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, April 21, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bee Watching

Anyone who has read my nature blog lately has probably noticed my current preoccupation with bees. This is likely due to several things, such as the fact that the most visible and approachable wildlife around my yard right now is the bees busily visiting my giant pussy willow shrub, which is blooming with great profusion thanks to the recent heatwave. A variety of insects are obsessed with this shrub, for it is one of the earliest flowering plants up here, and these newly awakened insects are in need of sustenance. QED. But my interest is in the bees, mostly, because native bees are generally given short shrift by people. If it isn’t a honey bee, then it’s not worth knowing. In some circles, this is considered “job security” for people the likes of me because it provides grease for the educational wheel. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look today at some of our native bees.

We will start with basics. Honey bees are not native. Honey bees were brought to this country over three hundred years ago as indentured servants: they made honey and we wanted it. Additionally, colonies of honey bees were established in (and later moved among) orchards and other crops, where their penchant for pollinating was exploited by the agriculture industry. This is all very well and good, but we also need to recognize that North America is home to several hundred species of native bees, most of which are solitary rather than colonial, and most of which are important pollinators in their own right, even if they are overlooked by the bulk of humanity.

The majority of native bees in New York State are solitary ground-nesters. In fact, these fuzzy little bundles of energy make up about 60% of all NY bees. That’s an impressive amount. I first became aware of these little bees just about a year ago when I stumbled upon a group nesting site in the dusty, sandy margin of the road while I was picking up trash. It was fascinating to watch as the bees flew in and out of their pencil-sized holes in the ground. Curious, I had to know more.

My investigations into the identity of those ground bees suggest two possibilities: mining bees (Adrena) or digger bees (Anthophora). The individual in the photo above (a visitor to my willow) has been identified as Adrena frigida. Nationally, there are something like 1200 species of Adrena; New York is home to 112 of these, which account for about 23% of all NY bee species.

Adrena are non-aggressive little bees, measuring a little over a centimeter in length, and are one of the first bees to emerge in the spring, foraging for pollen among early flowering plants like willows. As soon as there is pollen to be had, these bees head for the blooming larders, the females collecting pollen on the fuzzy hairs that cover their bodies. Later, they’ll remove the pollen and store this protein-rich food in the brood cells they build, one at a time, underground. Here they lay their eggs, one per cell, each cell stocked with enough food to see the larva through to adulthood. Unless…

Another early springtime bee I’ve seen around my shrub is a cleptoparasite from the genus Nomada. These little bees are hairless, making them look more like wasps than bees. While they may be gathering some pollen and nectar for food, they are not collecting it for their offspring. Nope, these little bees seek out the burrows of our friend Adrena and lay their eggs in Adrena’s nests, kind of like a cowbird laying her eggs in a robin’s nest. When the Nomada larvae hatch, they eat all the stored food, either starving the Adrena larvae or outright killing them. What emerges later in the season are not happy little Adrena bees, but new Nomada bees, and the cycle begins again.

It’s a bee eat bee world out there.

Although Adrena are solitary bees, they often nests in communal aggregations, like the one I saw last spring along the roadside. This is because good nesting ground is at a premium. Go outside and take a look around. How much bare ground do you see? Odds are that unless you live on a construction site it isn’t much. Most ground is covered with pavement, grassy lawns, fields or forest, depending on where you live. Therefore, when bare patches are found, these bees move in. Sandy slopes are likely to be peppered with many bee nests (upwards of 100 nests per square meter), each with a pencil-sized opening. If you sit and watch for a while, you’ll see the busy little females zipping in and out of the holes, bringing in pollen to fill the larder, laying eggs, or putting the final touches on a brood cell.

Why should the average New Yorker care about Adrena? Based on this article, you might think that all they do is pollinate willows. Well, willows only bloom in the spring; therefore, these bees visit other flowers as spring turns into summer and summer progresses towards fall. If you like apples, which are a major crop in New York State, then you must tip your hat to Adrena and our other native bees. Cherries are also popular with little Adrena and her solitary cousins.

Colony collapse had been in the news for a few years now – a mysterious disorder that had resulted in massive die-offs in honey bee populations. Scientists studying colony collapse are also interested on the effects it might have on populations of native bees. Native bees are also being looked at as possible replacements for honey bees in the agriculture pollination game. One of the big problems with using native bees is that they simply do not live in colonies composed of thousands of workers, like honey bees do. Bumble bees, our native social bee, may have a few hundred workers at most in a colony – not as conducive to industrial agriculture as the honey bee.

