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, December 31, 2014

The Subnivean Zone: Life Under The Snow

TOS_under_snowEvery animal must develop its own way of dealing with winter. Migrate, hibernate, or insulate; these are common strategies. For a few small mammals, survival depends on the snow itself, and the deeper the better.

The subnivean zone is the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack. The word subnivean comes from the Latin “sub” (under) and “nives” (snow). Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. Under the snow, these tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Tree Farmer’s Year in Review

TOS.ChristmasTreeWalking through a large chain store this past October – at least a week before Halloween – I stumbled upon a display of decorations. Not witches and pumpkins, but trees and bells. There’s no question that retailers are intent on pushing the start of the Christmas season earlier and earlier, but we Christmas tree growers still have them beat; for us, it’s a nearly year-round endeavor.

Spring is one of the busiest times on a Christmas tree farm, yet it sometimes requires an agonizingly long wait before work can get started. It can take weeks of warmer weather to thaw the soil enough to plant the next rotation of trees. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter Solstice Will Be Marked With Meteors

TOS_WinterSolsticeEvery year, I eagerly await the winter solstice, which this year falls on this Sunday, December 21. My anticipation is driven not from an affection for winter, but a hunger for sunlight. I want the ever-shrinking days of autumn to be over and done and the slow, steady march towards late-evening sunsets to begin. So really it’s not the winter solstice I await, so much as being on the other side of it.

But this December I’ve decided to pay attention and learn more about the day itself. Turns out to have been a good choice, as this year’s solstice proves to be more interesting than most. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Beavers Survive Adirondack Winters

TOS_BeaverOne fall a young beaver, probably a two-year-old kicked out by its parents, built a small lodge in the old mill pond below our house. On cold January days when temperatures were below zero, I looked at the snow-covered lodge and wondered if the beaver was still alive. But when the ice melted in late March, it was swimming around again.

Mortality rates are higher among young, lone beavers than established adults. Winter is especially daunting: no sooner had the mill pond beaver taken up residence, than it had to prepare for months of cold and food scarcity. How did it survive? » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

How Do Toads Avoid Croaking in Winter?

TOS_ToadOne warm fall day, while standing outside a lodge I manage, I noticed movement inside one of the window wells around the basement. Realizing that something noteworthy was about to happen, I ran inside to alert our guests.

Together we all crouched to watch the methodical shaking of the earth below us. Slowly the ground moved a little to the left, then to the right, then there was a pause, then left again, right again. Eventually something reached the surface. I reached my hand out and gently touched the rough, bumpy, and very well camouflaged back of an American toad. It continued to emerge, fully exposing its body. The guests and I started pondering all sorts of questions about toads and their habits, but the biggest question of all was: where do toads go in the winter? » Continue Reading.


Monday, November 24, 2014

This Thanksgiving Pass the Crickets

TOS_cricket_pieAs you put together a dinner plan for this Thanksgiving, perhaps you’re looking for something to add a little variety to the traditional holiday meal, or ways to eat healthy food while supporting good environmental practices. How about adding insects to the menu?

Along with crackers and cheese, grasshopper fritters make excellent appetizers. Or consider adding sautéed crickets and greens as a side to your potatoes, turkey, and gravy. What about cricket flour fruitcake instead of the typical pumpkin pie? » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Old Trees: Methuselah In Your Backyard

TOS_OldTreeThere’s something in us that can’t help but be impressed by an old tree. Perhaps we’re simply in awe of something that has outlived generations of humans and will outlive us.

We acknowledge this when we compare the giant sequoia groves to a cathedral. When we compile state lists of big old trees. When we give names like Methuselah to the longest-lived specimens.

Most trees are not destined to live long lives. Ninety percent of the trees in a forest will never become very big, or very old. Some will lose the race for sunlight and food. Others will succumb to insects, wind, fire, or logging. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Louse Flies: Avian Blood-Suckers

TOS_flatfliesWhen you find a bird feather in the woods and stoop to pick it up, does your mom’s voice echo in your brain? Can you hear her say, birds have lice, don’t pick that up? Mom was mostly right. Birds can have lice (though you won’t catch lice from a bird). But what Mom probably didn’t know is that birds have something far creepier lurking in their feathers. It’s six legged, leathery, and flat. And it sucks blood.

The good news? It does not want to suck your blood.

Avian hippoboscid flies – also called flat flies and louse flies – survive on bird blood. Estimates vary for the number of different species in our region, but there are likely more than ten, fewer than twenty. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Woolly Bears: Winter Forecast Flops?

woolybearAutumn is coming to a close. The brilliant fall foliage is past peak, if not already layered in the compost bin. The last geese are honking their way toward winter homes. Predictions are proffered (sometimes cheerfully, mostly not) for how cold and snowy this year’s winter will be.

