Sunday, March 31, 2019

March 31, 2019: Cracks in the Ice

Signs of spring continue to emerge, albeit slowly.  A few warm days and some brilliant sunshine teamed up to melt a bit of that snow pack and open up a few small gaps in the ice around the shore of Lake Wicwas.
The first signs of water are appearing
The largest gap on the lake drew me in by the sound of running water cascading over a small waterfall into the lake.
Running snow melt opened up this large hole on the shoreline

Last measured on Thursday, we had only lost about an inch of ice away from shore as the fresh, pristine snow is efficient at reflecting the sun's energy back from whence it came, and the warm days were thwarted by cold nights.
There's still 24-25 inches of ice out there.

The snow on the lake was good for skiing early in the week, but by Friday the surface was pretty coarse and wet.  In the woods, under the trees there's still plenty of base, one to two feet worth, but the harsh winter storms have left too much debris on the trails to make it enjoyable for me.
Trails in the woods are pretty ugly now

So without a freshening, my backcountry skiing is over, but snowshoeing will be in the cards for some time and the ski areas will be open well into April.  On a snowshoe trip on one of those warm and sunny afternoons I came across a family of three deer out in a clearing.  They saw me first and were already moving along a well-worn trail back into the woods, stopping occasionally to look back at me as they went.
A well worn deer trail from the power lines back into the forest

Lots of animals were out enjoying the nice weather:  I also saw a broad-winged hawk soaring on the currents, and a turkey vulture up at the top of the ridge doing the same.  (Sorry no pics of any, my camera was in the backpack on this bushwhack trip.)  It's a great time to explore new areas due to deep, firm snow which makes off-trail travel easy and low impact on the environment.  Farther along the trip I came across another well traveled deer trail, this one up high on the ridge, and the amount of tracks and droppings indicate there's a very healthy deer population in this well isolated area of New Hampton.
Well traveled trails, as well as a large stand of hemlock were littered with deer scat

My brother sent me a picture of an interesting heron nest out on a beaver pond near his house.
Would you build your home here?

The level nest shows the herons built this after the tree had tipped over;  it seems like a pretty precarious place for one to choose to raise a family!

The beaver lodges this time of year provide a great example of the impact the angle of the sun has on snow melt.
Still a lot of snow on the north side of this lodge

It makes it pretty clear why ski areas are on the north facing side of the mountain.

But eventually the snow will disappear from the dark side of the lodge, and as soon as those pockets of open water expand into long skinny channels following the shore line the homeowners will emerge and be out looking for fresh green signs of spring to savor after a long, dark winter.  And we'll all be doing the same, looking for our own bright signs of spring.
Snowdrops in bloom
Getting brighter

Sunday, March 24, 2019

March 24, 2019: Fungi Build Walls Too

More signs of spring are appearing around the lakes:  this week I saw the first gaggle of geese flying north in tight formation.  So when I saw a bunch of large birds out on the lake I thought it was geese.

14 Gobblers out for a morning walk
But closer inspection revealed they were turkeys!  I have never seen turkeys out walking around in the middle of a lake before.  They came across the cove and strutted right up the shore and into the woods, pecking at various tiny seeds along the way.
The army approaches
This one shows a small beard, some had ones much larger

I'm not sure why they came across the lake, but it's probably safer than than crossing the road.  There is a great video of a flock of turkeys crossing a road in Litchfield, NH, under the careful supervision of a member of the flock (the patriarch?).  It's worth watching if you haven't seen it (thanks PC!):  Turkey Traffic Cop

Last week I noted the spalting I found inside a recently blown over tree.

With the guidance of our town and county foresters I learned that spalting is caused by fungi, and with a little digging I found a US Forest Service publication, "Encyclopedia of Plant Pathology" [Maloy and Murray editors, 2001, John Wiley and Sons] with a nice succinct article on the process that creates it.  The entry titled "Zone Lines" was written by Kevin Smith of the Forest Service Northeastern Research Station, right here in Durham, NH.  It explains that these distinct lines are created at the boundary where two different genetically distinct fungi are growing;  the fungi within a single zone usually contain a single genetic individual, with a different genetic individual on the other side of the zone line.
Amazing clarity of these zone lines

The lines themselves contain dead parts of the fungi and high concentrations of wood resins and gums.  The article doesn't state this, but I'm guessing the fungi push these out ahead of the areas they are colonizing.

Now here's the interesting part:  the fungi use these lines for "self-isolation" by creating survival structures that "reduces competition from other potential colonizers".  The makeup of the zone lines prevent the neighboring individuals from crossing it.  It appears that building walls around our domain to keep others out has been built into our genetic material from the very beginning;  fungi were some of the earliest life forms on the planet.
This could be the map of some war-torn region of our planet

Spalted wood is pretty rare and hard to find, but is highly valued by woodworkers because when it's workable it makes interesting patterns in the products.

