Holy Bat Cave, Batman!

March 31, 2009

Whenever I drive I’m always watching wildlife. It’s reflexive — scanning the roadside for eye-shine or craning my neck to follow a bird overhead. “Look, a fox!” or, “See the crows mobbing?” I’ll point out to my passenger, who rarely gets as excited. My memory is too rotten for me to ever be a decent naturalist (and the details that distinguish a red-tailed hawk from a red-shouldered are lost on me at 65 mph) but I watch compulsively anyway. On the drive up the Northway from Albany on Saturday, I counted 8 hawks and 2 turkey vultures. Then on Route 73, I saw something else.

That night I wrote the following email and sent it to two scientists I googled, one in Canada and one at Cornell University:

…As I drove from Chapel Pond to Keene Valley along Rt. 73 this afternoon at around 1 PM, I suddenly saw bats — probably five or six at a time — winging over the road. At first startled glance I thought they might be starlings but I’m a reasonably adept birder and these had no tails — and were moving like bats, slightly quavery, upward, and singular, for lack of a better description, not in the smooth unison of small flocks of songbirds. My friend, the children, and I probably saw 50-60 bats over the highway before we came down into the flats of Keene Valley.

I was guessing Little Brown Bats simply because they’re common, and these were small, but I really have no idea. I wondered if you would have any idea why bats might have been out at 1 PM on a sunny winter day? All I could think was that the heat of the highway was attracting bugs, which attracted the bats? But I couldn’t understand why the daylight hunting.

Thank you for any ideas.

Best wishes,


Sunday I had a reply from the Canadian bat specialist, who found the observation “most interesting” and said he was cc:ing my email to bat specialists in Albany and Boston. Yesterday I heard from Albany.

Dear S,

Thank you for taking the time to notify us of your observations; it is important to us to know of such things. Unfortunately, you are not the first to report bats flying around Chapel Pond this winter, although earlier records involved far fewer animals.

What you witnessed is being repeated daily throughout the Northeast. It is the final days of individual bats infected with a disease called White Nose Syndrome. Hundreds of thousands of bats have died in New York alone in just the three years since this disease first appeared in Schoharie County, NY. It is spreading rapidly and is now in Virginia and West Virginia and has killed >95% of the hibernating bats in most infected sites that we have been able to count. There is not yet solid
evidence of survivors.

Chapel Pond is 11 miles from our closest known hibernacula. That seems quite a long way for diseased animals to travel. I suspect that there is a hibernacula in the Chapel Pond area
that we have never known about.

You can Google White Nose Syndrome or visit the US FWS web site for further details.

Alan Hicks
Mammal Specialist
Endangered Species Unit
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

Before I received Alan’s note I had googled “bats flying in daytime” and guessed the problem. This short, comprehensive article in the New York Times about White Nose Syndrome — a mysterious fungus killing most of the bats in the Northeast — quotes all the scientists copied on my email. Neat to think I could make a tiny contribution to their information.

Hiberniculum (Latin literally for “place where animals hibernate”) is fancy talk for “bat cave.” Chapel Pond is one of the top climbing areas in the Adirondacks. DH and I shared the same immediate thought: surely the local rock jocks could find this hiberniculum.

However Alan and I corresponded throughout the day yesterday and he believes that as it hasn’t been found yet, the opening to the cave must be quite small. And as the cave is obviously infected with the fungus, it may soon be empty. Finally, the easiest way to find it would be to track any surviving bat with a radio tag next fall. (When he first mentioned this I enjoyed the mental image of a bat wearing a miniature radio collar.)

Alan Hicks's photo of Little Brown Bats with WNS

Alan’s photo of Little Brown Bats with WNS

I felt sad all day thinking about some awful fungus decimating our bat population. Though I have the usual shudder when one’s trapped inside — something about their fluttery flight pattern makes you think, even while knowing all about echolocation, that they’re bound to run into you — I like bats. They’re the swallows of the night-time, eating half their weight in insects every night. Read that again: half their weight! (This would be like me eating 70 lbs of groceries a day.) It’s a joy to see them swooping around the barn and fields at dusk. That we may lose them is inconceivable.

I may try to write an article about this bat problem in the Adirondacks.

