Almanack Contributor Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone

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

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

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

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



Saturday, October 3, 2009

North Country Hitchhikers: Getting Stuck on Seeds

There are lots of plants out there that really grab you…literally. We’ve all encountered at least one, probably more. With hooking barbs or puncturing spikes, they lam onto our shoes and socks, pant legs and shirt sleeves – and heaven help you should you be wearing a woven poncho when you have your run-in with them! Our dogs return from a romp in the field with seeds of all sorts clinging to their fur. Yep, late summer and fall are the time of year to get to know your seeds. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lycopodium – The Moss That Isn’t

Language. It’s supposed to make communication easier, but sometimes it ends up just confusing issues more. Take plant names, for example, specifically mosses. If I say “moss” to you, you probably picture some dark green, low-growing, soft groundcover in the woods. And for the most part, you’d be right. But what about reindeer moss? It’s not a moss at all; it’s a lichen. Clubmoss is another misnomer – the plant may actually look like a large moss, but it isn’t. In fact, it is more closely related to ferns than it is to true mosses.

Clubmosses, which belong to the family Lycopodiaceae, are vascular plants that do not have flowers and that reproduce sexually by means of spores (like mushrooms, ferns and true mosses). Clubmosses have stems, which true mosses don’t, and the sporophyte, at least, has real roots – true mosses don’t have roots.

Here at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center, we have three very common clubmosses: Princess Pine (Lycopodium obscurum), Shining Clubmoss (L. lucidulum), and Stiff Clubmoss (L. anotinum). You can also find Running Clubmoss (L. clavatum) – this is the one pictured above.

Princess pine, as you might expect, looks a lot like a miniature conifer tree. Also called ground pine, at one time it was harvested extensively for holiday decorations. As with many wild harvesting “programs,” gatherers did not make much money for the time and effort they had to expend. As a result, when patches of the desired plant were found, they were often cleaned out. Such unsustainable harvesting practices resulted in many plants becoming rare. Today clubmosses are among the many native plants that are protected by law.

When I started my career as a naturalist, one of the first things I learned about lycopodium was that the spores were used historically for flash powder. We’ve all seen westerns, or other movies that portray life in the 1800s. Whenever you saw a photograph being taken in that time period, there was a guy (usually) with a big box camera draped in black cloth. He would hold up a t-shaped bar, tell everyone to hold really still, and then flash! bang! the cross bar would explode and the photograph was taken. The stuff that flashed was clubmoss spores. Like flour in a mill, the fine dust-like spores, which are very rich in oil, are highly flammable. Unlike flour, however, the spores burn fast and bright, but with little heat. No theater stages (flash powder was used to simulate lightning) or photo studios burned to the ground because of flash powder.

It turns out, however, that clubmosses had many more historical uses. According to a couple sources I found, the Woodland Crees would rub raw fish eggs into stiff clubmoss to separate them from their gelatinous membranes. After they were separated, the eggs were used to make fish-egg bread. It doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’ve never tried it – maybe it’s pretty good.

Clubmoss spores found their way into surgery as a dusting powder, and were even used to treat conditions like eczema. At one time the spores were popular as baby powder. This might be because they are water repellent. Apparently if you cover your hand with the spores and then submerge it in water, it will not get wet!

But that’s not all. Spores from L. complanatum, commonly called groundcedar, were used by the Blackfoot people as an antiseptic and to stop nosebleeds. They also used the entire plant as a mordant, which is a compound used to set dyes.

What about mystical powers? The Dakelh people of British Columbia at one time used clubmoss spores to determine if the sick would survive their illnesses. The divination process was simple: spores were dropped into a container of water. If they drifted in the direction of the sun, the patient had a good chance of survival. I’m not sure I’d want to rely on this for my own survival, but in a time when penicillin was unheard of and belief in the spirit world was strong, it might’ve made all the difference in a person’s will to live.

If you’d like to learn how to identify some of our local clubmosses, stop by the VIC and take the Browsing Botanist tour of the Rich Lake Trail. The guide booklet, which you can pick up at the front desk, will introduce you to these groundcovers. Once you’ve made their acquaintances, you will start to see them everywhere as a new window into the wild opens before your eyes.


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Appreciating Adirondack Grasses

Are you one of those people who, when driving down the Northway, notices the various colors of the grasses growing in the median? If you aren’t, then you should slow down a bit and take a peek, for this time of year, especially in the early morning sunshine, they are quite beautiful: clouds of delicate purples, patches of russet oranges. I find it very tempting to pull over, get out of the car, and wade in amongst them. Since I’m sure the state troopers are not as likely to share my enthusiasm, I never have.

Grasses have caught my attention for years. They have wonderful flowerheads (inflorescences) that come in a great many varieties, and the colors, when seen en masse, can be quite the delight for the eye. I actually love to see lawns that have been allowed to go wild, for they fill an otherwise boring green expanse with delightful colors and textures.