Spalted wood products.  Photo from "Woodworker's Journal"

I went back this week and cut a small piece of wood from the tree I found and will save it for our local wood artisan for when he returns this spring.  I don't know if it will be usable, but I figure that if anyone can make it work, it will be he who was able to create art out of 80 year old trees pulled from the bottom of the lake where they had been lying since the hurricane of 1938. (Click here to more read about that story.)
Hurricane Bowl crafted by Wayne B.

And here are more signs of spring:  the first snowdrops have pushed their way up beside the house.  But it's going to be a while before those geese find any open water - there is still 23" of ice on Lake Wicwas!
The first flowers to arrive:  Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis, remember "nives" from subnivian?)

Sunday, March 17, 2019

March 17, 2019: The Subnivean Zone

A friend recently mentioned that the raptors - owls and hawks included - are having a hard time getting food this year due to the deep snow which allows their primary food sources such as mice, voles, and red squirrels to take cover in a well fortified subnivean zone.  That may sound like the secret hideout of some evil creature from a Star Wars movie, but subnivean is a scientific term that comes from latin for "under" (sub) and "snow" (nives);  it refers to the narrow gap that forms between the forest floor and the bottom layer of snow.  [Much of the information here comes from the article "The Subnivean Zone:  Shelter in the snow" written by Barbara MacKay and published on December 26, 2014 in the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press .]
Subnivean Zone Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol from the above referenced article

As the early snows fall at the start of the season, the still-warm earth sublimates the bottom layer of snow which rises and condenses on the cooler surface above, then freezes, creating a sturdy ceiling that can hold up the winter's later snow.  Low plants also help to support this snow/ice roof.  It may only be an inch or so high, but that's enough to get things started, and the rodents will build intricate tunnels from there.  And it provides them everything they need - food from seeds and grasses on the ground, insulation from the cold of winter, and protection from predators.  This winter I have seen very few mice tracks up on top of the snow, which indicates to me they are fully satisfied down there under the snow.
Mouse tracks on the snow have been few and far between this winter

Usually fox can still access these animals using their strong sense of smell, and owls can track them down using incredibly sensitive hearing.  Both animals can attack through a reasonably thick layer of snow, but this year's repeated icing and deep snow have made these hideouts pretty much impregnable to all but the ermine.  (The ermine is slender enough to climb down the air holes into the subnivean zone, and eat to its heart content, sometimes taking over the area for itself.)  With all this in mind, I kept an eye out this week for signs of these secret hideouts.  I was able to find a couple, one under a large fallen limb and the other at the base of tree.
A classic entry hole to the subnivean zone
This one is a text-book subnivean den:  built on the southern side of a dark tree where the sun will help to keep things warm and melt some snow to provide a bit of water.
Plenty large enough hole for an ermine attack

I didn't dig it up to see what lies below (that seems rather cruel) but did note the location, and maybe I'll stop by again as the snow melts down to ground level to see what has been created down there.  In the mean time, we'll continue to do our part by fattening up the gray squirrels who live in the high-risk zone above the snow.

On this same walk I found a set of snowshoe hare tracks right on the lake, coming out from a hemlock stand.  This is another prey animal that all the predators still have access to, though I don't see many signs of hares around the Lakes Region.
Snowshoe hare track near the Harris Conservation Area

I also came across a set of fresh porcupine tracks;  following them for a stretch I saw that it had checked out a beech tree but decided that wasn't its cup-of-tea, so it moved on.
Mr. Porky didn't like this tree

It's next stop was a hemlock - always a favorite.
Here he found something to his liking
And there were ample signs that he dined here.
Hemlock debris dropped

Whenever you find this kind of hemlock debris on the snow you know a porcupine has been up there cutting off and chewing (not very carefully) on the tender branches.  He must have eaten his fill, as after this stop he retraced his steps right back along the same path he came in on.
Two sets of tracks, in and out

Finally, on this same trek I came across a recent blowdown with some very interesting markings on the wood inside where it split open.

I was fascinated as well as perplexed as to what could cause these markings deep inside the trunk of a tree, so I sent some pictures off to Shaun Lagueux and Andy Fast, our town and county foresters respectively, for some expert input.  They both immediately responded, saying it is spalting due to a fungus.  I'll have to do some research on this and will report what I learn next week.
Intriguing marks deep inside the trunk of a hemlock tree

Sunday, March 10, 2019

March 10, 2019: Everyone's Hungry

There is some pretty serious snowpack on the ground this March, some of the deepest we get and certainly the most since the banner winter of 2014-2015.  And we're getting another 3-5" today.  It makes for a hard winter for all the animals.  When there is deep snow the deer herds usually stay in their deer yards - thick groves of evergreens, typically hemlock - which provide them protection from weather and predators, and where they collectively trample down the snow for ease in travel.  And they probably yarded-up early this year since we've had snow on the ground since November, so by now they have consumed all the food in and around their yards, and have to look elsewhere, expending precious energy and making them vulnerable to attackers.  That's a guess as to what happened to a deer over by Lake Winnisquam last week.  I was skiing on the north end of the lake when I spotted something on the fresh snow that looked unusual, so I went over to take a look.
Spine and skull of a white-tailed deer

I've seen this several times now - coyotes drive a deer out onto the ice where they keep harrassing it until they tire it out, and then take it down.  This kill site was about 75 yards from the western shore;  the deer probably came out of the Chemung State Forest.
Kill site off the west shore of Lake Winnisquam

The skin and fur had been completely removed and placed nicely in a pile.

