Almanack Contributor Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski

Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.


Monday, August 1, 2011

The Woodland Jumping Mouse

Sitting around a campfire after dusk, it is sometimes possible to catch sight of a small rodent bounding across a section of the forest floor that is illuminated by the glow of the flames or a bright moon. Similarly, a small creature may occasionally be seen in the headlights of a car leaping across a road like a frog, but at a distinctly faster pace. The chances are that both these sightings are of the woodland jumping mouse, a small rodent that is fundamentally different from the species of mice that begin to enter homes and camps toward the end of summer.

On those rare occasions when one of these common forest dwellers is seen around a lean-to or tent, it can be easily mistaken for a regular mouse, as both rodents are nearly identical in size and have similar body shapes and facial features. The jumping mouse however, has a set of hind legs slightly larger than those of a regular mouse. These rear appendages are better adapted for catapulting its body forward when it wants to quickly escape a location. The jumping mouse is known to bound up to three feet at a time, which is ten to fifteen times the length of its body. Along with traveling in a straight line, the jumping mouse can also hop in a more erratic manner, making it more of a challenge for a predator either on the ground or from the air to grab it while it attempts to reach a place of safety.

The most conspicuous physical feature of the jumping mouse is the extraordinary length of its tail which can approach twice the length of its head and body. The tail of a normal mouse is roughly equal to or slightly greater than its body length. The much longer tail of this rodent often becomes noticeable when it is hunched up, nibbling on a berry or a favored mass of fungi which it has just unearthed from the uppermost layer of soil.

As its name implies, the woodland jumping mouse inhabits forested settings, especially where numerous ground plants and shrubs cover the forest floor. This mammal also shows a preference for wooded glades where the soil remains moist in summer. Lowlands along the edges of marshes and swamps, or places where natural drainage is poor and water seeps into the soil rather than runs off, are ideal locations for this abundant creature.

Because the jumping mouse prefers to forage under the cover of darkness, this rodent is not as likely to be seen prowling the forest floor as a chipmunk. Also, since it rarely utters any sound, there is little to draw a person’s attention to this mammal’s presence.

As August arrives, the jumping mouse begins to increase its intake of food. This is partly the result of longer nights for foraging, and an increase in the berries, ground dwelling bugs, and maturing fungi upon which it feeds. The excess food consumed as summer wanes is stored as fat. While a normal mouse begins to amass caches of food around this time of year for use in winter, the jumping mouse relies on its fat reserves to carry it through the colder months.

Unlike other mice, the jumping mouse lapses into a state of true hibernation as its food sources dwindle. After it retreats into a chamber deep in its burrow, the jumping mouse experiences a drastic drop in its body temperature as does the woodchuck and many species of bats.

In the Adirondacks, the jumping mouse is known to begin its winter dormancy as early as the middle of October. This is the time in the autumn when berries and bugs become limited in availability. While small seeds may still be present for this rodent to pick up from the forest floor, the new layer of dead leaves on the ground covers them and makes them harder to find.

Also, a fresh, dry carpet of dead foliage makes it harder for the jumping mouse to remain inconspicuous as it forages. The faint noise created by a mouse as it rustles through the dead leaves may be difficult for a person to hear, but it is more than adequate to alert any predator in the immediate area that a potential meal is active nearby. By slipping into a dormant state until conditions on the ground improve for it in mid spring, the jumping mouse is able to deal with the adverse conditions over the next 6 months.

As the moon develops in brightness over the next few weeks, an evening out in the woods may reveal periodic glimpses of this unique rodent which is active around most campsites here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature.


Monday, July 25, 2011

Adirondack Insects: Paper Wasps

While working around the house this summer, it is not unusual to notice the papery nest of a wasp tucked under the eaves, hidden behind a loose shutter, or placed in some other protected spot. While an encounter with this type of structure may temporarily disrupt a painting project or home repair work, such a sanctuary is vital to the summer success of these familiar yellow and black insects, and should be left alone if at all possible as wasps play a role in helping to control the populations of numerous insects, spiders and other bugs.

Out of an entire summer colony, only a few females that are born in late summer with adequate stores of fat are capable of surviving the winter in the Adirondacks. After abandoning their nest and mating with a male, these individuals typically burrow into the soil, or seek shelter inside a thick, hollow log that will eventually become buried by snow.

