Earth Almanac

A Year of Witnessing the Wild, from the Call of the Loon to the Journey of the Gray Whale


By Ted Williams

Foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg

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Noted nature writer Ted Williams invites readers along on a year-long immersion in the wild and fleeting moments of the natural world, from winter candy and spring quackers to summer’s scarlet farewell and autumn reveilles. This beautifully crafted collection of short, seasonal essays combines in-depth information with evocative descriptions of nature’s marvels and mysteries. Williams explains the weather conditions that bring out the brightest reds in autumn leaves, how hungry wolf spiders catch their prey, and why American goldfinches wait until late July or August to build their nests. In the tradition of Thoreau, Carson, and Leopold, Ted Williams’s writing stands as a testament to the delicate balance of nature’s resilience and fragility, and inspires readers to experience the natural world for themselves and to become advocates for protecting and preserving the amazing diversity and activity found there.



For Drew, Sam, Mae, Grif, and Macy.

May they live in a better world
and make it a better world.









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The particularity of nature knows no end, and it is the admiration of all of us who tend to see the natural world clothed in generalities. I write about nature often, and yet it always feels like a summing-up to me — never close enough to the hair and skin, to the bark and soil. I reserve a special envy for the naturalists and writers who dwell among the particulars, who come back from the field scratched and bloodied with precise knowledge of how things are out there. Thoreau is the great model here. It is vastly easier to grasp his literary achievement than it is to judge the accuracy and the particularity of his observations of the natural world. Most of us know what a metaphor looks like, after all, but not, as he did, the right kind of day for finding arrowheads.

This book, Earth Almanac, exemplifies that kind of particularity. In the past five decades, Ted Williams has made a distinguished name for himself as an environmental reporter, someone who can be counted on to take his readers deep into the struggle to preserve a vestige of this planet's natural diversity and integrity. To some writers, environmental reporting is just another beat — a place where organizations, institutions, personalities, politics, and money collide, much as they do in almost any realm of human activity. What underlies Ted's reporting, what gives it its pressing value to us, is his profound engagement with the natural world.

Earth Almanac is a book of pure perception, a work in which the observer's presence has been distilled into nothingness, leaving only the world — the moment — that he has seen. This book is a collection of those moments, grouped by seasons. The movement of time is the current flowing through these brief essays of witnessing. And yet the clarity of Ted's focus — his ability to capture, say, the dance of craneflies during a winter warm spell — stops time in its tracks again and again. What emerges is a vision of how complex time really is in the natural world, how it pools and eddies and spills away from day into day, season into season.

You may come away from Earth Almanac feeling that somehow Ted Williams is both ubiquitous and omniscient. What he is, really, is intellectually omnivorous. His range is almost as broad as the range of the snapping turtle — "from the hills of Colorado to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and from Nova Scotia south to Ecuador." He is as happy taking us into the intimacies of insect life — the mating strategy of the male dragonfly, for instance — as he is explaining the inexplicable Gila monster. And though the native country of this book is the woods of the northeastern United States — or perhaps it just seems that way because that's where I live — Ted Williams is a native wherever nature is, and that, of course, is nearly everywhere.

The cardinal virtue of most good naturalists is patience. But most naturalists are far more patient with nature than they are with people. One of the most appealing traits of Earth Almanac is its unhurried practicality. There is poetry here — a poetry of observation and language. But in each of these brief essays, Ted also makes room for us to stand beside him. He's eager to make sure we know where to look, and he gives us projects to make sure we find what he knows we'll find. His version of nature is one to be shared, to be examined together. "Pick apart some cattail seed heads," he says, and I can feel myself getting out of my chair and walking across the hillside to a spring-fed pond where cattails grow.

Verlyn Klinkenborg


"Earth Almanac" — originally titled "Earth Calendar" — is a seasonal natural history column that I have had the great pleasure of writing for Audubon magazine, where it was conceived and assigned to me by then editor Roger Cohn. For an investigative environmental reporter who mucks around in political dirt during most every working day there can be no tonic more refreshing than climbing out of the trenches and, for one fleeting week, celebrating the beauty and magic of nature. Writing about experiences afield is a way of reliving them. I get to do it all twice.

