Almanack Contributor Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bladderworts: Pretty, But Deadly Adirondack Natives

What child hasn’t read about carnivorous plants? Usually by the time we are in 4th or 5th grade, someone we know has discovered the Venus Fly Trap, that classic carnivore of the floral world. But one needn’t travel to the tropics, or even The South, to discover the joy of plant carnivory. Right here in the Adirondacks we have pitcher plants and sundews, two carnivores that are popular in their own right. But we also have bladderworts, smaller and less unusual (at least on the surface – they look like snapdragons), but no less deadly. These are plants worthy of our attention.

New York is home to fourteen species of bladderworts, four of which are threatened and one that is endangered. Some species float in the water, while others are “rooted” in the soil at the water’s edge (bladderworts don’t technically have roots). Most sport bright yellow flowers that rival birdsfoot trefoil for brilliance, but two come in shades of pale purple, making them a delightful find.

Bladderwort – the name is bound to make one chuckle. It sounds funny and brings some funny images to mind. “Wort” comes from the Anglo-Saxon language, and it simply means “plant.” The “bladder” part of the name does not refer to an excretory system, however. If one pulls up a bladderwort, one will see all sorts of little pouches, or bladders, clinging to the plant. These bladders are the dangerous part of the plant.

Bladderworts come in two basic varieties up here: free-floating aquatics and terrestrial. Despite the name, terrestrial species (which make up about 80% of the world’s bladderwort species) are actually not growing high and dry – they are found in saturated, water-logged soils. This is because bladderworts must have water in order to get their food.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. The bladders, which look kind of like little helmets, are more or less flat when they are set. When they are set, they are in a state of negative osmotic pressure. Across the opening to the outside world, each bladder has what is essentially a lid. Attached to the lid are the trigger hairs. When a small creature brushes by the trigger, a lever-like action takes place. Where the hair attaches to the bladder, it levers an opening in the seal around the lid. Once this seal is broken, the vacuum is released, the lid flies open, and the surrounding water (and its contents) are sucked into the bladder. When the bladder is full, the lid closes and calmness is restored…at least in the water. All of this happens in the tiniest fraction of a second.

Meanwhile, within the bladder, dire things are happening. Digestive enzymes and bacteria get to work on the prey. Prey items vary in size and species depending on the species of bladderwort involved. The free-floating bladderworts have larger bladders and can take on larger prey, sometimes capturing fish fry, mosquito larvae and even small tadpoles. More likely, however, they are eating things like water fleas and nematodes. The terrestrial species, with their smaller bladders, are consuming things like protozoans and rotifers, microscopic creatures swimming through the watery soil.

The rate of digestion depends on the size of the prey. Some food can be digested quickly, in a matter of minutes, while other items take hours, or even days, to be consumed. When the food had been completely reduced to soup, special cells extract the slurry, transporting it into the stem of the plant, once more creating a vacuum in the bladder. The trap is now reset and ready for its next victim.

While reading up on the digestive habits of these plants, I found myself grateful that they are so small. Can you imagine a bladderwort large enough to engulf a human? No body of water would be safe for swimmers! This could be the stuff of horror movies (giant bladderworts grow near nuclear reactors…swimmers and watercraft are warned to stay out of the water…)!

Science fiction aside, these are some pretty interesting, and highly sophisticated, plants. Bladderworts can be found in many of the Adirondack’s lakes, ponds, bogs, and even along streams and rivers. While they tend to prefer acidic water, some do very well in more alkaline conditions. If you are paddling along and see what look like bright yellow snapdragons sticking above the water’s surface, you have probably found a free-floating species. Reach in and lift out the leafy mass to see the bladders, but be sure to return it to its watery home when you are done.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Closer Look at Bees: Pollen and Body Parts

The more I learn about bees, the more interesting they become. This morning I was out photographing the insects and flowers in our butterfly garden, and a large portion of the insects I saw were bumblebees, which were mobbing the globe thistles. When the bumbles are this plentiful, it makes studying them a bit easier, for space is at a premium. When they find a good spot to feed and collect pollen, they stay there until the resource is exhausted. So armed with my macro lens, I started stalking the bees.

One busy little lady was well-laden with pollen, her pollen sacs bright orange bulges on her hind legs. This got me to wondering about pollen sacs. What exactly are they? Are they actually pockets in which the bees stuff pollen, or are they just sections of leg around which pollen is piled? I had to know more.

As it turns out, bumble bees have a very interesting system for storing pollen, which begins with pollen collection. Because they are extremely fuzzy animals, pollen sticks to them every time they visit flowers. It sticks to their antennae, their legs, their faces, their bodies. They become one giant pollen magnet.

One of the really neat things I learned about bumble bees (and apparently beetles and ants), is that they actually have a special structure just for cleaning their antennae. Located on their front legs is a special notch. The inside curve of this notch is lined with a fringe of hairs that work like a comb. Have you ever watched a beetle, ant or bee wash itself? It will draw its antennae through this notch, and the comb-like hairs brush off pollen and any other debris that might be there. Pretty nifty.

Meanwhile, the middle legs are also equipped with brush- (or comb-) like hairs. These are run over the body, scraping off the collected pollen. From here the pollen is transferred to the pollen presses located on the hind legs.

At this point we have to take a good look at those back legs. Just like us, the bee’s legs have a tibia, which is the lower leg (think of your calf). On bumble bees the tibia is flat, somewhat convex, shiny and surrounded by hairs, some of which are rather long and stiff. This forms what is called the pollen basket. Located at the lower end of the tibia (think of your ankle) is a comb-like structure, and on the metatarsus (think of your heel or foot) is the press. These two structures work together kind of like levers.

So, the pollen (which has been moistened with nectar to make it sticky) is transferred to the press and the bee manipulates the press and comb to press the pollen onto the bottom part of the flattened tibia. Each new batch of pollen is pressed onto the bottom of the basket, pushing the previous batches further up. When the basket is full, it will bulge with upwards of one million grains of pollen. The hairs that surround the tibia hold the pollen in place while the bee flies from place to place, either collecting more pollen, drinking nectar, or flying back home to stock the nest with this carefully gathered food, which is what her offspring will eat when they hatch.

