In recent weeks, there have been several news reports concerning the large scale devastation of honey bee colonies this past winter throughout the Northeast. While these losses are described as catastrophic by those that rely on these insects for the production of certain agricultural crops, other individuals note that the honey bee has only a minimal impact on the Adirondack environment, and a few may profess that a serious decline in honey bee numbers could have a positive effect on some of the native species of bees that reside within the Park. » Continue Reading.
All mammals experience difficulty sleeping when it becomes too warm. Because of an insulating layer of fat and an exceptionally thick, dense coat of fur, this temperature is far lower for members of our wildlife community in winter than during summer. From Thanksgiving through early April, several successive nights with the air hovering around the freezing point is warm enough to cause the raccoon to stir from its prolonged winter slumber and emerge from its den. If the wind is light and there is no precipitation falling, this familiar nocturnal marauder begins to explore the surrounding area for anything edible. » Continue Reading.
The mild temperatures and limited snowfall that the Adirondacks have experienced this winter season have failed to establish the usual snowpack that blankets the region by this time of year. While a substantial covering of snow provides numerous recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, it also serves as an essential fresh water reserve to supply the many brooks, streams and rivers across the Park with water when spring arrives during March and April.
With the first few thaws of late winter and early spring, much of the water produced from melting snow flows over the surface of the still frozen ground. This water quickly moves down hillsides and creates small, seasonal water courses on the forest floor. As these tiny tributaries merge and empty into larger, more permanent streams, the level of the water increases, along with the strength of the current. » Continue Reading.
The spattering of sizable tracts of boreal forests that remain in the Adirondacks serve as home to several species of birds that have evolved the ability to survive in northern taiga woodlands. Among the feathered creatures that are well adapted for a life in lowland stands of conifers is the spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis), a dark colored bird viewed by some as being as much a symbol of the Great Northwood’s as the moose.
As its name implies, the spruce grouse inhabits those softwood forests dominated mainly by spruce; yet not all spruce forests serve as home to this northern bird. High elevation forests that cover the upper slopes of our tallest peaks are not as suitable as lowland locations despite the similar presence of spruce and balsam fir. Because higher altitudes are more frequently buffeted by strong winds, the microclimate that exists there is more adverse than the one that characterizes sheltered, lowland settings. » Continue Reading.
There are only a few dozen species of birds capable of surviving the rigors of an Adirondack winter, and of these, the wild turkey is one that is more closely associated with the warmer and less snowy regions to our south than the boreal woodlands to the north.
While the turkey is traditionally viewed as one the most successful inhabitants of open, temperate forests, the cold-hardy nature of this bird and its resourceful and adaptable traits permit it to survive throughout the Park, even during winters when intense cold and deep snows are the rule for lengthy periods of time.
With its large, round body and small head, the wild turkey possesses a shape well designed for retaining heat. Despite the lack of feathers on its head, the turkey is able to hold its head close enough to its body for much of the day to reduce heat loss from the limited amount of exposed skin that occurs on its face and over its skull. A dense covering of plumage over the core of its body, along with a layer of fat, helps this bird effectively conserve body heat. » Continue Reading.
The lack of a deep covering of snow this season has been a benefit to some forms of wildlife, and a detriment to others. Yet for the beaver (Castor canadensis), the limited amount of snow on the ground has had little impact on this rodent’s winter routine.
Throughout the autumn, when the water around its primary lodge remains open, the beaver scours the shore near and far in search of those select woody plants on which it relies for food. These items are severed at their base and floated to the area just outside the main entrance to the family’s winter shelter and then pushed underwater as deep as possible. » Continue Reading.
There are numerous physical characteristics of the atmosphere that can be measured to provide weather insight. Unquestionably, the data most commonly collected by meteorologists and amateur weather observers, and the one most often mentioned in casual conversation is temperature. On daily weather reports, the first order of business is noting how warm or cold it currently is, has been, and probably will be over the next several days. While the presence of sun, the threat of precipitation, and the strength of the wind may also be discussed, it is temperature that seems to dominate when the topic of weather is addressed.
