Sunday, February 7, 2016

February 7, 2016

It was another crazy week weather-wise, which is to say, completely normal.  I think the weather and Wall Street are having a competition to see who can be the most volatile this year.  We had 50 degrees and rain which left the lake shrouded in fog and covered with water.

This is February?

That was immediately followed by a tiny snow storm before the lake could freeze, squashing any hopes for more skating.
Now that's better

Then temperatures dropped to 14 degrees, which kept the snow around for a day or two, and making it at least look like winter again.

The cold air returned just in time to save the New England Pond Hockey Classic, with only a few wet spots in the corners of some of the 25 rinks set up on Lake Waukewan.
The ladies ripping up the ice on Waukewan

Cider Bellies kept the players warm with coffee and donuts
The thin layer of new snow made it possible to see who's been out in the woods, and I learned that a pair of foxes cruised through the yard the night after the storm.

These tracks are so small and round that at first I thought they were from a bobcat, but the symmetry of the print and the pyramid between the toes and the heel pad indicate fox.  The pair walked so perfectly in each others foot prints that I never knew there were two of them until the trail separated into two for a short stretch before melding back into one.

The object of their night time excursion was also evident.

Lots of mice tracks throughout the woods, running from hole to hole to find food while evading all the predators, dragging their tails along behind them.

But not all of them were successful in their travels.  One unlucky furry critter popped out of its hole when someone - probably a mink based on the location right on the waters edge - was passing by.

There was only a short skirmish, with little blood shed, but there was clearly a casualty, and some happy mink had secured its dinner.
Short pieces of fur - from a mouse?

All those predators are missing an easy meal by not stopping by our house during the day;  one morning I counted ten red squirrels out running around the house.  And the gray squirrel looks like easy prey, up on the feeder, distracted by its mission.

This volatile winter has brought about many changes in the surface of the lakes - ice, water, snow, slush, ridges and drifts, but has also brought along with it some unusual and spectacular sights.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January 31, 2016

It's hard to believe January is over when it doesn't feel like winter has even started.  Already the days are noticeably longer, and the sun higher in the sky.  The chickadees are even out singing their spring "dee-dee" song.  It has been so warm that the larger lakes are still not completely frozen over, and some loons have lingered here past the point when they lose their flight feathers.  Loons are unlike most birds which lose and replace their flight feathers continuously, one or two or a time - think about how often we see a hawk soaring with a gap in its wings.  But loons are such heavy birds that they can barely fly with all their feathers intact!  That's why they need such a long stretch of water to take off;  if they lost even one feather they would have difficutly flying.  So instead, they molt all their flight feathers at once, leaving them vulnerable for a few weeks with diving their only mode of escape.  They are supposed to do this after they leave the lakes and are on the open ocean, far away from most predators. 

Scientists don't know if the warm weather is causing some loons to stick around, but at any rate, five animals have been rescued by the Loon Preservation Committee on Lake Sunapee, four of which have already been released on the ocean (the fifth is being treated for lead poisoning).  You can read the LPC press release about the rescue by clicking here.  If you become aware of any loons still on New Hampshire lakes during this warm year, contact the Loon Preservation Committee immediately.  In addition to delaying the animal's schedules, the warm winter has also delayed the Meredith Fishing Derby by two weeks, and the Pond Hockey Classic has been relocated to Lake Waukewan.

On one of those warm winter days this week we took a trip over to Prescott Farm, a beautiful environmental education center managed in partnership with the NH Audobon Society, and located in the center of the Lakes Region just a mile from Weirs Beach.
Prescott Farm on White Oak Road near Weir's Beach

It is a wonderful example of early New Hampshire farms, originally encompassing 700 acres, set high on a hill with views of the Belknap Mountains.

The Belknap mountains frame the farm to the south
The property includes well maintained trails through forest, fields, wetlands, and a working sugarbush;  we hiked the Pond Loop and Sugar Trails, seeing lots of animal signs along the way.  At one point we noticed a spot of fresh blood on the trail.
Something was recently injured here

Looking further we saw a porcupine trail and more spots of blood along the trail up to the ledge where it undoubtedly has a den, and down the trail in the other direction as well.  We followed the trail back to see what we could learn.  It wasn't far - porcupines don't cover a lot of territory - before we found the origin of the event.

The porcupine had been dining on the tender bark of these small beech trees.

These trees will likely die, the reason orchard farmers don't appreciate porcupine

When somehow it became injured up on a tree.

Now it wasn't clear just how this guy got injured.  Did it cut itself chewing on something sharp?  Did it fall on a pointed branch?  (Supposedly it's not uncommon for a porcupine to fall out of a tree.)  At any rate, it appears it cut itself up on this beech tree and decided to head back to its den to recover.  At least a porcupine doesn't have to worry too much about a predator following a blood trail - about the only animal willing to take on a porcupine is a fisher, and even that would have to be pretty hungry.

Farther along the hike we came upon the sugar house and some of the tubing ready to collect this winter's harvest.
Sugar Shack at Prescott Farm
Plastic tubing set out to let gravity direct the sap to a central collector

The farm holds educational events in sugaring season.  I wonder what kind of product this year's warm winter and thin snow pack will deliver....