Bee pollen is considered one of the all-time great foods. Of course, the information I found on the nutritional content of bee pollen is specifically for honey bee pollen, but bumble bee pollen is probably very similar. So, here are some statistics on honey bee pollen:

• It is a complete protein;
• It is the only known food to contain all 22 amino acids that the human body needs but cannot produce for itself;
• It contains more protein than any meat or fish;
• It takes a honey bee about an hour to collect one pellet (basketful) of pollen;
• A teaspoon of honey bee pollen contains about 1200 of these pellets.

(Honey bees, by the way, have crevices on the backs of their knees, and it is into these that the gathered pollen is stuffed.)

It is now clouding up and the bees have probably left the garden. I know, however, that the next sunny day we have, I will be out in the garden watching the bees. I want to see if I can actually witness a pollen press in action. Perhaps some of you will do the same. If you get to see a bee pressing pollen onto its pollen basket, I hope you will let me know.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Adirondack Nature: Reflections on Raindrops

Who among us hasn’t been enchanted by dewdrops on a spider’s web or raindrops clinging to the tips of fir needles? A garden after rain is filled with pools of quicksilver as droplets merge together on leaves and glisten in the sunlight. It’s magical, and it draws the eye of many a naturalist and photographer. The perfectly round shapes, clearer than the finest crystal, reflecting the world in perfect (if upside-down) miniature…what isn’t there to love?

I’ve been thinking about raindrops recently, wondering why some are flattened blobs while others maintain their spherical figures. I was also wondering why they make such wonderful lenses, even if they reflect a topsy-turvy world. These are really very elementary questions, to which we all learned the answers back in high school physics, but sometimes these lessons are forgotten in the fog of time. Perhaps now, when rainy summer days provide us with ideal laboratories for study, is the time to revisit them.

First, why are some droplets round and others flat? Water is composed of molecules that have a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other. As we all know, opposites attract. This attraction means that the water molecules within a raindrop or a dewdrop cling tightly to each other. In the absence of any outside influences (gravity or a container), the droplet wants to assume the smallest possible shape with the least amount of surface tension, and that shape is a sphere. Spheres have the smallest amount of surface area for any given volume. A sphere is a conservative shape and the easiest shape to maintain.

Now, take your droplet, and put it on a flat surface, like a leaf or a tabletop. Depending on the texture and composition of the flat surface, your droplet is likely to lose its perfectly round shape (unless it is a very tiny droplet). Gravity is working against it, flattening it out, leaving something that resembles a dome more than a sphere. If your surface is something that produces great adhesion, like a paper towel, your droplet will disappear as gravity pulls it completely into the surface.

On the other hand, if your surface of choice is broken up (say, really bumpy or hairy), and if it has water repellant (hydrophobic) material on it (like waxes), your droplet will retain its shape. Lotus leaves are classic examples of perfectly waterproof surfaces; water droplets roll off them like so many ball bearings. This is because the surface of a lotus leaf, when seen beneath a powerful microscope, has more bumps than a sheet of sandpaper. These bumps are topped with waxes. The end result is that the water droplets are able to maintain their spherical shapes and just roll along the surface.

Water drops are extremely popular with photographers because they are tiny little lenses. Almost anyone with a camera has at one time or another taken a photograph of a droplet and noticed that inside the globe of water was a tiny upside-down world. This is a property of convex lenses, which is essentially what a droplet is. Whatever is behind it appears to be captured, upside-down within its sphere – almost like a snow globe. Some photographers stage their images, to capture a perfect rose within the droplet, or the surrounding landscape as though shot with a fisheye lens. It can be very dramatic. The trick, however, is to focus on the reflection, not on the droplet itself. This is sometimes more difficult to do than you would think.

The next time it rains, or we have a good and dewy morning, go outside as the sun rises and search for the perfect droplets. A wee crystal ball perched on a milkweed leaf; a spider web sparkling with watery beads. Knowing the science behind the magic will not diminish your experience; it should make it all the more marvelous. Now, if you see a perfect ball of water, you know to look closely at the leaf on which it is perched: is it hairy or lumpy? You might just need to use a hand lens to know for sure.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Daddy-Longlegs Myths Explained

You’ve got to love Urban Legends. Some of them are just so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that people actually believe them. Others, however, are understandable because they are based on misinformation that could be true but simply isn’t. Take for example the lowly daddy-longlegs, or harvestman.

To begin with, this animal, while it is an arachinid, is not a spider. I know, it looks like a spider, and spiders are arachnids, but so are scorpions, and they are not spiders either. In other words, not all arachnids are spiders.

So, how is a harvestman different from a spider? Let’s consider some spider basics. What do we usually associate with spiders? Webs! Most spiders have some sort of silk-spinning apparatus, even if they don’t spin those classic webs that immediately spring to mind. Harvestmen, however, do not. They have no spinnerettes; they have no silk glands.

How about biting? Spider bites are often attributed to any small bite-like thing that appears on arms and legs while one’s been asleep (most spiders are more likely to get squished when you roll over and are therefore not likely to bite you). Then there are spiders like black widows, brown recluses, and tarantulas—all seen as highly dangerous biters (in fact, tarantulas don’t even belong in this category, but that’s fodder for another blog). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that harvestmen have the most venomous bites, but because their mouths are too small, they can’t bite people. (Sound the buzzer here.) This is Urban Legend #2.

Harvestmen do not have venom! No venom means no venomous bites. This myth is further laid to rest when one takes a good close look at the mouthparts. Harvestmen do not have fangs, hollow or otherwise. Instead, their mouths look more like grasping claws, which is what they are, and they are too small and weak to damage our tough hides. Spiders need venom to immobilize their prey; harvestmen do not (see below).