During mid spring, when conditions improve, these females emerge from their winter dormancy and begin to search for a sheltered spot in which to construct their papery nest. By chewing on softened pieces of partially rotted wood, and mixing this mass with chemicals in their mouth, the females, known to some as queens, fashion the mixture into a sheet that dries and forms a grayish papery substance. Initially, a small collection of hexagonal cells are produced to house the first eggs laid by the fertile female.

It takes about a week for the eggs to hatch into the tiny, worm-like larvae which remain within the papery walls of their nursery. Because the larvae require a diet high in animal protein, the matriarch of the colony goes in an almost constant search for small insects and other types of invertebrates to appease their appetite.

It takes almost two weeks before the immature wasps are ready to enter the pupa stage, and then nearly two more weeks before the transition into an adult wasp is completed. During this period, the female may add more cells to her infant colony and lay more eggs in order to increase the number of individuals that eventually will inhabit the nest.

By the start of summer, her first in a series of adult offspring emerge from their cells. All of these are females, and they instinctively assume the various chores that must be carried out to maintain the colony. The fertile female eventually settles into the role of simply laying eggs in cells constructed by the recently hatched workers.

During the early summer, wasp colonies are relatively small and contain only a limited number of females. As the number of residents increase, the colony’s need for small insects and other bugs to feed the developing larvae increases correspondingly.

While the larvae require a diet rich in protein, the adults need fluids that contain a high caloric content. Nectar from flowers and juices that develop within fruits and berries, like raspberries and blackberries, are traditionally sought out by adult wasps when they want to satisfy their own hunger.

As summer starts to wane in another few weeks, the fertile female slows the rate at which she lays eggs within her paper covered nursery. Since the increased number of worker wasps now has fewer larvae to feed, their search for bugs eventually turns to a search for the more sugary items that they favor. (In late summer, wasps prefer visiting a table with an opened can of soda, a cup of fruit juice, or some flavorful topping dripping from a burger rather than picking aphids or caterpillars from plants in a garden.)

As the fertile female’s source of sperm dwindles, she will lay a few eggs that fail to become fertilized. These eggs still hatch, but the resultant wasps have only a half set of chromosomes. These individuals are males, and their sole purpose is to mate with those females with an excess of fat in their system that are capable of surviving the winter.
While wasps are noted for the painful sting they can inflict, these insects do help the environment by controlling bug populations. Destroying a papery nest in mid summer before the individuals that can survive the winter develop could impact a wasp population in an area. This in turn allows other bugs the freedom to propagate with fewer checks on their numbers. A simple rule that I try to follow whenever I encounter a wasp nest while painting is: leave the painting project until next spring and go out on the lake.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.


Monday, July 18, 2011

The Turkey Vulture: A Welcome Invasive Species?

Over the past several centuries, there have been numerous additions to the Adirondack flora and fauna. The recent Invasive Species Awareness Week highlighted some of the many forms of life that have invaded the region and are currently wreaking havoc with the established members of the region’s plant and animal communities. However, not all organisms from outside the area adversely impact the environment like Eurasian milfoil or the zebra mussel. One of the largest transplants to the North Country is the turkey vulture, a bird that occupies a niche for which few other creatures are so well suited. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Small and Seldom Seen Pygmy Shrew

The vast expanses of conifer and mixed forest that exist in the Adirondacks serve as home to numerous forms of wildlife. While many of these creatures are easy to recognize and lead lives that have been well studied by researchers, others are still shrouded in mystery. Among the mammals that are difficult to identify and which have not been well researched is a tiny creature believed to be widespread across the Park – the pygmy shrew.

The pygmy shrew ranks among the smallest mammals in the world as this miniature creature has a weight of only a tenth of an ounce. This is about the same as that of a hummingbird, or a penny. However, this fuzzy beast is substantially larger than a copper coin with its body measuring about two and a half inches from the tip of its long, wedge-shaped snout to the base of its wiry tail. By comparison, this is about half the length of a mouse, and only one-eighth its weight.

