Autumn Snowfall

It's official: Record set for earliest snowfall! According to the National Weather Service in State College, Pennsylvania, the earliest local snowfall in recorded history has a new mark -- Oct. 15, 2009.

In my neck of the woods, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, snowfall did not amount to an inch, but was pretty against the autumn colors.

My photographs on October 16, 2009, early morning.


The Way Through the Woods

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because the see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods. . . .
But there is no road through the woods.

Rudyard Kipling

Autumn photograph, ©2008 Jan Boults Photography


Happy Fall ...

Photos: Jan Boults, © 2009


Little Brown Bat, Where Have You Gone?

Summer is just a distant memory now, but one that will be remembered as wet, full of mosquitoes, and the absence of the Little Brown Bat. Predictions for recovery from the full effects of White-nose Syndrome (WNS), the disease killing our bat population, will be a guess, report scientists at “Caves.Org”. They are calling the demise of the bat an “ecological disaster”. U.S. Wildlife experts claim that we may never recover our bat population, and the Little Brown Bat may be headed for the endangered list. WNS was first reported in New York in 2006, and is now in eight states. [See chart].

The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), is dying at an alarming rate - in the last three years, 400,000 have succumbed to the disease in the northeast. Infected bats grow a white fungus near their muzzles and it is unknown whether the fungus itself is killing the bats or if it is a symptom of a more complex problem. The disease causes hibernating bats to burn fat more quickly, causing them to starve to death before spring comes and they are not able to procure nourishment. The means of transmission of WNS is unclear, although most evidence points to human activity as the culprit. The Appalachian Online states that “fungal spores easily attach to skin and hair, clothing and equipment, and cases of WNS have been discovered more often in areas of recreational caving than in caves inaccessible to the public.”

Many public recreational areas have extended closures through April 2010, in response to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service advisory asking cavers to stay out of caves in WNS affected states and adjoining states. The Hoosier National Forest has closed all caves, as has Great Smoky Mountains National Park. WNS spreads quickly, and in caves where the bats are infected, it’s killing up to 95 percent of the bat population, according to Andrew Miller, coordinator of land-based programs and the climbing wall for Appalachian’s Outdoor Programs. Not only do bats play a huge role in controlling the insect population, but they bring vital nutrients back to other cave-dwelling creatures.

How you can help! The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (Mass Wildlife) have asked that Massachusetts residents call (508) 389 6300 or email mass.wildlife@state.ma.us with a bat report!

Bats use buildings as their summer roosts, and MassWildlife wants to track bat populations. Residents who find colonies of ten or more bats on their property, or in abandoned houses, barns, church steeples or other locations should report that information to department biologists. Monitoring summer colonies gives biologists an idea of how bat populations are faring from year to year. "White nose syndrome is a serious threat to bat populations in Massachusetts and throughout much of the northeastern United States," said DFG Commissioner Mary Griffin. "We greatly appreciate reports of summer bat colony activity from Massachusetts' residents so that we can research and better understand the disease and work toward restoration of bat species native to the region."

Janice Stiles-Boults, Contributing Writer
New Marlborough 5 Village News, October 2009.


The Beauty of Trees

Original photography ©Janice Stiles-Boults


Disappearing Rabbit Trick

New England Cottontail
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Reading the endangered wildlife list last month prompted a research mission to find out what the most threatened species might be in Massachusetts. I learned that the New England cottontail is very close to making the federal endangered list. In the summertime, I see rabbits galore on my early morning commute to work; one road in particular I have dubbed ‘bunny lane’, where I have to play dodge the rabbit! Therefore, it is surprising to consider rabbits as a threatened species, particularly with their reputation for prolific breeding.

In our region, we have two types of rabbits: the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). They are so similar that most people cannot tell them apart; the one we see in abundance is the Eastern cottontail, common across the United States. The New England cottontail, smaller than the Eastern, is disappearing. Its’ populations are declining, and their range has shrunk by more than seventy-five percent. In Vermont, its’ numbers are so greatly diminished, it can no longer be found, and New Hampshire added it to the state’s list of endangered species in 2008. Data provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that there was “substantial need for protection of the New England cottontail under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.” It was further determined that federal listing was warranted, however precluded due to other listing priorities; the rabbit remains listed as a special concern.