Now, I don’t know if this next one is an Urban Legend or not, but it sure sounds like it should be. If detached from the body, a harvestman’s leg will continue to twitch. This is actually true, and it is a defensive mechanism. Harvestmen, like almost all critters in the world, have to constantly be on the lookout for predators. To avoid becoming someone else’s happy meal, these arachnids have a few strategies up their proverbial sleeves, one of which is to detach a leg and then dash away. The twitching, abandoned appendage often distracts the predator long enough to allow for a safe exit.

Other defensive actions include the secretion of foul-smelling liquid from scent glands, playing dead, or even, in some species, gluing debris to their bodies to serve as camouflage.

Daddy-longlegs are actually rather beneficial animals to have around. For one thing, they help keep the world tidy. Most species are omnivores, consuming small insects and plant material, including fungi. Other species are scavengers and as such they clean up after other things have died or pooped. It may not be the food of choice for you or me, but we should be grateful that there are animals out there that like this stuff; otherwise, we’d be up to our eyeballs in, well, corpses and scat.

This brings up another difference between spiders and harvestmen. Spiders liquefy all their meals and slurp them up. Harvestmen, however, are capable of eating chunks of food. Remember those grasping claws they have for mouthparts? Thanks to these claws, they are able to exploit a whole realm of food that spiders, which are strictly predators (although one herbivorous species was recently discovered), can not.

Do you need further convincing that harvestmen are not spiders? Then take a look at the bodies of these two animals. Let’s back up for a moment and start with insects. How many body parts do insects have? Three: head, thorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a spider have? Two: cephalothorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a harvestman have? Two—but they look like one. This is because on the harvestman the joint between the cephalothorax (head) and the abdomen is so broad that the two body pieces look like a single, oval-shaped part.

If you want to get really technical, you can look at the structures these animals use for breathing. You and I have lungs. Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, rather complicated structures that involve alternating layers of air pockets and tissues filled with hemolymph, which is the equivalent of blood. Harvestmen, on the other hand, breathe through spiracles located near their legs, and the air is transported through trachea into the body for gas exchange. This system is much like that found on insects, like grasshoppers.

Most daddy-longlegs are nocturnal, and their drab coloration reflects this. Some, however, are brightly colored and decorated with striking patterns. These individuals are active during the day, and perhaps these colors serve to communicate their presence to prospective mates, or to warn predators away.

So, the next time you see a daddy-longlegs, resist the urge to squash it, or to call it a spider. Instead, take a good look at it. Watch what it does. Is it patrolling your garden for tasty morsels? What color is it? Is it out during the day or night? It’s kind of nice to get to know your neighbors, and knowing your garden neighbors is equally pleasing. And like any good neighbor, these arachnids help look after your property for you. Give them a silent thanks and let them live to see another day.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Second Glance: Mimicry and Speckled Alder Syndrome

Nature is full of little tricks. Just when you think you know something, it turns out that the one you are looking at is something else. It’s enough to drive a naturalist nutty, but it’s also the driving influence that will force a naturalist to hone his/her observation skills.

Back in my undergraduate days, we had a professor who described the whole look-at-only-one-characteristic-and-draw-a-conclusion scenario as Speckled Alder Syndrome, stated with one’s hand open, palm facing one’s face about an inch from one’s nose. In other words, you are only seeing one thing and ignoring everything else that will help you make a correct identification.

I admit it: I suffer from Speckled Alder Syndrome.

In all fairness, however, Mother Nature does conspire against us. And by “us” I mean all living things in general. From plants to reptiles, butterflies to parasites, the world is full of mimicry – living things that copy the looks of other living things all in an effort to deceive.

Mimicry comes in a variety of flavors: Batesian, Mullerian, Emsleyan, Wasmannina, Gilbertian, Browerian…and more. Most of us learn the basics of mimicry in high school biology, and usually by graduation we’ve forgotten all of it, except perhaps some of the examples, like monarch and viceroy butterflies.

What American child hasn’t grown up knowing about monarch butterflies? These large orange and black flappers are easy to identify and are the stuff of many an elementary school lesson on metamorphosis. Almost any child can recognize a monarch caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly at a hundred paces. Well, maybe ten paces, but you get the idea.

Enter the viceroy. This is the butterfly we all learn about in biology as the one that mimics the monarch. There are a few differences that the trained eye can pick up, such as the smaller size, the extra black line across the hind wings, and the row of white spots that dot the black border band of those hind wings.

To the untrained eye, however, they look the same. This is mimicry at its best. Up until only a few years ago (the 1990s), everyone believed that the viceroy, thought to be a tasty morsel, was mimicking the monarch. We knew that monarch caterpillars ate milkweed, and that the sap from the milkweed made them taste bad. As adults, the bright orange and black coloration served to warn predators to leave them alone or suffer an upset stomach, or maybe even death.

What tasty morsel wouldn’t want to copy this? Why, if I taste good to predators, I’d want to make them think I taste bad so they would leave me alone. What better way to do so than to copy something that tastes bad? This is known as Batesian mimicry: something harmless mimicking something harmful.

As it turns out, however, viceroys also taste bad! As larvae, they feed on trees in the willow family (willows, poplars, cottonwoods). These trees contain salicylic acid, the stuff from which aspirin is made. Birds, or other predators, that eat a viceroy get the same reaction that some people get when taking regular aspirin: it tastes bitter and can cause an upset stomach. There are no buffered viceroys out there. One taste, and the predator will never again eat something that is orange and black. Mission accomplished.

This kind of mimicry, where you have two harmful species that look similar, is called Mullerian mimicry.

The viceroy’s mimicry doesn’t end here, though. As a caterpillar, and as a pupa, it takes on the appearance of a bird dropping. That’s right. The caterpillars are green and white, while the pupae are brown and white. What bird is going to snack on the previously digested remains of some other bird?