Back at Lake Wicwas we continue to have lots of rodent visitors (the porcupine is a rodent as well, one of the largest).  The squirrels are having fun with their corn cob feeder.

And we've had a little vole scurring around taking advantage of the dropped seeds and corn kernels.

It took a little research to determine what this is, but the short tail, small ears, rounded snout, and daytime excursions distinguish it as a vole rather than a mouse.

It has a multitude of paths running around under the snow, so it pops up suddenly out of the snow in random places with no warning.

It then dashes under a feeder, grabs a morsel, then dives back under cover.

Supervole!  Rescuing that sunflower seed!
So far it has avoided the neighborhood barred owl as well as all the other creatures out hunting for a meal! 

I'll bet the owls had good hunting this week with the bright full moon - I hope you saw it!
The Full Wolf Moon sets over a stand of white pine

Sunday, January 24, 2016

January 24, 2016

Winter is finally settling in on the Lake, though it is not a particularly snowy one so far - unlike our neighbors to the south who really don't want those two feet of snow that fell over the past couple of days.  We received a few inches of snow early in the week which was followed by five days of strong northwest winds which blew the snow around for days.

The snow was deep in those places where the trees caught the wind and dropped the snow down into the forest. 

Streams still running fast from the recent rain cleared out any snow that landed with their grasp.

There was enough snow left behind for some skiing on Lake Wicwas but the conditions varied from windblown crust to soft powder to bare ice. 
Variable conditions cover the surface of a wintry Wicwas
The texture and patterns that the team of wind and snow create are different with every storm, and vary around the lake depending on the contours of the shore.
Diverse snow patterns etched on the lake by the north wind

The first bob-house of the season also appeared on the lake this week.
Ice fishing season has arrived on Wicwas

Most winters we have a visit from one of our more interesting local residents, and it is always a treat.
Flying Squirrel

The flying squirrels may be around all year, but I only see them in the winter, and always at night.  They arrive an hour or two after sunset, clinging to bird feeders with their tiny feet, usually on the coldest nights.

These little guys are very bold - we let them dine for a while, but after we tire of watching them spew copious amounts of seed on the ground, we shoo them away.  And unlike the red or gray squirrels, you have to walk right up to them before they will abandon the feeder - I'm sure it's because they know they can jump off at the last second and glide away to safety.  Their aim is uncanny, always landing right on the trunk of a large tree which they scurry up, disappearing into the darkness. 

This one showed off his best acrobatic tricks, climbing up to the highest point to get the optimum trajectory before finally disembarking from the feed trough.  
Nature does provide plenty of winter entertainment for those of us easily amused.
The Lake Wicwas Flying Circus

Sunday, January 17, 2016

January 17, 2015

Lake Wicwas experienced another typical New England week with just about every kind of weather coming at us over the course of a few days.  First, over an inch of rain fell which raised the lake level up a good eight inches.  Then cold weather followed quickly, crowning the already-smooth lake surface with a sleek glassy cap.

As the water flowed into the lake it raised the level and pushed the ice up, cracking the ice a few feet out from the shore because the ice at the edge of the lake is firmly attached to the shoreline.
A rising lake level pushed up the ice

So we had more good skating on the lake before the next weather event.
Smooth skating, but still sticking to the coves

The next weather event:  a quick snow storm.  And as usually happens after a winter storm in New England, it was followed by a torrent of cold air from the northwest;  this particular blast sent us winds as high as 40 miles per hour.  It was wild on the lake, looking rather like the arctic, and the wind over the smooth ice blew the lake clear again in many places (click below for video).

The rain had also raised the streams which froze over quickly as the mercury dropped, but when the water drained off into the lake, their ice-crust fell back into the streams, showing just how quickly small streams can rise and fall.
Streams rose quickly with frozen ground rejecting the rain, and then receded just as fast

Rushing brooks and cold temperatures always conspire to make glistening winter sights. 

Splashing and freezing water forms crystal stalactites

Arriving with the snow were goldfinches, even more than the last storm - at one point I counted 28.  They filled up the feeder slots, some aggressively guarding their post, others patiently waiting their turn on the taxi way. 

On the blustery day they were often blown off course on their approach and had to circle around to attempt a second landing. 

Blown off course by the Polar Express
"Goldfinch 2 - You're off the glidepath - circle around and try again"
The fact that birds can fly at all in those conditions is an amazing feat, a testament to nature's ability to learn and adapt.  The best algorithms put together by the brightest minds, running on the fastest computers can't manage an autonomous landing in anything near these conditions, yet these small wild animals do it a hundred times a day without even thinking about what they are doing. 

The birds aren't quite as adept at eating as they are at flying - or maybe they are.  All the seeds they drop on the ground are perhaps intentional, as they dig through the seed looking for the choicest morsel in the feeder.  The nuthatches are the most notorious at this, but the squirrels appreciate it.  After the storm I counted six red squirrels on the ground at one time.

Rain, snow, cold, warm, wind, clouds, sun - just another wondrous winter-week in New Hampshire's Lakes Region.