Water in Winter

Water in winter is a precious commodity.  At first thought, this doesn’t make a lot of sense, here in Vermont the ground is covered in snow, which is, after all, merely water in a specific phase state.  Despite this being a meager winter in terms of snowfall, there is between 1 and 8 inches of snow, depending on where you are, on the ground near my house in northeastern Vermont.

The problem is three fold, 1) that phase state issue.  Snowflakes are delicate ice crystals, and ice has a Mohs hardness of around 1.2-2 at normally cold temperatures.  This is harder than chalk and talc.  Ice acts as a soft rock.  2) Humidity, the ability of the atmosphere to hold water is dependent on temperature.  The same relative humidity at different temperatures means very much less total available water at a colder temperature.  At cold temperatures things dry out quickly, which is part of the reason deciduous trees drop their leaves, and why other plants cover their leaves in waxy coatings or thick layers of hair.  3) the ground is frozen, locking up surface water and making it unavailable to plants and animals.

These factors combine to make winter a stressful time for plants, but for animals the cold makes it even more difficult.  Animals have several options for dealing with cold; they can hibernate, dropping their temperatures and metabolic needs to a bare minimum and wait out the difficult times; they can insulate themselves with layers of fur or fat to protect from the cold; or they can ramp their metabolism up to generate more heat.  The problem is that generating heat via metabolic activity takes water… where do you get it in the winter?

Today was a warm winter day in my portion of Vermont, somewhere in the high 20s, and the snow had melted away some since the last snowfall.  About 50 feet behind my house I came across the tracks from a fisher that had been hunting several days earlier.

Being inquisitive, I followed the tracks.

In typical mustelid fashion they wandered semi-randomly across the landscape, but, as I followed them, more and more tracks came together, making a veritable highway of frozen tracks in the snow.

More and more tracks came together, both of fisher and of deer, coyote, and bobcat.  Clearly I was onto something, but what?

At first, when it was just fisher tracks, I had been hoping to find a den.  If I could find a den, I might be able to justify finally buying a game camera, something I have wanted for a long time.  I found a dead sugar maple that might be a den, but as I continued exploring, that was not where the greatest number of tracks was.  Maybe I would find a kill site.  A scattering of porcupine quills or several puffs of squirrel fur.

Nothing of the sort greeted me, but what I did find was a small frozen pond fed by ground water and surrounded by tracks and scat from all sorts of animals.

Ground water, that is the key.  The earth has tremendous thermal mass.  Thermal mass is a sort of battery or reservoir of heat (there really is no such thing as cold, it’s all varying degrees of heat, with no heat being 0 kelvin, or absolute zero).  In my region of the US the ground stays at a relatively constant 50 degrees F.  In the hot and humid summers that means all the rocks sweat, condensation forming on their (relatively) cold surfaces, and well water is refreshingly cool to drink and chilly to bathe in.  In the winter this means that seeps and springs stay running and liquid all winter, and well water feels deceptively warm (though still chilly to bathe in).

The fisher I had been following was heading to a source of water, water that drew numerous other animals, including a bobcat that left scat at the base of a hemlock tree and probably hunted the other animals that came for water.

The fisher I had been following, and, perhaps several others, has spent quite a lot of time at this pond.  The tracks were melted into the ice all around where the liquid water came into the pond.

Even in a place as water rich as Vermont, water can still be a precious commodity.

Photography as a tool

The foundation of science is observation.  Sometimes we need help making observations as the things we are interested in are small, far away, in motion, or complicated.  Not every observation can be made in the field or at real-time.

Fortunately, we live in a time where there are numerous tools to assist with observation.  One of my favorites is a camera. A good photograph can make the minute gigantic, the distant close, freeze time, and illuminate details otherwise unnoticeable.  Sometimes it takes some thinking creatively to capture and image, but the results can be worthwhile.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the incredible Hubble Space Telescope images of objects deep in space and far in our past (HST image gallery).  These images are extremely high resolution, taken using a wide variety of sophisticated techniques including multiple color bands, non-visible light, and dift-scanning, a way of tricking digital cameras into taking continuous images larger than their CCD receiving array.

Taken with an 1Phone 4 through a microscope eyepieceHubble style techniques are out of the range of most of us, but with a little creative thinking and a steady hand everyone can get some surprisingly good results with basic equipment.

In a soil ecology lab I was having trouble seeing some of the detail, and had to write a report on the nematode species I’d seen on the slide.  A photo was just the thing I needed, so I used the camera on my iPhone held over the compound microscope eyepiece to capture the image to the right (click image for a larger photo).

The same technique works well with a hand lens to capture shallow depth of field images of other small things, and with binoculars or a telescope to capture images at a distance.

I have a confession to make.  Despite being a naturalist and being reasonably knowledgeable about the natural world, when it comes to birds I am hopeless.  Those speedy little feathered dinosaurs flit hither and yon faster than I can see their detail.  They hide in shrubs or high atop trees and fly away when I come close.  Usually they are small and the identifying features are tiny, the diagnostic mark is often something like the color of an eye-ring or a barely seen flash of color on the nape of the neck.

The songs will tell you which bird is which, but not what they look like, and, in any event, I can never remember tunes.

I have turned to photography to recognize and identify birds.  I cannot get photos of many of them, miss shots of others, but I am slowly learning my birds.

Dark Eyed Junco

 Canada Warbler


Yellow-Rumped Warbler





To learn about the world we need to observe it, but it does not stop there.  We need to think about what we observe and question our observations.  Photographs offer a way of fixing our observations in time, allow us to revisit them, and invite reevaluation of them.

What is Nature?

For most of my life I have been immersed in the natural world.  My early memories are of mud, water, ferns, tide-pools, insects, birds, amphibians, and trees to climb.  Nature surrounds us, enfolds us, and directs our lives in ways we often fail to realize.

Despite our reliance on computers, cars, oil, and all the rest, and the damage our irresponsible use of these things has done to our planet and ourselves, these things all derive from nature.  The location of oil deposits are a relic of past distributions of plant and microbial life. Distribution of plants, animals, and other resources such as iron, gold, and bauxite deposits are a product of geology, which in turn is a result of solar system formation.  At each step we can look a little further back and deeper into the picture and see more of nature and how it affects us physically and socially.

Gold comes from supernovae, thus, indirectly, the Spanish conquering of Central and South America was, in part, due to the interaction of gravity, nuclear fusion, and the age of the universe.  Stars that become supernova are a result of the specific balance of elementary forces in our universe.

Tools are made in the shapes they are due to the evolutionary forces that shaped our bodies, which in turn are a result of the same elementary forces that lead to supernovae and the creation of gold.  Toast more often lands butter-side down because of the height of our tables.  The height of our tables is determined by our height, which is limited by the physical constraints imposed by the molecular bonds that hold the component pieces of our bodies together under the influence of one standard Earth gravity.  Toast falls butter-side down because of the strength of our bones.

This is nature, just as much as the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a Monarch butterfly, and the many thousand mile migration of those butterflies to a forest in northern Mexico.

There is not just a whole world to explore, there is a whole universe to explore, perhaps more than one.  In this blog I intend to explore those bits I can reach, physically or mentally.

I hope you enjoy what emerges on these pages.

Bristol Pond, Vermont