Then you have Emsleyan mimicry, where something deadly looks like something that is slightly less harmful. How can we be sure this isn’t just another case of Batesian, where something harmless looks like something dangerous? It all comes down to learning. If I eat something deadly and thus perish, how will I ever learn not to eat that thing? On the other hand, if I eat something that only makes me sick, I am likely to avoid anything that looks like the offending food. Therefore, by mimicking something less harmful, the deadly species increases its chance of being left alone.

Some forms of mimicry apply only to plants, some apply only within a single species. It’s enough to make the mind whirl.

I am learning not to take everything at face value. Most of the time I am not in such a hurry that I cannot take the time to take a second glance. Good observation skills are worth their weight in gold. You never know – you might just discover something new, even if it is only new to you.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Adirondack Serpent: The Northern Watersnake

Monday I was walking along the shores of the Hudson River in search of a particular orchid. The sun was out, the wind was blowing, and lots of flowers were in bloom. A few frogs hopped away from the clumsy thud of my boots, and damselflies darted here and there. There was a sudden rustle in the vegetation and something slithered across my path. I watched as the tail disappeared into the greenery, only to reappear on the other side as the snake slid into the waters of the Hudson: a northern watersnake, Nerodia sipedon.

This is a serpent that, as its name suggests, is equally at home in the water and on land. A rather robust animal, it is described in the literature as being “relatively large and heavy bodied.” In other words, this is no slender slitherer like our common garter snakes, nor is it cute in its tininess, like the red-bellied, brown or green snakes.

Northern watersnakes, to the untrained eye, might make one think immediately of water moccasins, or cottonmouths, both common names for the same venomous snake found in more southerly states. But we live in the Adirondacks where the only aquatic snake we have can be startling, can give a memorable bite, but is completely non-venomous.

Most of the snakes found in the Adirondacks are small to moderate in size, but the northern watersnake can grow upwards of four and a half feet long. Color can vary, but in general these reptiles are brown, or tan, with brown or reddish-brown bands or blotches. The animal I saw had a coloration very much like a milksnake, lighter in shade than I am used to seeing on these animals, although that could have partly been thanks to the water in which it was submerged when I took its photo. The older the animal, the darker its coloration. This is attributed to the tannins of the water in which they reside, which darken their scales over time. Perhaps my snake was fairly young, despite its size.

According to the authors of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, many New York specimens have red stripes on their faces. Sadly, I wasn’t close enough to this one’s face to see any such markings.

Found in almost any body of freshwater, northern watersnakes tend to prefer habitats that have some good vegetative cover nearby, like cattails or wet meadows. This explains why it made a run for the water as I blundered along the shoreline looking for my orchid (which I never did find). The Ice Meadows are quite verdant now that high summer is in full swing; between the heat and the rain of recent weeks, the vegetation has become quite lush – perfect for hiding cunning hunters.

Because they are excellent swimmers, it is not surprising to learn that these snakes commonly catch and eat fish and frogs. I remember watching one choke down a rather large sunfish along the banks of the Passaic River down in the Great Swamp in New Jersey. It was an impressive feat, considering the size of the fish, but down it went, leaving a fish-like bulge in the snake’s throat as it slid back into the water to avoid our curious stares.

The rest of this reptile’s diet is filled with birds, small mammals, young turtles, and even insects. In other words, if the snake can catch it and get its mouth around it, anything is fair game; this includes carrion, which occasionally makes it into the diet.

When I was a youngster and just learning about animal classification (back in ’72 it was), we were told that the only animals that gave birth to live young were mammals – it was part of what set us apart from the rest of the critters. Then I learned that there are mammals that lay eggs! And later on, I learned that some snakes have live birth. The world was not as simple as I had been led to believe.

As it turns out, there are quite a few snakes that give birth to live young, and the northern watersnake is among them. While gestating, the female will often bask in the sun, warming up her internal offspring to make them develop faster. When the time comes, she gives birth to 15 to 30 babies. Better her than me!

I hadn’t given it much thought, since northern watersnakes have been a regular part of my outdoor experiences, but it seems that while once commonly found throughout New York State, this hefty reptile has disappeared from part of the St. Lawrence River Valley and from much of the Adirondacks. Southern slopes in the southeastern part of the park (Lakes Champlain and George) seem to be where they hang out these days. Warrensburg fits into this geographical range, so it’s not too surprising that I found this specimen.

Like many a child, I’m not averse to picking up the occasional snake that crosses my path, but I do limit my snake handling to small and more docile species. I’d never attempt to grab a northern watersnake. For one thing, it will put up quite a fight. While striking and biting, it will also release copious amounts of various bodily substances, like feces and musky secretions. All of this stuff smells as bad as it sounds. And even though it is a non-venomous snake, the bite can be nasty. Not only will it hurt when the animal sinks in its teeth, but the wound will bleed like a son-of-a-gun because the animal’s saliva is laced with anticoagulants – all the better to subdue its prey with, eh? In other words, this is a snake better left alone and admired from afar.

So, if you see a northern watersnake on your journeys through or around some of the Park’s wetlands, rest assured that it won’t harm you if left alone. Watch it for a while. Who knows, maybe, like the one I spotted, it will turn its head and watch you back. Interesting animals, snakes are, and well-worth the time to get to know.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History

The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.

When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say.

Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.

Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.

A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.

But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.

The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.

Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.

Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.

Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.

This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Adirondack Natives: Sweaty Days and Sweat Bees

The big news item this week is the heat. Hazy, hot and humid days envelop us in their muggy warmth, driving most of us indoors to sit by fans or luxuriate in the cool blasts from air conditioners. How fortunate we are to live where these options exist. Still, I needed fodder for today’s column, so I grabbed the camera and went stalking subject matter in the butterfly garden. I lucked out with a close encounter with a sweat bee.

Not much was moving in the garden – even the wildlife seemed to be seeking shelter from the heat. But one bright metallic green bee was busily foraging on a milkweed flower and I was able to capture her image.

Many nature photographers are drawn to metallic-colored insects: they are just so photogenic. And, as odd as it seems, there are a lot of them. Bees, flies, beetles – it seems that almost every major group of insects has at least one metallic representative.

