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.



Saturday, October 23, 2010

October is Bat Month at Adirondack Almanack

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.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Adirondack Waters: Knowing Your Local Watershed

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.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Flights of Fancy: Featuring Feathers

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.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: An Adirondack Mob Scene

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!

Crows. Lots of crows. Crows upon crows. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Adirondack Small Mammals: Mice

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.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Adirondack Geology: Some Fascinating Rocks

I was going to write about skunk cabbage today, but I find myself sitting in a local rock shop where the proprietors offered to let me use of their Wi-Fi. Surrounded by all these geological wonders of the world, I feel compelled to tip my hat to some of our local geologic treasures.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, geology isn’t my strong suite, but I sure do love rocks. I suspect most of us do. Who hasn’t, at least as a kid, stuffed his or her pockets with rocks found along beaches, roadsides, or in gardens? Some of us never outgrow this obsession. And even though geologic terms run through my mind like sand through an hourglass, I am drawn to the varied forms and colors that most of us only encounter in rock or New Age shops.

When it comes to local (Adirondack) rocks of note, the one that springs first to mind is garnet. Garnet is found in pretty good quantity in the North River area, where Barton Mines is the primary business capitalizing on this semiprecious gemstone. I have been to programs where Barton representatives gave presentations, and it is simply amazing what garnet is used for. Most of us probably think of garnet as a lovely wine-red stone that is featured in jewelry and is January’s birthstone. But at Barton, much of the garnet that is mined is used for things like sandpaper, or to make a blasting compound that is used to etch glass. Who’d have thought it?

A mineral that we find in pretty good quantity around the Park is mica. Usually we only find little bits of broken flakes, but I have found small sheets sitting on top of the ground. In North Creek, at the Ski Bowl Park, some folks put in a lovely garden, complete with some terrific boulders. On these boulders are fanned protrusions of mica, thin sheets, stacked one on top of another, and then fanned out and emerging from the hardened grasp of the rock – it is amazing to behold.

Labradorite is a feldspar mineral found in large crystal masses of anorthosite. For those who don’t know, anorthosite is one of the major rock types in the Adirondacks, or at least in the High Peaks. It is a very old rock, not common on earth and found on the moon. One of the neat things about labradorite is the way it can shimmer with colors, an effect called labradoresence, or the schiller effect. Lesley, one of the shop owners here, showed me some labradorite rocks she picked up from the Opalescent up near Calamity Brook in the southern High Peaks. She polished them up and there, when the light catches it just right, it looks like blue and green northern lights skittering across the glossy surface. Of course, I had to purchase one for my collection.

Another interesting rock here in the shop is moonstone, which is a type of feldspar. Apparently rockhounds used to be able to mine it up in Saranac Lake. It isn’t a rock with commercial value, except in the rock-collector’s world. Lesley showed me a large chunk she got from up in Saranac Lake, as well as some jewelry made from small polished bits of moonstone. Like the labradorite, it has a bit of the schiller effect – a blue, green or even pinkish dash of color when the light hits it just right.

For those interested in Adirondack geology beyond the academic level, rock shops are the place to go. The folks who run these places love rocks and geology and are always willing to share their passion with others. I wrote before about the shop at Natural Stone Bridge and Caves, but other rock shops dot the park, like Lesley’s Minerals Unlimited in Long Lake. While much of her merchandise is from other parts of the world, she has a nice collection of local rocks and minerals that make a stop here well worth the drive.

Photo credit: Labradorite, courtesy Wikipedia.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fisher: Amazing Adirondack Weasel

It’s a baby bear! It’s a black panther! It’s a wolverine! No, it’s none of the above – it is the fisher, sometimes called fisher cat, a member of the marten genus, and the largest land weasel in New York (I’m considering otters to be amphibious).

We have a terrific fisher mount here at the Newcomb VIC that was donated a few years ago. This particular animal is exceptionally large; according to the gentleman who donated it to us, it weighed about 19 pounds. The largest fisher on record was 20 pounds. Most fishers weigh significantly less: males average 8-11 pounds, females 4-6 pounds. In our minds, however, they are much larger, as most predators seem to be.

