Sunday, December 5, 2010

An Old Freak, Much Laughter, and Cold Mist. Day 2

"The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity." - Rollo May
Garfield Trail at low elevation. An easy stroll through deciduous forest
 The clouds were darkening and the light was failing as the afternoon was surrendering to evening. I truly felt the need to push onward on my trek to the Garfield Ridge Campsite high above me.The lower stretches of the Garfield Trail are fairly flat and rock free and allow for easy and fast hiking. Still, I had a 45 pound pack on my back, and this was the second 4,000 footer ascent of the day. So I was not feeling particularly strong and I did not want to run out of daylight before I reached the AMC campsite. As the day wound down many day hikers who had spent a beautiful October day in the White Mountains were now returning to their cars to head home. I stopped and spoke with each group of hikers I met. They all were curious about my destination. There is a sense of community among hikers that makes for easy conversation and a feeling of camaraderie. Most of the people I spoke with remarked that I had a way to go still to reach the Garfield Ridge Campsite, at least those who actually knew of its existence. The deciduous forest on the lower flank of Garfield Ridge was coloring up with the yellows and reds of the advancing autumn but the rich green of the summer still dominated.

Garfield Trail crosses Spruce Brook
 The hip belt of my pack kept slowly slipping lower as I went. I have fairly narrow hips and I have to cinch the belt very tight to try and keep it where it will bear weight properly. I could feel the skin under the belt chafing uncomfortably and I was sweating with the effort of the hike. I came to the crossing of Spruce Brook and gratefully splashed the cool mountain water on my face and neck. The simple comfort of the water rinsing the sweat and grime off my skin felt like high luxury. I repeated these ablutions over and over, not wanting the sensual pleasure and feeling of cleanliness to end. But rain was threatening and I had a ridge to climb, so slipping my hands into the straps of my trekking poles I walked on.

Early on the Garfield Trail. Easy slope and footing.
  When you are hiking the White Mountain trails you adjust your stride and pace to the footing offered up to you. Early on the Garfield Trail the trail bed is an easy slope with few rocks, allowing long strides and a fast pace. I took advantage of this to make good time. My mind often wanders far afield when I don't have to concentrate on my footing. As I strode along my thoughts flew to the people and events of my life, as music wound throughout the landscape of my daydreams. It is as if I was on two journeys, one physical and one spiritual, both winding and both long. Meeting a few more hikers leaving the forest interrupted both journeys. One man, with a tan that was too deep and bronzed to look like the honest burnished skin of an outdoorsman, who was also wearing the paratrooper type boots that only someone who had never been a paratrooper would buy, complained what an awful trail this was to hike. Thinking to myself that I could not agree with such a judgment, I replied "Oh yes?" "Yes!" was his emphatic reply, he assured me he had hiked all over the Whites and this was one of the worst trails he had ever hiked. I laughed to myself but politely bid him a good finish to his hike and I continued on.

Garfield Trail reaches the transition from deciduous to coniferous

Thoughts of the bronzy paratrooper hiker soon faded. The trail was entering the transition where the near total dominance of deciduous trees was giving way to more and more firs. The trail itself was getting more studded with rock and stone and a fine light rain was now falling. If the rain became steady I was in for an uncomfortable finish to my hike. And no hiker wants to establish a camp in the rain if he or she can avoid it. The growing worry that nightfall and rainfall would find me before I found the campsite spurred me on at the fastest pace I could manage. My breathe was hard and deep, the sweat flowed liberally, my hips burned from the pack, and my legs felt heavy. Perversely, I felt as alive as I possibly could.

The Spruce Forest of the higher elevations
The rain sputtered and failed. The light continued to wane however. My steps were no longer precise and fatigue was my constant companion, causing me to stumble a bit and stub my feet on the rocks that protruded from the trail bed like broken teeth. I started to look off the trail for possible spots to camp in case I could not make the campsite before dark. It is surprising how lonely the mountains can feel at the gloaming when you are alone. I pride myself on presenting a confident and reassuring face to others when things are going poorly, to help them feel more optimistic themselves. That doesn't work on yourself however. It's harder to buck up your own spirits. I was thinking that very soon I would need to break out the headlamp when I finally reached the trail junction that would take me to the campsite. The relief was very welcome.

The trail junction that heralded the end of the long day was nigh. A welcomed sight indeed.
Here I turned eastward and downward. Garfield loomed above me in the gloaming, but I would visit that peak on the morn. Now all I wanted was to get this pack off my back and set up camp. The trail dropped very steeply and I had to take it very slowly. Fatigue is a deadly enemy on steep rocky trails, and descending these with a heavy pack is damnably hard on knees. After a painful descent of some fifteen to twenty minutes I reached the spur trail that leads to the campsite. I had smelled woodsmoke for some time, and as I reached the campsite I saw several hikers gathered around a nice fire. These AMC campsites have caretakers during the summer season and I soon found him. He told what tent platforms were still available and after exchanging a few words I set off to find the wooden deck that would be my home for the night.