The New England cottontail prefers land in transition between field and forest, full of brambles and low bushes. Thickets were common on farmland and these rabbits once thrived, but much of New England now consists of mature forests, or developed land, which do not have the undergrowth that sustains and protects them. The Eastern cottontail population is strong because it is a hardier rabbit and lives on plants indicative of open land such as old fields and meadows. Part of any restoration project to save the rabbits might be getting private landowners to agree to cut their woodlands and let them turn into thickets. Halting the decline of scrub and brush land will be paramount to saving the New England cottontail; if it is not brought back, the region will lose a species native to no where else in the world!

Reported by Janice Stiles-Boults
©2009, April, New Marlborough 5 Village News

Ladybug, Ladybug

Out of winter hiding and onto the walls and windows of houses, swarms of ladybugs appear each spring. Where do they come from and where have they been all those cold months? Pretty bugs, however a nuisance when you start crunching them on the floor, or they leave spots on clean windows! When warmer weather arrives, open the windows and let them out, or vacuum them up, then empty the bag outside! They love aphids, so place them in your garden or on rose bushes.

Coccinellidae is a family of beetles, known variously as ladybirds (British English, Australian English, South African English), ladybugs (North American English), or lady beetles (preferred by some scientists). The one we see most often in New England is scarlet with small black spots, but there are also yellow and orange bugs with black spots, technically a “Multicolored Asian Ladybird Beetle,” or ladybug. The ladybug is the official state insect of Massachusetts, Delaware, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Tennessee. Found worldwide, there are over 5,000 species described, with more than 450 native to North America alone. In Asia, they congregate in large numbers on white cliffs for the winter hibernation. Lacking white cliffs In the U.S., ladybugs will seek out white, or light colored houses with a southwestern sun exposure. These bugs can squeeze through cracks and crevices, under clapboards and windowsills trying to find warmth. They gather in a group, called an aggregation of ladybugs, so if you see one in your house, you can be sure there are more to follow. Once spring arrives, they wake up and attempt to move outdoors, not all succeed, with many trapped inside, where they do not reproduce.

While not destructive or damaging to a home, they can secrete a strong smelling yellowish liquid from the joints of their legs, a process called reflex bleeding. They use this to discourage predators or at other times when they are stressed. This liquid can also stain light colored surfaces. Large infestations have a distinct odor. However, they are useful bugs, feeding on aphids and scale insects, which are pests in gardens, agricultural fields, and orchards. The Mall of America released thousands of ladybugs into its indoor park as a natural means of pest control for its gardens. Colonies hibernating in your house live off their own body fat, but homes during the winter are generally dry which causes most of the ladybugs to die from dehydration. Occasionally in mid-winter, you might see a ladybug in your bathroom getting a drink of water. Now that is one smart lady!

Some people consider seeing ladybugs, or having them land on one's body to be a sign of good luck to come. When ladybugs arrived en masse, eating aphids and saving crops during the middle ages, the farmers began calling the ladybugs "The Beetles of Our Lady," eventually shortened to "Lady Beetles" or “Lady Bugs.” The red wings represented the Virgin's cloak and the black spots represented her joys and sorrows.

A well-known nursery rhyme relates to Ladybirds, the English version dating to at least 1744. The poem was a warning to ladybugs still crawling on old hop vines about to be set fire to clear the fields for the next planting. The ladybugs’ children (larvae) could get away from the flames, but the pupae, referred to Ann, or Nan in some versions, were fastened to the plants and thus could not escape.

Ladybug, ladybug flyaway home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
And her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan

Written by Janice Stiles-Boults



The Quill Pig

Photograph by Bates Littlehales

What do you call a group of sharp little mammals covered in a defense mechanism of 30,000 quills? You call them a prickle of porcupines! The quills are indeed the hallmark of these animals, known as the prickliest of rodents, though its Latin meaning is "quill pig." Controlled by muscles, the quills lift up in warning when a porcupine is threatened. Contrary to popular belief, a porcupine does not have the ability to throw its quills; they actually slap a victim with their tail in self-defense.

