Thursday, March 26, 2015


     It's hard not to feel sappy this time of year. The sun is getting stronger and and the juices are flowing in plants, animals and people. My fields are a mosaic of bare ground and snow. So far the up and down temperature swings (I had single digits one morning this week) are resulting in a gradual melt with little flooding. I've seen deer, turkey, geese and a lone coyote trotting across my rye seeding. Robins and sparrows are busy courting and nest building and I drove thru a flock of starlings so thick it was like a black speckled blizzard.
     The Hudson has opened up and now is the time to observe waterfowl. Birders often set up scopes and cameras near Fort Miller where River Road gives easy access. Gordie Ellmers is an accomplished wildlife photographer and you can see some of his work on exhibit at the Greenwich Library. The library also has the Gill Room dedicated to local history and is the site of many interesting programs and meetings. In summer there's a colorful flower garden by the entrance
(you'll have to wait a bit for that).

Gordie Ellmers photo of a Snowy Owl

     One of this weekends events is Raptor Fest up in the Fort Edward Grasslands. Here you will encounter live birds and people who are passionate about them. Also keep an eye on Southern Adirondack Audubon Society's web site as they will be hosting bird walks as the season progresses. The old canal towpath leading out of Fort Edward is often a productive walk for birders with water, brush and fields providing attractive habitat.
     Birds aren't the only thing worth looking up for. Did anyone see the beautiful pairing of Venus and the crescent moon last Sunday evening? While only a tiny sliver of the moon was lit by the sun the rest of its disk was clearly visible with earthshine. Plus the sun has been active lately so we could be treated to a northern lights display at any time. Also there was a nova in the constellation Sagittarius  earlier this week. The exploding star became naked eye visible for a few days but has since faded like 4th of July fireworks.
     This is my favorite time of year to watch sunrises. From my farm the sun comes up directly over the top of Mt. Equinox on the spring and fall equinox's. This is a serendipitous coincidence of geography and I feel blessed. Over the last few weeks I've watched on successive mornings as the sunrise inched north along the spine of the Taconics, up Little Equinox, then over the summit on March 20, finally continuing down slope towards the col called Wind Gap before reaching Bear Mountain. Better than any map or calendar, dawn tells me where I am in place and time.

Mt. Equinox on right with Bear Mountain to the left

     Bernice Ende is also feeling the tug of the new season. We went up to the Rogers Island Visitors Center to hear her farewell talk Saturday evening. She has made so many friends over the winter that it was standing room only. The event was full of warm goodbyes, hilarious tales and thoughtful reflections. She plans to resume her cross-country ride around the first of April (that will be April Fools Day, Bernice!). Fort Edward will never forget Ende, Essie and Spirit. You can keep track of her progress on her website. Late breaking news: Bernice will talk one more time at Skidmore College in Saratoga, at 1pm on Tuesday, March 31 in Emerson Auditorium.

     Finally, the March Place at the Table has to be about pancakes and maple syrup. Gwenne, Holly and I went over to Mapleland Farm's sugarhouse on Bunker Hill Road last Saturday,
 the first day of two open house weekends. So did a lot of other people. It was great to watch kids and their families learning about Washington County's first harvest of the new year. Holly got to discuss ag issues with Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner who was attending the event. The Breezy Hill alpacas
were a big attraction and the setting is classic - tree lined dirt road, bumpy hills open and wooded, and the high Taconics to the east with Woodlawn, Dorset and Mt. Antone etching the blue horizon.
And the meal! Fluffy, thick pancakes, sausage, Cabot butter, warm maple syrup and hot coffee. Yum!
Thanks to the Campbell family for a fun time.
     Check out Upper Hudson Maple Producers for details and directions to this weekends open houses. And don't forget, Rathbuns in North Granville serves breakfast with their maple syrup on Saturdays and Sundays year round.
     Like the sap, I've got to run. It's spring in this special place.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Hills are Alive

