasty warm inside), field guides, and much, much more. So, dust off your field guide, set a comfortable chair by the window, have your beverage-of-choice close at hand, and get ready to count.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Adirondack Predators: Owls in Winter

Every winter we have a barred owl that takes up watch just off the back deck here at the VIC, and we remember every visit it makes. Sometimes he (she?) is here off and on for a couple weeks, and sometimes it’s only a quick visit of a day or two. However long, or brief, its stay, it is always a welcome sight.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are fairly common around these parts. With their pale plumage, rounded heads, and big brown eyes, they seem to us mere humans to be a softer, gentler owl than their fiercer-looking cousins the great-horned owls (Bubo virginianus). Like all owls, they have nearly silent flight, thanks to the special fringed edges on their flight feathers and the extra fluffy body feathers that help muffle sound. This stealth coating, so to speak, comes in very handy when you are hunting for nocturnal prey, for food that is out at night tends to have good hearing.

Which brings up a good question. If owls are nocturnal (with some exceptions, like the snowy owl), then why is this particular bird visiting our bird feeders during the day? A couple potential answers come to mind. First, it is not uncommon to see owls active during the day, especially when that day is overcast (like much of this winter has been). A cloudy, gloomy day may seem like nothing more than an extended twilight to a hungry owl.

Second, we have made our bird feeding area a great hunting place for predators interested in small birds and small mammals. One glance at the ground in the winter brings this clearly into focus: fox, squirrel, mouse, and bird tracks are everywhere! Every winter we chuck a conifer tree over the railing to provide shelter for small birds and mammals. Mice and squirrels are particularly appreciative of this gesture, which in turn brings in the predators. When I lead tracking workshops, I can just about guarantee “fresh” fox tracks beelining from the woods towards the feeders.

I’ve watched barred owls hunting during the day along roadsides in winter. One particular time I was cruising into Minerva when a barred owl perched on a speed limit sign caught my attention. I hit the breaks, turned the car around, and parked, watching and waiting along with the bird. Although it was fully aware of my presence, its attention was focused on the snowbank beneath the sign.

After about ten minutes or so, the owl flung itself from the sign and landed with a face- and foot-plant in the snow, its outstretched wings caught on top of the snow above its head. It hopped a bit, shuffled its feet, then struggled to lift off…empty footed. There must’ve been some small rodent beneath the snow that the owl, with its hypersensitive hearing, could detect, but either the bird’s aim was off or the rodent was too fast, for it got away. Many folks don’t realize that predators tend to miss their prey more often than not. It’s a tough thing being a predator, a life full of peril (what if the prey fights back?) and potential starvation (food gets away from you, the snow is too deep for you to hunt successfully, etc.).

This is why I don’t mind too terribly much when a raptor snags a bird at my feeding stations, which invariably happens at least once every winter (and if I’m lucky I get to see it). After all, they are birds, too, and they also need to feed. If they are smart enough to realize that bird feeders are essentially convenience stores, then more power to them. Same goes for foxes and weasels. I’m an equal opportunity feeder.

This is a great time of year to go on an owl prowl, for owl mating season is upon us. Great-horned owls will soon wind down their mating, while barred owls will soon be starting. Now is the time to go out at night to listen for owl calls. The barred owl has the soft “who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allllll” pattern, while the great-horned is the typical eight-hooter: “hoo-hoohoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” (okay, that was only six, but they can do up to eight or so at a time).

If you are really lucky, you might hear the truck-backing-up “toot-toot-toot-toot” of the northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus). About three years ago we had a couple saw-whets (tiny little owls) hanging out near the golf course and every night for a week or two I would hear them tooting away when I took the dog for his evening stroll. Haven’t heard one since.

If you want to find winter owls, your best bet is to go out at night and listen for their calls. But, if standing out in the cold on a clear winter night isn’t your thing, then put on some snowshoes and go for a walk in the woods on an overcast day. You want to look up in trees, where fairly good-sized branches attach to the trunk. It is here that owls will sit during the day, with their feathers fluffed up and their eyes (did you know they have feathers on their eyelids?) shut. They blend in perfectly with their trees of choice, often looking like just another bump on a limb. They can be difficult to spot.