I am convinced that these regular retreats into what is pure and clean and right with the world have made me a better environmental reporter because they have reminded me of what's at stake and what I'm fighting for. They also have reminded me that the crusade for healthy, native ecosystems is far from hopeless and that good news abounds. As you read this book, pay careful attention to the many species that have recovered from desperate trouble or that continue to do well or at least hold their own in a world in which the general assumption is that everything has gone to hell. Even now, as I reread the manuscript, I find the good news remarkable and uplifting.

These victories are more than isolated events. They result from new ways of thinking and new ways of responding to wildlife emergencies. Together, they prove that humans can undo the damage they've done and restore the planet. What's more, they indicate that humans can yet prove themselves to be a successful species by living in harmony with their own habitat and with other life-forms. Maybe if we can save gray whales and striped bass, we can save ourselves. I like to think that "Earth Almanac" has helped bring a balance to all my writing, and I hope that it has provided and will continue to provide sustenance to a campaign I've been part of since 1970 and that I now believe will be won.

Like all magazine writers, I am frequently obliged to undertake the painful task of copy cutting, especially when trying to fit my words to the two-page, lavishly illustrated "Earth Almanac" spread. In all cases where deletions were dictated by space limitations, I have restored the original text. Therefore, the essays in this volume contain considerable material that is previously unpublished.

I have done my best to be scientific and precise but at the same time tried to avoid clinical dissection, dryness, and, above all, scientific jargon. Having worked with and for biologists, I understand the risk of anthropomorphizing wildlife, and I have avoided it where possible. But sometimes it is not possible, a fact biologists tend to forget.

Humans and wildlife (particularly our fellow mammals) are not so dissimilar as we like to suppose; we share many characteristics — the urge to play, for example. Biologists have proclaimed that "playfulness" in wild canids, ungulates, bears, cats, mustelids, and rodents is merely practice for serious adult activity, such as battles over territory and social hierarchy. This may be true, but from my observations in the wild, I have no doubt that sometimes playfulness is just playfulness. That is, wild animals — like humans — play to have fun.

Consider the essay "Winter Games" in which I report the following: "An otter will pluck a pebble from the bottom of a river or lake, surface with it, drop it, swim under it, catch it on its forehead, flip, and turn back to the surface with the pebble still in place, then start the game anew." Now what useful activity could otters possibly be "practicing" with this game? Swimming agility? I doubt it. They need this exercise about as much as professional baseball players need T-ball sets. Otters, like lots of other creatures, including us, simply enjoy sport. To deny this fact is not only unscientific, it diminishes wildlife and the wonder of nature.

I have strenuously avoided anything more than quick references to the human-caused threats faced by the species I write about. From the outset I was convinced that this column wasn't the place for "calls to action." A straight diet of exposés and activism is a prescription for burnout. I wanted the "Earth Almanac" column to be a refuge, not just for myself, but for my readers. I have always seen these essays as a chance to take a breather, chill out, count inventory, and, especially, enjoy.


The "dead of winter" is an oxymoron. Never is winter "dead"; it only looks that way to those who don't get out into it. Snow is not sterile; it sustains complicated ecosystems from algae that live on its surface, to algae-grazing springtails that burrow up from forest duff by day, to ruffed grouse that roost in it, to chubby-faced meadow voles that scamper through it.

Each time you venture into winter you'll discover something new and improve your looking skills. But if you go out for the express purpose of "viewing" wildlife, you're apt to be disappointed. Wildlife doesn't behave this way. At any season, but especially now, it has a way of presenting itself only when you least expect it and rarely in great quantity.