My one man tent was soon erected and preparations for dinner were underway.
The tents of my neighbors for the night on companion to my tent platform.
As I set up camp I had the opportunity to meet the other hikers who were using the tent platform next to mine. They were four young men in their late twenties. We soon had a conversation underway and in an act of immeasurable generosity one of the fine young gentlemen shared some red wine with me. Clearly they were some of the finest examples of humanity. When my tent was complete and I had eaten a simple fare, I joined the others around the fire. Soon we were sharing hiking war stories and laughing. About a dozen of us spent a pleasant hour dodging campfire smoke and talking in the night. I am of the opinion that standing around a fire in the mountains at night sharing good drink and telling tales could make the fastest of friends of the deepest of enemies. Ah , would that it were, would that it were... After this most enjoyable commune, I crawled into my tent and into my sleeping bag. The night was cold and damp. My bag was dry and warm. To sleep, perchance to dream.

The caretaker's tent at Garfield Ridge Campsite.
During the night I had seen the ghostly glow of moonlight through my tent. But daylight revealed that a cold mist had settled on the mountain, just a few hundred feet above us. There would be no views to be had today alas. After preparing to hike up to the summit of Garfield, I headed out. Many of my fellow travelers were up and about as well. The gathering splintered back into the disparate groups that had arrived separately last night, heading off in different directions with different goals. First I stopped at the natural spring below the campsite and then I followed several hikers up the trail back to the Garfield Ridge Trail.

The spring below the campsite.
Looking eastward toward Galehead Mountain and the Twins. The clouds loom just above Galehead but have encased the Twins.
The steep climb back up to Garfield Ridge Trail.
I had left my camp set up and was now just carrying a light daypack. This was a blessed relief. Still the steep climb up to the ridge trail soon had me huffing and sweating. It wasn't long before I reached the ridge trail however, and I continued onward towards the summit of Mount Garfield. The low hanging clouds soon enveloped me as I climbed. No one else was headed to the summit this morning. Mount Garfield has spectacular views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, or so I have read. There would be no views today. Being in the clouds is like being inside a cold and clammy cotton ball. It was into this cold mist that I scaled upwards to the summit.

Into the mist. The scramble up to the summit of Garfield.
The summit of Mount Garfield used to have a fire observation tower. The concrete foundation still remains. Once on the summit I felt truly alone. Lost in a cold mist on a lonely peak. In all directions a cold white fog robbed me of the spectacular views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Yet in this cold mist, on this lonely peak, I felt the warmth of another goal achieved, another life experience had, another victory over myself. It is all too easy to take the easy way in life, never setting goals, never challenging oneself, never doing, never being. I was very glad to have made the effort. I could not see the view, but I knew it was out there, and I knew if I never passed this way again, I had passed this way once.

The old tower foundation on Garfield summit.
On Garfield Summit, in the clouds.
A cold mist hugs the summit
After spending a half hour on the summit it was time to head back and break camp. The return hike to the campsite was uneventful. There was no lifting of the clouds and the day seemed to grow darker rather than brighter. When I arrived back at the campsite all the campers had left. The caretaker was alone. I spoke with him for a while and learned he was originally from Connecticut as well. He was on his last day as caretaker and would be hiking out later, his tour of duty up for another year.

The night's campers were gone. A through hiker stops briefly at the shelter at Garfield Ridge Campsite.
 He had the latest weather forecast as well and told me heavy rain was headed into the region. So my trip was to end sooner than originally planned. I was disappointed that my long hike was cut short. But in life you have to make choices. If the most difficult choice I had to make this day was to keep hiking in the mountains in the rain or to head back the comfort of my Connecticut home, than I was more fortunate than many. It had been a good trip. I had climbed the Old Freak, met new fiends, laughed in the night, and stood on a mountain peak in a cold mist. Life could be worse, much worse.

The trail out. In the mist.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Old Freak, Much Laughter, and Cold Mist. Day 1

"Trust only movement. Life happens at the level of events, not words.Trust movement." Alfred Adler

The "Freak," Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Seen from Franconia Ridge.

I had visited the old Freak before, with my youngest daughter. Now I was back to climb it. The Freak is an obscure old name for a peak much better known now as Cannon Mountain, one of the White Mountains of New Hampshire and home to a famous ski area. My daughter and I visited the summit via the tramway that runs from the base of the mountain's north slope. I was on my own this time, taking an opportunity to hike new peaks and spend some time thinking. I am not one who likes to sit on a couch and self reflect. I need to put boots on and miles behind me to think long and clearly. This trip was an ambitious one, my plan was to hike seven mountains over three days. I would be carrying a heavy pack and camping at high elevation for two nights. Reality would fall short of my expectations, but that is the way of life at times.

The start of Kinsman Ridge Trail at the Cannon Mountain Tramway parking area. Ah, there's nothing a little tape can't fix!

The weather forecast was questionable for this trip, but I pulled the trigger and went for it anyway. As I stood next to my truck at the Kinsman Ridge Trailhead and scanned the sky, it certainly didn't look promising. The sky looked deeply troubled. Shreds of white clouds ran up and over the peaks like strips of torn silk pulled across the top of a chair, while a roiling blanket of leaden cloud loomed heavily above all. This hike was intended to be a quick up and down before I drove around to the real hike, up Garfield Trail and on to the mountains called The Bonds in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. So, with rain gear in a daypack, I headed up Kinsman Ridge.

The Kinsman Ridge Trail's northern terminus is very heavily water eroded.