But native bees should not be discounted just because they are more individually oriented. In fact, many a home gardener should do everything possible to make his or her yard appealing to our native bees, many of whom are also facing a population decline. Native bees evolved with native vegetation. As people spread across the country, they brought non-native plants with them – from flowers to food crops. While native bees have adapted to many of these foreign foods, they still only thrive on the plants with which their species developed. So how can we help? By planting native plants and cutting down on non-native varieties.

So, head outside and take a seat in a nice sunny spot. Start watching for bees. See if you can make out more than one species. Are they patrolling the grass, maybe looking for a good nesting spot? Can you determine which plants are frequented by which bees? Are they visiting your flowers beds or your veg gardens? Perhaps they are enjoying a wee dram at your hummingbird feeder. Bee watching can be a lot of fun. Mark my word: bee watching will soon be the latest thing, right up there with butterfly and dragonfly watching.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stinking Benjamin:A Trillium That By Any Other Name Would Still Smell as Sweet

You know spring has truly arrived when the trilliums are in bloom. Around these parts, the trillium that first appears is usually Trillium erectum, known to the layman as purple or red trillium, wake-robin, or stinking Benjamin. This deep red flower, almost burgundy in color, graces our woodlands usually by the end of April and early May. This year I expect we may see its richly colored blooms earlier than usual.

One of the things I like best about studying plants is learning what our ancestors thought of them. Those plants that came over with the colonists, intentionally or not, have written histories going back sometimes to the days of the Roman Empire. Others we only find in records dating back to the Middle Ages. Reading through some of the accounts of Nicholas Culpepper or Pliny the Elder can be alternately enchanting and humorous. But when it comes to our native plants, like the red trillium, our histories can be Spartan.

Books that describe the uses plants were put to by the various native peoples often tend to be no more than lists (diuretic, emetic, febrifuge, treatment for coughs, treatments for skin ailments, dye, cordage, etc.) . In one sense it is informative, yet in another it is lacking in detail.

So, unless we have personal connections with native people who have retained their ancestral knowledge of medicinal, edible, and otherwise useful plants, we find ourselves having to rely on plant lore that may date back only a couple hundred years. Thank goodness for the Victorian era when the study of plants (among other things) was “in.” Interest in plants and their uses continued to be popular among the laypeople up through probably WWII, after which industry and a keen interest in all things mechanical took over in the mind of John Q. Public, where we most of us remain mired to this day.

But I digress. Back to our friend the trillium.

Sometimes with plant names, their origins are obvious. Red trillium is red in color. Or purplish, hence the alternate name purple trillium. But how in the world did it end up called Stinking Benjamin or Wake-Robin? Let’s look at the more obvious one first: Wake-Robin. This fanciful name is applied to many flowers of the genus Trillium, not just the red ones, and they were dubbed thus because the flowers traditionally bloomed about the same time that the first robins of spring were sighted.

Ah, but Stinking Benjamin – surely that is a name behind which a good tale lies. Sadly, no. It turns out that it, like so many words in our language today, is a corruption of something else, in this case the word benzoin, which itself was a corruption of the earlier word benjoin, an ingredient derived from plants from Sumatra and used in the manufacture of perfume. Our trillium, however, does not smell sweet or spicy, hence the tag “stinking.”

Go out this spring and find yourself a red trillium and take a sniff. You may discover it smells a bit like rotting meat. Mmmm. This aroma, however, serves a purpose, which goes hand-in-hand with the flower’s rather raw-fleshy coloration, and that purpose is to attract pollinators. In this flower’s case, though, the pollinators are green flesh-flies who are out in search of rotting meat on which to lay their eggs. Instead of finding the perfect nursery, however, they end up assisting the plant in its procreative efforts. And you thought plants were boring! These flies aren’t left without any reward though, as some insects are when they are deceived by other plants. No, as payment for their services, they are rewarded with a meal of pollen – the flowers produce no nectar (which is probably another reason why bees don’t visit them).

Here are a few other monikers that are listed for Trillium erectum that I find amusing or interesting: nosebleed (it was apparently used at one time to help staunch the flow from a damaged schnozz), trinity lilies (anything with three parts was attributed to the Christian idea of divinity, and they are part of the lily family), and true love (awwww). How about this one: birthroot – for the native people taught early settlers to use it to stimulate birth.

While today many of the medicinal uses to which this plant was put (treatment for gangrene and tumors, heart palpitations and hemorrhages) are debated among herbalists, we can still enjoy it for the way it lifts our spirits every spring. Here in Newcomb I’ve encountered both the red trillium and its cousin the painted trillium (T. undulatum). Further south in the Saratoga region I’ve heard tales of snow trillium (T. nivale – also called dwarf white trillium) and I’ve seen the giant large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum), which is also pure white.