Likewise, in presentations and lectures on global warming, temperature is of prime concern and useful in helping to document changes in climate. In the report Climate Change in the Champlain Basin sponsored by the Nature Conservancy and written by Dr. J. Curt Stager and Mary Thill, average temperatures were noted and analyzed from areas in the Champlain Valley and in the eastern section of the Adirondacks which drains into that basin. Additionally, other well researched national and global reports support the case for global warming partially based on the change in average temperatures at various locations over a long period of time. While average temperatures are useful for describing a climate and weather trends, they do provide some room for debate and discussion.
Average temperature is calculated by simply taking the high and low reading for the day and averaging them together. For example, a normal high temperature for mid January in the Central Adirondacks is about 24 degrees, and a normal low is about 2 degrees. This yields an average temperature of 13 degrees.
Any increase in wind speed and cloud cover over the past few decades could suppress the nightly radiational cooling of the atmosphere and result in warmer minimum temperatures. Even with a slight breeze, the air does not cool as it does when perfectly calm. A thin layer of overcast can likewise limit heat loss to space and prevent the temperature from falling, as can the presence of an air mass with high humidity.
If the temperature only drops to 10 degrees on that mid January night, it would produce a daily average temperature that is 4 degrees warmer than normal, despite the same high temperature of 24 degrees.
When I first moved to the Adirondacks in the very early 70’s, I heard on several occasions that 15 nights during the month of January should be at, or below zero. That seemed to be the case until the 80’s. Over the past decade I can’t recall any year when we have had 15 nights in January with subzero mercury readings. (In noting weather records, I realize that the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s were exceptionally cold. That may have been a function of the “mini-nuclear winter” that occurred after more than 500 nuclear weapons were tested in the atmosphere during that cold war era, or the result of some natural phenomena, and perhaps that saying was only valid for that period when our climate was unusually cool.) On the other hand, I do not believe that daytime temperatures in winter, or during any other season, have risen at all over the past 40 years.
In Stager and Thill’s report, it was noted that June and September are the months that have experienced the greatest increase in average temperature for the Adirondack region. It would be interesting to note if this was the result of an increase in both daily highs and lows, or just mainly in the lows.
An increase in just the low temperatures at this critical time of the year, when the last and first frosts of the season typically occur, would have a profound impact on the length of the growing season, and affect the ability of the region to support non-native plants.
I believe that a warming trend is in progress however, I don’t think that our daily maximum temperatures are much higher. I also believe that our nightly minimums have risen noticeably. As I have stated in my other articles, I do not keep any weather records of my own, nor have I spent the time and effort analyzing available records to ferret out this information. I only speak from 40 years of personal experience noting temperatures and weather events in the Saranac Lake region.
The study sponsored by the Nature Conservancy was a great step in the right direction, however, much more needs to be done. It takes countless hours of sifting through volumes of weather records and analyzing them in numerous ways in order to gain better insight into this extraordinarily complex problem. I wish those individuals that want to explore this issue the very best in trying to secure funding for their research, as valid scientific investigations, rather than undocumented ramblings, are desperately needed to determine what may happen to nature here in the Adirondacks.
A significant part of climate is precipitation, and fundamental to any discussion on the impact that global warming is having on a region’s climate would have to include possible changes to the rain and snowfall patterns. While unusually prolonged periods of precipitation can turn a backcountry camping trip into a nightmare, discourage golfers, boaters, and other outdoor enthusiasts, and frustrate anyone trying to put a new roof on his/her home, or a coat of stain on the deck, too much rainfall, especially concentrated over a short span of time, can wreak havoc with the environment. » Continue Reading.
Global warming has been the topic of numerous articles, lectures and books over the past decade, and while some of these works focus on its causes and on possible ways to slow this impending climate shift, others discuss the consequences of an altered weather pattern on the environment. While I have only limited insight into this extraordinarily complex phenomenon, I do have some opinions with regards to the potential impact that a more thermally energized atmosphere would have on the Adirondacks. » Continue Reading.
The unseasonably mild conditions that our region has experienced during the start of winter has been unusual, but is not unprecedented. In the past, there have been numerous bouts of warm weather and limited snowfalls that have produced similar periods when the ground became bare and the temperatures frequently rose above freezing.
Individuals that lived in the area during 1980 might recall that snow had to be trucked onto the Nordic ski trails because of a near total absence of snow during that January. And in February of 1981, the December and January snowpack completely melted, and the ground started to thaw because of a month long period of record-breaking mild weather.
Most of the invertebrates that populate this climatic zone are well suited to deal with such intense thaws by experiencing a type of dormancy known as diapause.
