It's Snow Flea Time Again!

Snow fleas.jpg

When the epic Adirondack Mountain winter reaches its zenith in early February, it's time to be on the lookout for snow fleas. These tiny creatures are wingless and unlike real fleas, they don't bite. Snow fleas are a kind of springtail. The spring-loaded tail which gives the springtail its name is called a furcula. It flicks out from beneath the creature when it feels threatened, and boing! Instant relocation. 

Snowfleas and their fellow springtails were long considered insects, but recently scientists decided they belong in another group. They are arthropods, as all insects and spiders are, and they are hexapods, like all insects, but instead of being considered insects they are now dubbed entognathans. Unlike insects, springtails have internal mouthparts. Mostly, they live in the soil and function as decomposers.

Why do snow fleas emerge on the surface of the snow, sometimes in concentrations that look like coal dust and turn white powder black? That's the million dollar question. Scientists aren't certain. What do you think? They might emerge to breed, but we don't find them breeding. They might emerge to feast, but there's little or no evidence of them eating. One idea is that by midwinter, there numbers have grown so high in the soil that they have nowhere to go but spill out onto the surface. 

I love seeing snow fleas. They tend to turn up on mild, cheerful days in mid to late winter and suggest that cold weather, as much as we enjoy it in the Adirondacks, won't last forever. Spring is coming!

Snow flea close-up.jpg

Otters And The Adirondack Winter

Otter in snow.jpg

Winter changes life for all of us in the Adirondacks, requiring adjustments. For river otters, which inhabit our lakes, rivers, and creeks and occasionally set off overland to reach the otter's equivalent of greener pastures, the adjustments demanded are more dramatic than for most of the rest of us.

There's the obvious conundrum. How do you dive for fish, and then come up for air, in a body of water that's covered with ice, ice that may be a foot or more thick? There's no easy solution. Otters could be forgiven for avoiding the challenge altogether and hibernating, but that's not what they do.

Along the Saranac River, we occasionally spy an otter in winter, earning its living through breaks in the ice. Because the current flows robustly in places, the ice stays thin or doesn't fully form at all. Otters find these gaps and weak spots in the lids winter places on waterways and nose their way in. They plunge in the cold water, grab a meal (it might be a fish, a crayfish, a hibernating frog, or something else), and paddle back to the opening. Mind you, to an otter, which wears a luxuriant and well-oiled fur coat, the water probably doesn't feel all that cold. Water beneath ice remains at 39.5 Fahrenheit throughout the winter. That's water's maximum density. Any water that cools beyond 39.5 diminishes in density, floats to the top, and becomes ice. Even if the air temperature is 30 below zero, the water remains at 39.5 above. Balmy! Well, everything's relative.

Otters that plan ahead may also maintain holes in ponds or lakes with thick, iron-hard ice cover. As the ice thickens in early winter, they use an entry hole again and again. Repeated use keeps the hole clear or almost clear---thin enough, if the otter is lucky, to maintain a place for diving and breathing. Otters swim like fish, but they don't have gills.

The photo above was taken one morning when I was whisking my daughter, Tasman, off to a dentist's appointment. As we passed by a pond that could be seen through the trees, I glimpsed an otter popping out of a hole, right in the middle. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. And because we were running ahead of schedule, we didn't need to pass it up. I swung the car over to the shoulder. Tasman and I popped out. We waited for the otter to go under. As soon as it did, we clambered down a slope onto the ice. The otter popped out of the hole again. We stood like statues. When the otter took its next plunge, we made our move. 

Again, we stood completely still. The otter popped out like a jack-in-the-box. It had a fish in its mouth. As it ate, we watched from just a few feet away, trying not to twitch or giggle. It was gorgeous, its wet suit of chocolate brown fur glittering with beads of water.

Suddenly, at just the moment I took the photo, the otter, perhaps detecting our scent, turned toward us and lifted its nose. Then, in an instant, it was gone, shooting headfirst into the dark water. We waited. It never came back. The otter had another way out.  