Recently I was out botanizing with a friend who, among other things, really knows her grasses and sedges. Most of us wouldn’t know the difference between a grass, a sedge, or a rush if our lives depended on it. Sure, perhaps we recall the rhyme “Sedges have edges and rushes are round, and grasses have nodules where elbows are found” (or some variation thereof), but in practice, they all look like “grass” to the untrained eye. I asked my botanically-inclined friend if she knew of any good books for grass ID, but she said no.

I, however, have two grass ID books in my rather large collection of natural history books. One I’ve had in my Naturalist Daypack for quite some time, but I’ve never taken the time to actually read it. Until now. Inspired by my friend’s knowledge, and never one to want to be left behind in the proverbial dust, I decided to crack the book and learn me some grasses.

As with many natural history and species ID adventures, at first it seemed intimidating, an almost insurmountable task. They all look the same! I’ll never be able to tell them apart! But by taking the time to actually read the text, the small details, those clues that tell one species from the next, soon become apparent.

To begin with, many sedges, but not all, have triangular stems (edges). Many rushes have cylindrical, or round, stems. And grasses, as a whole, have joints, or nodules, where their leaves join the stem. After learning this, you can start to study some of the other distinguishing factors. The book I’m currently reading, Grasses by Lauren Brown, starts off with a dichotomous key, which many people find intimidating, but which I find a relief to use. From there, she’s grouped the plants by visual similarities. The simple pen and ink illustrations point out key traits for quick identification. Unlike many ID guides (try some of the moss or fern books), this one is written for the layperson. Technical jargon is explained – it’s not assumed you are working towards your PhD in botanical sciences.

The only real “work” will be memorizing the scientific names. Most real botanists forego common names and with good reason: they are not standardized. What you may call Indian Paintbrush is known as Hawkweed to someone else, and that person applies Indian Paintbrush to an entirely different plant. But the reason for learning the scientific names goes beyond this, for many grasses (sedges, rushes) and other plants, like mosses and lichens, have no common names. The common man has given most of them very little attention, and if you aren’t paying attention to something, you aren’t going to give it a name. If it weren’t for the scientists, these plants would have no names at all.

I think that for some time now Grasses will join my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide as a passenger in my car. I’m actually eager, now that I have inspiration, to get out in the field and start getting to know my grassy neighbors. Armed with my field guide and a hand lens, I hope to soon have names like Anthoxanthum ordoratum and Cyperus esculentus tripping off my tongue.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are Dragonflies Disappearing this Year?

Lots of folks have commented to me this summer that they haven’t been seeing many dragonflies. Hm. I’ve seen lots of dragonflies (and damselflies) this year, and I haven’t been able to think of any reason why dragonflies would be sparse; after all, it was good and wet this year, so they had plenty of water for successful reproduction and growth. All the rain also meant a lot of habitat for mosquitoes and the other insects that make up their diet.

Maybe numbers were down in some locations because it was also a cool summer. Like all insects (that I know of), dragonflies need sunshine to get the blood moving (so to speak). This is why you see them basking in the sunshine. Just like people, when they get too chilled, they cannot move well, making them easy targets for other predators. Perhaps some of the species that we see in July and early August never got warm enough to successfully emerge as adults. I just don’t know.

I can tell, you, however, that September has been a great month for dragonflies. I’ve seen squadrons flying in formation over the streets and roads, phalanxes patrolling yards and parking lots, and down on the water the air has been filled with non-stop dragonfly action.

I’ve been very lucky this month to put my canoe on the water several times. This has put me smack in the middle of the action. Most prominent among the Odonates (the order of insects known as dragon- and damselflies) I’ve been seeing this fall are pairs of yellow-legged meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) flying around in their mating embrace.

As with all dragonflies, when the male encounters a likely female, he grasps her by the head. It sounds worse than it really is. The male uses a special grasper at the tip of his abdomen (tail) to grab the female just behind her enormous eyes. They are now flying in tandem. The female then bends her abdomen around to receive the sperm packet from the male. You’ve probably seen pairs of dragonflies in this loop formation; now you know what’s going on.

Sometimes after fertilization the female lays eggs with the male still attached to her head. Other times the male flies away, his work finished, and the female, who can store sperm for a very long time, eventually lays her eggs on her own. If you see a dragonfly flying along and repeatedly tapping its abdomen to the water, that is what she’s doing.

The eggs eventually hatch, and the emerging nymph begins its life in the water, where it is a major predator of other aquatic invertebrates. Depending on the species, dragonflies remain in the nymph stage anywhere from one month to five years! As they grow, they molt, just like caterpillars and other larvae. Eventually, however, they emerge from the water for a final molt, in which they transform (metamorphose) into their adult forms.

