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, May 8, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bluebirds in the Adirondacks

Last month I was talking with a friend about my bear invasion and asked if she’d had any problems at her house yet. She told me no, and that she was leaving her feeders up because she wanted to get some bluebirds at her house. Are you putting out mealworms, I asked. No, just birdseed, she replied. When I told her that bluebirds are insect eaters, not seed eaters, she told me that another local woman had told her that her feeders were loaded with bluebirds, and had been all winter. AH, I said, she means blue jays.

Not all blue birds are bluebirds.

One of the first things I do when I give a bluebird presentation is show pictures of blue jays, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks. All three of these birds have lovely blue feathers (which technically are not blue; when it comes to feathers, the color blue is a result of light and feather structure, not an actual pigment), but there the similarity ends.

Blue jays are members of the crow family, and can be found in the Adirondacks year round. They are fairly large birds, with pointed crests on their heads and long tails out behind. The light blue feathers are nicely offset with black and white markings, and their loud “JAY!” is unmistakable. These birds are frequent visitors to bird feeders, hoovering up seeds like there’s no tomorrow (they can store numerous seeds in their throat pouches for later consumption), and especially like peanuts. You can have a lot of fun with blue jays by setting up Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions for them to figure out in order to get to a peanut reward.

Indigo buntings are a delight to see, mostly because they are uncommon. When one shows up, it may linger for a day or two at your bird feeder, but then it moves on. I’ve only seen indigo buntings a couple times in my life, but their solid almost-neon blue coloration will remain in my mind’s eye forever.

Based on range maps, blue grosbeaks are unlikely to be seen this far north. Like their cousins the evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, they have, well, gross (large) beaks, which are handy for opening large seeds and cones.

The bluebird, however, is a seasonal visitor that, given the right set of circumstances, you can see every spring and summer in the Adirondack Park. Those circumstances are habitat: they like open spaces with short grass, and they need cavities in which to nest.

Farmland, cemeteries, golf courses, and yards are all ideal places for attracting bluebirds because the land is open and the grass is usually kept short. Why is short grass so important? Bluebirds hunt for insects by perching on a branch, or fencepost, or tombstone, and watching the grass for movement. When an insect is spotted, the bird flies down to the ground to grab it. If the grass is too long, the bird has a harder time finding its prey, and the insects have a greater chance to escape capture.

Historically, bluebirds nested in cavities excavated (usually by woodpeckers) in rotting trees, but people began cutting down these trees. Then invasive species, like house sparrows, house finches and starlings, started to compete for the remaining nest sites. Bluebird numbers took a real nosedive. The invention of the nestbox in the 1930s, and the subsequent establishment of bluebird trails, has made a real difference in bluebird populations, to the point where today just about anyone has the chance to see a bluebird, something our parents and grandparents could not claim when they were younger.

For the last week or so I’ve been on the lookout for bluebirds on our local golf course, where I maintain a small trail of about eight nestboxes. Two evenings ago I saw a flash of blue flit over the pocket wetland on the fourth fairway, and last night I heard the unmistakable call of several bluebirds while the dog and I traversed the first fairway. They were back. I watched a pair of bluebirds flying from the treetops to the box tops, no doubt checking out the real estate and the local housing market.

Back in April I’d made sure the boxes were cleaned out and repaired (one had to be completely replaced), and last week I noticed a couple boxes had been filled with moss: black-capped chickadees were taking up housekeeping. Last night I peeked into one of these to see if the chickadee was present, and there she was, peeking back out at me. I slowly closed the box and left her to her thoughts.

Most of my boxes are put up in pairs, a technique recommended in areas where tree swallows are present. Tree swallows are native birds that also nest in tree cavities, and bluebird nestboxes are the perfect size for these helpful insectivores. Unfortunately, they are very territorial birds and have been known to evict bluebirds from their nests, even going so far as breaking eggs and bodily removing nestlings. By pairing up your nest boxes, you give the bluebirds a chance, because tree swallows will move into one box and prevent other tree swallows from moving into the second. Bluebirds who have been evicted may move into the second box and try again.

It was after 8:00 last night when the dog and I finally got back home, and I was delighted to see a bluebird fly from the utility lines towards my yard, where I have five more nestboxes set up. To encourage the bluebirds to choose one of my boxes, I usually purchase a bag of mealworms, which I keep in my ‘fridge and slowly dole out to these would-be neighbors. This can be a real boon once babies hatch, for finding enough food for their gaping maws can be a challenge for the parents, especially if they are faced with a cool and wet summer. By providing mealworms early in the season, I can establish a food source for these prospective parents and perhaps sway their choice in nesting sites.

