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Sunday, January 27, 2019

January 27, 2019: The Colors of Ice

This week included a trip up to Arbutus Hill Pond to see what winter there has to offer.  It was after the snow and before the January Thaw, so the skiing was good and the views were beautiful.
The winter scene at Arbutus Hill Pond

Breaking out fresh snow heading up the Magenta Trail

The pond sure looks a lot different in winter than in the summer, and it offers a chance to get up close to some of the nesting sites that are not accessible in summer (nor would it be wise to disturb the residents anyway).  In addition to getting a good look at the beaver lodges, I was able to check out the heron nesting trees.
Heron nest atop a tall pine killed when beavers dammed up the pond

The nest seemed smaller than I remember from the summer - I wonder if it lost some mass during the recent storms, or whether is just looks larger from a distance.



On the way up I came upon a set of tracks running right along the trail that included an unusual mark in the snow that I couldn't figure out.
The mystery mark

It looks like some kind of studded wheel was rolled along beside the track.
This fisher was content to travel a long ways on the trail











I decided the tracks were from a fisher based on their size and track pattern.


















A scent marker in a conspicuous location




At one point it also marked a log on the ground, which fisher will do.






Fox and coyote do this as well, but the tracks do not match up with a canine;  they have the all the characteristics of a member of the weasel family (which includes the fisher).
A perfect example of a fisher track set

One clue is that the mystery mark is right at the only place on the long trail where the fisher broke through the crust.  Is it possible that the hunter was carrying a porcupine and when it broke through the snow, its dinner hit the surface and the quills poked all those tiny holes in the crust?  Fisher will kill porcupine, and this trail was leading away from prime porcupine habitat, so it's a possibility.  Also fisher don't usually travel in a straight line;  they tend to weave all around in the forest, searching out rotten trees and tall oaks for squirrel nests.  So that lends credence to the thought that it had already caught its prey and was carrying it straight back to its den.  I haven't come up with a better theory - any ideas out there?

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New Hampshire Public Radio has an outdoor/nature piece every other Friday called "Ask Sam" in which Sam Evans-Brown always has something new and interesing to present.  This week the topic was the color of ice (Why is Some Ice Black and Some Ice White?) and I learned several things I didn't know before.  Right off the bat he corrected a misconception I had that water is colorless.  He explained that water is actually blue - a very faint blue - which is why it usually appears colorless to our eyes.  Only when water is very deep are our eyes able to detect the blue color.

Now what about the black ice we had earlier this winter?
This ice formed on a very cold, calm night back in December

He explained that ice appears black when it freezes under calm enough conditions to form very large crystals, which present few facets from which light can reflect and refract - thus light passes through it, and it appears black.  On the other hand, if water is disturbed when it freezes - for example, churned up by waves or wind, the crystals are banged around, preventing them from growing large, which results in countless tiny ice crystals, each with many surfaces to reflect the incoming light (white light) back to our eyes.
White ice near shore

He also describes the interesting aspects of how glacier ice is formed, and how its own weight squeezes out impurities resulting in extremely pure ice.  You can read or listen to this story as well as previous reports here.  And don't forget, next weekend is Pond Hockey on Meredith Bay.  If you look around, you might find your own little glacier on your local lake.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

January 20, 2019: Upside Down Trees

Many will think we're crazy, but this is why we crazies love New Hampshire in the winter - fabulous cobalt blue skies one day, and a good nor-east blizzard the next.
Page Pond Community Forest at Barnard Ridge Road

I took a walk in Page Pond Community Forest with a friend on one of those blue-sky days, and it was just stunning.  The dazzling white fields of snow guarded by unrelenting stone walls, crisp trunks of mature hardwood trees standing in stark contrast against that infinite indigo sky - it's the stuff of fairy tales and postcards.
Looking south over the Page field towards the Belknap mountains

The blue skies were part of a blast of cold air that was long enough to finally let the last bit of Lake Wicwas freeze over, the stretch by the outlet.
That shiny black is new ice

The late freeze was aided by a strong current due to high water levels in Wicwas and all the lakes and rivers.  Lake Winnipesaukee was still eight inches above normal seasonal level as of the first of the year.   But, good news:  The big lake is frozen over - Winnipesaukee ice-in was declared on January 14th, and bob houses have already appeared on Meredith Bay.
Civilization is starting to move onto the bay

The Alton Bay Runway has enough ice - 10 inches - to allow operation, and they have plowed the airstrip.  They are now waiting for FAA approval, and hope to start operations next week.  All signs look good for all of this year's winter events.  Mark your calendars:  Pond Hockey is February 2&3, the Meredith Fishing Derby is February 9&10, and the Sled Dog Championship is February 16&17.

Around the lake there's been some good skiing and snowshoeing, and I've seen lots of tracks from people out enjoying the sights.  And there are always strange and interesting sights to see, including this new one I've never encountered.  Have you ever seen a tree growing a new stem from the bottom of its trunk?

This was good for a double take - I wasn't sure I was really seeing what I thought I was.  This red maple had blown over a year or two ago, I remember seeing it previously.  But now, a new stem is growing out of the root ball, from the bottom!

Now exposed to the sun, facing the lake, it decided the best way to continue its survival was to push out new growth from below.  Nature, through the lessons of trial and error over the eons, is ingenious in the ways it has found to survive.

This post is little later than usual.  On a snow day, the question for me - play first or work first - is usually simple:  the work will still be there once the fun is done, but fresh tracks go fast.  So today started with skis, ended with shovels.

