Urban Naturalist
 

Blink little fire-beetle, flash and glimmer


For too long I've been laboring over a story commemorating the aberrant whiplash winter of 2017-'018. My attempts to do justice to that season's overabundance of stark departures from any recent winter norms have tied me up in compositional knots. From the historically massive January flooding that inundated the boardwalk area at Hogle sanctuary making it inaccessible by foot for  a week or more, to the treacherous snow-topped sheets of shell ice that stretched insubstantially above cavernous vacated spaces after flood waters had receded, tempting foolish traverses that led to break-throughs, to the short but spectacular thaws (high 50s F) that enveloped the entire West River Delta and Retreat Meadows in near impenetrable mists, to the up-the-hill hill onslaught of presumed ravenous beavers who chomped down saplings almost up to Eton Ave residential zone, to the mammoth hit-and-run March blizzard and much more, what a long strange ride it was.


In the midst of my struggles I was fortunate to be reintroduced to one of Summer's iconic evening displays: a conduit to memories from long ago and a launch point for my current story. One warm night this July I was visiting a rural sector of Guilford (as opposed to Guilford's 'Thickly Settled' {har har} commercial Rte 5 corridor) where widely spaced residences are tucked away in large wooded lots. I happened to stroll out of my lovely hostess' home into a night whose near-total lack of downtown-style electrical light set the stage for a dazzling display of natural luminescence . Fireflies, hundreds of them, were putting on a light show to rival anything that had transpired in the recent July 4 fireworks. The beetles' (not really flies') flashes were so bright against the near-primordial darkness, and so numerous and fleeting that they resembled the peak stage of a Big Sky meteor shower dropped down to the terrestrial plane. I hadn't noticed firefly action of such magnitude for decades. This must have due to personal obliviousness, because once alerted, I quickly saw comparable firefly pyrotechnics along West Brattleboro's Goodenough Road.and even in my yard downtown on Brattleboro's Blakeslee Street.


As I reveled in summer blink-fests, a boyhood memory flashed into my mind. Back in the late '50s in the then-somewhat-sleepy and bucolic town of Frederick, MD, I was a member of Boy Scout troop 799 based at Fort Detrick, a decidedly non-sleepy military installation adjoining Frederick's west end. Yes, THAT notorious Fort Detrick, bastion of Cold War – driven biological warfare research; professional home of investigators targeted unknowing as guinea pigs in a nefarious, irresponsible and tragic early CIA test of LSD effects (see recent Netflix offering and earlier episode of Unsolved Mysteries); site of the top-level bio-containment cabinet where a researcher in Richard Preston's best-selling Hot Zone (played by Rene Russo in the film) did or did not infect herself with Ebola virus; and, (despite having de-emphasized biological warfare in favor of the war on cancer by 2001), the putative source of post-9-11 anthrax – contaminated mailings that led to the deaths of 5 addressees and handlers.


In Summer(s) of 1956 and/or '57, Troop 799 scouts became gung-ho participants in a Fort Detrick - sponsored firefly collection drive aimed at purifying and analyzing the enzymes and substrates responsible for the insects' (and their larvaes') remarkable “bioluminescence”, a fascination Detrick scientists shared with peers at major pharmaceutical companies as well as applied and basic academic research labs worldwide. We 11-15 year-olds, oblivious to rationale or consequences or anything but the mad quest, ran amok in yards and fields, feverishly gathering the slow flying and seemingly defenseless beetles in Mason jars. Our tunnel – visioned zeal was such that we raised enough money to support major troop projects, even at what would now rank as a pittance per jar. It barely flickered on our mental screens (or at least mine) that we and other recruited youth groups were severely decimating Frederick's firefly populations for years to come. Not one of my shining moments given that I was embryonically pointed in a naturalistic direction, but then in this pre-Silent Spring era, naturalism was yet to be inextricably linked with species endangerment or other grave ecological concerns.


A future story will deal with profound advances in basic understanding of genetics, metazoan development and other fundamental life processes, as well as strides in medical diagnosis and treatment made possible by use of light signals from purified firefly Luciferase and Luciferin as “reporters” to track the activities of key genes in cells, tissues and even in living creatures in vivo. For now I'll close by expanding on a deliciously gruesome saga of firefly deception and rapacity with which the majority of you are likely familiar: a grisly morsel of Firefly biology that has evoked the richly deserved term “femme fatale”. Read on, and I will dish up what the late, great Paul Harvey might have called: “The REST of the Photuris-Photinus story”.


It has been known for over 60 years that courting fireflies employ patterned exchanges of flashes to recruit partners for mating. Lust-driven males deliver a set number of flashes in a timed sequences, to which the appropriate receptive female responds with a single flash after a precise lag time. Then the 2 flies (generally) rush together, pitch woo, et voila, propagation of species! In the early 1960's James Lloyd, a grad student of the great Cornell entomologist Thomas Eisner' worked out and reported in 1964 a tale of perverted trans-genus firefly lust, deception and rapacity that has captured the public imagination through ensuing decades.


The relatively large females of firefly genus Photuris, Lloyd discovered, sometimes break from nighttime mating dances with Photuris males to enjoy a crispy high protein snack in the form of an unsuspecting (and relatively wimpy) male of a distinct genus, Photinus. The Photuris female uses cruel deception for the purpose. She recognizes a Photinus male's mating flash pattern and sends him a single flash response with the precise timing of a receptive Photinus female. The Photinus suitor then blunders into the sphere of the Photuris “femme fatale” (Lloyd's spot-on descriptor), who immediately gobbles him up with great gusto {nocturnal romantic doings being calorie-intensive ). There's also a reverse twist to this basic trickery: Photuris males sometimes mimic a Photinus male flash pattern in order to simulate an interspecific victim (more enticing than the boring Photuris he is in reality). The Phoinus male thus gains preferred access to his heart's desire, who presumably says “ Aww, whatever, as long as you're here anyway .....”


Now for the REST OF THE STORY, the gist of which is that the benefits Photuris females gain from gobbling up Photinus males transcend mere caloric gratification. Students in Eisner's and collaborating groups discovered in the 70's that some, but not all fireflies are distasteful, emetic or even lethally toxic to various potential predators; as first shown with a lustily insectivorous pet thrush named Phogel, and later demonstrated for jumping spiders, lady beetles, ants, frogs, and assorted lizards. It developed that Photinus 'flies' were potently noxious to predators while some Photuris females and few if any Photuris males shared this repellent trait. Further, a single steroid family chemical closely resembling both the cardiac drug/poison ouabain and a notorious toad venom component (from which it derived part of its name, “luciBUFagins”, (Lbfgn) ). is the predator- defeating agent. In the Photinus/Photuris dyad, Photinius 'flies' of both genders contain epic amounts of Lbfgn and are rejected by predators, Photuris females that have chowed down on Photinus males contain lesser but effective amounts of Lbfgn, while females not having tasted Photinus males, and male Photuris are largely devoid of Lbfgn and are vulnerable to predation.


As you may suspect by now, Photuris females, which are somehow immune to emetic and toxic effects of Lbfgn, assimilate and retain enough of their Photinus victims' supply to make them resistant to would-be predators. A Lbfgn – positive Photuris female clearly needs to make predators aware that she's unpalatable or worse at the very start of a confrontation before sustaining serious damage. She achieves this via a “reflex bleeding” strategy that involves danger-evoked external display of Lbfgn-laced noxious blood droplets.


Australian “bearded dragon” lizards popular as pets in the US, disregard such defensive strategies at their own expense. They unhesitatingly gobble up Lbfgn-positive 'flies'{in relation to which they have no co-evolutionary history, and hence no evolved warning system}. Consumption, of 1 or more Photinus or several Lbfgn positive femme fatale Photuris leads to convulsions, followed within an hour by dramatic skin blackening and death, evidently from rampant tachycardia. But this cautionary case of unexpected consequences of humankind's promiscuous mingling of biologically unprepared organisms as well as the genuine but non-earth-shattering potentialities of Lbfgn as a human cardiac drug go beyond the Harvey-esque “rest of this story”, so at this point I bid you adieu.



“...spanning 6 1/2 to 7 feet”


The Sanctuary has seemed mostly barren during recent visits, but on this late November (27) visit, 8:30- 9:30 AM a chill (25-27 degrees) patchily sunny, with shell ice out to 50 feet whitening in immediate shore area, things were downright lively. As I headed down the trail I was struck again by the contrast between maple oak and nut tree saplings, still tricked out in vividly green leaves while the mature trees towering above them were now stark in their barren-ness.


Where I'd been seeing perhaps 2 or 3 Bufflehead ducks in the pond or River (tentative id based on outrageous white cheek patches covering half at least of the Elvis-ish/flat-toppy heads on males, impressive power take-offs, zero to max in maybe 5 sec, the airborne ducks blasting through the air like little projectiles) -- today there were 60 that I counted in an area over toward the Marina, probably a hundred total in the pond and delta, ? filling the niche of seemingly departed geese? Chipmunks, needing a position suited for chastising the lumpen bipeds who invade their territories by walking the Sanctuary trail have dug a burrow right by the trail-head entry post, possibly to replace the trail-side burrows in the riser area, which had sealed off on November 11/12 by the treads of heavy equipment deployed to raze the wild flowers and brush of the Sanctuary's water-level fields down to the stubble level.


Chickadees, generally heard but not seen in treetops at the upper trail level were boundng around in the uncut brambles and sagging wildflower stalk remnants that had eluded scorched-earth reaping, while juncos flitted back and forth from under the boardwalk to the surrounding stubble of cut foliage. Dozens of large gulls whose whites and pale grays and dark wing tips best matched Sibley photos of adult non-breeding Herring gulls, though they appeared more massive, on the order of Great Blackbacks flapped restlessly and low all around the area - presumably wondering why, this close to December there are not yet any ice fishermen to pester.


But that's all backdrop -- the big event was the Eagle, the larger of 2 Bald Eagles often on hand of late, making an up-close and personal appearance. There's been upward of 50% chance all Fall long of seeing either of 2 distinguishable Bald Eagles with a sanctuary presence perched on upper branches of trees a couple hundred yards or so out west (towards RTE 30, the Retreat Farm etc) from the nearest possible land vantage point. I'd heard that one or both occasionally perched in the immediate viewing area. I'd not seen this until today though, when, coming down to the boardwalk I was startled by the take-off of an eagle, the bigger of the 2, from a overhead tree perch that had been screened off by thickety twigs and leaf residue. Witnessing the take-off and the flight to a tree a couple hundred feet away on the far side of a narrow channel was thrilling.


Eagles in flight have a presence that is uniquely their own. Watching vultures aloft, for example, one admires their skill and precision, the ease with which they cruise the thermals and breezes, their morbid elegance...... but a big Bald Eagle taking off from nearby is another order of experience - it's magnificent. Whereas Turkey Vultures are impressively massive at 4-5 lb, the Bald Eagle's stately wing beats at take-off are launching twice that weight, some 9-10 lb into the air, 3 to 5 flaps of the elegantly slimmish and pointy wings, spanning 6 1/2 to 7 feet, then a few seconds of perfectly straight winged glide*, then repeat, and away he/she goes.


