Sunday, December 5, 2021

December 5, 2021: Ebb and Flow

Ice is starting to form on the lakes now and every year it takes a different path.  This year Lake Wicwas is imitating an ocean with the ice ebbing and flooding like the tides.  The first ice appeared along the edges of sheltered coves on November 29, accentuated by a dusting of snow over night.  

Nov 29th

The next day was cold, and dawn on December 1st revealed the sheet of ice had crept half way across the cove.  

Dec 1st, 8:15 am

That night a couple of inches of snow fell and filled in the entire cove with a slushy layer that would be a stretch to call "ice" but nonetheless, there was no open water on that foggy morning.  

Dec 2nd, 3:15 pm

But the wind picked the next day and soon the slush was worn away.

Dec 3rd, 9:30 am

As the day progressed the wind eroded the ice most of the way back to the far shore.

Dec 3rd, 2:45 pm

That night it was calm and cold again - at 19 degrees the coldest of the season I think - and the ice advanced again.

Dec 4th, 8:30am

But this day was calm and barely rose above freezing so the ice held its ground throughout the day.

Dec 4th, 10:00 am

And this morning:  Another cold, calm night let the ice creep out the farthest yet, this time highlighted by a veneer of graupel.

Dec 5th

All of the cove was frozen except for the area north and east of the point on the right, and last night Jack Frost was particularly creative in designing the artwork on the clean canvas of lake after the graupel fell.

The area of ice between the shoreline and yesterday's ice.

These are some of the more dramatic ice patterns I've seen on the lake.

Graupel forms inside a cloud when super-cooled water droplets freeze onto an ice crystal churning around in the cloud.

This bit of graupel fell last night.

 As more ice builds on the particle its mass increases until finally gravity pulls it down from the cloud to the ground.

Graupel along with a few uncorrupted snow flakes.

There's no way to predict the weather well enough to guess when ice-in will occur, but the fact that significant portions of the open lake have had skims of ice means that it could be soon; a couple of cold, calm days could do the job.

There was some unexpected goose activity on one of those cold, blustery nights.  For about 30 minutes well after sunset there was a raucous explosion of geese squawking and honking out on the lake.  I can't imagine what they were arguing about at that time of night in dark December - unless some members of the skein (flying group of geese) were revolting at the leader having brought the formation down in that cold, dark, windy spot for the night!

Winter is coming on strong now, though the inch or two of snow we picked up earlier in the week was the first measurable snow at the lake.

It wasn't much, but it at least gave us a hint of winter and dreams of a white Christmas to come.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

November 28, 2021: Honey Mushrooms

A few weeks ago (See October 24 post) I noted a huge growth of mushrooms surrounding an oak tree on the trail up to Crockett's Ledge in the Hamlin town forest.  I looked into what kind of mushroom it was and I believe it's a Honey Mushroom.  I've been fascinated with mushrooms and fungi in general since I learned about the essential role they play in life on earth - without fungus living in the soil and feeding plants including the tallest trees in the forest, there would be no plant life as we know it.  Now when I see the fruit of some fungus reaching up above the soil I think about what's going on down below where the vast majority of the organism is working to break down materials into nutrients they feed to the roots of plants.  But looking up information about the honey mushroom I learned there is also a dark side to fungi, and the honey mushroom is one of the evil ones.  

A small growth of honey mushrooms wreaking havoc on this hemlock.

Rather than decomposing residual material in the soil, the honey mushroom attacks the living roots of the host tree - thus they are often found ringing the trunk of tree, commonly oak.

This is the crop of honey mushrooms that got my attention earlier this fall.

As the fungus eats away at the roots it may kill them completely or weaken them to the point that they can no long support the tree and it's uprooted by the wind.  Even worse, like most fungi the honey mushroom sends out threads underground for several meters which allow it to spread to other trees.  This is one mushroom worth watching for; it can be controlled by an arborist using a fungicide.

