Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Black Racer

My friend Lynn Harper and I happened upon one of the more regal of New England reptiles on Saturday, September 26, while taking a walk through the Montague Plains Wildlife Management area in Franklin County, Massachusetts . The northern black racer, Coluber constrictor, is normally quick to flee from the slightest disturbance, but this snake was an exception.

Strolling down the sandy trail I froze in my tracks when I spotted the serpent. So did Lynn. So did the racer. We all seemed mesmerized by each other. I did manage to bring my camera up to try and get an image, and despite the obligatory foliage between me and most of my photographic subjects, I got off a few respectable shots.

Black racers are not uncommon this far north (they even range into southern Maine), but the best observation one usually gets is a glimpse of a shiny black snake slithering quickly out of view. They are known to occasionally take refuge among branches and other vegetation, but in my experience they seem to vanish into thin air, or at least down some unseen rodent burrow.

I was also taken aback by the size of the snake. At first I thought it might be a black rat snake, but that species is state-listed as endangered in Massachusetts, and it does not frequent the dry habitat of the Montague Plains. Racers range between thirty and sixty inches, or 90-150 centimeters. This specimen was on the upper end of the spectrum. I am more familiar with the smaller, blue-gray or yellowish brown versions of this species that can be found in Oregon.

As I moved behind Lynn to try and get a better angle for photographing it, the snake began to test the air with its tongue in earnest. It turned and beat its retreat, vibrating its tail as many harmless snakes are wanton to do in imitation of venomous rattlesnakes. As suddenly as it had appeared it slipped away through the swishing dry grass.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stump Sprouts

Last Sunday, September 20, I had the pleasure of visiting the Stump Sprouts Guest Lodge and Cross Country Ski Center, located in the picturesque township of Hawley in Franklin County, Massachusetts. You should see the place for yourself, though, and taste the food, and just relax there.

I had been invited by a friend to lead a “bug walk” before the annual “nature” meeting and supper for the Sons and Daughters of Hawley. The drive through the rural, rolling hills was a treat in itself, but what a great place the destination was. Nobody showed for the bug walk, except for the owners of Stump Sprouts, Suzanne and Lloyd Crawford. They are the most wonderful couple you will ever meet, totally dedicated to providing an enjoyable experience for their guests, while embracing a commitment to sustainability, low impact recreation, and local agriculture. Local as in right there on the property, whenever possible.

The Crawfords have been doing this since 1977, including constructing buildings from timber they took from their own property. This is in part the origin of the “Stump Sprouts” name: ‘new life from old roots’ as their brochure states.
I really love the whimsical “face” on the side of the lodge, made from old rusty tools and sawblades. It is also a reflection of the cheerful nature of the proprietors.

One of the newer additions has been this solar panel that generates electricity that they feed into the grid, drawing the energy back out as they need it. I found that the structure also supports housing for paper wasps beneath it. Nearby is a vegetable garden and compost heap. They regularly serve the literal fruits of their garden in the meals they prepare for guests.

The bread and butter season for Stump Sprouts is the winter when they host cross-country skiers, snowshoe hikers, and even ice skaters at some of the local ponds. They keep their 450 acres laced with well-groomed trails through woods, fields, and meadows.

There is no reason one cannot enjoy the accommodations at any other time of year, and I could recommend the facilities for any group wishing to do nature-related workshops, birding tours, or even scientific research. Suzanne and Lloyd are very knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and willing to learn even more.

All the amenities, save linens, bedding, and toilet articles which guests are asked to provide themselves, come at very reasonable prices. The lodge is also located close to the town of Shelburne Falls, and Northampton and Greenfield are only about a 45 minute drive away. From Boston it is only 2 hours, and New York City is about four road hours away.

Please visit the website for Stump Sprouts for current rates and more detailed information. It is well worth the visit, even for a day.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Parallel lines
Of paper birches
Fade to plaid
When crossed
With reflections
Of sky and water
In sunset shades
Of red and green,
The Scottish fabric
Of an American grove.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1988

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pickerel Frogs

Never in my life as a naturalist have I ever seen as many frogs as I have here in western Massachusetts. They seem particularly abundant right now around ponds, rivers, even dry areas fairly far from water. Among the most common are pickerel frogs, Rana palustris.

I’ve been privileged to encounter several cooperative photographic subjects in the field at places like the High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary and the Westfield River. One shy specimen hid under the shed at Dave Small’s house in Athol and happily gobbled up moths and other insects that, attracted by his mercury vapor light, fell to the ground beneath.

Pickerel frogs are easily mistaken for leopard frogs, Rana pipiens, the amphibian we all dissected in biology lab. Leopard frogs are identified by their round spots, while pickerel frogs have larger, nearly square blotches. Leopard frogs are in severe decline over much of their geographic range, however, due not to scalpels but to many environmental factors impacting most frogs. Acid rain, draining and filling of wetlands, and fungal disease are among the suspected reasons for their disappearance.

Pickerel frogs seem to be thriving by contrast, at least in my own experience this summer. Western Massachusetts did have an abnormally wet season, though, the wettest on record by some accounts, and there was certainly no shortage of areas for frogs to breed. It was difficult to avoid wet places in fact. Even so, I found many pickerels in perfectly dry (even downright hot) conditions at High Ledges Wildlife Sanctuary.

Male pickerel frogs call for mates by inflating a pair of vocal sacs in beneath their throat. Most references describe the sound they produce as a “snore,” but not having heard one I cannot say for myself. They started breeding from March to early May, before I arrived here.