Back in the barn

March 30, 2009

It was great to get back and find all the livestock fat and happy. Alison and Tom had taken care of everything beautifully. It is so unusual to have anyone else ever in my barn (except Lucy) that it felt almost eerie to walk in and find everything so neat, tidy, and put away. Water buckets filled, hay and grain waiting in the stalls. As if the shoemaker’s elves had been busy in the night.

The ewes look rounder. Perhaps I will have all my lambs after all. The tummies of the Cluns are so swollen that the naked patches on their underbellies are showing on their sides. I do hope it’s lambs and not obesity! Lambs would be due any day from Easter through mid-May.

Alison had mentioned that Georgie at five months is becoming a handful. Absolutely. I milked yesterday morning and having the stall door shut in his face after two weeks of gluttony frustrated Georgie so much he butted Katika’s water trough and broke it in half with one swipe of his head. People who wonder how I can eat my dear little calves have never had a bull on their place. I will have to catch him and put a tape on him, to see what he weighs these days.

The afternoon we returned was bright. The snow has melted and seeing the land stretched out uncovered, golden brown like a tired old army blanket in the sunshine, waiting for spring, I was invigorated. So much to do! Where do I start?! I immediately began making lists in my head.

One of the first things will have to be driveway repair. It’s not just the usual woes of mud season. Having dug up the road and refilled the trenches in late November, when things were freezing, the thaw has brought a general collapse into eight-foot-deep mud wallows as the trenches have caved in. My truck lurched down to the rear axle on one side and I had to dig it out and thrust wood under it to be able to gun it out. I’m not sure a bulldozer could get in and out for some time though, so I am just parking at the top of the property and hiking down to the barn.

This morning it was snowing again. The sky is dark and dreary. The snow falls on the mud and melts into brown slush. When the sun is not out, this is certainly the ugliest and most cheerless time of year. DH and Lucy went for a ski yesterday in the woods. A cold rain started to fall. They came in soaked but laughing. “Die hards!” admitted DH. I imagine that unless we have a big storm it may have been Lucy’s last ski of the season.

As for me, I’m getting ready for the next season.  April: lambs, clearing fallen trees and brush, burning, repairing fencing, planning the garage with Dean, brush-hogging, spreading manure, planting seedling trees.

…And, we’re back!

March 29, 2009

We left Lakeland, Florida at 2:45 AM Friday, stopped overnight in Virginia, hit the road at 3:15 AM yesterday (dragging a bit), and pulled into our driveway by early afternoon. After two sunny weeks we had pounding rain almost all the way home. It became hypnotic: the slap of the windshield wipers, the headlights on the glistening highway, the steamy backwash of trucks, and the wonderful voice of Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

We’ve listened to a Harry Potter on each of these drives. The kids have read all the books, which I have not, so listening out of order (we skipped from novel 3 to novel 7) was not a problem for them. But I enjoy the stories so much that this time I had to keep stopping the CD to make inquiries: “What? Dumbledore is dead?” Next year perhaps we’ll listen to books 4, 5, or 6. The combination of Jim Dale’s magnificent reading and J.K. Rowling’s invention and droll humor often makes me laugh out loud. A fabulous mingling of talents. Rowling deserves to be rich.

Florida was practically perfect. Even Lucy coughing uncontrollably throughout the drive down (and giving her bad cold to me) was traditional and thus acceptable. The only sadness was having to put Jon on the plane home after the first week, to get back to school.


The joy of Florida is the family time within an utter lack of schedule. We did very little except swim, bike, shop at Goodwill for used books, read together in the sunshine, and watch a children’s movie every night. Often I didn’t even make my daily list! (Gasp!)

knitting at poolside

knitting at poolside

Lucy knitted a hat on the drive down and started a sweater. At my request she cast on stitches for a hat for me to knit but any domestic handcraft soon makes me fractious. Instead I spent my spare time noodling around with Quicken, trying to learn the more advanced features instead of simply using it as a checkwriting program. Every year Joanne and I compare notes on personal organization and make new vows. For me, this will be the Year of the Budget.

Our condo unit is in a development frequented mostly by retirees. It is very sleepy and safe. There is no internet except intermittent wireless by the pool. We became used to seeing elderly folks crouched over laptops, struggling to get a signal. I am an early riser and would walk over before dawn, when the lack of competing users seemed to make access easier. One morning Joanne came over with her own computer around 7 AM and burst out laughing. I had grabbed my coffee and laptop absentmindedly and was sitting at a picnic table wearing my Victoria’s Secret pajamas, wool socks, and sandals. Perhaps a bit too casual.