In summer, when temperatures are ideal and there is an abundance of food, the countless species of bugs that exist in our northern region continually eat and then reproduce by the hundreds if not by the thousands. But as environmental conditions begin to deteriorate, most species prepare for that time when their sources of food eventually vanish and when temperatures cause the transition of water into ice.
For many insects, winter is passed in a protected location either as an egg, or in the pupa stage of their life cycle. During this inactive state, overall life processes are significantly reduced as new body tissues slowly develop. For many other bugs, winter is spent as a larvae, nymph or adult in a sheltered spot where there is some protection from the weather and those predators that remain active during this bleak time of year. For these invertebrates, life slows to a near stop, which allows for their survival on the limited reserves of stored food within their small body.
As a bug enters this dormant state of diapause, its delicate chemical balance changes to allow the moisture within its cells to remain as a liquid regardless of how cold its surrounds becomes. Also, its internal clock is set to awaken the organism at some preprogrammed time in spring, rather than simply when weather conditions become favorable. Photoperiodism, or a response to the decreasing amount of daylight, is the primary trigger that brings about the onset of diapause. For this reason, the vast numbers of various bugs disappear at certain times in summer, or early autumn, regardless of how warm the weather continues to be, and they remain absent from the landscape until a specific time in spring.
Even though few, if any of their natural enemies may be present during a mid-winter thaw, food sources are seldom present, which would make a period of activity at this time of year a waste of energy for them. Also, while the weather may be quite pleasant for a day or two, the temperatures can quickly plunge following the passage of a strong cold front. This would suddenly engulf any primitive, cold-blooded organism in a frigid air mass, eventually leading to its death.
If a bug entered a traditional state of torpor (dormancy regulated by weather conditions), it would tend to remain active well into the autumn just as long as temperatures stay mild, and it would end whenever unseasonably warm conditions developed during a major winter thaw. While most Adirondack bugs use diapause to maintain their winterized body state until spring arrives, some insects do not. During thaws, it is not uncommon to see a few small moths flitting around a light during the evening, or note a mosquito or fly buzzing around an outdoor wood shed or garage. These insects have evolved a state of winter dormancy that can take advantage of such mild periods in winter to carry out small segments of their life cycle when predators are totally absent.
Many people maintain that the best time to hike is during periods of unseasonably mild weather in the latter part of autumn, or in early spring before the bugs emerge. Even snowshoeing or skiing when the temperatures rise into the low to mid 40’s can be great if the sun is out and the winds are calm as there are never any insects to pester you. This is because the internal clock, regulated by diapause in the bodies of our abundant hordes of insects is indicating to them that it is still winter, and hatching from an egg or pupa casing, or emerging from a larval or nymph retreat is not allowed yet. These creatures have to wait until the more official start of the warm weather season four months from now before they can return to an active existence here in the Adirondacks.
As a rule, the severity of the winter becomes harsher with an increase in altitude. In the lowlands, around the periphery of the Park, conditions are more favorable for life, as these valley settings are capable of supporting a wide diversity of flora and fauna. However, closer to the summit of the peaks, the weather becomes as inhospitable as at much higher latitudes, such as near the Arctic Circle, where only a handful of extremely hardy forms of vegetation can flourish to grace the rugged, boulder strewn terrain. Among the woody plants that are successful in rooting in the shallow soil of these frigid, wind swept sites is the balsam fir (Abies balsamea), known as our most popular type of Christmas tree.
The bitter cold atmosphere that prevails at these locations is incapable of holding much moisture, resulting in extremely low humidity. As this ultra-dry air buffets the needles, twigs, and trunk of the balsam, along with the few other species of trees that grow in this zone, it attempts to draw out whatever water molecules are present in exposed tissues.
Similarly, under the crystal clear skies of the long days of early summer, the intensity of the sun at these higher elevations would quickly bake moisture out of surface cells if they were not somehow sealed. It is intense dryness, rather than exposure to low temperatures, that creates a challenge for the various plants that attempt to gain a foothold there.
The resin that gives balsam its characteristic fragrance is fundamental to the fir’s success, as this gooey sap is highly effective in sealing moisture in and preventing desiccation. Even though the soil may often be saturated with water from frequent periods of rain, and prolonged exposure to water laden clouds that may shroud the slopes for days, once the ground freezes in late autumn, the resulting ice crystals can not be taken in by the roots and transported throughout the tree.