* This bird don't need no stinkin' dihedral. This bird don't need no updrafts, that's why he/she's still around at end November while the vultures are well into their south-bound journeys, if not at their winter destinations.

Phenomenal creatures, those Bald Eagles.- surveying their dominions with the proprietary, indolent if alert aura of creatures at the very top of the local (or any) food chain at the elevation of their lives.  Ben Franklin preferred the seemingly more virtuous and industrious Wild Turkeys over the Bald Eagle as a national symbol.   For me, though the visually dazzling, physically overpowering Bald Eagle is the symbol of symbols, I'll take Eagles, laziness, scavenging, low character and all in preference any time. The key question is not whether Bald Eagles are worthy symbols for our once-great country, but whether the USA in its current reprehensible plight deserves a symbol; as magnificent and elegant as the Bald Eagle. How about a Cowbird or Loggerhead Shrike/Butcherbird instead?



A Slow Day at Hogle Sanctuary is Salvaged by a Furry Visitor's Aquatic Star Turn


Finding myself  a short mile from Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary with a half-hour to spare at high noon on an intensely sunny Saturday October 14, I made the short hop over to  the Sanctuary's Eaton Ave entrance.  It was a day for chipmunks to make their presence known -  they escorted me to my parking place, scurrying across the street in front of me every 50 feet or so, tails hiked up above their tiny bodies, then scolded me from the trees along the trail down to the water level.   A couple of chipmunk burrows that appeared near the step-like “risers” of the path itself in late September and have sometimes shown signs of being beaten down by the human foot traffic, displayed freshly cleared entrances.  


As I reached the boardwalk's end where views encompass a 270 degree expanse of island-studded river and pond water, islands, and a backdrop of postcard-worthy scenery, I was beginning to be thankful that at least the chipmunks were up and running.  Aside from a few chickadee-sized tail-flipping brown birds bouncing around in the underbrush, a small flotilla of Mallards and the ever-present Canada Geese working the shallows around islands, the Sanctuary's animal contingent appeared to be taking the day (or the season) off.  


The endlessly blue skies were as free of soaring birds as they were of clouds, and devoid of the usually reliable blackbirds and grackles (the swallows, swifts, waxwings, catbirds, goldfinches, flycatchers, hummingbirds and trail-side robins having been absent for weeks).  No herons or egrets were visibly stalking or standing locked in mime-like immobility in search of fish, no Belted Kingfishers were seen or heard, the Sanctuary's Bald Eagle(s), occasionally visible in off-shore stands of trees, were not in evidence.  There was nary a trace of the vulture flock(s), of which I have been quixotically fond ever since they lured me to the Sanctuary area in the first place.  Small fish, which had been manically breaching and skipping around like stones in the open water only 3 days previously,  had evidently retreated to the “depths”.   The mosquitoes and gnats were also pleasingly sparse, a trade-off that eased my sense of the Sanctuary's austerity only slightly. 


Even the plant kingdom offered diminishing visual rewards, as the goldenrod, jewelweed, pokeweed, skunk cabbage, assorted asters, water lilies, etc. were at varying stages of decay.  The Sanctuary's deciduous trees epitomized the relatively feeble 2017 leaf color season:  oaks were as drab as ever, nut and fruit trees seemed barely touched by Fall, and even maples and sumacs registered only stray patches of red or orange.  


As a fisherman on the jetty gave up after multiple fruitless casts and packed up his gear, I fell into rumination about the many species I'd not seen or seen only fleetingly this Spring, Summer and early Fall (“my bad”, in that I visited the Sanctuary only 2-3 times weekly in the now-waning 017 warm season, versus more like 5 times per week in my introductory 2016 season).  I was getting ready to follow the fisherman up to the street when, WAIT, WHAT WAS THAT DARK SEEMINGLY MOBILE SPECK IN THE RIVER FAR TO THE WEST?  I trained my binoculars on the area, expecting to be disillusioned, given the tendency for the many exposed stumps, branches, debris accumulations and tiny islets to project an illusion of animal life when shifting water levels and play of light outline some suggestive contour.


This time, though, I found I was watching a brown or black mammal recurrently dive under the water and then emerge head-first.  With size and detailed features impossible to visualize at the distance, I wondered whether this was a resident beaver or a an unusually large muskrat or mink.  Then the animal began to make its way casually through the water in my general direction.  Its movement didn't resemble a beaver's business-like V-waked linear progress.  Instead it meandered, wandering off on tangents as it gradually came closer (not that it wasn't capable of impressive swimming speed as it revealed in occasional short bursts). 


The tangents afforded profile views of its swimming style, which was entertainingly suggestive of a sea serpent, a would-be Loch Ness monster, or a dolphin lacking a dorsal fin.  The head would surface, then dip under, as the animal's sleek, relatively elongated brown back replaced the head above the surface, a sequence repeated with a decidedly sinuous and somehow playful aspect.  As it came into closer visual range, its sleek dark head projected a canine outline with an impressively whiskered snout.  Only 3 possible identities now remained, all appealing, even exciting.  In truth only one possibility was even remotely realistic:  I was almost certainly being entertained by an otter.  The word “entertained” is specifically apropos, in that the creature's effortless aquatic navigation was a joy to watch, even without a slick creek bank for it to slide down, or underwater views possible in a zoo's glass-encased otter exhibit.     


The otter stopped advancing perhaps two hundred, feet from my vantage point on the jetty.  For a good ten minutes it puttered lazily around, occasionally performing beautifully rapid and compact surface dives punctuated by a lightning-fast last-second flip of a slender pointy tail, which then disappeared, completing the dive.  The dives generally lasted 10 to 15 seconds unlike beavers, who often stay down for minutes, occasionally for ten minutes or more.     


Then the otter dove and didn't come back into view in ten or fifteen seconds, nor in a minute nor two nor three.  If it had surfaced at all, it might have been in a place hidden by one of several tiny islets a good hundred yards to the north in front of a longish west-east island that borders the main West River channel more or less opposite the Marina Restaurant, but I couldn't seem to spot it there.  


Already thankful for the show I'd seen (I'm not life list-driven, but would have been proud to log this sighting) I turned south for one last peek at the Retreat pond before departing.  Lo and behold, perched on a snag in the middle of the pond was a Double-Crested Cormorant, the first I'd seen in several weeks.  Unlike Cormorants previously sighted in the area, this one was in the cruciform pose that I have come to expect of resting Cormorants:  its wings (whose feathers are not waterproofed by oil) stretched out horizontally to speed feather drying.  A more-than welcome last-gasp coda to a suddenly memorable Sanctuary visit. 


Looking back from the midpoint of the trail to Eaton Ave, I spied the tell-tale dark head, now little more than a speck, in a short, narrow channel between an islet and the barrier island.  The Otter seemed to have gone into a diving frenzy:  down for 10 seconds or so, then up for a quick breath, then back down again.  Had it found a school of tasty fish for lunch?   From the distance I couldn't tell whether it was gulping down scaly or shelled prey.  Given the exceedingly shallow waters around the fringes of the islands it seemed remarkable that the otter could even manage to fully submerge its body.  Certainly the Sanctuary waters provided scant scope for the Otter or the Cormorant to exercise formidable diving capabilities, but then why turn down an easy lunch?   


And yes, the chipmunks were still at it; they razzed me mercilessly as I trudged uphill to the head of the Sanctuary trail.  Bless the feisty little buggers,  I wouldn't have it any other way. 

  




Nighthawks


Winged bug zappers of the Goatsucker persuasion help usher in the Fall  migratory season while throwing a scare into Hogle Sanctuary's insects.


Greetings from a somewhat lapsed Vermont Views' nature contributor.  I last weighed in as Urban Naturalist a half-year ago to report end-of-winter stirrings as wildlife returned to Brattleboro's Hogle Sanctuary amid major trans-boardwalk flooding, 11th hour ice fishing, and seemingly ominous real estate signage near the Eaton Ave Sanctuary entrance. 


I've continued to visit the Sanctuary semi-regularly since that posting, dashing off copious field notes about sightings, but not managing to file completed stories.   The reasons for my siege of writer's block fall under the dreary umbrella of life-stage challenges, residential move-associated fatigue and old fashioned neurotic procrastination.  I offer a crestfallen “mea culpa” and the assurance that my love of subject matter and desire to share experiences with you have not waned in the least.  


I'm writing now in response to an unexpected and highly evocative Labor Day weekend  aerial visitation by a squadron of  Common (so-called) Nighthawks.   For an all-too brief span of days these endearingly zany winged acrobats staged dusk air shows over Hogle Sanctuary's waters and the Eaton Ave/Putney RD corridor.  Beyond entertainment value,  the nighthawk visit was also a probable harbinger of the Fall migratory season, and it brought my urban naturalist past (in which nighthawks galore plied their trade around the city medical centers where I plied mine) into register with my recent focus on the less megalopolitan (sic) environs of Hogle Sanctuary. 


Common Nighthawks are members of a tenuously owl-related family, Caprinomulgidae, also including Whip-poor-wills, Poor-wills, Chuck-will's-widows and others.  They are partially to fully nocturnal and voraciously insectivorous.  Given their nocturnal habits, eerily verbal calls, erratic flight patterns etc.,. they have, perhaps inevitably, become prime subjects of folklore and superstition.  A myth going back to Aristotle or before gave rise to the family's colloquial  name, “Goatsuckers”. I'll  leave it to the Roman natural scholar-philosopher Pliny the Elder as quoted by our era's premier bird expert,  David Sibley, to explain how this name came into being:       


“The Caprimulgi (so called of milking goats) are like the bigger kind of Owsels [Thrush]. They bee night-theeves; for all the day long they see not. Their manner is to come into the sheepeheards coats and goat-pens, and to the goats udders presently they goe, and suck the milke at their teats. And looke what udder is so milked, it giveth no more milke, but misliketh and falleth away afterwards, and the goats become blind withall”. (77 AD, from a 1601 translation)


While the specter of milk-deprived and blinded livestock no longer inspires fear in herders, the   Caprinomulgidae retain a powerful grip on the human imagination.  In my own case, for example,  I have never actually seen a Whip-poor-will (nor most other Goatsuckers, given their expertise in hiding during daylight), but I'll always remember the hair-raising emotional impact of the only Whip-poor-will call I've ever heard.  Those three syllables, eerily human sounding, stood out with  mournful clarity over the 1 AM hush of what later proved to have been a sadly portentious night. Superstition indeed. 


While nighthawks emit entertaining (rather than somber) vocalizations {and males produce impressive sonic-boom like whooshing effects via steep dives in the throes of courtship}, they are distinctive largely for their attention-arresting aerial hijinks.  Unlike most other goatsuckers, and  in contradiction to their name, nighthawks are not exclusively nocturnal, but rather “crepuscular”, ie, most active  during dawn and dusk hours when they are at least somewhat visible to humans. To compound the misnomer, nighthawks are not related to true hawks, despite having elegantly slim, tapered, kestrel-like wings with a kestrel/merlin-like 2-foot span.  (I 'd also argue that there's nothing “Common” about any nighthawk but the name does have a decided ring to it)


Nighthawks'  individual wingbeats are beautifully clean, and the birds are adept at hover-and-plunge  maneuvers like those of kestrels, kingfishers or terns, but it is their their erratic flight paths  that truly set them apart.  Rarely do they fly more than 2 or 3 beats in a single direction;  instead they veer and twist horizontally and vertically in seemingly antic manner, often with brief glides denoting direction changes.  They move through altitudes ranging from backyard tree house level to hundreds of feet aloft in groups attracted by densities of flying insects, but display none of the cohesive  flight dynamics of, say,  blackbird flocks.  Bright moonlight and artificial light, often present during hunting forays, illuminate prominent white wing blazes, such that peering upward through a nighthawk hunting party can be dazzling and even kaleidoscopically dizzying.  During their aerial foraging, nighthawks emit buzzy monosyllabic croaks referred to as “peeent calls”every few seconds, adding an audible kick.


