Almanack Contributor Guest Contributor

Guest Essayist

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.


Monday, October 15, 2018

Toad Toxin: Don’t Mess with Anaxyrus

american toad When my kids were toddlers, they discovered, quite happily, a toad in a damp corner of their sandbox, tucked into the shade beneath the small, triangular piece of wood that served as a seat. The toad seemed to spend most days there, probably waiting until dark to emerge and hunt bugs and slugs.

Thankfully, back then, we had a more mature dog who was wise in the ways of the world – not the goofy pup we have now, who I’m sure will learn the hard way not to eat toads. Many a clueless canine has clamped its mouth around an American toad – the species found most commonly in our region – only to be introduced to bufotoxins, a toad’s best defense against being eaten. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Indian Pipe: Ghost Flowers of the Forest

indian pipe On a walk in the woods in early fall, you may see a cluster of waxy, white stems with tiny, scale-like leaves rising out of the leaf litter or pine needles. At the end of each translucent stem is an odd, bell-shaped flower. This is Indian pipe, named for its resemblance to the clay pipes once smoked by Native Americans and early settlers.

Indian pipe, also known as corpse plant and ghost flower, has an unusual strategy for survival. It lacks the green pigment chlorophyll, and therefore cannot make its own food through photosynthesis as most plants do. Indian pipe and its relatives were formerly believed to live off decaying organic matter and were called saprophytes. However, more recent research has revealed that the plant is a parasite, sucking up nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Trees and mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship: the fungi absorb nutrients from the trees; the trees benefit by increasing the surface area of their root systems, allowing them to drink in more water and minerals. Indian pipe interjects itself into this relationship, absorbing nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi but giving nothing back. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Stings and Stingers: An Outside Story

hornet stinging apparatusAs a boy, I was exploring the loft of my grandmother’s barn when I disturbed a bumblebee nest among the moldering hay bales. In my memory, I leap stuntman-like from the haymow and hit the ground 10 feet below running flat out, rounding the corner of the barn then glancing back to see if anyone is in pursuit. There is an angry bumbler coming up fast. I vault the rusty ornamental fence and am steps from the screen door and safety when … I get nailed in the neck. Ow!

When we lived in Louisiana, I scalped a fire-ant nest while mowing the lawn and got stung a few hundred times as the ants swarmed up my legs. Vivid memory. I’ve been stung by several varieties of wasps and, as a beekeeper, I periodically get stung by my honey bees. Yes, it still hurts. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Kelly Metzgar: LGBTQI Pride in the Adirondack North County

celebrate unity eventOnce again it is time to celebrate the diversity of all people here in the Adirondack North Country. In the past two years we’ve seen an outpouring of hate, attempts at overt discrimination, and attempts to roll back human rights protections on the federal level.

We are facing a potential crisis in a U.S. Supreme Court poised to overturn settled law in the areas of women’s health, abortion, marriage equality, and LGBTQI civil rights protections. We’ve seen attempts to ban members of the transgender community from serving openly in the military as well as prohibiting their use of public accommodations. We’ve seen the lies and fear mongering of homophobic and transphobic hate groups bent on the elimination of trans people from society. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Whirligig Beetles: Four Eyes On You

whirligig beetle “What’s this shiny black beetle with four eyes?” asked Erin Hayes-Pontius, a visiting UVM student, from her microscope. Without glancing up from my own scope I answered, “that’s a whirligig beetle.” Erin’s answer came back: “err, cute … but what’s it really called?”

I will grant you that the name whirligig is a bit odd – particularly when applied to an inert pickled beetle – but there are excellent reasons it. In life, whirligig beetles weave and whirl on pond and river surfaces amongst dozens of their peers. They move like miniature motor boats that appear to lack rudder function. There’s method to this seeming madness. The mesmerizing movement confuses predators, who find it difficult to focus on any one individual. Ecologists call this phenomenon predator dilution. It’s like the old joke about the two friends and the tiger: “I don’t need to outrun the tiger, I just need to outrun you!” » Continue Reading.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Snakes On The Beach: Our Northern Watersnakes

water snake The northern watersnake, Nerodia sipedon, has a lot going against it in the eyes of most people. I’ve watched this medium- to large-sized snake clear a crowded lakeside beach in a matter of moments.

As the local naturalist in my small town, I’ve become this snake’s self-appointed public defender. I’ve stopped children chasing it with large sticks, parents with rocks ready to throw, and once, a policeman who came ready to shoot.

“But it is poisonous, right?” he supposed. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

Thank A (Native) Thistle

thistleThere will always be thistle, said the late U.S. Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin in one of her poems, because “Sheep will not eat it / nor horses nor cattle / unless they are starving.” She described it “choking the sweet grass / defeating the clover,” and pricking the hands with its spines.

Okay, I guess thistles are not everyone’s favorite wildflower, but I’ve always liked them. I’m not a farmer, so it’s easy for me to say. I like them because they’re pretty, they remind me of Scotland, and they’re like grocery stores for goldfinches. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 25, 2018

Meet Rosy Maple, Contender for Cutest Moth

Rosy Maple Moth The church service was about to begin when some breathless kids pulled me out of my seat to “come see this awesome, pretty, pink-and-yellow, fuzzy baby moth!” on the Sunday school door. It was a rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, notable for its dipped-in-sherbet coloring.