A lovely, rejuvenating time and a wonderful break, but I’m glad to be back. The boys and the dogs were fine, but… Jon complained of a week of donuts and frozen pizza, there were 33 messages waiting on voice mail (it’s useless to leave a message at our house if I’m away, as no one else can remember how to retrieve them) and the house, though neat, seemed sterile and lifeless. Within an hour of unpacking the car I had whole wheat bread rising, dishes washed, carpets vacuumed, soapy laundry churning in the washer, Hughie burgers thawing. The habitual sounds and smells felt cozy and warm.

Though Oz is fun to visit, there’s no place like home.


March 11, 2009

DH came in from work tonight saying, “Great! You got the incubators on!”

“Incubators?” I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. Eggs? Chicks?

“On your fences.”

“Oh, insulators!

I love it when DH tries to talk farm talk. He is a city boy from Queens and Long Island: brilliant, far-seeing, sparking endlessly with entrepreneurial ideas, but he can’t tell a hammer from a hole in the ground. Which means I do pretty much everything of a practical nature around here, except … ahem… for the small item of earning a paycheck.

This day has been non-stop, starting with struggling to put roof racks on my Caravan with Jim (Joanne’s husband) at 7:15 AM in a freezing rain. We had to have it done before Jim went to work and Jon left with the car for college. Roof racks for the Caravan cost $250-$300. I’d found second-hand factory racks on Ebay for $45, but there was a question as to whether they would fit my model. Jim and I were out investigating this in the icy rain and mud and wind. His hair was plastered to his forehead, rain was dripping off my glasses, we were frozen and shaking, but with the help of a rubber mallet, THE RACKS FIT! Yay!

Today I strung the new line on the electric fences, laid in shavings, schlepped 2,000 lbs (a short ton) of grain, rewired the water trough, baked bread, folded laundry… and then…

Remember “things added to the to-do list?” I’ve just learned that DH is having a boys’ slumber party while I’m gone. A bunch of his oldest and best friends have suddenly become free and are flying and driving in from all over the country this weekend. Yikes… I guess I’d better put grocery shopping, scrubbing, and vacuuming on the list for tomorrow! And yesterday I was handed a 40-page document to proofread/edit. Ah, me. What’s sleeping?

But I’m very, very happy for DH. He so rarely gets to see his friends, particularly his best friend Mark, the big brother he never had — it’s a wonderful gift. He’s like a little boy, grinning from ear to ear.

Busy, busy

March 11, 2009

I have been flat out with chores and lists. DH is working practically around the clock with the end of term (students leave today). Jon is tense and buried in mid-term papers and exams. Lucy was up coughing uncontrollably last night — it is tradition that she is always sick when we travel. Joanne, our school nurse, has had to take three children to the hospital for casts (falls on ice). But she keeps repeating to me calmly, “We will drive out of here on Friday!”

The only problem with lists is that one keeps adding to them. The sheep have been ducking under the electric fence and running to me to be fed when I drive in at night for chores. They love their new end-of-gestation ration of sweet feed, and obviously the 6000-volt shock they get on their backs only speeds them on their noisy way to get it. I can’t have them out wandering the highway while I’m gone, so yesterday I took an hour to put up insulators for another fence line six inches above the ground. A hot zap on the nose usually stops anything.

Birch 2008

Birch, fall 2008

Lucy’s horse Birch followed me as I knelt in the snow to snap plastic insulators on fence posts. There were 100 to get on, without gloves. I soon had a system involving a screwdriver and thrusting my hands under my armpits to warm them. Birch was fascinated and walked on my heels as I proceeded around the paddock perimeter. Whenever I knelt he lowered his muzzle to whuffle around my hat and collar, getting a closer look. It is interesting to have a 1000-lb animal peering over your shoulder. More than once as I got back to my feet I bumped into his nose.

Insulators up yesterday, electric rope goes up today. It’s pouring rain, 35°, and we’re due for winds up to 55 mph. Wet, cold — hypothermia weather. I’ll be out in it, fencing, but I imagine I’ll keep the animals snug in the barn.

On to lists!

Sugar snow!

March 10, 2009
Jon checking buckets, 1993

Jon checking buckets, 1993

We got 4″ of soft new snow yesterday. This is what’s known as a sugar snow.

