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’s a deer in the hummingbird garden,” our intern said in a stage whisper. “It’ll probably be gone by the time I get there,” I said, as I grabbed the camera and made a dash for the door. Lo and behold, the deer stood there, ripping through our hosta as though it was so much buttercrunch lettuce, completely ignoring me as I stepped closer and closer snapping one shot after another.
While this certainly gave us a wonderful wildlife encounter, it isn’t really the type of wildlife we want to see in our butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Already it has pruned the hollyhocks, and who knows what else it will munch on next. We’ve had little problem with deer before now, but once they’ve discovered the choice produce aisle, it is hard to keep them away. What is a gardener to do? » Continue Reading.
While hustling a group of first and second graders along the trail to get them back to their bus on time, I hit the breaks when my eye was caught by masses of white fuzz in the alders along the boardwalk. I zoomed in on the fuzz, with the kids right beside me. What could it be? When I got close enough, I knew what we had: woolly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tesselatus). Usually we see these insects in late summer and early fall when the bits of white fuzz start flying around. They are kind of pretty, in a fluffy faerie sort of way, with just a hint of pale blue showing through the fuzz. But, they are aphids, after all, and we all know that aphids tend to be bad news for plants.
In preparation for writing this post, I read up on woolly alder aphids, and it turns out that, like so many things on this planet, they are pretty interesting characters. For example, let’s look at that glorious white fuzz. It’s more than just a pretty covering. This cottony fluff is actually a waxy substance that the aphids exude to protect their juicy grey bodies from predators. After all, if you were looking for a mouthful of tender insect, and instead you got a mouthful of waxy fuzz, you might think twice about snacking at this location.
But every problem has a solution, and indeed there are two major predators of these aphids: the larvae of green lacewings (Chrysopa slossonae) and the caterpillar of a butterfly appropriately known as the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius). This caterpillar, by the way, is one of the world’s only predaceous butterfly caterpillars. Both these predators adapt a pretty interesting hunting strategy: they cover themselves with the aphids’ own waxy fuzz. Thus disguised, they become veritable wolves in sheep’s clothing, hunkering down among the aphid colony and munching away.
But wait…the story doesn’t end here. The disguise adapted by these larvae isn’t so much to hide them from the aphids as it is to hide them from the aphids’ body guards. Like many aphids worldwide, woolly alder aphids have an arrangement with Ant Protective Services. If you find a colony of aphids, look closely and you will surely find ants nearby. These ants may look like simple shepherds, herding flocks of aphids and “milking” them for honeydew, but the arrangement isn’t quite so bucolic. Sure, the aphids squeeze out droplets of super sweet liquid (a by-product of the sap they sucked from the plant – more on this in a moment) when stroked by the ants’ antennae, and the ants then tote these droplets home for dinner, but in exchange for this the ants protect the colony from all intruders. Go ahead and stick your finger among the aphids and see what happens. Quickly your finger will be attacked by the nearest ants. So the clever costumes used by the lacewing and butterfly larvae do a pretty good job of tricking the ants. If you don’t believe it, consider this: some researchers introduced undisguised larvae to an aphid colony and the ants patrols effectively removed them from the scene.
The aphids get an additional benefit from the “milking” process mentioned above. As we all know, a steady diet of sugars isn’t nutritionally balanced; even aphids need some protein, especially when it comes time to reproduce. In order to acquire the necessary nutrition (nitrogen), the aphids consume more sugary sap than they need. Their systems then separate out the minute traces of nitrogen and excrete the excess sugars (honeydew). The nitrogen is then utilized in making the necessary proteins for reproduction.
And this brings us to the life cycle of the woolly alder aphid. When you gaze upon a colony of aphids coating the twigs and branches of your alders, you are looking naught but females. There won’t be a male in sight. This is because these insects reproduce asexually, via a process known as parthenogenesis. This system of reproduction is actually a lot more common than you’d think. Unlike many insects, the virgin female aphid gives birth to live young (no time and energy wasted in making eggs), all of which are daughters. In almost no time at all, the daughters are squeezing out girls of their own. This reproductive strategy has the advantage of producing individuals perfectly adapted for the host plant and its immediate environment. Some researcher with nothing better to do once calculated that one female aphid could give rise to over 600 BILLION clones of herself over the course of a single season! Thank goodness for predators, parasites, diseases and limited numbers of host plants, eh?
But, even this sort of perfection has its limits, and towards the end of the summer, the host plant may be weakening, or the colony just needs to move on (perhaps the host is getting too crowded). Things become stressful and suddenly a generation is produced that has males. You will know this has happened when the formerly stationary insects have produced models with wings. The resources are now available for sexual reproduction, which results in the mixing up of genetic material. This in turn produces offspring that may be better able to survive conditions in other locations, so off they go. Natural selection will then determine which ones will survive.