I was surprized to see some organs left behind - I would have thought these we would prime delicacies for the animals, but they must know these particular parts are not edible.
I don't know what they are.

All the tracks in the snow indicate how many animals were nourished by this deer over the past couple of days.

It must have been a very recent kill as it was on top of the snow we just got, yet the carcass was already picked clean.

Which means the eagles, hawks, and crows have been getting their fill as well.  I found it interesting that the spine had been dragged some 100 yards from the kill site.  Also, there were no legs to be found;  these were probably dragged away by various coyotes to hide and consume in private.
Kill site at lower left, fur pile towards center; arrow points to spine

Hunger is driving a lot of animals at this late point in a hard winter.  I've had lots of reports of barred owls hanging around people's homes and bird feeders looking for birds and squirrels, including from someone on Meredith Neck who said their owl comes almost every day.  Male owls have to do twice the level of hunting at this point, as they need to bring food to their mate who is now staying on the nest.

Reports of bobcat sightings are also increasing, and our local cat came by a couple of times this week.
Lynx rufus

He dug around under the feeder a bit, probably following scent of a squirrel, but came up with nothing.
Following a scent
This shows their large, furred-feet, designed for walking on deep snow

After a short visit he went on his way, creeping along on top of the snow, sniffing here and there for signs of life.

And even with those large paws an occaional foot broke through the snow.  I uploaded some videos you can watch  Cat1Cat2Cat3Cat4  which show him poking around the edges of the woods and then heading off onto to the lake.  But he circled back later and just sat and watched and waited.  I never saw if he got his meal.

The elusive prey

As much as the squirrels can drive us crazy, they are such in important part of the food chain for so many animals that I don't mind if they fatten up on our bird seed - as long as they stay on the feeders we put out for them and don't destroy the bird feeders!  After all, they too are hungry in this long, hard winter.
Last week in the Hamlin Conservation Area

Sunday, March 3, 2019

March 3, 2019: Even the Otters Love March Sun

March is here, the start of meteorological spring, with the equinox just three weeks away.  The midday shadows are getting shorter and the sun feels warm on my face - it's the best time to enjoy winter activities, and the otters are certainly on board!
The happy path of a River Otter

Just once I hope to see these fun-loving creatures out gallivanting around in the winter.  I've seen them playing in the water in summer, but have never caught them sliding through the snow on their bellies, though I see their slides all over the lake, shoreline, and even in the woods near streams and beaver ponds.  Yesterday there must have been a pair out enjoying the sun and a fresh inch or two of snow on top of a firm crust.
Mr. and Mrs. out for a stroll on a warm March day?

The surface allowed for some long slides and some of the clearest prints I've found.

Whoa, full port rudder!

The conditions also made for great skiing on the lake, as well as snowshoeing, sledding, and snowmobiling throughout the Lakes Region.  There is quite a base of snow on the ground around here.
In summer, that navigation buoy floats about 3 feet above the surface of the lake

It all made for perfect conditions for Meredith's winter outing and introduction to the new Page Pond property along Barnard Ridge Road on Saturday.  People brought skis, snowshoes, as well as sleds to take the long ride down the field to the parking area. 

Members of the Meredith Conservation Commission led guided tours on snowshoes and skis around the fields, past historic sites, even over to the mill dam at the outlet of Page Pond. 

A member of the Meredith Historical Society (with back to us) provided a brief history of the property

It wasn't a blue-sky day, but it was warm and calm and the snow conditions were perfect.
Looking south under a gray sky towards Pinnacle Hill, Gunstock, and the Belknap Mountains

On the tours we found tracks of bobcat, fox, mice, ruffed grouse, and even an abandoned bird nest on the margin of the back field. 
A snowball does its best impersonation of an egg

If you missed the event, there's still plenty of time to get out there and explore for yourself;  you should be able to follow the tracks even if we get more snow tonight.  And if there's no track, it's hard to get lost in the snow because you can always follow your own tracks back to your starting point!

With all this snow we should be good for a couple more weeks of great late-winter activity.  But with March upon us, before we know it, the owner of that nest will be back in town, preparing another home for it's new family.
Do I detect a little spring-yellow on this goldfinch?