Saturday, August 11, 2018

Empty Nesters

     "BEEP! BEEP!"
     It's a sound that still brings a smile to my face. 
     Let me explain. In my feckless youth I was the proud owner of a Plymouth Road Runner. They were called muscle cars. Big engine, stick shift, mag wheels. Fire engine red with a horn that went "BEEP! BEEP!" 

She used to be mine...the car, not the girl!

     The horn was a nod to a popular Saturday morning TV cartoon show. It featured the Road Runner bird outsmarting his arch nemesis, Wile E. Coyote. Typically, Road Runner would lead old Wile E. off a cliff or beneath an avalanche. Then he would let out a chortling "BEEP! BEEP!" and speed off in a cloud of dust. To those at a certain stage of maturity, it had its appeal.

Web images

     I've never seen a real roadrunner. They're a western bird of desert and sage brush. That's not a habitat where I spend a lot of time. But we do have killdeers in the Northeast and the two species have become connected in my mind. Now before I get taken to the woodshed by knowledgable birders, let's set things straight. The two birds are not related. The Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) at 20-24" is a fairly large member of the Cuckoo family. (Interesting fact: the Roadrunner is one of the few animals that will attack, kill and eat rattlesnakes.) Killdeers (Charadrius vociferus) are smaller (9-11") and in the Plover family, a group of wading birds more often associated with the beach than the desert. Killdeers are widely distributed in open, farming country and they can often be seen running on the ground in short, quick bursts. That's probably what connects them to the Road Runner in my imagination.

Greater Roadrunner - web image

Killdeer - web image

     I have a hay shed with a graveled area in front of it. Back in June I was pulling wagons out of the shed in anticipation of baling.
From the tractor seat something on the ground caught my eye. It was a bird. A closer look revealed a killdeer, motionless and nearly invisible. When I got down to take a look she scooted off a short distance and flopped around like her wing was broken. This was a classic distraction display. I knew there was something the bird didn't want me to find. After a careful search I found four eggs blending perfectly with the gravel surface.

     She didn't need a building permit for this nest because there was nothing to build. Maybe a couple of small stones had been moved and a little hollow made. That was it. Her speckled eggs were right out in the open, right where I parked wagons and customers came with trucks and trailers to get hay. A dangerous place. No one was going to sell life insurance to these unhatched chicks.
     Mama bird's instincts had evolved over the millions of years before the internal combustion engine and big tires arrived on the scene. She needed a little help. The best I could do was to put a couple of metal posts on either side of her nest and string bright orange surveyors tape between them.

     Miraculously, it worked. Flagged and visible was avoidable. As June unfolded I witnessed both male and female parents tending the eggs. On scorching hot afternoons the birds would hover over them providing shade. When it cooled in the evening they settled down to warm them. One day I watched with trepidation as a fisher and her kit ran nearby. Fortunately, seeking the cover of nearby woods was the only thing on their mind. They never saw the killdeer or her eggs.
     But as the month wore on I began to despair. There was the killdeer, there were the eggs. But nothing seemed to be happening. Perhaps there was too much distraction. Maybe the incubation process had been disrupted. 
     Eventually it was time to celebrate the Fourth of July. Of course, for me celebrate meant baling hay all day. Then, when I brought the first wagon up to the shed, I could see they were gone. No birds, no eggs. I wasn't sure if this meant success or disaster for the killdeers. Later Gwenne filled me in. She had seen the mama trailed by scurrying little balls of fluff earlier in the day. They had done it! From four mottled shells lying in the dirt to hatchlings up and running. No wonder they call the 4th Independence Day. 

By the way...

     - Ornithologists classify killdeer chicks as precocial (as opposed to altricial), meaning they can move and feed independently shortly after hatching. This would seem to be a necessity in ground nesting species as they are so vulnerable. 

Web image

     - I've had fun watching them grow since July. They dart around my barnyard like frenzied commuters trying to catch a bus. Approaching six weeks old I can no longer tell the chicks from the adults. Not sure if they all survived but there is certainly quite a few killdeer around here.

     - When we think of ecosystems, places like the shore, grasslands or deciduous forest come to mind. But in long developed areas pure natural ecosystems are rare. Still, farmed landscapes with their open fields, hedgerows and small woodlots seem to make great habitat for a variety of animals. A dusk or dawn tour of Washington County backroads will almost always reward you with wildlife sightings.

     Here's a link to It's a Beautiful Day singing White Bird. We could all use a little more freedom.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Drumlin Circle

     Glacial. A good word for my early season biking pace. It also describes the landscape I recently cycled thru. Starting from the Green in the hamlet of Kingsbury I pedaled across Rt. 4 heading south on a town road. Almost immediately I was faced with a steep hill that rose about fifty feet to a crest and then dropped down the other side. A little out of breath (only because it was early in the season and early in the ride, of course) I paused on top to take stock of my situation. I had just climbed a drumlin, the highest in a cluster of such features that rise out of the Hudson - Champlain lowlands in this part of Washington County.

Going up?