One of the latest dragonflies of the season around here is the large common green darner (Anax junius). It is the first to appear in the spring, and often the last to disappear in the fall. If you find yourself in need of a dragonfly fix, get down to your nearest wetland and have a seat. A little patience is all you need, and before long you will see these flying wonders zipping and zooming all around.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dealing with Frost in the Adirondacks

Last night the Weather Gurus predicted a low of 25 degrees Fahrenheit for Newcomb. Brrr. In anyone’s book, that is chilly. Thanks to a wet growing season, followed by a very dry September, I find that my garden has needed very little in the way of frost protection. With the exception of a couple pumpkins, this year’s garden is unconcerned with crisp weather.

But perhaps your garden is a different story. Are you one of the lucky few who have tomatoes? Perhaps you have squash and corn still ripening. Or maybe you put in some late season veg, like kale or other greens. If you fit into this category, then you’ll want to be alert for freezing forecasts and ready to ward off Jack Frost.

Some veg are hardy and can take the cold. In fact, there are veg that improve with cooler temps, like carrots. Many a gardener has claimed that carrots only get sweeter with the cold. I’m testing this theory this year by leaving most of my carrots in the ground as late as possible. But other veg are more tender and in need of some TLC if they are to survive.

Over the last couple of years I’ve invested in floating row covers. These fibrous white sheets come in varying thicknesses depending on the amount of protection you desire. The thicker the cloth (heavier the weight), the more protection. This is beneficial for frost protection. Row covers also reduce light transmission, so in the springtime lighter weight material might be preferable so that the plants can get enough light to sprout and grow.

A cheaper alternative to agricultural row covers is bed sheets. Sheets, towels and blankets sprout in many a garden with fall rolls around. Like row covers, they are draped over plants and pots, keeping the frost from killing tender leaves and fruits. A key to remember here is that you don’t want your cover to touch the plants. The cover is acting like a roof and walls, keeping the warmer air of the day trapped around your plants, and keeping the cold air of night away. If the cold air can get under your blankets, or if your sheet is touching the plant beneath it, the cold can still cause damage.

Usually, though, I find that by the time killing frosts arrive, the thrill of the garden has faded somewhat. The novelty of picking beans and making tomatoe sauce has worn thin. I go out and drape tender plants with sheets, row covers, blankets, using clothespins to hold them all together, but if the frost sneaks in and kills the beans and tomatoes, I find I can get over it pretty quickly. Usually it’s the still unripe winter squash and pumpkins that that merit the most attention.

You could go the route of The Fan. The idea here is that the fan draws the warm air up from the ground and sends it out over your plants, displacing the colder night air. Or you could try misting your plants before night settles. There’s a claim that misted plants will develop an outer layer of ice crystals that will protect the rest of the plant from damage. Hm. Then there are smudge pots. These essentially create localized smog, which traps heat and keeps the plants from freezing.

If you have only a few plants that need protection, there are some nifty options out there that you can try. One is called a water wall. This plastic device is essentially a plastic cylinder that you place around your plant. The cylinder is made of pockets/tubes that you fill with water. During the day the water absorbs heat, which at night is released slowly, keeping the plant within its embrace nice and warm. At about $12 a pop, this can be expensive if you’ve got, oh, say 90 tomato plants to protect.

We used a similar but much cheaper option in the greenhouse where I used to work in New Jersey. We brought in our empty milk jugs and filled them with water. During the day the heat of the greenhouse warmed them up, and at night they released that heat, keeping the inside temps relatively steady as the outside temps fell. I’m sure it would work just as well in a garden, especially if you covered the plants and sun-warmed jugs with a sheet.

Straw bales can also provide your garden with some protection. Stacking up bales around your sensitive plants will block the outside air. Toss a blanket, or old window, or a frame covered with plastic, across the top and you have a temporary greenhouse (or cold frame) that will serve you well.

Gardening in the Adirondacks can be tricky even in a good year. With frost possible in June and August, we are left with only a few short weeks to breathe easily in the belief that our plants are safe. But with some careful planning (the selection of seeds and plants, the layout of the garden, the construction of cold frames, a collection of plant protectors), we can extend our season and eke a few more days or weeks out of our harvest. And if you really want to get into it, you can build a greenhouse, or a high tunnel system, that will permit you to have harvests all year ’round…but that’s another story.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hornets or Wasps: Learning to tell the Difference

When I came back from my vacation in early August, we had an impressive addition to the Visitor Center’s building: a large hornet nest. Apparently it was already under construction back in early July, but it was small enough then that it escaped my notice. But by the second week of August it was over a foot long, and it has continued to grow since then.

