A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Few Green New Year's Resolutions

Some goal-setting ideas for a verdant 2011

Take a kid outside this year!
            Whether we make them or break them, New Year’s resolutions are – at the very least – a good annual exercise in setting goals.
            There are the standard resolutions: Lose a few pounds, have more patience … that sort of thing. But in case you’re thinking about a few resolutions of the outdoor/environmental variety, here’s a few to consider.

            Take a kid outdoors. It might be your own child or grandchild, or maybe a friend’s, but help lead them outside. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Fund found that young people between 8 and 18 years old spend more than 7½ hours a day on smart phones, computers and TV – 53 hours a week – an amount that’s on the rise. The lack of exercise, poor nutrition and little outdoors-time is contributing to the epidemic of childhood obesity – also on the rise.
            You can help reverse the trend by taking a kid outside. The possibilities are endless: Help him build a snowman. Take her for a hike. Get a small group of kids together and have a treasure hunt. For ideas, visit

            Help a cause. There are scores of ways to help improve our natural world on the policy front. You don’t need to jump into politics. But you can always write a letter to your elected official, attend a hearing and make your voice heard.
            What’s most important to you? What gets you worked up? The lack of state funds for land protection? The Gulf oil spill? The need for clean energy? Climate change? Maybe a local project? Go ahead and speak up!

            Explore your local places. Instead of taking your outdoor exertions on a road trip, go somewhere nearby. Is there a hill you always wanted to check out but never found the time? Do it this year. It may not have the great views that you get from Monadnock or the Presidentials, but you’ll better understand your own habitat. Pick a few places and make a list; have fun checking it off.

            Learn something. Wish you knew those animal tracks in the snow? Learn them this year. Get a field guide and test yourself. Become the expert!
            Want a few ideas? How about learning those wildflowers? Birds or bird songs. Tree species. Insects. Learn how to tell the weather by observing the sky.
            My wife and I have a running New Year’s resolution. Every year we resolve to learn the constellations, just a few, no more than 10. And every year, we gaze at those stars, look at a star chart or a book … and promptly forget everything. Not this year, though. This is the year we learn our constellations!

            Volunteer. Help an organization with its mission, whether it’s a local land trust or a national group. Almost all organizations offer ways you can help. If you want to volunteer but you’re concerned you might get sucked in, set some limits. One day a month. A few days a year. Whatever you’re comfortable with.
            If you can’t volunteer, is there another way you can support an organization that’s important to you? Can you increase your annual giving, if only by a few dollars?

            Save energy. Start with your own home. Have you switched all your bulbs to energy-saving compact fluorescents, the “squiggly bulbs?” They use one-fourth the energy of an ordinary incandescent. And that saves money for you. Turn down your refrigerator or water heater, even a little. Weatherize. Insulate.
            Energy savings helps you and collectively helps us all. As they say, the cheapest new source of clean energy is the kilowatt that’s not being consumed.

            Eat local and organic. Compared with the truck-farm produce that comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away, local and organic food is healthier and better for the environment in many ways. Local organics are easier on soils, use less transportation energy and taste way better than the stuff that comes from faraway factory farms. Plus, you’re supporting local farmers.
            One of the easiest ways to enjoy local food is to join a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm. There are about a dozen in this area. You can find information on local CSAs on websites for the N.H. Department of Agriculture and UNH Cooperative Extension Service.

            Have fun out there. If this doesn’t seem like a New Year’s resolution, think about it this way: Is there something you need that’ll help you enjoy the great outdoors? How about a new outer shell? Or better under-layers or hiking boots? If you need something in particular, treat yourself … or drop a hint.
The more you enjoy the outdoors, the more likely you’ll take care of it. Have fun!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fattening Up for Winter: We All Do It!

            With our belts still loosened from our Thanksgiving feast, it’s tempting to blame our recent indulgence on some ancient genetic code.
And it makes sense: Bulk up to survive the dark, cold, lean months of winter.
Whether we’re bulking up, stockpiling food, conserving our energy or racing around to find more food, these are all strategies among wildlife to get through winter in decent shape.

