News from Sheep Hill

Plant more than flowers to attract butterflies -

A butterfly garden is a great way to increase biodiversity in your yard. Good nectar plants include Aster, Bee Balm, Coreopsis, Goldenrod, Purple Coneflower, Sunflower, Trumpet Honeysuckle.  In addition to planting native nectar-rich flowers, consider planting caterpillar host plants too. Monarch butterflies will lay eggs only on Milkweed, although the blossoms attract many species.  Other butterflies also require specific types of trees or plants for their eggs and larve. Photo:Black Swallowtail on Purple Consflower

Butterfly Caterpillar Host Plants







Come see what’s outside this window for yourself!

The new Dietze Interpretive Center is open and has been visited by residents and visitors alike this summer.  Our summer naturalist/interpreter Liz Wyman has been on hand each Saturday this summer for tours and casual exploration and discovery for any one who stops in to Sheep Hill.  We hope you too will come by to see what we’ve been up to!


WRLF welcomes Liz and Alix to Sheep Hill this summer!

The Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation is pleased to introduce our summer interpreter Liz Wyman. Liz has completed graduate work at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment & Natural Resources. Her teaching and research focus on the natural and cultural history of New England. Stop by Sheep Hill Tuesday-Saturday to meet Liz and explore the pond, meadow, brook, and the new Dietze Interpretive Center!

Liz will be offering Drop-In Nature Discovery programs for all ages every Saturday from 10am-12pm as well as a series of hikes to WRLF properties. Join her this Saturday, July 13th for a guided nature walk on our Berlin Road trails (meet at Sheep Hill at 1pm to carpool). For more information, check out our Facebook page or e-mail

Liz with Hopper, a male bull frog.

Alix grew up in North Carolina but enjoys the milder summers of the Berkshires. She studies history and biology at Williams College, where she will soon begin her senior year. She recently returned from a semester in Istanbul and another at the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program. Alix loves exploring the outdoors outdoors, identifying wild plants, and doing anything active. When she’s not at Sheep Hill, you might find her hiking, contra dancing, or riding her bike up a mountain.

Alix with one of Ophelia’s piglets at Cricket Creek Farm

At its 27th Annual Meeting on Saturday May 18 the Williamstown Rural Lands members in attendance elected three new Board members.

Wendy Skavlem grew up in rural Wisconsin where she was surrounded by beautiful farm land and the undulating hills, valleys, and watersheds (known as the Kettle Moraine area) created by receding glaciers.  Her interest in preserving beautiful areas such as this has manifested itself in both her career and personal life.  Wendy has a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins University in Environmental Policy and Science and for the past 20+ years, she has been a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working on Superfund and Emergency Response policy issues.   She has served on the board of the Hoosic River Watershed Association and has led river clean-ups.  She enjoys nordic skiing, hiking, gardening and simply being outside.

 John “Jock” Brooks was educated at Princeton and did graduate work at Yale and Columbia. After working 5 years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. he moved to the Clark Art Institute in 1968, where he was its Associate Director until he retired in 2001. During that time he initiated innovative educational programs, national docent seminars, and a wide mix of community programs including films, concerts, and lectures. He also ran European art travel programs (22 trips!) for Clark members and other organizations, and authored the first Clark guidebook. He is active in the community as a volunteer and currently teaches for OLLI.

Peter Thomsen is a 1979 graduate of Williams College. He moved to Williamstown in 2011 with his wife Laurie Thomsen.  They have two grown children, Brian who is a recent college graduate and is working in Los Angeles as an engineer, and Julie who is a senior at Bates College and hoping to pursue a career in public health.  Peter is director of Camp Deerwood, a family run boy’s camp in Holderness, NH and also works as a database and web consultant to small businesses and special events.   Peter and his family have enjoyed the outdoors and open spaces through travel, camping and hiking.

 After the business meeting, attendees had a  first glimpse of the Dietze Interpretive Center space.  A seasonal Interpreter will begin work next month to expand the programmatic offerings of the WRLF .




For Earth Day 2013, here is  a wonderful quote from Wendell Berry

“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.”




SPRING!  It’s not only the warmer days that say Spring has returned to the northeast. Once the days lengthen and turn warmer, life seems to erupt!

This morning there are wood frog eggs in the Sheep Hill pond, a good 3 weeks later than they appeared during last year’s record-breaking warm March.  The male frogs vocalize while floating on the water’s surface, and once they find a suitable mate, grip a female closely. Soon the masses of small dark eggs appear.


wood frogs mating

There are dozens of frogs floating on the pond and “quacking” like so many small ducks.  In a few days they will have completed this year’s mating cycle and return to the woodlands.

Also this morning, the Eastern Phoebes have returned to Sheep Hill as well, perfect timing to coincide with renewed insect activity. For these early returning insect eaters, a cold snap is a great hardship.



A Red-winged blackbird in the snow is never-the-less a sign of spring, and mud season

In celebration of mud season

Spring officially begins with the solstice on March 20th, however, Meteorological Spring begins on March 1, when a notable warming trend marks a clear shift in the weather. Meteorological seasons are 3-month periods defined by temperature and are based on the Roman calendar and a reckoning system in use since 1780, both which identified March 1 as the first day of the year.

In New England, we seem to have added a season that may not be officially recognized but is well known to anyone living here – Mud Season.  The timing and length of mud season can’t be predicted, but it coincides with the disappearance of the snowpack, the first pussy willow catkins, sap season, and the return of the earliest spring birds, like the Red-winged Blackbird.