Many visitors have commented on the impressiveness of this nest. As one walks down our driveway to the building, it is often the first thing one sees. For a while, it even looked like a sculpted face of a woman, created by some long ago master of the marble form. Today it looks more like the face a man, with a big bulbous nose and a serious frown. Most visitors call it a paper wasp nest, and that is not surprising, since paper wasps also create papery nests on buildings. But this nest was made by bald-faced hornets, and I’ll share with you some of the differences between these insects.

First off, paper wasps, yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets are all technically wasps, and they are all in the same family: Vespidae. Members of this family are distinguished from other wasp families by the way their wings are held when at rest: folded and slightly to the side. They all have similar life cycles. The fertilized queen overwinters and come spring she sets out to build a small nest from masticated wood fibers. After a few cells are built, she lays her eggs inside. The larvae hatch, the queen feeds them, and when they pupate, the queen has a few helpers, all of which are sterile females. More cells are built by the queen and her staff, and the queen lays more eggs. This continues throughout the summer. As the season winds down, the queen lays a final batch of eggs that develop into males and non-sterile females. The old queen and her workers die off, the new queens mate with the males, the males die and the now-fertilized queens seek shelter for the winter and await spring.

The major differences that you and I will notice arise in the structure of the nests. Paper wasp nests are a series of cells that are exposed to the elements. Picture a papery honeycombed structure – that’s about it. The queen makes it by chewing up bits of wood and other fibers and forming them into cells. Hornets build cells, too, but their cells are covered with an external wall – the upside-down tear-shaped papery nest that we see in trees and under our eves. Yellow jackets build their nests underground, and like their cousins the hornets, they surround the cells with papery walls.

Most of these insects are black with yellow stripes, but the nest at the VIC was made by bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculate. These insects are distinctive because they are black and white. If you look closely, you will note that the face of each of these hornets is also white, hence the name. “Bald” does not mean “hairless.” Well, it does today, but the original word was “probably from Celt. bal ‘white patch, blaze’ especially on the head of a horse or other animal,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. So, “bald eagle” means white eagle, “bald-faced hornet” means white-faced hornet and so on.

Bald-faced hornets and yellow jackets are notorious for their aggressive nature. Like many people, they have a large personal space (around the nest), and if you enter it, be prepared for retaliatory actions. If you see these insects just flying around in gentle weaving patterns, they are probably foraging and not interested in you. In fact, bald-faced hornets are actually considered to be rather shy when not defending the nest. If, however, they are flying directly at you, and at great speed, then you know they mean business, and it is time to make yourself scarce. Good luck.

As the chilly nights of autumn approach, activity slows down at wasp nests. Nests built in or near the ground often become food for other animals, like raccoons and bears. Once temperatures have hovered around freezing for several days and nights, it is likely that any remaining insects inside have perished. Now it is safe to remove the nest, and even to take a look inside. Old wasp nests make interesting decorations in houses, and great educational tools, espcially for children.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Leatherleaf – An Adirondack Heath

The other day I was paddling a peaceful lake with a friend, poking around a pocket wetland along one of its shores, when I came across a lone leatherleaf plant (Chamaedaphne calyculata). It stood out for two reasons: one, it was all by itself, and two, it was knee deep in water.

Leatherleaf, also known as cassandra, or dwarf cassandra, is a classical denizen of bogs, although it is often also found on the edges of wetlands, where the water from a pond or lake starts to turn acidic.

Typically, leatherleaf moves into bogs after sphagnum mosses are established, making it an early pioneer of these wonderful wetlands. One of its functions is to extend the edge of the peat mat, creating more bog habitat as it goes, thereby giving other plants a toehold in the soggy environment. Because it reproduces by sending out new sprouts from specialized roots and branches (as well as by seeds), leatherleaf forms dense colonies of clones, sometimes as dense as 200 stems in a single square meter of space. If you thought witchhobble could trip you up, you should try pressing through a stand of leatherleaf!

In the broadest sense of the term, leatherleaf is an evergreen shrub. Some of its leaves fall off in autumn, but many of them persist for an additional year. None remain on the plant for a second winter. But what really stands out about the leaves is their variation. On most of the plant, the leaves are tough, leathery, and olive-drab, and they have an almost vertical orientation on the plant’s stems and branches. But if you look at the top of an upright stem, a rather droopy horizontal twig arises with much smaller leaves. This stem produces the flowers and fruits of the year. Come fall, the leaves drop, the fruits are eaten, and the stem shrivels up and dies. Right now you can go out and find leatherleaf bedecked with ripening berries on its many horizontal twigs.

In the spring, you will find leatherleaf in its other beautiful form: hung with many delicate white bells along its horizontal branches. If you are lucky, you may see its chief pollinator, the bumblebee, fumbling around each dangling flower.