If I hadn’t grown up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I too would have heard this phrase and stuck my tongue out to taste the flakes, just as Laura did as a little girl. But a “sugar snow” is simply a snowfall in earliest spring when the world is starting to thaw, the sap is beginning to rise, and it’s maple sugaring time.

The school sugarbush has been tapped at least since 1904, and probably longer. DH and I have both helped gather (collect sap) here for most of our adult lives. Sugaring is one of those tasks that requires the whole community to drop everything and help. Your muscles are commandeered. When the sap flows, it flows — it must be gathered and boiled. Left in the buckets it will sour and spoil.

Lucy gathering, 2008

Lucy gathering, 2008

When I ran the school barn I was nominally in charge of sugaring. The heavy donkey work of tapping and gathering, splitting wood and stoking the fire, was fine with me, but the responsibility for boiling scared me to death. An evaporator pan holds gallons and gallons of syrup in the making — each gallon highly valuable and very delicate. The temperature for drawing off must be just right: too low and it’s tasteless water, too high and it’s burnt and ruined. To me it was not only too much like cooking, but like cooking with caviar.

Luckily the gardener in those years loved hovering over the pan, his face lost in clouds of steam, and I could skim the sap, operate the filter and canner, cap and grade the syrup, and keep the records. He and I spent hours together in the sugar house; sometimes the draws would be quick and other times the sap would boil seemingly forever without making up. He brewed a specialty drink of coffee made with maple sap. The combined kick of caffeine and sugar would power us onward.

Inside a sugarhouse is hot and steamy. (Often you can’t see the opposite wall through the fog.) Operating the canner your back scorches against the evaporator flue. Skimming the hard-boiling froth, your arms are stung by burning licks of sap. Every surface is sticky. You stagger outside at midnight and see sparks floating up from the chimney stack to be lost against the stars.

I enjoy looking back at those memories but I’m happy to no longer have the urgency, anxiety, and long hours as my portion. Just gathering is work enough. It looks as if we may be tramping around the sugarbush a bit before we leave for Florida.

Jon and DH gathering, 1993

Jon and DH gathering, 1993

Getting Ready for Florida

March 9, 2009
Lucy, Alex, and Jon 2006

Lucy, Alex, and Jon, 2006

On Friday at 4 AM the children and I, plus my friend Joanne and her son Alex, leave for Florida. The kids and I have been going to the little timeshare in the middle of Florida since 2003. Jo and Alex joined us in 2004. We always rent the same condo. It’s halfway between Tampa and Orlando, two hours from a single tourist venue or beach. But for us the attraction is sunshine, shorts and sandals, a pool, biking, and stocking up on old novels at the local Goodwill to read for hours every day.

Husbands are left in blustery New York, working, poor souls.

Starting in 2006 we’ve saved money by driving down and back instead of flying and renting a car. The yeoman 26-hour drives with three kids scrunched in the backseat, luggage lashed on the roof, and bikes hanging off the tailgate have become part of the strange and wonderful tradition. This year, as Alex is gaining on Jon in height, we’re taking my minivan. I’m sure we’ll look just as Joad-like as ever.

It’s hard to believe I’ve accomplished much in the past week because the list of stuff still to do before we drive out of here is a full single-spaced page on a legal pad. Some of it is minor (throw bags of wool up to the hayloft, lay in enough grain) and some major (figure out Jon’s transportation from college). Jon will be flying home after one week to resume his spring term, without a driver’s license. At this point we’ve found rides to the city but none returning. There is no public transit. Ugh.

And then there’s the little matter of the building project. Len at Shelter-Kit has sent preliminary drawings. They’re very exciting! But I need to be able to clear my desk and focus on them for a number of hours with a sharpened pencil, totting up costs and making more lists. I have to make all major decisions this week so the final drawings can be completed while we’re away.

Garage and ell, north elevation

Garage and ell, north elevation

This sketch isn’t quite accurate, as it doesn’t show the box trim, I haven’t yet chosen the windows and doors, and the perspective is off (the front of the ell actually sits 12′ back; after the main house is built there will be a wrap-around porch connecting the two). But it gives the basic idea. Looking at all the drawings — all based on my ideas — I feel both very happy and very nervous.

Lots to do! Off to wash dishes and get started on the day!