Another danger to watch for - particularly this time of year while they are hungrily on the prowl to fatten up their winter stores - are bears.  The current issue of NH Fish and Game Wildlife Journal has a good article about the danger of feeding animals both intentionally and unintentionally and how it leads to their demise.  The focus is on deer and explains how feeding them interrupts their digestive system because it takes ungulates two weeks for their multiple-stomach system to adapt to new food.  This resulted in the death of 12 deer in South Hampton when they ate corn and other grains that their system wasn't prepared for.  

Another well known animal impacted by human food is the black bear.  Being omnivores, bears can digest most human food (but not chocolate!) so the issue isn't the food itself but rather the interaction with humans.  And it's not safe to put those bird feeders out yet - Harry Clymer sent me these photos of three black bears foraging through his yard for apples:

A black bear harvesting apples.  Photos by Harry Clymer.

Great pictures Harry - thanks for sharing!

The bears will be out until we get a good cold stretch, which at the moment is nowhere in sight.  The article discusses both of these animals' plight from human interaction; if Fish and Game posts the article on their website I'll share it.  

On the water, we haven't seen many of the interesting migrating ducks yet but a lot of mallards have been stopping by the lake.  On Thanksgiving we had a flock of about a dozen mallards swimming around and dredging up acorns from the bottom of the lake where overhanging oak trees dropped their seeds in preparation for the ducks' Thanksgiving Day feast.

Part of the fleet on Thanksgiving Day.

Three drakes court a single hen.
Dabbling for acorns along the shoreline.

We also had a couple of visits by what appears to be a juvenile loon.
Could this be one of our loon chicks?

I wish there were a way to tell whether this is one of our chicks or a visitor from another lake.

One last nature note:  On Thursday we watched a pretty bobcat prowling all the way down along the far side of the road - I'm sure it was in search of a turkey dinner.  I hope you had a great Thanksgiving Day - without having to scour the forest or dive in the lake for your meal!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

November 21, 2021: A Southern Expedition

We enjoyed a week down in South Carolina to visit family, with the added benefit of missing out on a week of November drab.  I knew we were out of our region the very first morning when we were awoken at daybreak by a bird song we don't hear in New Hampshire, a Carolina Wren.  On our excursions in the low county, guided by our expert host, we experienced plenty of other southern creatures including this little lizard in a cypress swamp.

Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei)

The south has plenty of invasive species of its own, among them is the brown anole, a native of Cuba and the Bahamas which was introduced to America as a pet.  Its journey began in Florida and has been making its way northward, expanding its range rapidly by easily out-competing species of native lizards, though it's unlikely to be seen in New Hampshire anytime soon.

And what would a visit to a southern swamp be without a snake?  

Perhaps a Mud Snake.

I don't know what kind of snake this is, but it may be a Mud Snake based on its coloring and its location at the edge of the swamp, into which it slithered upon our approach.

You can barely make out the coloring on its underside which makes me think its a mud snake.

Along the edges of the swamp many southern plants were still in bloom including this hibiscus with a pretty yellow butterfly enjoying its nectar through its long proboscis.

A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae) on Hibiscus Moscheutos.

We observed quite a few birds that we do see in the Lakes Region during the summer months including great blue herons and great egrets.  

Great Egret (Ardea alba) on a lagoon.

Great blue heron on the far side of the same lagoon.

The great egret is rare visitor to New Hampshire's lakes, while the great blue heron is abundant here. 

The snowy egret looks like a smaller version of the great egret except it has a black beak and those yellow feet:

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) on a different lagoon.

I've never seen a snowy egret in New Hampshire though their range maps show them breeding along the east coast as far north as Casco Bay in Maine.

Other fun birds to watch are the ubiquitous brown pelicans along the ocean shoreline and in the creeks.

A group of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) take a free ride up Shem Creek on the flood tide.

I also observed multiple flocks of vultures soaring overhead on the warm updrafts.

Black vultures searching for food on the updrafts.

It wasn't until I saw a few closer to earth that I realized they are a different species than the turkey vultures we have in New Hampshire.