As the season progresses through summer, other insects visit this plant, although few are considered pests. Look for the foamy blobs of heath spittlebugs, which, like other spittlebugs, have whipped the sap of the plant into a protective frothy coat. You might also find leafhoppers, leaf miners, or even cyphon marsh beetles. This time of year it is easy to find copious spider webs tangling the upper branches; they make for some great early morning photography. The dense stems provide shelter for larger wildlife as well, such as nesting ducks.

Leatherleaf is such an unassuming plant, yet for grouse within its range its berries and buds are an important food source. White-tailed deer and snowshoe hares are also dependent on leatherleaf for food in winter, the former eating the twigs and leaves, the latter the twigs and bark. Not to be outdone by wildlife, humans have also made use of leatherleaf, both as a medicine (febrifuge and topical anti-inflammatory) and as a beverage.

To see leatherleaf, or other equally fascinating bog plants, hie thee to thy nearest wetland. If you are timid about getting your feet wet, or if you are concerned about damaging the fragile wetland ecosystem, you can visit wetlands at both Visitor Interpretive Centers (located in Newcomb and Paul Smiths), where wooden boardwalks will take you right up to many wetland plants safely and dryly.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Adirondack Sawyers: Our Longhorn Beetle

A couple years ago I went out with a local biologist to listen for whippoorwills as part of a census that was being conducted in the Adirondacks. We were assigned some back roads around Bolton, and we had to drive them after sunset. Several times we would stop, get out of the vehicle, and listen for the tell-tale “whip-poor-will” call.

One of our stops found us surrounded by trees in the middle of nowhere (a real backwoods road). It was dark, and it could’ve been creepy, in that way that only dark, strange woods can be at night. As we stood there listening to the silence, we started to hear a strange sound. It’s hard to describe, but overall it could be likened to a quiet, slow sawing sound – like that of a bowsaw being drawn through wood on short strokes. Fortunately, both of us were prepared, for we both have degrees in forest biology. If we hadn’t, this sound might’ve freaked us out. But thanks to our education and a love of the woods, we were pretty confident that what we heard was the chewing sound of a sawyer beetle.

Sawyer beetles are also known as longhorn beetles, and the most common one in the northeastern United States is the whitespotted sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus). This native beetle, recognized by its very long antennae (longer on males than females) and the white spot “between its shoulder blades” (technically at the top of the elytra, or wing covers), makes its living by chewing the bark on the underside of twigs of the balsam fir, assorted spruces, and white pine. This behavior results in flagging: dead twigs, readily noticeable by their reddish color. To some, this damage is merely cosmetic. In fact, many foresters only consider the insect to be a secondary pest, for it often will turn up in trees that are already dead or dying.

The adult female looks for ideal sites for egg-laying: crevices in the bark of weak or recently killed (or cut) trees. After hatching, the larvae start chewing their way into the tree. The youngest instars hang out beneath the bark, while the older ones make their way into the wood, tunnelling towards the heart of the tree. As pupation approaches, the larva turns a 180 and heads back towards the surface. The opening to the world beyond is blocked up with a plug made of wood chips, behind which the larvae pupates. As an adult it emerges from its woody tomb and goes in search of a mate, the cycle beginning once again.

If you want to avoid sawyer beetles on your property, you need to manage the dead and dying timber. Additionally, if you have cut logs lying around, remove the bark and set them in the sun. This will make them less appealing to females looking for egg-laying sites.

The whitespotted sawyer should not be confused with the Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis), an invasive that is making its way northward, leaving a trail of dead trees in its wake. So far, this beetle has not gotten into the Adirondacks, but that could be only a matter of time. If you find longhorned beetles around your property, learn to identify them; there are only a handful of species in our area and being able to ID them could help save our forests from unwelcome invaders.

By the way, we never did hear any whippoorwills.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Phantom of the Adirondacks

“You have to get your camera and get a picture of this really cool bug!” exclaimed my coworker breathlessly. So I grabbed the camera and went outside. The insect in question, as soon as I had it in my sights, promptly took off and vanished. After much skulking around, I was finally able to capture its image. “I think it’s some kind of cranefly,” I said, based on the long skinny legs and the overall body shape. But, not being an entomologist, I wasn’t about to stake my reputation on it, so I sent the image off to BugGuide.net for confirmation.

Gosh, I love it when I’m right. It turns out this beautiful insect is a Phantom Cranefly (Bittacomorpha clavipes). It gets its name from its cryptic coloration. I know what you’re thinking: black and white is hardly cryptic. Why, the insect stands out like a sore thumb. AH, but when the insect flies into the shade, the body seems to vanish, phantom-like, with only the white bars remaining visible. This explains why I had so much difficulty tracking it every time it took off.