While it would seem that a mammal of this incredibly small size is easy to identify, confusion exists because a related species, the masked shrew, can be nearly as small, and has almost identical external features. Only a detailed dental analysis can positively tell the pygmy shrew from an immature masked shrew.

Since very few studies involving this ultra-small mammal have ever taken place in the Adirondacks, little is known about most aspects of its life history here in the Park, as well as its current status. Almost all of the scientific information regarding the pygmy shrew’s life comes from just a handful of studies that were undertaken in Alaska, Canada and a few other locations where stands of timber exist, especially in northern regions.

Because the masked shrew forages along the forest floor, as do many other shrews, it can be collected by researchers using certain ground traps. The pygmy shrew, however, is reported to spend more of its time in narrow, crayon-diameter tunnels that exist just below the soil’s surface. This prevents the pygmy shrew from being routinely captured by conventional methods whenever surveys of small mammals are performed. Also, since a live specimen captured in a trap is nearly impossible to properly identify in the field, reliable scientific data on the abundance of this species has been a challenge for wildlife biologists to collect.

Like all shrews, the pygmy shrew feeds heavily on invertebrate matter. Spiders, grubs, worms and caterpillars are routinely harvested by this active predator as it probes the nooks and crannies on the forest floor. The pygmy shrew is believed to concentrate more of its time just below the surface in the burrows of voles, moles, earthworms and in tunnels which it makes itself as it pushes its wedges-shaped head into the spongy layer of dead matter that covers the ground. In this way, the pygmy shrew does not compete directly with the masked shrew for food, as this slightly larger species prowls more just above the soil’s surface. While both species are believed to coexist in the same location, and may occasionally utilize the same travel corridors under fallen logs, pieces of rotted bark and partially uprooted stumps, little is known about the interaction between these two species.

While there is evidence to suggest that the pygmy shrew exists in most types of northern woodlands, this creature does show a preference for stands of evergreens that are close to a source of water. The prolific presence of conifers in the Adirondacks, along with the abundance of fresh water would seem to make our wilderness a perfect retreat for the pygmy shrew; however, there is very little hard evidence to indicate that this species of shrew exists in the Park.

It is hard for some people to believe that in the 21st century there still exist creatures, like the pygmy shrew, about which we have learned very little – at what time of the year do they breed, how many litters do they have during a single year, what kind of social structure do they have, how long do they live, and how do they manage to survive northern winters? While sacked out in a sleeping bag at a campsite, there could easily be one or several pygmy shrews only an arms length away engaging in activities that are unknown to anyone.

The wilderness of the Adirondacks is a great place to explore, and there are still many facets of our environment that have yet to be examined.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack natural history.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Waterfowl: The Common Merganser

The pristine waterways of the Adirondacks that are a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts during the summer are also highly attractive to many forms of wildlife. While many creatures are often difficult to spot, others are regularly noticed by kayakers, canoeists, power boaters, and individuals simply sitting on a porch overlooking a busy lake, a quiet pond, or a back country river. Among those forms of animal life routinely seen, especially after the July fourth weekend, are the mergansers, which thrive in most of the larger aquatic settings within the Park.

The American, or common merganser, known to many as the fish duck, is recognized by its narrow, hook-tipped bill and a protruding row of feathers on the back of its head which often gives the impression that this bird is in need of a comb. This crest is far more pronounced in the female than in the male, however, both sexes have this irregularity to the profile of the back of their head. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Adirondack Birding: Feeding Hummingbirds

Having a hummingbird feeder near your home and being able to regularly monitor the activity around this colorful structure can provide some insight into the summer life of this tiny, iridescent bird.

When the hummingbird returns in the spring, this petite creature tends to seek out the same general region that served as its home the previous summer. Older adults are known to claim the same surroundings which they used the past year as their breeding territory.

Since these birds are already familiar with the area and know the location of various sources of food, it is soon after their arrival that they appear outside a window to take advantage of the artificial nectar placed there. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adirondack Insects: The Spittlebug

After several days without a significant rain, an observant gardener pulling up clumps of weeds, or a perceptive hiker traveling through a pine forest or a meadow near a stand of conifers may notice a glob of saliva-like fluid attached to a wildflower stalk or the stem of a piece of grass.

