It’s the vernal equinox, and while we’re still enjoying a good layer of snow, things are beginning to get more lively out there among animals, insects, and birds.
By Brendan J. Whittaker
On a recent late afternoon (before this week’s snow!), I was yarding some harvested trees from our farm woodlands here in far northeastern Vermont. My tractor path led across one of our frozen icy crop fields, snowless and colored mud-brown, so unusual here in late winter.
Suddenly a flash of bright white caught my eye. “Weasel!” Gorgeous in its winter fur, it headed across the field quite purposefully, as though he/she knew exactly where it was headed and intended to arrive there, my presence not mattering.
Winter weasels are usually a quick flash of white, and I always feel lucky to see them. More likely to see their tracks than the furtive animal itself. Sometimes I’ll catch one slipping behind our warm kitchen chimney when one chooses to overwinter in our house. "Now you see me...flash!...now you don't!" After, we're apt to say, "Did I really just see what I think I did?" Then we reflect with gratitude on the harvest of house mice our winter guest must be reaping. But this outdoor sighting was a good one, perhaps a minute and a half, the best weasel view I've ever had, as I sat motionless on the idling tractor.
The animal, with no great haste, half-circled me to my east, vivid against the brown, frozen open space. Its coat was brilliant spotless white, intensified by the rays of the setting sun. The white fur was broken in just two places: its coal black eye, which it kept locked on me as it progressed. The other was the black tip of its tail, a distinctive mark on both of our weasel species here in New England. The weasel tipped its tail jauntily as it went along, and gave me one last flaunt before it disappeared into brush at the end of the field.
In New England we have two weasel species: the long-tailed (which I saw from my tractor), (Mustela freneta) and the short-tailed, usually called the ermine (Mustela erminea cicognanii) when it assumes its winter coat. At our northern latitude, both species turn white in winter. More southerly weasels – called “stoats” in Europe, may stay more brown coated.
Ermine fur has been prized in former times as a mark of status and honor, adorning the robes of judges, royalty, and popes.
Weasels are ferocious hunters. Homeowners who keep chickens in this area may know this all too well. When weasels attack a flock, not content with one or two, they will quickly slaughter all they can find in the poultry pen or chicken house, as we learned many years ago. Their long slim bodies can slither through amazingly tiny entrances in what the chicken keeper may think is a totally weasel-proof pen. A colleague, who is a professional Wildlife Biologist told me recently that he thought his own hen flock was weasel-proofed, until, finding all the birds dead one morning, searched and searched for the mustelid's entry place. He finally located it: the small bored hole through which the electric wire for the henhouse heat lamp. He described the hole as barely big enough to squeeze the wire through, but Mr or Ms. weasel had been successful in getting in!
Some of us who have lived in the North Country for a long time will remember the WMTW-TV weather report from the summit of Mt. Washington. Marty Engstrom was a long time weather reporter up there, rather famous for his humorous grimace he'd sign off following his professional, rather dry weatherman 's forecast.
Marty and the other crew had a cat there on summit, which we'd view occasionally during the telecast. They also referred to what we thought was an imaginary pet named "Herman the Ermine." Night after winter night, Herman might be mentioned, his activities described, but he was never seen. They obviously were making the whole story up....Until! One memorable night, there was Herman! On a table in front of Marty, undeniably winter white, black tail and nose, showing off for the TV. camera. A real-deal weasel-ermine, with his weatherman hosts, in their warm winter habitat at 6,288-feet in elevation. It's many years ago now, but I think I recall that Herman the Ermine gave us all his own weasel- grimace, just like Marty's as they signed off for the night.
Brendan Whittaker is an ACT Advisor, and a member (past chair) of the Lands Committee. He is a professional forester, and served as Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources in Vermont. He lives in Brunswick, Vermont.
By Sharon Francis
I write to urge all who care about our health and environment to urge Washington lawmakers to oppose the administration’s proposed 25 percent cut to the Environmental Protection Agency budget.