Just as I started, two sunbeams broke through the clouds, and like theatrical stage lights, they ran across Franconia Notch and partway up the flank of Franconia Ridge before being sliced off by the racing clouds. A good omen I hoped. The trail's start was deeply water eroded and looked more like a gulley than a trail. Still, hiking up a mountain is much like living. Whatever the trail, the only way forward is to put one boot higher than the last. It is in this repetitive motion that, when hiking alone, I can lose myself in my thoughts. This trip was one I needed for just that purpose. So as I climbed, I thought of many things. The forest along the trail at low elevation was heavily populated with birch and hemlock. The hemlocks here in New Hampshire are not yet devastated by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid which was introduced into North America accidentally. The adelgid is an insect that sucks the sap of tender hemlock shoots, and appears to inject a toxin that ultimately desiccates and kills the hemlock off. Here on Cannon's feet the hemlocks are spectacular, and a healthy dark green.

Echo Lake below the north slope of Cannon Mountain.

Winter Wrens, one of my favorite birds found along the trails, were in force on the lower trail and popped out often to "chup chup" at me while bobbing up and down. It was warm and humid along this lower section and I was sweating with the effort of gaining elevation. I am physically in decent shape, but mountain hiking always makes me feel as if I should be a whole lot stronger. The electric hum of the tramway could be heard starting up every 15 minutes as the cars traveled up and down, filled with tourist who would be unlikely to ever climb the old Freak on foot. This mountain is the former home of one of North America's most iconic natural formations. "The Old Man of the Mountain," the rock formation that jutted out over Profile Lake in Fanconia Notch, and which now graces the New Hampshire quarter dollar coin, (and the profile is still the background for the state's license plates) fell in the night in early May, 2003. Once forming a rugged profile of a man's face when seen from the northern end of the notch, the boulders that made up this visage now lie among the talus at the cliff's foot. The night he fell, two rock climbers who were sleeping nearby heard the rumbling death of the Old Man, though they did not know the momentous event that rumbling heralded. The trail I was taking would swing out over the cliffs above the Old Man's former place.

 Route 93 in Franconia Notch.

The ledges in the foreground are above the former Old Man of the Mountain's home. Across the notch are Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln.

It was not long before I reached the area above Cannon Cliff where the Old Man once lived. As I had climbed, the clouds had unexpectedly faltered and failed. Now blue sky largely domed Franconia Notch. Across the notch stood the ridge with Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln dominant among its peaks. Many hikers would be walking along that ridge as I gazed at it. Below me, at the bottom of the notch, a gray ribbon snaked north and south, route 93. The weak but persistent growl of cars, motorcycles, buses, and trucks reached all the way to my lofty perch. Behind me the herd of tram tourists would be ambling from the tram landing to the summit building and back again. I was certainly not lost in the wilderness here. Still the natural wonders around me held me on those ledges for longer than I planned to be there. It was with thoughts of the miles I needed to put under my boots before nightfall that I finally shook off my procrastination and I headed up towards the Freak's summit.

The summit tower of Cannon seen from the ledges above the Old Man's former site.

The trail had gotten busier as the morning passed. Now I was frequently passing day hikers and dogs. Dogs on the White Mountain trails are becoming more and more common. And it isn't just big breeds either. There are some remarkably short canine legs scrambling along the rugged tracks. Just below the summit of Cannon, the ridge trail I was walking meets up with the tourist path that leads from the tram landing. It is at this confluence that hikers and tourists intermingle on the stretch to the summit tower. One group in muddy boots and using trekking poles, and the other in gleaming sneakers or open sandals and carrying pocket books and video cameras. The hiking etiquette of letting faster hikers pass is absent in the tourist crowd, and I had to be patient as the people ahead of me ambled along with strides that fell far short of my expectations. Still, even glaciers end up getting somewhere, eventually. I took every opportunity to pass that I could. The tourists were generally very amicable, and smiled at me as I went by. However, there was one group of older people wearing motorcycle paraphernalia that looked somewhat offended at being passed. Ironic, I thought. At last I reached the summit tower and ran up the crampon pocked wooden stairs. The wind was cold on my sweaty back and I was feeling the passage of time acutely now, so my sojourn was brief. A few pictures and I was headed down with as quick a pace as I could sustain. The old Freak was my 36th White Mountain 4,000 footer summit. 12 more to go to complete my goal of hiking over all 48. If I live that long of course.

Franconia Ridge across the notch, seen from the summit tower of Cannon. Mt Lafayette is left of center and Mt Lincoln is right of center. Looking eastward.

Kinsman Ridge south of Cannon. North Kinsman is right of center and South Kinsman is center. When my young friend Mark and I hiked those peaks in March they were clad in snow in ice.