Occasionally referred to by some people as snake spit, or frog spit, this common frothy deposit of whitish, watery liquid is neither associated with a snake or frog, nor is it produced by the salivary glands of any creature. The spit-like fluid seen on various plants during the early days of summer in the Adirondacks is a form of protective enclosure that surrounds a small insect known as the spittlebug. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Great Blue Heron

For those people familiar with nature, the uniquely-shaped silhouette of a large bird in flight with a set of thin legs jutting well beyond its tail, and a neck that coils back into a compressed “S” creates an unmistakable image.

Additionally, the slow and methodical manner in which this lanky giant beats its sizeable wings helps make the great blue heron one of the easiest birds to recognize as it flies, even from a distance of well over a half mile.

The great blue heron is a wading bird and uses its stilt-like legs to stand and walk through aquatic areas, some of which may be covered with up to a foot of water. It is in places like these that this predator waits quietly for small fish, frogs, salamanders, and other similar size animals to stray within striking distance. Once a victim is spotted close by, the heron draws its head back, simultaneously stepping forward while thrusting its long and pointed bill directly at the target. Rather than spear its prey, the great blue heron attempts to grab hold of the potential meal and swallow it quickly before it can wriggle free.

From late spring through mid August the amount of time an adult heron spends hunting increases significantly. Not only must the adult heron satisfy its own appetite, but toward the end of May, when the 3 or 4 eggs in its nest hatch, the bird must also meet the demands of the young for a steady diet of animal protein.

For the first several weeks after the eggs hatch, one of the parents remains either in the nest or very close to it in order to protect the babies from being attacked by a forest predator, like a raccoon, or eagle. The other parent travels to a favored feeding site, such as a section of marsh, the edge of a slow moving river, or the weedy shoreline of a lake or pond. There it tries to kill enough creatures to fill its crop for transport back to its nest. Once there, the parent regurgitates chunks of the previously swallowed material into the open mouth of its babies. The constant demand for food by the developing nestlings causes the great blue heron to hunt for prey even during the night, especially when a full moon provides adequate illumination for it to see.

After the first month, the young herons become large enough to prevent a parent from spending more than a few minutes in the nest. At this stage in their development, the nestlings require so much food that both parents are forced to hunt for the majority of the day leaving their babies unattended. As the nestlings get older the parents no longer feed them from their mouth, but rather drop the catch off into the nest and let the young birds fight over it.

Because there is safety in numbers, a pair of great blue heron makes its nest close to the nest of other great blue herons. A colony, also known as a heronry, may contain from a dozen nests to over a hundred. The number is highly dependent on the suitability of hunting areas in the surrounding region. For example, a heronry near Lake Champlain is able to support many more pairs of herons than ones located in sections of the Park where favorable aquatic areas are scattered over much greater distances.

In order to minimize the chance of predation from climbing creatures, the great blue heron prefers to construct it stick platform as high as possible in the tallest deciduous trees at the site in which a heronry becomes established. Since a heron nest is around three feet in diameter, the mass of sticks used in its construction can become quite substantial, and the supporting limbs beneath it must be large enough to hold the weight. Additionally, the nest must be tightly woven into the framework of the twigs from the supporting limbs to prevent this structure from being torn loose during periods of high wind, such as those that accompany strong thunderstorms. In most instances, a pair of herons will refurbish the nest that they occupied the previous year if it was able to withstand the fierce gales that battered it during the preceding winter season.

It takes the nestlings almost two full months before they fledge, and even then these young birds depend on their parents for frequent meals until they can get the knack of hunting for themselves.

There are many creatures that prey on the bounty of animal life that exists in and around wetlands; however, few of these stand out against the background as does the great blue heron here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Adirondack Reptiles: Garter Snakes

When weeding in the garden, collecting firewood around a lean-to, or stepping over rocks along a river, it is not uncommon to encounter a garter snake as summer weather become the norm in the Adirondacks.

In northern New York there are two species of garter snakes, the eastern or common garter snake, and the ribbon snake. Both are approximately a foot and a half to two feet in length and have the same prominent yellow strip running down the entire length of their back from the base of their head. Both snakes also have an additional yellowish strip extending along their sides, the edges of which may not be as sharply defined as the one on their back. Both species can also vary in color, and some individuals also possess a more checkered or mosaic pattern to their coloration. Additionally, the brightness of their colors may depend on whether an individual will soon be shedding its outer covering of scales or has recently acquired a new layer of this transparent coating.

