Sunday, September 14, 2014

September 14, 2014

Lake Wicwas was on the cover of Saturday's Laconia Daily Sun!  Well, not the body of water, but the steamboat "Wicwas", built and skippered by our very own Dave Thorpe. 

There is a nice article about the Lee's Mills Steamboat Meet, the oldest such meet in the country.  If you missed it you can find it on line at

Some parts of New Hampshire were treated to a rare atmospheric phenomenon on Friday night, the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.  I looked for it, but either it wasn't visible from our area, or I didn't have a low enough view of the northern horizon.  But many people in the White Mountain region saw it and posted photographs.  Here is a picture taken at Chocorua Lake by Ron Phillips Photography.

You can see more of his photography at  Auroras are caused when ions that constantly flow from the sun in the solar wind are trapped by the earth's magnetic field.  When these ions collide with molecules in the upper atmosphere, the molecules are momentarily excited, and then release the energy as light.  There was a solar flare earlier in the week which provided a large flux of ions, making the aurora visible in lower latitudes than usual. 

Aurora are most prevalent around the spring and fall equinox, which is just a few days away.  Other sights of the equinox are more visible around the lakes region.  Tiny bits of color are starting to appear on the hills around the lakes, and in the marshes.
A few small signs of turning leaves

It will be a couple of more weeks before the foliage really starts to turn though. 

I discovered a new wild flower last week:  a pretty blue flower with an interesting name:  Showy Tick-trefoil.
Showy Tick-trefoil  (Desmodium canadense)

This plant looks a little like a lupine, and both are members of the legume family.  It is also a host plant to butterflies.  I expect the "trefoil" part of the name comes from the triplet leaves.

A couple of cold nights are in store for this week - the water will be cooling off quickly now.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 7, 2014

All the hot, humid weather this past week made it feel like the dog days of summer rather than early September.  It must have felt that way to the Lake Wicwas creatures as well, as this extraordinary member of the cicada family emerged.
Dogday Harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis)

This crazy looking insect is none other than a Dogday Harvestfly - appropriate for this time of year!  They make a loud buzzing sound, kind of like a power saw;  you've probably heard them on hot summer day.  Although a cicada, this is not one that lies dormant for many years;  this species hatches out after just one winter in hibernation.  (It is also called a Dog-day Cicada.)

The humid weather has also been appreciated by amphibians, as there have been many frogs, toads, and salamanders out during the humid days, including this little Pickerel Frog.

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

On August 17th I noticed a Bull Thistle blooming nearby and have been anticipating goldfinches finding the seeds.  Searching out the plant today, I see that someone has in fact been visiting it.
Thistle Seeds being pulled apart

The lake's young loon is still here, though this picture is a couple of weeks old. 
Juvenile Loon  (photo credit:  K. Crowley)

It will likely stay on the lake for several more weeks before flying off to some unknown bay on the Atlantic Ocean. 

After the summer blast of HHH weather, it was a relief to have some much cooler, drier weather drive arrive for the past two days.  If it lasts for a stretch of time there may be a change in the animal activity we observe around Lake Wicwas.   Perhaps it will inspire the remaining Osprey to join their clan on the trip to South America - the two that have left are already in Connecticut and Maryland.  But as of last week, there was still at least one Osprey visiting the lake.  I saw one several times including this one rising from the water after a very successful dive. 

Osprey and its Lunch
I wonder if this will be my last Osprey sighting for the year.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 31, 2014

As we move past the media-proclaimed end of summer, signs of the harvest season are all around the lakes.  This week I found the remnants of one the most bold and determined acts of obtaining nourishment that the forest offers. 

I noticed a hole the size of a basketball in the ground about six feet off a trail;  I went to determine the explanation.  A foot or two from the cavity was a honeycomb shaped segment of a hornet's nest, which told the story. 
Wood-fiber nest of the Yellow Jacket

Around the hole were more squashed pieces of the nest, and lining the hollow were layers of paper built to form the nest.

The calling card left by the perpetrator further cemented the conclusion.
Bear Scat

A Black Bear had discovered a yellow-jacket nest and decided to make that its lunch.  I can't image how tough a bear must be to submit itself to the torment of an entire, large hornet's nest just for a meal.  There could have easily been several hundred yellow jackets stinging the bear, especially its face and snout.  But it just toughed it out in order to get a protein filled meal of larvae, eggs, and even some wasps. 

The following day there were still a few determined yellow jackets investigating the ruins of their former home.
Searching the Remains

After another day they had all abandoned the site. 