Last fall, I spotted two porcupines crossing my front yard – hmmm, does that make a prickle? They are quite comical to watch with their plodding gait, lifting one foot at a time, claws spread wide, gently testing the area in front of them. I have since learned that porcupines are extremely near-sighted, seeing only two to five feet in the distance, so they move with great caution. However, they do have a keen sense of smell, hearing, and taste. When the two heard me, they immediately went up the nearest tree, chattering and clacking their teeth, a warning for me to back away. The larger one was shaking and swaying on the limb, announcing his distress with low grunts and whines. Often times their high-pitched cry is mistaken for a bobcat or mountain lion. Porcupines are shy, so my presence was making them terribly stressed; and I was probably interrupting the rituals of their mating season. On my approach, one of them decided to produce his noxious odor to stop me in my tracks, while at the same time spraying urine from his perch at the top of the tree above the second porcupine. I presume the offender was the male, as research revealed that they perform a very vocal mating dance and spray urine over the head of the female.

Female porcupines give birth to a single baby, seven months after mating. Quills are soft on the newborns, called “porcupettes,” and they harden within several hours after birth. Within only a couple of days, the baby begins to forage for food; mother and baby will stay together for about six months. Would this photo, then be a “prickle of porcupettes”?

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Fritz Reiss

In the winter, porcupines sleep in a den, sometimes for two to three days at a time, coming out only to feed, then return to shelter. Solitary for most of the year, porcupines will share a den for the communal heat, which consists of earth or rock caves and hollow logs. They are mainly nocturnal and do not hibernate; in all other seasons, they roost and feed in trees. One would believe porcupines to be accomplished tree climbers – they are not. According to the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, “thirty percent of the animals examined in one study showed evidence of healed fractures indicating that they had fallen out of trees.”

Porcupines are not territorial, and their home range may be as large as two hundred acres. Strict vegetarians, they will munch their way through a large variety of plants, shrubs, and trees. During the winter months, they will feed on pine needles and tree bark; summertime brings a menu of grasses, leaves, dandelions, clover and other wildflowers. Porcupines can swim, so pondweeds and water lilies are also part of the summer diet.

Regarded as one of the most important mammalian forestry pests, the common porcupine often causes death of timber and ornamental trees by girdling the bark of the trunk or stripping all of the bark above the snowline. Their feeding habits also contribute to orchard and crop damage, as well as injury to domestic animals and the transmitting of diseases. While generally thought of as a nuisance, some people consider the porcupine edible. Native Americans have been using the quills for centuries to make boxes, jewelry, and other artwork.

Porcupines have a great love of salt, which is why you see them loitering around the edges of highways that are salted during the winter. Individual animals will gnaw woodwork, furniture, tools, saddles, and other objects that have received salt deposits from human perspiration. Their search for sodium can bring about the destruction of objects such as handrails, steps, and doorways.

In our region, the predators of the porcupine include humans, fishers, martens, coyotes, and bald eagles. Fishers tend to be the most successful predators due to their technique of flipping the porcupine on its back, exposing the unprotected belly. A nasty, vicious animal, the Fisher will kill for the sport even when not hungry as was evident at a neighbors when all his chickens were killed, most of the decapitated birds left in the yard. The Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife website states, “The fisher (Martes pennanti), is relatively common in many areas despite the fact that it was once eliminated from Massachusetts. Considered by many to be a strictly wilderness species, the fisher is now appearing in more populated areas.”

Fisher Photo by John Wasserman

The North American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, is one of the world's largest rodents; it is a medium-sized animal, related to mice, rats, and beaver. An adult animal is about twenty inches long, not counting the tail, and weighs from ten to thirty pounds. Research shows fossils of porcupine ancestors that date back to the Oligocene epoch, about thirty million years ago, and that they originated in South America. The porcupine might not be one of the great beauties of the natural world, but they have proven themselves masters of survival. Act I, Scene V from Hamlet, reminds us that all creatures have a place in art, as well as science:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul…
…And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine {sic}”



Winter Scenes at Sun Dance Hill
Photography by Janice Stiles-Boults
Copyright 2006/07