I encourage everyone who has a patch of open land to build (or purchase) a couple nestboxes and put them up. You’ll want to mount them on posts about five feet high, and ideally away from trees predators can use to gain access. Predator guards placed around the posts will also help protect your birds from raccoons, squirrels, snakes and cats. Make sure your nestbox has a door that you can open so you can monitor the box and its inhabitants. Checking your nestbox once a week is usually enough to make sure your birds are safe and doing well.

Once the eggs are laid, it’ll be about two weeks until they hatch, and another two to three weeks until the babies fledge. You’ll want to stop opening the box when the nestlings are about ten days old to avoid startling them into fledging before they are ready to fly. Keep a small bowl of mealworms handy, and you will have a happy bluebird family close at hand.

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the bluebird in his 1903 book Birds of Ohio as “Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” What a wonderful description of these chirpy backyard friends.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Balsam Poplar – The Balm of the Adirondacks

Every spring, at about this time, there is a day when I step outside and find my olfactory senses drowning in a spicy sweet aroma. The scent is so powerful that it blocks out all other senses, the brain focusing on this and this alone. The fragrance brings to mind dark rooms filled with incense, or images of the ancient orient, and yet its source is completely and wholly native: balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), an otherwise unassuming pioneer species of the boreal forest.

It took me several years to discover the source of this fragrance. I first encountered it while working in The Great Swamp in New Jersey. No one there knew what it was. I didn’t smell it again until I came to the Adirondacks, and that first spring, there it was. My head snapped up and I looked around. “I’ve smelled this before,” my nose was telling me. Scent is a powerful memory stimulant, and this scent is one of the strongest. My search for an answer began. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Fly Honeysuckle: A Sweet Adirondack Native

In today’s world, the word “honeysuckle” is bound to get mixed reactions. To some people, it brings back memories of childhood, when they would gather the flowers and suck out the sweet nectar. To others, it conjures up olfactory reminiscences of the air filled with a sweet, sweet scent. In these days of invasive species of awareness, a good number of us think of honeysuckle as an evil, aggressive invader, taking over yards, fields, wetlands and forests. And all of these opinions would be correct, for there are about 180 species of honeysuckle in the genus Lonicera worldwide (all within the northern hemisphere), and each has its rightful place on the planet and in our memories.

Here in the Adirondacks, we are lucky to have several species of native honeysuckle: American fly (Lonicera canadensis), wild/glaucous/smooth-leaved/limber/mountain (L. dioica), hairy (L. hirsuta), swamp fly (L. oblongifolia), trumpet/coral (L. sempervirens), and waterberry/mountain fly/northern fly (L. villosa). None are considered rare or of special concern, and yet how many of us have, knowingly, encountered them?

Personally, I can only claim having come face-to-face with one of these shrubs, and that is the American fly honeysuckle. Usually blooming in the central Adirondacks in May, this year it began putting forth its twin, pale trumpets in mid-April. These delicate yellow flowers, sometimes tending towards a greenish-yellow, dangle almost completely hidden beneath the plant’s leaves. As you can see in the photo, I lifted the leaves for a better view. Later in the summer, these flowers are replaced with bright red fruits, paired, looking kind of like miniature glossy red mustaches.

Like all good honeysuckles in the family Caprifoliaceae, the American fly sports opposite branching. The leaves, growing in pairs on opposites sides of the branch, are oval-shaped, and if you look very closely at the edge of a leaf (you need a good handlens), you will see a fringe of hairs. Do these help protect the plant in times of cold weather? I have my doubts, since they are not terribly thick and woolly, and they only occur on the margin of the leaf. Still, they must have some significance, even if the world of science hasn’t discovered it yet.

Last night I looked through all my plant books (and that’s a good number, with volumes dating from the late 1800s right up to modern times) for some nifty information about American fly honeysuckle, but found nothing. Eventually I decided I’d settle for any lore about any of the honeysuckles. The world of botanical literature has let me down. The most interesting thing I could find was that the genus (Lonicera) is named after a 16th-century German botanist: Adam Lonicer (1528-1586). Reading up further on this fellow, I found that he was rather quite accomplished. He received his Master’s degree by the time he was sixteen-years-old. He went on to become a medical doctor, a mathematics professor, and quite the herbalist. Apparently his passion was in plants. His is most noted for his revision of Eucharius Rosslin’s herbal (book) in 1557. He called his herbal the Kräuterbuch.

Many of the Eastern Woodland natives knew that honeysuckles had some medicinal properties, too, for Native American Ethnobotany lists several of our native species, American fly among them. While treatment for various venereal diseases was a biggie in the lists, it seems that an infusion of the bark was equally important for calming children who spent the night crying – it is a sedative.

