Sunday, December 30, 2018

December 30, 2018: When life gives you lemons, go skating

Where is the snow?  It was another week of waiting for winter to return.  There wasn't quite enough rain after Friday's snow to completely saturate it and keep the skating pristine, so today it wasn't  quite as good last week when it was just about perfect.
Black ice as smooth as glass
Another successful day of ice fishing
Not much snow on those fields behind the lake

Though even today it's still good enough for a full perimeter skate.

The bit of white stuff that did fall quickly changed over to sleet and then rain, creating another frozen,  though beautiful mess.

Once again the snow conditions aren't very conducive to hiking or wildlife tracking, so there's not much to report on what's happening around the lake.  I can report that the squirrels are hungry and very active, even in the pouring rain.

Confident that the bears are hibernating now, we put out all the bird feeders and the squirrels are attacking them with unusual tenacity even though they have their own feeder to enjoy.

But there are so many squirrels - and with the head honcho hogging the handout, the others have to go hunting elsewhere.
Please, feed me?

Such a weak mast crop this summer following a prolific rodent season means tough sledding for the squirrels this winter.  Watching them chase each other around through the trees, jumping from branch to branch, do you ever wonder if they sometimes fall?  Although I've never seen it happen, the answer apparently is yes, and quite often.  [Ref:  Watch Out for Falling Squirrels, Brenda Charpentier, The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests]  This report says falls are not uncommon, but they are rarely fatal, as the squirrel's low mass, thick fur, and especially their large, fluffy tail slow their fall and cushion their landing.  The above article reports a leap from a fourth story window onto a tiled patio without injury. 

In addition to being good entertainment,
Entertainment on a rainy day
they are very important forest creatures.  They plant trees constantly by burying seeds and nuts which they end up forgetting about, and they are an important food source for many predators in the New Hampshire forest.

Remember the many reports of squirrels swimming in water bodies all over New Hampshire this past summer?  Maybe next we'll see them out skating on the ice.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

December 23, 2018: Winter Solstice

Well, it wasn't what we expect the first day of astronomical winter to be like:  the temperature was in the 40s, and it poured rain most of the day.  But the day certainly didn't start out that way - all over the Lakes Region people were treated to a blazing sunrise:
Dave Thorpe captured this gorgeous sunrise as morning dawned on the winter solstice
Thank you Dave for sharing that beautiful start to a dreary day.

Then on the first full day of winter it was more like the first day of spring - foggy, warm, and everything melting fast.
The first day of winter?

Much of our early snow has washed away and what's left wasn't good for much of anything - skiing, tracking, or even walking due to deep puddles on the trails.
Frozen ground impedes water seepage, forming large puddles
Streams are running fast like the spring freshets

Because of the ugly forecast for the 19th I took my winter solstice hike a day early, hiking up Red Hill for the third year.  It's becoming a tradition.
The Red Hill fire tower stand tall in the blue winter sky

The southern White Mountains from the Tripyramids to Chocorua

It was a beautiful clear New Hampshire day with blue sky north and south except for down low over unfrozen Lake Winnipesaukee where mist was rising and condensing in the cold morning air.
Steam rises from Lake Winnipesaukee with the Belknap Range behind

There were a couple of inches of nice dry snow above 1200' elevation and the only tracks down the Cabin Trail were from a deer that took advantage of the well packed snow, using it for a good half a mile.
Deer tracks in fresh snow on Red Hill's Cabin Trail

Earlier I had been up on Arbutus Hill and the White Mountain Ledge in the Hamlin Conservation Area and found other signs of deer.
This deer rub is on a maple sapling

Bucks rub their antlers on small trees, especially hemlock, both to put their scent on it and to help rub off the antler's velvet.  With mating season over they will lose their antlers over the next few weeks.  Since their antlers fall off every year, why don't we find them in the forest?  It's because they are loaded with valuable minerals, so the woodland animals chew them up as soon as they sniff them out them.  If you look in active dear yards in the spring you may find one; its suggested to avoid deer yards in the winter so not to drive animals away from their yards which afford them protection from harsh winter weather and predators.

