Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural! Birds, Geology, Wildlife & More' Category

May 03 2014

Buzz Off! by Pat McKay

Not long ago I spotted a European hornet, but I was disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to capture an interesting image. They are an impressive wasp. So today when I saw this one busy building its nest, I decided to set things to rights. Since I was just carrying the Panasonic GX7 with an Olympus 45 mm lens attached, I had to use a couple of Kenko extension rings and then get reasonably close to the subject. How close? Well, by my estimate I was less than a foot away.

I fired off a couple of frames using the on-camera flash, but the results were just terrible. I found an old piece of white styrofoam and decided to use it as a reflector. I held the camera in my right hand, the jury-rigged reflector in my left, and fired off another series of shots until the lady finally lost all patience and told me in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on.

Pat McKay European Hornet

When I got home I did a little online research and discovered the following: “[European hornets] are …defensive of their hive and can be aggressive around food sources. … Care should be taken when encountered in these circumstances as they may sting without warning. The pain from the sting may persist for several days with attendant swelling. If you are stung you may wish to seek medical attention.”

Photo details: Panasonic GX7, Olympus 45 mm, ƒ/6.3 at 1/60 sec, ISO 3200, stacked Kenko extension tubes (16 mm and 10 mm).

Pat McKay cycles and paddles around the Delmarva Peninsula, camera always in hand (or near at hand, anyway). Many of his photos have graced these virtual pages in the past — and with any luck, many more will do so in the months to come.

Questions? Comments? Just click here!

Jan 11 2014

‘Sno Place for a Lady:
An Errant Cyclist Does Battle With a Lake-Effect Storm

Northern New York sees its fair share of winter weather. Cold Canadian lows spin across the borderlands from November till April, dragging trains of snow in their wake. But it’s what happens after the lows move on that’s really interesting. Instead of clearing skies, we’re often blessed with lingering clouds and even heavier snows. Cross-country skiers and snowmobilers rejoice — so long as the groomers can pack and track their trails, that is — but motorists and cyclists are less enthusiastic. The morning commute now becomes a white-knuckle slog, and (for the cyclists, at any rate) every trip means dicing with death among the legions of drivers who think their phone conversations are more important than a cyclist’s life.

Happily, the cyclist almost always wins the toss, but it’s still not a game for the faint of heart. Which is why bicycles are a rare sight on northern New York roads in winter.

Who’s the villain in this set-piece confrontation? Not the chatterbox motorist, surely. Incompetent or downright hostile drivers can be found on every road in all seasons. No, the winter cyclist’s nemesis is something bigger. Something called the “lake effect.” Look at any map of North America. There’s a lot of water in the Great Lakes, and much of that water lies to the west of central and northern New York. Until the big lakes freeze — and this is happening less and less often these days — the chill westerlies following hard on the heels of Canadian lows pick up huge amounts of water vapor from Lakes Erie and Ontario. And when this water vapor subsequently freezes, heavy snowfalls are the all but inevitable result. These have been christened lake-effect storms.

Forecasters who are also skiers like to speak of the “lake-effect gun,” and it’s a good tag. When the gun is firing, the drifts pile up fast and deep. Some parts of the Tug Hill plateau routinely see snowfalls of several feet from a single storm, and the city of Syracuse — it lies just to the east of Lakes Erie and Ontairo — enjoys a reputation as the snowiest metropolis in the States.

You can easily spot lake-effect snow bands on the radar maps that are the centerpieces of most Internet weather sites. In the screenshot below, I’ve drawn yellow boxes around two examples:

On My RadarLES

The northern gun in this picture gets its ammunition from Lake Ontario; the southern gun, from Lake Erie. The city of Buffalo, which lies on the Niagara River that connects the two lakes, is therefore exposed to flanking fire from both quarters, even if it unaccountably defers to Syracuse in the overall snowfall stakes.

All well and good, you say. But what does a lake-effect storm look like from a less elevated perspective? Fair question. Living as I do in the northern Adirondack foothills, well to the east of the Tug Hill, I often dodge the bullet when the lake-effect gun is firing. Not always, though. The following scenario is more or less typical. I’m pedaling south, clawing my way out of the St. Lawrence lowlands, my panniers laden with groceries. I have clear skies overhead. The air is cold, but the sun is shining down, and the effort of climbing keeps me warm. Then, usually just as I mount the first step in the ascending staircase, the sun deserts me, hiding his face behind a thickening veil of cloud. The west wind — a gentle west-sou’west breeze when I started on my homeward journey — now backs another point to the south and flexes its muscles, blowing a steady Force 4, with occasional gusts to Force 7. A routine trip into town has suddenly become an adventure. Having no choice in the matter, however, I pedal on, hoping to beat the storm.

But luck is not on my side. Soon the sun is little more than a sickly white blob in an otherwise gray sky, and snow is blowing across the road. I rub my finger over my glasses to clear them, and this is what I see:

The Gathering Storm

Now the fun begins in earnest. My drivetrain has been accumulating rime for half an hour, and I’m down to three or four usable gears. The long gradient (the second step in my climb) steepens, and from time to time I have to stand on the pedals to make any progress. Rime is also accumulating under my fenders and on my brakes, but at least the constant clicking from my studded tires is muted by the deepening drifts.

