Monday, March 30, 2009

The Lookout for April 2009

After nearly four years of my monthly Hampshire Gazette column "The Lookout", the economy's collapse has caused April's installment to be furloughed. To keep up my reporting on nature I offer up this blogosphere version with extra photos:

Steve Sauter

The Lookout:

Spring swept into the Valley over the past two weeks and in my enthusiasm I was a bit too quick to get out on to the bike trail. Ice patches still held on in the shady sections of Hadley and Amherst and my fingertips ached from the mid-day 40° as the air rushed over me. Twice I fell hard as I zipped over the ice patches. The first fall found me rolling over heavily and stopping in the brush, my face inches away from an old rusty rail. Later, as I drove home, I was to feel the light touch of my first ever deer tick strolling along the hairs on my hand. Amazing that it was laying in wait along the rail trail, with ice still on the pavement, snow still in the woods. My second fall was more violent, tearing my knee open and leaving a long thin bruise that would be with me for two weeks. Undaunted, I have been back on the trail twice more since those falls, thrilling to the rush of vernal delights.

Skunk cabbage is up in every wet slough; honeybees have emerged from their confining hives. Every bird present is singing and new species have come up from the south, most noticeably were the eastern phoebes with their explosive sneezes, followed by emphatic cardinals and ubiquitous robins. An early red-shouldered hawk glided past me and into the woods, fresh from its wintering grounds of northern Mexico. A large flock of cowbirds, our only parasitic species, with mixed males and females, settled in to the low trees. Killdeer and song sparrows called from both sides of the trail, and along the wet pools below the Amherst College gymnasium I heard the first wood frogs of the season with their laughable duck-like song. Ggguck, a dluck, a guck, quack.

t my home in Ashfield, there is still a good deal of snow in the woods but the river has been released from the ice and the beaver is back at work cutting my trees down. He has one small tree that he cut but has become hung up in the branch of a larger tree nearby, and its sharpened trunk hangs in the air like some big pencil. The beaver seems confused by this and apparently comes in the gloaming to chew on the tip like some child so fascinated by a pencil sharpener that he whittles away at the pencil until it is gone. I tried setting out one of my wildlife cameras to capture this scene but instead a single ghostly image of a raccoon was captured. These cheap wild life cameras that I use do very poorly in cold weather and the evening that the ghost raccoon was captured the low temperature was 13°, just a few days after the equinox.

he beaver has made multiple attempts to dam up the river but the area is quite flat and so the water simply takes another course around the dam and the beavers are faced with maintaining many control dams. This leaves lots of little wet islands in this watery world and the first birds in to investigate have been hooded mergansers, a pair, who seem to be sampling all the deep pools and hollow trees for their nest. Usually I get common mergansers that enjoy fishing the broad expanse and long reaches of the swiftly moving waters but the beavers' work have changed the habitat to the benefit of the “hoodies”. Each year a pair of hooded mergansers nests in the woods by the VA hospital in Northampton and when their brood is ready, marches down through the grassy field to the little pond across from the Look restaurant.

can follow the bank of my river into an old gravel bank that was active back in the 60’s and 70’s. The commercial enterprise could not operate today with the wetland laws but interestingly the extensive removal of material created large new wetland areas favoring the nesting of the threatened wood turtle. Rare plants now abound here as well such as the ladies tresses orchids and bottle gentians. As I moved along the bank with my dog Ida we came upon a great glacial erratic boulder- a beast of rock about the size, shape and color of an elephant, pushed to this location by the ice sheets that moved through the area 15,000 years ago. Standing still upon the rock, Ida and I watched as a small brown form came jumping through the weeds, hopping from snow patch to snow patch, diving into pools of water seamlessly as if the entire terrain of water, snow, ice, soil, tree trunks and rock were all the same instead of the chaotic habitat it is. As the animal approached, I could see by its profile that it was a mink. I can always depend upon my calm and quiet dog to remain by my side and not to break rank in excitement and this time was no different. I could tell that Ida’s eyes were also locked onto the swift exuberant, almost manic movements of the mink as it approached. Now within thirty feet of us, this fascinating predator came to a screeching halt, paused for a moment, nose twitching, and then lifted its gaze to look directly into my eyes, his gleaming white chin exposed. These are nature moments that I live for, that electric communication between a man and a fellow predator. As I raised my camera, the mink flowed effortlessly 180° and slipped into the water, my slow reaction time capturing only his back as he swam away.

In the evening skies for the month of April, I will be looking as the nearly full, waxing gibbous moon glides past Saturn in the hindquarters of Leo the lion on the evening of the 6th. Just before dawn on the 22nd the annual Lyrid meteor shower will peak so there will be extra numbers of meteors zipping around in the vicinity of earth. Fortunately the moon will be a waning crescent and will not interfere too much in these remnants of Comet Thatcher. In fact on that very morning the thin crescent moon will be near Venus, now a morning planet and should be very pretty. Better yet is the show on the evening of the 26th, when the new crescent moon, Mercury and the Pleiades align low in the western sky just after sunset.

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