Otter tracks in snow.jpg

Ermine Is Not Cockney For Herman

Kanze ermine.jpg

The ermine, or short-tailed weasel, is not a creature seen very often. The first one I ever glimpsed at our place in the Adirondacks invited itself for lunch. One memorable afternoon, I was assembling a sardine sandwich when a brown, furry, cylindrical shape about the size of one of my socks flung itself over the threshold and raced around the baseboards. Eventually the thing lurched to a stop.

One end rose up from the floor and looked up at me with small, curious eyes. A weasel! That was all I could be sure of at first. Then I remembered to make a quick comparison of tail length to body length. The tail was half as long as the body, maybe shorter. An ermine! The long-tailed weasel has a longer tail, and it's a more robust animal overall. This creature was about as thick around as a bratwurst and not much different in shape. Both ermines and long-tailed weasels turn white in winter.

Since that day, we've had many ermine sightings. Most occur on or near a platform where, about once a week, we put out a lightly picked chicken carcass. Songbirds peck at the chicken, and we attract the occasional owl. But the most entertaining diners of all are the ermines.

They race up the pole, executive a gymnastic maneuver to reach the carcass sitting on a platform about the surface area of a large book, and chomp. Apparently ermines like to eat in private, beyond the prying eyes of other ermines, other would-be carcass eaters, and predators. Invariably, the ermine yanks and yanks some more and tries to make off with the chicken. Frustrated, the little weasel will hang off the edge of the platform and swing like a pendulum. It doesn't work because owls have taught us to chain carcasses down.

Occasionally on nature walks we see wild weasels racing along, lithe, graceful, determined. Each one is a treat!

Who Cooks For You?

Barred owl in flight.jpg

It's late fall. The leaves are down. Daylight savings are spent. Nights are long and getting longer, and often, from out of their black depths, I hear voices.

Voices? Read on.

Yesterday, for example, with our first serious snow in the forecast, I decided to end my work day by rolling around on the cold ground, wrestling summer tires and rims off our Toyota Prius and replacing them with winter rims and snow tires. I started the job in golden afternoon light. I finished it in darkness, cradling a flashlight under an arm or between my knees as I cranked down on the final lug nuts. A few minutes before wrapping up the job, I was reminded I was not alone.

From the woods behind the house came a voice. It was loud and clear. Its cadence seemed to say, "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?"

A barred owl was talking to me, or if not to me, then to another barred owl. 

There's irony in a barred owl asking about cooking. You won't ever catch a barred owl in a restaurant or at a weenie roast. They eat their food raw. Nor are they likely to eat a weenie, even though in the depths of an Adirondack winter, with deep snow burying the ground and mice hard to come by, they sometimes come to pick at chicken carcasses we put out on a bird feeding platform. Mainly barred owls pounce and prey on things that are alive and moving: mice, voles, shrews, birds, whatever they can sink their talons into. 

The barred owl pictured here is one I photographed using an infra-red beam to trip two flashes. My shutter was wide open. It was pitch black out, so no significant amount of light got in. I baited the owl in to the camera with a mouse in a small wire cage. The owl would grant me one photograph per night. After that, it would refuse to chase a caged mouse until the following night. Over two weeks, I shot one bad photo of the owl after another. I always got only a partial owl in the frame. Finally, I perched the mouse in its little cage right on top of the camera. That did the trick. 

Fabulous fall fruits

Highbush cranberries.jpg

Through the Adirondack summer, flowering trees and shrubs busy themselves producing what we may call seeds, nuts, or berries but which in the eyes of botanists are all "fruits." Flowering plants also take advantage of sunshine, warm temperatures, carbon dioxide, soil nutrients, and rain to manufacture the leaves and flowers that will open for business the following spring. It's a busy time for green things. Judging by this year's bumper crop of fruits, it was a very good year.