The return to the parking lot where my truck awaited was routine. One stride after another, one thought after another. The miles passed and the thoughts passed. Thoughts and miles are much the same. We travel through each to reach the next. Maybe we find ourselves somewhere better, maybe not. I believe we are free to choose the trails we walk, whether through the mountains or through life. Often we deny, especially to ourselves, that we do actually choose the direction our lives go. Too often we use words such as "I had no choice," to relieve ourselves of the admission that yes we did, or we fail to see our lives as our own to live but rather see our life's disappointments as the result of other people's failings. It is easier to accept that fate can not be affected by our choices, that we are on some sort of course whose path we can not alter, than to make the hard decisions to make our lives better, happier, more fulfilled, more purposeful. Often we chase the wrong things in life, and then blame others when we find ourselves unhappy with our lot. Life can be difficult, trust me I know. But life can be wonderful as well. You just have to choose the right path. It's okay to make mistakes, you'll learn more about life and yourself from your mistakes than you will from any triumphs. When you come to a fork on a trail, you need to open a map. When you come to a choice in your life, you need to open your eyes, your mind, and your heart. If all else fails, and you have kids younger than 20, just ask them. They'll know the answers to all your problems. After twenty they start to get stupider, like their parents.

Mount Garfield rises from Garfield Ridge. Seen from the summit of Mt. Lafayette on Franconia Ridge.

It was time to continue my journey. After a quick lunch by my truck, I drove northeast to my next trailhead. I would be hiking up Garfield Ridge by using Garfield Trail, just west of the Gale River. I would be camping at 4,000 feet at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Garfield Ridge Camp Site, just below Mount Garfield's summit. I took a few minutes to organize my pack and then shouldered the forty-five pounds that would be my home, food, and safety in the mountains. I met a hiker and his dog at the trailhead who had just finished a long trek in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and were awaiting a ride out. We talked a while and then I headed in. Do you ever notice how some people say they headed "out" when going into the wild lands? I don't see it that way. For me the wild lands are where we came from and where I choose to return to, a landscape of peace and beauty, a place of simple but wonderful truths, and a place of harsh realities. It is a place to find out who we are, or who we can be. For me, when I pass into the shadows of the trees, I am coming in. When it is time to return to the world of steel, concrete, and glass, Then I am heading "out."

The Garfield Trail is a wonderful and relatively easy mountain trail. It starts by passing through a stand of old hemlocks and pines. Here the heady scents of these noble trees greeted me. As I walked I soon spotted a Garter Snake by the trailside. The Garter Snakes here in the Whites are called Maritime Garters, a race of the Eastern Garter Snake. I decided to catch it and photograph it, but wearing a forty-five pound pack and catching a nimble reptile are not symbiotic human endeavors. I figured the only way to catch this guy was to do it quickly and clumsily, and let the snake have every opportunity to bite me.

Maritime Garter Snake.

So, burdened by my pack and moving like those films of the astronauts walking clumsily on the moon, I stooped and grabbed the snake by the tail. Promptly, and predictably, it bit me. Just the once though, and it quickly let go. Having introduced ourselves, we did a little photography. While I was taking pictures, an older couple stopped (ya older than me) and asked me if it was a Ribbon Snake. The next few minutes were spent in a pleasant conversation about identifying snakes and about what birds they saw in the mountains. The snake had little to add to the conversation, and frankly I felt it could have made a better effort. The couple then headed out to the parking area and I released the snake and continued along the trail. The sky, what little I could see through the canopy of dark green, was darkening and clouding up again. It was time to walk fast. The trip up the Garfield Trail would be a race against nightfall. It would also be a walk with many meetings along the way. I didn't know it then, but the night ahead held much laughter with newly met friends, and the morning would find me climbing into in a cold and lonely mist.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Acting Swiftly

"There were many grebes, making spreading wakes in the water as they swam, and I was counting them and wondering why they never were mentioned in the Bible. I decided that those people were not naturalists."
Ernest Hemingway writing of the Sea of Galilee in the Green Hills of Africa.
 The ability of birds to fly has always captivated the human imagination. In our dreams we soar over the landscape with the ease and freedom that by day, we envy in the birds. Vividly can I remember the days when I was a distance runner. On a good day I would glide nearly effortlessly over the countryside. I can no longer do this alas, but the joy of sprinting through the trees and the feeling of physical power was as addicting as anything I have ever experienced. I was confined to the surface of the earth however, any vertical movement I accomplished was dictated by the terrain I crossed. How must it feel to be free of such restriction? To be able to move in any direction, limited only by the speed of thought? I can only dream how it must feel. But Swifts, paragons of flight, need not dream such freedom. They live it.

Every Spring, here in northeast, the Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica) return from their South American home. Briefly, from April to September, we are graced with these aerial masters. The spend nearly all their waking moments on the wing, landing only to roost or nest. They are creatures of the air, and indeed seem to be all wing. Their short, stubby tails and cigar shaped bodies, are eclipsed by long and elegantly curved wings. It is as if the Swifts fly on feathered sabers. To human eyes, which work in very complex ways with our brains, an optical illusion occurs when viewing flying Swifts. We sometimes perceive the wings acting opposite of one another, one being up and the other being down at any given moment, even though they aren't. An oddity created through their evolution and ours.

Long saber-like wings extend well passed the end of the Swift's stubby tail at roost. Note the tail feather's webbing stops short of the end of the shaft, creating "spines" that help the swift perch on vertical surfaces.
Swifts feed on the wing, drink on the wing, bathe on the wing, are believed to engage in play on the wing, and may even mate on the wing. They appear to have no ability to walk or hop on horizontal surfaces, and rarely perch on a branch. They land (or "cling" more appropriately) on vertical surfaces, and can crawl upwards or sideways. They are very social, roosting in large numbers. And according to Swift rehabilitator Jayne Amico,  they are one of the very few avian species to respond positively to being petted. Swifts inhabit our towns and cities, flying over us as we go to work, mow our lawns, go shopping, sit at an open air concert, or any of the myriad of activities that make up our earth-bound lives. Yet the average person knows little or nothing of these winged maestros. Indeed, most birders know little of them as well.