Like other snakes, the garter snake must shed its protective outer layer of scales in order for its body to expand in size. Just prior to shedding, the scales become translucent, which makes their color duller. In the days immediately after the new layer of scales has formed, the snake appears to be brighter in color.

While there are subtle differences between these two species in physical structure and in certain markings, the similarities between them are far more numerous. This creates a challenge in making a positive identification, especially as one quickly slithers into a crack between two rocks, into a dense pile of brush or under pieces of debris on the forest floor.
Both the eastern garter snake and the ribbon snake prefer to reside near a body of water. However, the eastern garter snake is more likely to be encountered away from such wetland settings, as it is better able to survive in dry places than the ribbon snake.

It is the ability of the garter snake to function in a cold climate that allows this reptile to flourish within the Adirondacks. While the garter snake prefers its surroundings to range between 80 and 90 degrees during the day when it is active, it can continue to be active for a considerable period even when the ground and air remain in the low 50’s. Should the air drop into the low 40’s, or upper 30’s, the garter snake attempts to locate a spot where the temperature of the ground is significantly higher. Places in which the sun is or was beating down on the ground to create a thermal oasis, or where a mound of rotting organic material is generating some warmth of its own are likely to attract a garter snake until the weather warms again.

Like other reptiles, the garter snake has difficulty digesting the food that is in its system when its body cools below a certain level. In order for it to derive the nourishment from the items that it has consumed, its body must be at a temperature of about fifty degrees. While this may not seem to be too cool, it is lower than what most snakes are able to tolerate during the summer season.

Along with its cold-hardiness, the ability of the garter snake to grab a multitude of small creatures that happen to stray in front of it, and pull them down into its throat also contributes to this snake’s ecological success in the Adirondacks. The garter snake is known to strike at and then swallow animals ranging in size from earthworms and small salamanders to medium size toads, young mice and voles, and the eggs of birds that make their nests on the ground.

While many people are repulsed by the sight of a snake, especially if it happens to be close to their feet, these reptiles play an important role in our environment. Garter snakes are one of the few predators of toads in our region, and they help to limit the population of numerous other small creatures. Garter snakes, in turn, are preyed upon by various animals, such as hawks, raccoons and fox. Garter snakes pose no threat to humans and should always be left alone, unless you are one of those very few individuals that wishes to pick one up an examine it to see if you can determine if it is an eastern garter, or ribbon snake.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Common garter snake, courtesy Wikipedia.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Nesting Black-Capped Chickadee

June is the peak of the nesting season in the Adirondacks, and among the many birds currently involved in the process of producing offspring is the black-capped chickadee. Known to everyone that maintains a feeder in winter, this friendly and perky songster enters into its breeding season in mid spring as nesting territories gradually become established, and the winter flock dissolves. As a general rule, the dominant male and female in the flock pair up and lay claim to the most favorable area within the immediate surroundings.

These birds tend to be the oldest members of the flock and likely paired with each other during the previous year. The next ranking male and female in the flock’s well established hierarchy are also likely to form a mating bond and take control of much of the remaining area used by the flock for their winter territory. Any remaining pairs of birds that have survived the winter may either attempt to establish a breeding territory in whatever unoccupied parcels of forest remain in the immediate vicinity, or they may relocate to other areas that were avoided in winter because of limited food resources in these places.

With the approach of the nesting season, chickadees begin to incorporate much greater quantities of animal matter into their diet. Even though there may still be seeds available at feeders, these birds start to concentrate more of their time searching for small bugs which are rich in both protein and fats. Egg development within the female requires high amounts of these two nutrients, especially protein. And while the males do not need the same high levels of protein as the females, they still gather these nitrogen enriched morsels of invertebrate matter and offer them to their mate to help her with her intake of vital nutrients.