So keep your expectations modest. A realistic goal is one notable sighting per expedition — perhaps not a living thing, but a sign of one: wing marks in the snow and a drop of blood or a feather pile where a raptor has nailed a small mammal or bird; foot and belly tracks of frolicking otters; moose scat where no one thought moose should be, now that they're invading suburbia; regurgitated, bone-filled pellets around a raptor roosting tree; sawdustlike dung and quill bits at the entrance of a porcupine den; deer hair on barbed wire; fox scat perched on stones; the hooting (more like bassoon tooting) of nesting great horned owls, incubating eggs even when temperatures drop below zero and snow piles up on their backs and heads. . . . Get a track guide so you can identify wildlife from their prints.

While many birds have flown south, don't forget that you are south of many birds. Look for redpolls, snow buntings, pine and evening grosbeaks, white-winged crossbills, ravens, red-breasted nuthatches, boreal chickadees, snowy owls, and great gray owls. The harsher the winter, the more likely you are to see them. And while there are fewer birds around now, residents and migrants from the north need more calories and are more likely to come to sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, suet, and cracked corn.

In the Northeast bluebirds and robins are changing their behavior, frequently staying all year. You can keep them around your yard (and give them a head start in the coming nesting season) by putting out mealworms (sold by pet-­supply outfits in cloth bags that keep well in refrigerators; don't buy fewer than 5,000 at a time). In regions where there's ice for extended periods, open water will attract birds as well as, if not better than, food. Drippers (far more enticing to birds than standing water) are available for birdbaths. If you have a garden pool, keep it clear of ice with a stock-tank heater. This will have the added benefit of protecting fish, as well as hibernating frogs and turtles, from oxygen depletion.

If you dress incorrectly, winter quickly ceases to be fun. Think first about your feet. Even on the coldest days when you walk or stand on ice, your feet will never be uncomfortable if you wear felt-lined boots. But felt is not great for hiking over open ground; then you'll want to wear heavy wool socks and boots that aren't laced too tight. Think second about your hands. I've found that puffy Gortex gloves, more or less waterproof, work best.

In my humble opinion the only good thing about snowmobiles is the suits that were designed for those who ride around on them. But if you are walking a lot, snowmobile suits will make you sweat even in subzero temperatures. So I use the two-piece variety, wearing only the top except in extreme cold or when I'm not moving much. On days I wear the pants, I'll remove them and stuff them into a light backpack if I start to overheat. Your head releases a great deal of heat, so a wool watch cap that pulls down over your ears and is easily stuffed into a pocket is a must.

Rousting friends and family from warm living rooms for "nature walks" will work maybe once. After that there are all sorts of good excuses to get them next to nature in winter — cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, hiking, an impromptu game of hockey or broomball, skating, ice fishing. . . .

This last pursuit (not with tip-ups but with short, hand-made rods) has provided me with most of my truly memorable winter wildlife sightings. Once an immature bald eagle sculling low through mist when bald eagles were almost nonexistent in southern New Hampshire. An enormous fisher — by far the biggest I have ever seen or heard of — who materialized out of a frozen swamp and, as I restrained my exuberant Brittany pup, swaggered past me, not 30 feet away. I nearly expected him to look up and tell me to get the hell out of his way. A great blue heron who had decided to winter in Yankeeland before this became de rigueur for the species. Often the first red-winged blackbird of the year. Geese and ducks muttering from all compass points, only a few feet away, but unseen in a snow squall as my niece, brother-in-law, and I stood on a long, thin peninsula of ice. Musk turtles barely moving over the surface of the ice and hundreds of feet from open water, dropped there (at least according to my theory) by herring gulls seeking to crack them open as if they were seashells. All sorts of wonderful and beautiful creatures below the ice, viewed through ­manhole-cover-size holes chopped with a steel chisel: pickerel lying in ambush, crawfish feeding on a dead bass, yellow perch hovering around my handmade "jigger" and powered only with fanning pectoral fins, a painted turtle walking across the mossy bottom, bright dace and shiners, tiny dancing invertebrates.