Black Vulture (Coragyups atratus)

These are Black Vultures which don't travel north of Long Island, but according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where they do overlap with turkey vultures they follow the turkey vultures to locate food because unlike turkey vultures, black vultures have a poor sense of smell.  The white underside of the wing tips was the most obvious difference, but the black head versus the the red head of the turkey vulture is also distinctive.

Finally, I'll share a couple of southern plants, one small, one giant.  First the small:

Rice growing about four feet high along the Ashley River.

Rice was once a major cash crop in South Carolina, starting in 1685 when a ship carrying rice from Madagascar was forced into Charleston by a storm.  The industry flourished until the end of the Civil War when labor became scarce; rice farming ceased in South Carolina by the early 1900s and is now rarely grown.  [REF:  Carolina Plantation Rice]  This was a demonstration field at the Middleton Plantation.

Now the large plant:

A Live Oak generously adorned with Spanish Moss.

Live oaks can grow for centuries, up to 400, maybe even 500 years.  This specimen and several others at Middleton Plantation were saved from the lumber axe to provide shade around the plantation's mansion.

As soon as we arrived back in New Hampshire we were greeted to a day of snow squalls, and after being no more than a dozen feet above sea level all week, I needed a blue-sky mountain fix.  The Squam Range's Mt. Morgan and Percival filled the need nicely.

Looking south from Mount Morgan.

Many thanks again to our gracious host for another great visit to the Low Country!  Now I'm ready for snow!

Sunday, November 14, 2021

November 14, 2021: Bucks on the Prowl

There's no denying it's November now.  A few frosty mornings this week betrayed Jack Frost on some early visits to the lake.

There are now far more drab leaves than bright ones around the lakes.
But the bright ones really stand out.

Especially when tinged with frost like these oak leaves.

One chilly morning there was even a thin skim of ice in some of the more protected marshes on Lake Wicwas.

The first bit of ice appeared on November 7th.

But the days have been nice enough to get out and observe the many changes that take place this time of year.  Something I keep my eye out for in the November forest are signs that the rut has begun - when the white tail deer, in particular the bucks, increase their activity.  Some of the signs to watch for are bark rubbed off trees at waist-height by antlers, and scrapes on the ground made by hooves, both of which are used to mark territory with visual and olfactory indicators.  So far this fall I've seen only scrapes, but along one short stretch of trail there were half a dozen examples.

A buck repeatedly marked this trail with scrapes.

A buck will scrape up the leaves and a bit of soil with their front hooves and throw the material quite a few feet behind it.

Leaves and duff thrown right across the trail.

Sharp hooves dig in to release aromatics within the soil.

This scrape shows the typical V-shaped pattern of the scrape they make with their front hooves:

The exposed ground will leave a pungent odor as well as a visual clue that tells every doe he is in the area, and the buck will often urinate in the scrape to reinforce the message.  This also leaves a proclamation to other bucks that he has claimed this territory and the resident does for himself.  The number of scrapes tells me this buck wants to leave no doubt about who owns this piece of the forest.

On what may have been my last paddle on the lake this fall I thought I saw a loon take off in the distance in front of me, but it circled around and returned to fly almost right over me which let me see that it was a cormorant rather than a loon.  

Double-crested cormorant

It did seem like it took wing in less distance than a loon typically requires.  

The low sun even at high noon reminds one that it's November even it if feels like August. 

Seven minutes after noon and the sun is still low in the sky.

It's always sad to think I might be on my last liquid-lake trip of the year, but at least it was a beautiful day for it.

Not many of these days left this year.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

November 7, 2021: A Final Farewell to Coco and Jimmy

It's hard to watch your your kids grow up and leave the nest, but you know it has to happen, and it's for the best.  And it's especially hard when you don't know if you'll ever see them again, which is case with Coco and Jimmy.

I haven't seen either of them in over two weeks now so I'm assuming they have left the lake for their new home for the next five or so years on the Atlantic Ocean.  There's a good chance they will return to Lake Wicwas when they're ready to mate, but if the lake is fully occupied they will be sent away to find their own place to live.  Either way, we'll never know where they end up, but here's their life story as far as we know it.