Lots of misinformation surrounds the fisher, and not just concerning its size. The name alone is the cause of quite a bit of confusion, for it seems logical that anything called a fisher must have something to do with fish. Surely it hangs out near the water and eats fish. In truth, the fisher is an animal of the deep woods, and while its diet is incredibly diverse, the only accounts I have found of it actually eating fish are those where it stole fish that was used to bait traps for martens.

The best explanation I have found for this weasel’s name is really quite simple (and common): corruption of a foreign word. It is believed that “fisher” was originally “fichet,” a word the French used for the pelt of the European polecat (another weasel). This makes complete sense when one considers that some of the earliest European fur traders/trappers on this continent were French; they would have called things by names with which they were familiar. Over time, fichet became fisher; no fish were involved.

The 19th and early-20th centuries were tough on fishers. They faced a double-whammy survival-wise thanks to two human endeavors: trapping and logging. Both activities reached their peak by the late 1800s and early 1900s, declining by the 1930s.

When it came to trapping, fishers, especially the females with their significantly softer furs, were popular for scarves and the trim of coats and such. Prices rose steadily, which encouraged more folks to run trap lines. By the 1920s, fisher pelts were bringing in well over $100 apiece.

At the same time, logging was going full steam. Fishers are animals of the deep woods – they do not like open spaces such as farms and clearcuts. Between trapping pressure and loss of habitat, fishers were soon extirpated from much of their historical range in the US and Canada. By the 1930s, the Adirondack Park was one of the very few places that had a remnant fisher population.

In an effort to preserve the remaining animals, the fisher trapping season was closed. Enough fishers remained in intact ecosystems for the population to recover, and by 1949 New York opened the fisher season once more.

Today fishers can be found across much of New York State. This is due in part to decreased trapping pressure (a fisher pelt may get $30 to $50 today, a far cry from the nearly $800 price tag of the mid-‘30s), and in part to agricultural lands reverting to forest.

Over the years, I have followed many fisher tracks in the Adirondack woods. Their preferred gait, a lope, looks like a mysterious three-legged animal has cruised through the snow. Although fishers can easily climb trees, they prefer to stay on the ground, often using downed logs as their highways. Because they are solitary animals, you will rarely find fisher tracks grouped together, unless it is mating season.

Fishers mate in late March or early April, about a week after the female has given birth. This would seem to suggest that gestation lasts almost a whole year, which would be odd for an animal of this size. In fact, fishers enjoy delayed implantation, where the fertilized eggs remain in a state of suspended animation for about ten months, at which time they are implanted and official gestation begins, ending in the birth of one to six young about 50 days later.

Blind and helpless at birth, the young remain in the hollow tree den for several weeks. By the time they are five months old, the mother can no longer take the squabbling of the young and kicks them out of the family circle. Within a year, the offspring will have established their own ranges, and another generation of fishers takes on the world.

One of the comments I most frequently hear when visitors look at our fisher mount is something along the lines of “these are mean animals.” I make a point of telling them that “mean” is a human characteristic. Fishers are fishers. They are weasels, they are predators. They are, out of necessity, efficient hunters that can take down a porcupine almost as easily as a squirrel. If cornered, any animal will fight – a fisher may be just a bit more aggressive because it is a predator and used to taking on others. Does this make the animal mean? No – it makes it a successful hunter.

That said, it is best to keep your cats and poodles inside at night. Fishers have been known to snack on pint-sized pets that are left outside. But otherwise, having a fisher in the neighborhood is kind of a nice thing. I’ve only seen fishers three or four times – and each time the animal was dashing across the road, seeking the shelter of the deep woods. I find it comforting to know that this medium-sized predator has done well in the Adirondacks, a link to a past where primeval woods covered most of the eastern US.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Adirondack Development: A Naturalist’s View

You know, we aren’t half lucky, those of us who live in the Adirondacks. I drove home this weekend to visit my folks, and even though they don’t live that far away, and I do go home a few times each year, I still find it stunning to see all the development that has taken place during my lifetime, especially in the last ten years. Fields that were pastures, land that was once forested, all now converted to housing developments, strip malls, car dealerships, storage units.