Though often referred to as moth-like or bat-like, nighthawk flight in its apparent madness is highly purposeful, and wondrously effective as a  method of plucking flying insects out of the air, when coupled  with the species' wide gape capacities  and with the helpful prey-funneling effect of abundant facial bristles (both enhancing bug catching capacity of small beaks),  and large and keen dusk-adapted eyes.  Stomachs of Common Nighthawks felled in mid – hunt have been found to contain 500 or more mosquitoes or 2000 flying ants as well as flies, moths, beetles etc. {Perhaps “tropospheric vermin vacuums” is more apt than “aerial bug zappers” (above)}. I like to entertain the idea,  probably just a fond fantasy, that every “peeent” heralds the removal of a bloodsucking potential West Nile/Zika/Malaria vector from the local biome.     

 

As a world class mosquito magnet,  long resigned to itchy consequences of warm weather outings,  I view Nighthawks' prodigious insect consumption as one of their most endearing features, and I wish that they were an established local breeding population or at least a significant resident presence.  In fact Brattleboro, with its buggy meadowlands, waterways and marshes  flanking the Hogle-proximal Putney Road corridor,  and its many theoretically suitable nesting sites in the form of flat roofed commercial and  utilitarian buildings would appear to be a promising Nighthawk breeding area. Moreover,  a seeming (to me) decrease in numbers of local swifts and other diurnal insectivores this past summer, together with an unusual abundance of standing water could have led to an enriched local prey population. 


Alas, in my experience nighthawks are at best occasionals in the Brattleboro area.  During 7 Vermont years prior to this Labor Day weekend ,  I had seen exactly one Nighthawk- on a warm day some 3 to 4 years ago swooping across Canal Street in the Burger King/Irving Station area as I was heading north from Exit 1.  This all-too-brief sighting excited me to a borderline hazardous degree (I pulled off, before I could crash the car) but the bird quickly disappeared.  Still, that momentary teaser reminded me how much I miss the flocks of Nighthawks that used to congregate over the parking garages and hospital buildings of Med Centers that once employed me.   It is, of course, entirely possible that there are legions of Common Nighthawks nesting around greater Brattleboro,  and that I have just missed them, but other trusted observers tend to reinforce my impression that the local area hosts few if any breeding nighthawks.


All of which brings us to the eve of Labor Day weekend '017.  I was driving East on Western Ave/High St around 6 PM Thurs Aug 30, when  I saw a pair of nighthawks swooping above the park by the corner with  Union.  With no opportunity for a safe stop, I mentally filed the viewing as probably my only nighthawk encounter for the 2015-2020 time span and moved on.  Around 7:15, my appointment over, I headed north on Putney RD, and suddenly found myself driving under an aerial Nighthawk family reunion as I approached and crossed the West River bridge and headed for the Sunoco station.  Nighthawks were reliably on hand, not in massive numbers, but  2 or 3 flashed past  my windshield every hundred feet or so, enough to hold my attention.  


Heading south after the fill-up I pulled off Putney onto Eaton Ave and parked near the Hogle sanctuary entrance as a gaudy late sunset gave way to afterglow.  As I got out of the car a couple of low-flying nighthawks careened past – appearing and vanishing among the ̴ 50 foot maples and oaks and taller pines in surrounding yards.  Then came a single bird, then a trio, and so on.  I tried out my binoculars long enough to establish the futility of that experiment, then decided I had to check for nighthawk action at the Sanctuary's water-level vantage point. 


 By now the western horizon was graying out, and the entire viewing area had taken on a progressively dimming noire-ish black white and gray character, but nighthawks were still faintly discernible working their magic in the distance near the West River's north shore:  not battalions or platoons, perhaps a dozen or so.  This entire evening episode was nothing like blow-out Goatsucker air shows I recalled witnessing evenings above the upper deck of Cincinnati Childrens' parking garages.  There, bright institutional lighting often captured Escher-like scenes in which nighthawks swirled  from just overhead to so far up that they appeared to be scarcely more than dot size.   Still, the evening's encounter was a welcome experience (and given that my most recent previous visits to the Sanctuary area were during broad daylight, it is entirely possible that my sightings were just the latter stages of a more copious local pass-through).   


Comparing notes with expert sources, I learned that Vernon had also just had a transient nighthawk visitation, but that there was not much hope that local stopovers would last long.  This pessimism was confirmed:  I saw only one grouping of 3 nighthawks above the West River delta area on Sat Sept 1, and none on subsequent evenings, although a spectacular full moon glimpsed low over Mt Wantasquitet made a nighthawk-less Sunday Sept 2 outing worthwhile. 


The literature provides a clear rationale for the brevity of what was presumably an early-migration stopover:  Common Nighthawks make a long migratory journey, eventually crossing the Gulf of Mexico en route to winter territories in sub-equatorial South America and leaving them little time for early stage loafing around.   Thus, though subsequent itchy welts on my hands and ankles attest to the continued abundance of mosquitoes in the Hogle area, I'm grateful that the nighthawks hung around long enough to gobble up SOME bugs, while  gifting me with a night's entertainment.  As the merchants of Durham NC (above which the migrating nighthawks might indeed pass) were wont to say to customers during my 1970's stint as a Duke grad student, I say to the southbound nighthawks:  “Y'all come and see us agin sometime, y'hear?”  

 



The Sanctuary in Late Winter:

a Long-Deferred Visit to Hogle Offers Rewards and Raises Concerns

— part 2 —


The visit was more than worth the effort, though, as signs of life had again become abundant against a dramatically altered scenic backdrop. The snow surrounding the upper trail and descending risers was pocked with animal tracks, most of them indistinct due to wear and attrition, but at least some clearly from creatures other than the many family dogs that take their constitutionals at Hogle. When the boardwalk area and the sweep of the water came into view effects of snow melt were eye-popping. Water that had spilled over from the lagoon -like south shore of the West River, created a canal of sorts under the boardwalk. Waters around the narrow connecting channel between what I think of as distinct Retreat pond and predominantly West River waters, were only partially frozen over as opposed to the near-hermetic icing of a few short weeks ago.

The channel itself, normally fairly placid, was flowing north from pond to River at a good walking pace, as illustrated by movement of detached pieces of ice and other flotsam. The water itself was roiled, with standing waves and small shifting whirlpools radiating from rocks, cement and other solid features on the banks and below the surface. The water level was the highest I'd personally seen: standing on the North – facing jetty, I was less than a foot above the water surface, and an a nearby tangle of iron spikes set in sub-surface cement was totally submerged for the first time in my experience.


Major open water expanses in the pond's Southern reaches nearer the Retreat did nothing to deter people from tromping around the remaining ice fishing huts, and even racing around in vehicles, sometimes towing supply sleds or trailers. (Though it's worth noting that even these intrepid (or foolish?) individuals had given up their tenuous ice floes by the next day, when flood waters crested spectacularly as revealed in the next installment). [caption: result of ‘canal’ warpage.]


The return of active wildlife to the Sanctuary was low-key but heartening. Small junco-like birds and paisley sparrow-like birds darted back and forth between the boardwalk area and clumped trees across a meadow area, too fidgety and elusive for any firm IDs, Redwings were heard but (strangely) not seen, geese were back (of course), gulls (virtually absent during warm months,) wheeled and squealed around the ice fishing area, probably angling for bait or thieve-able catches. A small gaggle of spiffy ducks – with bold black and white patterning and large all-dark flat-topped heads, (Ring necked Ducks? Golden Eyes? Scaups?


Leaving around 4 PM as it began to drizzle, I made a last binocular sweep and  saw that a bedraggled and jaded -looking Bald Eagle had perched on a tall deciduous tree on the strip of land projecting from the cement hulk. Too far away to see much except a bedraggled and vaguely disgruntled look. The perch location was very close to that for a previous Eagle spotting 2- plus months ago (habitual command post?).


I close this installment with a note of concern. Berkeley Veller "For Sale" signs that had gone up in the Fall on a mostly level bluff -top near the upper Sanctuary trail, with a commanding view of the Marina (location, location, location) had disappeared, possibly signifying that development is just around the corner. The hope here is that calendar Spring will not bring with it any of the quaint “Thickly Settled” signs that mark the approach to Brattleboro subdivisions such as the nearby neighborhood between Cedar and Spruce Streets.


The Sanctuary in Late Winter:

a Long-Deferred Visit to Hogle Offers Rewards and Raises Concerns

— part 1 —


 

Some of you may recall my Summer and Fall '016 pieces extolling the Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary, an aesthetic and naturalistically eventful location overlooking the convergence of the Brattleboro Retreat Meadows with the West River Delta, and commanding views of Retreat buildings, Ski Slope, Grafton Cheese, Marina and Black Mountain among other local landmarks.


The first Hogle piece shared joys of spring and summer visits, as Great Blue and Green Herons, Kingfishers, Beavers, Muskrats, Mink, assorted diving ducks and other warm weather “regulars” reliably appeared to ply their trades, while vultures and, occasionally, Bald Eagles soared and flapped aloft, toads hopped, mice and voles skittered, gnats swirled, fish jumped, squirrels and chipmunks scolded, and a variety of feisty small birds including Catbirds, Kingbirds, Red-winged Blackbirds, Wrens and Hummingbirds chattered and chided as only feisty small birds can.


In a Fall piece I ruefully chronicled the departures of the warm weather regulars, while noting compensatory pre-migratory and migratory visits that enlivened this transitional period. Among these were a week-long stopover by four Double Crested Cormorants, a seeming family group including a probable first year “apprentice” refining his/her diving skills, day by day, and a Harrier (aka “Marsh Hawk”) couple seen daily for almost a week as they wheeled and veered and screeched just above the cattails and wildflowers of nearby islands-terrorizing resident rodents. In addition flocks of migratory Flickers, Waxwings, Goldfinches, Hummingbirds and assorted sparrow and warbler-sized squeak-birds dropped in to fatten up on Jewelweed nectar, choke cherries, acorns, and weed seeds in preparation for arduous south-bound journeys. In addition I had brief glimpses of a Pileated Woodpecker, a Black-Crowned Night Heron and a stoical-appearing Bald Eagle who favored a perch high in one of a cluster of barren tall deciduous trees near the cement hulk. Numerous small fish staged daily exhibitions of skipped stone-like leaping. Needless to say, gaggles, nay, HORDES of Canada Geese staged their Fall onslaught, adding a noxious blend of cacophony, floating pinfeather lint, and fecal pollution to the scene. (Dickensian England may have had a point: besieged waterways and park-lands might benefit if more geese [at least our over-successful Canadian strain]were to be found on dinner tables instead of all over prime habitats, but hush my mouth, I'm a declared crank on this point).


