Wet Weather Wondering

It’s been one of the cooler, wetter summers in memory, enough so that everyday banter about the weather seems even more ubiquitous than usual. A friend in Maine emailed that his pumpkins had become an experiment in modified hydroponics. Another suggested that his boots had been wet for so long he’d begun to notice webbing forming between his toes – reverse evolution, he theorized, then exclaimed: “Ocean, here we come!” It gets more absurd. Just this week, I got a query letter proposing an entire issue devoted to ark building. A taste:

. . . The heart of the issue, “Ark Construction 101,” will provide your can-do readers with step-by-step instructions for building their own ark. Connection to the forest, and lumber properties, will be clearly articulated in a review of the best species to use for ark construction (e.g. rot-resistance, buoyancy, etc.). . . Sue Morse can offer a special feature on “Bobcats to Bats: How best to Bait your Boat,” reviewing little known techniques for how to find and convince the more skittish creatures to sign up for the ride . . .

It all makes you wonder how, exactly, the natural world is being affected by the crazy weather.

The general consensus in the gardening/farming world seems to be, predictably, that the tropical plants (peppers, tomatoes, etc.) are suffering, while the cold crops are flourishing. Chuck Wooster, our staff farmer over in the Connecticut River Valley, reports that his greens are doing great, especially spinach, which he harvested into July for the first time ever. At press time his squash was rotting as fast as they were growing, and his tomatoes were sizing up but not ripening. Word from a farmer friend in southwestern Vermont had his pepper plants aborting at a certain height – they just shed all their branches, crumbled, and started anew as root suckers. Up in central Vermont, Ginny Barlow’s pepper plants are the same size they were in late May; the ones in her greenhouse are twice as large. Statewide, dairy guys and gals report cold-stunted field corn and, in some cases, significant black cutworm damage – a double whammy.

Native fauna seems to be faring much better. Overgrown meadows are lush and vibrant and out of control; I watched a pair of deer ears float through a patch of beanstalk-like goldenrod last week. The forest seems possessed with a rainforest-like fecundity. Tree trunks wear thick coats of moss – thicker than usual, it seems. Vines – Virginia creeper and wild grapes, specifically – seem particularly emboldened by the wet weather.

Fungi are thriving. Mycophiles are thriving. Chanterelle crops are prolific, perhaps a bit earlier, perhaps a bit smaller based on the cool weather. Mold spores have taken over many a wet basement.

I’m not sure how the weather is affecting animals. Common sense suggests that cold and wet is not good for this year’s young. Naturalist Mary Holland has a hunch that loon chick numbers in New Hampshire may be affected by the rain, since high water levels can equal flooded loon nests. I’ve noticed very few wild turkey poults in the meadows, an observation that echoes the conventional wisdom that bad weather during the brood-rearing period in May and June can be devastating to turkey chicks. Biologists have theorized that when rainfall is abundant in May, scent conditions make it easier for predators to locate hens on nests. This is referred to as the “wet hen theory,” because it is hypothesized that a hen with wet feathers gives off more scent than a hen that is dry.

If there is something to this, one suspects that other animals could be affected as well. Having said that, I’ve noticed plenty of healthy twin fawns; I have a burgeoning family of woodchucks living in my garage; my email inbox is full of healthy fox-kit pictures sent in by nature photographers from around the Northeast. All of this suggests that many mammal family units made it through to dispersal just fine.

Where biting insects are concerned, there actually seems to be fewer mosquitoes and blackflies than usual, which doesn’t make any sense considering all the standing water. I’ve had this observation echoed by others, and would love to get an entomologists take. Around here, the lack of mosquitoes is more than made up for by roving packs of deerflies, which seem to be doing just fine.

According to naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer, word across the Northeast is that dragonfly numbers are down. Pfeiffer writes: “We suspect dragonflies are indeed emerging more or less as usual. But without the sunny dry weather that allows them to harden into swift flyers, they may not be living as long as usual. The newly emerged soft adults, called tenerals, are vulnerable to predation (often by birds). Without conditions for “hardening” they could be more vulnerable. Plus, they themselves need warm sunny days for patrolling and hunting prey. I also suspect that prey species (Diptera and other small flying insects) aren’t flying as much, reducing hunting opportunities for adult dragonflies.”

This is all anecdotal, of course.

What have you noticed? If this blog has value, it’s in the fact that it can connect people and stimulate conversation. Feel free to add your own observations/theories about the cool, wet weather. We’d love to hear from you.

  1. Chuck
    Jul 29, 2009

    Dave—It occurs to me that these successive summers of substantial moisture, paired with relatively mild winters that have featured long-season snow cover, must be about optimal for tree growth. I’m seeing enormous growth of white pine shoots and limbs on a usually dry site near our house. Perhaps these luxuriant seasons are just what the forest requires to bank the reserves needed to withstand the next insect attack or drought or whatever comes down the pipe. Nice thought anyway - helps offset the rotting squash.—Chuck

  2. Marty Hansen → in Lincoln, VT
    Jul 31, 2009

    I think the reason for the lack of mosquitoes, at least in Lincoln, is due to the fact that we have had rain almost daily which washes out the pools of standing water before the larvae have time to hatch.  It’s just a thought.


  3. Diana Hayes → in South Woodstock VT
    Jul 31, 2009

    We have a pretty big stocked pond on our property and very skinny rainbows and brookies this year.  So we KNOW that hatches are down due to the daily and nightly drenchings.  Nor is the surface of the pond being suddenly broken by natural fly assaulting trout.  But we remain hopeful and the fly rods are by the side door primed for quick action!

  4. Carolyn Haley → in East Wallingford, VT
    Aug 01, 2009

    We’ve noticed most of the phenomena and effects Dave mentioned; also, it seems that many perennials are blooming earlier than normal. The first tell-tale red leaves in the middle of the green canopy, which usually appear mid-August, showed up mid-July. Several bird species arrived early, too. We have the usual range of species but there seem to be fewer individual birds. Conversely, we are seeing species such as titmouse and red-bellied woodpecker expanding their range northward.

    There’s been a definite shortage of bats—owing, I presume, to the white-nose disease decimating their population. Early in the season, we noticed fewer bees, but now I’m seeing more of them. Fewer wasps, fewer mosquitoes, fewer black flies, fewer insects altogether.

    For the first time, we experienced a slug problem in the garden (in fact, they appear to have taken over the yard!), along with a tomato blight and themes-and-variations of mildews, rusts, funguses, and pest invasions. But the raspberry crop is astounding, for the second year in a row. Wildflowers and perennials have been awesome.

    Along with the extraordinary wetness this year, there was a cold, dry start to the growing season. Latest frosts we’ve had in a decade, requiring a second planting in the veggie garden, which in turn might have affected crop development and sensitivity to the various malaises.

    There’s been a dearth of activity in our pond, which normally houses fish, shellfish, and associated bugs, and draws kingfishers, herons, wood ducks, and things that prey on all of the above. But aside from an intense “peeper” season, we’ve neither heard nor seen the usual pond-related wildlife. The water has remained high, and summer scummy plant life bloomed very early. Not sure what to make of all that.

    We’ve also noticed many more garden and field snakes than ever before.


  5. dave mance
    Aug 04, 2009

    Thanks, all, for your comments. This is very interesting . . ..

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