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, June 20, 2016

Adirondack Wildflowers: Jack-in-the-Pulpit

jack pulpit the outsiderJack-in- the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) are not the most colorful spring flowers, but what they lack in beauty they make up for in interesting characteristics. These easily-identified plants are full of surprises, from their ability to change from male to female (and back) to the bite of their calcium oxalate crystals, which can make your tongue feel like it’s full of burning splinters.

Jack-in- the-pulpit surfaces in wet, shaded woodland areas in mid-spring as a purpley-brown spike, all tucked up within itself. As the days meander toward summer, this spike unfolds into leaves and flower, with the plants growing as tall as two feet. The floral anatomy here includes a spadix of tiny flowers contained within a hooded spathe: Jack enclosed within his pulpit. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

After DDT: The Return Of Bald Eagles

bald eagle the outsiderTo the delight of all who revel in the grace and beauty of nature, bald eagles are soaring above the Northeast in numbers unseen for over a century.

We’ve come a long way since the days when poor farming and logging practices denuded our forests, choking streams with silt and compromising the food chain.

We now know that if you degrade the eagle’s habitat and pollute the water you affect the entire web of life, including fish-eating birds in the skies above. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Lives of Pileated Woodpeckers

tos pileated woodpeckerWuk-wuk- wuk-wuk! With a rattling call, a large bird took off from a tree and flew in an undulating fashion across our field towards the woods. It was black and the size of a crow, but flashes of white on the underside of its wings and a red crest on its head easily identified it as a pileated woodpecker.

We had seen the unmistakable signs of pileateds foraging for insects in the adjacent woodland: huge rectangular holes excavated in trees with big wood chips littering the ground below, long strips of bark pulled off a dead elm, a rotten log torn apart. We had heard their loud drumming echoing through the forest. There was likely a nest nearby, although we never found it. The pileated woodpecker, up to 19 inches long with a wingspan up to 30 inches, is North America’s largest woodpecker. (The ivory-billed, of southeastern swamps and Cuba, was larger, but that species is believed to be extinct.) Pileated means “crested”; years ago, the bird was often called a log-cock. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Adirondack Wildlife: Angry Birds

angry birds TOSOne morning in mid-March, I opened the door to discover a dark-eyed junco frenetically battling another bird. Or at least it thought it was another bird. His nemesis was, in fact, his own reflection in the stainless-steel chimney of my wood stove. The junco was perched on a bracket between the chimney and the house and every few seconds would flutter in front of his reflection and repeatedly peck it.

The chimney was still cool, as I had started a fire only minutes before, but I assumed that eventually the heat would deter the bird from getting too close and that would be the end of that. But it wasn’t. The steel apparently never got hot enough, and the conflict raged on. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Adirondack Snakes: Smelling With A Forked Tongue

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

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


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Signs Of Spring: Robins On The Nest

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

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


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Astronomy: The Transit Of Mercury On Monday

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

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


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Molting: Bird Feathers Flying

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

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

Why males? » Continue Reading.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Understanding Maple Syrup Color And Flavor

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

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


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Adirondack Fungus: Turkey Tails

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

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


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Loons Are Returning To The Adirondacks

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Springtime Skunks: Amorous And Odoriferous

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


Thursday, March 24, 2016

How Northeast Caves Are Created

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


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Adirondack Wildlife: Weasel Evel Knievels

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

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


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

How Bees Make Different Honey Flavors

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

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

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