     I like Lady Gaga without the meat. Individuality and self-expression are important to a performing artist but carried to extremes they become a distraction. Was her notorious meat dress making some kind of statement, stylewise or otherwise? That I don't know, but I did find her Sound of Music
tribute at the Oscars to be classy, her singing talent undeniable. She looked great (although I could do without the tattoos) but she let the performance be about the songs and her voice. The Julie Andrews hug at the end was sweet. Sadly, Andrews lost her singing voice to a botched medical procedure a few years ago. Can you believe it's been fifty years since the movie was made?
     The only problem I had was with the opening line. "The hills are alive with the sound of music" is among the most iconic and memorable lyrics of all time. Gaga delivered it perfectly but what I heard was "The hills are alive with the sound of hooting."
     That's because owls and their haunting calls have been on my mind lately. Their breeding season comes earlier than most birds, so we're treated to their vocalizations from mid to late winter as they stake out territory and look for mates. You could say the hills are alive with the sound of owl music.
     I've resolved to be more mindful of sounds as I experience the natural world. Maybe it's because I only have hearing in one ear, maybe it's how the visual tends to "blind" us to everything else. Sound, as well as sight, can tell us where we are in time and space. Think of the crunch of cold snow under boots, the owls hoot and the sparrows song, spring peepers and the first April thunderstorm. Listen to the music of water - the tinkling light rain makes on a ponds still surface and the palette of streams, from barely audible gurgle to deafening roar. Wind too has its songbook. There's the gentle rustle of leaves in a breeze, the spooky squeak of two limbs rubbing together in the forest canopy and the intimidating howl sometimes heard and felt on mountain summits.
     Back to the "hoo-hoos" among us. Like most things in life, the more you know about owls the more interesting they become. I'm still a book person so I checked the library's offerings and was surprised to find over a dozen volumes dedicated just to owls. Beyond paper there's lot's of other information out there. Here's some suggestions if you want to wise up to owls:

     - North American Owls - Biology and Natural History - 2nd edition by Paul A. Johnsgard
     The standard scientific reference but still readable by the simply curious. Gorgeous paintings and      photos.

     - Owls - A Wild Guide by Cynthia Berger - A fun little book that can be used as field guide and
     reference on everything "owl". All most of us will ever need.

     - The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State - A big book as attractive as it is

     - The Sibley and Peterson guides are perhaps best known of many general birding books. Also
     there are DVD's and phone apps to identify bird calls.

     - Selected web sites:
     The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
     Southern Adirondack Audubon Society
     Friends of the IBA
     Gordon Ellmer's Photos
     Vermont Institute of Natural Science
     Finally, I talked to real, live very helpful people at Granville's Pember Museum and the Wilton Wildlife Preserve (Saratoga County).

     Here's a few owl tidbits I turned up:

     - What kind of owls do we have in Washington County? Depends on who you ask. The Breeding Bird Atlas documents Eastern Screech, Great Horned and Barred as nesting here. Long-eared and Northern saw-whet are also considered Adirondack Park nesters. Short-eared and snowys are seen in the Fort Edward grasslands in winter but I don't believe the breed here. Barn owls are also a possibility.

Great Horned


     - Not all owls hoot. Barn owls screech while flying. Screech owls voice a trill or tremolo. Saw-whets are mostly silent but sometimes manage a beeping noise. Great Horns are recognized by a series of five or six loud and low hoos. Barreds, our most common owl, are known by their "Who cooks for you" call.
     - Owls, hawks, eagles and falcons are raptors. These are birds of prey that use their strong feet and talons to capture animals. They have exceptional vision and sharp curved beaks.
     - Owls are hunters, not homemakers. They don't build nests but do use ones other birds have abandoned, plus woodpecker holes and other natural cavities as well as appropriately constructed and placed nest boxes.
     - Owls are known for their silent flight. This is achieved with large wings (that don't need to flap as often), soft feathers and a primary feather with a serrated edge that cuts down air turbulence and noise.


Eastern Screech

     - In folklore owls are associated with both wisdom and impending doom. Their faces have an unsettling, human aspect that comes from large forward facing eyes. The eyes don't move in their sockets but long, flexible necks allow an owls head to be swiveled side to side giving it vision in all directions. Cup shaped facial disks contribute to owls excellent hearing as well as their distinctive look. Ear tufts on some owls (Great Horned, Long Earred) are just feathers and have nothing to do with ears or hearing.