My little find turned out to be Augochlora pura, one of the Halicids, or sweat bees. Sweat bees get their name from the fact that they are attracted to sweaty people – they crave the salt that is on our damp skin. But we should exhibit caution around them, for they also pack a powerful sting.

One theory for the existence of the metallic coloration is that it serves as a warning that these insects are dangerous, at least in the case of these bees. When the sun hits their bodies, they glitter and sparkle with greens, blues and coppers. For most insects, the metallic coloration is a result of structure. The hard exoskeleton is made of chitin, a colorless substance that gives the insect support, kind of like a corset. Cracks, fissures, scales or hairs on the chitin refract any light hitting it, bouncing it back in a spectrum of colors.

Usually found along wooded edges, A. pura is noted for its choice of nesting material. Most Halicids nest in the ground, but A. pura prefers soft, decaying wood for building her nest cells.

A typical day for A. pura goes something like this: morning arrives and it is time to forage for pollen. Pollen collecting continues until the afternoon, when the female bundles the pollen into a ball and places it in a nest cell. She lays her egg and caps the cell. During the night, she excavates another cell for tomorrow’s egg and awaits the dawn, when it is time to forage once more.

During the course of a summer, two or three generations of A. pura emerge into the world. Come fall, however, things change. Females that were lucky enough to mate crawl into wooden chambers in the base of decaying logs and there they wait for spring. The males die off. In the spring, the females lay their eggs, and the cycle begins again.

Augochlora pura is a solitary bee, and one of our important native pollinators. I’ve mentioned the plight of wild pollinators before, but it never hurts to repeat an important subject. As more and more land is converted from its natural wild state into monocultures of self-pollinating crops (corn, wheat, rice, soybeans), monocultures called lawns, or just plain pavement and buildings, our native bees find less and less food, and thus produce fewer and fewer young.

With the decline in honey bee populations, it is really in our own selfish best interest to do what we can to encourage native bee populations. Without them, the foods that we eat that are not self-pollinating (most fruits and vegetables) will no longer be available.

I encourage everyone to take the time to get to know some of our native bees, and to make the back yard a more bee-friendly place. This can be done by letting parts of our lawns “go wild,” eliminating local ordinances that require all lawns to be cut and managed to within an inch of their lives, and planting native vegetation before we plant non-natives. It doesn’t take much, but it can make a world of difference to our small flighted brethren.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Adirondack Outdoor Hazards: Poison Ivy

Lately I’ve been enjoying a close, personal relationship with a plant we all know by reputation if not from direct experience. It is the plant version of the skunk – the name alone conjures reactions that may or may not be deserved. It is reviled and feared. And yet, it fills a vital link in the ecosystems around us. Today, I give you poison ivy, Toxicodenron radicans.

Even if they’ve never seen it, children can describe poison ivy: it has three red leaves! As we all know, reputations, while usually founded on some morsel of truth, often become wildly exaggerated and the truth left behind in the dust. So, let’s start off on the right foot with a correct description of this plant.

First, its leaves are composed of three leaflets. A leaflet can look like a full-fledged leaf to the untrained eye. The key is that a leaf has a stem (petiole) that attaches directly to the twig of the tree/shrub/plant. Think of your fingers. Together they make up a hand, but you wouldn’t call each finger a hand, would you?

When these leaflets first emerge, they might have a reddish tinge to them, and in the fall they can turn red, too. But to claim that year-round they are red would be misleading. Look for green, for this is the dominant color. You also want to look for teeth (jagged edges). And bilateral symmetry. Bilateral what? Bilateral symmetry means that if you were to hold a poison ivy leaf (with its three leaflets all intact) in front of you, with the center leaflet pointing upwards, you could fold it right in half, down the middle of that middle leaflet, so that the left leaflet lies right on top of the right leaflet, and it would match up almost perfectly. The left side is a mirror image of the right side.

Poison ivy is a native plant. It likes wooded understories, but also does well in rocky, disturbed areas. This is not a plant that seems to be too choosy about where it puts down roots. Sometimes it grows as a dense ground cover. Other times it grows as a vine, using hairy rootlets to attach itself a tree or fence post. Where it becomes established, it can be difficult to eradicate.

In the spring, PI blossoms right along with other early bloomers. Its flowers are white, grow in clusters, and are probably missed by most passersby since they are neither large nor showy. As summer progresses, the flowers that were successfully fertilized become white berries, which are an important food source, especially in winter, for lots of wildlife, namely birds.

And here is where the men are separated from the boys. Or the wildlife from the humans. Y’see, most wildlife, be they birds or mammals, are immune to the effects of urushiol, the oil that is the cause of all the problems we associate with this plant.

Urushiol can be dreadful stuff if you are allergic to it, and most of us have some level of sensitivity. All parts of the plant (the leaves, stem, flowers, fruit, bark, roots) contain this oil. Sometimes just brushing against the plant is enough contact to cause distress, while other times one needs to really crush it to get a reaction. I don’t recommend the latter.

I always prided myself on not being sensitive to PI, but I also kept in mind that this could be simply because I know what the plant looks like and have done well to avoid contact. Until recently.

Some of my readers may recall that about three weeks ago I was down at the Ice Meadows and simply had to try and photograph the flowering partridge berries. They were, of course, nestled down below a robust growth of PI. Throwing caution to the wind, I lay down on the very narrow herdpath and snapped away with the camera. I never got a good shot of the flowers, but about a week later the itching began.

At first I thought it was a bug bite – I’d been gardening and the ants have been known to crawl up my pant legs and nip away. A few days later, the “bite” had turned into three or four bites, and they really were beginning to itch. Then the area was the size of a quarter. By the time it became palm-sized, I was beginning to think “um, these aren’t ant bites…I think I have poison ivy.”

Sure enough, the local medical staff confirmed that I had a healthy rash going on my leg. Calamine lotion wasn’t helping much, so I invested in an industrial strength version, and started taking Prednisone and Benedryl. Another week has passed and I think the worst is over, although random individual blisters are appearing in other locations.

