Almanack Contributor Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Adirondack Weather: The Winter Forecast

It is part of human nature to be curious about future events, and with the approach of winter, many people are currently wondering about the severity of the upcoming season. In an attempt to gain insight into the weather conditions for the next 5 to 6 months, some people turn to the scientific community. The Climate Prediction Center, the very long range forecasting division of the National Weather Service, regularly provides its “best guess” weather scenarios for the next 12 months based on oceanic and atmospheric anomalies that are believed to influence global weather patterns.

The Farmer’s Almanac and The Old Farmer’s Almanac are two very popular and long established publications that provide similar general and specific weather forecasts for the coming seasons. While the exact methods employed to devise these forecasts are still considered to be a trade secret, both of these almanacs are believed to rely on solar cycles and other natural phenomena that are thought to influence weather patterns.

As a means of learning what the future holds, some people turn to nature for those subtle “signs” of upcoming weather. Unquestionably, the woolly bear caterpillar is the bug assumed to be the most reliable and accurate in predicting the winter. The woolly bear is a very fuzzy caterpillar roughly an inch in length, identified by a reddish-brown section between the two black ends of its cylindrical body.

This caterpillar emerges from an egg late in the summer at which time it begins to feed heavily on the foliage of a variety of plants. Around the time of the first frost, the woolly bear abandons its feeding routine and starts to search for a sheltered spot in which to pass the winter. A pile of dead leaves around an old stump, a crevice in a rock that becomes covered by snow following the first winter storm, or a nook within a stack of firewood in a shed or barn are likely places where this caterpillar to retreat to and curl up into a ball before slipping into a deep state of dormancy. The reduction of moisture within its body and the development of certain substances in its tissues that lower the freezing point of water allow this caterpillar to survive prolonged periods of frigid temperatures without perishing.

According to popular legend, the width of the middle, lighter colored strip is the key to determining the severity of the coming winter. Should this middle section exceed one-third its body length, winter will be on the mild side, and the longer it is, the milder the winter will be. Scientists have discovered, however, that the relative length of this center band expands as the caterpillar ages. It has also been reported that dry conditions also promotes the expansion of this center band.

Folklore enthusiasts insist that the woolly bear’s coat responds to subtle atmospheric conditions and these factors are instrumental in determining future weather patterns, just like the Climate Prediction Center focuses on la Niña conditions across the Pacific.

Another “sign” in nature said to be useful in forecasting winter weather is the height of a wasp nest above the ground. When wasps build their nest high in trees, it indicates that there is going to be substantial amount of snowfall. However, this correlation doesn’t seem to make sense, as wasps completely abandon their nest during mid autumn. Only the queen wasp survives the winter by burrowing underground; all the workers eventually perish when the temperatures begin to regularly drop below freezing in mid autumn. The location of a wasp nest is based solely on the site the queen believes will provide the greatest level of protection from the predators in that immediate area, not on how future snowfall will impact the vacant nest.

The thickness of the coats of various animals and the bushiness of a gray squirrel’s tail are other “signs” that people cite as they attempt to peer into the future. The density of fur on all animals is regulated by genetics, yet its appearance can be impacted by the weather. For example, a deer’s coat appears to puff out as the temperature drops because of the hair’s response to cooler conditions. It is similar to a person having a “bad hair day” when moisture levels increase and the hairs react by becoming crinkled, or more rigid.

In any event here are the Forecasts:

National Weather Service: Normal temperatures and normal precipitation

Old Farmer’s Almanac: Below normal temperatures, especially from mid Jan through April and below normal precipitation

Farmer’s Almanac: Near normal temperatures with stormy and snowy conditions

Woolly bear caterpillar: (At least the ones that I have encountered.) normal winter conditions

Wasp nest: heavy snowfall winter

My own personal analysis: A mild winter to start with minimal amounts of snowfall into mid Jan. Normal to slightly above normal temperatures for the rest of the winter with above normal amounts of snowfall. (There will be 3 days this winter when the temperature never gets above zero.)