I read an article recently about the houses that are going up on the mountainsides up around Keene and Keene Valley, and how the creation of these homes, with their driveways and parking areas, altered the watershed(s) enough that streams at the base of the mountain(s) are no longer filling.

This in turn has a direct impact on the invertebrate life that lives in those streams, invertebrates that not only feed the next level in the food chain (fish, amphibians, larger invertebrates), but invertebrates that also clean the water by filtering out particulate matter. The impacts of a single house go beyond its immediate footprint on that mountainside.

When a house/airport/mall/road, is built, the patch of land it covers is “removed” from the surrounding landscape. Anyone who gardens knows that the vitality of the soil is the key to a good garden. It is also the key to a healthy ecosystem. When we cover the ground with impermeable surfaces, it cannot be good for the life that was once there. If water can no longer penetrate that patch of ground, then the life that once lived there either dies or moves away.

At the Newcomb VIC we have a recorded dramatization of the congressional meeting at which the 14th Amendment, the Forever Wild Clause, was created. It plays in the background in one of the exhibits, and staff sitting at the front desk can hear those parts in which the actors are making loud, emphatic points. Certain phrases stick out, like the gentleman describing how logging has led to erosion, where the water, now unimpeded by vegetation, “sweeps down the mountain, carrying away the soil…ruining our rivers and destroying our commerce!” For those who don’t know, one of the driving forces for creating the Adirondacks Park, and the enclosed Forest Preserve, was to protect it as a watershed. Okay, it was to protect the water source for the folks downstate, but still, the point is that even then they knew about the importance of the watershed.

In my line of work I often hear people grouse about the restrictions that are put on development within the Blue Line. But one only needs to drive beyond this invisible boundary to see just why such restrictions are important. Every year more and more open space is converted to developed land. New homes are built faster than people can occupy them. Roads are built, shunting ever more rainwater and snowmelt (with their attendant pollutants) into streams at accelerated rates.

I know that I lean towards the green side of philosophy, but I like to think it is because I try to look at the bigger picture and keep an eye towards the future. We are but one species living on this planet, and as far as we know, it is the only habitable planet in the neighborhood. How selfish it is of us in the here and now to create/destroy things for our own wants and desires without taking into consideration the impact it will have on those whose time has not yet come. Just because we are of “greater intelligence” than those invertebrates filtering the streams, ponds and rivers, does that make us more important? Truthfully, I think those invertebrates are contributing a whole lot more to the betterment of the planet than we are.

But I know I am not above my fellow humans, for I also drive a car (although I drive the most energy efficient vehicle I can), I live in a development (although I have filled my yard with native plantings, and I do not treat my land with chemicals so I can have the perfect lawn), and I own way too much “stuff.” I do try, however, to make decisions that have the least impact possible on the land around me. Would I like a bigger house? Yes, but I don’t need a bigger house. And I think that is what it often comes down to: need vs. want. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

I know that living in the Adirondack Park can be a hassle. It is often a long drive to the grocery store, or to get new pipes for the ruptured pipe under the kitchen sink. And it can be well over an hour to the nearest hospital in an emergency (I used to be an EMT, and believe me, an hour plus in the back of an ambulance can seem like a lifetime). With unemployment in my future, finding a replacement job will be well nigh impossible. But, despite these drawbacks, I know that the Adirondack Park is a very special place and not one I would change to accommodate a few whims. I moved here knowing the limitations. If I wanted conveniences, I would live somewhere else.