I'm still thinking the bears are gone for the winter, but this warm spell might change that - we'll see.  Back in early November, when they were still very active, a good size bear was captured on a trail camera as it took a stroll along the shore of Lake Wicwas.  Bruce Bouley captured this video of it; definitely worth watching - it's one big bear!  Thanks Bruce!

In addition to bears, the thaw may bring skating back, but only after a good solid freeze; the integrity of the ice is unknown at this point.  I hope the bob house that appeared on Lake Wicwas last week made it through the thaw.
The first bob house of the season appeared on December 16th

Last night's chill followed by seasonal temperatures today should get things moving back in the right direction.  And we may have missed the full cold moon on the solstice, but we had a second chance to enjoy it this morning.
The Cold Moon sets over Wicwas

Sunday, December 16, 2018

December 16, 2018 - The Mighty White Pine

"From little acorns mighty oaks grow"

We have all heard that proverb.  But even more mighty than the oak is New England's White Pine which towers above even the largest oak in the forest.

While doing some boundary monitoring on a conservation easement I saw some of the largest pines I have come across.
A towering white pine

I expect some will recognize the location.  I went back to take some measurements and found the tree shown above has a circumference of over ten feet!

But have you ever seen the seed of the mighty pine that hides inside the cone up at the top of those trees?  I hadn't, but I know they're in there, not only because tiny pine trees sprout up everywhere, but also because red squirrels spend so much time tearing those cones apart.
Stripping a pine cone, staring at the stem end
Working its way down the spine
Just about empty
Hey, you watchin' me?
Scraps left underneath the kitchen table
Watching this diligent effort to extract those seeds motivated me to pick up a couple of cones and dissect them to learn about what lies inside.
The very beginning of three white pines - one seed is attached to the pointy end of each scale

I was surprised to find just how tiny they are.
The numbers indicate centimeters

At five millimeters in length they must pack a lot of energy to warrant the effort expended by so many animals to access them.

After extracting those seeds it took me quite a while to remove all the sap from my hands, which made me recall a video I had taken of a squirrel eating pine seeds.  At the time I wondered what it was doing after its meal, but now I realize it was cleaning its tiny paws of all that pine sap.  You can watch it here.  You'll also notice it was not happy with my presence in its territory.

If you want to see how it stripped the cone, you can watch a shorter video here.  It must peel off one scale at a time then extract the seed attached to it.  The scales are also called "wings" since they help distribute seeds away from the mother ship when the wind blows.  [Ref:  NC State University]  They perhaps aren't as sophisticated as the helicopter wings on a maple seed, but they certainly do the job to propagate pine trees, especially when aided by the squirrels caching cones away in various places for winter food.

It's a wonder of evolution that this tiny seed can take the nutrients provided by earth and atmosphere (and the symbiotic efforts of other life forms such as fungi) and grow into the enormous structure of a 150 foot tree.  It makes one wonder why the oak gets the proverb when the size ratio of seed-to-tree of the pine outshines the oak by orders of magnitude.
A massive white pine on the Magenta Trail in the Smyth Easement
And in an interesting coincidence, check out the white pine in this post that the Lakes Region Conservation Trust posted just yesterday.  The trees shown here pale in comparison to that monster.

A final note:  the ice did freeze up enough this week for some smooth skating on the entire lake.  Snow forecast for tonight might end it, but if there's only a little it might blow off again.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

December 9, 2018: Ice In

After the failed attempt at ice-in on November 22nd, Lake Wicwas froze over again on December 6th, and this time I think it will stick.  On December 3rd there was a significant portion of the lake open.
December 3rd

By the 4th the wind had blow it out even more.
December 4th

But on the 5th the wind let up and by the next day it was frozen over, and though it looked like it was snow-covered it was just the thinnest dusting from an overnight flurry.
December 6th

By the next day those flakes had blown around and the ice was evident.  And out in the middle where it had just frozen, it looks like perfect, smooth black ice.
This could make for some great skating

I did get to skate on December 6th in Marion cove which has been frozen for three weeks and is already 8" thick.