What an amazing world we live in. Every time you turn around there is something new to discover. Who knew that white fuzz on a shrub could turn out to be so strange and exotic! I love science fiction, but part of me really believes that we don’t need to travel the expanses of the universe to find bizarre lifeforms: they are already here and living among us. So go forth, ye citizens of Earth, and see what fantastic lives you can uncover right in your own back yard!
Bats are on my mind these days, thanks to the work I’m doing with the DEC survey. One of the other volunteers, who is also working on a bat project for college, just sent me an email about a baby bat that had fallen from its roost and the students who picked it up. To make a long story short, the bat was killed so it could be tested for rabies because the students had handled it without protection. So, I thought I’d dedicate this post to Proper Procedures When Encountering a Bat so that future tragedies of the same sort can be avoided. Scenario #1: You are walking along and you see a bat on the ground – what do you do? Ideally you leave the bat alone and continue on your way. However, there are circumstances that might make this action unviable. So, first you should acertain if the bat is injured or sick. Injured bats should be taken to rehabbers. Sick bats should be sent to the state for rabies testing. Sometimes bats simply fall from their roosts (have you ever fallen out of your bed?); given the chance to do so, they will climb back up to safety. If it is a juvenile, it may not be able to climb back up, so assistance might be needed.
Never, never, never handle a bat without gloves. Better yet, don’t handle it at all. If you need to collect a bat, the best way to do so is to use a can (or jar) and a piece of cardstock. Gently place the can over the bat and gently slide the card underneath, effectively trapping the bat inside the can. If the bat is uninjured and healthy, take it outside and let it go. You can do this most easily by laying the can down on its side and walking away: the bat will crawl out, find a place to climb, and then fly away. Better yet you can empty the can gently on a branch so the bat will be able to fly off immediately.
Scenario #2: A bat flies into your house – what do you do? The best thing to do is determine what room the bat is in and then isolate it there. Close all doors and open one window. Turn out all the lights. Leave the room. The bat will find that open window and fly out. There is no need to panic. If there are no windows to open, or doors to close, follow the procedure above with the can. Eventually the bat will land somewhere (on a curtain, on a wall), and you can collect it there.
Scenario #3: Bats are roosting in your attic – what do you do? The odds are if you have a good number of bats in your attic, or barn, or garage, you probably have a maternity colony. This is a group of pregnant females who have sought your attic/barn/garage as the perfect place to give birth and raise their young. They are looking for locations that are warm (really toasty roosts help the babies mature faster) and have plenty of room to move around if it gets too warm, or too cool, in one spot. If you have a maternity colony, they will give birth by June. Baby bats are not flighted for several weeks. Once the young can fly and feed on their own, the colony moves on, usually at the end of the summer. Hiring an exterminator is really not a great idea, especially now that bat populations are declining. These days the thing to do is exclusion, wherein you locate all the entrances and exits the bats are using and seal them up…after the bats have left in the fall (or before they return in the spring). You don’t want to exclude the adults while the babies are still in the roost – they will starve to death and you will have a smelly mess. You can try erecting bat boxes nearby to provide an alternative roost site. These alternative roosts will have to be large enough to provide the bats with the conditions they need to raise their young (similar to those in your attic/barn/garage); the little boxes you can buy at garden or hardware stores are not going to cut it. For more information on bat houses, visit http://www.batcon.org/index.php/education/40-bats-and-the-public/61-bat-house-faqs.html.
Myth Busting: Forget everything your mother and friends told you about bats – chances are they are wrong.
1. Bats do not fly into your hair/head, or at least not on purpose. Have you ever accidentally walked into a wall or doorway? My theory is that in those cases in which a bat has hit someone in the head, it was simply a miscalculation on the bat’s part. It may even have been a juvenile that is still getting used to flying and using its echolocation.
2. Bats are not aggressive. As a matter of fact, they are actually rather shy animals, and many species are easily tamed. Bats only bite when cornered and given no opportunity to escape (like any other animal).
3. Bats drink your blood (after biting you on the neck). Well, first off, the only bats we have here in New York are insect eaters. You are not an insect, so you are safe. But yes, there are vampire bats – in Mexico and Central America. There are only three species of vampires; two of these species feed on birds. Only one is dependent on mammal blood, and it mostly drinks from cattle (now that cattle have moved into its habitat and are easy prey). These bats are all very small, and at most they drink (lap, actually, like a cat) a tablespoon of blood; more than that and they cannot fly.