As a naturalist, I hope that the integrity of the Park and the Forest Preserve, lasts in perpetuity. An intact ecosystem is important, and even though we see ourselves as pretty advanced here at the beginning of the 21st century, I’d be willing to bet that in a couple hundred years (or less) we will have discovered even more about how important it is. With all our advanced knowledge, we do not hold all the answers yet. By keeping this bit northern forest intact, we may find that we’ve done the planet a greater service than we ever could have dreamed.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adirondack Invasive Alert: Viburnum Leaf Beetle

I had a request over the weekend to write a piece about an invasive species that has been in the news off and on over the last six to eight years: the viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni). A native to most of Europe, it first showed up in Ontario, Canada in 1947 and has since made its way into the northeastern United States. Today it is found in Maine, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Normally considered a pest to ornamentals, it seems that this small beetle, which is no more than about a quarter inch long as an adult, is now making some headway into our native viburnums. It is, therefore, time to bring it forward into the limelight once more. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Adirondack Botany: A Bevy of Beechdrops

If you find yourself walking through the woods in late summer/early autumn, and you come across what looks like a slender, branched twig stuck in the ground, take a closer look. It could be a stick, or it just might be a really nifty plant: beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana).

Now, I know what you are thinking. That can’t possibly be a plant, or, if it is, it is dead. The lack of “verdure” (or, as described in Gray’s New Lessons and Manual of Botany (1868), “herbs destitute of green foliage”) is an immediate indication that you are looking at a very special plant, a plant that is wholly dependent on others for food.

Neltje Blanchan wrote in her 1917 book Wild Flowers Worth Knowing likened beechdrops to thieves:

Nearly related to the broom-rape is this less attractive pirate, a taller, brownish-purple plant, with a disagreeable odor, whose erect, branching stem without leaves is still furnished with brownish scales, the remains of what were once green leaves in virtuous ancestors, no doubt. But perhaps even these relics of honesty may one day disappear. Nature brands every sinner somehow; and the loss of green from a plant’s leaves may be taken as a certain indication that theft of another’s food stamps it with this outward and visible sign of guilt.

It’s beautiful writing, rather poetic, but sadly casts human traits onto nonhuman lives, in this case a poor hapless plant whose only fault is that it cannot make its own food.

Perhaps we should take another look at beechdrops. Neither thieves nor helpless, maybe we should consider them as opportunistic, perhaps even an advanced lifeform. Why waste energy making your own food when you can eat the food produced by others? HM…it sounds thoroughly American to me!

Over the eons it this plant has cast aside the need to have leaves (note the previously mentioned scales). Leaves exist to provide additional photosynthesizing surfaces. If one does not photosynthesize, one has no need for leaves.

Still, a plant has got to eat, and if it isn’t making its own food by mixing up sunlight with water and CO2, then it must find another food source. Beechdrops have a special structure on their roots called a haustorium. This structure grows out of the stem, root or hyphae of some parasitic plants, and on beechdrops it grows from the roots. The haustorium engulfs the root of the target plant (beechdrops are obligate parasites of beech trees) and taps the root for its life-giving sap.

Neltje mentioned beechdrops’ disagreeable odor. The plant is highly astringent, filled with compounds that make it beneficial medicinally, but not necessarily something one would want to add to a nosegay. Native Americans and settlers alike knew the benefits of beechdrops, which could help cure diarrhea and dysentery, heal wounds (antiseptic), work as a sedative, and even sooth aching eyes. At one point in time beechdrops were used as a folk medicine for cancer, although modern testing found it had no such virtue.

I came across a couple rather robust stands of beechdrops recently. What struck me as odd was that there wasn’t a beech tree to be seen! Because these plants are entirely dependent on beeches for survival, they shouldn’t have grown where I saw them. Admittedly, I was in a hurry, so I only did a quick scan of the forest; it is possible I overlooked the host plants. After all, it was a pocket of hardwoods, mostly sugar maples. Beech trees traditionally grow with birches and maples, so they should have been there. I’ll have to return and conduct a more thorough inventory.

If you find some beechdrops, you will want to have a seat and really look at them. They are quite beautiful, with small, striped, tubular flowers. Purple, red and brown are the colors they sport, and they wear them well.