The shrub known as cranberry viburnum, or highbush cranberry, produced huge numbers of lucious fruit (seen in the photo above) in our part of the Adirondacks this year. Most of us don't eat these fruits because, while not known to be poisonous, they're wickedly tart. But one thing they are, without question, is gorgeous. The reds of the ripe berries, which occur in dangling clusters, are brilliant and can spotted at a great distance. This no doubt helps birds find them. Later, the hard indigestible seeds, one per berry (technically they're drupes), are distributed in droppings far and wide. It's a great relationship. The plants provide the birds with carbohydrate-rich food, and the birds supply seed distribution services and fertilizer.

One fruit that is poisonous, yet so beautiful we can easily forgive its toxicity, is the winterberry. This is the life's work of the most common species of native holly growing in the northern Adirondacks and much of the East. The fruits are not only poisonous to people but birds don't like eating them, either, or at least not until weeks or months have passed. Hence "winterberry"---a fruit that you may still find in the woods in winter, when all or nearly all the other fruits of autumn are plucked and gone.

I have never seen as many winterberries as I have this season. It's a treat to stroll in, or near, damp places where the holly thrives and see the daubs of scarlet it leaves on the landscape.

Fall scene with winterberries.jpg

Beauty out of the blue

Green darner.jpg

Conditions weren't promising for a thrilling wildlife sighting. Our Adirondack front yard had been turned inside out by an excavating machine. Our septic system had failed, and a contractor was building us a new one. The machine operator was about to climb into his seat for another day of digging when I noticed something brightly colored, shimmering on the ground like a lost piece of jewelry.

It was a dragonfly, a green darner, a migrant heading south, the first we'd ever seen at our place.

When I was a kid, there were adults who called dragonflies "darning needles." It was claimed that the insects sought out children who talked too much and sewed their lips shut. This didn't make sense to me. Dragonflies seemed incapable of sewing, and if they were going to stitch lips closed, I figured they'd start by silencing adults who tried to trick kids into being quiet, while making them unnecessarily afraid of dragonflies in the process.

Was the darner alive?  Maybe. So before I picked it up, I snapped a few photos in case it flew off the moment I disturbed it.

Then I lifted the creature gently in my fingers. Not instantly, but soon, its delicate transparent wings began to vibrate. Soon they were buzzing at a fast hum. The darner was warming up for flight. Dragonflies have sophisticated adaptations for maintaining a steady body temperature. In fact, their systems for getting warm and staying warm are arguably more sophisticated than our own. 

I headed for a giant sunflower on which I aimed to pose the dragonfly for a photo. Unfortunately, I ran out of time. With a brisk whirr of wings, the darner lifted straight up helicopter-style, rose into a blue and brilliant morning sky, and shot off to the west.

The episode left me in a rapture. I was astonished by how beautiful the insect was, its head and thorax colored an exquisite metallic green, its wings elegantly veined and softly gilded. I was amazed, too, that in the middle of what I'm inclined to call the darner's forehead, appeared a convincing facsimile of the CBS News logo. 



Green darner 2.jpg


Who made the whitetail?

Whitetail doe.jpg

Once, while my wife, Debbie, was working as a National Park ranger in the Great Smoky Mountains, a boy on one of her programs asked her, "Who made the mountains?" Before Debbie could offer a thoughtful answer, the young man's father jumped in. "God made the mountains," he said. The boy grew quiet.

A little farther along, the boy asked Debbie another question. He gestured toward beautiful tall grasses, standing radiant in the sunshine. "Who made the grass?" he asked. Before Debbie could reply, the boy's father spoke again. His answer was the same.

The boy asked no more questions after that.

A few days ago, looking admiringly at a whitetail deer standing beside a road (the same deer shown in the accompanying photo), I found myself wondering along the same lines as the boy on Debbie's program. "Who made the whitetail?" I wondered.