As November wore on, even such enlivening animal drop-ins came to an end. Meanwhile, the Sanctuary grounds crew, wisely, I'm sure, yet depressingly razed the area's dense cover of withered wildflower stalks and weeds down to stubble, much of the open water froze over, and the snows came. The result was still-beautiful, but bleak austerity, with even the year-around crows, jays and small back yard feeder birds maintaining curiously low profiles.


I confess that visits to Hogle in full winter became a struggle for me. I'm intrigued by winter's bustling sub-nivean wonder-world of tunneled-in rodents, shrews, arthropods and small birds, and I'm vastly impressed by mind-boggling strategies that enable tiny creatures like Kinglets to survive frigid nights that should, common sensically, reduce them to 0.21 ounce ( meaning 4 or more Kinglets could be mailed with a single first class stamp), birdsicles.


As fascinated as I am in principle by these subtle marvels, however, they don't satisfy my craving for more readily observed animal doings, nor or counteract my inner wimp as it relates to cold snaps, howling winds and treacherous footing. Thus I took a break of over a month from the Sanctuary, during which I worked sporadically on “Hot Stove” pieces about crows' colorful and sometimes melodic exploits and avian flight styles, leaving a trail of manuscript scraps that I hope to mine some day.


It was not until mid-afternoon Sat. February 25, after my return from 4 days in MD, (where there was no trace of snow even in the Blue Ridge foothills, temperatures reached 70- 75 degrees every afternoon and spring harbingers were everywhere), that I ventured back to the still snow-encrusted trail leading down from Eaton Place to the Sanctuary observation point. The approach was somewhat challenging, as the most direct and hence most trodden center part of the trail was packed down to ice and slick-wet given the 50 degree temperature, necessitating circuitous descent through the less compacted surrounding snow.



Hogle in Fall:

a Subdued Sanctuary Hunkers Down for Winter


 

The Hogle Sanctuary, whose exuberant warm weather charms I praised in Vermont Views a couple of months ago, has presented a more subdued facade of late.  Most deciduous trees have been barren for a month now.  Even Maple saplings that had remained green for weeks in the shadows of their largely denuded parent trees at the Eaton Place end of the Sanctuary trail, started yellowing as October kicked over into November. By now they, too, have contributed most of their leaves to the dense underfoot mat. Factor in the still depressing (to me) stunted appearance of the Sanctuary acres south of the boardwalk, where the once lush mix of wildflowers, tall grass and plain weeds has been so closely cropped down by Foundation groundskeepers as to invite scalping analogies, and the composite visual effect is stark, austere; impressive in its severity, but not my style.


Naturalistically (zoologically) speaking, Hogle has also moved toward austerity during the past month or more.  No longer does each visit to the Sanctuary offer a likelihood of sassy entertainment by high energy avian choruses.  The catbirds, those cheeky,  insouciant jeer-mongers, have been AWOL since the choke cherry yield gave out in mid October.  Once-abundant  robins and redwings (I never thought I'd miss the latter), kingbirds and assorted flycatchers had all departed earlier. The vulture flock with its virtuosic aerial maneuvers far above nearby Putney Road/CT River Valley area roosts,  all vanished in one fell swoop about a month ago. The once-reliably observable resident fishing bird contingent with their eccentric-appearing, but highly effective predatory gambits, also dwindled.  For example, I haven't seen a once regularly present Great Blue Heron stalking its prey in shallows by islands to the northwest of the Sanctuary jetty for at least a month (a surprise given prior experience with Midwestern Great Blues, who tended to hang around their hunting ponds even after hard freezes if any open water remained). The Kingfishers have become progressively less of a presence:  not all gone, but strangely reticent about cutting loose with their endearingly strident rattle calls or launching daredevil splash dives. (Osprey, the other  high-wire fish diving birds known to frequent the Sanctuary and Retreat Meadows, have not revealed themselves to me during my half-year of Sanctuary visits).


Starting in early October, a series of presumed migratory stop-offs by non-resident birds has provided a partial antidote to the Sanctuary's Fall doldrums:  a flocklet of Flickers one day; then a squadron of Hummingbirds strafing remaining Jewelweed blossoms; a day of Cedar Waxwings; a week-long fishing exhibition by 3 double crested cormorants (2 adults and one youngster, who displayed impressive day-to-day progress in sub-aquatic pursuit of prey fish); a hugely entertaining appearance by a pair-O -Harriers (aka Marsh Hawks) whose wheeling, veering low-down (barely above the tall grass) hunting flights were aerial counterparts to broken field carries of  legendary NFL running backs like Gayle Sayers, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson (Yes, alas, I'm that old, I even remember seeing the great Jim Brown play).


These visits, and occasional fly-overs, for example by two Bald Eagles (not quite together, but in fairly close succession- a pair?), by a Kestrel-sized falcon in seeming pursuit of a Merlin-sized falcon, a forest canopy flight by a large accipiter (a Goshawk?) helped me to cling to residual enthusiasm for visit after visit. Then, as early November swirled miasmically down the drain courtesy of the Election Day/ Black Wednesday maelstrom, these compensatory avian sideshows came to an end.


Suddenly there was near-silence, broken only by the occasional utterances of suburban-style bird feeder regulars: Chickadees, Nuthatches, Juncos, Crows, Jays.  There was, of course, the honking of Canada Geese in flotillas or in overhead vees.  Worse than the diminished avian chatter was visual stasis often so profound that virtually every detected flash of motion proved to be the final descent of some stubbornly adherent leaf that had finally given up the ghost.


Up to a point I appreciate somber still-life vistas, but for the most part my huge appreciation for the Sanctuary resides in the opportunities it can provide to witness creatures plying their trades with creature-esque skill, diligence and elan:  hunting, fishing, mobbing, defending territories, rebuffing intruders, and sometimes apparently just plain frolicking around.  Minus this inducement, my frequency of Sanctuary visits has gradually decreased from 5 or so to 2 or so per week,  AND I almost turned down an opportunity to visit the Sanctuary this afternoon (Sunday Nov 27). Silly me.


Fortunately I DID drag myself lethargically to the Eaton Place Sanctuary entrance, thence down from the trail head (and past recently erected realty signs ominously advertising the availability for sale of a prime trio of house lots just off the Sanctuary trail opposite the Marina), and on down the boardwalk.  The silence was deafening at the upper end of this descent, only slightly leavened by a solitary chickadee. The waters around the concrete jetty seemed atypically barren.  None of the small fish I'd often seen leaping about were in evidence this afternoon, nor were any fish, large or small, visible in the shallows around the jetty.  In a marked departure from normalcy, there was no response to bits of Putney Road fast food Fries, which floated undisturbed when flipped into waters that usually harbored hungry fingerlings.


Resigned to an unrewarding visit, I started back toward the boardwalk and my car, in the process casting one last glance toward an area in the Retreat Pond, slightly south of, and perhaps 100 yards west of the pumping station.  I'd noticed occasional surface disturbances there, but had scant hope that any resident muskrat, beaver or mink was responsible for them, not having seen any of these species for months. Then, suddenly, a dark head and a trailing V-shaped wake emerged.


This was my first sighting of any beaver from the local colony's nearby lodge since August. It threatened to be a brief sighting, as the wary beast executed a crisp, clean, compact surface dive the moment I tried to train field glasses on it, and rapidly disappeared from view.  The dive was not a prelude to flight of the agitated tail slap variety, however; rather the beaver resurfaced after an estimated minute or so.  This time it rode sufficiently high in the water to partially expose head, body and tail segments to a degree that made them appear to be barely connected, making the body- to- tail junctional region vaguely resemble a broad piece of ribbon twisted and rounded into 2 segments. The Beaver seemed to be repeatedly criss-crossing a circumscribed area for reasons that never became obvious to me. It made 3 more dives while I watched, coming up the last time (one hopes it came up) somewhere out of my view.


One of the dives led to an apparent 3 minutes or more of immersion. With the caveat that the Beaver could easily have pulled a fast one on me and surfaced unseen to sneak a breath during that period, I would like to think that it truly did manage an impressive 3 minute breath hold.  The actual likelihood of such a feat of oxygen husbandry is probably a known entity: something to look up during one of late Fall's dank and dreary evenings.


Meanwhile I'd been treated to an intriguing display of the aquatic capabilities of a crafty rodent, and had, at the same time, been issued a reminder that, as the Holiday Season thunders upon us, the Hogle Sanctuary might just be a gift that, like the Christmas of song, keeps giving the whole year around.



The Hogle Panorama

Part 1




An opening disclaimer:  I seem to have subconsciously arrived at a title in the stylistic mode of famed crime and espionage novelist Robert Ludlum (eg: The Bourne Identity, The Hogle Panorama).  This choice was not meant to reflect a personal stance versus Ludlum's literary footprint; about which I am essentially neutral.. 


This piece is about my awakening to a naturalistic and aesthetic Brattleboro treasure nestled in the bluffs and hillsides that ring the south and east shores of Retreat Meadows Pond, a venue probably known to many of you:  the John R. and Grace D. Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.  I'll relate how 2 unlikely emissaries:  a bird of an often feared and  reviled species, and a furry garden pest, lured  me into  'Hogle Country', and triggered some 50 visits to one very special vantage point that displays in a condensed manner a great deal of  what  the Sanctuary has to offer.  In this and future installments I'll touch on the varied habitats and wildlife that I've seen in action there as Spring morphed into Summer and Summer wore on, and will describe one prolific July afternoon's creature encounters.  More such Hogle snapshots will follow in future installments.        


I was walking along Putney RD just south of Bradley Ave early on a brisk April ('015) Sunday, when a flash of motion overhead caught my eye- a large soaring bird.  It turned out to be a vulture rather than one of the rarer and arguably “sexier” Bald Eagles that occasionally cruise this air space,  but I continued to track its flight, having developed an interest in Brattleboro's peripatetic band of vultures   The obvious “yuck” factor aside, I can't help admiring these imposing birds' mastery of air currents; the supreme ease with which they deploy 6 foot wingspans, capturing updrafts which propel their bulky 4-5 lb bodies to commanding heights.  In subgroups they ride aerial circuits like saturnine itinerant preachers, collectively seeing more of what transpires (or has expired) in this SE corner of VT than any other local creatures. I have imagined the flock as the avian Greek Chorus that the self- professedly unique town of Brattleboro must certainly merit.  *. 


My interest intensified when the vulture coasted west and south toward the Retreat and banked smoothly down into a Logan Airport-style over-water landing into a “vulture tree” or “buzzard bush” on the Pond's south shore at the base of bluffs supporting a row of Retreat buildings.  This tree was festooned, or decorated (depending on your sensibilities) with 15- 20 of the massive birds, all starkly visible, on the tree's as yet leafless branches. 


