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.


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Sociable Gray Squirrel

squirrels On winter mornings when I look out my window, I often see a gray squirrel clinging upside down to the post supporting my bird feeder, with his front paws in the tray, munching sunflower seeds. Sometimes, a much smaller red squirrel is perched on the opposite side of the feeder.

This brings to mind my studies of squirrels years ago and the differences between the two species. For my thesis in biology at Williams College, I conducted a field study of social behavior and organization in the eastern gray squirrel in a suburban area in Williamstown, Massachusetts. My first step was to live-trap and mark squirrels so I could identify individuals. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Beneath The Ice: The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes

ice skating When I’m skiing or skating across a pond, I observe the shoreline, surrounding hills, islands, maybe a woodpecker or blue jay winging its way to the opposite shore. I look up at the sky, the clouds, swirling snowflakes. But there is a world beneath my feet that I don’t see, in what Henry David Thoreau called “the quiet parlor of the fishes.”

Beneath a layer of ice up to three feet thick, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and tiny invertebrates are going about their winter business. For most of these creatures, this means slowing their metabolism down to survive with reduced light and oxygen. They move less, eat less, and breathe more slowly than in warmer months. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Some Science Behind Lake Champlain’s Ice

ice fishing Come mid-January, when I’m acclimatized to winter, I enjoy an occasional stroll on the icy surface of Lake Champlain. I favor bays sheltered from the brunt of winter winds where the ice has had ample time to thicken. I pull microspikes on over my boots and off I go.

There’s room to roam between Burlington and the breakwater that parallels the shoreline. The lake ice locks spectacular natural art in place. Bubbles trapped under December ice are entombed as January’s ice forms below. Crystalline patterns resembling minute stars form during the various freezing and thawing cycles that occur as lake ice interacts with fallen snow. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Opinion: Adirondack Park Doesn’t Need More Wilderness

high peaks by carl heilman ii“It’s Debatable” appears in each issue of the Adirondack Explorer. This essay by Matthew J. Simpson of the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages is a companion piece to “Opinion: Adirondack Park Needs More Wilderness” by Adirondack Wilderness Advocates’ Bill Ingersoll.

The Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages was invited to provide the “No” response in this debate, but in truth, this is not a yes-or-no question. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 14, 2019

Remembering Elk in the Adirondacks

elkHundreds of years ago, haunting bugle-like calls echoed through these hills and valleys. The sounds were made by bull elk to attract mates and fend off rivals.

Elk in the Northeast?  Yes, elk were once the most widely distributed of North American hoofed mammals. Millions roamed over much of the U.S. and Canada. Adaptable to a variety of habitats, elk were found in the Adirondacks, and in most ecosystems except the tundra, deserts, and the Gulf Coast. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Sparkle Snow: An Outside Story

snowflakes The other day I was driving through New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch, where my eyes are usually drawn to the tall mountains and long, cascading waterfalls on either side of the road. But on this day my gaze shifted toward the snowbanks lining the narrow highway. The sun was shining and the landscape glittered. The sparkle of sunlight on cold white reminded me of childhood trips, when I would look out the backseat window at passing fields and imagine all those tiny glimmers were winter fairies, twirling and skipping through the snow.

Snow sparkle isn’t (as far as science has revealed) attributable to fairies, but to light bouncing off the snow at multiple angles. “When you have a really cold snowfall, you tend to get a bunch of little individual plates,” explained Adam Gill, a weather observer and meteorologist with the Mount Washington Observatory. “It’s like billions of these little tiny reflectors all over the ground. If there’s a bright light source, if you’re at the correct angle, that light source will reflect back at you.” As we move across the landscape, our angle changes, and light flashes from different directions. » Continue Reading.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Winter Weather: Sundogs and Halos and Glitter – Oh, My!

sun dogs Had a unicorn pranced across the trail in front of me, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

It was one of those sparkly winter days, when snow drapes fir trees and glints across the landscape. I was at the top of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch, and an undercast made it seem as if the summit were a sunny island above a sea of clouds. To add to the wonder, there was something magical happening in the sky, which shimmered with color and light. » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 31, 2018

Perihelion: Proximity Doesn’t Always Generate Heat

PerithelionFew things seem as remote as the January sun in the North East. We see the light, but we feel almost no heat. In this way, winter can feel like a kind of exile – there’s a sense that the Earth has been flung to the farthest reaches of its orbit.

The idea that the winter sun is remote, however, is misguided. In fact, the Earth is closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere is in the deep freeze of winter. This extreme proximity is known as perihelion, and in 2019 it will take place on January 3. Conversely, aphelion – when the Earth is farthest from the sun – takes place during the height of summer, this year on the Fourth of July. The exact dates vary slightly every year, but always occur in January and July. » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 24, 2018

The Disappearing, Reappearing, American Marten

marten Some people keep lifelong birding lists. I’ve tried, but birds and I have never really hit it off. Too many colors, too many species, and I’m tone deaf, so birding by ear is completely beyond me.

