A few years ago, I started an observational experiment in forest succession on a couple of acres where we once pastured sheep and goats. Rocky and wet, without livestock it was hard to keep cleared. So, I let the forest recreate itself and just watched the process unfold.
It’s a process that has taken place across much of the Northeast since the mid-1800s. » Continue Reading.
A few Thanksgivings ago, my then-ten-year-old daughter and I went for an afternoon stroll. Unseasonably warm weather made for a longer than planned walk through a power line right-of-way and on down through steeply sloping woods to the Winooski River. As we moved through the tall scrub, Lauren’s interest was drawn to the golf ball-sized swellings on desiccated goldenrod stalks.
As usual, she had many really good questions: what were these woody spheres on dead plants; why did some have holes; what did they look like inside? We pocketed a few and continued our walk. The soft silty river bank was peppered with footprints left by raccoons, herons, skunks, and deer that prompted more questions. By sunset we had made it through the Muddy Brook Natural Area and back out onto the gravel road. Our catch of the day remained in our pockets until after dinner. » Continue Reading.
Every so often, my friend David texts me a picture of roadkill. A fisher trailing a single strand of blood-red sinew. A wind-roused pile of porcupine quills. A bobcat in graceful, permanent repose. One year, he built extra time into his schedule so he could stop to document every carcass on his daily commute – 40 critters in all, not including salamanders, snakes, and myriad other wildlife too small to be seen from a moving vehicle.
What David knows, and what I too have come to appreciate, is that roadkill is not mere gore. Roadkill is, in fact, an opportunity, a chance to look closely at the bodies of animals who would otherwise fly, dart, or scamper away from us. » Continue Reading.
The fields around our home are something of a bear buffet from mid-summer through fall: wild blueberries in July followed by blackberries, then apples come September, with beechnuts falling from the trees skirting the mown area. In our 13 years here, we’ve seen a mother bear noshing on fallen apples while her cubs scampered around in the tree above her, heard bears climbing and snapping the occasional apple branch while we lay in tents 20 yards away during a backyard campout, and even witnessed two cubs playing in our kids’ sandbox.
I’ve often wondered where the neighborhood bruins – otherwise known as American black bears (Ursus americanus) – den up for the winter. How do they decide where – and when – to hunker down for the cold season? » Continue Reading.
This time of year, I keep the windows cracked open on even marginally warm nights, savoring the sweet air that sifts through the screens. On that air comes the sound of others relishing the last bit of warmth before frost settles in: namely, crickets and katydids.
With trills and chirps, clicks and buzzing, these winged insects – all members of the order Orthoptera, along with grasshoppers – woo potential mates. This music is ancient – and has been a key to the insects’ survival for some 200 million years. » Continue Reading.
One of our big collective cultural fears about nature involves poisonous plants. Our mothers implored us to NEVER put anything from the woods in our mouths, but in reality, you can sample most of what’s out there with relative impunity. Your taste buds will give you a good indication of edibility, and if you ignore them you might pay the price of some diarrhea and stomach cramping.
Put another way, the poison in most so-called poisonous plants is about as harmful as the thorns they might carry – not something you want to go out of your way to mess with, but nothing to make you put a child-proof fence around the rhubarb because you heard a rumor the leaves were poisonous. (They are in mass amounts, but at a high enough dose so is salt.) » Continue Reading.
The following statement was issued to the press on Monday by Protect the Adirondacks:
A new plan has emerged from the Saratoga & North Creek Railway, an arm of Iowa Pacific Railway Company, to store hundreds of old, dilapidated railroad cars, supposedly mostly boxcars, on siding track and unused rail lines in Warren and Essex Counties. These rail cars would be stored “indefinitely” on these rail lines. Saratoga & North Creek Railway leases rail lines from Warren and Saratoga Counties and owns the Sanford Lake Rail Line in Hamilton and Essex County. The plan was announced at a Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting last week.
Saratoga & North Creek Railway stated that it plans to store “hundreds” of old railroad cars. The Adirondack Park has never been used for this purpose. This is a critical moment in the history of the Adirondack Park and for all the reasons below, we urge you to take action and block this ill conceived plan. » Continue Reading.
In the Northern Forest, the edge of autumn feels like no other time of year. The cool nights and warm afternoons call mid-May to mind, but the dawn woods are quiet and splashed with yellow and red. As the days teeter between summer and fall, I wonder if they belong to either of these seasons or to a season all their own.
Although our four-season calendar makes perfect astronomical sense, its simplicity masks the constant change of the northern year. In a 1991 New York Times essay, W. D. Wetherell offered a more nuanced approach to classifying seasons, describing springtime in the Connecticut River Valley as a progression of four phases: “the start of Red Sox coverage in the newspapers; maple syrup season; the day the ice disappears on the lakes; [and] the smelt run.” But he also acknowledged the competing chronology of cabin fever, mud season, and black fly season. » Continue Reading.
On a hike this spring, we walked through a clear-cut area with tall grass and brambles. Afterwards, our pant legs were crawling with black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), also known as deer ticks, the kind that carry Lyme disease. Scientists with the Vermont Department of Health recently examined over 2,000 ticks and found that 53% of black-legged ticks tested positive for Lyme disease. A small percentage of the ticks carried pathogens that cause anaplasmosis or babesiosis, two other tick-borne diseases that can make people gravely ill.