Here are some PI facts:

• Urushiol is water resistant. In other words, it doesn’t just rinse away. Soap and water, these are important. Wash well as soon as you come into contact. Get that stuff off as fast as you can.

• Once you have removed the oil, it cannot spread.

• The blisters, when they form, are filled with your own body’s fluids – not more urushiol. If
they burst or ooze, the liquid is not going to spread the rash.

• If the rash seems to be spreading, there are a couple rational explanations. One, you are getting more of the oil on you from a source (like your pants, or boots, or the dog, or the furniture you sat on while wearing your contaminated clothes). Two, the newer eruptions are occurring on parts of your skin that are either less sensitive or received a smaller dose of the oil and simply took longer to react.

• The oil can linger for years. I read on one website that people got reactions from contaminated artifacts that had been in a museum for over a hundred years.

When I teach people to go out and enjoy the outdoors, one of the things that I cover right up front is “know your local hazards.” This may seem like common sense, but as a society we have become so disassociated from the outdoors that we often need these reminders. The “wild” can be dangerous, but if you know what to look for, it is no more dangerous than your basement. Hazards can be cliffs, raging waters, nests of bees. They can also be the weather, plants and animals. Learn to identify what’s in your neighborhood, and you won’t have to worry so much about unplanned encounters.

That said, wild clematis and box elder are often confused with poison ivy. These are harmless native plants that grow around much of the Adirondack Park. Knowing how to tell them apart from PI is useful. If in doubt, however, treat the unknown as unfriendly and don’t risk unnecessary contact. Better safe than sorry, eh?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Snowberry Clearwing: The Hummingbird Moth

As the flowers in our gardens burst into their summer display, the critters that crave nectar descend upon them, each intent on sipping its share. From birds to bees, they are all there, and if you aren’t careful, you can mistake one for another. Take for example, the clearwing moths, which for us are most likely the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) or the snowberry clearwing (H. diffinis).

These noisy insects look like a cross between a hummingbird and a bumblebee. Like a hummer, they hover before each flower (bumble bees land) as they uncurl their long proboscises (think tongues) to probes the flower’s nectaries for food. Like a bumble bee, these moths are furry: the snowberry clearwing has black and yellow bands, while the hummingbird clearwing tends more towards dark red and black. All three animals (bird, bee, and moth) have wings that hum and buzz while the animals are in flight. It’s enough to give a gardener pause.

I found the snowberry clearwing pictured above this spring as it supped at the tubular flowers of a native honeysuckle. Honeysuckles are one of the favored plants of both the adults and the larvae. Other plants where you might find the adults hovering include orange hawkweed, thistles, and lilacs. I often see them flitting in and out of my patches of bee balm, along with the hummingbirds.

In the spring adult clearwings emerge from the ground where they have spent the winter sleeping snugly in silken cocoons spun the previous fall beneath the leaf litter. Upon emergence, the “fresh” moths have solidly-colored wings: nearly black in appearance. Their first flight, however, with wings flapping to beat the band, causes most of the scales to fall off, especially near the center of each wing. The end result is wings that are nearly scale-less and therefore look clear.

The first flights begin, and soon the female is sending out a pheromone from a gland located near the tip of her abdomen to signal to any available male that she is ready to mate. Once the deed is accomplished, she lays her newly fertilized pale green eggs singly beneath the leaves of a host plant.

Host plants are those that are favored food items of caterpillars. In the case of the snowberry clearwing, several plants will do. Many are in the honeysuckle family, including snowberry (hence the name), but others include cherry, plum, dogbane and the viburnums.

Summer rolls along and the eggs hatch. Miniscule green caterpillars begin to eat, growing a little more each day. They go through five instars, or growth spurts. As it grows, the larva’s patterns begin to emerge: pale green color with black spots along the sides. These spots are called spiracular circles, for they form around the spiracles, or breathing holes (insects do not have lungs and noses like us for breathing – they breathe through holes in their sides). Additionally, the caterpillar sports a spike, or horn, on its rear end. When it reaches its final instar, this spike is blue-black over most of its length, with white and yellow at its base. Some larvae, however, opt for a more subtle coloration and are various shades of brown. Still, the spiked tail and spiracular circles are good clues for ID.

When the final instar is reached, and the larva has eaten its fill, it drops to the ground, crawls under some leaves and spins a silken cocoon in which it will spend the winter. If nothing squashes or eats it, come spring a new adult will emerge and the cycle will begin again.

Another of the common names for these insects is sphinx moth. This name came about from the habit the caterpillars have of rearing up (and looking sphinx-like) when threatened.

Clearwing moths are insects that almost anyone with a flower garden should encounter, for not only are they fairly common, but they are denizens of open areas, like streamsides, fields, and the ‘burbs. Therefore, it should be fairly easy to find one or more. Here’s my suggestion: the next sunny day, grab a lawn chair (or your Adirondack chair) and kick back in front of your flowers. Have a cool drink handy, and a wide-brimmed hat. Keep your eyes open – you just never know what will fly by.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Thoughts on Flies and Death

Last night at chorus practice a fellow tenor and I got to discussing flies and death. The conversation started off normally enough, with her asking me how the flies were in Newcomb. I allowed as how the blackflies were still around, but not terribly problematic, the mosquitoes were quite numerous and taking over my house, and the deerflies were holding their own. Mostly, however, I told her of how the large black “house” flies were filling up my kitchen window and buzzing around the house until all hours of the night.

From here the conversation turned to her childhood. She told me of how her father had deer hanging in the cellar at all times of the year so the family could eat. Sometimes in summer the meat would start to get rather ripe. And then the flies arrived: they would line the doors, crawl on the tables. For a small child, they could be quite terrifying. » Continue Reading.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cedar Waxwings: Silk-Tailed Birds of the Cedars

Every day for the last three weeks or so, the air has been filled with the thin, high pitched calls of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). Highly social birds, they flock together year round as they forage for food in their favorite haunts. Lately these haunts have been the yards and lawns around town, where daily I see their heads popping up from the grassy carpets, peering at me with their beady eyes while they assess whether my presence is threatening or not.