For Bears, Fall is for Fattening Up
            The ultimate bulker-upper is the black bear. Between late-summer and early fall, black bears go through an absolute feeding frenzy, eating five times what they normally eat during the rest of their waking months. They’ll gorge on acorns, beech nuts, apples and other sources … if they’re available. When those natural sources are in low supply, bears increasingly look to backyard bird-feeders for their food.
            For black bears, fall is all about fattening up for their big winter snooze. If natural foods are in good supply, a black bear will put on 30 pounds a week, building up a 5-inch layer of fat, thanks to those fatty and nutritious nut crops. By late-fall, as a bear prepares to den, a hormone called leptin starts to kick in and suppress its appetite. Once the bear is comfortably asleep in its den, it’s obviously eating nothing and drawing off those fat reserves.
Pregnant females will start going to bed around mid-November. It’s hard to predict when adult male bears will retire to their dens; if there’s plenty of food, they’ll stay up and eat as long as they can. Wouldn’t you? Young males will stay up into mid-January if there’s enough to eat and the temperatures are tolerable.
Bears that go into the winter well-fed and well-nourished stand a much better chance of surviving the winter and first few weeks of spring than bears that find thin meals in the fall.
            Fat reserves are critical for females to ensure cub production and survival.  During years of low food availability in the fall, cub mortality can reach 50 percent; in most years, it’s around 20 percent.
            Another strategy of bears is to conserve energy. While a black bear periodically awakens in its den and can be roused from its sleep (making it not technically a “true hibernator”), its system slows way down. Its heart rate will slow to around 8 beats per minute, compared to 40 or 50 beats per minute in the summer.

The Deer-Bone Femur Test
            While the white-tailed deer doesn’t sleep away the winter, it shares two basic strategies with the bear: Fatten up and conserve energy.
            Like the bear, much of a deer’s fall is spent consuming acorns and other nutritious foods to lay on those fat reserves. During winter, fat reserves will supply as much as 40 percent of an adult deer’s daily energy.
            So, conserving energy becomes crucial for a deer’s winter survival. Deer seek out good winter cover – like dense softwood stands – where they can avoid high winds, cold and deep snow. If they’re lucky, they also have nearby access to plentiful forage and room to spread out to avoid becoming a coyote’s prey. The less they have to roam, the better, especially near winter’s bitter end.
            By then, a deer’s fat reserves really start to dwindle. Here’s a morbid way to see this point: If you’ve ever encountered a deer carcass in winter, take its femur and crack it in half. Just do it. Check out the marrow inside the bone. If the marrow is bright red and thin, almost like jelly, the deer was malnourished when it died. If the marrow is fatty and white, it died pretty well-fed. By late-March, when snows are deep and winter has played its course, many deer are digging deep into those marrow fat reserves.

The Pantry Approach
            Personally, I think beavers have the right idea when it comes to winter food. They keep a well-stocked pantry.
            As beavers go, they’re really busy in the fall, felling trees and gathering the tops. They haul the limbs across the water to just outside their lodge, where they stick the butt ends into the underwater mud … and leave ‘em. This aggregate of tops is a beaver colony’s winter cache.
            Once the ice comes in, a beaver colony pretty much stays in its lodge for the rest of the winter, laying low, but awake nonetheless. When they get hungry, they go out to the pantry and return with a stick. They eat the bark and return the de-barked stick to the water, where it often floats up to the underside of the ice.
            Beavers will also draw from their fat reserves, and they have a neat place to store it: their tails. Aside from serving as a rudder, a beaver’s tail is a big, leathery hunk of fat. Near the end of a lean winter, a beaver’s tail will become thin as the animal draws fat from it.

Care for a Late-Night Snack?
Chipmunks also like to have a well-stocked pantry. All fall, you may have seen the chipmunks gathering acorns and other seeds in their fat cheeks and stashing them into their underground burrows. Although the chipmunk is a hibernator, it is not dormant all winter. A chipmunk will occasionally wake up and dip into its cache.
Susie Spikol, a teacher/naturalist at the Harris Center for Conservation Education, likes to have students imagine they are chipmunks. “If you were a chipmunk,” Susie says, “you might wake up once in a while, reach under the bed and grab a snack.”

When in Doubt, Snuggle
Obviously – despite the title of this article – not all critters fatten up for winter. The flying squirrel wouldn’t glide too well from tree-to-tree with a December build-up of a few ounces. It would probably drop to the ground like a rock!
The flying squirrel and other tree squirrels (like the gray squirrel) are out and about all winter, gathering food. The flying squirrel’s winter strategy, however, is to snuggle in numbers. This aggregate of flying squirrels inside their nest – usually inside a hollow tree – keeps each individuals warm, like bunched-up penguins.
In his book, Winter World, author Bernd Heinrich describes banging on a tree with an axe in late-winter. One-by-one, out of a hole came flying squirrels – 10 in all! – a little upset but safe, nonetheless.

That Ancient Genetic Code
All species have their own approach to winter. Bees stock up on honey; turtles dig deep into the mud and shut down; chickadees lower their night-time body temperatures. The list goes on, and it’s all about adaptations that work for that species.
So what about us? Do people fatten up for the winter just like many other critters? The days get colder, the nights get longer and we just want to hunker down and eat! There may in fact be some ancient genetic code telling us to have yet another piece of turkey … oh, and more stuffing, too … and pass the gravy!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Wind

Bobcat’s Tail - October 2010 - A collaboration with the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

By Eric Aldrich

There’s a Lot Riding on that Wind

Barely a day goes by when we’re not touched by the wind.
It may be a soft puff from an open window. Or a gentle breeze that tousles our lover’s hair. Or a stiff November wind that sways the trees. Or – thankfully rare – the brutal impact of a hurricane.