You might think, as you gaze upon the plant, that the flowers on the lower end of the stem are just buds, waiting to open. In fact, they are fully fledged flowers in their own right, but they are cleistogamous. This means that they never open – there is no need for them to open because they are self-fertilized. The flowers closer to the top of the plant, the ones that form those delicate tubes, are chasmogamous and therefore require fertilization.

Why a plant would have both kinds of flowers? Some careful thought soon brings enlightenment. This is a plant that grows close to the ground (no more than a foot and a half tall, often less) in the woods. There is little wind near the ground (so much for wind-pollination), and there isn’t a whole lot of insect activity at this time of year in the woods. If a plant isn’t smelly and able to attract flies, it may not get a whole lot of action. So, some plants, like beechdrops, hedge their bets by producing a few flowers that require pollination, but also producing flowers that are completely self-contained, just in case. Based on the literature I’ve read, they’ve made the wise bet – it seems that the flowers that actually do get pollinated by visiting insects don’t produce fertile seeds, only the cleistogamous flowers are able to reproduce.

So, let’s not shun the parasitic plants. They have an otherworldly beauty about them and have merely tapped into a surplus foodsource not of their own making. It’s an entirely modern way of living, and since we as humans have embraced this lifestyle, I think it’s only right that we give a friendly nod to those plants that have done so as well, for they are, perhaps, kindred spirits.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Adirondack Herbs: Heal-All

Yesterday evening the dog decided to take our walk around behind the rescue squad building. A variety of wildlife no doubt travels this corridor, so it was not surprising that his nose led us in this general direction. My nose is not as sensitive as the dog’s, but my eyes are drawn to things that he probably thinks are dull – like a white flower blooming at the corner of the building.

White flowers that are not asters are not common at this time of year. In fact, the only white flowers that come to mind are the aforementioned asters and nodding ladies tresses. The plant that caught my eye was neither of these; it was heal-all (Prunella vulgaris).

You all know heal-all (alternatively known as self-heal, heart-of-the-earth, carpenter weed, blue curls, sicklewort, and woundwort): it is the short, stocky plant that grows in your yard, sporting purple blossoms throughout the warm seasons. The key point here is that it normally has purple blossoms. The plant I encountered last night was white. There are rogues in every population.

Most people probably consider heal-all a weed. It disrupts the perfect lawn. Ah – how we have changed. Not all that long ago this was a plant sought by people from all walks of life, for it is edible and medicinal, making it highly desirable.

The modern lawn is often a barren wasteland, botanically speaking. Chemically controlled to prevent all but a very few plant species from growing, not to mention to keep out all sorts of insects, it may look like a lovely plush green carpet, but it’s lacking in character and life. Once upon a time, the lawn was a veritable salad bowl, chocked full of all sorts of edible plants, not the least of which is/was heal-all. Highly nutritious, if bitter, it used to find its way into salads, soups and stews. It could even be boiled and used as a pot herb. Considering the amount of heal-all in my lawn, I could open a U-Pick stand if it was still popular!

As important as this plant was to supplement the human diet, it was as a medicinal herb that it found its niche. At one point in time, it was considered to be a panacea. Have a sty in your eye? Use a rinse made from Prunella. Have a fever? Prunella will save the day. Stomach ailment? Diarrhea? Internal bleeding? Wounds that won’t heal? Prunella to the rescue!

As it turns out, this humble herb, which is mostly Eurasian in origin (although recent studies have turned up a native variety, Prunella vulgaris elongata), contains many compounds that are truly beneficial in the field of medicine, not the least of which is a strong anti-bacterial property. This quality alone would explain why the plant was so often sought to help heal wounds in the days before germs were common knowledge.

Modern medicine is now studying the effects of heal-all as a treatment for herpes, AIDS, cancer and diabetes.