Already in those more southern climes the trilliums have come into bloom, but plant enthusiasts can still get their fill of these delightful harbingers of spring here in the North Country, where they have yet to show their faces. But keep your eyes open, for I suspect they will open sooner than usual this year. And remember, they are on New York’s list of protected native plants. Look, sniff, photograph, but do not pick or remove. If you want trilliums for your garden, find a nursery that specializes in native plants – leave the wild ones in the wild for all to enjoy.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Adirondack Black Bears Are Active

With all the unseasonably balmy weather we’ve had this month, and all the advanced blooming and migrations, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone that the bears are awake and searching for food. In fact, I’m surprised that the first signs of bear activity only appeared this weekend. Unfortunately, these signs were in my back yard, where the bear broke through the fence and ravaged two birdfeeder poles and something like seven bird feeders, not to mention my compost bin. Yes, the bears are awake. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Turkey Vulture Tales

The mere mention of the word “vulture” often conjures up images of Halloween, death, or the African plains. I, however, find vultures to be endlessly fascinating creatures. Mostly I’ve seen them from afar, as they glide overhead in a wobbly “V” while soaring on a thermal, but I’ve also been lucky enough to see them roosting in trees along rivers where I’ve paddled, and once I even came upon a family unit on a rocky prominence overlooking Bridgewater, New Jersey – we were only about six feet way from each other.

Turkey vultures are probably the most common of the New World vultures, living in open and semi-open areas from southern Canada all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. Here in North American they tend to be commonly called “buzzards,” but I’m a purist and prefer to stick to the word “vulture.” In the world of science, they are called Cathartes aura. Cathartes is Latin for “purifier,” and probably refers to the bird’s habit of eating dead things – they are the sanitary engineers of the natural world. In fact, while most people no doubt find the vulture’s habit of eating carrion revolting, we should all be grateful that they do, for they help keep the incidence of disease at a minimum.

A close look at the turkey vulture shows us just how well it is adapted to its role as nature’s clean-up crew. First, it has a phenomenal sense of smell. This is rare among birds in general, and even among vultures it is a trait that stands out. Turkey vultures fly low over open areas scanning the ground with their keen eyes and sense of smell. The early stages of decay are marked with the emission of particular gasses, and the vulture’s highly developed olfactory system can detect even the smallest trace. Black vultures, which do not have the ability to smell, keep their eyes on their red-headed cousins to learn where the nearest food is located.

Next we should take note of that red head, which on the juveniles is grey. Some native stories say that the vulture’s head is featherless and red because it flew up to the sun to bring light back to earth, and its head was burned in the process. In reality, a naked head is a trait of most carrion birds. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Y’see, these birds stick their heads into rotting, decaying flesh, ripping off bits to feed themselves or their off-spring. Rotting animals are full of “unsavory” things, like maggots and bacteria. By having featherless heads, vultures are able to keep themselves cleaner and avoid contamination. This could also be why their feet and legs are featherless, too.

Sometimes turkey vultures are seen standing with their wings spread out in the sunlight, much like anhingas. This is something they tend to do in the morning, especially after a damp night. I read that at night turkey vultures drop their body temperatures by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit, making themselves slightly hypothermic. I don’t know why they do this, but perhaps this is one reason why they “sun” themselves in the morning – to warm up. But they also do it to dry off and to bake off any bacteria that might be lingering in their feathers. When you think about it, these are really very tidy birds.

Okay, maybe not all their habits are tidy, like when they defecate on their feet and legs, a trait they share with their stork relatives. But, in all fairness, they do this to cool down. It’s an evaporation thing. The liquid evaporates from the skin, which cools off the blood that runs close to the surface of their legs and feet. Not everything can sweat like you and I.

And the projectile vomiting thing is rather revolting, too, I guess. But again, they do this only when necessary. Even though turkey vultures are fairly large animals, and therefore have few “enemies,” there are some animals that may try to take on a vulture or attack its nest of young. Because they don’t have strong feet with sharp talons, or fearsome beaks for killing prey, turkey vultures don’t have a lot of options for fending off attackers – beating them about the head and shoulders with their vast wings will only go so far. Vomiting up partially digested, rotting flesh, however, serves as a pretty good deterrent. The foul mess is even reported to sting when it lands on the offender. I know that if a large bird barfed all over me I’d be likely to leave it alone; apparently it works on raccoons and eagles, too.

