Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: A History of American Fur Trade

“The fur trade was a powerful force in shaping the course of American history from the early 1600s through the late 1800s,” Eric Jay Dolin writes in his new comprehensive history Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. “Millions of animals were killed for their pelts, which were used according to the dictates of fashion — and human vanity,” Dolin writes. “This relentless pursuit of furs left in its wake a dramatic, often tragic tale of clashing cultures, fluctuating fortunes, and bloody wars.”

The fur trade spurred imperial power struggles that eventually led to the expulsions of the Swedes, the Dutch, and the French from North America. Dolin’s history of the American fur trade is a workmanlike retelling of those struggles that sits well on the shelf beside Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1902 two-volume classic The American Fur Trade of the Far West, and The Fur Trade in Colonial New York, 1686-1776., the only attempt to tell the story of the fur trade in New York. The latter volume, written by Thomas Elliot Norton, leaves no room for the Dutch period or the early national period which saw the fur trade drive American expansion west.

Dolin’s Fur Fortune, and Empire, is not as academic as last year’s Rethinking the Fur Trade: Cultures of Exchange in an Atlantic World by Susan Sleeper-Smith. It’s readable, and entertaining, ranging from Europe, following the westward march of the fur frontier across America, and beyond to China. Dolin shows how trappers, White and Indian, set the stage for the American colonialism to follow and pushed several species to the brink of extinction. Among the characters in this history are those who were killed in their millions; beaver, mink, otter, and buffalo.

Eric Jay Dolin’s focus, as it was with his last book Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, is the intersection of American history and natural history. Readers interested in the history of the New York fur trade will find this book enlightening for it’s connection of the state’s fur business with the larger world as the first third deals with the period before the American Revolution, when New York fur merchants and traders were still a dominate factor. Yet, like last year’s Sleeper-Smith book, Dolin’s newest volume is simply outlines the wider ground on which the still necessary volume on the fur trade in New York might be built.

Note: Books noticed on this site have been provided by the publishers. Purchases made through this Amazon link help support this site.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Butterfly Behavior: What is Puddling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Adirondack Birding Festivals and Events Kick Off in June

June is birding month in the Adirondacks of Northern New York and avid ornithologists can enjoy the pristine wilderness habitats of several species of birds during one of the many birding events and festivals this spring.

At Great Camp Sagamore, two adventure programs featuring Boreal Birds of the Adirondacks will take place May 25-28 and June 10-13. Space is extremely limited – only 15 people are accepted per program and reservations are required. See and hear the boreal birds (gray jay, white- throated sparrow, black-backed and Northern three-toed woodpeckers, boreal chickadee, etc.) that make their home in and breed in the Adirondacks. Lectures, slide shows and bird-call lessons will prepare you for field trips to two New York State “Important Birding Areas.” $439 per person for this three-night, four-day program. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Battling Dandelions in the Adirondack Lawn

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

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


Saturday, May 15, 2010

Adirondack Woodpeckers: The Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pin Cherry: An Overlooked Adirondack Native

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bluebirds in the Adirondacks

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

Not all blue birds are bluebirds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Balsam Poplar – The Balm of the Adirondacks

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

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


Saturday, May 1, 2010

American Fly Honeysuckle: A Sweet Adirondack Native

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: The Vagaries of Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lake George Association Annouces 2010 Events

The Lake George Association (LGA), now celebrating its 125th anniversary, has announced its 2010 summer schedule of ecology educational programs for the public. The LGA is the oldest lake association in the United States, and one of the oldest non-profit conservation organizations in New York.

Families, schools, businesses and individuals interested in preserving the Lake George region for future generations are invited to join the LGA for one or more of many educational offerings this summer; most are free of charge.

Free family hands-on water ecology programs will take place on Thursday mornings from 10-11 am; topics include Lake Invaders, Creek Critters and Fish Food.

Lake lovers of all ages are invited to participate in on-lake learning adventures aboard the LGA’s Floating Classroom. Trips for the public will take place on Thursday mornings in July and August at 11 am, leaving the dock at Shepard Park in Lake George.
Additional times are available for groups.

Four free workshops, entitled Landscaping with Native Plants, Aquatic Invasive Plants – Do’s and Don’ts, Water Conservation, and Lawn Care and Pest Management will be offered on four Saturday mornings this summer.

The public is also invited to participate in two clean-ups – one at West Brook and the other on Log Bay, and in LGA’s annual loon census count on July 17.

The organization’s 125th annual meeting, open and free to all, will take place on Friday, August 20 at 11 am at the Lake George Club. Reservations are required for the annual meeting and for the floating classroom trips.