After each pair has settled on a particular parcel of forest, they then begin to search for a nest site. Like the woodpeckers, the chickadee constructs its nest in a wooden cavity. Typically, a dead, partially rotted poplar or white birch stub that is roughly 4 inches in diameter is favored. The soft, almost spongy interior of these standing columns allows the chickadee to chip away and pull out fragments of wood from the inside of the very upper section of the stub. The male and female both work intermittently during the day for nearly a week until they have completed a nearly 8 inch deep chamber that will serve to shelter their eggs, and then their nestlings. Because such trees are never very high, chickadee cavities tend to be within 15 feet of the ground, with some being built at eye level.

In places where a dead and partially rotted stub can not be found, or in spots where the potential nest sites are deemed unacceptable because of some threat, like the close presence of a red squirrel nest, the chickadee resorts to placing its nest in a cavity that already exists. Sometimes a pair of chickadees may settle into a chamber excavated by a woodpecker. The pair is also known to use a nest box when a rotted stub can not be found. Since chickadees strongly prefer to take up residence in a cavity that they excavate themselves, some people attempt to attract these birds to a nest box by packing it with small wood chips, like those produced by a sharp chain saw.

After the chamber is completed, the cavity is then lined with a layer of soft material, like hair, downy feathers or strands of moss. The female then begins the process of laying eggs, and like most other birds, she deposits a single egg in the nest each morning until the clutch is completed.

Then follows the process of incubation which lasts nearly two weeks. Next is the very challenging chore of trying to keep the nestlings well fed. Like a female that is developing eggs, the nestlings require a diet composed of spiders, insects, millipedes and other bugs.
During the summer, people are encouraged to take down their feeders, or stop placing seeds out in them. Maintaining a feed in summer serves to attract raccoons, bears and other unwanted wildlife visitors. While it may seem cruel to completely cut the birds off from their regular source of food, these creatures no longer rely on such items for their nourishment. This is the time when bugs become the food of choice for most birds during their nesting season here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wildlife: Red Foxes Are Denning

As leaves erupt from their buds on hardwood trees, which cloak the Adirondack terrain again in green, red fox pups venture from their dens and begin to experience our vast, lush spring landscape.

In this northern climate, the red fox breeds during the very end of January through the first few weeks of February. As a result, the females give birth to their annual litter toward the very end of March, or during early April.

In the weeks prior to giving birth, each pair of red fox establishes a den that serves to shelter their pups from the bouts of inclement weather that often occurs in spring. A den also protects these helpless infants from being attacked and killed by other predatory creatures, such as coyotes, bears and various birds of prey. » Continue Reading.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: The Hardy Bumble Bee

Shortly before apple blossoms open and honeysuckle flowers emerge from their buds, queen bumble bees awaken from their winter dormancy and begin the chore of establishing the small colony over which they will reign throughout the coming growing season.

In autumn, as asters begin to fade, the queen bumble bee abandons her colony and prepares for the coming winter. After mating with one or several male bees, she then begins to work her way through the layer of dead, leafy matter covering the ground and down into the soil. Like most other bugs, the queen lapses into a period of deep dormancy that often lasts seven months in this northern climate. Both the worker and male bumble bees in the colony eventually perish as the cold becomes more intense and sources of nectar completely disappear.

As the ground thaws in mid April and her surroundings warm, the queen makes her way to the surface and starts to search for a site in which to locate her nest. In the Adirondacks, the bumble bee often places her colony in or near the ground. A small hole that leads underground, such as the entrance to a vacant chipmunk burrow or the opening to an abandoned vole tunnel is occasionally selected for the nest’s location. A tiny grotto among a pile of rocks or a hollow log lying on the forest floor is another site that the queen may use to house her colony.
After creating several waxy containers to hold her initial few eggs, the queen then begins the month long process of caring for her developing offspring. Since only the queen is present at this initial stage of the colony’s development, only a handful of eggs are produced in mid spring.

As early blooming plants open their flowers at the end of April or the first week or two of May, it is common for the queen bumble bee to regularly visit any plants that is yielding pollen and nectar. Unlike the honey bee which visits only a single type of flower each day when it becomes active in collecting floral material, the bumble bee is far less selective. This hefty, yellow and black insect is known to stop at a variety of sources of nectar and pollen during its daily search for nourishment, especially when flowers are still few and far between.