It’s always good to take a second look at animals that we usually look at with a jaundiced eye. Just because something isn’t cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Beauty can be found in many forms, and while on the surface the turkey vulture may not win any beauty contests, it is, in my humble opinion, one of our more beautiful birds. I’d rather see a flock of vultures roosting in a tree over a flock of robins pulling worms out of my yard any day. This morning I heard my first report of vultures in the area for 2010. I’ll be looking skyward on my way home tonight to catch a glimpse of their silver-lined wings rocking gently overhead.

Photo: Turkey Vulture in flight over Florida (Wiki Commons).


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Adirondack Insects: Fireflies, Firefly Larvae, and Glowworms

I was strolling along the other evening, headed back home from a trip to a vernal pool to check out the singing frogs, when my eye was caught by a small movement on the pavement. I stopped to take a closer look. What I saw was one of the strangest insect larvae I have ever encountered. It looked as though someone had crossed a caddisfly larva with a pangolin (those odd armored mammals from Africa and Southeast Asia). As it moved across the road, it would tuck its tail beneath it, kind of like a crayfish does when it wants to bolt. The head extended and contracted at the end of a long and rather telescopic neck. I stuck it in a vial and brought it home, hoping to identify it when I returned to the office. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruminations on Rock Tripe

One of the popular features along the Rich Lake Trail is our glacial erratic, an enormous boulder left behind by the glaciers over 10,000 years ago. Kids love it because it is huge and easily accessible. Adults love it because it is huge and impressive. Naturalists love it because it is covered with wonderful plant communities, each occupying a niche that meets its specialized needs.

For example, on the western face of the rock there are assorted mosses and liverworts. On the top of the rock, looking rather like a crewcut, is a healthy population of polypody ferns and even a small balsam fir seedling. But along the shady eastern face, ah, one encounters these crazy flat, flappy growths of significant size: rock tripe.

Rock tripe are a kind of lichen, and there are many species of rock tripe around the world. The species that graces our glacial erratic is Umbilicaria mammulata, the smooth rock tripe. Probably the most common rock tripe in the northeast, it can reach diameters upwards of 30 cm – this is a lichen of some significance.

Let’s start our investigation of smooth rock tripe with a look at the name. According to most sources, the English name “rock tripe” comes to us via France, where it is called tripe de roche, literally “rock guts.” I am not a speaker of the French language, but even I can deduce that roche is rock, which means tripe must translate as gut. Some further digging proved me right, for “tripe” is the word used to describe the tissue from the stomach of a ruminant animal (a cow, for example), which is used for food (mmmmm). I grew up with the phrase “tougher than tripe” peppering the family’s lexicon, so I can only imagine that eating real tripe is an exercise in developing the muscles of the jaw. This does not bode well for the edibility of this lichen.

Yet, it turns out that rock tripe is indeed edible. Of course, the palatability no doubt depends on the species in question. For example, in many Asian countries, rock tripe is considered a delicacy and is much sought by connoisseurs. On the other hand, the Inuit consider rock tripe to be a starvation food, eaten only as a last resort. The Cree, however, ate rock tripe as a regular part of the diet, often using it as a thickener for fish broth. Each of these peoples is eating a different species, which one should keep in mind if one is deciding to give rock tripe a try.

Reading through the history of the use of this lichen, I’ve come to the conclusion that the description of the Inuit’s rock tripe best fits smooth rock tripe – a starvation food that you’ve got to be pretty desperate to eat. George Washington’s men filled their bellies with it at Valley Forge in the winter of ’77 – they lived, but didn’t thrive. This could be in part because the lichen can act as a purgative. Or it could be because it’s not terribly nutritious – it will fill you up, but your body won’t get much from it.

Eating rock tripe is not something to be undertaken lightly. For one thing, it is full of bitter compounds and therefore must be soaked and boiled in several washes of water to render it edible. What is often left is this rather slimy mass. Good for thickening broths. It can be roasted, or fried. Personally, I think I’d have to be pretty darn hungry to give it a try.

Let’s revisit the name once more, this time looking at the genus, Umbilicaria. If it looks familiar, it should – think of umbilical cord. See the similarity? Both are derived from the Latin word umbilicus, which means navel – the point at which the umbilical cord attaches. If one takes a close look at rock tripe, one sees that it has a navel, too – right about at its center. It is from this navel that the lichen attaches itself to its rocky home.

I love visiting our rock tripe colony at various times throughout the year, because as the weather changes, so does this lichen. When times are good and there is plenty of moisture, the lichen is soft and pliable, like a piece of good leather. In times of drought, it becomes quite brittle, shriveling up a bit and prone to damage. When it’s in this brittle state, it is somewhat less impressive to the casual visitor, but even so, it is worth checking out.