4. Bats are dirty. Actually, bats are very clean animals. They groom themselves (and each other) almost as much as a cat does.
5. Bats are blind. Since people cannot see at night, they presume nothing else can see at night either. Therefore, bats must be blind because they fly at night without any difficulties (and we know that the blind can often navigate very well). In fact, bats have good eyesight, but they depend on echolocation (it’s like SONAR) to navigate at night and find their prey.
6. Bats are flying mice. Well, they may look like mice with wings, but bats are not even closely related to mice. As a matter of fact, bats are in a category all their own: Chiroptera (which means “hand wing”). There is nothing else on this planet like them. And, just because I love this fact, believe it or not almost one-quarter of all mammal species are species of bats! That’s right. Scientists have identified approximately 4000 species of mammals around the world, and about 1000 of these are species of bats. That should give us all an idea of just how important they are.
What about rabies? Any mammal can get rabies. Rabies is a virus that is tranmitted through saliva, usually from a bite. In general, the odds of a bat having rabies is set at less than one half of one percent. You are more likely to get food poisoning at a church picnic. That said, there are areas that do have higher incidents of rabies in bats. The last time I checked, New York listed it as 8%. Rabies testing requires the testing of brain tissue, which is only possible after the animal is deceased, so it’s not like a healthy animal will be released if its test is proven negative.
So how do you know if the bat is sick and should be sent for testing? Usually when bats get rabies, they exhibit a passive form of the disease. In other words, they do not become aggressive and charge at you, foaming at the mouth. If you encounter a bat that is lethargic and just not acting normally, it is probably sick. Such bats should be sent for testing.
With the cataclysmic decline of our most common bats these days, I think each of us should think twice when we encounter a bat. Don’t handle it. Don’t squash it with a broom. Help it leave your house safely. Bats have important roles to play in our ecosystems, even here in the Adirondacks. We should do everything we can to help those that remain survive.
What is your favorite bird/animal/flower? This is a question I am often asked, and for me it is a difficult one to answer because there are too many fascinating things out there to select just one favorite. That said, I am especially fond of bats. They are highly misunderstood animals that are actually linchpins in many ecosystems. If more people understood their importance, they might be as popular as baby seals and elephants. Sadly, it often takes tragedy to bring around a change in feelings, and for our bats, that tragedy is White-nose Syndrome (WNS). » Continue Reading.
We have a new school program here at the Visitor Interpretive Centers: What is a Wetland? Since I am in the process of putting the finishing touches on this program, I thought it would make a good topic for the Almanack.
Put very simply, wetlands are lands that are, well, wet. That is to say, they are wet for part or all of the year. Some wetlands are obvious, like swamps, bogs and marshes that have sodden ground or standing water that you can see (or feel) every time you are there. Other wetlands, however, are seasonal, appearing when water levels are high, and disappearing in the heat of summer. One of the Adirondack Park Agency’s responsibilities is protecting the integrity of wetlands within the Blue Line. They have staff who go into the field to conduct “wetland deliniations,” which are essentially determinations of the borders of wetlands. In order to do this, their staff look at three determining criteria: plant species, soil type(s) and hydrology.
The plant part is easy. There are species of plants that are either totally dependent on water (like pickerel weed and sphagnum moss), some that are in water two-thirds of the time you find them (like Joe-Pye-weed and black spruce), and others that are nowhere near water (like sugar maple and eastern white pine). If the area in question has a majority of plants in the first two categories, it is a wetland.
Soil types are kind of fun to determine. A core sample is taken within the test area. The soil from the sample is then compared to a soil chart, looking for evidence of oxidation. Oxidation indicates the presence of air in the soil. If there is no sign of oxidation, the soil is considered gleyed and is classified as a wetland soil. If oxidation has occurred, the soil will look rusty. If the amount of oxidation is minimal, the area is likely a seasonal wetland. On the other hand, if the soil is totally oxidized, then air gets through the layers year round and it is not a wetland.
Finally, we come to hydrology: is there water present? If there is visual evidence of innundation or saturation, you have a wetland. Do you see water? Does it squish underfoot? Is there a line of debris along the shoreline, below which the shore is scoured of vegetation? Are there areas of dead trees, where the trees essentially drowned from flooding? These are all indicators of wetland habitats.
Why is the APA so concerned about wetlands? Wetlands are extremely important habitats. Far too many people are unaware of just how important they are. Over the course of my career in environmental education, I’ve come to conclusion that many people think that those of us who promote the protection of wetlands are merely looking at them as animal homes, but the truth is that while indeed they are imporant for all kinds of wildlife, they are also so very important for people.