And make no mistake, the snow is getting heavier by the minute. Visibility is down to a few score yards at best:


But then fortune smiles. The Adirondacks lie like giant boulders within the river of air, attenuating the bands of lake-effect snow and forcing them to writhe wildly about in their passage over the hills. And that’s what’s happened here. I’ve ridden straight through the storm. Now, as I prepare for my final climb — a mercifully short 18 percent grade — I can already see breaks in the cloud above me. They’re a welcome sight, indeed:

A Break, at Last

Later, having emptied my panniers, put away the groceries, and cleaned the worst of the gunge from my bike’s powertrain — an hour-long chore that’s unaccountably overlooked by those cheery souls who tout the carefree ease of bicycle commuting — I take a minute to walk down to The River, where I’m just in time to witness the dying gasps of the storm, its moisture all but spent and its sustaining gusts reduced to gentle zephyrs.

It’s a peaceful scene. But the guns of winter are seldom silent for long, and tomorrow is another day.

End of the Day

Further Reading

This article revisits a topic originally addressed on December 30, 2009.

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Nov 19 2013

Streams in the Desert: Wildness in Man’s Shadow

America is no longer a rural nation. Most of us live in cities or somewhere on the expending penumbra of suburban development. Breaking free from the familiar landscape of the work week takes both time and money, and for many of us, one or the other of these is almost always in short supply. So we live (and save) for our annual vacations. The rest of the time we make do with what we can get: the canned images of television nature shows and the canned sweat on offer in the neighborhood fitness center.

There is another way, however. If we only look, we can find opportunities for exercise and wildlife-watching right on our doorsteps. Even a drainage ditch at the edge of a shopping mall is probably home to someone. Wildlife is drawn to water like metal filings to a magnet. So the next time you set out on your daily commute or embark on the weekly trek to the mall, put down the cell phone, leave the supersized coffee cooling in the cup holder, and ease up on the accelerator. Look around you whenever it’s safe to do so. Better yet, ride along in someone else’s car, or take the bus or trolley. Or ride a bike. And if you can, bring your binoculars with you, too. Now open your eyes. You’ll be surprised by what you see.

I was reminded of this during a 6,000-mile bus trip in which I crossed—and then re-crossed—the North American continent. It was a bit like scouting a river from headwaters to mouth and back again, in fact. I left Canoe Country in the midst of a lake-effect snowstorm, only to pass from winter into fall and then from fall into summer, ending the outbound leg of my journey in Southern California. Cross-country bus travel is a curious hybrid. You’re not a prisoner behind the wheel, as you are when you drive long distances in your car, but you’re not exactly a free spirit, either. Life on the bus is dictated by a printed schedule, and the hours of compulsory idleness are broken by brief intervals of frantic activity at station-stops. Still, you have lots of time to think — and plenty of opportunities to take in the passing scene. My latest bus trip took me south and west, through the heart of the Great American Desert. Imagine my astonishment, then, when I discovered paddling opportunities nearly everywhere I looked. Not for the first time, I wished I had a folding bike and an inflatable boat stowed in the luggage hold beneath my seat.

At first, however, there was little that wasn’t familiar. New York is a well-watered state, and I was rarely out of sight of swamps, streams, ponds, and lakes, many of them old friends. But Ohio’s bumper crop of kettle lakes was new to me. Some could even be spotted among the oaks and maples on the median that divided the Interstate’s east- and west-bound rivers of asphalt. Countless globular, leafy nests—the homes of gray squirrels—occupied commanding heights in the trees that towered above the little lakes, while migrating waterfowl rested and ate along the sheltered shores. Deer and foxes slaked their thirsts at the water’s edge, too, and herons strutted in the shallows.

All of this passed before my window. As day faded into soft dusk over a swamp not far from Indianapolis, the dying light silhouetted a flight of ducks setting down on a weedy slough, safe from shot for one night. Freshly peeled and neatly trimmed limbs floated on the water near a beaver lodge. It was as wild a scene as any I’d ever witnessed. Yet this was no wilderness. The headlights from a steady stream of passing cars and trucks swept down the frontage road that paralleled the Interstate, and the glow of Indianapolis did battle with the dark. Further down the road, the Embarras River flowed beneath the highway. It was a river in name only here, no larger than many New York creeks. But the dabbling ducks drifting in its current gave no sign that this bothered them.

The bus continued westward with the night. Before long, we’d put the Ozarks behind us, and the arid plains of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle lay ahead. I was sure that I’d seen the last well-watered land. But I was wrong. The rising sun disclosed a tattered cloak of scrub and shrub, nourished by seasonal rains and irrigation canals. Flocks of geese wheeled low over the cotton fields outside Amarillo, while the warm morning light disclosed the nest holes of thousands of bank swallows, strung out along the red bluffs flanking the Llano. Miles passed. The hours ticked by. But when we reached the desert Southwest, it, too, revealed unexpected treasures. Even here, amidst the buttes and dry washes, there were scores of pools, each with its attendant guard of ducks and songbirds. We crossed the Pecos, Gila, and Colorado Rivers. And who would expect to find wetlands in California’s Mojave Desert? Not I. But they were there, thanks to irrigation agriculture. These weren’t wild waters, to be sure, but I didn’t once hear the snowy egrets and herons complaining. Like Blue Duck, the arch-villain in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, they asked only that their water be wet.

Soon we were climbing the rubbly shoulders of the Coyote Mountains. The Pacific coast lay just ahead, but now, for the first time in my journey, the land along the highway was truly arid. Cacti and spiky desert shrubs competed for each drop of ground water, and taps bloomed at intervals like iron flowers to replenish the radiators of overheated RVs, if not to refresh their thirsty drivers. (Signs repeatedly warned, DO NOT DRINK THIS WATER!) Still, far out to the west, I saw the first hint of the cloud bank associated with the humid air mass known as the “marine layer”—unmistakable evidence that the hydrologic cycle was alive and well.… Read more…

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