I was shocked to see vultures still in the tree when I returned to my parking place an hour later.  I decided to take this virtually unheard-of breach of Murphy's Law of Animal Perversity as an omen and an invitation.  I drove to the Retreat's northern-most lot and walked past pool and maintenance sheds to the nearest overlook point.  In another violation of Murphy's Law, the vulture tree, still weightily occupied (or as road signs sometimes quaintly say of local neighborhoods: “thickly settled”), was immediately visible.  Walking a sloping path down to a basically level west-bound shore trail, I approached the tree closely enough (within 50 feet) to get a visceral sense of the sheer size and power of the vultures, as they coasted in and out one by one.  At close range the sight was ominously reminiscent of a Tim Burton creation I once saw at a Disneyland Haunted House:  a perversion of the traditional American living room during Christmas season featuring a tree lavishly decorated with skulls, vampires, maniacal Jack-O-Lanterns, and other ghoulish Halloween items. 


The vultures paid little attention to me (sensibly, in that I was neither a credible threat, nor [quite yet] a prospective entree for Sunday brunch).   I speculated that this and/or neighboring trees might serve as regular nightly roost(s) for the flock.  Finding such a communal roost would have been a valuable aid to an inquiry I've been fiddling with, that relates to dynamics, causes and implications of the past few years' northward extension of the range of Black Vultures, a southern interloper species now infiltrating SoVT's pre-existing Turkey Vulture population.  Future visits didn't support the  regular communal roost  hypothesis.  In fact it seems likely that the Sunday AM vulture congregation I'd happened on was there in  response to a contemporaneous fish kill, as my nose and eyes led me to 4 large fish carcasses bobbing in nearby shallows, emitting a stench potent enough to mask the the vultures' own aroma. 


This  account of what are, after all,  ugly, gross, disquieting stinky birds and stinkier fish may seem like bait-and-switch after a lead-in about “a natural and aesthetic treasure”, (Did you know, BTW, that vultures' lack of head feathers is believed to be an adaptation making it easier to root around INSIDE carcasses?  All  together now, Yeccccchhhhh !  Or as some flight hostess might say:  “Stash your carrion in the overhead bins and keep those white paper bags within easy reach” ), but not so.     



The Hogle Panorama

Part 2


The (unmarked) trail that brought me to the vulture tree was, unbeknownst to me, the southwest “lobe” of Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.  Running west along the densely thicketed Retreat Pond shore to the kayak/canoe launching area opposite the Retreat Farm, it offers an assortment of natural encounters (sassy catbirds and wrens, cardinals, doves, Goldfinches, confusing sparrows warblers and flycatchers Chickadees and other feeder birds, fish, crustaceans, discarded remnants of machines and outbuildings from earlier Retreat eras, numerous effluent pipes, and, as counterpoint to such gritty items,   picturesque across the-water views  of mountains, hills, the Farm and Marina areas, the glacial progress of the I91 West River Bridge project, etc. 


After multiple visits to this trail,  a furry miscreant took me in hand (in paw?) in early May '016,and steered me to what the late syndicated radio raconteur Paul Harvey might have called “The rest of Hogle”.   I was passing by the Retreat pool when I nearly collided with a gigantic groundhog emerging from beneath a maintenance shed-or the adjacent port-a potty (near a Retreat garden patch, of course).  The hefty gopher scuttled east/northeast with me in pursuit- bringing us to the north edge of a playing field, AND to the unmarked head of what I would soon learn was the other main segment of Hogle Sanctuary trail.  Turning north, this trail hugs cliffs beneath Putney Road's B and B's** and prosperous homes, meandering up and down for perhaps half a mile through deciduous and evergreen woods, crossing gullies on wooden bridges, skirting logs and boulders and spinning off rustic tangential paths en route to a remarkable northern terminus.  It provides a genuine feeling of seclusion, remarkable considering the proximity of bustling Putney/Rte5.   Its ups and downs and rockier terrain make it a more challenging hike than the western leg, though I've met fitness mavens jog its length as part of aerobic workouts.   It has provided my only other “vulture tree” sighting in the Retreat Pond area – right by one of the wooden bridges- but this and the woodchuck have been my main  creature encounters during several spring and early summer traversals. The density of foliage screens out much overhead bird life and partially obscures views of the Pond and surrounding scenery, that is, until the trail reaches its remarkable northern end. 


As the northbound hike nears the West River Delta/Marina area, it emerges from woods into a relatively flat zone,  a meadow run to  riot:  lushly overgrown (my experience being exclusively in spring and summer so far) with vines, berry bushes, shrubs, saplings, milkweed, pokeweed, goldenrod, skunk cabbage, burdock, thistles, ragweed, lambs quarters (?), lavender and other hearty “warrior weeds” forming dense tangled shoulder- height overgrowth of near-impenetrability except where criss-crossed by several Hogle Foundation- maintained trails.  Toward the north and west end of this meadow zone is a small relatively cleared out tree- dotted “head” a natural observation deck that's a magnet for visitors of all sorts.  A table with a bucolic VT farm scene painted on its circular top (decorative albeit somewhat trumped by water-enhanced wraparound (yes, panoramic) views of actual surroundings:  the Retreat, Retreat Farm, Black Mountain, the Marina, the stone turret and other curious structures nested in the hills)  sits next to a stone bench above a fairly steep bank leading down to a narrow channel that is a favored kayakers' and canoers' passage between the Retreat Meadows Pond and the West River Delta/Marina area.  Across this channel is a massive abandoned concrete structure vaguely resembling a gigantic open-topped railroad freight car compartmentalized by 7 or 8 concrete cross bars, beyond which to the north are additional vertebrae-like “naked” concrete slabs, some above water,  others shallowly submerged. The net effect is vaguely evocative of  Roman ruins in England's Cotswolds.  Rich Holschuh, an expert on regional cultural history (and the person who first informed me that I had been obliviously blundering around in the Hogle Sanctuary) revealed that the concrete artifacts are relics from an archival attempt (unsuccessful) to pump water out of what is now the Pond and maintain it as dry land.  Naturalistically speaking these structures with their ledges and nooks and crannies provide the types of hiding places that attract fish, and there is a beaver lodge hidden to the west along the shore of a skinny barrier island that the massive concrete structure adjoins.


Meanwhile the Pond in its un-drained glory adds to the acreage and  diversity*** of the Sanctuary's water habitats also including various channels and backwaters of the West River, the CT River and ultimately the Long Island Sound (lamprey, anyone?) . These waters and a meshwork of islands are home to Great Blues and sometimes other herons and wading birds, kingfishers, osprey (I'm told), the inevitable Canada Geese, multiple duck species, swallows, Redwing and other Blackbirds, etc and are a flyover zone for Bald Eagles.  They also harbor mammals including the aforementioned beaver as well as  mink [illus.], muskrats,  rumored otters and fisher cats and conceivable water shrews; turtles; bullfrogs croaking amid the water lilies and other plant life in the shallows; crustaceans; molluscs and a plethora of fish species.  Meanwhile the terrestrial habitats, enriched by the water interface, and by overlap of varied  forest types with meadowland, are home to (of course) squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, as well as field mice, voles, American toads and garter snakes, a large array of resident birds and occasionals, such as flickers and waxwings that visit in waves then are gone.  As wildflower  species bloom and  fade in succession, they  attract hummingbirds and multiple butterfly species along with an encouragingly robust battalion of pollinating insects; meanwhile, it must be said, there are also hungry mosquitos**** and, at  times, hordes of manically swirling gnats.


The Hogle Panorama

Part 3




The (unmarked) trail that brought me to the vulture tree was, unbeknownst to me, the southwest “lobe” of Hogle Wildlife Sanctuary.  Running west along the densely thicketed Retreat Pond shore to the kayak/canoe launching area opposite the Retreat Farm, it offers an assortment of natural encounters (sassy catbirds and wrens, cardinals, doves, Goldfinches, confusing sparrows warblers and flycatchers Chickadees and other feeder birds, fish, crustaceans, discarded remnants of machines and outbuildings from earlier Retreat eras, numerous effluent pipes, and, as counterpoint to such gritty items, picturesque across the-water views  of mountains, hills, the Farm and Marina areas, the glacial progress of the I91 West River Bridge project, etc. 


After multiple visits to this trail,  a furry miscreant took me in hand (in paw?) in early May '016,and steered me to what the late syndicated radio raconteur Paul Harvey might have called “The rest of Hogle”.   I was passing by the Retreat pool when I nearly collided with a gigantic groundhog emerging from beneath a maintenance shed-or the adjacent port-a potty (near a Retreat garden patch, of course).  The hefty gopher scuttled east/northeast with me in pursuit- bringing us to the north edge of a playing field, AND to the unmarked head of what I would soon learn was the other main segment of Hogle Sanctuary trail.  Turning north, this trail hugs cliffs beneath Putney Road's B and B's** and prosperous homes, meandering up and down for perhaps half a mile through deciduous and evergreen woods, crossing gullies on wooden bridges, skirting logs and boulders and spinning off rustic tangential paths en route to a remarkable northern terminus.  It provides a genuine feeling of seclusion, remarkable considering the proximity of bustling Putney/Rte5.   Its ups and downs and rockier terrain make it a more challenging hike than the western leg, though I've met fitness mavens jog its length as part of aerobic workouts.   It has provided my only other “vulture tree” sighting in the Retreat Pond area – right by one of the wooden bridges- but this and the woodchuck have been my main  creature encounters during several spring and early summer traversals. The density of foliage screens out much overhead bird life and partially obscures views of the Pond and surrounding scenery, that is, until the trail reaches its remarkable northern end. 


As the northbound hike nears the West River Delta/Marina area, it emerges from woods into a relatively flat zone,  a meadow run to  riot:  lushly overgrown (my experience being exclusively in spring and summer so far) with vines, berry bushes, shrubs, saplings, milkweed, pokeweed, goldenrod, skunk cabbage, burdock, thistles, ragweed, lambs quarters (?), lavender and other hearty “warrior weeds” forming dense tangled shoulder- height overgrowth of near-impenetrability except where criss-crossed by several Hogle Foundation- maintained trails.  Toward the north and west end of this meadow zone is a small relatively cleared out tree- dotted “head” a natural observation deck that's a magnet for visitors of all sorts.  A table with a bucolic VT farm scene painted on its circular top (decorative albeit somewhat trumped by water-enhanced wraparound (yes, panoramic) views of actual surroundings:  the Retreat, Retreat Farm, Black Mountain, the Marina, the stone turret and other curious structures nested in the hills)  sits next to a stone bench above a fairly steep bank leading down to a narrow channel that is a favored kayakers' and canoers' passage between the Retreat Meadows Pond and the West River Delta/Marina area.  Across this channel is a massive abandoned concrete structure vaguely resembling a gigantic open-topped railroad freight car compartmentalized by 7 or 8 concrete cross bars, beyond which to the north are additional vertebrae-like “naked” concrete slabs, some above water,  others shallowly submerged. The net effect is vaguely evocative of  Roman ruins in England's Cotswolds.  Rich Holschuh, an expert on regional cultural history (and the person who first informed me that I had been obliviously blundering around in the Hogle Sanctuary) revealed that the concrete artifacts are relics from an archival attempt (unsuccessful) to pump water out of what is now the Pond and maintain it as dry land.  Naturalistically speaking these structures with their ledges and nooks and crannies provide the types of hiding places that attract fish, and there is a beaver lodge hidden to the west along the shore of a skinny barrier island that the massive concrete structure adjoins.


