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.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Anatomy of Bird Feet

raptor footAs spring’s crescendo of birdsong mellows now to a steadier summer trill, I listen for melodies I don’t recognize and try to figure out which birds are singing. I look through binoculars at their feathers, the color variations along head and chest, the size of their beaks, the shape of their wings, and the tilt of their tails in my flailing attempts to distinguish one species from another. Rarely have I considered feet in my casual observations, although this part of a bird’s anatomy can be highly specialized for various uses.

“When you look at the foot of a bird, they’re not all the same,” said Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “All the birds basically started off with three toes forward, one back. From that, they’ve evolved in a number of different ways for various reasons.”

Birds walk on those toes – not the entire foot. The backward-bending joint we may consider a knee is actually the birds’ ankle. The feet consist mainly of bones and tendons, with very little muscle and few blood vessels. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Striders: Summer Insects Who Skate On Water

Water Strider Scanning a sunlit pond floor for crayfish, I was distracted by seven dark spots gliding in a tight formation. Six crisp oval shadows surrounded a faint, less distinct silhouette. The shapes slid slowly and then, with a rapid motion, accelerated before slowing to another glide. I can remember seeing this pattern as a child, in my first explorations of pond life.

Water strider shadows are far larger than the insects casting them. To visualize the surprising proportion of legs to body, it may help to think in human scale. For mathematical simplicity, picture a six-foot-tall man lying flat on the water surface. Imagine that attached near his hips he has a pair of seven-foot-long, stick-skinny legs pointing back at a 45 degree angle. Just forward of these spindles he has another pair pointing forward at a 45 degree angle; these are nine feet long. A pair of three-foot-long arms point forward and each has a single claw protruding from the palm. » Continue Reading.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Adirondack Fisher Cats Don’t Fish; Not Cats

fisher catThe “fisher cat” is neither of those things. Doesn’t fish. Isn’t a cat. In fact, a lot more of what people think they know about the fisher is wrong. It’s almost like we made up the animal.

The fisher, Pekania pennanti, is a big forest-dwelling weasel, related to the American marten, and native to North America. The common name has nothing to do with fish, but instead derives from French and Dutch words for the pelt of a European polecat, to which it is distantly related. Native American tribes had their own names for the animal, many of which translate roughly as “big marten.” » Continue Reading.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Twilight Singer: The Hermit Thrush

If you take a walk in the woods on a summer evening, you may be treated to the ethereal, flute-like song of the hermit thrush, often the only bird still singing at dusk (and the first bird to sing in the morning).

In 1882, naturalist Montague Chamberlain described it as a “vesper hymn that flows so gently out upon the hushed air of the gathering twilight.” The hermit thrush, once nicknamed American nightingale, is among North America’s finest songsters; its beautiful song is one of the reasons Vermont chose the hermit thrush as its state bird. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Do Mice Get Cavities? All About Mammal Teeth

rodent skullWhen my daughter was four, she once asked, “Do mice get cavities?” We were coming back from the dentist, so teeth were on her mind and so were mice, since her pet mouse had recently escaped. Later in the day, she asked if ducks had teeth; such is the ranging nature of her intellect.

Why all the toothy questions? Because our teeth are interesting. Ask a dentist. And so are the teeth of our wild neighbors. Teeth can tell a lot about a species’ line of work — particularly what they eat and how they catch their dinner. Teeth are action-oriented; incisors nip and gnaw, canines stab and hold, premolars cut, sheer, slice, and grind, molars mash and crush. Teeth forms hint at a species’ evolutionary story, and crown wear can tell much about the age of an animal. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Wetlands: A Great Duckweed Migration

The word ‘migration’ conjures images of vast wildebeest or pronghorn herds crossing plains in unison, or hummingbirds traversing the Gulf of Mexico. When charismatic birds leave our Northeastern forests, migration is typically the explanation. But how can a group of plants disappear, without discarding leaves, stems, or other evidence of their presence?

Duckweeds are in the subfamily Lemnoideae and are the world’s smallest flowering plant. Their small oval leaves float on ponds and quiet backwaters. Root-like fibers dangle in the water. Although I’d noticed them on St. Michael’s College experimental ponds, as an entomologist, I’d never paid them close attention. Until they disappeared. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

Scarlet Tanagers: A Precious Stone with Wings

tanagerOne day last spring, I pulled into a parking lot in Thetford, Vermont, and saw a flash of brilliant red. Instantly, I knew it was a male scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). He was perched in a cluster of bushes and everything around him – the fresh spring leaves, a nearby robin, the recently revived grass – paled in comparison. Nothing could compete with his blaze of color.

This time of year, the male scarlet tanager has a ruby-red body, flanked by jet-black wings and an equally black tail. He’s like a precious stone with wings. The female is olive yellow, with brighter yellow on her throat and face. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Commentary: Convention Unlikely to Undo Protections for Forest Preserve (Part II)

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseWhat follows is the second of three essays about the vote coming this November on whether New York State will hold a Constitutional Convention.  This is part two of a commentary by Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie. An essay opposing a convention by Adirondack historian Philip Terrie will run on Sunday afternoon.

Part I of this two-part article discussed the history of the forever wild provision since its adoption by the Constitutional Convention of 1894. The absolute nature of the prohibition has made it the most amended section of the New York State Constitution (Peter J. Galie & Christopher Bopst, The New York State Constitution, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 312). Despite the number of amendments to the provision during the last 120 years, most of the forest preserve has retained its wilderness character, and the preserve has expanded significantly since it was first created. The preserve has functioned both as a success story and a point of pride that New Yorkers can take in their state constitution. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

Commentary: Constitutional Convention Will Protect Forest Preserve

Article 14, Section 1 New York State Constitution Forever Wild clauseWhat follows is the first of three essays about the vote coming this November on whether New York State will hold a Constitutional Convention.  This first commentary in support is by Christopher Bopst and Peter Galie. Part two of Bopst and Galie’s essay will run Sunday morning, followed by an essay opposing a convention by Adirondack historian Philip Terrie on Sunday afternoon.