It turns out, however, that this delicate insect has an even more interesting bit of physiology than its coloration. The part of the legs that we might liken to ankles is specially modified. Up close, these sections are swollen and concave in shape. When the insect flies, it spreads its legs out and the wind catches the “ankles”, pushing the insect along like a little kite.

The Phantom Cranefly begins its life when the female lays her eggs, singly or in small clusters, along the edge of water. Soon the larvae emerge and begin a life of scavenging organic matter in the shallow water. The strange larva is easy to recognize by its “tail,” which is, in fact, the larva’s breathing tube. Just like a snorkle, this apparatus is lifted to the water’s surface, emerges long enough for the insect to inhale, and then down it goes again to continue scavenging. When the larva is ready to pupate, it crawls out of the water and digs into moist soil. There, beneath the ground, it goes through The Change and becomes an adult. The adults exist for one purpose only: to breed and pass on their genes. As such, they do not eat (or if they do, it is very little and no scientist has discovered what it is).

It’s really a rather uneventful life, so perhaps the boredom is broken up by the flashy colors and nifty body ornamentation. At the very least, these insects are attractive to insect enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. So keep your eyes peeled, and if you see a small wispy black and white kite drift by, take another look. It might just be the Phantom of the Adirondacks.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

In The Battle Between Feral Cats And Wildlife, The Cats Win

Recently a woman dropped off an injured robin at our front desk for the local wildlife rehabilitator to pick up. It was in a roomy box and I simply set it aside until the rehabber came, knowing the animal was already under stress and didn’t need me peeking in at it. A couple days ago I asked the rehabber how the bird was doing.

“It was a cat attack,” she said. “It was badly injured – broken wing, head and neck injuries – it didn’t survive.”

I expressed my condolences, but instead of wanting sympathy, she exclaimed “People shouldn’t let their cats outside! We need to tell them this!” So here I am, passing the word along.

Cats are natural predators, and birds, as well as mice, squirrels, snakes, baby rabbits, and insects, are on the menu. We may not think about it much if Fluffy brings home a sparrow once a year, and if it was only that, it might not seem so bad.

But, coincidentally, Audubon Magazine just came out with an article by Ted Williams about this very topic and the statistics are staggering! In one study in rural Wisconsin it was determined that there are at least 1.4 million cats running loose in the wilds of that state, and on average they are each eating about six birds a year. If you do the math, that comes out to almost eight million birds! And chances are they aren’t starlings or English sparrows, invasives we could well do without. No, these are often warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers…neotropical birds that spend the summers breeding in the north. Birds whose futures are already on shakey ground thanks to habitat loss. Birds whose populations may already hang in the balance.

Much of the article focused on the Hawaiian Islands, where feral cats (and the introduced mongoose) are wreaking havoc on the native birds, many of which are endangered species.

Well, we say, the solution is easy: trap out the cats. And it would seem easy, except cats have a huge and powerful lobby. Cats? A lobby? Yes – believe it or not, feral cat advocacy groups have sprouted up all over the US (and its territories). Their philosophy is to trap the cats, spay or neuter them, and then release them back into the wild. In theory, they will not be able to reproduce and over time the colonies will disappear. In reality, you’d have to trap and fix 70-90% of the cats in any wild population to even make a dent in the population (and that doesn’t factor in other feral cats, or newly dumped pets, joining the existing colony). Cats are difficult to trap, so in reality, that percentage is rarely reached. But let’s say 90% get fixed and are all turned loose again. Those cats may not be able to breed, but they can still hunt, and that is the problem.

So the advocacy groups put out kibble. Fluffy will be fed, then, and won’t be hungry. Well, if you have a cat, you know that Fluffy doesn’t necessarily hunt for food. Fluffy hunts for the thrill of the stalk, the joy of the capture, the pleasure of playing with the prey.

While reading the article, I was horrified to learn that the cats’ lobby is so strong that Fluffy and his friends have more protection than endangered species! It’s hard to believe.

Nationwide, millions and millions of birds lose their lives to cats. Many of these cats are feral, but many are also pets, pets that are let outside so they can “do what cats are supposed to do.” In rural areas, the numbers are high, for farmers like their barn cats, and we rural folks like to believe that cats should be able to hunt. But the truth is that the wildlife cannot support Fluffy’s habits. Not only are the birds suffering, but in some places Fluffy has reduced the wild prey to such levels that the natural predators don’t have enough to eat. And then there’s the spread of disease, things like toxoplasmosis, which can be deadly.

When I walk around my neighborhood, I often see my neighbors’ cats out for a stroll or a hunt. And recently I’ve seen young cats, no doubt feral, that are lurking around bird feeders and garages, looking for small mammals and birds. And I admit, I let my own cat out occasionally in the summer, but my yard is fenced and he’s too old, fat and lazy to chase a bird. Or so I tell myself.