Illustration: The probability of average, higher, or lower than normal temperatures for November, December, and January. Courtesy the The Climate Prediction Center.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Adirondack Entomology: Ugly Bugs

Most insects are known for their unappealing body shape and form and unattractive overall appearance. While there could be much debate and discussion regarding our region’s most strikingly ugly type of insect, the leaf-footed bugs near the top of this list regularly appear around homes and camps with the approach of the Columbus Day weekend.

The leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus spp.) form a collection of insects in the Hemiptera order, or category of insects better known to naturalists as the “True Bugs”. Members of the order Hemiptera are characterized in part by a mouth that is adapted for piercing and sucking. While a few types, like bedbugs, have evolved a mouth for piercing human skin and extracting blood, most individuals in this diverse group have a mouth that is designed to puncture the outer layers of plants and drain some of the nutrient-enriched fluid contained in the underlying tissues.

One of the most prominent type of leaf-footed bugs in the Adirondacks is the Conifer-seed bug which attacks the developing cones on certain evergreen trees in summer. By latching onto cones, the conifer-seed bug is able to extract the sap that supplies vital nourishment to these structures as they form on twigs. The conifer-seed bug is about an inch in length, has a rather robust brownish-gray body, and a small head with a prominent set of antennae. As with all leaf-footed bugs, the lower portion of their hind legs exhibits a uniquely flattened shape, which sets them apart from other closely related True Bugs.

Most similar looking members of Hemiptera, like the Squash Bugs, produce a foul smelling odor when they feel threatened or have been disturbed. Because of this, some people refer to them as stink bugs; however, the true stink bugs form a separate family within the Hemiptera order.

While this potent smell is effective in discouraging attack by those creatures with a keen sense of smell, such as mice, shrews and ermine, it often fails to prevent them from being eaten by most bug-eating birds. Since the sense of smell is not well developed in most forms of avian life, birds typically fail to be impacted by the repulsive odor emitted when a leaf-footed bug, or one of its close relatives, is forcefully grabbed.

People wanting to transport these insects from inside their home can usually trap them under a cup, or simply grab them loosely with their hands. Slightly agitating the cup, or grasping them too firmly, triggers this defensive response, as can be noted by placing your nose near the container, or bringing your hand close to your face just after the bug is released.

While the conifer-seed bug, along with other leaf-footed bugs, is active throughout the summer, its presence is most often noted during early to mid autumn, as the concentration of sap diminishes greatly in trees. As its food source dwindles, this bug begins to look for a place in which to pass the winter. In areas far from human dwellings, the conifer-seed bug is known to seek out a large tree with a deep hole or chamber in the center. Such a sheltered spot offers protection from the extreme cold as well as from exposure to the exceptionally dry air that can cause desiccation. An abandoned mouse or squirrel nest tucked in the recesses of a pile of brush is another spot likely to be selected to spend the winter.

A place that radiates warmth, like the south side of a house, is highly attractive to the conifer-seed bug. It is not uncommon as the leaves turn color to notice one, or several of these ugly bugs perched on a crack around a window, near a door, or close to a vent or chimney. While the body of this insect appears to be fairly chunky, the conifer-seed bug is able to squeeze through some small openings in order to access a more favorable environment.

While the conifer-seed bug, as well as all of the various types of leaf-footed bugs will not harm you, your pets, or your house plants, their presence can be unsettling to many people. Their slow, menacing-looking manner of movement, odd pattern of body markings, and overall ugly appearance makes them unwanted residents in your home for our long winter here in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Conifer seed-bug, courtesy Wikipedia.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Adirondack Waterfowl: Mallards in Autumn

As the leaves approach peak color, all of the region’s birds concentrate nearly all their time and efforts preparing either for migration; or establishing a local winter range in which to pass the winter and locating as many sources of food as possible. However, along with developing the food reserves needed to fuel the journey south, the mallard also spends a portion of its time courting members of the opposite sex, fending off rivals and establishing a pair bond with a specific individual.