If you are checking it out on our glacial erratic, please do not pull it off the rock, for, like all plants and animals at the VIC, it is protected. But once you know what it looks like, you can head out and look for rock tripe on the rocks on your own property. And if you decide to sample it, stop on in and let me know what you thought – starvation food or culinary delight.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Entomology: Tracking Adirondack Insects

As many of you have probably figured out by now, two of my passions are tracking and books. A few weeks ago a fellow blogger, who is also a field guide fanatic, wrote to me about a new field guide that is just hitting the market: Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. Well, what right-minded tracking bibliophile could pass up such a title? I had to order it. The book is so freshly off the presses that there was a small delay in shipping, but this morning it arrived.

Now I know what you are thinking. She’s gotta’ be nuts if she thinks she’s going to follow beetle footprints! And you’d be right – that would be nuts, at least here in the woods it would be nuts. But tracking isn’t strictly looking for the proverbial footprints in the sand. A “track” is a footprint, but “tracking” involves looking for all the other “signs” animals leave behind: droppings, eggs, nests, dens, feeding sites, shed fur/skin/feathers, etc. So, in the case of insects, one can certainly look for footprints (especially if sand is around), but one should also look for insect cases, holes in trees, chewed leaves, cocoons, nests, and so on. It is for these clues that I bought the book. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Return of the Black Flies

According to my friend Edna, black fly season has begun. Edna is one of the fine folks who participate in our local Bti Program, and it is through the efforts of her team, and other Bti teams around the Park, that our black fly populations are greatly reduced.

A couple weeks ago I stopped to talk to Edna as she was roping off the muddier parts of her driveway. I wanted to give her photographs of our “new” beaver pond because the Little Sucker Brook, which is now Little Sucker Pond, is one of her treatment sites. She told me she hadn’t been in there yet, but the test sites she had visited were still full of larvae in suspended animation – it was too soon to treat. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birding: On Collecting Bird Feathers

I have come to the conclusion over the years that collecting things is a very human trait. I suspect this harkens back to our prehistoric selves, whose days were filled with collecting, be it foodstuffs for later consumption or burnables for the evening’s fire. With the advent of the corner market and central heating, most of us (at least in this country) no longer have “real needs” that are fulfilled by the urge to collect. As a result, we turn our craving for collectibles to other things, which in my case includes books and sand.

Collecting objects from the outdoors is therefore a natural habit. Who among us as a child didn’t come home with pockets full of rocks, or pluck a few flowers to present to Mom? Even as adults we eagerly pick up nature’s little treasures when they come our way. Two of the more commonly collected items are feathers and nests. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Learning Something New Every Day – Small Winter Stoneflies

The way I look at it, a day where you don’t learn something new is a day wasted. For those of us who are nature nuts, learning something new is pretty easy to do, for there is so much “out there” that no one person can possibly know it all (although, not for lacking of trying). Take, for example, the insect in the photograph here.

I was out the other day checking the trail for animal tracks, not expecting to find much, thanks to all the balmy weather we’ve had of late, but ever hopeful. I was sidetracked by a patch of sunlight along the south-facing bank of the new beaver pond, and found myself lulled into a soporific state, enjoying the sunshine, the birdsongs, and the new green growth all around me. I wasn’t the only one out taking in a few rays; spiders and insects galore hopped and flew all around.

Several of small insects (see photo) chose to use me as a landing platform. I finally decided to photograph one (kind of like trying to photograph a microscopic greyhound at the racetrack) in a somewhat amused attempt to get the things identified. There was something familiar about them; I thought at first they might be some sort of parasitic wasp, but I was keeping an open mind.

When I sent my photograph off to the find folks at BugGuide.net, I included in the description a note that it had two little tails sticking out its nether regions. It dawned on me that these little tails were what was familiar – they reminded me of the two little tails one sees sticking out behind stonefly nymphs (I was no longer thinking “parasitic wasp” at this point). So, I added this observation to my note. The pithy response that came back was “That’s because it’s a stonefly.”

Now, I’ve turned over a lot of rocks in rushing streams and I’ve seen more than my share of stonefly nymphs. If that’s a stonefly, I thought, it’s gotta be the smallest stonefly in the world. This insect measured maybe 5mm from stem to stern, while every stonefly nymph I’ve ever uncovered has easily been two to four times the size of this adult insect. Usually when insects go through The Change, they end up bigger – I’d never heard of one ending up smaller. So, suspicious and curious, I took this stonefly information to my Kaufman’s Field Guide.

And wouldn’t you know! There it was – a tiny little stonefly from the family Capniidae – the Small Winter Stoneflies. Even better, the photo of Allocapnia sp. seemed to fit my insect like a glove. There are 38 species in this genus, and they are the common small winter stonefly here in the eastern United States.