From the first time I saw a cedar waxwing, I fell in love with it. Its feathers are so sleek that they blend together to form a whole, making the bird look like something made of silk or satin. In fact, the name Bombycilla was coined in an attempt to reflect this: silk-tailed. Add to the fine-textured caramel-colored body a jaunty crest, a black mask, a yellow stripe on the tail and wings tipped with “red sealing wax”, and you have one dapper bird.

I recently found a deceased waxwing on the side of the road and had the chance to examine it in great detail. Those bits of red on the wings really do look like someone dripped sealing wax on the ends of the feathers. In truth, however, each red “thing” is merely a flattened extension of the feather’s shaft. It is quite stiff and does feel waxy.

People have speculated for many years the reason(s) for these decorations, and in the 1980s a theory was put forth that the birds use them to assess each other for potential mates. Apparently the number of “droplets” reflects the age of the bird: more droplets means greater age. It seems that the birds select mates who share the same number of droplets as they sport, thus mating with individuals that are the same age. It seems as good a theory as any.

Several years ago, I had a friend who had a parakeet. She had to be sure to provide the bird with red or orange foods to keep its color optimum, otherwise it faded to a pale yellow. Likewise, flamingoes that don’t eat enough shrimp start to loose their pink coloration. The same seems to hold true with the waxwings. Back in the 1960s birds started to show up in the northeast with orange-colored wax droplets instead of red, and orange tips on their tails instead of yellow. It turns out that this color change coincided with the introduction of non-native honeysuckles. The red wax droplets are colored by the presence of certain carotenoid pigments found in the birds’ regular food. The birds eating the foreign fruits consumed different carotneoids and ended up with differently colored feather tips.

Cedar waxwings are one of the most serious fruit-eating birds we have. Most of the year they dine on fruits: cherries, serviceberries, winterberries, dogwood berries, hawthorns, mountain ash, et al (note that all these fruits are red). These small fruits are inhaled whole and digested with such rapidity that the seeds pass right through the birds’ digestive tracts. When fruits are ripe, the flocks sweep in, take a seat on a convenient branch and start gulping them down, although sometimes they will hover mid-air and pluck the fruits. A tree or shrub can be stripped clean in a day or two, and then the flock moves on.

A classic waxwing behavior, and one every bird photographer has captured, is the passing of a fruit from bird to bird. Sometimes this is done between members of the flock, until one bird decides to eat it. Other times it is done as part of a courtship ritual, where the male presents the female with a fruit. She in turn takes it and hops away, contemplating the gift. If she is impressed, she hops back and gives the fruit back to him. This little ritual repeats until the female decides to eat the fruit (or not). Apparently fruit consumption is equivalent to accepting an engagement ring. Shortly thereafter, nest building begins.

By the time late spring and early summer roll around, however, there are few, if any fruits, left for the birds to eat. When this happens, these birds don’t starve and fade away, they have a back up plan. They change their diet to insects. And just as they eat fruit like there is no tomorrow, so, too, do they gorge on insects. This can be quite the boon when insect pests are around, for a flock can go through an insect population like wildfire through a drought-stricken forest. I’d be willing to bet that this is what all those waxwings on the lawns have been doing for the last few weeks: hunting down insects to fill their bottomless bellies. Sadly, this single-minded behavior can get them in trouble, for flocks foraging along roadsides can get run down by passing cars and trucks, like the waxwing I found yesterday.

If you find yourself walking along a forest edge, or a grassy field near a woodlot, keep your eyes and ears open for waxwings. You are bound to hear them, and when you do, it is only a matter of glancing around before you find the source of their distinctive sound.

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adirondack Wintergreens: A Plethora of Pyrolas

Now that summer is here, finding woodland wildflowers can be more of a challenge. Gone are the flashy, brightly blossomed sprites that flourished in the spring sunshine. The dark shade cast by the trees and shrubs hides the nourishing rays of our closest star. Still, if one takes the time to look, and knows where to cast one’s gaze, one can find a few shy flowers that prefer the dimmer light. I give you the pyrolas.

Pyrolas, commonly known as wintergreens, even though they are not THE wintergreen made famous in flavorings and linaments, are small inconspicuous plants that dot many of our forest floors. Overall they are unimpressive, their leaves no more than a green rosette that clings tightly to the ground. But from the center of this rosette rises a slender stalk, and from this stalk the flower(s) droop(s).

Most common in our mixed northern woods is shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica). Its flowers are a greenish white, and, like all pyrolas, hang downwards as though the plant were nodding off to sleep. If you tilt a blossom upward and take a close look (a hand lens comes in real handy about now, or a macro lens on your camera), you’ll see some of the other traits of this clan of flowers.

For example, sticking out from the center, extending well beyond the reach of the petals, is the style – part of the female productive system. The tip of the style supports the stigma, which is the part that receives the pollen. On pyrolas, the stigma is flared, or sometimes lobed, and it acts as a landing platform for the flower’s insect pollinators, most of which are flies.

Surrounding the style are the stamens, the male parts. At the tip of each stamen is the anther, which produces the pollen. Now, what’s really cool about the anthers is that they look like straws: hollow at the tip. Go ahead and grab a hand lens and take a good close look. The tips have holes! They remind me of some of the anemones one sees waving about on coral reefs. It is from these holes that the pollen is shed.

The pollen, which you will not likely see, is sticky. When the flies come in to sup at the flower, the pollen is shed upon and sticks to their furry bodies. The flies travel from flower to flower, and the pollen is transferred from their bodies to the sticky stigma. From here the pollen travels down the style to the ovary and voila! the plant is fertilized.

