Almanack Contributor Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

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

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

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

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Thoughts on Flies and Death

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

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


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cedar Waxwings: Silk-Tailed Birds of the Cedars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Adirondack Wintergreens: A Plethora of Pyrolas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* this is the one pictured above


Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Adirondack Weather: Cloud Gazing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***ROYGBIV


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Natural History Field Work: Value of Repetition

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

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


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Adirondack Plants: Indian Cucumber Root

Now is the time to hit the woods if you want to find Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana), for not only are its two-tiered leaves quite visible, but it is now bursting into blossom, and these are flowers you simply have to see.

Indian cucumber root is a member of the lily family, which to many of us seems odd, since lily leaves look rather like green tongues sticking out of the ground. However, if you look closely, you will see that the veins on the leaves run parallel to each other on the cucumber root as well as the other lily family members. This is a trait to look for when you are out botanizing.

When the plant is young, or when it lacks the energy to reproduce, it produces only one whorl of leaves. At this point in time, it is easily mistaken for starflower, although the latter’s leaves vary in size from less than an inch to almost three inches, and the leaf veins are not parallel to each other (it is not a lily). When conditions are right, however, stand back and wait to be impressed.

In some areas where it grows, Indian cucumber root can reach heights upwards of two feet. About half way up, it sports a whorl of five to nine leaves, all the same length. From the center of this whorl, the stem continues its skyward journey, ending in a second set of about three smaller leaves. There is nothing else out there that looks like this.

From now until the end of the summer, when you find one of these plants, you should look beneath the upper set of leaves for the yellowish-green nodding flowers. Take a close look at these flowers, for they are quite intriguing. The pale petals fold back, like a Turk’s cap lily, and from the center emerge three long reddish styles (part of the female reproductive bits) and several purple stamens. The color combination is striking, and the styles almost give the flower a spidery appearance.

Once fertilized, the flowers slowly convert into fruits. During this conversion, the flowers lose their droop. The pedicles straighten so that the purple-blue berries stand erect above the top tier of leaves.

Many people are most interested in this plant’s edibility. Historically, the native peoples of eastern North America dug the rhizomes* for food as well as medicine. The small white rhizomes, which measure only one to three inches in length, are reputed to have a cool, crisp, cucumbery taste, and are good eaten raw or lightly cooked with other vegetables. Doug Elliot, who is famous for his wildcrafting, writes that he took first place at the Fryeburg Fair for his Indian cucumber root pickles.

Today, however, the plants are not terribly common, and in Florida and Illinois they are listed as endangered. Because most of us do not need to wildcraft for our food, it is best to simply file away the information about the edibility of this plant under the category of interesting plant lore rather than actually harvesting it for a meal. Also, we should keep in mind that plants growing on state land are all protected by state law, so it is not legal to harvest them.

Edibility aside, this is still a spiffy plant, and one that is very easy to identify in the moist woodlands of the Adirondack Park. A quick jaunt down any of the VIC’s trails will likely yield at least a half-dozen of these plants. Stop on by and take a gander at them.

* Rhizomes are essentially horizontal stems, which usually grow underground. Stolons are also underground stems, but they sprout off from the main stem. Tubers, which the edible part of Indian cucumber roots are often called, are the swollen tips of rhizomes or stolons and are used by the plant for storage (eg: potatoes).


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Adirondack Entomology: Appreciating Jumping Spiders

I like spiders. They are clever, they are colorful, they are beneficial. Spiders come in a stunning array of sizes, shapes and colors. Some build webs to catch their food, others go fishing, while still others hunt by ambush. With the exception of a few truly venomous species, which most of us will never encounter, there is really very little about spiders to dislike. Still, many people find them creepy and go through life squashing any spider they meet. It’s a sad state of affairs, but some folks simply refuse to see anything beautiful in spiders.

Today I’d like to introduce you to one of our more interesting spiders: the zebra jumping spider (Salticus scenicus). This is a tiny spider, measuring 4-8mm if it is a female, 4-6mm if it is a male. It has black and white markings that make us think of zebras, and hence the name. But what really draws me to this spider are its eyes.

Like all jumping spiders, the zebra jumper has excellent vision. This isn’t just because it has eight eyes, but because two of those are huge, face forward, and have moveable retinas. What this all boils down to is binocular vision that can track moving objects.