American fly honeysuckle is listed as an important nectaring plant for hummingbirds. Hm. Looking at the state of the flowers in the woods here, I’m thinking those hummers had better show up pretty soon if they want to take advantage of this food source, for many of the blossoms are looking rather past their prime. This could be a side effect of the recent snow, however, for I also saw a number of flower buds. Even so, hummingbirds usually don’t arrive in Newcomb until almost the second week of May. It seems we have another example of seasonal shifts and their effect(s) on wildlife.

If you should decide that you want to plant honeysuckle around your property, please take advantage of our native species. Some can be quite lovely, with flowers of yellow, orange and even red. Believe it or not, the red trumpet, or coral, honeysuckle, which is a vine, is native. So go ahead and put this in your gardens – the hummingbirds will love you for it. And forget the Japanese and tartarian honeysuckles. While beautiful, sweet, and full of bees when their blossoms open, they are “vigorous growers,” a gardening euphemism for aggressive invaders. Instead, support your local wildlife by supporting your local native plants.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: The Vagaries of Spring

How many of you cringed when you heard yesterday’s forecast for up to a foot of snow here in the Adirondacks? And how many merely smiled and said “of course…this is the Adirondacks”? However you look at the meterological foibles of the North Country, you have to admit that living up here keeps us on our toes.

Now, I should confess that I am personally responsible for our latest snow storm. Yes, it was I, for last weekend I foolishly decided to plant my peas. But, in my defense, “they” say you can plant peas as soon as the ground can be worked, and this year that could’ve been March! Peas are supposed to be pretty hardy, though, so I’m sure this white coat the ground is now wearing will do very little harm to the hard round peas that are an inch or so beneath the surface.

But what about all the other trees and shrubs and non-woody plants that greened up early? I took this photo on my way in to work this morning – I love the way the new green leaves stand out palely against the white snow. It’s a lovely color. But will they survive? How much damage will they suffer? I suspect that since the temperatures did not drop radically (we were only 30 degrees Fahrenheit last night), they will come through okay.

Many plants are perfectly well-adapted to the seasonal vagaries of spring. The next time you are out wandering the woods this spring, take a look at the stems and leaves of the earliest bloomers. Odds are you will find that at least some part of these plants is covered with hairs. On some these hairs are fine and a challenge to see, while others are covered with a robust downiness that looks downright furry.

Take coltsfoot, for example. Coltsfoot is probably the earliest “wildflower” blooming around here. Usually not open until about the second week of April in my neck of the woods, this year it presented its first blossoms on the 4th. One might be led to think that this flower had been fooled by the ridiculously warm weather we had in late March and early April, but closer examination of the plant shows that it is prepared for any cold weather emergency. Each stem is covered with overlapping scales as well short hairs, both of which help insulate the plant from the wildly erratic temperatures of spring.

Some plants merely close up their flowers when the temperatures head southward. I imagine this is a strategy to preserve nectar for pollinators. After all, bees and flies and other pollinators won’t be flying around when the mercury falls – they are “cold-blooded” creatures that need warmth in order to move, and if they aren’t flying around looking for food, then they won’t be doing any pollinating. The flowers are better off closing up the shop until the sun comes back out and the customers return.

I was driving through central New York yesterday, in the snow, past all those apple orchards that make this state a major player in the apple market. I didn’t see many trees in bloom, but then it was snowing pretty heavily and I was keeping my eyes mostly on the road ahead. But I know that many fruit growers have been concerned as their fruit trees burst into flower earlier and earlier each year, only to get walloped by a “late season” snow storm (which in truth isn’t really late – everything else is early). When that happens, there isn’t much they can do, for apple blossoms are not designed for freezing temperatures.

Already, though, the snow is melting – large, heavy clods are dropping from branches and roofs. By the weekend, the weather prognosticators say the temps will be soaring up to the seventies! All this snow will be gone – a mere memory recorded in photographs and on blogs. The plants that were prepared will continue to blossom and grow. Those that weren’t will either shrivel up and die or will rally their forces and try to produce a new set of flowers/leaves. It’s the cycle of life. They don’t agonize over it. You either adapt and move on, or your genes do not make it into the future. Hm…sounds like a lesson to me.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Adirondack Geology: Mysteries of Rocks and Minerals

Geology – it’s the backbone of this planet, and one area in which I find myself deficient in knowledge. It’s not that I don’t like rocks – I had quite a large collection as a kid, and even today I am drawn to rock shops. It just seems that geology is something my mind refuses to hang onto. Oh, the broad strokes are easy enough to remember (like how the Adirondacks are built of some of the oldest rocks on Earth, but the mountains are fairly young), but the little details, well, those I always have to relearn. So, I thought I’d put myself through a small crash course in rocks and minerals, and on the off-chance that others out there are similarly confounded, I decided to write about my findings.
First, what is the difference between a rock and a mineral? A mineral, according to Discover Nature in the Rocks by Rebecca and Diana Lawton and Susan Panttaja, is “the solid phase of a non-living, naturally occurring substance.” Minerals are composed of atoms arranged in a crystalline structure. Now, these atoms could be all of one kind, like they are in native metals. For example, in silver all the atoms are silver atoms. Other native metals include copper and gold. Some minerals, however, are composed of molecules of more than one kind of atom. Many multiple atom minerals are familiar, like table salt, which consists of sodium and chloride atoms. Chemically we call table salt sodium chloride, while its mineral name is halite. Minerals found, and some even mined, in the Adirondacks include mica, quartz, garnet, and pyrite.