The upshot of this story is a plea to folks to think twice about letting Fluffy outside to hunt. Most domestic cats are content to live the life of Riley indoors, where food and comfort are in plentiful supply. If you feel Fluffy needs to hunt, there are plenty of cat toys out there that you can supply, and this will also give you the opportunity to spend quality time with your cat. And if you know of a feral cat, or a feral cat colony, consider the impact it is having on the wildlife. Instead of maintaining it, look into capturing the offeder(s) and getting it/them into an animal shelter. Remember, there are plenty of cats in the world; it’s the wildlife that is in decline.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Adirondack Poison: White Snakeroot

‘Tis the season for White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). This pretty, weedy plant can be found blooming in many of our forests from late summer “until frost.” Hm…that could be any day now, if you believe the weather reports!

One of the nice things about white snakeroot is that it is one of our native plants. According to my field guide, it is classified with the bonesets and Joe Pye weed – a Eupatorium. However, botanists, like birders, can be found reclassifying living organisms on an almost daily basis, it seems, and now this plant is in a separate genus: Ageratina.

I think that because we are surrounded these days with warnings about non-native invasive species, we tend to slip into the idea that native plants must all be good. In one sense they are: they are good for the ecological niche in which they have evolved. But this doesn’t make them “good” plants, necessarily. White snakeroot is an excellent example of this, for it is poisonous.

Back in the 19th century, many many people died from a disease that was labelled “milk sickness.” It seems that some milk (and, it turns out, meat) was tainted with something that made the cattle ill and killed people. The disease was known to wipe out large portions of early settlements (Abraham Lincoln’s own mother was one of its victims), and it became such a problem in parts of Kentucky that a $600 award was offered in the early 1800s to anyone who could find the cause of the disease.

Although not officially identified until 1928, legend has it that Dr. Anna Bixby (1809-1869) identified the causative agent long before that. Supposedly many of her patients were dying from milk sickness, and, as was probably fairly common at the time, the disease was blamed on witchcraft. Dr. Bixby knew there must be a more rational explanation, and noted that the disease only turned up in late summer and into the fall, and it seemed to be based on something the cattle were eating. One day she met up with a Shawnee woman who told her that white snakeroot was the culprit. Dr. Bixby fed a bit of the plant to a calf, which promptly displayed all the symptoms. She had all of the plant torn out from the fields and forests where cattle were grazing, and remarkably, the disease went away. Sadly, she never got credit for this (nor did the Shawnee woman).

What happens is that cattle eat white snakeroot when there is no other forage around, so it’s not like it’s a primary food choice for them. The plant contains tremetol, which is the poisonous compound. Tremetol is stored in the meat and milk, and thus it gets passed on to people who consume these cattle products.

That said, according to Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany, the Cherokee and Iroquois did use this plant for a variety of medicines, including treatment for urinary ailments, as a diuretic, and as a treatment for venereal diseases. He doesn’t say, however, how well the medicines worked.

Still, just because a plant is toxic doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it – just don’t eat it! As you walk through the woods, perhaps along a shady path, keep your eyes open for a scraggly-looking plant about three to five feet tall. The leaves are jagged, and the top has a flattened cluster of white flowers. If you are lucky, you may find some butterflies nectaring on it, for it is one of their foods. Take the time to get to know it, for it is a lovely plant. Then note where it is so you can be sure your cattle don’t graze upon it.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Silent War – Fighting Adirondack Invasives

Invasive species are everywhere: birds, bugs, fish, flowers, fungi. It seems that every time you turn around, a new invasive species has sprung up, each with its own inherent threat on the local ecosystem. What we don’t hear about, however, is often the solutions that are applied to address the problem.

Take for example the Japanese beetles in this photograph. What do you notice about them that is unusual? The white dots on their thoraxes. I pondered these, wondering if they were parasite eggs, warts or merely beauty marks. The number of dots differs on individual beetles, and some have none at all. Because of this variation, and the fact I had never seen them before, I was leaning towards parasites. » Continue Reading.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Wicked Plants – Even in the Adirondacks

Who could pass up a book titled Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities? Certainly not I! Not only is the title attention-getting, but the book is a bilious acid green, the perfect color for poisonings!

I first heard about this book on the radio, and after about a month of waiting, I was able to borrow a copy from the library. After reading it, I had to get a copy for myself; no self-respecting naturalist’s arsenal of natural history reference books would be complete without it!

This tiny tome is chocked full of interesting information about some of nature’s most dangerous plants, many of which surprised me. For example, these days the news is smattered with dire warnings about giant hogweed and wild parsnip (members of the carrot family, yet capable of causing painful blisters and phototoxicity to those who brush up against them), but who knew that cashews could be problematic if not prepared correctly? Yes, cashews are related to poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak. If eaten raw, or if they are contaminated with bits of the nut shells, the person consuming them can break out in a serious rash, which could be exacerbated if one is strongly allergic to urushiol, the irritating oil.