It's not my business to evaluate the answers volunteered by a father to his son in the Smokies, but in the case of the whitetail, I'm inclined to answer in less cut and dried fashion. Most immediately, the whitetail I found so beautiful was created by its parents. A buck deer with antlers on his head mated with that doe's mother, herself a doe, likely in November. And together they produced the fawn that grew to be the handsome doe.

Who gave the deer its big wide eyes, its long pert ears, its sleek well-muscled torso, and its long powerful legs capable of great leaps and speed? I'm inclined to credit the deer's predators. Wolves, coyotes, bobcats, hungry humans, and in former times saber-toothed cats and dire wolves helped shaped the deer's ancestors. Surely there were other predators, too. In their pursuit of the animal's forebears, they helped favor the spread of the genes that produced the features we admire in the deer today.

And so, whenever we're tempted to recoil in horror at the thought of beautiful deer being stalked and brought down by predators, our own species included, it's worth remembering that without those predators, there would be no deer, or at least no deer resembling the gorgeous animals that roam our woods and fields today.

Blueberry time!

Every year's unique, and this one is a banner year for blueberries in our corner of the northern Adirondack Mountains. Lowbush blueberries, native shrubs in the heath family, produce fruit every year, but some years they serve it up almost by the truckload. At our place, this is such a year. So every chance we get (which with summer chores isn't half often enough), we lather on insect repellent, don sun hats, and head out into the blueberry patch. The goal is a freezer full of these delectable, antioxidant-rich fruits to be used the rest of the year cooked in our morning oatmeal and baked into pies. Aside from their tastiness and nutrition, blueberries on the bush are gorgeous to behold. Everywhere I go, I manage to find some to admire. And then I eat them.

Adirondack bogs eat the unwary. But have no fear!

In Europe, human corpses turn up in bogs cut for peat, corpses so fresh they're sometimes reported to the police as possible murder victims. But the bodies have lain there in many cases for thousands of years. The high-acid, low-bacteria environments dominated by sphagnum mosses perform wonders of preservation.

Since not much decomposes in boggy areas, plants can be hard-pressed to find nutrients. One solution employed by plants of several families is to kill and eat flesh---not human flesh, mind you, but mainly the nitrogen-rich muscle tissue of insects. 

Consider the sundew, a sort of miniature Venus flytrap. The eyelash-like fringes of the leaves are sticky with a sweet secretion that lures insects close, then traps them. After the insects die, usually of exhaustion or suffocation, the sundew digests them. This is a round-leaved sundew leaf I photographed a few days ago.

Also pictured is the leaf of a pitcher plant. This meat-eater collects rainwater in its modified leaves, adds digestive enzymes, and digests whoever falls in. Diabolical but effective! 

It's wild strawberry season again.

They might not look like much, being a fraction the size of the strawberries on offer at farmer's markets and the grocery store. But the wild strawberries of our fields and woods edges pack a lot of flavor and sweetness into a small package. Is there any wild fruit tastier? And best of all is the price.

Wild strawberries don't last long. As soon as they ripen at our place in late June and early July, birds called cedar waxwings arrive in hordes to pluck them out of our shaggy lawn. I'd be a liar if I didn't admit begrudging the waxwings their feast, at least a little. They consume far more of the precious fruits than we do. But heck, I guess waxwings have been picking here far longer than we have, so maybe the real thieves are the frugivores we see in the mirror.

A favorite way to devour wild strawberries is to toss a handful in a bowl some cool summer evening and drizzle a little heavy cream over the top. But it's not easy getting the fruits to the bowl. The picking is a slow process, giving you just enough time between fruits to run a quick cost-benefit analysis for each. This may lead to the idea that it's better to live in the moment and devour on the spot than save for a later which may never come. Think of it. A giant asteroid hurtling through space could strike the earth at any moment. If this happened, would you want to leave any wild strawberries in your possession uneaten?