For one thing, wetlands clean and filter all sorts of pollutants from our water. These pollutants range from toxic chemicals to seemingly harmless fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorous. We know that nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for healthy soil and plants, but when large amounts enter lakes, ponds or streams, the result is potentially harmful algal blooms and excessive growth of water weeds, which can choke waterways and reduce oxygen levels in the water, resulting in the death of fish and aquatic invertebrates.
Wetlands also act as giant sponges. Every time it rains, wetlands soak up the water and release it slowly. This helps protect areas downstream from severe flooding. Look at places around the globe that suffer from massive floods today. Chances are that over the last century or two the associated wetlands have been changed or entirely removed. Without the mediating effects of these “sponges,” the water now rushes downstream, gathering speed and volume, with nothing to slow its progress as it rushes to the sea. This leads to the next benefit we get from wetlands.
Wetlands reduce soil erosion by slowing down the flow. With slower moving water, shorelines are not eaten away, and silt can fall out of the water, leaving cleaner, clearer water to continue downstream.
And, of course, wetlands are vital habitats for fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects and mammals.
Did you know that one of the deciding factors for the establishment of the Adirondack Park over one hundred years ago was protection of our waters? The Adirondack region is the source of much of the drinking water for downstate New York. With all the unregulated logging that was done in the 1800s, vast areas of land were left denuded of trees, and as a result, streams and rivers were severely impacted. Some had reduced flow, others were no longer clean as a result of runoff. You can listen to a reenactment of the 1894 New York State Constitutional Convention at the Newcomb VIC that lays out these very concerns.
So, yes, wetlands are important and we need to protect them. After all, there is only a limited amount of freshwater on this planet, and all environmental reports these days suggest that freshwater will soon become more valuable than gold. We need to protect our freshwater so that it will always be there when we need it, and this means protecting our wetlands.
“What is this orange stuff?” I’ve asked this question myself, and I’ve been asked by many other people. Today when I saw it while doing an aquatic studies class, I finally decided to investigate, and this time I spared the good folks over at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Office in Westport by looking it up on-line first. (I’ve developed a name for myself at the Coop. Ext. office, thanks to all the strange samples I send them for ID.)
When faced with a strange thing to identify, it helps to gather as much information as possible ahead of time. For instance, I’ve only ever seen this on raspberries growing along the roadside where I walk the dog. Today we found it along the outlet of Rich Lake. I suspected it was a fungus. So, I fired up the computer and did a search for orange fungus raspberry leaf. Here is what I discovered. Orange rust is indeed a fungus. Originally labeled Gymnoconia peckiana (although I did find one source that calls it Gymnoconia interstitialis), this fungus has now been subdivided into two forms, based on morphological differences. These differences depend on the species of berry affected (black raspberry vs blackberry). So, now we have Gymnoconia nitens, which is common on blackberries, and Arthuriomyces pekianus, which occurs on black raspberries. While one source I found claimed that orange rust isn’t really a problem for the overall plant, most other sources state that it is a serious disease in the Northeast, affecting wild and even cultivated brambles. So far, red raspberries seem to be resistant.
The good news is that orange rust has no alternative hosts. In other words, its entire lifecycle is dependent on the blackberries and black raspberries. In the winter, the fungus hides out on the new roots underground, just waiting to reappear and spread the following year. You will know your plants have it when in late May and throughout June you find the undersides of your berry leaves coated with bright orange “stuff.” The cure: destroy the infected plants. Rip (dig) them up in the early spring (before the pustules erupt), get thier roots, and destroy them.
UM…pustules? Yes – if you look at the plants in early spring, before the leaves have completely unfolded, you may find glandular bodies on the leaves. These are the pustules (actually, they are called sori, which is the scientific name for a spore-containing structure; ferns reproduce with spores and you can often find their sori on the underside of their fronds). When they mature, they look like black specks and the surrounding tissue is yellowish. After maturing, they erupt, sending their spores out to populate the world; this is the orange “stuff” you see on the underside of your leaf.
The next question that comes to mind is “how” – just how are you supposed to destroy the infected plants. There you are with your pile of dug up infected berries – what are you supposed to do with them? Do you burn them? Bag them up and take them to the dump? I couldn’t find an answer on-line, so I broke down and called Cooperative Extension (I could hear the cringe on the other end of the line). The official word is don’t burn them (it could spread the spores on the smoke); either bag and take them to the dump, or take them to some far away part of your property where there are no berries, put them on the ground and cover with plastic. Anchor the plastic well. The plants will die and compost. With no wind to spread the spores, and no nearby berries to infect, the fungus should die out.
