Thursday, October 31, 2013

Baldfaced Hornet

With the leaves falling, I have seen several baldfaced hornet nests hanging from trees. In doing some research I found that although called a hornet, it is actually a type of yellowjacket. The insect is mostly black with white markings including a white head and is about 3/4 of an inch long.

On the way up Harvey Mountain last week,
we saw this nest hanging from a tree branch.
It's on the right side of photo about 1/3 down from the top.
(Photo by Marina Wilber.)
The nests are covered with a gray papery material and can be larger than a football. They hang from tree and bush branches or from the eaves of buildings. Inside are layers of hexagonal comb like that of bees. The queen and female workers construct a new nest every year. The paper covering is made from vegetable fibers chewed by the workers and mixed with their saliva to make a pulp which is formed into the paper. Each good-sized nest averages about 400 workers.

In the fall, the workers die and the nests are abandoned. The queen lives to start a new colony in the spring. The nests are buffeted by the wind and usually come apart like this one below, that I found on the lawn where I work. The paper covering was gone so you can see the inside.

The comb was in three layers.
Top view: Here is where the larvae are born and raised by the workers
until they become adults with wings.

A closeup of the comb.
Baldfaced hornets are vigorous defenders of their nests and will sting people when it is disturbed. The sting is similar to a wasp's and reaction varies according to the individual. On the positive side, they kill many pests including flies, spiders and caterpillars. Most nests that I have seen are high enough not to be a problem.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Harvey Mountain, Austerlitz, NY

The weather was uncertain on Tuesday but we decided to hike anyway. What's a little rain! 

We parked on East Hill Road off Rte 22 and climbed Harvey Mountain in Austerlitz, New York. It's a moderate hike, only about 3.5 miles round trip to the summit, which is the highest elevation in Columbia County at 2,065 feet. The mountain is widely known for its blueberries, usually ripe in mid-July. Since 1999, the area has been preserved by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as Harvey Mountain State Forest.

Some hardwoods had completely lost their leaves
so we could see the mountain behind them.
The atmosphere was hazy
and gray, but the view was still surprisingly good.
The bushes and vegetation on the summit were cut this summer
to promote the growth of the blueberries which should be excellent
next summer! 
The beech trees still had their leaves. Some beech branches will
hold their dried leaves through the winter until the buds swell in the spring.
The deep red oak leaves were shiny in the light rain.

Monday, October 21, 2013

West Stockbridge Mountain on South Yokun Ridge

Last Tuesday we walked from Olivia's Overlook on Lenox Road south on the Ridge Trail all the way to the end of the ridge where there's a flat rock outcropping with a great view south, including Monument Mountain, Mount Everett, and Butternut and Catamount ski areas. Part of the ridge is owned by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and part by the Town of Stockbridge Water Supply. It's a great hike, about 5.5 miles total, out and back. The BNRC has published a detailed map of the entire ridge from Rte 90 north to Bousquet and Dan Fox Drive.

Although the foliage was past peak, it still is spectacular in places. The leaves are thinning out so views normally obscured are now visible through bare branches. The remaining oak and beech leaves are deeply colored. We are still awaiting a hard frost promised for the end of this week.

The first view on the Ridge Trail, west to the hills beyond Swamp Road, Richmond.
At the flag pole is a view of the town of West Stockbridge.
The bright leaves of sassafras seedlings.
Even though the sky was overcast, the woods were light and open.
The view is amazing at the southern end of the ridge.
Monument Mountain is on the left and in the distance on the right is Mount Everett.
We enjoyed lunch with the view! (photo: Marina Wilber)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mount Everett and Guilder Pond, Mount Washington

Sunday, I lead an Appalachian Mountain Club hike along the Appalachian Trail from Jug End Road up Jug End Mountain, across the ridge to Guilder Pond and up Mount Everett; then down the southern side to the Roaring Brook Trail to the Route 41 parking area. All together, it was about 7.5 miles. For mid-October the weather was pleasant and warm.

We passed many weekend backpackers including a group of about 8 young men, in their twenties and thirties, who took a swim in Guilder Pond. I know it would have been too cold for me! Since the road was open up to the pond, we also met families with dogs taking advantage of the good weather on this Labor Day weekend. It was great to see so many enjoying the trail.

The summit of Mount Everett has many old dwarf pitch pines compromised by the poor soil, dryness and ice storms but still hanging in! Some have been estimated to be almost 200 years old although shorter than 4 feet high. The 20-acre community of dwarf pitch pines, red oak and red maple has been designated globally unique and imperiled by various agencies.