I had noticed that there have been more yellow jacket wasps this year than usual - both in the wild and around our picnics!  The Golden Rod is in full bloom right now, and this appears to be a popular feeding plant for them.
Yellow Jackets on Goldenrod

I suppose they are fattening up too, even if only to feed the bears.  I count six wasps in the picture above - plus another small fly.  This perhaps explains the yellow jacket's color scheme, as they are well camouflaged in the golden rod. 

I would have previously called this a bee's nest, but this scene inspired me to read up a bit on bees, and I learned that yellow jackets, as well as paper wasps, are wasps.  (Hornets are a subset of wasps.)  Wasps are predators, with smooth and slender bodies, and the ability to sting repeatedly.  They will eat pollen, but more often eat sugary plants like overripe fruit, and will kill other insects by stinging them and then feeding their prey to their young in the nest. 

Bees on the other hand - honey bees and bumble bees for example - have fat, hairy bodies and legs which are efficient at collecting and storing pollen.  They also have barbed stingers which cause them to be pulled out of their bodies after stinging something. 

Also on this walk I saw several spider webs glistening in the morning dew, as the spiders are also enjoying the harvest season. 
Two-story Spider Web
They probably would have gone unnoticed if it weren't for the tiny water droplets that had condensed on the webs overnight.
Water Droplets on the Web Filaments

Farther along, beside a marsh, I saw hundreds of these webs.

Had I not seen a few close up I wouldn't have known what these white objects dotting the marsh are.

If you've been following the Osprey tracking site you know that two of our local osprey have left on their trip to South America.  But there is at least one still hanging around Lake Wicwas, and it is also fattening up on the local food supply.
Osprey with a Mid-Afternoon Meal

The shorter days and cool nights are wringing water out of the humid air over the lake in the mornings, and bringing the sunrise back to when it can yet again be observed at a decent hour. 
Morning Mist

Only a few weeks to the equinox now.
Sunrise over Lake Wicwas

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24, 2014

No matter how much I want it be summer for many more weeks, I just can't ignore the signs that it is late August and the season is starting to change around Lake Wicwas.  Some of the weak and wet-footed trees are already showing signs of fall, and the occasional colored leaf has parted from its tree and found its way onto the ground.  The Black Gum trees have quite a few bright red leaves on them as do some of the blueberry bushes along the shore.
Blueberry Bush Starting to Turn
Black Gum (Tupelo)

Another indication is the heavy load of pine cones, hanging off the upper branches of the White Pines like bananas.
Cones on a White Pine Tree

Take a look with a pair of binoculars up at the top of almost any tall, mature pine and you will probably see their fruit.  The Red Squirrels are already chattering at me as I walk near their personal trees loaded with their precious winter food supply.

On a morning kayak I saw three of our large birds:  the Great Blue Heron, the Osprey, and the Loons.  One of these birds, or perhaps a duck or a goose, had been preening itself as there were a few dozen fresh white feathers drifting in the morning sun on the surface of the lake. 

The osprey have been a more frequent visitor the past couple of weeks.  This evening we noticed there were a lot of fish rising to take insects from the surface of the lake, as it was very calm and smooth.  Soon we saw an osprey fly over and take multiple passes over the water, diving in several times, at least once coming out with a fish.  As the bird flew up out of the lake there was a flood of water running off it, leaving a trail on the lake surface as it flew away.  I took these pictures this morning as an Osprey sat in a pine tree waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim under it.


The Osprey fattening up for their long voyage to their winter home in South America is just one more unmistakable hint of coming changes at Lake Wicwas.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August 17, 2014

No sightings of eagles around Lake Wicwas this week, but far on the other end of the avian spectrum I found a tiny new bird:  a Winter Wren.  I have often heard the loud chattering of an unrecognized bird deep in a thicket as I walked by various areas of undergrowth (such as the Black Cherry patch) but could never see the source through the dense foliage.  This particular morning I stopped to look because they were cavorting about an area where an old pine tree had fallen down, crushing a lot of the small trees and thus opening up some sight lines.

I saw four or five tiny, nondescript brown birds hopping around the branches, probably picking small insects - ants, caterpillars, spiders - off the leaves and trunks.  They made frequent short chirps.  I watched motionless for several minutes, and eventually one or two flew close enough to take a fuzzy picture in the dim light, but sufficient to to take home to look up in the nature book.  One photo was good enough to see small white dots lining the edge of the wings, which identified it as a Winter Wren.

Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says Winter Wrens are ground feeders, often found in low shrubs and on fallen logs and trees, further confirming their identity.  I believe these are quite common, but based on their chosen habitat, I had not observed them previously.

Another one of our small birds, the Goldfinch, will likely be visiting soon, as we have a wild Bull Thistle blooming.