On top - this pretty red barn is king of the drumlin hill

Looking downhill towards the Green - the stones in the wall must have come from the drumlin

     Drumlins are low elongated hills variously described as shaped like a whale, a submarine, a fat cigar or an overturned spoon. One end usually has a steeper slope and the other end is more gradually tapered. They are formed underneath glaciers from till, which is a mix of rock, gravel, sand and clay. 

Image from the web

     When I was a kid I remember riding my bike until late in the fall when the first snowstorm hit. The bike then got left wherever my interest had suddenly turned to sledding (I was a problem child, as you've probably surmised). Come the first warm days of spring the bike would magically appear from beneath the melting snow just as I got the urge to start riding again. Drumlins are sort of like the bikes of my youth. They appeared when the glacier melted but soon became islands in the huge lakes that formed as the ice retreated. 

     The drumlins that encircle Kingsbury (there are a dozen of them) are isolated mounds of till in a clay lowland. The clay soils formed from fine sediments that settled out of the muddy post-glacial lake waters. I'm not sure whether the drumlins stood above or below the surface level of Lake Albany. Eventually the lake emptied and its bed was exposed to erosion. Drainage patterns developed, producing an undulating topography incised by the small valleys of Bond Creek and several tributaries of Halfway and Woods Creeks. Above this landscape stand the higher ridges of the drumlins.

The ovals are drumlins, the lavender shades are areas of till and the tan denotes lake clay

In this 1915 geologic map the red dashed line marks the highest shoreline elevation of Lake Albany

This small tributary of Halfway Creek has cut deeply into the lake clays

     Drumlins can be found wherever land has been glaciated. New York State is certainly blessed with them. The Ontario lowlands between Syracuse and Batavia has a world renowned display of the molded hills - an estimated 10,000 or more! You can see many of them from the Thruway. They are also fairly common in other parts of Washington County. In Argyle look for a nice one on the north side of Kinney Road. There's what appears to be a double-barreled drumlin near the hamlet of Coila. Notice the two side by side hills where Content Farm Road makes a sharp turn just north of Rt. 372. In the Kingsbury group others can be seen from Geer, Dubes, Hendee and Hartman Roads.

Two for the price of one! Coila's double drumlin

Trees partially obscure the north end of the Kinney Road drumlin

     Underlying bedrock combines with surficial deposits to give a 
landscape its character. The outer crust of the Earth is mapped by rock type and structural features such as folds and faults. Bedrock information is gathered from outcrops, road cuts, quarries and well logs.  Surficial deposits might be thought of as the Earth's thin skin. Most of us think of it as the dirt we dig, build upon and grow food in. Geologist will note how it developed and various shapes and features seen at the surface - such things as drumlins, eskers and outwash plains. Soil scientists further differentiate surficial deposits into series and phases based on parent material, horizons and other factors. Around Kingsbury much of the bedrock is carbonates such as limestone and dolostone. These are poorly exposed because they lay in low, flat, horizontal layers covered by the surficial deposits leftover from glaciation: till, outwash and lake clays. Interesting fact: the dolostone used to build the 306 foot tall Bennington Battle Monument was quarried and cut in Kingsbury, an estimated 100,000 tons of it, that was then hauled to Vermont in the 1880's!

Out of Kingsbury - the Bennington Battle Monument
Web image

What lies below - Google Earth screen shot of Kingsbury stone quarry


     While Rt. 4 has wide shoulders and is a designated bike route, it also has lots of high speed traffic. I prefer the quieter country roads to the north and south. With a county road map it is easy to find some nice loops. While you pedal you'll be treated to scenic views of all three of Washington County's physiographic regions: the Adirondack Mountains, the Hudson - Champlain lowlands and the Taconic hills.

This charming 1825 schoolhouse along Rt. 4 was built from the stone that underlies it 


     The Kingsbury Green is a good place to begin biking. While there, take a minute to look around. In the past this was a substantial settlement on the Great Northern Turnpike. Now it's a quiet drive-by on busy Rt. 4. Facing the Green is the stately Baptist Church, built around 1840. The nearby Parish House was moved here from Fort Ann. It has served Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. It has even served me! I remember when they used to have Sunday evening folk concerts in the building. As a fundraiser, the congregation baked delicious pies that could be enjoyed with coffee during the show. People say there was a guy who often ordered two slices. Can't imagine who that could be...
     There are several historical markers by the green.  Across the road you can stroll thru the Kingsbury Cemetery where you'll find many old stones with interesting inscriptions. Also note the former Floyd's General Store in a building that's probably over 200 years old. It's closed now and for sale. There's your opportunity to ditch the 9 to 5 and be an independent shop keeper...where you'll get to work 12 to 14 hours seven days a week.

     For more historical background and help in planning a tour of the area you can check out Warpaths, Wildcats and Waterfalls, a 1984 publication of the Town of Kingsbury Bicentennial Committee. I'ld also recommend An Introduction to Historic Resources in Washington County, New York as well as the Kingsbury volume in the Images of America series published by Arcadia.


     Biking, glacial geology and historic architecture always make me hungry. After my explorations I drove up Rt. 4 a short ways and swung into Sally's Hen House. This little roadside diner is a local favorite. I ordered the chicken and biscuits special and it came mounded up on a big oblong plate. Reminded me of... you guessed it... a drumlin. Only a whole lot tastier.