If food and medicine aren’t enough to convince you to keep heal-all in your yard, then consider this: it is an important nectar source for a large variety of native pollinators (bees and butterflies), not to mention that its leaves are a food source for the larval form of the gray marvel moth.

While I’ve taken the time to look at heal-all in the past, it wasn’t until this white form grabbed my attention last night that I decided to take another look. There’s a moral here: it’s often pays to look twice at those things which we take for granted. There might be a hidden quality that we’ve missed in our assumption of the common.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ampersand Mountain Salamander Research Expedition

The Wild Center’s Assistant Curator Leah Filo and Staff Biologist Frank Panero will lead an off-site research project to look for salamanders on Ampersand Mountain on Saturday, September 11th at 9 am. Participants will be hiking off trail surveying for salamanders and species richness. This is a great opportunity to learn about the ecology of salamanders in the Adirondacks, participate in an active research project, as well as get a chance to meet some of these elusive creatures up close.

Two-thirds of all salamanders live in North Eastern North America. The Wild Center’s research project is part of a larger, ongoing salamander study that has existed since 1999. Participants should be prepared to hike off-trail over rough terrain. This program is free and open to the public however registration is requested. Group size is limited to 12 people.

The program will start at 9 am at the Ampersand Mountain trailhead located halfway between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake on Rte. 3. Register at www.wildcenter.org or call Sally Gross at 518-359-7800 x116. This program is suitable for participants ages 12 and up.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Reptiles: Adirondack Turtles

I love turtles. I know, it seems I start a lot of articles with expressions of extreme admiration for whatever the featured species is that day. What can I say – I find nature to be endlessly fascinating. That said, I think turtles are special, and the more I learn about them, the more amazing they become.

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. Digging deeper, though, we find even more fascinating information.

Four species of turtles live within the Blue Line: 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.

Snapping turtles, those truly dinosaurish turtles, are probably the turtle we see most often. Every spring the females leave their watery homes in search of the perfect sandy spot in which to dig holes and lay eggs. Most of these eggs will be eaten by predators, but the survivors hatch by late summer. Sometimes the newly hatched turtles leave the nest immediately, while others opt to remain in the relative safety of the nest over winter, which explains why baby snappers are found on the move in both the spring and the fall. When they aren’t out searching for nest sites, these turtles are most often lying low in the muddy substrate of shallow, slow-moving waters, which is why their shells are “mossy” – these turtles are not baskers. Despite the apparent commonness of the species, recent population studies show that snapping turtles are in decline across New York State, mostly a result of fatal encounters with motorized vehicles.

Wood turtles are close to my heart. I see them every spring as they, too, search for perfect nest sites along the sandy shoulders of our roads. Their populations are considered sporadic, possibly because they are terrestrial and often on the move. One of our larger turtles, the wood turtle stands out among its brethren on two accounts: it has brilliant orange markings along its neck, forelegs and tail, and it is considered to be quite intelligent. Sadly, these turtles are frequently exploited in the pet trade, which compounds their losses to fast-moving traffic.

I know we have painted turtles in the Park, but I seldom see them. Most likely this is because they like particular types of wetlands, of which I am also quite fond, but I don’t get into them nearly enough to encounter painted turtles on a regular basis. Common and widespread, the painted turtle is the one we all know by sight: dark with red and yellow lines “painted’ along its neck, legs, tail and shell.

Our fourth turtle is the Blanding’s. This may not be a species most people have heard of, which isn’t too surprising. In New York it is a threatened species; I’ve only seen two in my life, both of which were in captivity. The first had been hit by a car and the facility where I was working was taking care of it until it could be returned to the wild. The second, which I saw this summer, was a “pet” belonging to a herptetologist. Blanding’s turtles are on the largish end of the land turtle scale, smaller than the snappers, but comparable to wood turtles. What stands out about these turtles is their highly domed shells and their yellow chins. If necessary, the Blanding’s turtle (named for William Blanding, by the way, a physician and naturalist from Massachusetts, who collected the original specimen in 1830) can close the front end of its shell, ala box turtle, for protection. (Box turtles can actually close both the front and back ends of their shells.)

