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.
There I was, cruising the VIC’s Sucker Brook Trail in search of spring wildflowers (translation: staring at the ground as I walked along), when to my left I heard a rustle of vegetation. “Ruffed grouse,” I thought, and turned my head, anticipating the explosion of wings as the bird made a hasty retreat towards the treetops. What I saw, however, was no ruffed grouse. It was black, it was furry, and it was galloping away from me a high speed.
My next thought was “someone’s black lab is loose.” Then it dawned on me: this was no lab, it was a bear. A small bear, probably a yearling, but a bear nonetheless. What I saw was the typical view I have of bears in the Adirondacks: the south end of the animal as it’s headed north. If I’m lucky, I’ll see the face before the animal turns tail. And this is how bears are – they fear people. Many people fear bears as well, but unlike the bear, people really have little reason to be afraid of these normally placid animals. » Continue Reading.
While many people consider chipmunks pests, they are one of our more endearing squirrels. I suspect that part of their charm comes from the fact that we don’t see them for almost half of the year. Contrary to popular belief, though, chipmunks don’t hibernate the winter away, not really. Unlike true hibernators, who sink so deeply into a comatose state that it takes a bit of doing to wake them up, chipmunks could be considered light sleepers.
A true hibernator spends the summer and fall seeking out all possible food items and eating them. The goal is to put on as much fat as possible, for once the big sleep hits, the animal must live off its stored energy supply. If it doesn’t get enough food before winter, the animal is likely to starve to death, never waking to see the blush of dawn on a new spring morning. » Continue Reading.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.
When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone. » Continue Reading.
On the surface, we all know that turtles are animals with shells. They plod along on land, or swim gracefully in the water. Some live in the oceans, some in the deserts – what wonderful extremes they have come to inhabit. They have been around for over 200 million years – since the late Triassic. Some species can live well over a hundred years. If we dig deeper though, they are even more fascinating.
Four species of turtles live within the Blue Line of the Adirondack Park: snapping turtles, wood turtles, painted turtles (eastern and midland species), and Blanding’s turtles. Let me share with you a little bit about each of these species before detouring into some generalized nifty turtle traits. » Continue Reading.
At long last, we come to the end, the final chapter on Adirondack bats. I left the most common species for my last piece because what is common today may be gone tomorrow. I speak of the little brown (Myotis lucifugus) and big brown (Eptesicus fuscus) bats, those furry cave-dwellers who have been most heavily impacted by the fungus-based disease now known as white-nose syndrome (WNS). Every hibernaculum in New York has now been diagnosed with the disease, and in some of the caves, these bats have experienced over 90% mortality. It’s a sobering fact. » Continue Reading.
To the average Joe, an Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) is not a terribly impressive animal. It is a smallish, brownish bat, often mistaken for a little brown bat (another less-than-dazzling member of the clan). A scientist in the know, however, can detect small differences to tell these species apart, such as the length of the toe hairs (I kid you not), the length of the ears, the color of the snout, the amount of shine to the fur, or the presence of a keel on the calcar (a spur of cartilage that gives some rigidity to the trailing edge of the wing membrane near the bat’s foot). » Continue Reading.
Two bats that are often never mentioned (mostly because so few people have heard of them) are Keen’s myotis (Myotis keenii) and the northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis). Both species have been found in the Adirondacks, but neither in great numbers. » Continue Reading.
Having covered the Adirondacks’ solitary tree-dwelling bats, it is now time to tackle the cave bats. There are a number of species to contend with, but today I am going to introduce you to just two: the eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii leibii) and the eastern pipistrelle (Pipistrellus subflavus).
The small-footed bat, as you no doubt guessed, is noted for its petite terminal appendages: it has small feet, only about six millimeters long. I’ve never seen any data on the size of other bats’ feet, but one must suppose that they are significantly larger with respect to the size of the bats in question. » Continue Reading.
Since October is quickly drawing to a close, I am going to combine two bats in today’s article, the hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus) and the silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans). These are the last of our caveless, summer-only bats and also our only other chiropteran residents that have striking coloration. » Continue Reading.