While the reproductive season is more than a half year from now, the mallard has already developed its brightly colored breeding plumage and starts to engage in the process that occurs in other birds as the buds are swelling on twigs, rather than as the leaves are falling to the ground. » Continue Reading.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: The Vocal Moose

Most of the mammals that populate our wilderness, including the moose, are not known to produce much in the way of sounds. Like the white-tailed deer, the moose is viewed as silently moving through our woodlands, except for the snapping of twigs and the rustling of leaves that it steps on, and brushes against as it meanders about the forest. However, in the early autumn, the moose becomes more vocal, as it occasionally utters distinct sounds in its attempt to communicate with other moose that may be in the general area. » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Natural History: The Season’s First Frost

It is inevitable. Regardless of how nice the summer has been, a time comes in September when the first frost of the season coats every exposed surface with a layer of ice crystals and brings about the official end of the growing season.

While this event causes gardeners to panic about harvesting nearly ripened vegetables, and homeowners to cover up, or bring in their delicate flowering plants, it also brings about the demise of the many forms of life that are unable to tolerate freezing conditions. While there are numerous living entities in our region that can’t survive temperatures below 32 degrees, most are capable, after developing special adaptations that allow them to deal with the changes that are soon to come. » Continue Reading.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Wild Boar in the Adirondacks?

The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Wildlife is currently trying to develop a plan to deal with the growing problem of wild boars (Sus scrofa) in New York State. Small populations of these sizeable beasts have become established in several sections of the State over the past decade and are wreaking havoc with the local environment in those areas. Because of their adaptability and resourcefulness, it is feared that their numbers could greatly expand if measures are not immediately taken to eradicate this invasive species from the general environment. » Continue Reading.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Duck Hole Dam Breech: What Comes Next?

The massive breach in the dam at Duck Hole, which has led to the demise of the picturesque body of water in the western High Peak wilderness, is initially tragic information to anyone that has spent time at this majestic location. Yet, the healing forces of nature are already at work transforming the muddy plain that now covers a good portion of the site into a meadow in a process known as succession.

Open settings are at a premium in the mature woodlands of the Adirondacks, and any site that contains both rich soil and a healthy amount of moisture will never last more than a single growing season before it is overtaken by vegetation. As a general rule, the herbaceous plants, such as grasses, sedges, weeds, wildflowers, ferns and rushes are the first to colonize such a favorable location. Seeds from these plants are able to travel many miles by a variety of methods which allows them to quickly take advantage of any spot that becomes favorable for growth. » Continue Reading.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Slugs: Slimy, Slow, and Esurient

The arrival of cooler nights with widespread valley fog and heavy dew creates favorable conditions for many creatures that require excessive dampness. Among those forms of life that function best in moisture laden surroundings are the slugs, a collection of invertebrates known for their slimy, unappealing appearance, incredibly slow rate of travel, and ability to wreak havoc in gardens just as produce is getting ready to harvest.

Slugs, along with the snails, are gastropod mollusks. As a general rule, slugs lack the rounded or spiral-shaped exterior shell that typifies snails. There are many different categories of slugs, and attempting to determine the exact identity of an individual can be as challenging as trying to figure out what species of mosquito has just landed on your arm. » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wildlife Handiwork: Beaver Dams

As more frequent rain begins to replace the prolonged dry periods of early to mid summer, water levels in streams and rivers slowly start to rise from their early August lows. Yet, back country paddlers that are hoping to encounter fewer surface rocks and other obstacles that become present during times of low water are likely to be confronted with a new navigational hazard.

During the latter part of August, the awakening urge in the beaver to erect a series of dams, and to repair and heighten any stick and mud barrier that already exists in various waterways, can cause frustration to anyone hoping to encounter an unobstructed flow of water. » Continue Reading.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Adirondack Insects: Fall Webworms

As August progresses, numerous subtle signs in nature arise, indicating that the change in seasons is approaching. Yet, of all of the sights, sounds, and smells that characterize the latter part of summer in the Adirondacks, few elicits as unappealing a response as the appearance of the communal shelters used by the fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea).

