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.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ruffed Grouse: Breaking The Sound Barrier

grouseA distant motor thud-thud-thuds as if trying to start, then dies away.  The noise repeats, and again dies off. I’ve been fooled by this sound, wondering who could be trying to start a 2-cylinder engine in the middle of the woods. This mechanical noise, of course, is really the drumming of a male ruffed grouse.

People once thought that male grouse struck their wings on a hollow log to produce this low whumping, but better observation revealed something far more astonishing. The bird stands bolt upright on a log, leans back on his tail, and fans his wings vigorously – so fast, in fact, that the wings achieve the same speed as the sound waves generated by their passage through the air. This causes the sound waves to “pile up” into a penetrating shock wave, also known as a sonic boom. For a one-and-a-quarter-pound grouse to exert such force takes strength and perseverance. Novice males have been observed going through all the motions and not producing any sound at all. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Outside Story: Pussy Willow’s Time to Shine

pussy_willowLast fall, I went to a nearby wetland with a pair of clippers and cut twigs from one willow shrub after another. It wasn’t hard to tell the willows from the non-willows because willows are the only woody plants in this area whose buds are covered by a single bud scale.

These cute, pointy caps are very different from the overlapping scales that protect most buds through the winter. And the few woody plants with no protective scales are easily recognizable: their naked, embryonic leaves rely on a coating of woolliness to keep them from desiccating or freezing. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Outside Story: Pasture Pines

weevilThe eastern white pine is the tallest tree in this part of North America, with the biggest specimens getting up near 200 feet. They can live for 250 years or more. A truly big one is jaw-droppingly impressive.

Unfortunately, many never reach their full potential. Dubbed pasture pines, cabbage pines, or wolf trees, these squat multi-stemmed trees look like shrubs on steroids. Not for them the soaring magnificence of a robust, healthy pine. I’ve got plenty of them in the woods in back of my house. When I look at them, I just sigh.  You can blame it all on a native insect: the white pine weevil, Pissodes strobi. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Maple Sugaring: Do New Tapping Strategies Hurt Trees?

sugaringOur sugarhouse is within walking distance of an elementary school, so we’ve given tapping demonstrations to hundreds of school kids over the years. At the part where someone drills a hole in the tree and it sort of bleeds, the next question is invariably: “Does tapping hurt the tree?”

The stock answer is no, as long as you don’t overdo it: use the smaller “health” spouts, follow conservative tapping guidelines, give the tree a year off if it looks stressed. As proof that sugaring is sustainable, we point to some of the trees in our sugarbush that have been tapped for close to a hundred years and are better off for it. Better off because we thin out the trees around them, giving the chosen trees extra light, water, and nutrients.

Their increased vigor, when compared to the maples in unmanaged sections of the forest, is plain to see.  But the sugarmaking being practiced today in many commercial bushes – including our own – is not the same sugarmaking that was practiced even 10 years ago. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Outside Story: Golden-Crowned Kinglets

KingletThe only regal thing about the golden-crowned kinglet is the crest of yellow-orange feathers atop its head. Everything else about this speck of a songbird’s appearance and behavior would make any proper monarch frown. It’s half the size of a black-capped chickadee yet twice as energetic: a gregarious and kinetic bird wrapped in unassuming olive-gray plumage. Yet this tiny creature faces head-on winters that animals fifteen thousand times its size (we’re looking at you, black bears) hide from.

Winter survival for animals in the Northeast often involves setting their metabolisms to “simmer” and waiting out the coldest months in a state of hibernation (in the case of many mammals) or some equivalent torpor (most reptiles, insects, amphibians). In the most dramatic cases (wood frogs, woolly-bear caterpillars), the animals simply freeze solid and thaw in spring. Songbirds, given the luxury of flight, often simply flee.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Outside Story: Sapstreak Disease in the Sugarbush

diseaseOn a walk through a still, snowy sugarbush, the peacefulness can be overwhelming; everything looks to be in good order. But all may not be as perfect as it seems.

In any sugarbush, there is a good chance that a fungal intruder has gained entry and is wintering unseen beneath the rich, dark bark of an unlucky sugar maple. If this invader is sapstreak disease, then death is likely to soon claim a valuable sap producer. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Outside Story: The Winter Life of Skunks

SkunkIn summer, you always know when a striped skunk has been around. But in winter, these animals make themselves scarce, hunkering down to wait out the onslaught of ice and snow.

Unlike most rodents and birds, which hoard food for the cold months, the striped skunk will have spent the fall eating as much as possible so it can stay warm during mid-winter dormancy. This binge eating creates thick layers of fat underneath the skin– a winter jacket, of sorts. The skunk metabolizes this fat during its dormant rests, though at a much slower rate than in summer.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Outside Story: Lake Champlain Burbot

burbotI can’t say for sure exactly how many of my childhood birthdays were celebrated on the ice of Lake Champlain, but a good number. That’s what happens when your father likes to ice fish, and your big day happens to fall on Dead President’s week, when every school in the state goes on vacation.