When most people think of bats, they either think of caves, or their attics. While a good number of species are colonial and hang out together in caves (in winter) or attics/barns/bridges (warmer months), we do have three species here in the Adirondacks that live solo lives in the woods. These are the red, hoary and silver-haired bats. Not only is their lifestyle not what we expect, but they also look much different from what we expect, for these are the most colorful bats in our part of batdom.
Today we will contemplate the red bat (Lasiurus borealis). Like any true redhead, the red bat is actually more of an orangish color, sometimes leaning more toward the yellow end of the spectrum. The males are more brightly colored than the females, which makes sense when one considers the rather exposed lifestyle this bat leads (a female can more easily hide with her young if her coloration is dull, kind of like birds). » Continue Reading.
Ah, October; the month when summer has truly fled and winter can be felt in the air. Leaves explode in color and then lose their grip on life. Geese and other waterfowl beat a hasty retreat for warmer climes. Some flowers we typically see in the spring are apparently confused and put out a few end-of-season blossoms. And everywhere we turn, yards and businesses are decorated for Hallowe’en.
In keeping with this time of year, I’ve decided to bless you all with a series of articles about one of my all-time favorite animals: bats. I know, I know – I say this about so many animals, but truthfully, bats do top the list. Perhaps this is because they are so reviled by the majority of people and I love to root for the underdog. In fact, this was probably why my interest was piqued in the first place. But as I learned more and more about bats, I discovered just how fascinating these winged mammals are. » Continue Reading.
Over the years, it has been interesting to watch the progression of environmental education and outdoor awareness. In the 1970s, pollution was the big push, and many a program was developed and promoted (remember Woodsy Owl?) to turn the tide against land, air and water pollution.
The 1980s were a bit of a down time, but by the 1990s, we had turned our attention to more global issues. Saving the rainforest, saving whales, saving cheetahs became all the rage. Kids could tell you all about jaguars, elephants and orcas, but had no idea what was in their own back yards. Sadly, this continues today.
A couple years ago I started to develop a program designed to increase students’ awareness of their local surroundings. After all, we live in the Adirondacks, one of the last “wild” areas left in the Northeast. People from around the world come here to enjoy our mountains, lakes and forests. And yet, the children who live here often know very little about these mountains. » Continue Reading.
Consider the bird, in all its glorious forms: from the minute hummingbird to the land-bound ostrich; from the brilliantly-colored parrot, to the monochromatic crow; from the predatory raptor to the fruit-eating waxwing. For 135 million years they have walked and flown about the planet. A pretty good-sized portion of the human population has taken to birds like a fish to water, and it is easy to see why – their colors and ability to fly have captured our imaginations. When you page through almost any field guide to birds, you find that it is arranged in a particular order: from the most ancient species (loons, waterfowl) to the most modern/advanced (the finches). The ancestors of loons and geese paddled around the same waters as many of the last dinosaurs. When the reign of the dinosaurs came to its firey end, many of the birds of that time perished as well, but not the loons and geese, ducks and other shorebirds. These animals lived on and are still with us today. Perhaps this is one reason why we find the call of the loon so haunting. One can almost imagine it calling out through the mists of a tropical world where giant reptiles still roamed.
Feathers seem to be the big thing that sets birds apart from the rest of life on this planet, not flight. After all, birds are not the only things that fly; so do insects. At one point in time, there were reptiles that also flew. Today, some lizards and snakes still take to the air, but they no longer can fly, they merely glide. Still, it is more than you or I can do without the aid of mechanical devices, so we will grant them this point.
It is currently believed that feathers initially evolved not for flight, but as a means of keeping warm. To this day, there are few natural fibers that insulate quite as well as feathers. Birds have six basic types of feathers: flight feathers, contour feathers, filoplumes, semiplumes, bristle feathers, and down. Of course, there is also a substance known as powder down, but it isn’t really a feather, so for now we will ignore it.
Flight feathers are, as you might have guessed, the long, sturdy feathers that make up the working part of the wing. They are asymmetrical: the leading edge, or anterior vane, is narrower than the trailing edge, or posterior vane. Between the two vanes runs the rachis, or shaft, of the feather. These are the real workhorses of the feathers, and they are incredibly stiff because they take quite a beating (no pun intended). When Thomas Jefferson sought a feather for a quill with which to write the Declaration of Independence, it is a flight feather that he used.