If you want more of a sure thing, you can keep an eye on the bird hotlines for announcements of recent owl sightings: short-earred owls at the Saratoga Battlefield; snowy owls at Fort Edwards, northern hawk-owls at Bloomingdale bog, great greys in Watertown. Unusual birds get groupies, and all you need to do to find these itinerant birds is find the people with the binoculars and big camera lenses. A group of birdie nerds is a whole lot easier to spot in a snowy field than a single snowy owl, and the chances are that they will be more than happy to help you find the bird they’ve all flocked to see themselves. Birders are like that – they think everyone is a potential bird nut like themselves and they are eager to recruit.

So, find yourself a birding group and keep your eyes (and ears) peeled for the owls of winter. They are out there, and if you want to see them, you have to get out there, too.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Chilly Adirondack Mornings and Frosted Window Panes

Last week we had several clear nights, where the stars spangled the heavens and a swelling crescent moon sailed across the skies. Each successive night was colder than the last, dropping from a mild 24 degrees Fahrenheit to a chilly -9 by the weekend. The air was still, and the world silent, except for the late night choruses of our resident coyotes. When dawn creeped over the mountain tops and crested the trees, my porch windows revealed an artistry that only Mother Nature could provide: fern frost.

I suspect that many of us simply grumble at the sight of frost on our windows, muttering under our breath while we scrape it off the windshield of the car so we can get to work without taking out other vehicles along the way. Despite the nuisance frost can cause (and the statement it makes about the insulation of your house), I think that most of us, at least once in our lives, have paused to take in the remarkable beauty of the graceful feathers that sweep across the glass. How delicate they are, how graceful, how fragile.

So I thought I’d take a cruise through the internet to figure out just how these icy delights are formed. After all, there must be some sort of magic behind these feathery shapes. It turns out to be a pretty simple matter, and the windows at my house make a perfect canvas.

First, you need a window. Not a fancy, schmancy energy efficient window (no worries about that at my house). A single pane of glass, poorly insulated, is just the ticket. Then you need a very cold night, the kind of night where there are no clouds, no wind, and the temperature plummets. The final ingredient is a moderately moist indoor environment. Install your cheap glass window so that one side is outside in the cold, and the other side is inside where it is moist. Turn off the lights and go to bed.

While you are sleeping, the magic begins. When cold air and warmer moist air clash (the surface of your window), moisture condenses out of the air, forming tiny droplets (like dew) on the adjacent surface, in this case the window glass. Chilling continues and these droplets freeze. More moisture condenses on top of these ice crystals, and then it freezes as well. This cycle repeats throughout the night, the fingers of ice growing as each layer is laid down. Small imperfections in the glass, scratches, or even dust (not in my house, cough, cough), can all influence the shapes made as the ice/frost forms.

The next morning you rise from your toasty warm bed and schlep out to the kitchen. As you contemplate breakfast and the need to walk the dog, you glance at the thermometer and shudder. Then you remember your experiment and you rush to your strategically-located window of cheap glass. Since the night remained cloudless, and you rose as with the sun, the firey orb is now sending its golden fingers to gild the crystalline edges of the feathery ferns etched across the window’s surface.

Is there any better way to start a day than to witness the ephemeral art the frost faeries left as a token of their goodwill?


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Adirondack Winter Resident Birds: The Kinglet

There is a tiny bird that lives in the Adirondacks whose body weight equals that of two pennies. Its overall size in not that much bigger than a hummingbird, and it does not migrate south to escape the freezing temperatures of the North Country. I often think of these birds as the late afternoon sun dips behind the mountains and the clear star-lit skies suck back up all the warm air that felt so good during the sunny day. I think of what it must take for this bird to survive just one night at 24 below zero Fahrenheit. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dinosaurs in the Adirondacks – The Wild Turkey

Anyone who doesn’t believe that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs needs only one look at a running turkey to have a change of heart. This winter a female turkey has made my back yard a daily stop in her travels, and let me tell you: there are few things in life so prehistoric-looking than a turkey going full tilt trying to escape your camera lens.