But I am reasonably certain it was on my twelfth birthday when I first met Lota lota, a fish my dad called a “ling” and others call “burbot,” “cusk” or “eelpout.” We were jigging for yellow perch on a shallow hump on the outskirts of St. Albans Bay when I pulled one through the ice. I remember thinking I’d caught a chunky American eel, but my dad quickly set the record straight by dislodging the 16-inch fish from my hook and quickly tossing it into the 5-gallon pail we were using to collect perch for a fish fry.

“Those,” I remember my father saying, “are excellent eating.” » Continue Reading.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Outside Story: Winter Wildlife Survival Foods

Photo by Art Kirsch, DEC Wildlife BiologistWinter is a hard time for wildlife. It brings deep cold, leafless terrain, and a shortage of food and water. Animals have few choices. Most songbirds abandon the region via a perilous migration to warmer climates. Other creatures hunker down in hibernation. But there are a number of species that remain active all winter.

This is no easy task. Mammals and birds must maintain their body heat by burning (metabolizing) their body fat – or perish. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Emancipation Anniversary: A Local Grassroots Victory

What follows is a guest essay by Peter Slocum, a volunteer and board member with the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, based in Ausable Chasm.

Almost lost in the recent “Fiscal Cliff” spectacle was the anniversary marking one of the major positive milestones of our history — President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

On January 1, 1863, some 3 million people held as slaves in the Confederate states were declared to be “forever free.” Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Most of those 3 million people were still subjugated until the Union Army swept away the final Confederate opposition more than two years later. And slavery was not abolished in the entire United States until after the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed in 1865.
» Continue Reading.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Outside Story: How Do Trees Survive Winter Cold?

Trees are about half water, maybe a little less in winter. And if the temperature drops low enough, the water in even the most cold-hardy tree will freeze.

So how do trees survive below-freezing temperatures? They can’t move south or generate heat like a mammal. Sure, the below-ground parts of a tree are kept insulated by a layer of snow, and that is important to winter survival, but the exposed parts of a tree are not so protected. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Outside Story: Downy or Hairy Woodpecker?

“That’s a downy. No wait, it’s a hairy – definitely a hairy. Well, hang on…maybe it is a downy.” I admit it: I’ve had this happen to me more than once.

With the onset of winter, downy and hairy woodpeckers become more apparent– knocking away in our woods and stopping by our birdfeeders. With strikingly similar feather patterns, the two can be hard to distinguish if one only catches a glimpse. Both have black wings with white markings; white bellies, sides, and backs; and distinctively white- and black-striped heads. Males of both species have red patches on the backs of their heads, which females lack.
» Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Outside Story: Natural Christmas Tree Decorations

“What a horrifyingly garish sight,” I said to my friend as we surveyed my Christmas tree last year. We had just finished decorating it and my eyes were sending messages to my brain, like, “Hey, this is really tacky.”

Truth is, the décor I had accumulated after years of city dwelling in my sassy twenties looked awfully out of place in my humble Vermont cabin. What I once thought dazzling – glitter-coated icicles, a miniature disco ball, a purple-feathered bird with jeweled eyes, flocks of shiny gold and green balls – now looked as out of place as a pink flamingo at my bird feeder. Even the duck decoy my great uncle carved seemed to give the gaudy fiasco an alarmed stare. Such a tree no longer belonged in my world. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Outside Story: What’s With Blue Animals?

Animals display a dazzling variety of colors, particularly in the tropics. But even here in northern New England where wildlife diversity is comparatively limited, we enjoy a rich palette of colors and patterns. The majority of colors are produced by pigments–particles of color chemicals found within specialized cells. These include melanins, which are found in nearly all organisms and produce the earthy tones common to many animals (including humans), and carotenoids, which produce colors primarily in the red to yellow end of the spectrum (think northern cardinal and American goldfinch).

What’s surprising, however, is that pigments that produce blue coloration are all but unknown in the animal kingdom, even though we have plenty of blue-colored animals, particularly among birds, butterflies, and fish. So if it’s not pigments, what makes an animal blue? » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Rescuing A Lean-to Before The Damage Is Done

What follows is an e-mail recently sent by Paul Delucia, of Lean2Rescue, one of several volunteer organizations who work to build and maintain facilities in the Adirondack Park’s backcountry.

Rarely do we get a chance to rescue a lean-to before the damage is done.

On Thanksgiving, Hilary Moynihan (ADK lean-to adopter coordinator) and I were notified that somebody had chopped down a tree at the Gull Lake lean-to (Black River Wild Forest). Sadly, it was live spruce tree (about 60 ft tall) left hanging precariously in a smaller cherry tree. It threatened both the lean-to and anybody that might visit it. I sent out a broadcast to all that might be in the Woodgate / Old Forge Area on a moment’s notice. By Saturday, a crew of eight from Lean2Rescue arrived with nearly 150 lbs of equipment (ropes, climbing gear, saws), and a tree climber (me). After about an hour, the tree was safely down and the lean-to standing unharmed.
» Continue Reading.