If your head was held immobile, you could still move your eyes to watch what is happening around you. The jumping spiders cannot move their eyeballs, but they can move the retinas in those two large front eyes. This comes in very handy if you make your living stalking and pouncing on your food.

Jumping spiders, especially these little zebra jumpers, are famous for watching things, like those who are observing them. Give it a try the next time you see one of the little fellows. All you have to do it lean in close and it will turn its body and move its head so that it’s looking directly at you. You can tell when it’s looking at you by noticing the color of the eyes. As the retinas move, the eye color changes. When it is totally black, you are being watched.

Next, hold your finger a foot or so in front of the spider’s face. Move it around. Odds are, the spider will focus on your finger, tracking it with its eyes and moving its head to keep it within sight.

As mentioned, these spiders have eight eyes, which are arranged in a line around the spider’s head, kind of like Geordi LaForge’s visor. The two large ones on the front are flanked by two smaller ones that are also forward facing. The remaining two pairs are placed further back along the sides of the spider’s head (technically, this is the cephalothorax, which is a body unit that combines both the head and the thorax). The end result is that jumping spiders have peripheral vision that enables them to see all the way around their bodies. Sure wish I could do that!

Jumping spiders are diurnal, and you can likely find them near, or even in, your house. Look for them on sunny days hanging out on walls, fences or plants, where they will be hunting. When another spider or insect comes along, the jumping spider sizes it up. Most prey items are smaller than the spider, but the zebra jumper has been known to take down mosquitoes, which are up to two times its own size. Like a cat, these spiders slowly sneak up on their prey from behind and then pounce, immobilizing the meal with a quick bite. (Yes, they are venomous, as all spiders are, but their venom won’t hurt you, assuming they bit you, which they are highly unlikely to do since you are way too big for them to eat.)

Safety is always a priority, though, or it should be, and jumping spiders follow this rule, too. Before leaping after a potential prey item, a jumping spider will anchor itself to the surface on which it is standing. This is done by gluing a strand of silk to the surface. This is about the only time these spiders spin out silk, for they don’t build webs. (The other occasion which calls for silk-spinning is when the female makes her egg sac.) Now, should the spider miss its prey or tumble out into space, it is tethered to a solid object and need only climb back up its silken ladder to safety and a new attempt to catch some food.

Having spiders in our houses is really kind of nice, when you think about it, for they consume all the other insects that also live there. Don’t think you have insects in your house? Well, that could be because the spiders are doing their jobs. So the next time you see a spider in your house, think twice about killing it. Even evicting it isn’t a solution, for it will likely find its way back in. And, just in case you were wondering, most spiders found in your home are species that have evolved over thousands of years to live in human abodes. If you chuck them outside, they will just return, for su casa es mi casa is their motto. And really, for the services they render, they ask only for very little: a dark corner in which to set up housekeeping. It’s worth it in my book.

Photo: Zebra Jumper (Salticus scenicus). Photo by Olaf Leillinger for WikiCommons.


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water Avens: Understated Wildflower Elegance

It was about three years ago that I first stumbled upon water, or purple, avens (Geum rivale), a native perennial of some of our soggier soils. I was walking along the Sage Trail, just crossing the boardwalk that rises above a boggy area, when my eyes were caught by a rather unusual flower. It’s purplish, brownish, reddish, yellowish colors stood out while at the same time serving to conceal the flower in its sun- and shade-dappled home. I plunked myself right down on the boardwalk and took out my field guide; I had to know what it was.

Since then, I have encountered water avens on several occasions, and every time I stop and marvel, for this unassuming wildflower is yet another perfect example of one of Mother Nature’s hidden beauties. Not showy like pink ladies slippers, not fragrant like balsam poplar, not social like daisies, it hangs out in habitats that are seldom visited by casual travelers, where its subtle coloration keeps it fairly well hidden.

Water avens is in the rose family, and I’ve seen photographs of the flower that show a definite rose-like form, but when I look at it, I’m more readily reminded of columbines; perhaps that is because dark outer sepals protect the often yellow inner petals, a combination seen in our wild columbines. Not only that, but the flowers droop, their faces hang towards the ground, another columbine-like quality.