During the first week or two of August in the Adirondacks, the silken tents of the fall webworms become conspicuous enough for people driving along a highway, walking through an open hardwood forest, or biking on a backcountry road to notice. These unsightly masses of thin white fibers are woven by over a hundred tiger moth larvae that live inside them and are always placed on the very end of a twig of a preferred tree, like a cherry or willow. » Continue Reading.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Woodland Jumping Mouse

Sitting around a campfire after dusk, it is sometimes possible to catch sight of a small rodent bounding across a section of the forest floor that is illuminated by the glow of the flames or a bright moon. Similarly, a small creature may occasionally be seen in the headlights of a car leaping across a road like a frog, but at a distinctly faster pace. The chances are that both these sightings are of the woodland jumping mouse, a small rodent that is fundamentally different from the species of mice that begin to enter homes and camps toward the end of summer.

On those rare occasions when one of these common forest dwellers is seen around a lean-to or tent, it can be easily mistaken for a regular mouse, as both rodents are nearly identical in size and have similar body shapes and facial features. The jumping mouse however, has a set of hind legs slightly larger than those of a regular mouse. These rear appendages are better adapted for catapulting its body forward when it wants to quickly escape a location. The jumping mouse is known to bound up to three feet at a time, which is ten to fifteen times the length of its body. Along with traveling in a straight line, the jumping mouse can also hop in a more erratic manner, making it more of a challenge for a predator either on the ground or from the air to grab it while it attempts to reach a place of safety.

The most conspicuous physical feature of the jumping mouse is the extraordinary length of its tail which can approach twice the length of its head and body. The tail of a normal mouse is roughly equal to or slightly greater than its body length. The much longer tail of this rodent often becomes noticeable when it is hunched up, nibbling on a berry or a favored mass of fungi which it has just unearthed from the uppermost layer of soil.

As its name implies, the woodland jumping mouse inhabits forested settings, especially where numerous ground plants and shrubs cover the forest floor. This mammal also shows a preference for wooded glades where the soil remains moist in summer. Lowlands along the edges of marshes and swamps, or places where natural drainage is poor and water seeps into the soil rather than runs off, are ideal locations for this abundant creature.

Because the jumping mouse prefers to forage under the cover of darkness, this rodent is not as likely to be seen prowling the forest floor as a chipmunk. Also, since it rarely utters any sound, there is little to draw a person’s attention to this mammal’s presence.

As August arrives, the jumping mouse begins to increase its intake of food. This is partly the result of longer nights for foraging, and an increase in the berries, ground dwelling bugs, and maturing fungi upon which it feeds. The excess food consumed as summer wanes is stored as fat. While a normal mouse begins to amass caches of food around this time of year for use in winter, the jumping mouse relies on its fat reserves to carry it through the colder months.

Unlike other mice, the jumping mouse lapses into a state of true hibernation as its food sources dwindle. After it retreats into a chamber deep in its burrow, the jumping mouse experiences a drastic drop in its body temperature as does the woodchuck and many species of bats.

In the Adirondacks, the jumping mouse is known to begin its winter dormancy as early as the middle of October. This is the time in the autumn when berries and bugs become limited in availability. While small seeds may still be present for this rodent to pick up from the forest floor, the new layer of dead leaves on the ground covers them and makes them harder to find.

Also, a fresh, dry carpet of dead foliage makes it harder for the jumping mouse to remain inconspicuous as it forages. The faint noise created by a mouse as it rustles through the dead leaves may be difficult for a person to hear, but it is more than adequate to alert any predator in the immediate area that a potential meal is active nearby. By slipping into a dormant state until conditions on the ground improve for it in mid spring, the jumping mouse is able to deal with the adverse conditions over the next 6 months.