Oh, and a football game too.  Another Superbowl game coming up for New England - Go Pats!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

January 13, 2019: Flying Mammals in Winter

We had some of the coldest weather of the season this week which was good news for winter sports fans and for cool winter sights, and it also brought out one of the more reclusive critters in the forest.
The reclusive and nocturnal flying squirrel

Small animals like this flying squirrel can't hunker down in frigid weather as they have to eat every day to consume enough energy to burn just to keep warm.  Small birds for example can lose 10% of their body weight on a single cold night, a good reason why the chick-a-dees appear at the feeder at dawn's first light.

I have only seen flying squirrels in winter, though that's because they are nocturnal, and we only feed the birds in the winter.  Other people around the lake have special feeding platforms for flying squirrels and they are entertained by their acrobatics on warm summer nights.  They are amazing animals, having adapted a sheet of skin that extends between their front and hind legs, providing a steerable hang glider-type feature.  I have watched them sail off the feeder and make a perfect landing on their selected tree.
You can see the section of skin that stretches out when it spreads its legs to fly

If you want to attract them, try building a platform like this one,
Sharing the table

but attach it to a tree 15 to 30 feet above the ground.  They'll climb up, but fly off when it's time to depart.

The cold weather blew in from Canada after a storm which brouht heavy, wet snow that took down enough trees and limbs to leave 40% of Meredith without electricity;  Meredith and Moultonborough seemed to be hit the hardest, sitting right at the line where it was all snow, but still warm enough to wet and sticky.  It might have played havoc with the power company, but it was beautiful to look at and left a solid base for skiing and snow shoeing.
A good case of cement snow

I took a ski across the lake and up to the White Mountain Ledge as the storm was winding down.
Looking north from the White Mountain Ledge in the Hamlin Conservation Area

There were lots of trees bent down to block the trail, and countless limbs and branches broken off, laying on the ground.

The Meredith Trail Crew will have plenty to keep them busy this spring!

The coldest night was Saturday at just above zero, so of course that was the day we went skiing - cold but fabulous views.
Summit of Ragged Mountain

It was plenty chilly, but I'll bet this winter has worse yet to come.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

January 6, 2019: Happy New Year!

With each new year comes hope for new wonderful moments of discovery, in nature, in friends, and in ourselves.  Every year brings moments of exhilaration as well as events that test our fortitude.  2018 brought plenty of the former, a few of the latter, and it's interesting how often the two are connected.  Here are a few moments from the past 12 months that stuck in my memory for one reason or another, and thinking about them whets my appetite for the coming year and what it has in store for us.  

With winter settling in firmly in New Hampshire right now, it's a good time to recall that spring will come.  On April 29th last year the ice retreated from Lake Wicwas, and instantly the world exploded with activity:  ducks, geese, loons, beavers, even tics burst onto the scene as the life-bearing properties of liquid water returned to our world.
Mr. and Mrs. Wood Duck paddle alongside the retreating ice

As the sun rose higher each day the plants soaked up the energy and by June 24th all the glory of nature had painted the landscape, and there was enough food to sustain the largest animals after awakening from their long winter sleep.

With food, warmth, and long days, the breeding season was in full swing, and by July 6th a historic event had occurred at Lake Wicwas:  there were two nesting pairs of loons on the lake for the first time.  One chick hatched from the first nest, followed shortly by one from the second nest.
"Sam"    Photo by Amy Wilson

But just a few days later, we were saddened by the harsh reality of nature.  One of our little loon chicks was taken by a hawk on July 22nd (also, there's a really cool spider on this post).  And then a few weeks later the other chick was also killed, apparently by a rogue loon that didn't want other genes to propagate.  It was a reminder that along with the beauty and wonder of nature, it can also be cold and hard.
"JustinTime"   Photo by Debby Crowley

One of my favorite moments of the year was on September 16th when early in the morning I met up with a raccoon which let me follow it for a long time, seeing it pop in and out of the lake as we walked along watching each other.  

And of course, seeing a bobcat is always a treat, and we got this opportunity on November 25th when one came by looking for a meal of fresh squirrel.  

So 2018 was another engaging year around the lake, and gratifying to know that we have been able to keep enough wild spaces for the animals even as the Lakes Region continues to grow in population and tourism.

But what happened around the lake during the first week of 2019?  Finally some fresh snow provided a chance to see who's been out and about.  Immediately upon setting out on a walk I encountered a set of fresh mink tracks.
Mink Tracks in the snow
I followed them for a while, through the thickets and onto the lake (close to an open spot which I avoided) but I lost the track when it went back onto shore and up a tree.
The end of the trail

Next I found a set of tracks proceeding directly across the lake, the owner of which I'm not certain.  It's clearly a slow moving animal, just plodding along.  
A slow mover
Possibly 'Possum?

The track is indicative of raccoon or porcupine, but there's no reason to expect either of them to be out in the middle of a lake.  Earlier in the week I had seen tracks that I believe were from an opossum, which is another possibility.  There may be others as well, but among these three, I'm putting my bet on the 'possum.  

Other tracks observed included ermine, fox, mouse, otter, and one other large set of tracks, easily identified.
Track of the Homo sapien


There are lots of reasons for these large to mammals to be out enjoying the world, and there were quite a few of you out there exploring this weekend, taking in all the beauty the new year has to offer.
Lake Winnipesaukee and the Belknap Range from the Ossipee Mountains