When it comes into bloom, this flower attracts several insect pollinators, primarily bumble bees, but also a few flies (like the syrphids) and beetles. However, on the off chance that no insects come around, the plant has a back-up plan. As each flower grows, its stigmas (the female part) ripen first, which prevents self-pollination. Maturation continues, though, and the stamens (the male parts) continue to elongate as they ripen. Eventually the stamens shed their pollen on any remaining stigmas that have not already been cross-pollinated thanks to the efforts nectar- and pollen-seeking insects.

Once fertilized, hooked seeds develop. This is another great survival strategy, for thanks to those hooks, the seeds can hitchhike on the fur of some passing animal to take up housekeeping in a new location, thus spreading the range of the plant beyond its own back yard.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am interested in the uses to which people have put plants over the years. Some plants have rich histories, full of all sorts of lore and superstition. Others have nothing more to recommend them than their names and locations. I was expecting water avens to fall into the latter category, but one of its common names made me suspect I was wrong: chocolate root.

It turns out that water avens has quite an extensive history of usage, both medicinal and culinary. Many native peoples used it to treat a variety of ailments associated with the stomach, digestion, and even the common cold. In truth, it has anti-inflammatory properties, is antiseptic, and can induce sweating, making it good for treating fevers. I even read that the dried root can be used as a moth repellent. Its most intriguing use, however, was as a substitute for hot chocolate. The rootstock was boiled and made into a chocolate-like beverage. I knew I liked this plant!

Water avens is in bloom from now until the summer ends, so you have a pretty good chance of finding one if you visit wetlands. There is a fair amount of variation in the color of the petals, however. Some are purple, others pink, and still others are yellow. Regardless of petal color, the sepals are dark purple, and the flower droops – both characteristics that are bound to catch your eye. A delightful flower, it is well worth the search to find.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bunchberry: Fast Flowers in the Adirondack Park

One of the signature plants of the North Country is just starting to bloom: bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). This low-growing plant, which reaches towering heights of 2-8”, is actually considered a shrublet, and in many aspects it is identical to its more southerly relative the flowering dogwood.

Take a walk through almost any patch of Adirondack woods now and you are bound to see this striking plant. It’s four green leaves, with their gently curving veins, are smartly offset behind the four white bracts that are often mistaken as the plant’s petals. It’s only the diligent nature nut, who gets down on his hands and knees to look closely at the plant, who will see the actual flowers, for they are the tiny bits that form what the rest of the world thinks is the center of a white-petaled flower.

And it is these tiny flowers that have amazed and stunned the world of natural science. With the assistance of a good handlens, you can see the flowers up close. When closed, they look pretty unassuming, with four small greenish-white petals that come together at their tips. One of these petals has a awn, or a hair-lik projection, at its tip. So far, none of this is particularly impressive. What happens when that awn is touched, however, rocked the science world.

Bees, such as bumblebees and solitary bees, are some of this plant’s primary pollinators. As they fly from plant to plant, they brush against these hair triggers. With a speed that is unmatched by any other living thing, the petals burst open. At the same time, the stamen (part of the male reproductive structure) is driven forward by water pressure built up in its cells. Along the stamen are hinged structures containing the pollen. With a force that would pulverize any space ship at the launch pad, the pollen is flung upwards away from the plant and driven deep into the fuzzy hairs covering the unsuspecting bees. Completely unaware of what has happened, the bees fly off to the next plant and get peppered with more pollen while at the same time shedding some pollen from previous explosions.

The end result of all this pollen flinging is, hopefully, the production of small, bright red berries, which are terribly popular with a wide variety of wildlife. Spruce grouse, moose and veeries are among the many animals that frequently dine upon the lightly apple-flavored fruits. Even people can eat them, and apparently bunchberry jelly is a treat for those who go through the efforts to make it. In the 19th century bunchberries were popularly used to thicken plum puddings.

A denizen of cool, acidic soils, bunchberry cannot tolerate having its roots in dirt that exceeds 65 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other hand, it can survive all but the most severe of forest fires. In other words, this is an ideal plant for our boreal forests.