The bumble bee is well adapted for a life in our cold climate, and is not as adversely impacted by the unseasonably cool weather that may settle over the Park in May as are other species of bees and wasps. The larger size of this flying insect, along with its rounded body shape helps create a body mass to surface area ratio that limits heat loss better than any other social or stinging insect. The especially dense layer of “hair-like” bristles that cover the bumble bee’s body functions like a coat of fur to help retain heat. Additionally, when exposed to the cold, the bumble bee is reported to be able to vibrate certain muscles within its body much as a person shivers in order to elevate its internal temperature. Finally, when collecting food, the bumble bee never wastes energy in attempting to attack a larger intruder, like a human that may have wandered too close to the tree or shrub in which it is foraging.
The bumble bee is the most docile stinging insect in the North Country and uses its primary defensive weapon only when something actually grabs it, or disturbs its nest. While the bumble bee occasionally flies close to people in order to investigate colorful articles of clothing they may be wearing, it inevitably realizes it cannot collect food from that object, and always leaves without incident.

Killing a bumble bee, especially at this time of the year, when its colony is just starting to function, is never an environmentally good action. Because of the very limited presence of the honey bee in the Adirondacks, the bumble bee assumes the role of a primary pollinator of many flowering plants across the region. (However, I never have a problem destroying a wasp, especially a bald-faced hornet, as I am convinced that they are insect vermin, but the bumble is NOT!) If the insect you see flying around is large, rounded and fuzzy, it is a bumble bee, which should always be left alone as it is an important component of the environment here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adirondack Wildlife: Basking Painted Turtles

In any shallow, muddy-bottom body of water in spring, when the sun is shinning or a southerly breeze has elevated the temperature into the 50’s or 60’s, the painted turtle may be seen lounging peacefully, often in the company of others of its species.

As with all reptiles, turtles are cold-blooded. This means they are unable to generate any internal heat of their own. In order to elevate their body temperature to a level that is more favorable for carrying out numerous physiological processes, these slow moving creatures must first pull their body from the still frigid waters that engulf them, and then attempt to absorb as much solar radiation, or thermal energy from the air as possible. In this way the painted turtle can effectively restart its system after lying totally dormant over the long winter season here in the Adirondacks.

Like several other cold-blooded organisms, the painted turtle passes the winter embedded in the layer of dark, muddy silt and organic debris that forms the bottom of most quiet Adirondack waterways. Even though this shelled vertebrate has lungs rather than gills, it can remain submerged for prolonged periods without breathing when the water is close to freezing. As is the case with other reptiles, the painted turtle becomes increasingly more lethargic as the environment surrounding it cools in autumn, thereby decreasing its need for oxygen. As the temperature drops to within a degree or two of freezing, the painted turtle lapses into a state of complete dormancy which further reduces it need for this essential elemental gas.
The very limited amount of oxygen needed to sustain life comes from this turtle’s ability to absorb this dissolved gas from water that is repeatedly drawn into a special sac near its tail and into its throat.

As the sun’s rays become more intense in mid to late April, and begin to penetrate the bottom muck, the painted turtle’s internal temperature starts to rise. The dark color of this turtle’s back shell allows it to effectively absorb the sun’s infra-red rays, even when it is below the surface. Exposure to solar radiation can boost a turtle’s core temperature by several degrees above that of the water which surrounds it. This helps provide it with the energy needed to resurrect itself from the bottom muck and become somewhat active again.
When conditions above the surface become favorable, the painted turtle swims to an object that it can climb onto in order to lift itself completely from the frigid water. Logs that are floating on the surface, a small island of peat, or a deteriorating muskrat house are all common places that the painted turtle visits to bask in the sun. Since these spots are separated from the shore, the turtle is less likely to come under attack from a shoreline predator.

Since this creature’s metabolic state is still drastically depressed by the cool surroundings, the life processes within this normally sluggish critter are not yet fully functional. Even acquiring nourishment becomes a challenge, as the turtle’s digestive system is unable to effectively process any of the various items consumed by this omnivore when it is immersed in the water. By basking in the sun, the painted turtle is able to elevate its core temperature to a level that allows for a more effective break down of the food ingested when it forages along the bottom.