Mud season is a messy inconvenience during a colorless time of year when most of us have had it with winter and feel spring will never arrive.  Shoes, boots, and pets’ paws are perpetually muddy and more than one vehicle has had to be freed from one of Williamstown’s gravel roads, which may be almost impossible to navigate.  The frost goes out of the roads from the surface down, and the melt water can’t be absorbed by the frozen layer below, creating a soupy series of ruts and potholes.  In the time before automobiles, people stayed home during mud season, not only because it was so difficult for horses to pull wagons over the soft road surfaces, but also to keep the roads from deteriorating.

Mud season, as a season of transition, offers great opportunities for searching out the nature and traditions of early spring. A most exciting natural phenomenon takes place in March, on the first rainy night of the spring with temperatures of 45 degrees or more.  When the humidity and temperature conditions are just right, salamanders and wood frogs emerge and begin their migration to shallow pools of melt and rain water, known as vernal pools, to breed. If you know of a vernal pool, it’s worth the damp trip with a flashlight to observe this annual migration, and you might see large Spotted Salamanders, one of the most striking inhabitants.

If you aren’t up to nocturnal nature watching, celebrate the season by visiting a local maple syrup producer. Many sugar houses in the area offer weekend breakfasts and tours of their boiling operations.  Like mud season, sap season winds down once the average temperature begins to climb.  Other rites of mud season include gathering a few pussy willows (make sure you ask before helping yourself), anticipating the first snowdrops and crocuses, and watching the beautiful deep red buds of the swamp (red) maples in wetlands swell.

The best things about this in-between season is the sense of optimism;  lengthening days, and seeing the plants and animals beginning to wake up, return to the north, or come out of winter hiding, are all hopeful signs of the color and warmth of spring.   So put on your boots and enjoy the mud!

Spotted salamander, commonly found in vernal pools




Animal Tracks

On Saturday during the WRLF’s annual winter open house at Sheep Hill, a short hike in search of animal tracks and signs turned up evidence of Raccoon, White-tailed Deer, Red Squirrel, Mink, Eastern Cottontail, Domestic Dog, and quite a few birds. Many of these animals are not often seen because they are active at dusk and dawn or overnight, but they leave clues for us to follow and interpret. Hunting for these clues is a great activity for getting outside in the winter since snow is a wonderful canvas for recording the tracks and signs of these animals we don’t often see.

Animal tracks can tell you which animals are active and what those animals are doing. A good place to hone your identification skills is right in your own backyard or neighborhood. Go to where you’ve seen squirrels, domestic pets, or other animals moving about and look at their tracks. Learn what they look like and follow them if you can to see what stories they may tell. Just this morning at Sheep Hill deer and raccoon tracks led me to the bird feeder, where a frozen pumpkin leftover from fall events had been dug out of the snow and partially eaten.  Foods such as bird seed and the pumpkin provide some much needed energy at the time of year when food resources are at their minimum.

Although it’s difficult to see track details in deeper snow, identifying tracks is fairly easy once you learn a few of the basics.  Tracks are divided into the different ways that animals and birds move; bounders, hoppers, walkers and trotters are some of the descriptions used. Think about the way a fox trots across a field, or how a rabbit hops through your back yard.  Even when an individual track itself is not distinct, the pattern of the tracks can give clues to the animal that made them. The shape of tracks is another way to determine their maker. As an example, canine tracks tend to be oval, while feline tracks are rounder and don’t show the marks of toenails.

Finding tracks depends on knowing where animals are active.  Good cover, open water, areas where they can find food and shelter, and travel routes are all optimal places for observing animal activities. Once you find a place where there are a good number of tracks, find a set, identify them, and try to follow them.  An open field can be a good starting place.  Once a group of us were following fox tracks across Sheep Hill in Williamstown.   At one point the fox had sat; it must have stayed there for some time as the snow was melted where its haunches and part of its tail had been, leaving a very distinct impression. We imagined the fox surveying the hillside, listening for the movement of a vole or mouse under the snow cover.  Even if there is no snow, mud can also provide a good track record, and there are many signs to look for; scat (animal droppings), half-eaten nuts or fruit, cone remnants, and tunnels under the grass are all indications of our animal neighbors

Tracks of a Vole heading for the protection of a snow hole. Voles are important prey for fox, coyote, owls and haw


Winter Birds

If you have a bird feeder, you may be wondering, as I do, why some days the feeder is mobbed with a great variety of species, and on others the feeder stays full.  It often, but not always, coincides with weather events, like today, when falling snow seems to guarantee a full house of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, and the occasional Downy Woodpecker and Redbreasted Nuthatch.  A Sharp-shinned Hawk cruising by can cause the birds to disappear for a while.  I’ve found piles of feathers under the feeder attesting to the danger these swift predators pose.

During the north Berkshire Christmas Bird Count on December 15, a beautiful sunny and warmish day, although we saw 50 species, birds in great numbers were hard to come by. Pairs or very small flocks were common and not the more numerous groups we usually see in winter.  With the mild weeks leading up to December and plenty of natural food available birds were more dispersed, and not concentrated in sheltered or food-rich areas.

This year, look for species that usually stay farther north, in our region where food is more available; Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak and even the almost-disappeared Evening Grosbeaks are showing up at most feeders the past few weeks. If you don’t feed the birds, you are welcome at Sheep Hill at any time to check out our feathered visitors.

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