Pyrolas are fascinating in other ways as well. For example, they have a close relationship with the local fungi. The soil all around us is full of mycelia, the vegetative structures of many fungi. The pyrolas are what scientists call mycoheterotrophs, meaning they acquire nutrients by feeding off these mycelia. It’s a parasitic relationship. In and of itself, this isn’t all that unusual, for many forest plants have similar relationships with fungi. What makes the pyrolas stand out, however, is that they can also survive completely photosynthetically – they can make their own food. It seems that the parasitic relationship is optional for them. From what I’ve been able to determine in the literature, the exact nature of this plant’s relationship with (and without) the fungi is not well understood. There could be a good research project in this, just waiting for the right graduate student to unlock the secret.

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to see several of our local pyrolas in bloom, including the pink, or bog, pyrola (P. asarifolia), which is a threatened species in New York State. With a little scouting around our forest floors, especially damp woodlands, you, too, can add shinleaf pyrola, one-flowered pyrola (P. secunda), one-sided pyrola (Moneses uniflora), green-flowered (P. virens)* and round-leaf pyrola (P. rotundifolia) to your life list. And if the flower gods are smiling on you, you can also add the pink pyrola, a real treat to any nature nut, even if flowers are not your passion.

* this is the one pictured above

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Adirondack Weather: Cloud Gazing

Who among us hasn’t spent some time gazing at the clouds? Perhaps we have lain in a grassy field or lawn and looked for shapes in the puffy white blobs that floated lazily across the blue expanse above. Or we watched the sky catch fire at the setting (or rising) of the day. For some, maybe the only relevance of clouds is whether they will produce rain (or hail, or snow, or a tornado). Regardless of the specific nature of our relationships with clouds, we have them.

For me, I am most fascinated by the shapes and colors clouds can assume. The absolute best cloud formation I’ve seen was here in the Adirondacks. I was driving back from Ray Brook and there in the sky was a herd of banthas* – must’ve been a hundred of them. Each cloud was the same shape, and as they slowly changed, they changed in unison. It was pretty amazing.

Clouds, at least here on Earth, are made from condensed water vapor.** It doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Warm air absorbs water vapor (this is why winter air is dry), and warm air rises. As the warm, moist air rises, it cools. As it cools, the water condenses into droplets, or ice crystals. If enough of these droplets are close enough together, they form a visible mass we call a cloud.

Why are clouds white? And why are they not always white? This has to do with how light bounces on, around, off, water particles. Take your average cloud – it’s large, it’s deep, and it is highly reflective of all wavelengths of light within the visible spectrum. In other words, it reflects all light we can see, and thus it looks white (the color white is made up of all the colors). As the sunlight penetrates further into the cloud, it is scattered more and more, leaving less to be reflected. This is why the bottoms of clouds are often darker, even grey. Think rain clouds. These are very dense – lots of condensed water vapor.

We’ve all see clouds that are red, orange and pink – glorious shades that show up when the sun is low on the horizon. These colors, however, are not IN the clouds, though. These colors appear as reflections from the sun. A great explanation I found for this is that it is the same as if you shone a red flashlight onto a sheet – the sheet reflects the red light, it doesn’t turn red itself.

But some clouds look bluish, or greenish, or even yellowish. These are all structural. For example, the blueish-grey clouds are caused from light scattering within the cloud. Blues and greens are short wavelength colors and are very easily scattered by the water droplets (reds and oranges are long wavelengths, and they are reflected, see paragraph above).

If you see a green cloud, it is that color because the sunlight is being scattered by ice instead of water droplets. This can be a clue to weather prognosticators as to what kind of weather we can expect (hail, snow, tornadoes). Yellow clouds are apparently quite rare, and their color tends to come from pollutants in the atmosphere, like smoke.

Then there are iridescent clouds. These are very uncommon. Iridescent clouds usually sport pastel colors, looking much like mother-of-pearl. Sometimes, however, their colors can be quite intense. Iridescent clouds are formed when the light shines through thin clouds (often the edges of clouds) made from nearly uniform droplets. Each ray of light strikes one droplet and all the droplets participate in cumulative diffraction, the end result of which is a cloud that shimmers with all the visible colors.*** I’ve only seen this once, and that was because I was wearing polarized sunglasses at the time – dark glasses can help make these events visible. It was amazing.

Cloud gazing isn’t something that should be left to children or the idle. Everyone should take the time to watch the clouds. Not only can it be a relaxing activity (can an activity be relaxing?), but it can also be informative. Just think, our ancestors knew their clouds and had a weather sense that most of us have lost today, traded in for the ease of technology. Sometimes I think our ancestors had the better plan.

* For those who don’t get this reference, banthas are the creatures from “Star Wars” that the Sand People and Tuskan Raiders rode. They are imaginary, obviously, but even so, that’s exactly what the clouds looked like.

** Clouds can form on any moon or planet that has an atmosphere, but this doesn’t mean they are made from water vapor. Venus’s clouds are made of sulfuric acid. On Mars, they are made of ice. If you go to Jupiter and Saturn, be prepared for ammonia clouds, and if you travel to Uranus or Neptune, you’ll find the clouds are made from methane gas. Even outer space has clouds made of space debris – these are often called nebulae.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Natural History Field Work: Value of Repetition

It seems that in today’s world, most of us are focused on achieving goals, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Goals are good; goals are important. But in the world of nature study and outdoor appreciation this goal-oriented mindset can get in the way of the bigger picture. More and more I see Park visitors who are only interested in bagging peaks, and not just any peak, but the highest peak, or adding a certain bird to their life lists. Once these items are checked off their lists, they forget about it and move on. I submit for your consideration that there are times when we should slow down while reaching some of these goals, and stop to smell the roses along the way.

Although I work in the Adirondack Park, admittedly the largest park in the continental US, the bit of the Park that is my work place is fairly small. We have three short trails, a total of about 3.5 miles. After ten years of walking these trails, one might think that they would get boring. How much more can there be to see? In truth, if I take the time to really look, each time I walk the trails I am liable to see something new. Last week, for example, I “discovered” a native bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) I’d never seen before. » Continue Reading.

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