The moth’s coloring can vary from pink to purple and from yellow to white. “Our” moth had purplish-pink forewings with a creamy-yellow band across the middle. The hindwings were pale yellow with a touch of pink along the edges. Its woolly body was bright yellow above and raspberry pink below. The same pink spilled onto the legs, much to the surprise and delight of the kids. The head looked like a yellow craft pompom. With wings spread wide, the moth was just over an inch across and just under an inch long. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Wildlife: The Adirondack Frog and Toad Choir

Bull Frogs If you walk by a pond on a summer evening, you may hear the deep “jug-o-rum” of a bullfrog or the “tung” of a green frog, sounding like a plucked banjo string. Sometimes you’ll hear a whole chorus of frogs, the songs competing with each other for attention.

The frogs are not singing for our enjoyment, of course. Most frog sounds we hear are advertisement calls to attract mates, and the callers are usually males. In some species, these vocalizations also help male frogs maintain territories against other males. If you look closely around the shore of a pond, you often see male green frogs spaced at regular intervals. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Kingfishers: Birds of Middle Earth

kingfisher I usually hear the kingfisher before I see it. If I’m reading by the lake, its harsh, rattling call gets my attention. I look up to see the flashy blue-and-white bird fly to a new perch or hover over the water scanning for small fish and crayfish. If I’m kayaking, I try to follow it along the shore as it moves from one overhanging limb to another. This lasts for about two moves: they are easily disturbed and are fast fliers.

Stalking the bird recently, I began to wonder about its nest. As common as belted kingfishers are, I didn’t know anything about their domestic arrangements. As it turns out, my kingfishers likely consider this lake better for noshing than nesting. The lake’s rock-bound shore lacks the type of steep earthen bank the birds need to dig a burrow. Kingfishers are among the few birds in North America that nest in cavities they excavate themselves. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 4, 2018

The Northeast’s Most Alarming Insect

Hellgrammites If freshwater insects did senior superlatives before graduating from aquatic life, what would yearbook entries say about dobsonflies? Largest? Most ferocious? Most likely to change names? Most likely to bite a human? Or to be used as fish bait? Or to be confused with a centipede?

All of these superlatives apply to larval hellgrammites – insects that, upon emerging from the water, promptly change names to become dobsonflies. These fascinating predators spend their larval stage eating other invertebrates, including other hellgrammites. They’re equipped with impressive mandibles that can open wider than the width of their own heads and can handily crunch through the tough exoskeletons of most insects. An occasional angler has learned the hard way that the mandibles of larger hellgrammites are quite capable of penetrating human skin. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Living With Wildlife: The House Wren Eviction

house wrenOne afternoon in early June, a small brown bird swooped down in front of our kitchen window. I wondered where it had swooped from when, a minute later, I saw it fly back up, with a sliver of straw in its beak. I went out the back door, onto the deck, in time to see the bird exiting the shower vent on the gable end of the house. It was a house wren, and it was building a nest in my house.

Tip to tail, house wrens, Troglodytes aedon, are generally about 5 inches long and weigh about .4 oz. – half the length of the average robin and far lighter. They have brown feathers, longish beaks, and tails that are often tipped upwards. These tiny birds have one of the most expansive breeding ranges of any songbird, stretching from southern areas of Canada, to the far southern reaches of South America. In between they are found across the entire continental United States, the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dry Weather May Mean Less Lyme Disease

tick life cycle Over the past few decades, black-legged tick populations have grown relentlessly. These are the ticks that carry Lyme disease, and so what was once a novelty illness has become a rite of passage for many. It’s probably safe to say that by now everyone reading this knows someone who’s had the disease, if they haven’t had it themselves.

But some years are worse than others when it comes to Lyme disease infection rates, so the obvious question is: what causes this? Part of the answer involves the number of deer and small mammals around. There’s been elegant science done that establishes a neat connection between Lyme disease rates and good acorn years. The oaks produce a good crop, which causes a spike in the mouse and chipmunk populations the next year, and then a surge in human Lyme disease cases a year after that. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Backcountry Tragedy: Lessons From A Deadly Wilderness Incident

Rock Pond Pharaoh Lake Wilderness photo by John WarrenBill had been driving all over the Adirondacks since early Friday morning. I was in my car heading north to meet him. I’d get occasional calls from him about the wintry conditions and iced-over lakes that he found. Ice-out was late this year, so our original plan to canoe into the St. Regis Wilderness Area for a few days of fishing was scrapped. Instead, we decided on fish Rock Pond, in the Pharaoh Lakes Wilderness.

Bill had been wanting to fish the pond for years, and he was sure we had a chance for some big brook trout. From the DEC boat launch in the campground on Putnam Pond we paddled about two miles to the carry at the other end of the lake, about three quarters of a mile from Rock Pond. » Continue Reading.


Monday, July 9, 2018

Mallards: A Dissolute Dabbler’s Rise and Decline

mallard ducks Robert McCloskey’s Make way for Ducklings is one of my favorite childhood books. I loved the way Mr. and Mrs. Mallard interacted, their seemingly endless search for the perfect nesting place, the description of classic Boston neighborhoods, and the whimsical names of their eight ducklings.

Not until I started reading the story to my own children, several years ago now, did I notice Mr. Mallard ditches Mrs. Mallard after the ducklings hatch, leaving her to tend to eight kids on her own, amid the dangers of snapping turtles and Boston traffic.

It turns out Mr. Mallard, with his handsome green head, dapper blue wing patches, and charmingly curled tail can be a bit of a scamp; male mallards will mate with just about any feathered thing that floats on water. And they’re not always nice about it. » Continue Reading.