Once, when I lay on the ice transfixed by such visions, a tip-up fisherman a quarter mile up the lake yelled at me. He was wondering if I was dead.

Bright Strangler

After the last leaves fade or fall, hardwoods across America brighten with bands of scarlet bittersweet berries strung like Christmas lights around their trunks and branches. But that dazzling display rarely brings joy to those who value native ecosystems: The species of bittersweet you're most likely to encounter is an invader from Asia brought to North America as an ornamental in the mid-nineteenth century. Today no habitat is safe from its deadly clutches.

But in the eastern half of our country, save the extreme south, we also have American bittersweet, a much reduced native. If the berries occur just on the tips of the twigs, you've found the native variety. If they grow along the twigs in clusters, that's the alien. Make sure not to spread these berries around.

Witches' Butter

Almost anywhere in North America and eastern Europe at this time of year you are likely to encounter a yellow gelatinous substance with the consistency of marmalade. It can even "walk," leaving a slime trail on dry leaves. It is witches' butter. If you find it in someone else's woods, you have nothing to worry about. But if you find it on your property, a witch has hexed you; and to rid yourself of the curse you must pierce and drain her vile leavings with a sharp stick.

Or so proclaim ancient texts. This common jelly fungus, with the even more endearing alternate names of "dog-vomit slime" and "yellow brain fungus," usually appears on dead wood. But it's a parasite, appropriating nutrients from other fungi. Despite its appearance, witches' butter makes a superb base for soups. It has no taste of its own, however, so try to resist the temptation to eat it plain.

Gem of the Winter Woods

America pays little attention to ferns, particularly in winter, when most are brown and withered. But early European settlers had a passion for them, especially Christmas ferns, which remain green all year and which got their name because they were favored for yuletide decorations. None of our evergreen ferns is larger, and none has such deep-green, highly polished fronds.

Christmas ferns abound in the eastern half of our nation, and it's okay to pick or transplant a few. They're an excellent addition to gardens because deer won't eat them. During a thaw, when the snowpack slumps, look for the leathery, lance-shaped fronds lying flat on the ground. As poet-botanist W. N. Clute put it:

No shivering frond that shuns the blast
      Sways on its slender chaffy stem;

Full veined and lusty green it stands,
      Of all the wintry woods the gem.

Shore-Hugging Whales

Heart-shaped plumes of mist blooming from an early-­winter seascape indicate the passage of gray whales plowing south from the Bering and Chukchi Seas to Baja California. Stand on a point or headland anywhere along the Pacific coast and you may spot this primitive, shore-hugging cetacean, one of only three marine mammals ever taken off the federal endangered species list. In this migration, the longest of any mammal on Earth, there will be three to five 10-foot-high plumes every 30 to 50 seconds, then an extended dive.

Frosty Flowers

Long gone hite, daisylike blossoms of frostweed that provided a feast for butterflies and bees in shade-­dappled woodlands and stream-sides across the southeast and south-central United States. But now, with temperatures dipping below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, this tall, hardy perennial blooms again and in the most astonishing and spectacular fashion. When its sap freezes and expands, the stems burst, exuding the intricate and delicate ice formations that give the plant its name as well as the many alternates, including white crownbeard, ice flower, frost beard, frost ribbons, rabbit ice, and ice fingers. It's also known as Indian tobacco because many indigenous tribes smoked its leaves.

Will's Winter Nap

You wouldn't have gotten very far if, on December 28, 1946, you had suggested to Edmund Jaeger that it was time to search for hibernating birds. Like other ornithologists of the period, he'd probably have smiled indulgently and explained that while a few birds — such as red-tailed hawks, white-throated swifts, and hummingbirds — become briefly torpid in cold weather or when food is scarce, none is able to slow its metabolism to the point of true hibernation.