The Trump Administration seems to believe that environmental protection is an enemy to be vanquished. Their proposed cuts are deep and mortal. Slated for total removal are Radon testing and control, beach water quality testing, diesel emissions reduction, and multipurpose grants to states. The water quality improvement grants for some of our country’s most valuable fishing, shipping, and recreation areas would also be gone: these include Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes.
Grants from EPA to states like New Hampshire for drinking water, air quality, water pollution control, lead detection, nonpoint source pollution, toxic substances compliance are slated for 30 percent cuts. Most of us have heard that the administration favors the point of view that climate changes cannot be blamed on carbon dioxide emissions, so rather than invest in research from which they might gain improved information, they propose to cut climate research by over 70 percent.
Overall, the administration proposes to cut EPA funding by $2 billion. What is at stake? Most of EPA’s actions in behalf of water quality, air quality, and toxic substance control are investments in public health. At a time when the nation is deciding how much it wants to invest in health treatment, we would be well advised to continue our investments in avoiding health problems. Keeping contamination out of our air, water, and soil is a major way to do that. Furthermore, clean, attractive rivers, lakes, seashores, hills, and valleys are economic assets. They attract investments, whether from tourists or from families who wish to enjoy nature nearby.
Thousands of students have gone on field trips, studied the ways of water, taken college courses in the many pathways to a prosperous society and a healthy environment at the same time, and are pursuing careers in the technologies of saving energy and safeguarding life on our planet. We owe it to them, as well as to ourselves, to retain a strong, well-funded EPA.
I am now retired, but have worked in the environmental field for over 50 years. I love my country, and do not want to see it make a foolish, unnecessary mistake.
ACT member Sharon Francis lives in Charlestown., NH. She has devoted her career to conservation and the environment, and is a a recipient of the EPA Lifetime Achievement Award.
Red-winged blackbirds are back!
I heard a male’s exuberant “conk-a-ree!” song this morning. The males are usually the first arrival of spring. They’ve been making their way up the river valleys (the Connecticut River valley is a major migration path) and then to higher elevation areas like where I live.
We have a pond nearby where blackbirds nest, and they are frequent visitors to my feeder.
The males are unmistakable with glossy black bodies and red and chevron with yellow trim on their shoulders. Females can be mistaken for song sparrows or female red-breasted grosbeaks, as all three are streaked brown and off-white.
Walk near a pond or marsh in mid summer, and you’re almost certain to see these blackbirds. The males are very territorial, singing from cattails or nearby trees. Approach their nests, and you might get dive bombed! Last summer a particularly fierce male considered the entire pond his territory, and he let all the neighborhood dogs and people know it.
Notice above I wrote “nests.” Male red-wings are polygnous, meaning they have multiple mates. One bird may have several nesting females in his territory – especially dominant males can have up to 15 mates (!). However, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, those ladies are not monogamous either. One-quarter to one-half of nestlings turn out to have been sired by a bird other than the territorial male.
This time of year, I think those first red-wings appreciate the backyard feder, where they like mixed seeds or sunflower seed, especially seeds on the ground. And I like watching the strut about, occasionally stretching their wings like a body builder and showing off thise flashy chevrons. A few weeks from now we can all look forward to the females arriving.
Meanwhile, some of our winter birds are still here. Look for flocks of Bohemian waxwings congregated in medium to tall trees, with their distinctive high pitched whistling. Soon, they’ll head back north to their breeding grounds.
Kids need time outdoors to explore, play, imagine, and engage all of their senses. When a child's curiosity is sparked, learning comes naturally. This year we have partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of the North Country to use ACT's protected lands as an outdoor classroom to connect young people with nature.
Children from the Boys & Girls Club have hiked to the ledges at Cooley-Jericho to enjoy the views; discovered signs of moose, bear, and coyotes on the trails; learned about monarch butterflies and milkweed at Whipple Field; explored beaver ponds; and studied water quality on the Gale River.