Contour feathers are the ones that give the bird’s body its basic shape. Most of the feathers that you see when you are looking at a bird are contour feathers. Like flight feathers (which technically are also contour feathers), they have a pretty rigid shaft, but unlike flight feathers, they are symmetrical. The tip of each contour feather is neat and tidy, but the bottom half is fluffy. This part is closest to the body, where it works to keep the bird warm. Contour feathers are attached to the bird in a way similar to shingles on a roof – each overlapping its predecessor, creating a interlocking, aerodynamic form.
Semiplumes are my favorites. These are the feathers that are made up of long, fluffy strands. Unlike the feathers mentioned above, semiplumes are wild, they don’t lie all neat and tidy. If you were to take a flight or contour feather and rough it up a bit, you would find that you could straighten it easily enough by running y our fingers up the barbs (the individual strands that make up each vane). They “zip” together with little trouble, thanks to the hooks that line their edges. Semiplumes don’t have these hooks, so their “strands” stick out all over the place. Their purpose? Insulation. You’ll find the semiplumes located just beneath the contour feathers.
As you can see, layering is what it is all about. Birds knew this long before we humans picked up on it. Layering, as we all know today, is the best way to keep warm when the weather turns cold, and down is the way to go. Down feathers are naught but tufts of fluff. They trap the most amount of air, creating the best insulating layer. These are the feathers that lie closest to the body, trapping the body’s heat where it can do the most good. Similar to the semiplume, down is wild and untamed in its appearance. Unlike the other feathers, it has no (or nearly no) shaft – it is, as I said, naught but fluff.
Probably of the coolest of the feathers, however, are the fliloplumes. These feathers look like a wand with a bit of fluff stuck to the tip. Filoplumes are located just below, and sometimes sticking out from, the contour feathers. It is believed that they fulfill the same function as whiskers do on a cat: they detect movement and vibrations. It is possible that these feathers help the bird know when it is time to groom – the bird can feel when things are out of place. Another thought is that they might help the bird gauge its speed when in flight.
Bristle feathers are just the opposite of filoplumes in appearance: a bit of fluff near the base and a stiff, tapered shaft at the tip. You will only find bristle feathers on the heads and necks of birds. On some birds they protect they eyes (eyelashes?), and on others they form an insect-catching mesh around the mouth. They are quite prominent around the mouths of whippoorwills, nighthawks and flycatchers.
When it comes to birds, feathers are but the tip of the iceberg of what makes them fascinating. I recently added a new book to my collection of field guides (pretty soon I’ll have to hire a Sherpa just to carry my field guides into the field with me). It is a guide to the feathers of many North American birds. I don’t know about you, but I often find feathers when I go out for a walk in the woods, or even a paddle on the water. Some feathers are pretty easy to identify, but others can sure be a puzzle. With the help of this book I hope to be able to add one more proverbial feather to my naturalist’s cap.
It was another grey and nearly drippy day as I headed out the door this morning with the dog in tow (some mornings he isn’t any more eager to go out than I). It had rained overnight, so everything was damp, but at the moment the air was still and relatively dry.
Up ahead I watched a largish raptor swoop up and land on a street light. I pondered the species for a moment, taking note of size and coloration as best I could with the animal backlit against the morning sky. It was about then that I noticed that the background chatter of morning birds was getting progressively louder.
Caw! Caw! Caw!
Another day, another blog. What to write about? I could muse about the preponderance of liquid precipitation we recently acquired (I am bowled over by how high the Hudson has risen). I could expound on my latest theory about birds having a sense of taste (based on the fact that they zeroed in on the few apples on my heirloom trees while ignoring the thousands of little green apples that laden the many feral apples trees in the neighborhood). But I think I will share with you an amusing experience I had at the library this morning.
I’d just walked in the back door and had set my laptop, my bag of files (transcripts, job notes, resumes, etc.), and such on the table. Grabbing the movies I was returning, I headed toward the front desk, only to be distracted by a movement on the floor. A small grey ball of fur, with a long tail, large ears, big black bead-like eyes, and large back feet scooted across the rug from underneath the book cart. It stopped, started, stopped, started, changed direction, zipped about. » Continue Reading.
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