Sources for seasonal predictions vary. The Farmers’ Almanac and traditional old-wives-tales are often cited. How soon those geese head south, for example, is supposed to indicate how difficult winter will be. We trust these bits of folklore because they often have a scientific basis and seem to work. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Backyard Compost: A Hot Mess

TOS_compostAt the New Hampshire University Organic Dairy Research Farm in Lee, even the heat for the wash water is organic and locally-sourced.

The heat comes from the farm’s composting facility, a building that looks like an eight-bay garage but actually contains cutting-edge composting technology, as well as a whole lot of rotting stuff.

Of course, compost heat doesn’t require sophisticated technology or the attention to detail that doctoral students provide to farm chores. However, managing heat generation is tricky. Even academics and professional composters can’t always get everything in the right balance for perfect decomposition. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 6, 2014

The Odor Side of Otters

TOS_RiverOtterWe slid our canoe over the beaver dam and paddled into the upper, smaller pond. A breeze rippled the water and rustled the reeds lining the shore. Suddenly I spied four long, sleek brown figures cavorting in the water ― otters! They submerged quickly near the shore, probably into an old beaver bank den with an underwater entrance. This was one of only a few times in my life I’d seen these secretive, often nocturnal, creatures.

We had likely seen an otter family ― mother and young, known as kits. Once the kits were able to swim well enough, at about three months of age, the family would leave this pond and assume a nomadic lifestyle. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Clubmoss: An Ancient Forest At Chipmunk Height

TOS_Club_mossYou’ve discovered a tiny evergreen forest of what look like diminutive hemlock or cedar trees barely taller than a chipmunk. They’re spread across the cool shade cast by a canopy of hardwood or coniferous trees. This Lilliputian forest is actually a clump of clubmosses.

Clubmosses are among the oldest plants on Earth, having evolved over 390 million years ago. Long ago, clubmosses weren’t so diminutive. They were tree-like and towered over tropical forests, reaching 100 feet tall. Those ancient giants are long extinct but they continue to affect our environment; their remnants persist as fossil fuels.

Ironically, clubmosses are not mosses, although eighteenth century botanists thought they were. In the nineteenth century, botanists surmised that the clubmosses were closely related to ferns because they reproduce by spores and placed them in a category of plants called fern allies. That also was incorrect. Advanced technology and DNA sequencing have revealed that clubmosses evolved separately from ferns and are not closely related. However, clubmosses are still called fern allies or fern relatives in field guides. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bird Migratory Quirks: Geese and Juncos

TOS_Bird_migrationThis has always been my perception of bird migration in the fall: the days grow short and cool and then, one day, I notice a v-shaped caravan of Canada geese flying southward. Then another and another. Within a few weeks of that first sighting, I hear their melancholy call one final time for the season. Then they, and all the summer birds, are gone. It’s a mass exodus for warmer climes, over and done in the blink of an eye and long before the snow flies.

But what of the geese on the unfrozen mill ponds in January? Or the robins at the birdfeeder in December? It turns out that the process of migration is much longer and less predictable than my cursory observations had led me to believe. First of all, for some species, fall migration begins long before the first ears of corn are ready to be picked. Take, for example, the yellow warbler, whose massive breeding range extends from parts of Mexico to Newfoundland and into Alaska. It is among the earliest songbirds to arrive in the spring and among the first to embark on the return journey. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Late Bloomers: Asters At Summer’s End

TOS_AsterLiving this far north, we’re attuned to signs of a waning summer: shorter days, cooler nights, red maples in low-lying areas turning their trademark color. But when the asters bloom, I know the curtain is coming down on summer.

The asters are some of the latest blooming flower species in our region. Not every species waits until virtually the last minute, but many do.

You might think that they’re cutting it close. In an area of the world where a killing frost can come seemingly out of nowhere, a late bloomer might be taking a chance. But evolutionarily, it’s not a bad tactic, said Arthur Haines, a research botanist for the New England Wild Flower Society.  By putting off blooming until late in the season, these plants have a virtual monopoly on the attentions of bees and other insect pollinators. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Birding: Broad-Winged Hawk Migration

TOS_BroadwingHawkIt rained heavily the first time I had planned to go on a hawk watch, and the trip was cancelled. But the rain brought with it a weather front the next day that created the perfect conditions for fall hawk migration. And migrate they did. Hawks and falcons and eagles and vultures soared southward along mountain ridges in numbers I have never seen in the 30 years since then. Carried aloft by rising currents of warm air and light winds from the north, many of those birds may have traveled a hundred miles that day without ever flapping their wings.

Despite the diversity and impressive numbers of raptors, there was one species that stood out to all of the hawk watchers: the broad-winged hawk. It was a bird I had never seen before, and although it is a common nesting species in the forests of the Northeast, the total number of broad-wings I’ve observed since then doesn’t come close to the number that soared past us that day. Whereas most hawks travel alone or in groups of three or four, broad-winged hawks migrate in flocks called kettles that can sometimes number in the thousands. » Continue Reading.


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