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.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

January 10, 2015 - Ice In

Winter has progressed enough to have finally frozen Lake Wicwas, even if today looks rather April-like as a foggy 45 degree sky rains down upon us.  Cold weather earlier in the week locked up the middle of the lake when the wind let up on January 6th.
January 5th:  Still lots of open water

January 6th:  Frozen over after a cold, calm night

This was the latest ice-in I have seen, the previous record set in the winter of 2012-13 when the lake froze on January 4, 2013 - the only other time it occurred after New Year's.  I saw ice fishermen on Lake Waukewan which is least partially frozen;  I wonder if they will have to use Waukewan for the Pond Hockey Classic this year as they did in 2012 when Meredith Bay didn't freeze in time.  The Bay is still wide open at this point.

The new ice wasn't safe to go on, but the old ice around the edges was six inches thick with a good surface for skating, so I had my first excursion onto the lake in two months.

I wasn't the only, or the first creature to venture onto the ice.  I saw several tracks on the ice, some made when the surface was still soft, including these fox or coyote tracks that went right across the thin new ice.
Canine tracks heading to and over the new black ice

An otter had been out belly-sliding on the slushy lake surface across one of the coves.
Otter love to push themselves along the ice, sliding along like a seal

After the surface froze hard, a tiny layer of snow was extracted from a cold night and spread the perfect surface to record the passage of this mink along the shore line.
Mink tracks in a trace of snow

Our mink must be doing well these days, as these are on the large end of the scale for mink prints, which range from 1-1/4" to 2" long (Rezendes, Tracking and the Art of Seeing, pg. 118)  They are undoubtedly from a mink based on the behavior, poking all along the shore line, exploring all the crevices in the bank and jumping up on the shore on occasion looking for an inattentive squirrel.

So, evidence of canines and weasels on the prowl for food, and of course, the hunted:  lots of rodents.  Even the chipmunks have been out enjoying the warm winter, though I don't think this one will last long based on its lack of respect for potential threats.
A fearless chipmunk won't grow old among the region's many adept hunters

Large areas of the forest are littered with a blanket of hemlock cone shells dropped by the red squirrels which are plentiful this winter.

Including this pretty sight one morning.
Lots of squirrels up in those trees

Rain today, cold weather tomorrow - when will mother nature make up her mind?  Without a drastic change in the weather pattern, skiing and snow shoeing will remain elusive.  Perhaps skating will be the main event now that the lake is finally frozen.  I'll spare you the sad sight of today, ending with a more pleasing memory from this past week:  a summer-like sunset.