What do you do on a rainy day when you have twelve wiggly pre-schoolers to entertain? You go looking for snails and slugs! These slimy creatures (the snails and slugs, not the pre-schoolers) can be difficult to find on days that are warm and dry, but bring on the rain, and the things practically come crawling out of the woodwork.
What is a slug, except a snail sans shell? Officially a mollusc, it is hard sometimes to reconcile a slug as related to oysters and clams. They may all be related, but on the family tree, slugs are definitely located on a twig of their own.
Most people really don’t appreciate slugs; after all, what’s to love about this squishy, slimy, oozing thing that eats your lettuce and other valuable plants? But, like so many unloved animals, if you really take the time to get to know them, you are likely to discover some fascinating facts.
For example, let’s take a look at slime. What purpose does slime serve? For one thing, it helps keep the snail from drying out as it crawls along the dry ground (assuming it hasn’t rained for days). It also soaks up moisture, another anti-dehydration strategy (and also the reason why the slime is impossible to wash off your hands/feet). Slug slime serves as an aid in helping slugs crawl over very sharp objects without sustaining any injury. Do you have your doubts? Go find a slug and set it to crawl over a sharp razor blade – a feat neither you nor I could accomplish! Some slugs use their slime to form a “rope” that they can use to lower themselves to the ground. A coating of thick slime can make a slug difficult to grab if you are a predator (think greased pig). Slug slime also acts like a map, leaving a chemical trail behind that the slug can follow back to its home.
Slugs (and snails) have tentacles on the front of their faces. On the slug, the two upper ones, which tend to be longer, also possess eye spots; these are the optical tentacles. These eyes are rather primitive, essentially sensing only light. The other two tentacles are sensory organs. As a matter of fact, much of the animal’s body is dotted with various sensory cells, although the majority are grouped around its mouth and tentacles.
Do you want a REALLY cool slug activity? Try this: find one good-sized slug and a piece of glass. Place the slug on the glass, lie down on your back, and hold the glass in front of your face so that you are looking at the slug’s belly/foot. After a few moments, the slug will calm down and start oozing its way across the glass. As you watch, you will see alternating bands of light and dark “roll” across the slug’s belly/foot in waves. These bands are caused by the muscle fibers on the slug’s belly/foot. Here’s what’s happening, according to the Field Guide to the Slug (put out by the Western Society of Malacologists): “There are actually two sets of these muscle fibers, each performing separate chores. To move forward, one set – those fibers directed inward and rearward – contracts between waves, pulling the slug from the front and pushing off toward the back. Simultaneously, the second set – the fibers directed inward and forward – pulls the outer surface of the sole forward, generating the pedal wave.” There’s a really good illustration of this on page 25 of this small volume.
Believe it or not, slugs are important. They are browsers, kind of like cows. They ooze their way along the forest floor sampling assorted fungi, lichens, algae, and soft plant parts. They will also eat other slugs, the odd insect or two, animal scats and carrion. In a way, they fill a vital role in the decomposition cycle of the forest. And they are constantly eating. And yes, slugs have teeth. Apparently their teeth are much like shark teeth in that they are continually being replaced. The teeth, however, aren’t used for biting off portions of food. Nope, that is done by a guillotine-like structure in the mouth. Once a piece of food has been lopped off, the slug applies uses its radula, a long, skinny body part that is covered with thousands of teeth (think rasp). It rakes this radula along the food, scraping it up and into the digestive tract. Makes you kind of glad that a)slugs are small, and b)humans are not on their menu.
Okay, so we’ve established that slugs are rather nifty, but even so, we don’t want them in our gardens, eating our plants. What can we do? Well, you can always go out with a salt shaker and sprinkle a bit of salt on any slug you find. This effectively dehydrates them and they die. Or, you can put out a dish of beer – the slugs crawl in, get plastered and die. Or you can put copper around your plants – apparently this causes an electrical charge to zap the slugs when they touch it. I’ve also read that putting wood ashes around your garden works fairly well: the alkali of wood ashes (the source of lye) is apparently an irritant to the slug’s mucus linings. But you also want to be sure you don’t get the wood ashes on your plants, for many plants also dislike a high pH.
Everything has a place in this world, and when everything is in its place, it is beautiful. Even slugs.
Evening walks in the spring are utterly enjoyable, despite the blackflies and mosquitoes. Every trip out the door is like opening a gift: the anticipation of some wondrous thing, the joy of seeing it for the first time. Even though we expect certain events at certain times of the year (because they occur regular as clockwork), they still delight us when we see them. I suspect this is something that harkens to our primitive selves, like watching the flickering flames of a campfire. Tuesday evening Toby and I took our walk down to the Hudson River, checking some of “my” nestboxes along the way. The sun was out and a nice breeze was blowing – almost enough to keep the insects away. We toured around the Information Center at the river’s edge, noted that the water level is back down, and then turned around, heading for home. I was thinking that fairly soon we should start seeing the wood turtles wandering the roadsides in search of good nest sites, but I figured that it was still a bit too cool, thanks to the recent cold front.