The female frog lays her eggs in vernal (temporary) pools, usually near rivers or streams, and she is prolific. One egg mass can have from 700 to 3000 ova. Tadpoles can become frogs by the end of the summer, but it takes two years from egg to sexually mature adult.

I have to thank the people of Massachusetts for preserving a great deal of amphibian habitat; and thank the frogs themselves that were kind enough to not hop away too quickly while I fumbled with my camera. They are very photogenic, but perhaps they know that….

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Does it qualify as a migration if the Canada geese just fly back and forth between destinations in a small area? I rather doubt it, but the birds still fly in formation, honking in that haunting way that literally says “autumn,” and takes your breath away as they pass overhead.

Lately, here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts, right behind my current residence, over the site of the former pickle factory, you could set your clock to their evening flight. Six fifteen. Six eighteen at the latest. The way the fading sun catches their wings is simply awe-inspiring. Is this the flock from the Campus Pond? Where are they going? I like not knowing the answers.

There are now many places across North America where Canada geese have ceased to migrate, so at home do they feel in what was once just their summer residence. This is especially true in urban and suburban areas where people feed them constantly, and there are vast lawns (i.e. parks and golf courses) for them to relax and nibble on.

Unfortunately, goose poop has become a real quantitative sanitation problem in such circumstances, and while it was once a pleasant novelty to have a dependable flock at the park, it has become at least a smelly nuisance requiring one to step carefully anywhere near a water feature.

My friend Jeff Boettner used to band birds, and he is carefully tuned to when the true migrations happen. Shorebirds, he says, have probably already passed through along the coast. Hawks are about to start, especially the broad-winged hawks.

For now, I’ll find contentment in this “mini-migration,” and enjoy the enchanting call of the wild that offers accompaniment to the changing foliage.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Heron Encounter

A casual lunchtime visit to the Campus Pond at the University of Massachusetts here in Amherst on Thursday, August 27, brought a sweet surprise. A family had taken up one of the stone benches at my favorite spot under a tree beside the pond. They were feeding the geese and ducks like many folks do, but one of the birds near the shore was clearly not a duck or a goose. It was a great blue heron wading just a couple yards away from them.

It seemed completely absurd that a bird I am usually lucky to spot from a football field away should be right there, like somebody’s pet, or a permanent resident of a wildlife rehab facility. No broken wings on this elegant animal, I saw it fly gracefully across the pond on a later date.

The scene this day reminded me of a story I read many years ago in Natural History magazine about herons and egrets (maybe pelicans, too) in Florida that had taken to hanging out on the docks and begging fishermen for part of their catch. The article was entitled “Brother Can You Spare a Fish?”

I had also heard a story when I first arrived here about an egret that frequents the Campus Pond and is equally habituated to humans. A young boy was tossing popcorn at the bird, which obviously ignored the overture. A professor passing by muttered arrogantly “They eat fish, not popcorn.” The next kernel the boy threw bounced off the egret’s head and into the water. A fish surfaced to investigate the morsel, at which point the egret nabbed the fish and took flight. The boy turned to the professor with a satisfying smirk on his face.

My home town of Portland, Oregon named the great blue heron the official city bird many years ago. There, it is even the emblem on an ale produced by a local microbrewery. I find it ironic that I would have to go across the entire country to get this close to one, but I’ll treasure the memory.

Repeat "Offender"

Remember the bat that had flown into the house next door a few weeks ago? Well, I now live in that house, and the landlady was just beginning to breathe easier, thinking the bat had found its way out when….The evening of Monday, August 17 I came home from work and noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turns out the bat had been roosting on a window shade at the top of another entry door.

Fortunately, the shade was easily detached from the door, so I simply took the shade and the bat outside, much to the relief of my landlady. The bat flopped off the shade and into some plants along the edge of the back deck. It must have been exhausted, dehydrated, and hungry, at least if it had been in the house the whole time.

After snapping a few pictures of the creature, I decided I should probably try to hang it up on a tree trunk so it could eventually manage a take-off. The bat had other ideas. It was none to eager to receive my “help” and actually flew off from ground level, much to my amazement and relief. I was an instant hero to my landlady, but oh how things can change….

The next night, Tuesday, August 18, I arrived home to find my landlady utterly beside herself on the front porch steps. There were literally two of her there. No, I’m joking. Her mental state was not a laughing matter at all, actually. I did not know what was wrong, and the first words out of her mouth were “I’m going to have to sell my house.” Having just moved in, I was now in total shock myself.

It turns out that the bat was back, in the exact same place from which I had removed it the evening before. I reassured my landlady that this was an easy problem to deal with, but we should probably try and find out where the bat was entering the premises. After once again removing the bat (I attempted no “flight aid” this time), I set about looking for possible entry points.

This home was built in 1913, and trying to find one little crack or crevice where a bat could enter was futile. There are just too many possibilities. The chimney was an obvious choice, but the bottom was blocked by a layer of insulation. A bat would not have an easy time getting through, but it could be done. I decided that the bat must be a descendant of Houdini and let it go at that. My new plan was to simply remove the bat every time it showed up until it learned that it was going to be sent packing every time. I began the paperwork, but then remembered bats can’t read eviction notices.

Fortunately, we have not seen the bat since. I wish it were as easy to convince my landlady that bats are pretty harmless to people, and nothing to be afraid of. Not many people get a chance to see a wild bat up close, and I am sorry that this experience was an unpleasant one for her. Maybe someday I will show her the portrait I took of her uninvited houseguest before it left for the last time. I think it is rather cute, don’t you agree?