I had to know more.

According to yet another one of my field guides, these stoneflies dare to be different, for they change into adults and emerge for a terrestrial life while winter still has a grip on the world (December to April). They can be seen actively flying around when the air temperature is a chilly 20 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s no wonder they were zipping around in the afternoon sunshine – it must’ve been close to 60!

As juveniles, these little stoneflies fill a very important niche. They are detritivores, or shredders, meaning that they are responsible for chewing up leaves that fall into the streams where they live. If it weren’t for insects like them, our streams, rivers and ponds would be choked solid in only a short matter of time.

Now, I don’t know which species of stonefly my little friends were, and for now I don’t really care – I’m just excited to know that they are stoneflies. Still, at some point in time I’m going to want to know a little more information. Until I can identify the species, my knowledge will be limited. And a quick scan through some of the common names has already piqued my curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to know more about something called “Black Warrior Snowfly,” or “Peculiar Snowfly,” or, my personal favorite, “Sasquatch Snowfly”?


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Adirondack Scat: The Scoop on Poop

It’s a glorious day. You decide to go for a walk. You step out the door and head for the hills. You are ready to take in everything Ol’ Mom Nature has to offer, so you’ve equipped yourself with binoculars, field guides, and a hand lens. You have your heart set on finding flowers, spying birds, or maybe, just maybe, stumbling upon that elusive moose. Anything could happen . . . the sky is the limit. Odds are, however, that you aren’t prepared to peek at poop.

I suspect that we all snigger at the mention of poo because we were raised to think of it as something “dirty.” And, well, I suppose it is, technically, so this is why those of us who study natural science refer to the offending matter as scat, or droppings—words that are less likely to elicit tittering. Still, when I work with kids, I do use the vernacular “poo” or “poop” because it helps move the stuff little further from its tarnished image—when words become familiar they become less taboo. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

Forest Economies: It’s Maple Sugaring Season!

It’s bright sunny days like we’ve had for most of this month that bring maple sugaring to mind. There’s just something about the quality of the light that says it’s sugar season. And sure enough, Wednesday morning I heard the first newscast from a sugar house. So, I thought I’d jump in with the best of ‘em and write a post about the sweetness of spring: maple syrup.

Maple sugaring and natural history go hand-in-hand. At least it has seemed that way to me, for most places where I have worked have operated some sort of sugaring operation. One ran a small scale commercial operation (see photo), but the majority were simple demonstration set-ups, where visitors walked a “sugaring trail”, each stop featuring a different time in the history of sugaring, from the Native hatchet in a tree with a wooden bowl on the ground to catch the dripping sap, to high tech tubing that brought the sap directly to the sugar shack.

My favorite, however, was the final stop on the sugaring trail we had in New Jersey. The guys on the staff built a device called a “lazy man’s balance”, consisting of a long arm (log) balanced across the fork of an upright log, with a kettle suspended from one end and a heavy rock tied to the other end to act as a counter-balance. The kettle was filled with sap and dangled above a fire, which boiled off the water. What made this set-up so fascinating to me, however, was the simplicity of the engineering: as the water evaporated, the kettle lost weight. As the kettle lost weight, it would rise a bit higher from the fire. This ingenious device would allow the syrup to condense without scorching.

One of the best things about visiting a sugar bush is getting to sample the merchandise, so to speak. While commercial outfits provide samples in hopes that you will buy some syrup or sugar to take home, nature centers have a different take on it: they just want you to try the stuff. The best sample tables not only give you a taste of maple syrup, but they also test your tasting skills. For example, one place where I worked had samples from sugar, red and Norway maples, Vermont Maid and Golden Griddle (the former has something like 3% real maple syrup, while the latter has none), and a syrup we made from potatoes. Visitors would spear a chunk of Italian bread on a toothpick and dip it into a cup of syrup to taste it. The goal was to pick out which was the real maple syrup. I grew up on the real stuff, so it always amazed me when people couldn’t pick out the real from the fake. And, just for the record, the potato syrup was often picked as the real McCoy.

Which brings us to sugar versus red versus Norway versus black maple. All maple trees produce a sweet sap that can be tapped and boiled to make a sweet golden syrup. So why the hoopla over sugar maple? Because sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has the greatest quantity of sugar per gallon of sap. In other words, you need a lot less sap from a sugar maple to produce a gallon of syrup than you would from a red, black, or Norway maple. And how much is that? The general rule of thumb is 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to produce one gallon of sugar maple syrup. For red maple, you need upwards of 80 gallons of sap to get that single gallon of syrup. On the other hand, red maples (Acer rubrum) are a lot more common across a larger portion of the US than sugar maples, so for many folks they are the tree of choice.