As the moon develops in brightness over the next few weeks, an evening out in the woods may reveal periodic glimpses of this unique rodent which is active around most campsites here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Adirondack Insects: Paper Wasps

While working around the house this summer, it is not unusual to notice the papery nest of a wasp tucked under the eaves, hidden behind a loose shutter, or placed in some other protected spot. While an encounter with this type of structure may temporarily disrupt a painting project or home repair work, such a sanctuary is vital to the summer success of these familiar yellow and black insects, and should be left alone if at all possible as wasps play a role in helping to control the populations of numerous insects, spiders and other bugs.

Out of an entire summer colony, only a few females that are born in late summer with adequate stores of fat are capable of surviving the winter in the Adirondacks. After abandoning their nest and mating with a male, these individuals typically burrow into the soil, or seek shelter inside a thick, hollow log that will eventually become buried by snow.

During mid spring, when conditions improve, these females emerge from their winter dormancy and begin to search for a sheltered spot in which to construct their papery nest. By chewing on softened pieces of partially rotted wood, and mixing this mass with chemicals in their mouth, the females, known to some as queens, fashion the mixture into a sheet that dries and forms a grayish papery substance. Initially, a small collection of hexagonal cells are produced to house the first eggs laid by the fertile female.

It takes about a week for the eggs to hatch into the tiny, worm-like larvae which remain within the papery walls of their nursery. Because the larvae require a diet high in animal protein, the matriarch of the colony goes in an almost constant search for small insects and other types of invertebrates to appease their appetite.

It takes almost two weeks before the immature wasps are ready to enter the pupa stage, and then nearly two more weeks before the transition into an adult wasp is completed. During this period, the female may add more cells to her infant colony and lay more eggs in order to increase the number of individuals that eventually will inhabit the nest.

By the start of summer, her first in a series of adult offspring emerge from their cells. All of these are females, and they instinctively assume the various chores that must be carried out to maintain the colony. The fertile female eventually settles into the role of simply laying eggs in cells constructed by the recently hatched workers.

During the early summer, wasp colonies are relatively small and contain only a limited number of females. As the number of residents increase, the colony’s need for small insects and other bugs to feed the developing larvae increases correspondingly.

While the larvae require a diet rich in protein, the adults need fluids that contain a high caloric content. Nectar from flowers and juices that develop within fruits and berries, like raspberries and blackberries, are traditionally sought out by adult wasps when they want to satisfy their own hunger.

As summer starts to wane in another few weeks, the fertile female slows the rate at which she lays eggs within her paper covered nursery. Since the increased number of worker wasps now has fewer larvae to feed, their search for bugs eventually turns to a search for the more sugary items that they favor. (In late summer, wasps prefer visiting a table with an opened can of soda, a cup of fruit juice, or some flavorful topping dripping from a burger rather than picking aphids or caterpillars from plants in a garden.)

As the fertile female’s source of sperm dwindles, she will lay a few eggs that fail to become fertilized. These eggs still hatch, but the resultant wasps have only a half set of chromosomes. These individuals are males, and their sole purpose is to mate with those females with an excess of fat in their system that are capable of surviving the winter.
While wasps are noted for the painful sting they can inflict, these insects do help the environment by controlling bug populations. Destroying a papery nest in mid summer before the individuals that can survive the winter develop could impact a wasp population in an area. This in turn allows other bugs the freedom to propagate with fewer checks on their numbers. A simple rule that I try to follow whenever I encounter a wasp nest while painting is: leave the painting project until next spring and go out on the lake.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Turkey Vulture: A Welcome Invasive Species?

Over the past several centuries, there have been numerous additions to the Adirondack flora and fauna. The recent Invasive Species Awareness Week highlighted some of the many forms of life that have invaded the region and are currently wreaking havoc with the established members of the region’s plant and animal communities. However, not all organisms from outside the area adversely impact the environment like Eurasian milfoil or the zebra mussel. One of the largest transplants to the North Country is the turkey vulture, a bird that occupies a niche for which few other creatures are so well suited. » Continue Reading.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Small and Seldom Seen Pygmy Shrew

The vast expanses of conifer and mixed forest that exist in the Adirondacks serve as home to numerous forms of wildlife. While many of these creatures are easy to recognize and lead lives that have been well studied by researchers, others are still shrouded in mystery. Among the mammals that are difficult to identify and which have not been well researched is a tiny creature believed to be widespread across the Park – the pygmy shrew.