Jayne Amico holds one of the Swifts in her care.

During the breeding season they are found throughout most of the eastern United States, spilling into southern Canada. They evolved to nest and roost in vertical fractures of cliffs, caves, or the hollow carcasses of old growth trees. As mankind altered the landscape by felling the trees and building massive brick and mortar chimneys, the Swifts adapted and moved to these artificial trees, or to large open buildings. Swifts are extraordinarily social, roosting intimately in large groups.They nest as single pairs, but will sometimes tolerate non-nesters roosting in the same chimney. This has led to the erroneous belief that they nest colonially.

Chimny Swift. Photo by Jayne Amico

Within a couple of weeks of their arrival on the breeding grounds, they begin courting or pair bonding behavior. They fly in small groups of a half dozen or less, frequently in sets of three. It may be two males following a single female. It is during these "trio" flights that they display some of their most amazing flying skills, darting at high speed through trees, between buildings, or soaring high into the air. When two Swifts are flying in an apparent bonding flight, the trailing bird will sometimes snap its wings upwards and hold them stiffly still, forming a V shape. This is called "vee-ing", and it is done first by the trailing bird and then often by the the leading bird. Swifts have been observed flying very close together while vee-ing and even appear to be briefly copulating.

Swifts build their nests from small twigs grasped in their feet and broken from trees as they fly. Both birds in the pair do this. These twigs are then cemented in place at the nest site with the bird's sticky saliva, which is produced from a gland that enlarges during the nest building season.

They seem to favor the most sheltered and darkest location in a nesting structure. The eggs are laid when the nest is about half constructed, and construction continues during incubation. Construction completes before the eggs hatch. On average, it takes between two and three weeks to complete the nest.

The average clutch is about four eggs, which are white and semi-glossy.The incubation of the eggs is done by both parents and takes about 19 days. The chicks are altricial at hatching, naked and helpless. Amazingly, their feet develop quickly and they may be able to grasp the wall of their nest site as soon as one day after hatching. The chicks gain mass quickly and reach adult mass after about three weeks.

Feather tracts appear as dark spots under the pink skin at around four days and the feathers erupt through the skin at about one week. The eyes open around week two and fledging occurs at about thirty days. At around nineteen or twenty days, the nestlings leave the net and cling to the nest site wall. While clinging to the walls they spend much of their time exercising their wings. This builds up the flight muscles. Both parents feed the young. There sometimes are "helpers" that assist in the incubating of eggs, and the brooding and feeding of nestlings. It appears these helpers are young adult Swifts, or at least non-breeders.

Once fledged, the young may continue to roost with the adults or join them at communal roosts. The adults no longer feed the fledged young, who are now already masterful fliers. The number of Swifts in a roost can sometimes be very large. The following video is of the closely related Vaux's Swift (Chaetura vauxi), going to roost in Portland, Oregon, but the tornadic roosting flight behavior is the same for Chimney Swift.

These roosts grow as the nesting season ends. When the cool, stable atmosphere of beautiful Fall days come, the Swifts begin their long migration south. Little is known of their behavior on the wintering grounds, in the skies above South America. We in the northeast can only await their return the following April or May.

While they are nesting here in the northeast however, things sometimes go wrong. This is where rehabilitators such as Jayne Amico play a role. Swift nests can be dislodged by heavy rains and fall into people's homes. Or worse, they can be "swept" out by chimney sweeps cleaning chimneys. When this happens, they are sometimes taken to rehabilitators. All too often sadly, the dislodged Swifts are simply put in situations they can not possibly survive. The Swifts in Jayne's care are the lucky ones. She has mastered rearing and releasing these unfortunate individuals, or healing those that have suffered injury. It is far from an easy task, and no one should undertake it who isn't trained and immensely dedicated. I have had the good fortune to witness Jayne in action with Swifts, and I have come to admire her skill, dedication, and love for the birds she handles. I do not think I have ever witnessed the degree of professional knowledge and child-like affection that Jayne exhibits in ministering to her flock. Sorry, I couldn't resist the phrase. The following are a few pictures I took at The Mount Vernon Songbird Sanctuary last July when I visited with my daughter Janet and her friend Emily.

Nestlings in special care at the Sanctuary

Jayne feeds her Swifts in the purpose built feeding "chimney" at the Mount Vernon Songbird Sanctuary.

Four of the Swifts perched on the vertical walls of the enclosure.

Emily and Janet observe Jayne caring for her wards.
Sometimes it is necessary to hand feed individual Swifts that do not adapt quickly to the foreign process of taking food from a human.
Swifts, like many of the bird species in our world, are declining in numbers. There are few or no new chimneys being built that they can use for nesting. Additionally, many existing chimneys are being capped to keep the birds out. To my mind, many people love seeing wildlife, as long as it isn't on their property. The loss of these magnificent aerialists is deeply regrettable. In watching Swifts fly, we are able to witness what perfection evolution can achieve. What a dreary place the skies over our cities will be when they are no longer sliced by the Swift's feathered sabers.