If you miss seeing it bloom this week, fret not, for bunchberry continually reblooms throughout the growing season. Any time from now until the snow flies, if you find yourself walking past a cluster of dwarf dogwoods, hunker on down and give one of the plants a gentle poke. If you are lucky, you might witness a puff of pollen as the plant tries to enlist your finger in its quest to pass its genes into the future.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

Overlooked Adirondack Grasses, Sedges and Rushes

Birders love their birds, and botanists love their flowers; rock-hounds love their rocks and minerals, and entomologists love their insects. But who loves the grasses, sedges and rushes? Even though some members of this group of plants have become global celebrities (wheat, corn, rye), most are overlooked by the majority of people, or at least they are in this country, where the knowledge of local plant life is no longer vital to our daily survival.

Those who took a basic botany course in college probably learned some version of the rhyme “Sedges have edges and Rushes are round; Grasses have joints where elbows are found,” an amusing bit of poetry designed to help students learn which of these plants were which. As with all such things, there is an element of truth in it, but every rule has its exceptions.

Learning to tell grasses from sedges from rushes can be a challenge and one that not too many are willing to tackle. We like grass in our lawns and not in our gardens (unless it is ornamental), but there our knowledge ends. In an effort to try and stimulate a little interest in these seemingly “boring” plants, let me share some quick descriptors from Grasses, an Identification Guide, by Lauren Brown.

We’ll start with grasses. Grasses have (usually) round stems that are (mostly) hollow, and long narrow leaves with parallel veins. When you get to the part of the stem where the leaf is attached, the stem is solid and a little node or joint is formed. The base of the leaf (called the sheath) wraps around the stem at this joint. On grasses the sheath is split open along part of its length. When a grass blooms, its flowers grow in two rows along the stalk. The base of the flowering portion of the plant has two empty scales (no flowers inside).

Sedges can look a lot like grasses to the untrained eye. Keep in mind, though, that they have solid stems, and their stems are often, but not always, triangular (hence, they have “edges”). The leaves, which are also long, narrow and have parallel veins, wrap around the stem, too, but their sheaths are entirely closed. The flowers grow in a spiral around the stalk, and there are no empty scales at the base of the flowering section. You will tend to find sedges in cooler and wetter areas than grasses.

This brings us to rushes. Rushes are round (but then, so are most grass stems). Their leaves are also similar to those of the grasses and sedges: long, narrow, and with parallel veins. Their stems can be solid or hollow. Unlike the grasses, however, they don’t have nodes/joints. And unlike the grasses and sedges, their flowers are terribly tiny and occur in a circle at the very tip of the stem. Described as lily-like, the flowers have three petals and three sepals. Like the sedges, rushes prefer cool, damp habitats.

Recently a friend and I were out exploring the Ice Meadows of the Hudson River, just outside Warrensburg. This is a special habitat that runs for about 16 miles along the course of the river, where the heavy snows and ice of winter collect to depths often in excess of ten feet. Spring thaws send these small glaciers grinding along the river, scouring the cobble-strewn shore and rocky upthrusts of all but the most tenacious of plants. Anything tall and resembling a shrub stands very little chance of surviving the seasonal onslaught. The end result is one of New York’s few native grasslands. But don’t expect to find something that looks like the prairies of the Midwest. These grasslands would probably be better named “rocklands,” but the term Ice Meadows suits.

Our goal this particular morning was to find and photograph dwarf sand cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), a lovely sprawling plant that is on the state’s protected species list. We found it blooming in all its glory and immortalized it in pixels. The highlight of the walk for me, however, was a sedge.

Like most folks, I haven’t taken the time to try and learn many grasses, sedges or rushes. Oh, I have a of couple books, and on more than one occasion I have declared I’m going to learn them, but soon they seem overwhelming in their similarity and difficulty to ID. In truth, however, there are plenty of differences if we just take the time to learn them.

This particular plant caught my eye because of its lovely colors (see photo above). I had never seen such a grass (which I incorrectly thought it was) before. The black and green striped scales were stunningly beautiful. I was seized by its splendor like a teenager dazzled by a movie star.

My botany buddy told me that it was Buxbaum’s sedge (Carex buxbaumii), a threatened species in New York State. This was another target species for our trip here, although admittedly it was secondary to the dwarf sand cherries. Most of them weren’t blooming yet, but that was fine by me, for it was the bicolored pistallate scales that had me enthralled.