I do keep a lifelong weasel list. I can tell you exactly where I was when I saw my first white-coated ermine and how many times I’ve seen a mink. My best fisher sighting was particularly memorable: I watched in awe as it jumped from tree to tree in pursuit of a gray squirrel. » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 17, 2018

American Mountain Ash

mountain ash There’s a giant living in Coös County, New Hampshire. It’s a 61-foot tall tree, the country’s largest known American mountain ash. At last measurement, it stood at a height of 61 feet and had a circumference of 70 inches. That’s outstanding for a tree that’s described by most sources, including my old dendrology textbook, as “a small tree or shrub.”

This tree is a champion — but the species as a whole has a lot going for it. I love the mountain ash for the beauty of its white flower clusters and red berries. More importantly, though, it fills an important spot on the menu for birds and mammals, especially in winter. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Porcupine

porcupine I once lived in a cottage perched atop a sloping field in Western Massachusetts. It was the lone structure at the edge of undeveloped forest and sat far from the road. The cottage had a large front deck with an expansive view and a smaller one in back that faced the forest. It was under the small deck that a porcupine took up residence one fall, for a stay that turned out to be briefer than I would have liked.

Since he wasn’t damaging the house, and didn’t seem aggressive, I didn’t mind his presence. Until my dog, Beckett, met him. Beckett, a 55-pound mixed breed, could not learn the porcupine lesson. He was always certain that this time – this time – he would be victorious. Fed up with yanking quills out of him or taking him to the vet after especially bad encounters, I was desperate to figure out how to share the space peaceably with our resident rodent. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Intoxication: Animals and Alcohol

drunk bird It’s the time of year when the landscape is laid bare, the ground is impenetrable with frost, and flying insects have faded into memory. As fall slides into winter, resident songbirds like robins and waxwings must switch from their warm weather diets of earthworms and arthropods to the best of what’s left: fruit, and lots of it. As it turns out, this is also the time of year when conditions become ripe for the conversion of fruit sugars into alcohol via natural fermentation.

Studies show that waxwings, whose winter diet is comprised almost exclusively of fruit, metabolize alcohol seven times faster than finches (seed eaters) and three times faster than starlings (omnivores). In addition, a waxwing’s liver constitutes nearly 5 percent of its total body weight, compared to just under 3 percent for starlings and finches. Larger livers and higher rates of alcohol metabolism likely evolved in response to occasional exposure to fermented fruit. For the most part, these adaptations enable waxwings to dine on boozy berries without ill effect. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Gray Jays: Souls of Dead Woodsmen

gray jay The sound of a gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis) evokes an image of the North Woods: dark green spruce trees, spire-like balsam fir, and bare-branched tamaracks silhouetted against a raw, slate-colored sky; the smell of woodsmoke in the air and a dusting of fresh snow on the ground. I see these birds occasionally around our cabin in northern New Hampshire and on hikes at higher elevations in the White Mountains. They’ve always had an air of mystery about them.

The bird is often heard before it’s seen. The gray jay has a number of calls, whistles, and imitations in his repertoire: many are harsh sounding, and I have witnessed gray jays mimic the scream of the blue jay. My favorite call, though, is what some ornithologists refer to as “the whisper song.” This is a soft, warbling chatter that can sound either cheerful or melancholy – depending, I suppose, on the mood of the listener. Not long after hearing the whisper song, a group of birds will suddenly appear, silently swooping and gliding from branch to branch. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Hunting Camp Talk: Moon Phase and the Deer Rut

rutty moon adelaide tyrolDeer hunters, like professional athletes, are always looking for an edge – it’s the nature of the pursuit. And so we’re susceptible to superstition, alluring gadgets, marketing campaigns. A classic genre that combines all three of those elements is the moon table – a chart that tells you when the best hunting days are based on the moon phase. These charts were a sporting magazine staple in the early days. In the print world they have largely gone the way of the Marlboro Man, but you can now buy an app which uses the moon to tell you when to take your hunting vacation.

Whether deer movement is affected by moonlight is an intriguing question. But because it’s hard to isolate the moon from all the other phenomena that affect deer behavior, I can’t imagine how you’d go about proving or disproving any particular theory. Scientists have conducted radio-collar studies with small groups of deer trying to gain insight, but the samples were so small, and the data ambiguous enough, that there’s not a lot to take from it. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, November 17, 2018

Flight of the Flunker Moth

winter moths In early November, I flicked on the porch light and took out the trash. In the brief time it took, a couple of late-season moths found their way to my porch light, and as I slipped through the back door, one of them joined me inside. I cupped my uninvited guest under a drinking glass and took him out for liberation; and “him” turned out to be correct.

Before the release, I couldn’t resist a closer look. It was unmistakable: a “flunker moth.” But don’t expend energy on a Google search; it will come up empty because the term is a Vermont original coined perhaps by the venerable Dr. Ross Bell or by students in his Field Zoology course which I had the privilege to take in the 1990s. » Continue Reading.