While many of the plants mentioned in this book by Amy Stewart come from lands far from the Adirondacks, there are a fair number that can be found within the Blue Line. Take, for example, elderberry. I remember collecting elderberry blossoms for my grandfather down along the railroad tracks that follow the Mohawk River. He used to make wine from the lacy white flowers. Well, it turns out that most of the plant’s parts (leaves, roots, stems, etc.) contain cyanide. This is especially true of the raw fruits. Cooked, the fruits are rendered more or less harmless, but when consumed raw they could send one to the hospital in a great deal of pain and discomfort.

How about cardinal flower? This brilliantly scarlet member of the genus Lobelia is found fairly commonly along waterways within the Park. As lovely as it is, the red color should be a warning. It contains poisons that are similar to nicotine, and if one were to eat it (although I don’t know why one would), one would likely suffer from tremors, nausea and vomiting, paralysis, and heart problems.

Not only does Ms. Stewart point out plants that are deadly, she includes those that are destructive (like purple loosestrife and kudzu), those that are offensive to the nose (purple trillium and skunk cabbage, among others), and those that actively cause problems (killer algae and gas plant).

I was so surprised at some of the nastiness that Mother Nature has in store for us that I was hesitant to burn the invasive honeysuckles we cut down last year. What if this aggressive non-native plant harbored some sort of chemical that was dangerous when set on fire? Nonetheless, burn it we did (the cut logs had started to sprout and had to be destroyed), and I can report that although I got a snoot full of smoke on several occasions, I have not suffered any ill effects.

Whether you are a plant aficionado, or a nature enthusiast in general, you will not want to pass up this delightful little book.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Macro Photography: Appreciating The Little Things

I really love macro photography. You need a good lens, you need a good tripod, and you need to be willing to get dirty and wet. But when you get right down to it, you discover some of the most interesting things.

Anyone can take a photo of a landscape, or of Billy with jam on his face. But it takes a special kind of person to get up-close photographs of Mother Nature. This person needs patience and a whole lot of determination.

What I love most about close-up shots of tiny things is that it opens up a whole new world. Take this photo, for example. It’s a catmint flower from my garden. Catmint has pale green leaves and a bright aromatic scent. The flowers are small and purple. But until I took this photo and enlarged it on the computer, I had no idea just how beautiful the flowers are. Why, it practically looks like an orchid!

Now that I have a camera available 24/7, I find myself lurking in the gardens, stalking roadside ditches, crawling along the forest floor on my belly – all in search of tiny things to photograph.

Macrophotography can also make identification easier, at least with things like insects. Insects rarely hold still for very long, making field ID difficult. A close-up photograph and enlargement capabilities can tip the scales in the naturalist’s favor. And it’s a nice alternative to the old naturalist’s standby: capture and preserve for later ID. True, there are times when having the specimen on hand is important, but for most of us, a photograph is all we need.

Spiders are another great subject for the close-up photographer. I find that most spiders up close are really rather beautiful. Okay, maybe most of you don’t feel this way, but you’ve got to admit that up close they are, at the very least, interesting. And photographs don’t bite, or sting, or jump!

Every naturalist needs a field kit, and in amongst the field guides and rulers, hand lenses and note paper, it should include a camera with close-up capabilities. Get yourself one of these and you won’t regret it (once you learn how to use it).


Saturday, August 22, 2009

White Baneberry: The Eyes Have It

Have you ever walked through the woods and thought something was watching you? You turn around, scanning the forest for eyes, and there they are! Short red stalks at the top of a green stem, each tipped with a white eyeball dotted with a small black pupil! Is it an alien from outer space? No, but you have discovered the fruit of White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), also known as Doll’s Eyes (and White Cohosh). A member of the buttercup family, white baneberry is closely related to the genus Aconite, which includes wolfsbane and monkshood among its species.

These are very toxic plants, and likewise so is white baneberry. In fact, if you think about it, the very name baneberry indicates that you should not eat it: bane = murderer, poison, death, woe, a source of harm or ruin. Kind of makes you think twice, eh? The whole plant is toxic (although the berries are considered the most poisonous), laced with cardiogenic toxins that are described as having a sedative effect on the heart muscles. If one decides to snack on it, one can expect to suffer cardiac arrest and death.

Birds, on the other hand, can eat this fruit with impunity, and a good thing, too, for they are the primary distributors of its seeds. And thanks to their efforts, this plant is fairly common throughout the eastern United States. You can find it growing in areas with moist, rich soil, favoring north-facing slopes and ravines. Earlier in the season it sports puffy white flowers that are fragrant and attractive, but come early fall, the plant disappears from sight and goes dormant until the following spring.



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