It turns out that Buxbaum’s sedge, also called brown bog sedge, is a circumpolar species that has a global status of G5 (secure), while in NY its abundance is listed as S2 (imperiled). It was named after Johann Christian Buxbaum, a German botanist who lived from 1693 until 1730. I’m not sure if he “discovered” this plant or not – sources have not been forthcoming on this point. As for the label “brown bog sedge”, well, it likes wet, boggy areas, and the stripes on its scales are actually brown, not black.

The delightful discovery of this unassuming plant has renewed my interest in learning my grasses, sedges and rushes. A daunting task, perhaps, but not impossible. With the added incentive of hanging out with other amateur botanists whose knowledge of plants is nothing short of impressive, I feel pretty confident that this summer I will master at least a few of these treasures that are hidden in plain sight.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Carpenter Ants: Marching One by One

It happens every year. The heat of summer arrives and the ants are on the move. I usually first see them in the evening when I take the dog for his walk, and then again the next morning. The apparent migration lasts for several days. Who are these ants, where are they going and what are they doing? I had to know.

First I needed to know what kind of ant I was encountering. I headed out last night with my camera and attempted to photograph some of these insects. It seems that whenever I need a close-up of a plant, the wind blows. Likewise, when I need a close-up of an insect, it insists on continuously moving… rapidly. Still, determination was on my side and I finally captured a couple images that were good enough for ID.

I suspected these were carpenter ants simply because of their size. My insect field guide has images of two carpenter ants: the western carpenter ant and the black carpenter ant, the latter of which is common here in the east. But, my ant is not totally black; it has a red thorax. I needed a better ID source.

Once more, www.bugguide.net came to the rescue. Within half an hour of posting my photos the answer came back: Camponotus noveboracensis, the New York carpenter ant. This is a nearctic species, which basically means it is found in the northern parts of North America. How lucky are we New Yorkers to have a carpenter ant named after us?

When it comes to carpenter ants, most of us have an understandable aversion, for they can be the bane of the homeowner’s existence. When I bought my house, the insurance company went over details of my policy with me over the phone. One comment that the agent made has always stuck with me: we don’t have termites up here, so we don’t have to worry about that. But she said nothing about carpenter ants.

Termites eat wood; carpenter ants do not. Still, carpenter ants are not called “carpenter” for whim alone. These large ants live in wood. A newly fertilized queen seeks out a damp, rotted stump or log to set up home. Damp, rotted wood is soft and easier to excavate. She finds a suitable site, enters, breaks off her wings, and commences the business of creating a colony: excavating a nest and laying eggs.

Because she has no workers to help her out with this first batch of young, the queen has to take care of them all by herself. She never leaves the nest to forage, so when her eggs hatch into hungry larvae, she feeds them from reserves in her own body. Because this food is rather Spartan, these larvae end up pupating into rather runty adults, which are known as “minors.” Once they are all grown up, these minors live to serve their queen: they forage for food, further excavate the nest, and raise the queen’s subsequent broods.

Adults born from later broods are more robust (and thus called “majors”), thanks to the foraging efforts of the workers (which are sterile females). When they are full adults, they join the workforce as additional workers. Slowly the colony builds up. By the time the colony is about four years old, there may be 400 individuals populating it.

It isn’t until the numbers swell to about 2000 (six to ten years) that the colony is ready to divide. At this point the queen lays eggs that hatch into winged females and winged males, both of which are called “reproductives”. These hormonally active adults are produced at the end of the summer and spend the winter at home with Mom and all their sisters. When the first really warm weather of the following spring arrives, they head out in search of mates (ah-ha!). After mating, the males die and the newly inseminated females, now queens in their own rights, seek out stumps or logs to call home.

So, it turns out that the (mostly) winged ants that I’ve been seeing on the roads are the reproductives. Knowing that once the colonies are large enough to expand and form satellite colonies, which are often in our homes, I don’t feel too guilty when I step on any individual that gets too close to my foot.

But when do they become problems in our houses? As mentioned above, the queens seek out soft damp wood because it is easier to excavate. If your house has damp conditions, you may be a target for carpenter ants. But even if your house is high and dry, well-ventilated, free of foundation plantings and woodpiles, you could still have carpenter ants, for satellite colonies are not as fussy as the queen in the parent colony. No, these industrious individuals are just as happy to take up residence in solid wood – the timbers of your home. Here they excavate extensive galleries that enable them easy access to other parts of your house, to food, to friends and family.