But the next day, as he and two students hiked a narrow canyon in the Chuckwalla Mountains of southern California, he had an epiphany. There, in a rock crevice, perfectly matching the coarse, gray granite and with its beak toward the desert sky, was what looked to be a dead common poorwill — a diminutive cousin of the whip-poor-will and the nighthawk that haunts dry, brushy areas of the West. Jaeger picked it up, felt its cold feet and eyelids, then placed it back on the crevice — at which point it opened and closed one eye.

For three winters the bird returned to that spot, hibernating through early March. Its heartbeat was barely detectable; its temperature, recorded by Jaeger and other researchers every two weeks, averaged 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit — 42 degrees below normal.

The news stunned the scientific world but not the Hopis. Long ago they had named the poorwill holchko — "the sleeping one."

Decking the Desert

Not all of the arid land from western Arizona to Texas and northern Mexico qualifies as "desert," but throughout much of it you will encounter the desert Christmas cactus, a spindly, spiny shrub that grows to about three feet. During most of the year, even in spring when it blooms in yellow-green flowers, it is a thoroughly unimpressive plant. But now its berries shine as scarlet as the tree ornaments for which the plant was named. Here, on this bleak landscape in this drab season, the desert Christmas cactus gladdens the spirit of the lonely wayfarer.


In the "dead" of winter, Pacific Northwest rivers come alive. From Monterey Bay in California to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, candlefish, a species of smelt, sweep in from the rich Pacific, staging in vast, shimmering shoals at river mouths before they start their short spawning run to low-elevation tributaries. Now all manner of life-forms converge to swill this protein in spectacular orgies — harbor seals, sea lions, cormorants, mergansers, loons, grebes, bears, eagles, beluga whales, and humans. So rich in oil are the fish that settlers used to insert strips of bark in the dried body cavities and burn them as candles. Native Americans would fill canoes with candlefish, let them ferment for two weeks, then add water, heat it with hot stones, and skim off the clear oil, prized for seasoning and preserving.

Fierce, Playful Predator

Mink watching is a sport you can pursue year-round, but there is no better time than winter, when so many other mammals are dormant or hibernating. From the Canadian tree line south across the entire United States, save the driest portions of our Southwest, these efficient predators are on the move. They fear nothing, including you. A mink may chase a muskrat into its burrow, devour it along with its young, then take over the quarters. Or, perfectly aware of your presence, it may run across your feet in pursuit of newly emerged turtles, frogs, and crayfish.

Confront a mink up close, however, and you may find yourself wearing vile-smelling musk similar to eau de skunk. In fact, the name "mink" derives from the Swedish menk, meaning "that stinking animal from Finland."

Keep watching and you'll see another side to the mink's personality — playfulness. Like its larger cousin, the otter, it will slide down rocks and slippery banks, or if there's still snow on the ground, it will dive and tunnel.

Treasure from the Winter Woods

Among the treasures to be collected from the winter woods are pine cones — the reproductive structures of an ancient genus that preceded flowering plants by 50 million years and whose Devonian Age contemporaries are now coal. The cones you'll want to pick up are the larger, seed-bearing females.

Hard pines — such as red, lodgepole, shortleaf, longleaf, slash, ponderosa, pitch, and loblolly — generally produce woody, thick-scaled cones armored with prickers. Soft pines — such as eastern white, western white, sugar pine, whitebark, limber, foxtail, bristlecone, and pinyon — ­produce softer, smoother, more elongated cones. Even when dry and seedless, the female cones of sugar pines can measure nearly two feet and weigh a pound.


On Sale
Sep 29, 2020
Page Count
256 pages

Ted Williams

Ted Williams

About the Author

Ted Williams writes full-time on fish and wildlife issues in a monthly “Recovery” column for The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science and in various other publications. A longtime contributor to Audubon magazine, Williams was recognized by the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) as the nation’s best outdoor columnist and has received numerous other national writing and conservation awards. He serves as national chair of the Native Fish Coalition and lives in Grafton, Massachusetts.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of The Last Fine Time, Making Hay, and The Rural Life. His articles have appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Audubon, Smithsonian, and The New Republic. He teaches creative writing at Harvard University.

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