Although the lake is frozen, the edges are still very thin with some open areas including those that the animals - such as beavers - have made to escape one last time before they are locked in for the winter.
A hole in the ice at one of the beaver's favorite trail heads

Here's the evidence they left  to prove they were out after the most recent snow.

I found evidence of a less common animal on a hike to Welch and Dickey mountain in Thornton, up at an elevation of 2700'.  Their track is distinct;  only a member of the Leporidae family makes these track patterns:
Snowshoe hare tracks in fresh snow

These are a rare sight for me though I do see them occasionally in the Meredith Community Forest and the Hamlin Conservation Area.  It's hard to believe they can eke out a living all winter in the barren habitat high in the White Mountains.  They must tough it out just so they can live in such a beautiful place.
The Kinsman, Cannon, and Lafayette Ranges (L to R) from Dickey Mountain

Back at the lake the recent the thaw-freeze cycle has left some interesting ice formations.

No skating on this sinking puddle!
With cold and dry weather in the forecast these will be visible for quite some time.  And, if it stays cold and the snow holds off long enough, there will be some great skating out there now that the lake is frozen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

December 2, 2018: Bears are Back

Last week Lake Wicwas had frozen over after the cold snap and I was interested to see if the ice could hold on - well, it couldn't, and the warmer temperatures this week allowed a good portion of the lake to open up again.
Thursday, November 29.  There is much more open water today.

So we'll keep watching but we won't have a record ice-in this year.

If you didn't see the late edit to last week's post, the bears are back on the prowl.  After snow and a few days of bitter cold I thought they might be off to bed for the winter, but on Sunday there were fresh tracks to be found, and more on Monday.
That track was made by a bear in its slow, alternating walking gait, with the footprints appearing pigeon toed as is usual.  [Ref:  "Tracking and the Art of Seeing", Paul Rezendes, HarperCollins, 1999]  The prints are mostly direct-registered (meaning the larger hind foot falls directly on top of the smaller front footprint.  The print at the far left shows where the hind foot just overstepped the front foot.

Bear tracks this clear are easily distinguishable, as they look a lot like human footprints.
They are almost the same size too.

So the birds will just have to wait a bit longer before the feeders go out - it's a benefit to have snow on the ground to make it clear when bears are active.  And snow we have.  The snow in the Lakes Region isn't suitable for skiing at this point, but a bit farther north it's a different story.  The White Mountains received two feet of snow last week and the early skiing is the best ever.
Summit of Loon Ski Area on November 30th

With the rapid onset of cold weather I didn't get to see many migratory birds - I think they took the non-stop flight from Canada to the coast this year.  I saw a few mergansers early in November, a few other birds off in the distance, and then these two just before the cove iced over.

And that's about it.  Though just  few days ago a friend on Lake Waukewan saw a flock of 50 mergansers on Waukewan, all of them lined up in a row. (Thanks TS!)
Can you see the long line of ducks?  Photo by Anthony Sabutis
Here they are a little closer.

A year-round resident, and one of the most impressive in our region, also made an appearance this week.  Even though it was far off in the distance, its size and distinctive wing pattern distinguished it as our largest raptor, the bald eagle.
Hiding from the wind behind Sheep Island
Linda was the one to see it and kept an eye on it until it landed in a pine, not the tallest this time, but one protected by a taller stand of trees on an island to the northwest.  There was a strong northwest wind blowing, and this bird was content to sit there for over an hour in the lee of the island.

I wonder if it's the same bird that another friend saw, this time on Wakondah Pond in Moultonborough.  (Thanks SS!)
A better look at an eagle on the shore of Wakondah Pond (Photo by Suzanne Satnick)

Even though I might see these impressive animals a few times over the course of a year, it's still rare enough that I'm always moved by the size and the self-assured demeanor of these birds which sit at the top of the food chain.  They will rule the fishing on our lakes until they finally do freeze over.