Sugar production doesn’t start and end with maple trees, however. If one travels to Alaska, or Siberia, one will find syrup produced from birch trees. Birch syrup has a different flavor, so don’t dump a bunch on your pancakes and expect it to taste the same. It is described as being a bit more spicy and reminiscent of sorghum or horehound candy. And if you think maple syrup is expensive, birch syrup is even more so. This is because it requires almost 100 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of syrup, there aren’t many people producing it, and it is therefore considered a gourmet item.

March is the time to visit a sugar bush near you. And you might want to take in more than one, because each sugar operation may offer something a little different. Here in the 21st century you can see the whole spectrum of a sugaring operation from a sugar shack that’s deep in the woods and uses horses and sledges to haul the sap from the trees to the evaporators, to a high tech operation that uses a vacuum set-up to suck the sap out of the trees, and then applies reverse osmosis to remove water before the sap even sees the glint of an evaporator pan. A perusal of maple operations in the Adirondacks will turn up outfits at both ends of the scale. So get out your mud boots, grab a road map, and hit the woods – you won’t want to let this springtime tradition pass you by.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tracking Adirondack Natural History Firsts

As spring works its way northward, at about sixteen miles a day, we start to take note of the changes around us: birds absent since last fall return, buds swell on trees, the first flowers push through the thawing ground and begin to open. Many nature enthusiasts keep lists of these seasonal events, recording the arrival of the first robin, the opening of the first pussy willows, the songs of the first frogs. This study of seasonal events, whether formally or informally done, is known as phenology.

The word phenology comes to us from the Greek word phainomai, which roughly translates as “to appear” or “to come into view.” » Continue Reading.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Honey Bees in Winter: Think You Got it Tough?

It was a bright, sunny, and cold day in early January. I was down in Wilton for a tracking workshop, and as we headed out across an open expanse, I discovered a dead honey bee lying on top of the newly fallen snow. Why had this bee been out in the middle of winter, and on a day that was so cold? I had no answers, and neither did anyone else, so I took a photo of the poor thing, set it back on the snow, and rushed to catch up with the disappearing class. I have since discovered some interesting things about bees in winter.

As we all know, the honey bee of gardening fame is not native to this country. Apparently it was the Egyptians, some 5000 years ago, who first started to keep bees in hives so they could have a steady source of honey for personal use. Over the ensuing years, bee keeping spread around the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe and Asia. When explorers became settlers here in the west, honey bees soon followed.

Now, I am not a bee keeper. In fact, I grew up terrified of bees. But over the years I have studied bees from a naturalist’s point of view, and have discovered many fascinating things about these fairly docile insects. I’ve come to appreciate their social system and am often fascinated by their behaviors, to the point where I have even contemplated keeping a hive. I’ve since given up the idea of a bee hive in favor of encouraging native bees in my yard and gardens, but this makes honey bees no less interesting.

Which brings us back to the lone bee on the snow. It turns out that honey bees, whether in man-made or wild hives, will sometimes leave the hive on warm days in the dead of winter. The reason? They’ve “gotta’ go.”

Honey bees are very clean creatures. They will avoid soiling the hive at almost any cost. But when winter closes it fist on hives in northern climes, a bee can be faced with some important decisions. Fortunately, bees are able to “hold it” for quite some time. I’ve read accounts that claim bees can easily retain their fecal matter within their bodies for four to six weeks! When the first warm day comes along, out from the hive they zoom, dropping their loads as soon as possible. Bee people claim that the snow around the outside of a bee hive will be brownish-grey in color from all the released fecal matter.

But what happens if the weather doesn’t warm up? Suppose a cold snap has gripped the region, with weeks and weeks, or even months, of cold cold temperatures. What is a bee supposed to do? Some bees bite the bullet and head out any way, only to freeze to death after they leave the hive. Other bees opt to keep holding it.

As you might imagine, retaining one’s fecal matter for weeks on end is bound to cause problems. The bees start to swell, and they start to get sick. When they can hold it no longer, they end up letting loose in the hive, splattering fellow bees, honey, and comb with contaminated fecal matter. When this happens the whole hive is bound to sicken and will often perish. Perhaps it is best for the hive if these bees just go outside and freeze to death instead.

Bee keepers can tell when their bees are having a rough time of it when the snow at the base of the hives is black and yellow from contaminated feces, instead of the brown-grey that surrounds a healthy hive. The ground will also be littered with the swollen bodies of dead bees.

Looking back at the photograph of my dead bee, I can’t tell for sure if the abdomen is abnormally large or not. I am inclined to think that it is at least somewhat swollen if only because I have yet to discover any additional reason why a honey bee would be flying around on a cold winter’s day.