Meanwhile the Pond in its un-drained glory adds to the acreage and  diversity*** of the Sanctuary's water habitats also including various channels and backwaters of the West River, the CT River and ultimately the Long Island Sound (lamprey, anyone?) . These waters and a meshwork of islands are home to Great Blues and sometimes other herons and wading birds, kingfishers, osprey (I'm told), the inevitable Canada Geese, multiple duck species, swallows, Redwing and other Blackbirds, etc and are a flyover zone for Bald Eagles.  They also harbor mammals including the aforementioned beaver as well as  mink, muskrats,  rumored otters and fisher cats and conceivable water shrews; turtles; bullfrogs croaking amid the water lilies and other plant life in the shallows; crustaceans; molluscs and a plethora of fish species.  Meanwhile the terrestrial habitats, enriched by the water interface, and by overlap of varied  forest types with meadowland, are home to (of course) squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, as well as field mice, voles, American toads and garter snakes, a large array of resident birds and occasionals, such as flickers and waxwings that visit in waves then are gone.  As wildflower  species bloom and  fade in succession, they  attract hummingbirds and multiple butterfly species along with an encouragingly robust battalion of pollinating insects; meanwhile, it must be said, there are also hungry mosquitos**** and, at  times, hordes of manically swirling gnats


Last but not least, a  plank boardwalk extending from the table and bench area eastward connects to a dirt path ascends bluffs on risers, winds around, and ends at the Putney Road level in a neighborhood (Eaton Place) alongside  the  one-time Hogle  home, at the marked entry point to the Hogle Sanctuary. This path itself a succession of habitats; maple pine, oak and fern zones, the sheltered habitat “Under the Boardwalk”, etc.  The shortness (10 min or less) of the walk from this entrance to the table and jetty area has made it possible for me, time-wise, to visit this destination some 40 to 50 times in the  past 3 months, essentially whenever I was passing by and could afford a half-hour or so. 


I'll close with a description of one of my more captivating visits to the “Hogle destination”.  It was early on a  mid-July evening.  The plant life  along the trail had a moist sparkle in the light of the incipiently setting sun and the air felt fresh a few hours after showers and subsequent clearing  had provided relief from a hot and muggy week.  The gnats were out in force, but the mosquitos were less of a presence than usual.   I  went to the concrete jetty and noticed that, contrary to expectation, the  water level was down relative to the day before (possibly a result of feedback from upstream manipulation of the CT River's flow?) - such that normally submerged areas bordering islands to the north and west were now narrow mud flats.  As I  swept the area with binoculars, noting that the “usual suspects, a Great Blue Heron and a Kingfisher were “on the job”;  then I caught a flash of motion in a small gap in the grass and weed cover on a nearby island.   A dark shape emerged from this gap and advanced to the narrow usually submerged mud flat area,  showing itself to be perhaps a foot or a foot and a half  long, a slender  creature sinuous looking like a ferret, blackish in the now-fading sunlight.   It proceeded to caper around for several minutes – antic leaps exhibiting a  boneless-appearing flexibility.  This occurred near a flotilla of brownish ducks which it ignored and was ignored by.   I could see no evidence of hunting, rather it appeared offhand that the creature was simply having fun. When it retreated (casually) to its hole in the  underbrush I assumed that the show was over, but no, the beast re-emerged a minute or so later and returned to its seeming play on the mudflats.  This was the first of several center stage exits followed by curtain calls happening over nearly half an hour before the final  curtain came down.   BEEC expert Patti Smith later provided support for my hunch that I was describing a mink to her(though it was remotely possible it was a fisher), and field guide sources informed me that the apparent prancing was “bounding”, a form of locomotion involving leaps in which the hind paws land in the former position of the front paws.


Meanwhile I had spotted a wading bird working another small mud flat in another normally underwater zone.   Markedly smaller than a Great Blue Heron, but similar tactically, it stalked and froze mime-like inb various uncomfortable appearing positions and gradually worked its way toward the land spit projecting from the massive cement artifact.  In the fading light my general  impression was of predominant brownness, but the field glasses picked up splashes of russety coloration on a “bib”:  a characteristic hue that contributed to my tentative identification of this unaccustomed but welcome visitor as a Green Heron.   


Meanwhile I heard a loud splash by the big concrete artifact.   As I speculated that a large fish had breached or some beast had leapt a couple of feet into the water from a ledge on the slab, a beaver surfaced, perhaps the one that had previously taken a leisurely swim toward the River's mouth/Marina then approached my post on the Jetty, silently surface dived and disappeared.   THIS beaver issued a resounding tail slap (an alarm signal, and what I had just previously heard),  dived down and disappeared from view bringing the evening's hour of rapt spectatorship to an end.  


Please note, this nature watching bonanza was far from being  a typical outing.  It has been my only sighting of either mink or Green Herons;  truly distinctive sightings are sporadic.  Hogle is not, after all , operating on the Disney Animal Kingdom model.   It is, however indicative of the kinds of  possibilities that this facet of  the  Sanctuary can offer a frequent visitor.  



*My appreciation for Brattleboro's vultures is nothing new:  within a year of my Fall '010 arrival in VT I had tipped my hat to the flock in a stanza from a  take-off on the Mancini song “Moon River”:   


“Moose Crossing” 

Now there's a highway sign

That tells you northern woods are nigh.

Where soaring vultures

Define high culture

And Orion hangs touchably low in the sky.


(Thc Greek Chorus concept took a hit when I learned that vultures are severely limited vocally, producing only clicks and croaks.)


** One of Putney RD's B & B's hitches a publicity ride on Hogle, featuring access to this trail in its promotional literature.


*** The sight of fishermen tromping to and from their huts on the Retreat Pond's still-solid ice, while a largely ice-free West River flows under the Putney/RTE 5 bridge into the CT River dramatically illustrates the difference between hydrodynamic features of the area's southern and northern waters. 


**** It is worth knowing  that the Hogle Sanctuary is neither pest free nor totally pristine.  The mosquitos are always lurking somewhere.  The gnats, without biting, are a nuisance because in their manic swirling they keep bumping into one's facial orifices.  The water is subject to run-off and eutrophication effects, who knows what flows through the pipes from the Retreat into the Pond, there are also sewer lines flowing into the Pond, there has been at least one notable fish kill in my year of  familiarity –all this is neither worse (nor much better) than what I used to see at big city naturalistic meccas like Chicago's Wooded Island.    






AMPHIBIANS AND OTHER CRITTERS

COPE WITH EQUINOCTAL CONFUSION



The Winter (so to speak) of 2015-16 departed stealthily in the dead of night shortly after what would prove to be a nippy Palm Sunday got underway.   It seems somehow fitting that this ignominious exit (12:30 AM EDT March 20) marked the earliest Vernal Equinox since 1896, given the generally toothless, if erratic character of the departing season, with its balmy holiday temperatures, summery 70 degree February days, scarcity of snow, and unusually early onset of mud season (if a wire service story by a Portland ME - based stringer carried in the March 24 Reformer is to be believed). Of course, weather being nothing if not perverse, the first work week of Spring 016 kicked off with an early Monday snow squall that left a sparse coating on cars, roofs and lawns before giving way to radiant sunlight that quickly effaced the snow.   A moderate chill persisted, though, making it feel as if we are limping, rather than springing forward into all that the new season promises.


Perhaps the Eye in the Sky guy has a sense of what this fitfully sputtering seasonal transition portends, but I don't have a clue.  My instinct is to turn to the vastly more perceptive, intuitive and climatologically savvy flora and fauna of our natural environment for insight into the greater implications of these para-equinoctal oddities. This year, though, even creaturedom appears to be somewhat confused, or at least inconsistent in its response to the seasonal cues.


I'm grossly generalizing, but it seems as if the animal kingdom's spring harbingers expect TW2 (the winter that wasn't) to segue quickly and gently into a blissful span of un-allayed warmth and abundance, while, to my eye, the plant kingdom is far less convinced that early fun-in-the-sun is a sure thing.  For example, I didn't notice crocuses in local flower gardens this year until mid – March, I saw my first daffodil even later, and am still waiting for fruit trees and forsythia to bloom (meaning that these iconic spring posies are showing up weeks and weeks later than in the riotous spring of 012, which followed an 011/012 winter that was as fang-less as the one just past.


Various birds are among animal harbingers seen to be out and about dramatically early this year, among them Redwing Blackbirds, those colorful and aggressive spring ambassadors.  Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) sources have noted that Redwings have been around locally screeching their “Kon-ka-rees!” since March 9-10, an unusually early debut.   Other avian “usual suspects” have followed suit, with migratory robins joining their over-wintering colleagues in late February, mourning doves showing up on overhead power lines by the beginning of March, and vultures, cardinals, jays and crows all rounding into mid-season by late February, when they would still have been slogging through spring training many other years.   (Crows and jays have been especially entertaining: I have witnessed a couple of impressive hawk mobbings in the past 3 weeks, and back on March 13 I glimpsed a big fat crow waddling precariously upon the fragile remnants of an ice floe a hundred feet or so off the South shore of the Retreat's Anna Marsh pond, perhaps trying to figure out what the strange bipeds with the huts had been up to when the ice was thicker.)


As for mammals, back in mid-February (which seems early to me) nighttime aromas wafting through my closed bedroom windows on several evenings heralded the awakening of neighborhood skunks from their winter torpor, while grimly odiferous highway carnage conclusively documented their wanderings in the same period.


I can personally vouch for at one seasonal arthropod's early Spring of '016. For the past year and a half I 've been monitoring a colony of Ant Lions:   predaceous pit-dwelling fly larvae who happen to have populated “my” yard area. These ghoulishly entertainingly creatures (See “My Backyard Monster” in Summer 2015 BEEC Newsletter) are most abundant in warm dry southwestern climes, but the hardy New England species can survive harsh northern winters with their concomitant sparse supply of prey insects. They dig down (below the frost line, one presumes), go dormant, and tough it out until they sense the approach of habitably warm weather, whereupon they return to the surface and set up pit/trap housekeeping again. This year I first noticed pits and first observed avalanche-style ant ambushes on March 9, EXACTLY A MONTH EARLIER than my first 2015 sighting.  With an “n” of only 2 springs, I can't say anything authoritative but strongly suspect that what I think of as “Ant Lion Village III” has jumped the gun relative to seasonal normalcy at this latitude.


Last, but far, far from least, are the rock stars of South Vermont's (and the entire region's) spring Bacchanal:   the amphibians. These unique and exquisite creatures have wriggled and hopped their ways into the hearts, not just of naturalists and conservationists, but of jewelers and artists who deal in their likenesses, puppeteers, folk singers, MacBeth-ian witches, and pretty much anyone who's ever encountered them.  Moreover, they are anatomically, physiologically and behaviorally astonishing creatures in more ways than I can begin to address here.