To learn more about Swifts and what you can do to help protect them, visit at:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rattle and Kink

"Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."  Rachel Carson
Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)
 The heat of a mid September sun was firmly clamped on the Walden Preserve in Salem, Connecticut. It was mid day and it was quite warm for the date. I had been feeling a bit beaten down by life recently, and not without good reason. I had also been ridiculously busy. The prior weekend I had taken my daughter and her friend Emily camping on Selden Island on the Connecticut River in Lyme. In order to do that, I had rebuilt a canoe the week before, designed and built a boat rack for my pickup truck (which I finished at 12:30 am the night before the trip), organized all the gear needed, loaded all the gear and three boats in the truck, paddled all the gear to Selden Island, set up camp, cooked all the girls meals, broke camp down afterward, loaded all the gear back into the canoe, paddled the gear laden canoe upriver to the boat launch (while the girls flitted by in agile kayaks), Loaded the truck back up, drove home, and unpacked,  cleaned, and put away all the gear at home. All this after working a full work week. Admittedly I love doing things for kids, but it had been a tough week. So today, with my daughter spending the day with her friend Rachel, I knew my psychological state was low and needed an immersion in the woods. So here I was, looking for Black Rat Snakes. That was why I was here at mid day, to increase my chances of finding these inky serpents soaking up the warmth of the sun.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). One of the beauties of Walden Preserve.

I had been walking the meadows and forest of the preserve for an hour or so, and I had been looking under rocks and logs for snakes of any sort, while singing Mark Knopfler songs to myself. This is the sort of behavior that can guarantee odd looks from passersby and the suspicious attention of law enforcement officials. This endeavor allowed me time to think about my trials and tribulations and to lose them in the forest, at least temporarily. However, my log and rock flipping would prove fruitless this day, well serpent-less anyway. I did unearth numerous Red-backed Salamanders, which I had to remove before replacing the rocks and logs, to avoid turning them into ex-salamanders. So, tiring of flipping things over, and liberally covered with the fecund earth of the forest floor, I decided instead to start walking hard and fast for the exercise. It wasn’t long before I was sweating liberally as well. It was at this point that I spotted a Black Rat Snake draped across a fallen log off the side of the trail. These beautiful black snakes are usually fairly slow and approachable. So slowing to a casual walk, I approached the snake with the expectation of simply picking it up. Apparently this individual fancied itself a track star however, and shot off at a pace that took me totally by surprise. Not one to be outdone, I sprinted after it. The snake was in its element and shot down a steep slope while winding through a maze of saplings and brush. As I ran through the undergrowth after it, and by “ran” I mean stumbled clumsily, I lunged repeatedly at its fast disappearing tail. Just when I thought it was mine, it was gone. I stood there, heart pounding, breathing hard, beaten in a race through the woods by a creature which had exactly no legs. Oh the indignation of it all.

Green Darner (Anax junius) Female. A common fall migrant dragonfly hawking prey over the meadows.
Accepting inglorious defeat, I continued on. I then happened upon a colleague from work who was walking with his two sons. They were admiring the recent gnawings of beavers on the local flora. I spent a few minutes talking with them and learning about air-soft guns and ferrets from the two boys. I think every boy should have air-soft guns and ferrets. Surely nothing could ever go wrong in a household with air-soft guns and ferrets? Well time was pushing on, as it is wont to do, so I said adieu and walked on. I was heading back to the parking area when I noticed a long black stick on the path ahead. It was an odd looking stick, it looked quite like another Black Rat Snake! A few years ago, my friend Hank Golet had sent me a picture of a Black Rat Snake he found in Old Lyme, which was doing an odd defensive/camouflage posture. It can only be described as “kinked.” I personally had never seen any of the numerous Black Rat Snakes I had come across do this, till today. There was this guy on the path ahead of me, and he was “kinked.” It was a nice sized adult, right around 5 feet in length, maybe an inch or two short of that.

Odd "kinked" behavior of Black Rat Snake.

Prepared for another possible dash, I approached the snake. This one however, remained motionless in its odd posture. I reached down, and as my hand approached the snake, the tail started to rattle among the leaf litter. This is another defensive bluff that several snakes perform, attempting to appear a Rattlesnake. Being just bright enough to know the difference, I was undeterred. I picked up the long ribbon of muscle that was the snake and felt its strength as it wrapped itself around my hand. The serpent made no attempt to bite me. Indeed, as I have experienced with Black Rat Snakes before, holding the snake’s head required just the lightest pressure. This species is generally quite easy and pleasant to handle. If I had relaxed my grip on a Northern Water Snake this much I would have been bitten in a heart-beat. Less than a heart-beat, actually. I draped the snake over my arm and as it wrapped itself tightly around my forearm, I felt the tail tip continue to vibrate against my skin, an odd feeling indeed.

The Black Rat Snake often offers little resistance to being held. My grip is very light. Try this relaxed soft touch with a Northern Water Snake and it will hurt your feelings!
The snake was still doing the false rattle with its tail while it was on my arm.
 The snake’s black tongue flicked in and out rapidly as it assessed its predicament. Contrary to popular belief, a snake’s tongue does not detect smells. The tongue is used to drag minute airborne particles to an organ in the roof of the snake’s mouth, called a “vomeronasal” organ, or "Jacobson's organ." This organ does the “smelling” and the tongue simply acts to bring the olfactory evidence to it. Much like how mammal’s use lungs to drag air to their olfactory organs.