     - Owls swallow prey whole, then regurgitate the undigestible parts (bones, fur, feathers) as a pellet. Find these pellets and you're under an owls roosting site.
     - Remember being told "Little children should be seen and not heard"? I didn't listen to that one either. But owlets are schooled to be heard and not seen and they take the lesson to heart. It's a rare
treat to actually see an owl, especially the nocturnal woodland species. The one time I encountered an owl up close in the wild I was being bad. It was at the Denton Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property on Rt. 4 in the Town of Greenwich. I was on a White Creek Field School trip with Jerry Jenkins, Washington County's treasured field botanist. He had just finished inventorying Denton for the Conservancy and he was sharing his finds with a group of us. We had our noses to the ground as he pointed out obscure little lichens, mosses and herbs. Never a good student, my attention wandered and looking up I saw a large owl (a Great Horned?) perched directly overhead. I couldn't keep him to myself and pretty soon nobody was looking at plants, everybody was enraptor. Jerry's a great guy, witty and warm. He let us have our owl moment, said something funny and lured us back to that unusual liverwort he'd come across. I've been back to Denton many times since and (there's a little guilt here) I always remember that owl. The liverwort, not so much.

Close Encounters

     You see a rangy group quietly slipping into the woods on a late winter evening. You respond by:

     1. Calling Homeland Security.
     2. Asking them what crystal meth is bringing on the street these days.
     3. Joining the owl prowl.

     You're so smart. There are a lot of owl walks this time of year. I've seen outings sponsored by Merck Forest, the Pember Museum, the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, Saratoga Spa Park and the Friends of the IBA recently. The Lake George Land Conservancy  has an event Saturday evening, March 28 in Putnam. This is also Winter Raptor Fest weekend at Gallup Ridge Farm, Fort Edward where you can see owls on the arms of their handlers. Another good option for intimate views of owls is the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, Vermont. And then there's the Owl Kill Stream which flows out of Lake Lauderdale, down thru Cambridge and into the Hoosic River near Eagle Bridge. Even if you don't see birds you'll enjoy some beautiful Washington County scenery.

Owl Kill

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bye, Bye Bernice

     I regret the end of winter for just one reason. It means Bernice Ende will be leaving us. Bernice along with Essie Pearl and Montana Spirit have spent the last few months in Fort Edward, taking a break from their cross-country travels. But there's 4000 miles yet to go and the two Fjord Mares and their loving owner/rider need to get to it.

     Gwenne and I had a pleasant visit with Lady Long Rider and her horses Friday afternoon. She told us she hopes to be on the trail before the end of March, heading first to Lake Luzurne, then Athol and on across the Adirondacks, eventually crossing the St. Lawrence into Canada. From there a wandering route will take her to the West Coast and finally back home to Montana. Don't expect her to stay there for long though. She's been riding for the last eleven years covering some 24,000 miles on horseback!
     Bernice is a warm open person who has made many friends in her short time here. She grew up on a small dairy farm and I sense she felt at home in Washington County. She was as interested in our farm as we were in her travels. Before she leaves she will have given more than two dozen talks in the area. The last will be at the Fort Edward Visitors Center at 7pm, March 21.
     Ende is a fine blend of thoughtful and thought provoking. In an America that seems ever more divisive she brings a considered perspective to the chasm between the time-honored traditions of the East Coast and the rugged individualism of the Mountain West. (Montana friends warned her against coming this way. Maybe they feared she'd be run off the road by a liberal Democrat driving a foreign car to a session with their analyst while taking a cell phone call from their investment advisor.)
     She embodies the adage that you get from a place according to what you give to it. Traveling at her horse's clip-clop pace she has time to get to know landscapes, communities and people. She often stops at schools and senior centers, inspiring everyone with her beautiful animals and courageous lifestyle.

     Listen to one of her presentations and you'll be left with many things to ponder. How you need faith to be an adventurer, to live deeply and fully. Faith in yourself, in others, in a simple belief that things will work out for the best. You'll think about simplicity and the siren lure of possessions. We live in a world that prods us to covet more and more things. But too many things, too much comfort and security, often comes with anchors and chains that keep us from freedom, spontaneity and fresh experience.
     I've heard the admonition: be a traveler, not a tourist. Bernice personifies that wisdom. She travels across the land and thru life with a deliberate, measured mindfulness. Few of us are ready to ditch everything for years of long riding. And we shouldn't. What's right for one gutsy little lady may not be right for us. But we can take some lessons from her. We can live a little more bravely, be a little less controlled by what's expected of us. It could be as simple as, say, if you live in Hudson Falls, going over to Granville and walking around town, eyes wide open, really seeing what's there.  Or maybe biking all the backroads in Hebron. How about canoeing the Hudson/canal corridor from Stillwater to Whitehall as some friends of mine did. And then (why not?) continuing up thru the Narrows to Ticonderoga, portaging over to Lake George and spending another week headed south!You get the idea - the world is out there waiting for our exploration. Even this little slice of the world called Washington County offers a lifetime of discovery if you engage it with lively curiosity.