Swimming in October? Brrrr!

Here is the view of Mount Everett from Guilder Pond.
A lovely path winds around the water’s edge.

For most of the 20th century, a fire tower stood at the top of the mountain. It was not used for spotting fires for many years and fell into disrepair and sustained vandalism. In 2003, after much controversy, the tower was removed because it was deemed a cause of degradation to the unique and fragile environment. It was air-lifted out by helicopter and put up for sale on eBay.

Heading down (south) with views of Twin Lakes and Race Mountain.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Garter Snake Tryst

Several weeks ago, as I was sitting by Upper Spectacle Pond having lunch and enjoying the sunshine, I happened to look up in the laurel bush beside me. There I saw two entwined garter snakes draped on a branch. I was surprised and intrigued. While I have often seen garter snakes on the ground, I have never seen them in a bush. I watched them throughout my lunch. Was this mating behavior?

They stayed in the same spot on the twigs, about 6 feet above ground,
their bodies moving slowly, twisting and undulating somewhat.

When I got home, I sent photos off to Mary Holland who has a wonderful nature blog. Here is her reply:
"It’s not all that rare to see garter snakes in vegetation, but twined together like that is definitely unusual. Garter snakes mate in the spring, and because the male releases both male and female pheromones, he attracts lots of other males, and they form what is called a “mating ball” with up to 100 males writhing around one poor female. But the season isn’t right for that. Young garter snakes are born in the late summer or early fall (up to late September) and they do tend to stay together for a while, but it looks like at least one of the snakes in your picture is of good size. I find it very interesting, and hope, if you find a herpetologist that can explain this behavior, you’ll let me know what’s going on!"
So, I followed her suggestion and sent a query to Alan M. Richmond, Ph.D., herpetologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Here is his reply:
"Very interesting. This certainly looks like courtship behavior. Sometimes animals don't follow the rules and breed at different times of the year than usual. This is the best answer I have."
So, once again, I am learning something new! By-the-way, in 2007, the garter snake was designated as the official reptile of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

A little love in the afternoon!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Upper Spectacle Pond, Otis & Sandisfield

Yesterday the dirt roads and woods roads in the Otis State Forest around Upper Spectacle Pond were bright and colorful with the fall foliage and strong sunshine. We started from Rte 23 at Upper Spectacle Pond Road. After crossing Spectacle Pond Brook, we turned right on an unnamed woods road which took us to Cold Spring Road where we turned left for a quarter mile. Then we turned left again on Webb Road to continue the loop to Upper Spectacle Pond. Altogether we walked about 6 miles on easy roads.

The lake is undeveloped and there are several tenting sites but no facilities. Because the roads are not plowed in winter but the parking area on Rte 23 is plowed, this is a good place to cross country ski if you don't mind sharing with the snowmobilers. Unfortunately, some visitors have left trash here and there. Next time I go I will bring a trash bag.

Last week I met a nice couple from South Carolina there, who were camping around the northeast. They took out two kayaks and paddled all around the lake. Their pickup also contained two bicycles and a canoe. Now that's the way to travel!

The sun and the bright colors put me in a good mood!
The lake has a primitive boat ramp and is a great place for a paddle.
A beaver pond along the way was very pretty.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

AT and Finnerty Pond in October Mtn. State Forest, Becket

Tuesday was a glorious fall day with lots of sun lighting up the leaves that are turning many different colors. Seven of us Tuesday Berkshire Hikers walked the Appalachian Trail from County Road, Becket, past Finnerty Pond and down to Rte. 20 in Lee (about 5.5 miles). On days like this I sometimes feel like I should walk as slowly as possible to prolong the wonderful euphoria that I get from the feel and smell of the cool air; the warmth of the sun (but not too warm!); the brightness of the leaves; the songs of the birds, squirrels and chipmunks; and little natural surprises along the way. Oh, and no bugs!

The trail was covered with crunchy leaves.
The hobble bushes were a mosaic of color.
A beaver pond along the way.
Finnerty Pond (actually to me it's a lake) is totally undeveloped. A gem!
Dazzlingly bright maple tree!
Equally bright colored leaves at our feet.
I think this is a Dagger Moth caterpillar.
We came upon several of these 2-inch-long caterpillars along the way. In trying to identify it, I came across this website. Just scroll down for an amazing variety of beautiful caterpillars. Awesome!