If you see piles of sawdust collecting about your house, you should be suspicious. You should also look for trails in your yard, for these ants are a lot like people, building highways for repeated use and maintaining them for ease of travel by keeping them free of debris and vegetation.

They also like sweets. While insects and other arthropods make up a large part of the carpenter ants’ diet, they also collect the sweet exudate, or honeydew, produced by aphids. And they seek out rotting fruits.

Eliminating carpenter ants from your house can be a real chore, for you have to eliminate the parent colony in order to have any real success. And if you have carpenter ants, you really should look into getting them under control, for they can seriously damage the structural integrity of your home.

Still, in their rightful place out in nature, carpenter ants serve a useful purpose by helping turn old, rotting trees into sawdust that eventually becomes part of the soil of the forest floor, creating a continuously self-renewing and balanced ecosystem. And it’s hardly the ants’ fault if we provide them with such lovely abodes in which they can take up residence. We just need to build better and learn how to make our homes less appealing to our small carpenter friends.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Butterfly Behavior: What is Puddling?

While watching a couple hawks the other day, something smaller flew past me – a tiger swallowtail butterfly. Is it possible it is already that time of year? Later on, while walking along the road, I saw two more. This time they were on the ground, steadfastly holding their place along the roadside, regardless of how close I stalked them. They were focused on the ground – they were puddling.

Puddling is a behavior many butterflies (and a few moths) engage in. Puddling sites can be any of a number of places: mud, dung, fermenting fruit, carrion, urine. The key is the chemical make-up of the site, for these butterflies are looking for something specific: salt (sodium) and minerals. The two I saw the other day were benefiting from the road salt that no doubt saturated the sandy shoulder of the road.

Mostly when we think of butterflies, delicate, colorful creatures come to mind, like flower petals drifting on a gentle summer breeze. We picture them flitting from flower to flower, sipping nectar here, sipping nectar there. And while nectar sipping is certainly part of a butterfly’s repertoire, it isn’t necessarily enough.

Flower nectar is a high-sugar liquid that provides limited nutrition to those who partake. If all you are looking for is quick energy, it might be enough, but butterflies have something else on their minds. They need to reproduce, and let’s face it, sugar water isn’t going to give you everything you need to produce viable offspring.

So off to a puddling site the butterflies flutter. Most of the puddlers are males, who ingest the salts, minerals and amino acids that the liquefied source provides. These nutrients are then stored in the sperm. When the time comes to mate, the male passes these goodies along to the female as a nuptial gift in his spermatophore. The female is now in possession of the “extra boost”, which she then passes along to her eggs. Eggs that receive this extra nutrient gift have a greater chance of success than those that do not.

The first time I saw puddling butterflies, I was a child walking along a dirt road with my grandmother. Along the way we passed a puddle that was loaded with small yellow sulfur butterflies. The looked like little sailboats, rocking gently from side to side as the wind caught their folded wings. It was enchanting.

Years later, I attended a butterfly program at which the presenter told us the best way to attract butterflies to your property was by putting out carcasses (roadkill being a good source) and piles of manure. This wasn’t quite as enchanting.

I recently read that if a butterfly cannot find a moist site, it will regurgitate onto the soil and then drink, hopefully gaining some nutrients that dissolved in the, uh, saliva. Also not quite so enchanting, but any port in a storm, eh?

While most of us are not likely to schlep a flattened rabbit home to sling into the back yard on the off-chance the butterflies might like it, there are plenty of other ways we can provide puddling opportunities. We can put out trays of fruit that has seen better days (beware, though, for it will also attract bees). We can put out shallow basins of water into which we’ve mixed a pinch or two of salt. We can keep a patch of lawn or garden free of plants and keep it well-watered.

Here at the VIC we sort of combine these. We take a bird bath and fill it with sand. To this we add some water, just enough to keep the sand moist. Then we add some stale beer, or maybe some juice and a pinch of salt. Again, it may attract bees, but that’s okay because this artificial puddling site is located in our butterfly garden, which is full of plants and flowers that butterflies and bees alike enjoy. Some plants are ideal for nectaring, while others are host plants for larvae. The addition of a puddling site makes the garden an all-around great place to watch butterflies and observe butterfly behavior.