Gathering data on its environment. The snakes tongue drags air particles to an organ in the roof of its mouth.
The scales around the snake's mouth have evolved to allow at least partial extension of the tongue without having to open the mouth.

I took a few minutes to photograph this denizen of the southern New England woodlands, and to appreciate its simple yet elegant beauty. I never tire of the silken feel of a large snake's skin. When I released it, it moved purposely, but not hurriedly, off into a trail side bush. It showed none of the speed of the previous snake that had left me in its dust. I wonder if that one has some Black Racer in it? I'd feel better if that were true!

Freedom. The Black Rat Snake heads for the hills.

It was time to head home. I had solved none of my worldly problems. But I was refreshed by my time in the woods. Feeling the snake constrict on my arm was like feeling the handshake of an old and dear friend. And of course, I now knew more about air-soft guns and ferrets. I wonder which of these I should get first?

To learn which snakes are present in southern New England, and some salient facts, download the Connecticut DEP publication "Snakes in Connecticut," at:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pinched, Bitten, and Smeared

"I love fools' experiments. I am always making them." -Charles Darwin
"Uh, Dad, I thought you said they wouldn't bite?" "Ya, they try once in a while, but it doesn't amount to much." That was my reply to my daughter's question about whether the Northern Ring-necked Snake she was holding would bite. I was a few yards away turning stones over in Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, Connecticut, looking for more snakes. I had found a Ring-necked Snake, and my daughter Janet and her friend Matt had been holding it and photographing it while I looked for more. "Well this one is doing a pretty good job of biting!" was her reply to my assurance not to worry. I stood up and turned around to see. Sure enough, that little so-and-so was doing his species proud.

Ring-necked Snake biting Janet's Hand
"Well don't worry about it. It won't even leave a mark." This was placating I know. Actually it did leave a mark, and it bit Matt as well. Son of a gun. It didn't bite me, and I caught it. You'd think justice would have been served and it would have taken revenge on the guy who caught it. Oh well, life is seldom fair.

Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
Matt holds a Ring-necked Snake.
It was a rainy Monday in August. Matt, Janet and I, were out looking for snakes and whatever else we could turn up. Matt loves snakes. And frogs. And Salamanders. And Lizards. Just to mention a few critters. Well so do I. Janet is game for almost anything. She may not get the thrill Matt and I get from finding snakes but she enjoys the woods and whatever it has to offer. Today we were getting wet and muddy while we explored, and we were getting smellier by the snake. Many snakes excrete a nasty smelling musk which they smear on an attacker, or a 12 year old, or a 51 year old who thinks he's 12. They also smear other unpleasant things on you as well, use your imagination, you'll get there. I know. Pretty disgusting. If you were picked up by a creature hundreds of times your size, you would do something similar. I know I would.

Why they are called Ring-necked Snake is pretty apparent.

This is a beautiful animal, the Northern Ring-necked Snake. Growing to only about 14 inches on average, the record length is about double that, 28 inches. They are usually found under rocks, logs, or leaf litter. It is easy to see why they are so named, a beautiful cream colored ring crosses the snake's neck dorsally. The belly is a rich yellow with a hint of orange. They usually don't bite people. Usually. These gorgeous little snakes eat salamanders, small frogs, other snakes, or even earthworms. Today both Janet and Matt would leave this snake with little bite marks on their hands. I'm pretty sure they felt they were little badges of courage actually. I was not bitten, did I mention that?

Matt with Garter Snake and Janet with Ring-necked Snake. Okay the Ring-necked is still attached by the mouth to Janet's hand. So it is sort of holding her actually.
My turning over rocks soon resulted in finding a small Eastern Garter Snake. This is certainly the most familiar snake to people in the northeast. They are the snake everyone finds in their yard at some point. I'm being judgmental here but I don't find them as attractive as the Ring-necked Snake. Still they are a snake, and therefore they are beautiful to me, and Matt. Janet was interested but not as impressed admittedly. Garter Snakes don't really bite either. They certainly can put on an impressively aggressive defensive act however. When they do bite, which happens sometimes admittedly, they can hang on tenaciously, like that Ring-necked Snake that was still attached to Janet's hand. I realized my credibility was running a bit low on this point, but Matt did not hesitate to take the snake from me.

Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
Eastern Garter Snakes are very common in many habitats. They grow to about two feet but have been found as long as 49 inches. The ones we found in Pachaug were small. They eat almost anything smaller than themselves but prefer mostly aquatic stuff, salamanders (I know! Salamanders just have it tough out there), frogs, and small fish. The second Garter Snake I found was about to shed its skin. When a snake sheds its skin it also sheds the specially adapted scales that cover its eyes. These scales turn a milky blue as the snake approaches shedding, or molting. If you find a snakeskin, look at the head, you'll see these eye scales are present on the shed snakeskin rather than holes where the eyes are. The photo below clearly shows these milky eye scales on this soon to shed snake.