On November 7, 2017, New Yorkers will be asked whether they want to convene the state’s tenth constitutional convention, to consider amendments and revisions to the state’s 120-year old constitution. The question, which is automatically placed on the ballot every 20 years (N.Y. Const., art. XIX, sec. 2), causes considerable angst among those concerned a convention may jeopardize protections currently enshrined in the constitution, such as the beloved forever wild provision. The first part of this article will provide a brief history of the forever wild provision, and in particular how this provision has been treated at state constitutional conventions. The second part of the article will discuss how and why the provision has remained over one hundred years after its adoption a viable and vital part of our constitutional tradition while other constitutional prohibitions have not. The viability and vitality of the provision augur well for the likelihood that it will retain its significance should a convention be called in 2017. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Native Plants: All About Wild Leeks

wild rampsThe white bulbs of wild leeks, also called ramps (especially in the south), can be eaten year round, but it’s the early leaves that are most appreciated. In pre-freezer days, ramps were the first greens available after five or so months of potatoes and they were considered important as well as good tasting. Ramp festivals are still held in much of Appalachia to celebrate the arrival of this nutritious fresh food, and these tourist attractions have become so successful that in some places ramps are over-harvested.

Wild leeks are spring ephemerals that have no flowers in the spring. I know this is confusing; there’s a tendency to call every spring-blooming thing an ephemeral. But most spring wildflowers keep their leaves through the summer and therefore don’t qualify – it’s the extra short lifespan of the photosynthetic machinery that defines a spring ephemeral, not the timing of flowering. The rounded flower heads of leeks appear in July, well after the leaves have withered and disappeared. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

North Country Woodpeckers: Signs of Spring

woodpeckerTrees speak many languages, their leaves whooshing in summer and trunks creaking in winter. At the onset of spring, trees become sounding boards for courtship. Before the thrushes and warblers and sparrows arrive to sing from branches and boughs, woodpeckers kick off the spring chorus with a drumroll.

Although woodpeckers certainly vocalize, usually with sharp calls or harsh chattering, drumming is one of the most reliable early signs of spring – a proclamation of territoriality and an advertisement to the opposite sex. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Collaboration Yields Dividends At Tannery Pond Center

tannery pondWhat follows is an essay by the Board of Trustees of  the Tannery Pond Center, located on Main Street in North Creek.

Enhanced collaboration between the Town of Johnsburg (TOJ) and the non-profit Tannery Pond Center (TPC) organization has brought this region the wonderful opportunity of having more varied and more frequent entertainment, educational programs, and other events scheduled at the Tannery Pond Community Center (TPCC) for the benefit of the residents of, and visitors to, this region.

In this special partnership between the TOJ and the TPC, the TPC raises money (currently about $65,000 a year) to bring an amazing variety of musicians, lecturers, and other entertainers to the Center and manages the operations; while the TOJ, which owns the facility, maintains the building and funds a part-time employee whose primary charge is scheduling. Over 500 events, meetings and activities were held in the building in 2016, with only a handful of days in which no one occupied any space. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sights and Sounds of Adirondack Woodcock

woodcockEvery year around this time, my husband, kids and I haul out the tent blind from our garage and set it up in the field in front of our house. We toss in a few folding chairs, a thermos, maybe a neighbor. At dusk, we take our seats.

First come the vocalizations – what are officially called “peents,” but sound more to us like the name Bert repeated in a froggy voice. A male American woodcock materializes – we never see the moment of arrival – and makes his way across the winter-flattened grass. His goal is to impress females hiding in the tree line, although I suspect he makes an impression on predators, too. He looks vulnerable, and more than a little ridiculous, with his plump shorebird body, letter-opener beak, and eyes positioned far back on his head. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Missing Lynx Return to New England

lynxIn the northern forest, a big gray cat crouches silently in a dense thicket of fir along a snowshoe hare run. Its pointed ears, topped with long tufts of black hair, twitch as it listens intently. The cat’s face is framed by a fur ruff and its yellow-green eyes are alert for movement. Suddenly, the lynx pounces, killing its prey with one quick bite to the neck. As it pads away with the hare, the lynx’s broad furry paws act like snowshoes, supporting it in the deep snow. Its short tail is tipped with black.

The Canada lynx, once eliminated from most of New England by forest clearing and unsustainable hunting and trapping, is making a comeback. Though still listed as a federally threatened species, there is an expanding breeding population in northern and western Maine, smaller numbers of lynx in northern New Hampshire, and intermittently, cats have been found in Vermont. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Time Travel in a Peat Bog

peat borerGutter pipes full of soggy peat show up on the bench by my office each March. This means one thing: my colleague Peter Hope’s Saint Michael’s College students are about to experience time travel. You might reasonably ask how pipes filled with peat could possibly relate to time travel. What? No DeLorean, flux capacitor, or 1.21 gigawatts of electricity? To answer, we need to consider where peat comes from, and how it forms.

Peat accumulates in bogs over millennia. Decomposing plant material consumes oxygen, and sphagnum moss turns water acidic by pulling minerals from the water and releasing acid. When dead plants and moss pile up in acidic water with little oxygen, they remain more or less preserved. The resulting accumulation is called ‘peat.’ » Continue Reading.


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