And now, some of the fascinating things we should all know about turtles.

First, it takes an awfully long time for a turtle to become reproductive (ten or more years). It is currently believed that this is because after birth young turtles put most of their energy into developing their shells. The turtle’s shell is its means of protection, and until the advent of the motorized vehicle, it served the animals well. Once completely developed, the turtle’s shell is a formidable defense. There aren’t too many natural predators that can kill a turtle. A good shell, therefore, is imperative to survival; offspring can come later.

Next, there’s the method by which a turtle breathes. Like reproduction, a turtle’s breathing is tied in to its shell. Anyone who has seen a turtle shell sans turtle has noted that the animal’s ribs are fused to the inner carapace (the carapace is the upper portion of the shell; the plastron covers the belly). You and I manage breathing because our rib cages can expand with our lungs. Not so the turtles. Instead, they have a special musculature that, as so eloquently put in The Reptiles and Amphibians of New York State, “ sloshes the internal organs back and forth to draw air in and out of the lungs.” Curious about this, I did a little more digging. One set of respiratory muscles pulls all the internal organs outwards towards the edges of the shell. This allows the lungs, which are located near the top of the shell, to fill with air. The second set of muscles pushes everything back inwards, pressing against the lungs to expel the air. How wonderfully adaptive!

Temperature affects sex. That is, temperature determines the sex of the animal . When I first learned this, I thought it was just amazing. It seems that the warmer eggs develop into females, while the cooler eggs, which tend to be toward the bottom of the nest, develop into males. Depending on climate, some years nests can hatch out mostly female turtles, while other years the balance tips in favor of males. Will climate change affect this? If most nests yield females, how will our turtles find enough males to reproduce? Interesting question.

It breaks my heart that so many species of turtles are in decline. We (as a species) eat them, capture them for the pet trade, toss them aside as by-kill in the fishing industry, and run them over with our cars. Their homes are lost to development and pollution. I sometimes wonder if this ancient line of animals, who have survived so much, will ever survive humans. So, perhaps it isn’t too surprising that I experience great joy every time I see a turtle.

Wild turtles shouldn’t be pets, and pet turtles, which may not be native species, should not be released into the wild when the novelty wears off. If you see a turtle trying to cross the road, slow down – don’t run it over. If traffic is slow, pull over and assist the turtle in its journey. Never pick a turtle up by its tail (I don’t care what popular belief is – this can/will injure the turtle). Be cautious around the business end of a snapper – its name is well deserved.

I encourage everyone to enjoy turtles, and with a little common sense, it is easy to do.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Adirondack Crows, Ravens, and Jays

While most people like birds, some are totally ga-ga over them, while others downright fear them. When it comes to the corvids, though – birds informally known as members of the “crow family” – it seems it’s an either/or situation: either people hate them because they are “cruel,” “mean,” “vicious” birds, or they are intrigued by them because they are “clever,” “intelligent,” and “ingenious.” Somewhere in the mix, the truth lies.

Here in the Adirondacks we are lucky to have four species of corvids: ravens, crows, blue jays and gray jays. A fifth species, the fish crow, is listed as “rare” in the Lake Champlain Basin, so we can consider it an Adirondack possibility, but one exhibiting low probability. A more southern species, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fish crow became a more frequent visitor to our region, along with vultures and cardinals, as our climate continues to change. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Adirondack Bovidae: Bison or Buffalo?

“So, Pat,” I said, “got any burning natural history questions you’d like answered?” She stared at me. “What?” “I need a topic for an up-coming article and I’m fresh out of ideas.” She pondered for a while and then asked “what are those animals at the Buffalo Farm?”

“Ah!” I said. “Those would be bison, scientific name Bison bison bison, commonly called buffalo by most people because they don’t know they are actually bison. The buffalo,” I continued, “is actually a wholly different animal, native to Africa and parts of Asia, like the water buffalo (Asia), and the Cape buffalo (Africa).”