Along with promoting digestion, the temporary warming of the turtle’s body helps facilitate the process of egg formation within mature females. In the Adirondacks, it is usually toward the end of May when the females leave their watery home and venture onto dry land to lay their eggs. As with all reptiles, the painted turtle must leave the safety of the water and seek out an appropriate spot on land in which to deposit her eggs.

Painted turtles regularly emerge from the water during the spring whenever the air temperature is warmer than the water, or when the sun is beating down on a particular spot in their home. For this creature, it is more than just a pleasant way to relax, but a method allowing for the digestion of their food, and the development of their eggs.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on nature in the Adirondacks.


Monday, May 2, 2011

When Ice Goes Out The Loons Arrive

It is always difficult to predict when the ice will go out on a given body of water in the Adirondacks, however, it is easy to say when that waterway will be occupied by a loon, as this symbol of the northern wilderness always seems to arrive within hours of the ice disappearing.

The urge to return to its breeding territory is especially strong in male loons. Because of a recent population increase in this species, there can be intense competition for the remote sections of the large lakes and back country ponds that are highly attractive to this bird with the haunting voice. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Adirondack Amphibians: The Wood Frog in Spring

The awakening of the many forms of life that passed the winter in a deeply dormant state begins with the melting of the snow, the retreating of the ice sheet covering our waterways, and the thawing of the soil. Because of fundamental physiological differences among the species and the various preferences that each creature has for a wintering site, some animals are quicker to respond to the onset of favorable spring conditions than others.

In the forested regions of the North Country, the wood frog is among the first to return to an active state and announce with a distinct chorus of voices that spring has come to the Adirondacks.

Unlike other frogs in the Adirondacks, the wood frog does not spend the winter embedded in the muck that covers numerous bodies of water. Rather, this amphibian burrows deep into the leaf litter that covers the forest floor to protect itself from the frigid conditions of this long season. Also, unlike many other cold-blooded vertebrates, the wood frog fails to get below the frost line.

This small, forest dwelling frog with the black mask across its face is among the very few forms of vertebrate life that can experience freezing without perishing. The body of this frog has adapted by producing several substances that allow for a lowering of the freezing point of the water molecules within its body.

Additionally, even if the actions of these compounds fail to prevent ice crystals from forming, the wood frog will not die. With the formation of ice in its body, the wood frog’s heart stops beating, its blood no longer circulates throughout its systems, and oxygen fails to be delivered to its cells. In this type of cryogenic state, the wood frog can remain alive throughout the winter and awaken once its body warms to a temperature that is above freezing.

As soon as the upper layer of soil thaws, releasing the wood frog from its icy tomb, it spends a few days acclimating to an active state before heading to the small, vernal pool of water that serves as its breeding ground. Upon arriving at such a seasonal body of water, the males begin to announce their presence by emitting a clacking noise that is described by some as several ducks that are not quite “on-key”.

Within a span of a few days, such small bodies of water may contain dozens of wood frogs. While these amphibians can be heard anytime of the day, late afternoon is when more voices are added to the chorus, and by evening on those occasions when the temperature is well above the freezing point, every male is contributing to the unique noise that can carry for nearly a hundred yards. Additionally, the intensity of this sound increases during times of warmer weather. Sunny days which can elevate the temperature of these small, seasonal pools can also make the wood frog more active and vocal.

While some amphibians, like the spring peeper, persist in announcing its presence for well over a month, the wood frog seldom remains in its breeding surroundings longer than a week to ten days. Shortly after the last females have had their egg masses fertilized, these temporary occupants abandon the pools and begin their travel to their summer ranges. Wood frogs are reported to migrate up to a half mile to reach a favorable spot on the forest floor in which to spend the summer.

Spring is a season of sound in the Adirondacks. While birds have the most musically complex songs, and the most melodious calls, the voices of several amphibians add to the diversity of this springtime, vocal ritual. It is impossible to state which amphibian produces the most appealing mating call; however, it is certain that the love serenade of the wood frog is the first to grace the air and signal that the spring peepers will soon be calling here in the Adirondacks.

Tom Kalinowski has written several books on Adirondack nature and is a regular contributor on natural history here at the Adirondack Almanack.


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