You can help support our programs for local kids by donating to ACT today!
Harry Reid of Sugar Hill, NH was one of the small group of friends and neighbors who created ACT. He was an incorporator of the Trust, one of the five people who legally created the organization in the year 2000.
Harry loved the White Mountains and knew the Franconia Notch area as few do. As a boy he hunted and fished and explored, and as an adult (after coming home from a 20-year career in the U.S. Army) he was the manager of Franconia Notch State Park, including the Cannon Mt. ski area.
Harry believed in the power of people working together, and the importance of protecting the land we love.
These days of snow, rain and gloom after those tantalizing warm days of early spring - every year I seem to forget that winter leaves so reluctantly.
But spring is around the corner, and some of our early birds are here. In the last few weeks bluebirds, phoebes, white-throated sparrows have all arrived, along with flocks of robins. Geese and crows are making their nests. Woodcock have been here for a month. Mergansers, wood ducks, and mallards are in the rivers, and bufflehead and ring-neck ducks on the larger ponds. A few hardy peepers were calling before the ponds refroze and wood frogs ("croakers") are on the move. At my feeders, siskin and goldfinches continue to swarm, along with juncos, purple finches, and song sparrows. A few tree sparrows and bohemian waxwings are still about before they head north for the summer.
In anticipation of the birding season, we're offering two fun and informative events:
Friday, April 22, 7 - 9 p.m., Weeks Memorial Library, Lancaster
Join Dave Govatski and me for a look at a century of conservation through the Migratory Bird Act, plus learn some tips on identifying more birds through knowing habitat and behavior.
Thursday, April 28, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m., Franconia Town Hall
Expert birder Charlie Browne will present how learning songs will make you a better birder, and enrich your experience outdoors. Great for beginning and experienced birders.
Both events are free, with donations gladly accepted. Refreshments will be served.
It looks like we'll avoid the snowstorm coming up the coast, so our walk Sunday evening March 20 is still on. Let's hope for continued improvement to the forecast, and we might see the rising moon.
We'll meet at 5:30 p.m. at the entrance to Pondicherry National Wildlife Area on Airport Road in Whitefield, just across from the power plant. It will be chilly, so bring something warm to enjoy when we linger at the viewing platform over Big Cherry Pond, hopefully under the rising moon and hearing owls calling.
But whatever the conditions, walking in the woods at night is a great sensory experience!
For a map and more details click here.
A chipmunk! One emerged over the weekend and hung out at the bird feeder. In the woods, purple finches, goldfinches, and pine siskins are chattering like crazy. And a new singer: the brown creeper, the only nuthatch-like bird who always likes to go up a tree (nuthatches typically creep downwards). And in the woods, snow fleas, peppered on the snow. I saw a teeny spider yesterday afternoon on the snow. This morning walking a woods trail I felt across my face the most delicate sensation, a spider's trailing string of web, which it uses to float hither and yon.
We will start our spring bird alerts in the next few weeks (red-winged blackbirds reported from Bath yesterday, along the Connecticut River Bath, so we know the migrants are on the way!). It won't be long before we hear woodcock. If you'd like to receive our bird alerts, please e-mail us.
What a bizarre winter we've had. From -20 Sunday morning to 52 (!?) as I write Tuesday afternoon.
The rambunctious wind has already scoured the overnight snow/ice coating from the fields.
A sign of spring! Yesterday the cardinal who's been hanging around the neighborhood all winter (and making everyone smile) started singing! He's a grand fellow, and all the finches, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets joined in. At our elevation of 1,300 feet, cardinals don't usually hang out; in the 20 years I've lived here in Sugar Hill, I've only seen one other male, and one female - sadly not at the same time! One spring that male sang for weeks, to no avail.
Regardless of the weather, everyone is invited to two (hopefully) winter hikes: