I was enjoying a morning cup of coffee in the sunroom when I saw the hawk.
It was perched across the road, maybe 30 yards away, its chest puffed up against the cold. It appeared to be eyeing the activity at our birdfeeder.
As I was trying to decide if it was a female sharp-shinned hawk or a male Cooper’s hawk, the bird launched from its perch, and in an instant had threaded its way through a dense tangle of road-side branches while in hot pursuit of a blue jay.
It all happened so quickly that I wasn’t even sure if the jay had been captured, although I was able to identify it as a Cooper’s hawk. » Continue Reading.
Imagine that you are walking on a path through a forest in the Adirondacks and suddenly, you see an opening in the trees ahead. Moving closer, you gaze out on a vast opening covered in a mosaic of leafy shrubs and dotted with spiky conifers. You take a step further and feel the “squish” as your boot sinks into a wet, dense mat of bright green moss. From the top of a nearby snag, you hear the distinctive “quick-three-beers” song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher followed by the complex, jumbled, slightly metallic sound of a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Looking down again, you notice the pale, delicate flowers of a white-fringed orchid. All the sights and sounds are conclusive: you have entered the Adirondack boreal.
The term “boreal” is used to describe cold, wet areas in northern latitudes. For the most part, people think of northern Canada and Eurasia, with vast spruce-fir forests, extensive wetland complexes, and frigid winter conditions. Though much of the Adirondack Park is within the temperate deciduous bioclimatic zone, we can also find low-elevation boreal pockets containing bog rosemary, pod-grass, tamarack and other boreal plants. » Continue Reading.
While winter can be stunningly beautiful, with its magical snowfalls and ethereal silences, I must admit that by late-February the long absence of so many songbirds has me feeling bereft. I miss the vireos; I miss the thrushes and most especially I miss the pair of phoebes who settle into the well-worn nest on the gable end of my house to raise their young.
It’s amazing how two tiny beings who weigh no more than a handful of twigs can evoke such strong emotions in me. I am joyful when the pair resurfaces in early spring; moved by their devotion to their shared progeny, and I take pleasure in the companionship they provide one another.
But on some level I know that these are sentimental notions that I am ascribing to behavior that is biologically, not emotionally, driven. The phoebes I see one year aren’t the same phoebes that I observed the previous year. Or are they? » Continue Reading.
As the sunset colors fade from purple to black an eerie sound breaks the forest calm. It is not the long, low, slow howling of wolves that can be heard further north, but the group yip-howl of coyotes: short howls that often rise and fall in pitch, punctuated with staccato yips, yaps, and barks. » Continue Reading.
With this winter shaping up to be a cold one, spring may still seem far away. But with time and a little patience, we will soon start to notice the lilac leaves bursting from buds, the return of brightly colored warblers, and the ringing chorus of spring peepers in the evening. Any time you detect events unfolding in the natural world, you are making phenological observations.
Phenology refers to the study of the timing of biological activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these changes in the life cycles of plants and animals coincide with the seasons. Besides day length, factors that influence the timing of biological events include temperature, precipitation, snowpack formation and melting, and wind. » Continue Reading.
In October of last year friends Dan Russell and Charles Baldridge stood on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain and had what they later described as an awe-inspiring experience. For an hour and a half, the sky was lit up with columns of white light, some of them tinged with red and green. This was the Aurora Borealis making an unusual appearance.
Russell remembered having goose bumps for most of the event, while Baldridge remembered wanting to call everyone he knew. “It was really exciting.” » Continue Reading.
The sign in the window, which read, “Clearance! Hats and Gloves 50% off,” puzzled me. Snowflakes swirled on gusty winds. The bitter cold stung my fingertips—I wondered if I should buy warmer gloves while I had the chance. Clearance? Temperatures hadn’t climbed above freezing for days; the warmth of spring was a distant dream.
Blow out your boots, or lose your wool hat in winter, and when you go looking for a replacement you are likely to find sandals and sun hats on display. I used to rail against such a setup, assigning it to an insatiable human propensity for speed, afraid that at some point we might just lap ourselves. But when I began to study trees, and learned how their growth patterns transcend traditional seasonal boundaries, I softened my stance. » Continue Reading.
On a clear midwinter evening, look high above the southern horizon and you will see a V-shaped group of moderately bright stars. These stars form the center of the large constellation Taurus. Imagine, as did the Sumerians four thousand years ago, that this pattern outlines the horns of a charging bull. The bright red star Aldebaran prominently shines on his lower (southern) horn.
The stars of the horns are called the Hyades. In Greek mythology, they were the daughters of Atlas and Aethra. Their appearance was associated with the rainy season. At a mere 150 light years away, The Hyades are actually an open cluster of related stars. Look above and a little to the right (west) of the V and you’ll see a compact cluster of blue stars called the Pleiades. Although this beautiful little asterism is known as the Seven Sisters, some people see six stars with the naked eye, where others claim they can see eleven. With the magnification of 7×50 binoculars, a hundred or more of these gem-like blue stars are revealed in the cluster. The view is spectacular. » Continue Reading.
On our back porch, in a pocket of light from the window, was what looked to be an oversized rat wearing white face powder. As it gobbled down cat food, it flashed a demented crocodile grin. My mother shrieked.
This was my first encounter with an opossum.
This species, still described as “neotropical” by some sources, has been moving north since at least the 1950’s. In many parts of the northeast, opossums (frequently shortened to “possums”) are as familiar as squirrels. Yet this is no mere rodent. » Continue Reading.
Fat gets a bad rap in the medical world, for good reason. Excessive body fat is linked to a litany of health risks, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Yet in the realm of nature, fat is a lifesaver. If certain mammals that hibernate did not get fat, they would be dead by spring.
The woodchuck is something of a fat specialist. As many an irate gardener can attest, the woodchuck’s diet consists of perishable greens. Because these can’t be stored, the animal stockpiles all the food energy it needs to survive winter in a thick layer of body fat. » Continue Reading.
Many years ago, I lived in San José, California where the weather forecast went something like this: Sunny for three weeks, one day of rain, followed by many more weeks of sun. There was a sameness to the weather that bordered on the banal and never made me wonder what was going on.
Not so here in the Northeast. The mercurial nature of our weather keeps us wondering from day to day – often hour to hour – when it’s going to change. The uncertainty is never more present than in the winter, when at times we’re blessed with that trifecta of miserable driving conditions: snow, sleet, and freezing rain.
Why is it that a day could start with a delicate snowfall and suddenly shift to a clattering sleet and end in an icy glaze – but the mercury doesn’t move? Or the temperature will be 30 degrees in both Elizabethtown and Plattsburgh, but snow will fall in one and freezing rain in the other? Clearly the thermometer is telling only part of the story. » Continue Reading.
We humans tend to cringe at winter temperatures. We put on extra layers, crank up the thermostat, and wait impatiently for the tell-tale drip of spring thaw. However, there are plenty of tiny organisms all around us that aren’t just biding their time; they’re thriving in the bitter cold. If you could listen to as well as watch them under a microscope, you wouldn’t hear a single complaint about the temperature.
Psychrophiles, literally “cold lovers,” are organisms adapted to live at extremely cold temperatures. These are single-celled life forms, most often bacteria, but also blue green algae, yeasts, and fungi that can grow at temperatures as low as -13 degrees. » Continue Reading.
In November, as the last colors of autumn are fading, the stark outlines of tree branches are revealed. During this time you might be lucky enough to see an occasional dark mass, looking from a distance like a burl.
Recently, on a hike through a dense forest, I spied one such anomaly high up in a white ash tree. Walking closer, I saw that this shape was a porcupine. It seemed asleep. After circling the area looking for quills and other markings, I shuffled noisily away. When I turned back, the porcupine was heading further up the tree. The branch it clung to bent precariously as the wind picked up, but the tenacious climber hung on. » Continue Reading.
My favorite season tends to be whatever comes next, which means, for now, deep winter. With our storm windows installed and four tons of wood pellets put up, I’m feeling smug as the ant in Aesop’s fable. But what about the furred and feathered creatures out there in the cold?
When I imagine a Canada goose on an icy pond, or a white tail knee deep in the white stuff, it makes me shiver and wonder: How do warm-blooded animals stay warm?» Continue Reading.
Hang off, thou cat, thou burr! vile thing, let loose, Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!
-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The aroma of wood smoke lingers as you take your evening stroll. The sun has slipped behind the hills as the moon takes its watch at the other end of the valley. It’s the moment of twilight when solid figures are no longer discernible from shadows, and so you fail to notice the tiny hitchhiker lurking beside the path.
Upon your return, you reach down to untie your shoes and feel a painful pinch. After a blood-curdling “YOWCH!” you reach the light switch. Once your eyes adjust, you see the culprit – a spine-covered bur.
It’s no easy task getting to the roots of a burdock plant (anyone who’s ever tried to pull one out of the soil will know this pun is intended). Both burdocks (in the genus Arctium), and their look-alike cousins the cockleburs (in the genus Xanthium), belong to the aster family, a huge group that includes sunflowers and goldenrods. They are also both characterized by a tendency to prick fingers and ride through the laundry cycle on socks. » Continue Reading.
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