Understanding the two-year life cycle of the black-legged tick can help prevent Lyme disease. In the spring of the first year, tick larvae hatch from honey-colored eggs in the leaf litter. The six-legged larvae, about the size of a poppy seed, soon seek their first blood meal. The larvae may become infected with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease through this blood meal; it all depends on what kind of animal they find as a host. If it’s a white-footed mouse, they’re very likely to contract the Lyme spirochete. If it’s a chipmunk or shrew, they’re somewhat likely. If it’s a squirrel or a larger mammal, they probably won’t. » Continue Reading.
I once heard of a biologist with a clever party trick: regardless of where or when a given party was taking place, he claimed that he could produce a wild salamander in 15 minutes or less, and more often than not, he delivered. I suspect he never tried this at any New Year’s Eve parties in northern Vermont, where salamanders are wintering well underground, and where the ground itself is buried under several feet of fresh powder. At the same time, I’d wager that much of his success was due to a single species: the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus).
This small, slender salamander (also known as a “redback”) has disproportionately small legs and is often, though not always, distinguished by a rust-red stripe running the length of its back and tail. Redbacks spend their lives under logs and in deep underground burrows, dining on earthworms, ants, mites, and other small, subterranean delicacies. The females demonstrate remarkable maternal devotion, aggressively defending their eggs against predators for the full month until the young hatch out – a display of parental care that is quite rare among amphibians. » Continue Reading.
My students and I were conducting research in the Winooski River floodplain at Saint Michael’s College last week when the buzzing became particularly intense. A brisk walk is enough to outdistance mosquitoes, but deerflies combine fighter jet speed with helicopter maneuverability. And a slap that might incapacitate a mosquito seems to have little effect on these relentless pests. Deerfly season 2017 started slowly, but by late July there were enough to carry off small children. On trails between wetlands and farm fields, we were dive-bombed by countless, persistent, little winged vampires. Insect repellent did little to repel them. We slapped, feinted, grabbed at thin air, and usually came up empty. It was like Caddyshack, but with flies rather than gophers.
The horsefly family Tabanidae includes deerflies, along with larger Alaskan “mooseflies,” and the greenheads that ruin many a trip to New England’s beaches. Iridescent green eyes that make up most of the fly’s head give them their common name. Far more impressive is their bite: they truly hurt. Because greenheads emerge only from saltmarshes, we know they travel up to two miles in search of blood. » Continue Reading.
Earlier this summer, my daughter persuaded me to bring home a monarch egg. I had misgivings. This wasn’t my first butterfly rodeo, and previous experience was discouraging. Two summers past, a friend gave us several black swallowtail caterpillars. One lived to adulthood, but all the siblings wasted away, taking on the form of burnt bacon gristle.
On the plus side, this time we’d be starting with an egg, and a new one at that. We had found it minutes after watching the mother butterfly flutter down into a milkweed patch. » Continue Reading.
More than 3,000 years ago, the Chinese believed that a dragon ate the sun during a solar eclipse, so they gathered outdoors to drive away the beast by beating pots, pans and drums. Some 500 years later, the Greek poet Archilochus wrote that Zeus had turned day into night.
In Australian Aboriginal mythology, Earth basked in the sun-woman’s heat and light as she traveled across the sky. When the dark orb of the moon-man mated with the sun-woman’s bright circle of light, her fire was temporarily obscured. Traditional Navajo belief holds that anyone who looks directly at an eclipse not only damages their eyes, but also throws the universe out of balance.
Humankind witnesses many dazzling astronomical events, including comets, lunar eclipses and the Aurora Borealis, but nothing inspires the imagination quite like a solar eclipse — those times when the moon’s path across the heavens brings it directly between the sun and earth. » Continue Reading.
A small boy asked “what’s your favorite insect?” I answered without hesitation: caddisflies. Not the short-lived adults, which while charming in their own hairy moth-like way, do not capture my attention. My caddisfly predilection is reserved for the larval stages that last for most of the insect’s one or, less often, two or three year life span. These larvae, like their caterpillar cousins, make and use silk in ways that fascinate me. Silk permits their use of a wide variety of freshwater habitats and food sources.
Consider the caddisflies of the family Rhyacophilidae. Their name translates to “rock loving,” and this preference serves them well in fast-flowing streams. They spin silk ropes that anchor firmly to rocky surfaces, helping them to defy the pull of currents, and stay off some trout’s dinner menu. Like ice climbers using crampons, they also have impressive claws that grow right out of their rear ends. Their anal claws and silk lines keep their bulging, segmented, Michelin-Man bodies secured while they scramble about, eating insects including other caddisflies. » Continue Reading.
Walk through a hardwood forest this month and it may seem more like October than July. Trees that normally provide cool shade have bare crowns with just a hint of green. And is the bark on that sugar maple moving? This is not a trick of the light: you are, in fact, in the middle of a forest tent caterpillar outbreak.
Despite the name, forest tent caterpillars don’t actually build tents like their cousins the eastern tent caterpillars. Instead, you’ll find them congregated on silken mats on tree trunks or branches. If you’re in an infested area, they won’t be hard to find. Sugar maples and aspen are often the favorite host species in the Northeast, as well as birch, cherry, basswood, and ash. » Continue Reading.
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