     Thank you Bernice for sharing your warmth over this coldest of winters, for inspiring us to look at our time and place in a fresh and invigorating way. As you ride off towards many sunsets, the gratitude and affection of your new friends will be with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Black Mountain's Boreal Bonnet

     The plan was a quick climb of Black Mountain. At 2646 feet it is Washington County's highest. The hike is five miles round trip with a little over 1000 feet of ascent.
     We started from the Pike Brook Road trailhead in the Town of Dresden. A few tentative steps on the trail and I could see that snowmobiles had created a packed, smooth surface.
     "We don't need snowshoes," was my assessment.
     Gwenne countered, "What if they don't go to the top. The snow will be deep."
     She already had hers strapped on (Guinness Book of World Record holders are fast at everything) and I had to concede she was probably right.
     Much grumbling and fumbling followed as I tried to get the web and hooks puzzle of the Sherpas to tighten onto my Mickey Mouse boots. Finally, the hardest part of the climb accomplished, we clumped out of the parking lot and up the trail.
     The path was so firm and level, it was like walking on a snow paved sidewalk. Can you remember the last time you saw anyone wearing snowshoes on a sidewalk? After a mile or so Gwenne said, "We don't need these, let's take them off."
     Still smarting from the ordeal of getting into the tangled bindings, I protested, though I knew she was right. Free of her burden she practically floated up the mountain while I stubbornly waddled on, slipping backward whenever the pitch steepened.
     Towards the top I wanted a close-up photo of a fir and spruce highlighting the difference between them. "I can't get this blanking camera to focus," I fumed.
     Gwenne calmly said, "You have to push the Macro button."
     She was right of course, so I handed her the camera and she got a perfect shot. Anyone know where the phrase "Better half" comes from?

     Despite the shortcomings of our teams male component with had a fun hike. I've been reading Peter Marchand's North Woods - An Inside Look at the Nature of Forests in the Northeast and I wanted to see a spruce-fir woodland up close. Most of Washington County's forests are hardwoods with some hemlock and white pine mixed in. Only on a few of the peaks along Lake George are the conditions right for the boreal conifers that become common further north and higher in elevation.
     The trail starts at a height of 1600 feet and I noted grey and paper birch, ash, beech and maple with some hemlock. As we climbed I began to see small red spruces which gradually became larger and more numerous. Hemlock seemed to drop out of the mix just as small balsam firs began to appear. The firs were never a big part of the forest in either size or number. Yellow birch became the most common deciduous tree on the upper slopes, liberally filling in gaps amongst the spruces.
     The ecological concept of natural communities provides a way to understand the changing make-up of the forest on Black Mountain. At any given site a specific set of environmental conditions related to soil, water and climate will tend to result in a similar grouping of plants and to a lesser extent, animals. As you ascend the mountain the climate becomes colder, windier and wetter while the soils are thinner, more acidic and nutrient deficient. Spruce and fir are better adapted to these conditions so that is what we see near the top. Ecologists everywhere are sobbing at my gross simplification, but this is just a little blog, not a book.
     The top of Black Mountain is a mixed blessing. There's a communication tower and solar panels behind a chain link fence plus an adjacent windmill that can be downright scary at times. But there are also great views of the north basin of Lake George stretching up to Anthony's Nose and Rogers Rock.