As the seasons progress, keep your eyes peeled for butterflies in low, damp areas. Tiger swallowtails are champion puddlers, but don’t be surprised if you see some sulfurs or even a cabbage white or two. The imbibers will be so engrossed in their meals that you can sneak up quite close for a good look. Bring your binoculars along and a child. This is a great experience to share as you watch the insects uncoil their long tongues and push them into the substrate to drink. Then go home, make a fruit smoothie, stick in a straw and share with the child as you pretend to be butterflies.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Battling Dandelions in the Adirondack Lawn

Eventually, every naturalist writes a piece about dandelions, those golden discs of sunshine that dot our lawns, raid our gardens, and provide hours of entertainment for children and frustration for adults. The time has come for me to write mine.

The dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is, quite frankly, an alien invasive. And like many invasives, it has done quite well on our side of the pond. But we really should consider all aspects of this plant before we make any judgments. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Adirondack Woodpeckers: The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

Out along the walkway coming down to the main building here at the VIC, we have an old, hollow snag. There’s a perfectly round hole in the side that I’ve often thought was ideal for a chickadee, but I’ve never seen a bird fly in or out of the tree. One year I took our Treetop Peeper, a cavity camera that is mounted on a telescopic pole, and tried to peek inside the hole, but the opening was a just a bit too small for the camera head, so I never found out if it was being used by birds or not. This morning, however, I heard a loud whack-whack-whack as I came down the walkway. I thought for sure a pileated woodpecker was drilling away, but instead what I saw was its much smaller cousin, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

First off, you have to love that name: yellow-bellied sapsucker. It sounds like an insult some rustic dude from the Old West might sling at another rustic dude about whom he had a poor opinion. But, when it comes to birds, it is a pretty apt descriptor. The bird, after all, does have a somewhat yellowish tint to its underside, and it does consume the sap of trees, although not by sucking. More on this in a bit.

The sapsucker is one of the smaller woodpeckers in our area, coming in just behind the hairy. Like its relatives, its feathers are mostly black and white, with a touch of red. Both the male and female sport red caps, but only the male has a red throat patch (see photo). And like all good woodpeckers, the sapsucker has stiff tail feathers that act as supports while the bird climbs trees and whacks away at the wood.

When it comes to excavating trees, the sapsuckers make two types of feeding holes. The first kind is round and deep. Into these holes the bird plunges its beak to extract sap. The second type of hole is more rectangular and shallow. These holes are maintained over the course of several days to keep the sap flowing. The bird uses its brush-like tongue to lick up the flowing sap, and any insects that are stuck to it.

Now, there is an art to this whole hole-making jag. You can spot a sapsucker tree at a distance for it will have a series of horizontal rows of holes going around the trunk. The bird makes these rows, one on top of the next, for a reason: they dam up the flow of the phloem sap in the summer. Phloem sap? Time for a little tree physiology 101.

Trees have phloem and xylem – two “types” of wood. The xylem is the part that provides structure to the tree – most of the wood. It also contains the “vessels” through which water and nutrients rise from the roots to the leaves of the trees. It is xylem sap that maple sugerers tap in the spring to make the sweet stuff we put on our pancakes and waffles. It is mostly water.

Phloem, on the other hand, is the part of the tree (wood) that carries nutrients from the leaves back down towards the roots. It is closer to the outer edge of the trunk. The sap that runs through the phloem is thicker, being chocked full of all sorts of nutritious goodies: proteins, amino acids, sugars, etc. It doesn’t flow in the same manner that xylem sap flows. Which raises an interesting question among tree and bird folks: how does the sapsucker keep the flow, well, flowing?

Apparently scientists have studied this and have tried to come up with an answer with little success. Attempts at mimicking the sapsucker’s techniques have met with failure. The conclusion is that there must be some sort of anticoagulant in the bird’s saliva that keeps the tree’s sap fluid enough to flow. Kind of like vampire bat saliva, which has been found to be useful in medicines for patients suffering from blood clots and heart disease, but that’s fodder for another post.

So, we have these birds making row up on row of holes, creating a backlog of sap in the phloem cells above the holes. Each new row taps into this stored sap, providing nutrients not only to the sapsucker, but to a whole host of other animals, from squirrels and porcupines to warblers, hummingbirds and insects. In fact, the sapsucker has been given the label “keystone species” for the role it plays in maintaining food sources for a variety of lifeforms within its community.