To the point of this article, frogs, toads, salamanders and newts are born in spring, after aquatic mating frenzies that occur in specific “home” ponds (most of them “vernal”, ie, only seasonally present, and hence largely devoid of predatory fish). They hatch from sticky, vegetation-adherent egg masses and develop in the home ponds until ready to migrate, then disperse to scattered secondary habitats, sometimes up to a mile away from the home pond, where they spend the warm months.  With the onset of cold weather, they dig down in soil or in mud banks for long winter's naps. As spring approaches, para-equinoctal warming trends trigger in them irresistably powerful urges to return to their ponds of origin, there to engage in their mating orgies.


The migrations are nocturnal, and require nights when there is rain, ideally steady, as well as thermometer readings of 40F or higher. There can be early false starts when the “go” conditions are marginal or transient and just a few hardy (or foolhardy) amphibians set out, but ultimately mass migrations happen on a few presumably ideal nights.   Emerging from scattered wintering sites in the “field” of their particular migratory pond, hundreds or thousands of amphibians will set out, funneling together as they wriggle or hop toward the target pond, unerringly (more or less) guided by mysterious sensory and intuitive signals.   Eventually, at favored convergence points, something like a continuously flowing weather – challenged Easter Parade can come together.


The resulting steady stream of creatures is one of the wonders of nature, and viewing it is an experience that should be on everyone's bucket list.


Unfortunately the processions become visible largely when, as is the case for many target vernal ponds, the throng of amphibians must cross a road.  At this stage the migration becomes a literal bucket list or dead pool experience for the amphibians themselves. They are at risk of being squished by cars even during straightforward crossings (salamanders are not rapidly mobile on land, and frogs, while capable of impressive hops, do not necessarily make linear progress), but crossings are often far from straightforward.  Many amphibians are fatigued or chilled when they reach roads, and bog down or go dormant on the frigidly conductive pavement. Others become disoriented and start hiking along median strips or even reverse direction in mid-crossing, thus becoming prime targets for speeding nighttime motorists, some of whom are heedless or even several sheets to the wind at the witching hours often favored for migration. 


To avert, or at least decrease the resulting carnage, BEEC has instituted an amphibian crossing guard program, in which a network of volunteers, under the aegis of naturalist/mentor Patti Smith and other members of the great BEEC staff, grab their flashlights, don slickers and reflective gear, and patrol known crossing hot spots on propituously miserable nights, helping the vulnerable hoppers and wrigglers to the pond sides of the roads, hoping to send a “slow-down” signal to motorists, AND producing records of the types and numbers of amphibians they encounter


This record keeping function, going back well before the 5 springs in which I've been an enthusiastic, if sporadic volunteer, has led to the striking observation that THE 2016 MIGRATION HAS BEGUN EARLIER IN THE YEAR THAN ANY PREVIOUS BEEC-MONITORED MIGRATION. Wood frogs and the tiny frogs known as “peepers” and a few spotted salamanders (the wondrously natty stars of the migratory parade for most aficionados) were active at various sites March 9-11, whereas the earliest migratory activity EVER observed in previous years was on March 26, and the peak of migration has occurred well into April each of the 5 years with which I am familiar.  With two fellow chilled amphibian ushers, I saw evidence of moderate wood frog, peeper and spotted salamander migration across Hinesburg Road on the rainy night of Monday March 14 at a migratory hot spot near Governor's Mountain.  Activity was reported on March 17, though no mention was made of Green Frogs wearing “Kiss me, I'm Irish” buttons.  Recent nights when I've awakened in the wee hours to the pitter-patter of rain made me wonder whether further migration was afoot (a-claw?). 


As of today (March 25) it's not clear (to me) whether  the great majority of salamanders, newts, frogs and toads are yet to make their journeys of passion, or whether, in their sometimes sneaky fashion, they have already reached their ponds and are in full spring break mode (see bulletins on links from the BEEC home page for updates and analysis more astute than mine).  In any case, it seems evident that South Vermont's amphibians are on board with the Redwings, Robins, corvids, skunks, Ant Lions and various other animals in putting their money (or more accurately, betting their lives) on this being an early spring, with clear meteorological sailing, warmth and abundance ahead. Are they right, or will they come to regret their premature departures from cozy winter haunts? The next few weeks should tell the story.




Season of the Fox

[part 1 of 3]




Just recently I realized that it's been a full five years since I moved to Brattleboro, an awareness that brought to mind various intriguing encounters with local wildlife during that half-decade.  Among these path-crossings*, there is one brief but electrifying  series of close-up and personal vulpine encounters that I can't resist sharing with you, even at risk of deviation from the "Urban Naturalist" paradigm for which I signed on :   a Summer-Fall 2013 "Season of the Fox(es)".  


*(also including endearing, if goofy salamanders encountered during spring BEEC "crossing guard" duty, a colony of predacious pit-dwelling fly larvae known as "Antlions" unexpectedly occupying my yard,  a baby bear endearingly obsessed with extricating a tantalizing but elusive supply of millet and sunflower seeds from a West Brattleboro bird feeder,  the strolling snapping turtle of Western Avenue, Brattleboro's roving avian Greek chorus in the form of an itinerant band of vultures, and others)


Foxes have fascinated me since my grade school days, when an avid reading of Jean Craighead George's 1948 classic Vulpes the Red Fox kindled my admiration for these elegant and  aristocratic creatures. Alas, for many decades this admiration and my desire to meet up with foxes in the wild was to remain latent.  I recall only two brief sightings during this latent period:  a glimpse of a fox trotting through high grass in a field adjoining the runway on which "our" plane was landing at the Washington DC area's Dulles Airport in the mid 1980's, and a pre-dawn instance when I had just turned out of my driveway en route to my lab in Cincinnati when the headlight beams lit up a fine looking fox who appeared mildly annoyed but otherwise unperturbed as he/she loped ahead of me me for a block or two, then veered off into a vacant lot).  Thus I was left with poor substitutes for the 'real thing' :   Aesop, Uncle Remus , Currier and Ives,  zoo and museum specimens,  kids' TV caricatures like Dora the Explorer's "Swiper the Fox", and, sadly, occasional road-kill victims.


I'd lived in VT for more than two and a half years before my first fox sighting here, but that sighting, on Independence Day of 2013, was one for the books.  I was taking our highly energetic mixed breed dog, (Jeter, on loan from his main West Brattleboro stomping grounds and stir-crazy in my small house and tiny yard), for a walk in Morningside Cemetery (one of a string of graveyards lining the far side of South Main, just a block east of my place).  More accurately, Jeter was taking me for a walk.  As the fascinating smorgasboard of new scents along the ramp leading down from the entry gate at S. Main and Pine hyper-stimulated  his olfactory receptors, he strained at his leash, snouted and snorted, drained every drop of the excess bladder capacity dogs summon up to mark territories, and did his utmost to roll in lush poison ivy patches lining the ramp while we fitfully approached the spacious main graveyard and several smaller burial grounds to its south. 


Reaching the base of the ramp, we worked our way south along a path defining the Cemetery's western border, checking the berry patches and the fascinating scats and scent markings amid dense underbrush and scrub trees, to our immediate right. Thus we were paying scant attention to the final resting places of Latchises, Esteys, Hookers, Dunhams, Baldwins, Brookses and other historic Brattleboro luminaries to our left until a sudden loud, high pitched, blood-curdling shriek issued forth from this sector.


To my amazement, this shrill vocalization, eerily atmospheric in context, appeared to have come from a FOX, which was taking his/her ease in plain sight amid a grouping of tombstones no more than 50 feet from us.  Jeter (whose excuse for not having scented the fox sooner must have been sensory overload from the trail-side spoor) began to strain mightily at the leash, and not exactly bark, but emit ultra-high pitched yips verging into dog whistle range. Just as excited as Jeter, and expecting, based on ample precedent, that this would be a very brief encounter, I went into nature enthusiast overdrive. 


Again to my disbelief and delight, rapid disappearance was nowhere on the fox's agenda.   He/she (“it” in the interest of admittedly erroneous brevity) dropped back 10 to 15 feet in a casual, even desultory fashion, then sat on its haunches facing us and appearing to eyeball Jeter.  The fox's affect toward Jeter (I was irrelevant to this meeting, a slow, clumsy bipedal drag on the proceedings) seemed to feature neither alarm nor aggression, but rather to represent an invitation from a wild-roaming doggie to a receptive leashed domestic doggie to engage in inter-species canine play.  Nor did hostility or aggression appear to be factors in Jeter's excitement, despite the strong suggestive evidence (for example a tendency to "point") that his unknown species mix includes a substantial dollop of hound. 


Whatever the underlying dynamic, the chemistry between the fox and Jeter allowed me to witness a riveting 15 minute dance of tentative approaches, calmly calculated retreats and re-entries, all playing out among headstones, memorial plaques and obelisks.


[caption: ‘fox’ Apache wall painting]


Jeter was frantic to get closer to his would-be playmate. As he tugged on the leash to the point of choking on his collar, I let him pull me gradually forward (both to avert bursts of strangled coughing, and to test the boundaries of this interaction).   While never appearing the least alarmed, the fox deftly maintained a minimum separation of 40-50 feet, calmly, almost insouciently backing off when we approached this limit. At one point it loped off to the south edge of the main cemetery and disappeared through a gap between two of the cedars in a row screening away a small Jewish cemetery.*   *(Perhaps the fox was an admirer of the late great author Saul Bellow, interred beneath a pebble-laden gravestone that I knew to be just beyond the fox's pass-through point?). I'd barely exclaimed: “Oh s**t, bye-bye fox!”, though, when it re-appeared and re-established contact at a slightly greater remove. [part 1 of 3]


Season of the Fox

[part 2 of 3]




Meanwhile, what a sight I was treated to!  In repose the fox fit my every expectation of vulpine elegance:  it was lean and long-legged and sported a proportionately gigantic, supremely bushy tail that projected horizontally away from its base in seeming defiance of gravity: an imposing version of the signature fox (and  old time convertible and pre-PETA fur coat) accessory.  Seen face-on, the fox's direct*, unblinking and penetrating gaze and strikingly large, erect, expressively mobile ears conferred an alert, intelligent and slightly brazen affect. In profile, its slender snout tapered gracefully to a stylish point.


  1. *(For this fox nothing less than a straight-on gaze signifying its full "alpha" status could possibly do)

  2. *

Though the approach of dusk progressively muted coat colors, enough light remained to reveal a color scheme not obviously matching classic adult red foxes as depicted in field guides or on-line photos. Nowhere wer vividly red or even frankly russet hues evident.   Its torso was mostly a blend of yellowish browns and darker walnut shades, setting off a whitish chest blaze, pale shoulder patches and markedly dark front “boots” (rear feet and “ankles” were darkish, but less dramatically so). Its eyes and nose also appeared blackish, while narrow blackish vertical bars bisected the otherwise pale interiors of its ears.  Its “forehead” was mostly covered by a light brownish-orange elliptical patch.   Being almost hopeless at textbook-based species identification, I remain uncertain whether I was gazing at a grey fox, an immature or seasonal variant or sub-strain of red fox, or some kind of hybrid.