Their story began when their parents first considered building a home on a small self-built hummock near the outlet of the lake.

May 3rd:  Scouting for a home near the outlet.

But ultimately it was deemed, probably by the female, not suitable for raising a family.  It's worth noting here that this female was a new mate to the male which has been here and nesting with the prior female for several years; it will be interesting to see what the mating situation is next summer.  Ultimately they selected a well protected spot on a small island in Marion Cove.

June 2nd:  On the nest.

The usual two eggs were laid in the nest soon thereafter.

June 18th: Two eggs observed during a shift change.

June was warm so the parents had to switch off frequently during the 28 day incubation period to cool off in the lake.

June 7th:  A parent returns from a dip in the lake.  Photo by Dave Thorpe.

June 10th:  Dad doing nest duty (note white band with black dot).  Photo by Dave Thorpe.

Then on June 26th, a little chocolate-colored puff ball appeared.

June 26:  Coco arrives.

When it was observed that both parents were off the nest and the second egg was abandoned, we thought Coco was going to be an only child.

June 26:  The second egg unattended.

But later that day a parent returned to tend to the second egg, and on June 27th, little Jimmy appeared.

June 28th:  Coco and Jimmy hitch a ride on the protection of a parents wings.

Under the dedicated care of both parents the chicks grew quickly in size, molting their first dark fuzz to their second set of brown feathers in a couple of weeks.

July 14th:  A new color of feather on the chicks.

A continuous diet of fresh fish and the occasional crawfish nourishes them for the rapid development needed to be able to fly by November.

July 19th:  Mom brings in some shellfish.
Note the red and yellow/black bands on mom.

In about six weeks they have grown tremendously, and white chests have emerged.

The family on August 1st.

This foot wag on august 14th shows they still have room to grow.

Another couple of weeks and they are molting their brown feathers for their sharp juvenile coloring.
August 14:  Mom with Jimmy, with just a few fuzzy feathers still hanging on.

August 20th:  Dad with Coco looking quite grown up.

As they grow, so does the food the parents bring them.
August 20th, one big fish goes down the hatch.

They are catching some of their own food at this point but are still dependent on mom and dad for most of their sustenance.  And the parents are providing well as they continue to develop quickly.
August 24th:  Spreading their wings - and showing off their new clothes.

They are now too large and similar to be able to tell them apart by sight.
August 24th:  Difficult to identify who's who.

But their behavior is much different.  One chick, Jimmy, is always at mom's side, while the older Coco other often goes off to explore on her own.
September 25:  Coco off on a solo excursion.

Dad is often absent now with mom taking care of both chicks which continue to beg her to catch food for them.
September 25:  Begging for lunch.

But everyone knows that soon mom will be heading for the ocean as well.  

My last sighting of the chicks was on October 21st.  
October 21st:  The last time I saw Coco and Jimmy.

I'm guess that was the last time I will see the two newest members of the Lake Wicwas family.  But when a new loon arrives on the lake five years from now, I'll always wonder, is that Coco?  Is that Jimmy?  

Lake Wicwas has now successfully fledged two chicks over each of the past three years, and a total of seven chicks over four years.  Many thanks go to the all the loon watchers and caretakers both on the lake and at the Loon Preservation Committee for this remarkable feat.

I'm sorry to report there is also another loss on the lake.  Coco and Jimmy were nested and hatched on a small island protected by the Harris family along with many acres of land along the shores of Lake Wicwas.  Joan Newcomb Harris passed away on October 23rd, two days after Coco and Jimmy were last seen on Wicwas.  Joan and Norm Harris were dedicated conservationists who committed much of their lives to protection of wildlife and its habitat, and to educating the public about the value of nature to all of us.  You can read her obituary here.  Joan will be missed by all who knew her, and appreciated by all who watch the loons, and paddle the shores of the Harris conservation lands.