Not only that, but it seems that these birds target trees that are often already in poor health. Apparently trees suffering from insect damage, weather damage (wind, lightning), or disease produce a greater amount of protein and amino acids in their sap – no doubt a last ditch effort to try and heal themselves. This extra nutrition is highly attractive to sapsuckers – a bigger bang for their buck, so to speak. This also means they are less likely to tap into healthy trees, which cuts down on the likelihood of the birds irritating foresters and the timber industry.

If you suspect you have yellow-bellied sapsuckers in your woods, you can find out fairly easily by listening. Not only do they have a cat-like call, but when they are whacking away on a tree, the sound is quite distinctive: you’ll hear a series of about five rapid whacks, followed by three or so slower, quieter whacks: WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK-WHACK …whack…whack…whack. Add this to the discovery of trees riddled with rows of holes, and you can be pretty sure that yellow-bellies have taken up residence in your neighborhood.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pin Cherry: An Overlooked Adirondack Native

A little bit of sunshine, a little bit of rain, and suddenly the trees are in bloom. It starts off slowly, with our friend the shadbush, but before you know it, white blossoms are springing forth from trees and shrubs all around us. In just a short amount of time, the novelty of delicate white flowers can become mundane, as one flowering shrub starts to look like the next. Add to this some similarity in names, and it is not surprising that many of our native shrubs are unknown or misidentified. In an attempt to shed some light on this confusing subject, today I give you the pin cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica).

The pin cherry is a small tree, or a large shrub, I suppose, depending on how you look at it. Further south, in the Great Smokey Mountains, it can reach heights of 30 to 40 feet and a diameter of 20 inches. Around here, however, I’ve only seen it as a fairly small tree – a giant if it reaches ten feet. This could be because the deer browse it heavily in winter, preventing it from gaining much height. What it lacks in stature, however, it seems to make up for with stems – instead of a single trunk rising serenely above the surrounding vegetation, it grows into rather dense copses, sometimes mixed in with its relatives the choke cherries (P. virginiana), black cherries (P. serotina), and the look-alike choke berries (Aronia sp.). And when they all come into flower, they can be difficult for the novice to tell apart, especially at a distance.

Pin cherry, also called fire cherry, bird cherry, wild cherry and red cherry, has long, narrow, dark green leaves that are very finely toothed along the edge. The delicate white flowers grow in clusters from single points along the branches, much like the needles on a white pine or larch. Each flower blossoms at the end of a long stem. When the flowers become fruits, they resemble large-headed pins, like the hat pins used by women long years ago. Today we might liken them to corsage pins.

The other common names are equally easy to interpret. The birds (and other wildlife) happily feed on the wild red fruits in fall. When a disturbance, like fire, moves through the forest, this pioneer species is one of the first to produce seedlings in the newly opened spaces. This is because the seeds can remain viable in the soil upwards of a hundred years! Just add sunshine and voila!

Insects also delight in this unassuming shrub. Spring brings bees and flies galore to sup at the flowers, making the whole plant buzz with life. Come summer, look for white trails on the leaves – these are the mines made by the larvae of a small moth known only by its scientific name: Bucculatrix copeuta. This moth is a true specialist, for its larvae feed on nothing but pin cherry leaves.

While a boon to wildlife wherever it grows, and a delight to the eye in the spring with its froth of flowers and in the fall with its glowing-coal-red leaves, to the logger pin cherry is naught but a weedy thing, a tree with no timber value. Reading through Donald Peattie’s A Natural History of Trees one can tell that this is a species for which the author has little regard, which is surprising considering the elegant prose and great praise he provides across most of the pages of this book.

Still, the fruits are edible by people as well as wildlife. I found a couple recipes online for pin cherry jelly and pudding. The important thing to remember is that the seeds/pits (as well as the leaves and bark) do contain hydrocyanic acid, which is toxic, so be sure you only eat the flesh of the fruit.

Last spring I planted a row of native shrubs/trees along the border of my property. Two of these plants were pin cherries. While each of the thirteen new shrubs was barely more than a stick with roots when placed in its new home, the pin cherries burst forth with blossoms this year. What a pleasant surprise when one isn’t expecting anything more productive than leaves for the next two or three years. I’m sure the birds will also appreciate the earlier-than-expected fruits when fall returns in a few months’ time.



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