What is Wind?
Though seldom asked, Stacey Kawecki at the Mount Washington Observatory defines wind as “the equalization of pressure in the atmosphere. You get wind from the difference between high pressure to low pressure on the horizontal plane.”
Always, somewhere on in the world, there is wind. Outside your home on any given morning, however, you may notice no wind. The hair on your head, the leaves on the trees or even the most sensitive equipment may detect no wind at all. Nothing. But minutes or hours later, as the sun rises and temperatures rise and pressures start to change, there’s likely to be wind, if only a little.

Measuring Wind
            Meteorologists tend to measure wind in miles or knots per hour. At the Mount Washington Observatory – on the summit of the Northeast’s highest peak – they had the fearful distinction of measuring a wind gust at 231 mph in April 1934, setting a world record for surface wind speed.
            That would be way, way off the scales of the Beaufort scale, which is a way to classify wind speeds. The Beaufort scale runs from zero to 14. Zero is calm, or less than 1 knot over a 10-minute period. Between one and three are described as “light air” to “gentle breeze.” Seven on the scale is a moderate gale. Eleven (at 55 to 63 knots) is described as a storm. And 12 to 17 are hurricane-force winds, with 17 being a scary category 5 hurricane at 120 knots.

Cosmic Wind
            If you think that’s windy, try living on Neptune! On the planet’s southern latitutudes, one high-speed jet stream travels at 670 mph! At cloud-top levels on Neptune’s equator, the prevailing wind speed is an estimated 890 mph! Try flying a kite in that breeze.
            Solar wind is entirely different than atmospheric wind from a planet. Streams of charged particles are ejected from the sun’s upper atmosphere. This plasma flies off the sun at 890,000 mph. One consequence of these solar winds is the Northern lights or aurora borealis. Look for them often and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see them.

Wind in the Woods
            Back on comfortable old Earth, it’s easy to take the wind for granted. But it has a huge impact on our landscape, and not just on the ocean’s waves or the desert’s dunes. The wind influences our forest in many ways, both subtle and not-so-subtle, according to Steve Roberge, forest educator for UNH Cooperative Extension Service in Cheshire County.
            Wind aids in pollination and seed dispersal of a vast number of trees and other plants, Roberge says. On a windy day in late spring, you can see clouds of pollen drifting from the tops of white pines. Cones of pines, spruce and other conifers have adapted to the effects of the wind. Roberge points out how wind spins around the cone, sucking out pollen and carrying it off.
            In the forest, the wind also creates a phenonmenon called “crown shyness.” Look up into the forest canopy and sometimes you’ll see spaces between the trees – a gap where one tree’s crown stops and the neighboring tree’s crown begins. The gap is the “shyness,” caused over time as the wind sways the trees, bumping and abrading the extended limbs. Wind shaking a strong red oak, Roberge says, can easily muscle the surrounding paper birch into submission.

Wind in the Wild
            Wind provides the energy to transport sailors, countless bird species and insects. Birds use wind corridors as conveyor belts for migration. Ornithologists have long known that many birds even shift their altitude to maximize their flying efficiency.
            More recently, scientists have discovered that insects do the same thing. Long thought to be at the whim of the winds, moth and butterfly species apparently detect wind speed and direction at different altitudes and can adjust their flights accordingly to get the best mileage, according to a recent study in Science magazine.
"Because insects fly slower than birds, they had to evolve a way to increase their speed," says study author Jason Chapman of Rothamsted Research, the agricultural research institute in Harpenden, England. "The way they've done this is to really exploit the wind." With good winds, moths are faster than birds, Chapman says.

Huddling and Hunting
            Wind affects the way wildlife behave even when species are not migrating. It knocks acorns and other seeds to the ground, giving food for squirrels, deer, wild turkey, black bear, moose ... the list goes on. Severe wind will cause some species to huddle together for warmth, including turkeys. Think about those images of penguins in Antarctica, huddled together in the fierce winds, occasionally shifting around so the ones on the edge aren’t constantly feeling the impact.
            And as any hunter knows, wind can have a huge impact on predator-prey relationships. A white-tailed deer can easily detect a potential predator (human or otherwise) when the wind carries a suspicious scent to its nose. The wind’s noise can become an advantage to a predator and a distinct disadvantage to its prey.
            The next time you step outside, ask yourself what's riding on that gentle breeze. The answer, my friend, is blowing in the ...
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.