Rocks, on the other hand, are all part of the Earth’s crust. From the small pebbles that get into our shoes to the glacial erratics and mountains that make the Adirondacks what they are, all these rocks originated in the thin layer that covers the molten and semimolten mass that forms the basis of this planet. Rocks come in three flavors: igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic.

Anyone who went through Earth Science in high school should be familiar with these terms. Igneous rocks are formed from once-molten material. The majority of igneous rocks were made by minerals that crystallized out of molten materials (magma) from deep below the Earth’s surface. Here in the Adirondacks, every time we see a piece of granite, we are looking at an igneous rock. Granites are rich in several minerals: silica, potassium, sodium, quartz, and alkali feldspars.

Sedimentary rocks are created when particles (or sediments) come to rest after being moved by wind and/ or water. Their final resting place is usually underwater, but some end up in deserts or on sand dunes. Sandstone and shale are two examples of common sedimentary rocks.

Metamorphic rocks were formed under either great heat or great pressure. They started life as either sedimentary or igneous rocks, or maybe even as a another metamorphic rock, but then they underwent a change. A simple example would be a slab of shale that gets squashed by a heavy weight (say, a thick layer of additional sediment) and ends up compressed into slate. Marble is an example of a metamorphic rock that was created when a chunk of limestone underwent extreme heat. Grenville marble forms the bedrock under Rich Lake here in Newcomb. Because of its limestone origin, it has provided a natural buffering agent to the lake, protecting it from the effects of acid deposition. A third type of metamorphic rock is formed when mineral-rich water is heated to extreme temperatures. This superheated liquid moves through the rock around it and either changes the rock’s structure or its mineral composition.

Contrary to popular belief, rocks are not static. They are constantly changing, but few of us witness this change because it happens in geologic time; in other words, very slowly. Still, the observant naturalist can see this change if he or she looks for it. A great place to start, and one easily found here in the Adirondacks, is at a glacial erratic. These boulders are found lying about the woods, far from their native homes. The term “glacial” tells us that they were deposited by the glaciers that passed over this area over 10,000 years ago. The word “erratic” means they came from somewhere else. Here at the VIC in Newcomb we have a wonderful glacial erratic sitting next to the Rich Lake Trail. In almost ten years of passing this rock, I’ve noticed that the crack that runs down its face has widened. Water gets into this crack and alternately freezes and thaws, each year making the crack a little bit wider. Eventually, I suspect the slab will fall away from its parent rock, but probably not within my lifetime.

Some rocks and minerals are fairly easy to identify, like mica and pyrite and granite. Others may require more in-depth investigations. I recall from a soils class I took in college that we had to test various rocks with chemicals to get positive IDs. I find, however, that the easiest route to take is a visit to the local rock shop, where the proprietor is often quite happy to help me out with any geologic conundrum I pick up. I have discovered that rock-hounds are a lot like birders – they are intensely “into” their subject and know a great deal. The Adirondack Park is fortunate to have more than one rock shop. I know of two within about a half-hour’s drive from where I live: one in Long Lake, and the other at Natural Stone Bridge and Caves in Pottersville. Kids love rocks and these shops can be a lot of fun for serious rock-hounds and novices alike.

The problem with being a JOAT (jack-of-all-trades) is that I find too many things to be interesting. Here I was happily buzzing along thnking that insects were my latest “thing,” but now I find myself wanting to know more about rocks and minerals – geology. I’ll take some time to finish reading my Discover Nature in the Rocks book and see if I can’t commit some of it to memory. But before that happens, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if something else came up and my curiosity swept me away down another tangent. Ah – the joys of being a naturalist!


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bee Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a bee eat bee world out there.

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, April 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress. Back to our friend the trillium.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Adirondack Black Bears Are Active

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


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Turkey Vulture Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Adirondack Insects: Fireflies, Firefly Larvae, and Glowworms

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


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ruminations on Rock Tripe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Entomology: Tracking Adirondack Insects

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

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


Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Return of the Black Flies

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

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


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Birding: On Collecting Bird Feathers

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

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


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Learning Something New Every Day – Small Winter Stoneflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had to know more.

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

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

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



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