Suddenly Toby stopped, sniffing the road. We investigated the pavement, which yielded nothing that I could see, and just as I was turning back around to continue our walk, I spotted her: the first wood turtle of the season. She was on the side of the road, her back to us, standing completely still. She wasn’t very large; her carapace maybe eight inches long. I greeted her and stroked her shell, which she didn’t seem to appreciate for she tucked in her legs, tail and head, doing her best to disappear. A quick scan of the sandy road shoulders didn’t turn up any evidence of recent digging, so I’m not sure if she had already laid her eggs or if she was just starting to search for a site.
This is the time of year when turtles of all stripes emerge from the woods and waters to lay their eggs. They search for good sandy soil that is easily dug. Using their powerful hind legs, they scoop out holes and fill them with ping-pong-ball-like eggs. The soft, leathery shells allow the eggs to drop without sustaining any damage. Once they finish laying, the turtles push the sand back over the eggs, completely hiding all evidence of their labors, and then wander off to continue their lives in the woods (or waters) they call home.
But turtle survival is a tenuous thing. Temperature is important for the development of the eggs (it also determines the sex of the embryos). If the weather is cool and wet all summer, they may not develop at all. Then there are the predators. Like warm-blooded metal detectors, foxes, raccoons and coyotes sniff out turtle nests along the roadsides; when one is located, they dig it up and devour the contents. Sometimes nests are laid in sandy roadbeds only to later on be paved over by road crews. In the almost nine years I have lived here, have never seen a wood turtle hatchling. Snappers, yes, we see baby snapping turtles every year (they must be hardier souls), but never a baby wood or painted turtle.
From late spring throughout the summer I tell people to be on the lookout for turtles. If you see a turtle crossing the road, do your best not to hit it. Better yet, you can be a turtle’s best friend if you pull over and assist it in its travels. Most turtles you can pick up, gently, like you are holding a sandwich, and just carry across the road – take them in the direction they were heading and let them go. Larger snappers, however, you might want to lift with a shovel (I always have one in the back of my car – good for snow removal in winter, turtle removal in summer). And if you should find a turtle that was not so lucky, and was hit by a car but is still alive, put it in a box and call a rehabilitator. You’d be surprised what they can do with fiberglass and super glue these days!
Remember, too, that many turtles are protected by state law. This means you cannot legally collect them, either to sell or to keep as a pet. Likewise, if you should have a pet turtle, like a red-eared slider for example, never turn it loose in the wild! This is how non-native populations become established. Some non-native species are not problematic, but too many others become invasive, using up natural resources and pushing out native species which cannot compete with the aggressive newcomers. Our native wildlife and plants are having a tough enough time surviving in today’s changing world – let’s not make things more difficult for them by introducing additional competitors.
You just never know what will dash in front of your car up here in the Adirondacks. The other day I was driving towards civilization, cruising past a couple of marshlands, and a bittern flew across the road in front of me. The American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is one of those really cool birds that few people get to see, thanks to its solitary nature and its stupendous blending capabilities. A member of the heron family, the bittern stands about two feet tall. Like all herons, it has long skinny legs and a long, spear-like bill, which it puts to good use catching its prey. Chances are, if you see a bittern it will be busily hunting. Not that you can tell, for it will be standing stock still, waiting for food to come by. When a fish, frog, snake or yummy-looking insect gets too close, the bittern’s long neck snakes down quick as a flash and the unlucky food item is snared. After a killing bite, or a vicious shake, the food is swallowed head first.
If, however, the bittern sees you first, it will likely go into its blending act. Bitterns are denizens of wetlands (bogs, marshes, wet meadows), and they hang out where emergent vegetation is tall (cattails and bulrushes). When they feel slightly threatened, these small herons thrust their beaks straight up towards the sky, exposing their striped necks and breasts. Now, instead of seeing a bird-shaped thing, you see a collection of plant stems, for the stripes are tan and blend right in with all the surrounding vegetation. If you look closely, you may see the two bright yellow eyes peering back at you around the sides of the beak – a bizarre sight if ever there was one.