Consequently, it is quite common for plants of this zone to be without access to outside water from mid November through April. Any water that is in a plant at the start of the winter must be held there for the next 5 months, or it could suffer debilitating dehydration, or death.
Because of balsam’s drought tolerance, its needles are far less likely to drop off its twigs after the tree has been cut. When placed in a stand containing water, a balsam fir will remain relatively fresh for several weeks. This is considerably longer than other conifers, as some react to the dry inside air by shedding their needles within a week after being propped-up in a living room corner.
Periodic snowfalls and bouts of rime icing that encapsulate the surfaces of everything at upper elevations not only create a picturesque appearance to the terrain, but also are effective at assisting the plants of this region to deal with the issue of dryness. Being encrusted in a layer of dense snow or ice, the needles and twigs are no longer exposed to the evaporating effect of the air, regardless of how strong the winds may become.
Even though the weight of the snow or ice on the branches occasionally becomes substantial, the limbs of fir are adapted to bend, rather than snap. Despite being entombed in ice for well over a month, the branches spring back to normal once the weight falls off, or melts. This ability of balsam branches to support a fair amount of weight allows people obsessed with hanging hundreds of ornaments to completely cover its boughs with all-types of seasonal decorations and not have the branches break.
Aside from making a great Christmas tree, balsam fir contributes greatly to the wildlife community of those areas in which it grows. The ecological role of balsam was best presented by Ellen Rathbone’s article on balsam fir which appeared in the Almanack almost exactly two years ago.
Please remember that while balsam makes a great Christmas tree, it is one of our most flammable trees, especially after it has been indoors for a few weeks. Caution should always be used to ensure that it is a safe distance from heaters, wood stoves and candles; and when its needles start to fall off, it is time to put it outside.
Have a great Christmas and enjoy your Christmas tree, even if it isn’t a balsam.
Winter is the time when wildlife activity ebbs in the Adirondacks. Many residents of our fields and forests have retreated to shelters beneath the surface of the soil in an attempt to escape this season of low temperatures, snow and ice, and little if any food. The woodland jumping mouse (Napaeozapus insignis) is one member of our wildlife community that retires to the seclusion of a cushiony nest underground and lapses into a profound state of dormancy, known as true hibernation, for roughly 6 months beginning sometime in mid-October. » Continue Reading.
There are only a limited number of sounds that can be heard outdoors during the winter in the Adirondacks. While most of these noises tend to carry only short distances, there is one that is loud enough to travel well over a hundred yards. Even when the limbs and boughs are coated with an audio-absorbing layer of snow, the voice of the pileated woodpecker periodically breaks the silence and resounds through our mature woodlands.
Ornithologists are generally of the opinion that the pileated woodpecker uses it piercing, high-pitched “kac-kac-kac” call in winter to maintain contact with its mate during its daily search for food. Unlike most birds, once an adult male and female pileated woodpecker have established a pair bond, they tend to remain together throughout the entire year in the territory that they have claimed. Throughout the day, the birds routinely venture to various areas of the forest in search of clusters of invertebrate matter, especially carpenter ants that have taken refuge within the trees. » Continue Reading.
The recent snowfall that allowed Whiteface Mountain to open this past Thanksgiving weekend proved to be a most welcome weather event for both our region’s alpine skiing community and the multitude of varying hares that reside in those areas of the Park impacted by this late November winter storm.
In early October, the varying hare, also known as the snowshoe rabbit, (Lepus americanus) starts to develop a new outer coat of white fur. These lengthy hairs contain numerous air chambers that increase their insulational value while also allowing them to more effectively reflect light, which gives them a brighter, bleached appearance. As this layer of guard hairs develops, it allows this small game animal to better retain its body heat while also gradually changing its appearance from a brownish-gray to an ivory white that closely matches snow. » Continue Reading.
There are several types of migration that occur in nature. While this term generally brings to mind the long distance flight of birds and a few species of bats, it can also refer to the seasonal movements of numerous creatures that abandon their summer domains on the surface for an environment below the frost line.
As cold air becomes more intense, and nightly temperatures more regularly drop into the teens causing water in the uppermost layer of soil to freeze, most cold-blooded organisms that reside there, particularly the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) must start to migrate down in order to prevent freezing to death. » Continue Reading.