Thursday, January 26, 2017

Winter Wonderland

This has been a fickle winter – cold and snowy, then warm and the snow melts, then back again. But on the whole it’s been, because of the changing warming climate, a winter of record-setting warmth.

A couple of days ago we awoke to find that it had snowed during the night, snow was continuing to fall – and the temperature was 34° F – so the snow was wet and stuck to all the trees and shrubs. A walk through the winter wonderland of the Big Woods was in order; here’s a sample of the delights to be seen –

As I walked, clumps of wet snow fell from the trees, clumps that had an uncanny ability to land on the back of the neck and slither downward. They were occasionally joined by dead branches and limbs, some the size of my entire arm. After the second large one landed less than ten feet from yours truly, the thought of wearing a hardhat became quite appealing.

What was even more disconcerting were the several grand crashes that resounded through the forest as the weight of the wet snow caused entire dead trees to snap and fall –

By late the next day the trees were bare once more and most of the snow on the forest floor had melted.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tracks in the Snow

The winter of 2015-16 saw little snow in northcentral Pennsylvania and so far this winter has been the same; four inches was the most snow we had at any one time, and then it all melted. A few days ago a brief snowfall put about a half inch of the white stuff on the ground; just enough to make it possible to follow tracks but not enough to produce many really well defined tracks.

Tracks in the snow often tell interesting stories, here’s an account of a two-mile walk on an old timber sale haul road and the stories written in the snow.

This walk began at the log landing at the end of the haul road just about two miles from the gate where the road emerges onto the state highway – and here the stories in the snow begin. Two white-tailed deer had pawed in the snow to get at the dry leaves and herbaceous plants in the landing and an eastern coyote had emerged from the woods to cross the landing.

The coyote had headed up the haul road and I followed. The tracks of the coyote intersected with the much smaller tracks of a gray fox –

The fox quickly left the road but the coyote had continued up the road without deviation –

It was soon joined by a second coyote. The two animals traveled together, probably because January is the time of year when coyotes become interested in making more coyotes.

The coyotes continued on together, usually one behind the other, for well over a mile and never left the haul road.

Over all this distance there was only one other set of deer tracks crossing the road. There are quite a few Amish/Mennonite farmers and craftsmen, who reportedly eat a lot of venison, living in the valley below - which may account for a low deer population on this ridge.

After almost a mile and a half a flock of wild turkeys had come down to the road from a nearby spring seep. Although it was hard to distinguish one set of tracks from another, apparently there were 12-15 birds in the flock.

Only a couple of coyote tracks and turkey tracks overlapped, but those indicated that the coyotes passed by after the turkeys had been there.

The turkeys had walked along the haul road for a couple of hundred yards before they left the road and entered an area occupied by large white pine trees.

The coyote tracks continued along the road until they were obliterated by the tracks of two people who had walked in from the gate at the highway, then turned around and gone back.

Although the coyotes' story can be read in the snow, the end is missing.

The climate is changing and our winters are warmer than they were 30 years ago, now all the snow has melted and the stories are unwritten.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Peregrine At The River

Twas the week after Christmas, when all 'long the river
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The walk was unexciting ‘til we got near the bridge,
In hopes that the peregrine soon would be there.

A poet I’m not, so with apologies to Clement Moore, the author of the original, here’s the rest of the tale:

The day was gray and overcast with a stiff wind coming down the river as the three of us walked along. There were no songbirds to be seen nor any of the crows or gray squirrels that are usually active in the band of trees on the riverbank. So seeing a peregrine falcon in the riverside tree where they often perch was almost certainly too much to hope for. 

However, as we got close to the tree we could see the shape of a large bird on one of the limbs. Closer still, we saw that it was a peregrine falcon feeding on something pinned beneath its talons.

It quickly became apparent that the falcon was feeding on one of the pigeons that frequent the nearby bridge. The gray sky and strong wind made photography difficult; a short video shows the feeding bird amid tossing branches –

After watching the peregrine for a while we continued on our way. Later as we returned, there was not one peregrine falcon in the tree but two –

The bird on the right with the bulging crop, the one that had been feeding on the pigeon, is the male of the pair –

The second bird’s larger size indicates that it’s the female –

It wasn't many years ago when there were no breeding peregrine falcons in Pennsylvania, the population eliminated when DDT caused the birds to produce eggshells so thin that they wouldn't support the weight of an incubating bird. Thanks to the efforts of many people and organizations the birds are breeding here again.

It’s a source of continuing pleasure to know that a walk along the river will occasionally yield the sight of a peregrine falcon - or two.    

Thursday, January 5, 2017


It was mid-December and four inches of snow had fallen the night before, the snow fell on bare soil that was frozen following several nights of temperatures below freezing.

The only tracks on the old road were those of wandering deer and of someone riding a fat-tired mountain bike earlier in the morning. Now I was walking along the old road leaving my own tracks alongside those of the bike rider. There was something dark in the snowy rut left by the bike’s tires – a wind-blown leaf perhaps?

But no, it wasn’t a leaf – it was a toad!

It was a toad! An American toad as large as a tennis ball, there in the snow, in the bike’s tire rut, with a temperature of 34°, with no other tracks nearby!

How on earth did the toad get there? There were no tracks in the snow that could explain its presence – no track of a mink that may have dropped a meal it had been carrying, no toad tracks, no depression in the snow where the toad would have landed if a raptor had dropped it from the sky.

The toad was stiff and immobile, possibly still alive, and it couldn’t have been there long, it certainly wasn’t there when the bike rider went by or it would have been a flattened toad.

How on earth did the toad get there? The toad was hundreds of feet away from any place that would be  suitable as a spot for a toad to overwinter. How could the toad have traveled from its winter quarters (usually in a burrow below the frost line) and gotten trapped in the tire rut – at 34° F? This was a toad, not one of the wood frogs that are often active at temperatures just above freezing. Here was even more of a mystery than the dead deer that was the subject of this earlier post

However the toad got into its situation, it brought along some other questions. To the wandering raccoon or opossum the only question would be whether to eat this morsel, and the answer would be determined by whether the raccoon or opossum could tolerate the toad’s noxious skin secretions.

But to a human there was another question in addition to how and why it got into the tire rut. Assuming the toad was still alive and uninjured; it would almost certainly die as the temperature dropped to well below freezing at the end of day – should the toad have been rescued or should it have been left to its fate? 

Which course I took I’ll not say. In part that’s because whatever I did some of you will say I was wrong. But primarily it's because everyone needs to ponder and then decide what to do since the answer is much more complicated than it would first appear.