The pygmy shrew ranks among the smallest mammals in the world as this miniature creature has a weight of only a tenth of an ounce. This is about the same as that of a hummingbird, or a penny. However, this fuzzy beast is substantially larger than a copper coin with its body measuring about two and a half inches from the tip of its long, wedge-shaped snout to the base of its wiry tail. By comparison, this is about half the length of a mouse, and only one-eighth its weight.

While it would seem that a mammal of this incredibly small size is easy to identify, confusion exists because a related species, the masked shrew, can be nearly as small, and has almost identical external features. Only a detailed dental analysis can positively tell the pygmy shrew from an immature masked shrew.

Since very few studies involving this ultra-small mammal have ever taken place in the Adirondacks, little is known about most aspects of its life history here in the Park, as well as its current status. Almost all of the scientific information regarding the pygmy shrew’s life comes from just a handful of studies that were undertaken in Alaska, Canada and a few other locations where stands of timber exist, especially in northern regions.

Because the masked shrew forages along the forest floor, as do many other shrews, it can be collected by researchers using certain ground traps. The pygmy shrew, however, is reported to spend more of its time in narrow, crayon-diameter tunnels that exist just below the soil’s surface. This prevents the pygmy shrew from being routinely captured by conventional methods whenever surveys of small mammals are performed. Also, since a live specimen captured in a trap is nearly impossible to properly identify in the field, reliable scientific data on the abundance of this species has been a challenge for wildlife biologists to collect.

Like all shrews, the pygmy shrew feeds heavily on invertebrate matter. Spiders, grubs, worms and caterpillars are routinely harvested by this active predator as it probes the nooks and crannies on the forest floor. The pygmy shrew is believed to concentrate more of its time just below the surface in the burrows of voles, moles, earthworms and in tunnels which it makes itself as it pushes its wedges-shaped head into the spongy layer of dead matter that covers the ground. In this way, the pygmy shrew does not compete directly with the masked shrew for food, as this slightly larger species prowls more just above the soil’s surface. While both species are believed to coexist in the same location, and may occasionally utilize the same travel corridors under fallen logs, pieces of rotted bark and partially uprooted stumps, little is known about the interaction between these two species.

While there is evidence to suggest that the pygmy shrew exists in most types of northern woodlands, this creature does show a preference for stands of evergreens that are close to a source of water. The prolific presence of conifers in the Adirondacks, along with the abundance of fresh water would seem to make our wilderness a perfect retreat for the pygmy shrew; however, there is very little hard evidence to indicate that this species of shrew exists in the Park.

It is hard for some people to believe that in the 21st century there still exist creatures, like the pygmy shrew, about which we have learned very little – at what time of the year do they breed, how many litters do they have during a single year, what kind of social structure do they have, how long do they live, and how do they manage to survive northern winters? While sacked out in a sleeping bag at a campsite, there could easily be one or several pygmy shrews only an arms length away engaging in activities that are unknown to anyone.

The wilderness of the Adirondacks is a great place to explore, and there are still many facets of our environment that have yet to be examined.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack natural history.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Waterfowl: The Common Merganser

The pristine waterways of the Adirondacks that are a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts during the summer are also highly attractive to many forms of wildlife. While many creatures are often difficult to spot, others are regularly noticed by kayakers, canoeists, power boaters, and individuals simply sitting on a porch overlooking a busy lake, a quiet pond, or a back country river. Among those forms of animal life routinely seen, especially after the July fourth weekend, are the mergansers, which thrive in most of the larger aquatic settings within the Park.

The American, or common merganser, known to many as the fish duck, is recognized by its narrow, hook-tipped bill and a protruding row of feathers on the back of its head which often gives the impression that this bird is in need of a comb. This crest is far more pronounced in the female than in the male, however, both sexes have this irregularity to the profile of the back of their head. » Continue Reading.

Page 12 of 14« First...1011121314