Bull Thislte (Cirsium vulgare)
Before long the goldfinch, and possibly the chick-a-dees, will be tearing into these flowers to rip out the tiny seeds.

Maturing Thistle Seeds - a Favorite of Goldfinch


No other animal is likely to touch them due to the incredibly sharp thorns on the branches, leaves, and even blossoms. This plant is also aptly known as a Spear Thistle.
 The blossoms are an excellent source of nectar, frequented by butterflies and bees.  It is also the national flower of Scotland!

The thistle is an ancient Celtic symbol of nobility of character, for contact with a thistle will yield certain punishment.  Here is a legend of how it became the symbol of Scotland, according to
John A. Duncan's "Scottish History Online":

The prickly purple thistle was adopted as the Emblem of Scotland during the rein of Alexander III (1249 -1286). Legend has it that an Army of King Haakon of Norway, intent on conquering the Scots landed at the Coast of Largs at night to surprise the sleeping Scottish Clansmen. In order to move more stealthily under the cover of darkness the Norsemen removed their footwear.

As they drew near to the Scots it wasn't the only thing hiding under the cover of darkness. For one of  Haakon's men unfortunately stood on one of these spiny little defenders and shrieked out in pain, alerting the Clansmen of the advancing Norsemen. Needless to say the Scots who won the day.

Enjoy your quest for birds around Lake Wicwas, large or small, with care - and sturdy shoes!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August 10, 2014: Bald Eagle!

Our son with good eyes spotted an extremely large bird fly into a white pine along the shore line, and after some searching with binoculars we were able to find it, but it was too well hidden behind branches to be able to identify it;  we assumed it was an opsrey, or perhaps an eagle.  But when it took flight across the cove to another pine there was no doubt - this was a Bald Eagle. It perched in the absolute tallest tree along the cove - the cove some call The Emerald Cove, and others call Eagle Cove!  The lighting was difficult, with a bright sky and the sun behind it, but I managed to get a few pictures from pretty far away.

Bald Eagle

I'm no expert, but this bird seemed to be very large, and perhaps somewhat old, as it appeared a little ragged.

But what an impressive bird!

This was the best look I have gotten of an eagle on Lake Wicwas, and it just sat there enjoying its dominion for a long time - enough time to show a few other people where it was.  And there were no loons anywhere to be seen!

There were a couple of other interesting sights around Lake Wicwas, but they pale in comparison to this, and will just have to wait.  I hope you got to see the super moon tonight.  This picture was taken by JB during a moonlight ride on Lake Wicwas on Saturday night after the great Paddle Regatta!
Almost-full Moon on August 9th

Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7, 2014 - Black Cherry

This year I followed the progression of a stand of small Black Cherry trees along one of my favorite routes.  These trees are five to seven feet fall and produce a good crop of cherries almost every year.  The fruit changes quickly, on almost a daily basis except for a month-long period of growth of the green fruit, making it a good study on plant progression.

This stand is growing in an old field, very common for black cherry trees - they need sun and are often found at the edges of fields and along roadsides.  They produce fruit after growing for about 10 years, becoming heavy only after 30 years of growth.  They can live up to 250 years, but usually stop producing fruit after 100 years. 

Their seeds have evolved to benefit from being consumed by animals; not only does this scatter seeds widely, but germination is actually improved by passing through the digestive tract of an animal, a process knows as scarification. One can clearly see cherry pits in bear scat at this time of year.

As with other pit-fruit trees, the Black Cherry has also evolved defense mechanisms.  The leaves, pits, and fruit all contain compounds that break down into cyanide.  The pits also contain enzymes that when ground (or say, chewed) do break down the compounds into cyanide.  The leaves similarly will produce cyanide if eaten by animals.  However, the fruit does not contain these enzymes!  Thus animals let the leaves grow, eat the fruit without chewing the pits, and spread the enhanced pits throughout the countryside to spread the species. 

In a bit of reversal, the Black Cherry has been introduced to Europe, where it is now considered an invasive species!  In New England there are caterpillars that can consume the leaves and perhaps keep the plant in control, where Europe may be missing this factor.

May 23

May 25

June 6

June 15

July 20

July 24
July 26

July 31

Once they get close to ripe it only takes a few days for the local fauna to completely clean them out.  In past years I have seen signs of bears eating the fruit, but this year they were consumed by birds and squirrels before the berries could even fully mature and attain the dark color that gives them their name.  Here is a picture from a prior year showing their dark purple-black color when fully ripe.

I have tried eating them, but they are almost all pit, and they don't really taste all that good.  A bear must have to eat an awful lot of them to get a full belly!