But the best (and strangest) thing about this bird, in my humble opinion, is its vocalizations. Pliny, that great philosopher of old, thought the bittern (that would be the Old World bittern, not the American bittern) sounded like the roar of a bull, which in Latin was/is Boatum taurus. From this we get the genus name of bitterns everywhere: Botaurus. I’ve listened to bittern calls, both recordings and in the wild, and to me they don’t sound at all like a bull. For me the sound brings to mind the soundtrack accompanying a slow motion drop of water hitting a pond. Others claim it sounds like congested plumbing. Some of the bittern’s additional common names are suggestive of the sound: thunder-pumper, mire-drum. In order to make these strange sounds, the bird’s throat/neck goes through some stunning contortions; a friend commented to me that when he witnessed this he thought for sure the bird would give itself whiplash. To hear the bittern’s call, follow this link http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/id and look down the left side of the website for the button that says “Typical Voice”; press play.
If you want to hear (or see) a bittern yourself, hie ye to a nearby wetland with tall emergent vegetation around dawn or dusk (take your bug shirt). Find yourself a comfortable spot near some cattails and water, and wait. If bitterns are around (and they are fairly common), you are bound to hear them “booming” before too long. If you are really lucky, you may even catch sight of one as you peer into the cattails. Beware; it might just be peering back at you.
Last summer I grew some amazing sunflowers – they must’ve reached ten or more feet in height and over a foot across the blossom! I also grew some smaller sunflowers, in all shades from a chocolaty red to a brilliant yellow. My sunflower bed became one of my favorite gardens, especially last fall when the chickadees came to steal the seeds (afterall, I planted the flowers to provide food for the birds). Then I discovered The Great Sunflower Project (http://www.greatsunflower.org). This outfit’s goal is to sign up folks around the country to plant sunflowers and monitor them for bee activity. It’s kind of like the Lost Ladybug Project I wrote about earlier, except this time it’s bees that are in the spotlight. (The photo is from their website, by the way, taken by Ginny Stibolt.)
Most of us have heard about the crashing honeybee populations, better known as Colony Collapse. There are many theories out there as to why it’s happening, but I don’t think anyone has nailed down THE reason yet. Honeybees, however, are non-native insects, brought over to this part of the world for their honey-making skills and pollination efforts. That said, North America is home to many native bees (over 4,500 species of bees, according to the Great Sunflower Project’s website), most of which are important pollinators in their own right.
But even many our native bees are having some difficulty surviving these days. One reason, according to the website http://nature.berkely.edu/urbanbeegardens, is how we are gardening. The latest gardening fad is mulching, either with natural materials like wood chips or with synthetics like plastic or landscaping cloth. Mulching is touted for its weed-suppressing, water-conserving qualities, something every gardener appreciates. These ground covers, however, make it nearly impossible for ground nesting bees to find ground in which to nest. And in urban areas, which already have a surplus of impenetrable ground, thanks to roads, driveways, parking lots, lawns, etc., this can spell doom for some species of bees.
So, the Great Sunflower Project is recruiting gardeners, students, teachers and general nature nuts like me to survey our gardens for bees. If you sign up early enough, they send you a free packet of seeds (this year it was Lemon Queen Sunflower seeds). It’s too late now for the freebie seeds, but you can find Lemon Queens at many seed shops or catalogues. You plant your seeds, they grow and bloom, and then you watch for bees, timing how long it takes for five bees to show up at your plant(s). You send your data to them and that’s about it. But they aren’t looking for just any ol’ bee. Specifically, the sunflower folks want to know about bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees and green metallic bees. A quick buzz through their website will provide you with ID info for these species – it doesn’t get much easier than this!
Perhaps you don’t have sunflowers, or maybe you aren’t a sunflower fan. Not to worry – you can also monitor bee balm (if you need some, see me – I have a surplus of the stuff), cosmos (great companion plant for your veg garden, by the way, because it attracts these important pollinators), rosemary, tickseed and purple coneflower.
Maybe you are hesitant because you are afraid of getting stung. Did you know that bees are really quite shy and mostly are just too busy going about their own business to worry about you? About the only time most bees “attack” is if their nests are threatened (and by the by, male bees lack stingers). So if you are just puttering around your garden, taking notes on bees, they will happily ignore you and continue collecting pollen, sipping nectar, or looking for mates.
Need more reasons to participate? The Urban Bee Garden website has some great tips for bee watching, including interesting bee behaviors you can witness. For example, some male bees actually sleep overnight inside flowers; if you get up early enough you can catch them snoozing in their blossom bowers. Other males are very territorial, protecting “their” flowers from other males. In truth, they are on the lookout for females and spend most of their time driving away potential rivals.
This weekend I will probably plant my sunflower seeds and brace myself for the influx of bees. I’ve already noticed bees of many stripes about my gardens, some at the flowering shrubs, others hovering over bare ground, no doubt testing its potential for a nest site. I know that my yard is a great bee haven, thanks to the many flowering companion plants I scatter among the veg, but also thanks to my lax gardening standards: mulch is spotty at best these days. Watching the flowers for specific bees will give me just one more excuse to stay outside and learn something new about my fellow earthlings; the vacuuming and dishes will have to wait for another day.