When I think of the horrible death experienced by a nearly exploding bee, it makes me grateful for simple things, like indoor plumbing. And it makes me appreciate even more the little things we all take for granted, like honey on our muffins and in our tea.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Viper’s Bugloss: An Adirondack Roadside Attraction

When summer is in full swing, it is to the meadows and fields that we must head to feast our eyes on the riotous colors of the season. Wildflowers fill the open spaces where sunlight reaches the ground. In many places within the Adirondack Park, however, the only open spaces are the shoulders of the roads. Fortunately, many plants colonize these precarious environs, their tastes turned to harsh soils and microclimates. Among summer’s roadside colonizers we find viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare), a plant that brings a bit of the sky to earth.

Viper’s bugloss (aka: blueweed, snake flower and blue devil) is one of the more attractive flowers gracing our barren roadsides. Growing upwards of a meter in height, its stem is topped with a spire dotted with many blue-pink blossoms, which open sequentially throughout the season. When the flowers first open, they are a bright rosy pink; as they age, they turn a beautiful sky blue. The long stamens, which protrude beyond the flower’s petals, remain a deep pink, giving the blossom an eye-catching “sky-blue-pink” coloration.

Most wildflowers we find blooming along our roadways are non-natives, plants that either came over with early colonists as food or medicine and later escaped from their gardens, or plants that snuck in on the shoes, clothing and other belongings of settlers from across the sea. Viper’s bugloss (pronounced BEW-gloss, by the way) falls into the former category. Back in the “old country,” which in this case is most of Europe and much of Asia, it was revered as a cure for many poisons and snake bites. The logic behind this attribution harkens back to the Doctrine of Signatures, a philosophy that declared that if a plant had a part that resembled a part of the human body, then it must be a cure for ailments of said part. With the plant in question, the seeds apparently look like snake heads, and therefore the leap of logic was that it could be used to treat snake bites.

I have a better theory. If one takes a close look at this plant, one sees that it is covered with many small hairs. These hairs are not soft and cuddly; instead, they are sharp and prickly. If grabbed with a bare hand, the plant can “bite” back, impaling its antagonist with its irritating hairs. It is possible this could feel like one has been bitten, and what would be lurking around plants in dry, barren places but venomous vipers! If one’s going to jump to conclusions, at least this one makes (some) sense.

Modern day practitioners of herbal medicines make an infusion from the leaves of viper’s bugloss to treat inflammation and melancholy, as well as to reduce fevers and relieve coughs. However, the plant is known to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, chemicals that if consumed in enough quantity can cause liver failure. In fact, the ASPCA lists viper’s bugloss as a serious toxin for horses, which will eat it if nothing else is around (so much for the deterrent quality of the prickly hairs).

Nevertheless, the plant has some redeeming qualities. In Europe Echium is harvested as an oilseed crop (technically, it is E. platagineum, not E. vulgare, that is harvested for this oil, but let’s not quibble). Apparently the oil is full of omega fatty acids, specifically gamma linoliec acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid (SdA). These two fatty acids are essential to the human body, and yet the body does not produce them; they must be acquired from outside sources.

Bees and butterflies frequent the plants, seeking the nectar within each semi-tubular bloom. I’ve watched many a bee happily bumbling along from blossom to blossom, oblivious to my curious eyes. Not only does the plant appeal to bees, but a quick scan online turned up a couple sources that sell viper’s bugloss honey, claiming it is tasty with a chewy consistency.

A member of the borage family, viper’s bugloss shares many of the same qualities of borage, including the light blue flowers, and the rapidity in which it spreads (the plants readily reseed themselves). The flowers of both are also edible: it is not uncommon for them to be crystallized and tossed in salads.

For the hobbyist who likes to try her hand at natural dying, the root is known for producing a red dye for fabrics.

Still, we must remember that this plant is not native, and thanks to its reseeding capabilities, it can spread with relative ease. As such, viper’s bugloss is considered a noxious weed in many states and eradication programs are in place to eliminate the plant where it has taken hold. I’ve checked various invasive plant lists for New York, and viper’s bugloss is not listed on any of them. So, enjoy the plant when you see it along the roadside. Take some photographs, dig up a root or two and tie-dye a t-shirt, toss some flowers in your salad, but don’t plant it in your gardens at home. Leave it along the roadside, where it can wave at passersby with its cheerful blossoms.

For some truly stunning photographs of this roadside plant, visit: http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/indexmag.html?http://www.microscopy-uk.org.uk/mag/artfeb04/bjbugloss.html


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