“Then why do they call bison buffalo?” Good question.

Not too many years ago, in geologic time, New York used to be home to one of the largest land mammals to call North America home, the eastern wood bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus). [Note: some authorities claim that this is an invalid subspecies.] According to the literature, these animals were larger than the plains bison of Western fame, with darker, almost black, fur (wool? hair?), grizzled around the eyes and nose, and an almost negligible hump over the shoulders. The last wild herd was slaughtered over 200 years ago down in Pennsylvania (winter 1799-1800), and the last individuals were wiped out in West Virginia twenty-five years later. Not too long after that the plains bison would be headed down the same path (although, fortunately their total annihilation was prevented).

Another subspecies of wood bison, Bison bison athabasca, called western Canada home. This animal is also larger than the plains bison, and its large hump rises forward of the front legs, making it easily distinguishable from its plains cousin, whose hump rises above the front legs. Probably because western Canada was settled more slowly than the American west, these wood bison held out longer. 1900 is usually given as the date by which they were considered to be extremely rare, but, like the plains bison, they avoided extinction. Today about 3000 still roam wild.

So, how does this tie in to the Adirondacks? Well, we do have that bison farm. Some folks have speculated that the bison on this farm are hybrids, a bison-beef combo known as a beefalo. According to their website, however, these animals are 100% plains bison – the same animals (well, the same species) that Buffalo Bill would’ve eyeballed when he roamed the plains. Bison meat is really quite good – it has a fine flavor and is very lean. The animals, however, apparently have a less-than-amenable disposition.

Is it possible that the eastern wood bison, which populated New York and points south (as far south as Georgia), made its way up to the Adirondacks? I posed this question to a friend of mine who has a fondness for extinct megafauna. He speculates that an Adirondack presence was probably unlikely since these animals were grazers, and let’s face it, until the last hundred years or so, there wasn’t a whole lot of open space for grazing in these here mountains. The rugged terrain and dense forests, not to mention all the wetlands, would probably have been a great deterrent to these mighty animals.

Still, it is fun to speculate on “what might have been” back when the glaciers started to retreat. All sorts of giant mammals roamed North America: giant ground sloths, the stag-moose (or elk-moose), mastodons, woolly mammoths. Then there were the carnivores, like the dire wolf – the name alone almost makes one shudder. Might any of these wondrous animals have tromped the trails to our backcountry lakes and ponds? Maybe not, but just because we’ve found no bones, doesn’t mean that one or two didn’t pass this way.

Now, as to why bison are called buffalo, here’s what I found out. Going back linguistically to the Greek, we have “bison,” which referred to a large, ox-like animal. The French called oxen “les boeuf”. It seems that French fur trappers called the animals they found here “les boeuf” because they reminded them of they oxen back home, and, as will happen with languages, the word stuck and was corrupted, eventually becoming “buffalo.”

Finally, just in case there are some folks out there who will insist that a bison by any other name will still smell the same, here are some buffalo vs. bison factoids:

Buffalo: 13 pairs of ribs; no hump
Bison: 14 pairs of ribs; big ol’ hump at the shoulders

Also, bison are considered to be more like mountain goats, muskoxen, and big horn sheep than buffalo, although all are in the same family, Bovidae. And, just for the record, there is a European bison, too, which is smaller than the American version, and is mostly found today in Poland, although there are some small herds living in neighboring countries.

In the meantime, there are some modern day bison that call the Adirondacks home, and they can be found not too far from Newcomb: down the Blue Ridge Road, just off exit 29 from the Northway in North Hudson. Because these are wild animals (don’t let the word “farm” deceive you), visitors cannot get up close to them (a wise precaution – bison can be snarky animals). But, there is a great viewing platform right there where one can gaze down into the pastures and almost picture what it might have been like 500 years ago…just outside the Park.

Photo courtesy The Adirondack Buffalo Company



Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.

Support the Adirondack Almanack and the Adirondack Explorer all year long with a monthly gift that fits your budget.