     A young guy came up on a snowmobile while we were there and we had fun sharing adventure stories. He had rode up from Lake George Village and celebrated his first time on Black with an Angry Orchard. He told us about canoeing the length of the lake last summer while training for the
     Gwenne enjoyed visualizing the small part of her mom's swim that we could see from this vantage point and I recalled a trip from long, long ago. With two buddies I had canoed down from Huletts Landing to Black Mountain Point in an old Grumann. We climbed the mountain and noticed that a breeze had kicked up. By the time we got back down the lake was a frenzy of whitecapped waves. Three in the boat would have been suicide so the youngest and toughest volunteered to bushwhack up the shoreline while Bill and I trusted our lives to aluminum. We all made it, we were all beat and yes, we shared a few beers after that outing.
     The wild lands on the east side of Lake George are fertile ground for naturalists, adventurers and artists. I was struck by how often Black Mountain showed up in paintings at the Wild Nature exhibit currently hanging at the Hyde Museum. I know I'll be back often, exploring the many natural communities found here and taking lots of close-up photos (just press the Macro button!). And I won't be wearing snowshoes, not unless my wife tells me to.

Community Insight
     To prove to my ecologist friends that I'm not a total reprobate, here are some good sources of information on natural communities:
     Wetland, Woodland, Wildland - A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont by Elizabeth H. Thompson and Eric R. Sorenson.
     North Woods - An Inside Look at the Nature of Forests in the Northeast by Peter J. Marchand.

     Also, we are fortunate to have one of the leading authorities on New York State's natural communities living here in Washington County. Greenwich's Greg Edinger is the Chief Ecologist with the New York Natural Heritage Program. Greg leads occasional field trips in our area. If you hear of one, by all means go. You can also view his work by clicking here.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The March of Time

     Zero degrees this morning, the first of March.
     While I was waiting for the skid-steer to warm-up I noticed my bike leaning against the shed wall. Two flat tires, rusty chain, covered with grime and almost buried behind kerosene heaters, chain saws, shovels - all the detritus of the season.
     Then I heard a plaintive whisper, "Come on, let's go for a spin. Just like old times. We can do it."
     I didn't have the heart to tell her I'ld been seeing someone else. It started as just a brief fling, destined not to last. But here it was March and I was still sneaking away to spend an hour or two with sweet little Karhu Pinnacles, aka my backcountry skis.
     What can I say? It's cold, the snow is deep and the heart's fancy is a fickle thing. Soon enough my affections will swing back to bikes and boats but for now skiing's the thing.

The gate handcrafted by Leif Johnson of  Black Creek Forge in Hebron

     Hudson Crossing was todays get away. It's an island in the river just north of Schuylerville that's been developed as a park. You turn off Rt. 4 by the canal locks and drive a short distance to a cleared lot. The road used to cross the island and a bridge over to Clarks Mills in the Town of Greenwich. Now it's gated and the Dix Bridge across the Hudson is used by pedestrians, bicyclists and snowmobiles, but not vehicles. I skied over the bridge and spent about a minute in Washington County. The boundary here is the middle of the river and though its called a bi-county park the island is actually in Saratoga County. We won't hold that against it.

The Dix Bridge

     There's a perimeter trail with continuous views of river and canal. Facilities include a picnic shelter, playground, canoe launch and deck overlooking the water. A nice variety of trees and shrubs line the banks but it's the giant cottonwoods that you'll remember.

     Burgoyne crossed here on his way to Saratoga. If he'd foreseen the butt-kicking the Americans were about to give him he might have stayed on the east side of the river. Upstream from the Dix Bridge you see two rows of piers stretching from shore to shore. They used to carry a trolley line and railroad but with changing times they were abandoned. I wonder if digging the canals on the west side is what turned this into an island? The original Champlain Canal was superseded by the modern Barge Canal and today they parallel each other.

     It's quiet here in the winter. I saw some kids sledding with their Dad and a few snowmobiles passing thru. The trail had been well-packed by snowshoers but nobody was out on this cold snow- spitting afternoon. There were ducks in a channel of open water, crows in the trees and fresh woodpecker holes in aspens. When (not if!) warm weather comes you can do a triathlon here, watch boats move thru lock 5 or put your own car top boat in the water. There's a level towpath that leads to Fort Hardy in Schuylerville and just up Rt. 4 is the geologic curiosity called Starks Knob.
     Hudson Crossing is aptly named. It has a palpable sense of coming and going. I'm a small part of that history. This is where I used to escape when the burdens of school became too much. I'ld lace up my running shoes, cut classes and slip across the island to the backroads of Washington County for  a few hours of exploration. I knew the Principle's office and a stern Mr. Nolte would be waiting for me when I returned. But who cares? For a little while I was getting a real education and tasting freedom. No wonder I like it here.