In motion the fox called to mind a host of admiring adjectives already overused by a worshipful public.   It smoothly transitioned between multiple gaits, from walking to trotting, to a gliding ground-eating lope, moving always with fluid, “light-footed” ease.  At no time did it run flat-out or even give an impression of being in a hurry.  At times it appeared to be immune to the force of gravity, as when, from a slow trot, it suddenly landed atop a grave marker* at least 3 to 4 feet height from what amounted to a standing start- a striking feat of levitation.  There was an easeful insouciance, even a regal quality to the fox's posture and movement that somehow transcended its superficially evident balletic coordination   (* the gravestone of an Evans, rather than the more immediately iconic nearby Estey or Brooks markers, as this fox evidently did not feel a need to “name hop”).


The cross-specific canine tete-a-tete continued in companionable style  for about15 minutes, until it was time for me to drag a still-resisting Jeter off toward home as true darkness began to set in.  Had I not made this move, the encounter might have gone on more or less indefinitely, as neither the fox nor Jeter seemed to have tired of it'. One more surprise accompanied our departure: as we headed toward the northwest corner of the cemetery, the fox followed US at its comfortable distance. When we started up the ramp toward the entry gate, it partially scaled the wooded hill above the ramp, and paralleled our ascent, maintaining a shadowy overhead presence until well past the stairway leading down to Morningside Condominiums before disappearing from view.


It was as if the fox were stalking us, or possibly herding us like a Border Collie*. This escort went a notch beyond what had seemed like sociable boldness on the cemetery campus:  it was certainly a striking inversion of the long-established premise of "The fox hunt" as defined by hominids doing the hunting since Tudor times or before.  In fact it was slightly unnerving.   Of course the fox's good fortune (or astute life choice) in choosing as home territory a no hunting zone in which humans and pets were a familiar and seemingly harmless presence (even the ones  not underground and terminally inert)  may have played a role in the fox's boldness, as might lingering curiosity.  Still, various more ominous scenarios related to disease or parasites flickered through my mind (including the “rab...” word, though only briefly, given the absence of evidence for derangement, impaired coordination, hostile snarling or hydrophobic foaming).


  1. *I suppose that seeing us out WAS one way for the fox to convince him/herself that we were truly gone.


Season of the Fox

[part 3 of 3]




This encounter proved to be anything but a “one-off”, as the fox made appearances in the cemetery on 2 of 4 subsequent dusk visits during the ensuing two weeks.  In both visits my then 10 year old daughter was with me, while Jeter was along on one of them.   The visit with Jeter in tow was strikingly similar to the one described above.  It lasted at least 10 minutes, included another grave-hopping display, and ended with another vulpine escort up the exit ramp.  (Only the introductory shriek-greeting was missing; I have still heard this vocalization only at the start of the July 4 encounter).   In the final encounter without Jeter, the fox appeared only briefly, then dodged off into the west hillside's underbrush.  This mere cameo added support for the thought that dogs (or at  least Jeter) were key motivators for sustained encounters).


I learned from other dog walkers that appearances of the fox (or, as some maintained, foxES) were a fairly regular occurrence during several weeks that early Summer. These fellow witnesses were also somewhat taken aback by the fox(es)' bold, not to say aggressive, presentation.  Like me, they could only conjecture as to underlying causes (callow youth? generations of non-threatening coexistence? disease, genetic variation or parasitic burden? natural curiosity synergizing with universal canine proclivities?  A primal response to some seasonal mandate?  In truth we were (and I still am) groping for the rationale.


As great experiences must, the Morningside Cemetery Fox Show (as such) came to a virtual end, at least for me, by the end of July.


 I saw no foxes in 10 to 15 subsequent cemetery visits spanning a period extending into mid Fall 


As the severe winter of 013-014 deposited its payload of snow, however, presence of tracks potentially made by foxes (though smallish domestic dogs couldn't be ruled out) suggested a continuing vulpine presence.   These tracks ran down a steep west hillside (topped by South Main at its Oak Grove Ave intersection), and led into the part of the cemetery where previous fox encounters had occurred.  The hillside, itself was littered with stone formations and fallen trees, which formed indentations with seeming potential as fox hang-outs or lairs.  After a few tries I  once managed to track a presumed fox nocturnally from the brilliant gleam of a flashlight beam reflected off of its eyes, as it seemingly in turn,  tracked my beam while moving around near possible lairs about halfway up the hillside.  The spacing of the eyes, and the behavior of their source animal bore marked similarity to those of foxes previously visualized in this manner during a wonderful BEEC night expedition. 


Thus, although not certain, I tend to believe that foxes continue to live in the Morningside Cemetery area or at least roam through it.  My visits to the  cemetery have been relatively infrequent during the past 2 years*, so I can't speak to whether any currently resident foxes exhibit the remarkably sociable tendencies of our July 013 acquaintance. 


* Indeed, a very recent fox sighting in West Brattleboro, also surprisingly extended, but seemingly for distinct reasons, may be the subject of a future report.  


My sense of the cemetery area fox encounters at this stage is that, irrespective of unexplained and at times disquieting departures from the wild creature ground rules I've come to expect, they have provided me with a rare experience:  an always intriguing and sometimes spellbinding view of these exquisite, intelligent and regal animals at play and in repos





Grackles




For the past five years I've been living in Brattleboro in a state of retirement strenuously coupled with super-annuated parenthood , but prior to this I spent almost four decades as a biomedical researcher and teaching faculty member at a series of Medical Centers in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and the Evil Apple itself, NY,NY. During those hectic years I kept a lifelong love of nature alive largely through a casually opportunistic alertness to possibilities for ad hoc natural encounters. “My” urban environs provided surprisingly rich and varied experiences; city parks, plazas, beaches waterfronts, dive-able coves, and even the downtown campuses of the research buildings housing my air filtered/fluorescent lit/microwave-smogged research labs provided homes or temporary stopping off places for a plethora of fascinating critters.

 

I'll share here one of several fondly remembered natural encounters that occurred some 30 years ago toward the end of my eventful 8 year stint in Manhattan. I was an assistant professor with a research lab based at a Cornell University Medical College (CUMC) outbuilding on 71st, St, just off York Avenue, an unusually up-scale neighborhood for a Medical Complex that included not only NY Hospital/CUMC, but also Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the NY Blood Center, and the daddy of all deep pile research institutions, that gathering place for Nobel laureates and Nobelists-to-be, Rockefeller University.

 

My daily walking commute to the lab from my apartment near the Queensborough Bridge followed York Avenue along a stretch of the East 60's including the western border of Rockefeller's lovingly designed, beautifully planted and immaculately maintained campus, a jewel-like island of opulence sitting majestically above the FDR and the East River.


In mid-to-late fall of 1985, as the end of my stint at Cornell and the move to my next position in Chicago loomed, large numbers of dark birds, including starlings, together with mixed grackles and blackbirds would come blasting into the Rockefeller U. area at around dusk from some vaguely western location presumed to be a seasonal feeding ground. They arrived in several discrete flocks that I estimated at a thousand birds or more to the flock , flying at high speed in sky-darkeningly tight formations reminiscent of the space-filling flocks of birds in Escher's drawings (except that all of these birds were moving in the same direction) .

 

 Each flock followed a convoluted inbound flight path; the birds executed each twist and turn with precisely choreographed unity that gave the flock the appearance of a single meta organism. This struck me as being a phenomenal navigational feat surpassing even the thrilling instrument - aided maneuvers of the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. 

 

The birds would alight en masse at provisional resting places atop buildings on York Avenue's West side, across the street from the Rockefeller campus fence. Then they would make their boisterous way across the street in medium-sized detachments, jockeying noisily for prime roosting places in the limbs of massive trees that lined the campus border, and eventually cramming themselves onto virtually every square inch of available branch and twig support.

 

I discovered another dimension of this intriguing phenomenon as my move to Chicago became imminent and I fell into a borderline frenzied around-the-clock experimental mode. During this stint I often walked the Rockefeller border in the wee hours of the morning, and it was thus that I learned that the roosting birds were not only complete and utter insomniacs, but LOUD insomniacs in the bargain.  At first I speculated that nearby power lines were shorting out and emitting loud high-pitched electrical discharges. Then I realized that the noise was coming from the majestic trees (actually London Plane trees, a hybrid sycamore, much beloved of New York's iconic Parks czar Robert Moses and enthusiastically adopted by Rockefeller campus designer Dan Kiley and consulting architect Wallace K. Harrison) – in which the birds were gibbering and chittering and squawking and generally raising great holy Hell.

 

 My around-the-clock schedule also frequently took me past the roost trees at dawn or shortly thereafter. By this time the birds had largely dispersed (presumably back to their feeding grounds), leaving the sidewalks just outside the campus fence plastered with guano, which I remember as being purple.  Clean-up crews, presumably from Rockefeller's Buildings and Grounds would often be on hand steam - cleaning the sidewalks. Given Rockefeller's enormous investment in the pristine appearance of the campus and its immediate surroundings, I came to think of the beleaguered clean-up crew's early morning guano- expunging sessions as a reverse-spin counterpart to Penelope's nightly un-weaving of Odysseus' burial shroud in the Odyssey.

 

These birds were an undeniable force of nature, expressing in their own noise-some manner their appreciation for the planning, effort and expense that had created a magnificent campus, and had, inadvertently in the bargain, created a prized roosting site and a target zone for conspicuous guano deposits. Even across the decades, my memory of their incursions retains a visceral physicality that I have tried to convey here. It warrants mention, though, that these avian hordes, as riveting a presence as they were to me, were modest, even trivial in number compared to gigantic, pestilential and downright Hitchcockian winter flocks of mixed blackbirds that gather in semi-rural areas of mid-Atlantic states that offer prime feeding grounds. These flocks number in the millions.

 

An early December (2011) posting from a spokesperson for the Delmarva Ornithological Association describes one such flocking phenomenon in Delaware (in paraphrase): 'If your holiday shopping takes you to Christiana Mall, time your drive for a half hour before sunset. That’s when you’re most likely to see a massive flock of black birds winging its way to Churchmans Marsh. This flock of several million birds forms a solid black carpet in the sky; if it were earlier in the day, when the sun is higher, the flock would blot it from view. The mixed flock consists of true blackbirds, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and starlings'. Similarly massive and pestilential starling and blackbird flocks are found in Maryland's dwindling but still considerable farmland acreage.

 

I have been seeking an answer to one of many questions that naturally arise, ie, do descendents of the birds that I witnessed on Gotham's upper East Side (assuming that the birds are still “at it” 30 years after having captured my attention) make their way south to join the Delaware or MD winter flocks, or do they winter over in Manhattan? Though I have not yet found an urban guru with the answer to this, or various other questions left dangling in this report, my “curious old windbag” proclivities have been whetted, and I will share, in these (cyber)pages, any revelations that DO come my way.

 


Urban Naturalist


columnist

Lloyd Graf




Lloyd H Graf, Jr, PhD , Assoc Prof (ret) of Cell and Molecular Biology, Dept of Physio and Biophysice,  U IL Chicago, and congenitally curious old wind bag

I've been an occasional contributor of light verse/doggerel to Vermont Views during the past couple of years, including whimsical appreciations of bipolar Arctic Terns, mercurial full-of-themselves Chickadees, bees and spiders under the influence of caffeine and other colorful creatures.

Phil has been kind enough to give me an opportunity to share more detailed accounts of selected natural encounters, conveyed from my perspective as a long-time “Urban Naturalist” .