Summer. The word conjures up images of the outdoors: sunshine, trees, beaches, birds, flowers. It is THE time to go beyond your door and explore the natural world. There are so many options that, as Calvin noted in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, “The days are just packed.” Here are three summer activities on my “to-do” list this year.
1. Orchid Hunting. Orchids are wonderfully strange wildflowers that hide out in many Adirondack wetlands. Some are in bogs (Ferd’s Bog, near Inlet, is famous for its white-fringed orchids), some are in roadside ditches (like the smaller purple fringed orchids I found last year near home and the green wood orchid I tracked down along the road to Tahawus). But I’ve also found ladies tresses on a dry roadside bank! The best time to go orchid hunting (and this is visual “hunting” – orchids are all protected by law, so do not collect or pick them) is mid-July through early August. Visit a wetland or roadside ditch near you, or go for a drive to a public wetland, like the Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (white fringed orchids, rose pogonia, and grass pinks await you there, although the latter two are at their best late June into early July). I recommend taking along Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to help you identify your discoveries. » Continue Reading.
Earlier this spring, after our first few bouts of significant rain, the red efts were on the move. They were tiny, measuring just a bit over an inch from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail, but their bright orange skin made them stand out brilliantly against the dark gray pavement of the road, and each one that I found got a lift as I carried it to a safer location off the road and into the woods.
Red efts are the terrestrial form of the eastern (or red-spotted) newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. More than just larvae, but not quite adults yet, red efts can be considered the teenager stage in the eastern newt’s life. » Continue Reading.
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.
“Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home Your house is on fire and your children are gone.”
I never really understood that little ditty when I was a kid. I mean, why would you tell this specifically to a ladybug, as opposed to a bumblebee or a dragonfly? As it turns out, there is a reason. A quick search on the Web turned up a neat little website on nursery rhymes: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/ladybug_ladybug.htm. It seems that in merry ol’ England it was traditional to burn the fields after the fall harvest to cut down on potential future insect infestations. The farmers knew that this beetle, which they call a ladybird, was the farmer’s friend (they are ravenous aphid-eaters), so this was essentially a courtesy call made to tell the insects to leave the fields before they set them on fire.
Today we find ladybugs mostly in our houses in the winter and spring. This is because these insects seek out good hidey-holes for hibernation (cracks along the outside of the house), and when they detect the warmth and light inside, they move on in. Ladybugs are totally harmless, but they can exude a foul-smelling orange goo from their legs if they are pestered. This is a defense mechanism meant to drive away predators, but to them a broom is just as aggressive as a bluejay, so if you try to sweep them away, they may leave this exudate on your walls and curtains. The majority of the ladybugs that turn up in your house are probably non-natives, the Halloween ladybug being the most common perpetrator. This species is orange and black, and often shows up in the fall.
Despite this apparent evidence to the contrary, many native ladybug species are in rapid decline. Back in 1986, when the nine-spotted ladybug was proposed as New York’s state insect, it was common, but by 1988 its population was in a tailspin. One hasn’t been seen in New York now since the late ‘80s. Only one specimen has been found since then in all of the eastern US, and that was discovered by two children in Virginia.
What can YOU do? Cornell University, home to many a citizen science project, has started the Lost Ladybug Project (www.lostladybug.org). This is a great hands-on project for kids, families, or adults. All you do is go out, look for ladybugs, take their pictures, and send the photos in to Cornell, along with the particulars of where you found the ladybug, when you found it, etc. There are three species they are especially interested in finding: nine-spotted, two-spotted, and transverse ladybugs. If you go to their website, they have lots if photos and color print-outs that can help you succeed in this mission.
I know that I’m going to add ladybug hunting to my list of outdoor activities this summer. I have a patch of tansy that in the past has been loaded with ladybugs, both adults and their larvae (which are strange-looking beasts). Chances are most of these will be introduced species, but you never know…lurking among the immigrants there just might be a native or two.
It’s human nature to get excited about the “charismatic megafauna” around us. Let’s face it: polar bears, elephants and eagles are impressive. But what about the other 99% of life on this planet? Where is the cheering section for sea slugs? Is there a “Hug a Millipede” campaign? What about bladderworts? As a naturalist, many people ask me what my favorite animal is, or they want to know my area of expertise. It’s a difficult question to answer because the more I learn about my fellow beings on this chunk of space debris, the more fascinating I find each to be. » Continue Reading.