The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.

When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone.

For years nothing was done to rectify the state of things, turkey-wise. By the turn of the century (c. 1900), approximately 75% of New York had been cleared, agriculture and development dominating where once forests grew. Without healthy forests, turkeys could not survive (hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts, is a major part of their diet). As the century plodded along, however, many farmers left home, moving to the cities where jobs were more likely to be had. Old farmland began to revert to forests, and slowly turkeys started to come back, making their way northward from Pennsylvania. By the 1940s, the southwestern part of the state was once more populated with these large bronze birds.

To help things along, New York State converted a central New York pheasant hatchery into a turkey hatchery in 1952. Over the next several years, thousands of turkeys were released into the wild. Sadly, this operation was doomed to failure. Speculation was that the released birds were too tame and therefore lacked the brains to escape (or fight) predators. It was also thought that their natural reproduction was too low to sustain a viable population. So the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) went to Plan B: capture wild turkeys and relocate them.

This new plan began in 1959 and saw New York’s wild turkey population successfully soar from about 2000 birds to over 65,000 by 1990. The relocation program was so successful that the DEC started shipping birds to neighboring states to help them reestablish their own dwindling populations.

I saw my first wild turkey in the early ‘80s out at Letchworth State Park. There were two or three of them, and they flew up into a tree along the edge of a small ravine. Prior to this I never would’ve guessed that turkeys could fly. Three years later, a friend of mine shot a turkey and decided we should give it to my mother for Mother’s Day; so he and I and all my roommates drove to my parents’ house with the turkey in tow. It barely fit in the oven, but it was a mighty tasty bird. Ten years later, turkeys were all over the farm fields back home: whole herds of them marching along the rows of cut corn. (And yes, I use the word “herd” intentionally, for when they are walking along the ground en masse, they are definitely a herd.)

Back in the ‘80s it was believed by biologists that turkeys wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh winters the Adirondacks can dish out. Imagine their surprise when turkeys not only moved into the mountains, but thrived! Hardly a week goes by all year that I don’t see a turkey or two, or ten. Sometimes they lurk along the roadsides, picking up grit or maybe hunting insects; other times they are strutting across a neighbor’s yard.

A couple years ago, I came across a hen and her poults hiding in the shrubbery between the second and fourth holes on the local golf course. I was walking the dog, and of course he started barking, so the hen took off, dashing away into the trees with most of her progeny in hot pursuit. Two, however, were left behind. I sat the dog down and we waited. And waited. One of the poults peeped and trotted off after the long-gone parent, but the other remained behind, peeping its distress. Even though I knew better, the pitiful cries got to me and I finally decided to go “rescue” the thing. My plan was to carry it to the patch of woods in which its mother had disappeared and set it down where she could get to it without having to come near me and the dog. Big mistake. No sooner had I picked up the ungrateful bird then it let out a squawking and wailing that brought the mother running and flapping from the woods. A velociraptor had nothing on her. Fearing for my safety (I’ve heard tales of the damage a turkey can do with its spurs), I dropped the poult, snagged the dog’s leash, and we high-tailed it out of there. That was the last time I tried to help a “stranded” wildlife baby.

And just in case you needed further convincing that turkeys are dinosaurs in disguise, watch a herd of them come trotting across a lawn or field when the early morning fog is lying close to the ground. All you need is to cue up the music and you are staring at a living tableau from Jurassic Park. Add a rock wall for them to jump on, and the scene is complete.

It was -7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, but I don’t think the local turkeys were much fazed by this. Indeed, I think they are here to stay, and that’s a nice thing, for every patch of wilderness should have its resident dinosaurs, and for us the wild turkey fills the bill nicely.



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