The eye scale turns a milky blue prior to the snake shedding its skin.
The rain had pretty much stopped by now. Matt, Janet, and I decided to move on and explore other spots in the forest. We stopped at a forest stream with a large pool behind a man made dike. We poked around to see what we could find. One of the first things we turned up was a Crayfish. I don't know a great deal about Crayfish I must admit. There are about 350 to 400 species in the United States. Many are endangered due to habitat loss or degradation. They are also preyed upon by many species such as otters, raccoons, turtles, fishes, Rails, Herons, and of course, man. I scooped this one up using my bug net. The kids had to have the little guy pinch a stick (see the photo), but of course I had to have it pinch me. It grabbed my offered finger and hung on with amazing strength. I did want to have the kids see it didn't really hurt. I didn't, really. However, I think my "It won't... " credibility was still weak with the kids at that point.

Crayfish with stick supplied by Matt and Janet
Matt and Janet examine a Bull Frog
Matt quickly spotted something else in the water. He asked me what it was and I told him it was a dragonfly larva. I reached in and scooped it into my hand to show them. Specifically, it was a larva of the family Aeshnidae, or the Darners. These are the largest and fastest of the dragonflies in the northeast. The name "Darner" comes from the erroneous beliefs of people based on the long abdomen of the dragonfly and the way it lays eggs by pushing them into aquatic vegetation or rotten logs. Many misconceptions exist about these wonderful insects. They do NOT sting. They do NOT sew your mouth or eyes shut (for goodness sake!) They do NOT land on you and then bite. Okay they do bite if you hold one just right so it can get a bit of your finger right up against its mouth parts, but the bite does not hurt. I have let the largest of these bite me, the Swamp Darner, and while impressive in strength for such a light weight, it didn't hurt. The larvae of dragonflys are impressive little aquatic predators with large eyes and large mouth parts. This family's larvae stalk their underwater prey, using their large eyes and mouth parts, while many other dragonfly species larvae lie in camouflaged wait to ambush prey. When a dragonfly is ready to emerge and begin its flying stage, the larva will crawl out of the water on a rock or log and the adult will break out slowly, much like a butterfly. The dried larval skins left behind, or exuviae, can be found near the water's surface on vegetation, logs, rocks, or concrete culverts.

Aeshidae, or "Darner" Dragonfly Larva
Adult Aeshnidae. This is a female Lance-tipped Darner. It is possible that the above Larva is that of a Fawn Darner however, based on habitat and the presence of adult Fawn Darners egg-laying nearby.
The day was getting on, and Matt had to be back in time for a birthday party for his mom and sister. While we had time, I wanted to look for more snakes before Matt needed to be home, so we moved on. We next tried a couple of spots looking for Eastern Ribbon Snakes or Northern Water Snakes. I had seen an Eastern Ribbon Snake at one nearby location a couple days before, but it had eluded my capture. We looked today to no avail, but we did manage to find Northern Water Snakes.

Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
Northern Water Snakes are frequently called "Water Moccasins" or Copperheads, by the uninformed, and are then pointlessly slaughtered. They are not Water Moccasins or Cottonmouths. They are non-venomous. They do have brilliantly white mouth linings and are vigorous biters in their own defense, but only in their own defense. This is a very common snake in Connecticut and they reach between 2 and 4 feet in length when fully grown. They will bite if handled without caution, and their mouths have a bacterial component that can cause an infection in the bite wound. This may be why the Greek name sipedon, or "infectious," has been used for this species. Northern Water Snakes will also use a convincing bluff to defend themselves. They will flatten their heads to approximate the triangular shape that is a feature of most of the venomous North American snakes. And let me tell you, when these snakes smear musk, or "whatever" on you, it really stinks! Just ask Matt and Janet. Using my bug net to reach out in the water, I snagged this little beauty.

Me holding the Northern Water Snake I caught using a bug net
Matt quickly took the snake from me after I warned that it would try and bite him if he wasn't careful. I told him his mom, Karin, would be less than happy with me if I let a Water Snake nail him! Matt is a brave young man and took the snake with no qualms. After a few pics, I put the snake back on the ground and it shot off back to the water, happy to be done with me. It had repeatedly struck at my camera while I photographed it, showing its white mouth lining. Northern Water Snakes prey mainly on frogs of the genus rana, such as Green Frogs. This is a subtly beautiful snake on its dorsal side, and a dramatically beautiful snake ventrally. The belly is patterned in reddish half moons or triangles.

Northern Water Snake
Dorsal view. Northern Water Snakes can be varied in color dorsally, this one is rather darkish. Take a good look, this is NOT a Cottonmouth or Copperhead! It is non-venomous but it is a "biter."
Trying to make you think it is venomous, a Northern Water Snake flattens its head. This is a defensive bluff however.
The beauty of the Northern Water Snake's belly
Having been pinched (me), bitten (Matt and Janet), and smeared (all of us), we called it a day. Dirty, wet, and smelly, we all headed off for a bite of our own. It had been a fun day despite the rainy start. The kids and I had found some pretty cool critters during our time in the forest. I love being able to share with children my love of the natural world, and Matt and Janet had clearly enjoyed themselves. I look forward to the next time I can be pinched, or bitten, or smeared! You should give it a shot too, it won't hurt. Well not too badly at least... it is worth it... really!