A complete schedule of events can be found here.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Turkey Season Opens May 1; Youth Weekend Begins

The 2010 spring turkey season opens on May 1 and the annual Youth Turkey Hunting Weekend is this weekend (April 24-25). For more information about turkey hunting in New York, visit the “Turkey Hunting” pages of the DEC website.

An analysis of the 2009 spring turkey take, including a county-by-county breakdown, can be found on the DEC website; the numbers for the 2009 fall turkey season are also online.

Do you have photos from a spring turkey hunt you would like to share? DEC has created a Hunting and Trapping Photo Gallery for junior hunters (ages 12-15), young trappers (under age 16), and hunters who have harvested their first big or small game animal. If you are the parent or legal guardian of a junior hunter, or if you are an adult who would like to share your first successful hunt, visit the photo gallery.

To participate in our Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, Winter Wild Turkey Flock Survey, or other game bird surveys visit the “Citizen Science” page of the DEC website.

To be eligible for this year’s Youth Turkey Hunt, hunters must be 12-15 years of age, and holding a junior hunting license and a turkey permit. Youth ages 12-13 must be accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or a relative over 21 and with written permission from their parent or legal guardian. Youth ages 14-15 must be accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or an adult over 18 and with written permission from their parent or legal guardian. The accompanying adult must have a current hunting license and turkey permit. The adult may assist the youth hunter (including calling), but may not carry a firearm or bow, or kill or attempt to kill a wild turkey during the youth hunt.

Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon each day. The bag limit for the youth weekend is one bearded bird. This bird becomes part of the youth’s regular season bag limit of 2 bearded birds. A second bird may be taken beginning May 1. All other wild turkey hunting regulations are in effect.

Other Important Details for the Spring Turkey Season, May 1-31, 2010:

• Hunting is permitted in most areas of the state, except for New York City and Long Island.

• Hunters must have a turkey hunting permit in addition to their small game hunting or sportsman license.

• Shooting hours are from one-half hour before sunrise to noon each day.

• Hunters may take 2 bearded turkeys during the spring season, but only 1 bird per day.

• Hunters may not use rifles, or handguns firing a bullet. Hunters may hunt with a shotgun or handgun loaded with shot sizes no larger than No. 2 or smaller than No. 8, or with a bow and arrow.

• Successful hunters must fill out the tag which comes with their turkey permit and immediately attach it to any turkey harvested.

• Successful hunters must report their harvest within 48 hours of taking a bird. Call (1-866 GAMERPT) or report harvest online.

• Hunters who take a bird with a leg band are encouraged to call the “800” number listed on the band, in addition to reporting their harvest via phone or Internet. Hunters will find out when and where the bird was banded and the information will help DEC staff better manage wild turkeys.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

Adirondack Geology: Mysteries of Rocks and Minerals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bee Watching

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a bee eat bee world out there.

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Earth Day: A Revolution 40 Years In The Making

On Earth Day 1970, people around the country, mostly college students, demonstrated on behalf of environmental causes. Forty years later, the environmental movement has come into the mainstream and secured state and federal agency leadership positions. More importantly, the movement has significantly improved the quality of our rivers, lakes and forests and in doing so has provided for the proliferation of local wildlife. While there are certainly challenges that remain – invasive species, inappropriate development, toxic exposures, nitrate and storm water management, climate change, the plight of amphibians, migratory birds, and bats – the environmental successes of the last 40 years should not be underestimated.

By and large, the first Earth Day was much like those that have followed: politicians, celebrities, concerts, environmental fairs, and the like. But Earth Day 1970 was a radical proposition in a time before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded, and before there were state sanctioned bodies like the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to protect the environment. At Boston’s Logan Airport, where a few hundred demonstrators had gathered in what a CBS reporter called a “thoroughly peaceful and non-disruptive demonstration”, police charged the crowd and arrested 13.

In the 40 years since that first Earth Day the Adirondack region has seen a revolution in the way we interact with our environment. Sure, we can point to the founding of DEC (1970), the establishment of the EPA (1971), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Clean Water Act (1972), State Environmental Quality Review Act (1980), the Superfund Law (1980), and the Environmental Protection Fund (1993) but there has been a leadership revolution as well. Today, Pete Grannis, who was part of the first Earth Day demonstrations, is now the head of the DEC. Judith Enck, the state’s leading environmental activist in the 1980s, is now the Administrator of EPA’s Region 2.

Changes in the natural environment have been extraordinary. The Hudson River, once an open sewer where no one dared to boat, never-mind swim or fish, now bustles with recreation activities in summer. According to the DEC, the number of seriously polluted waters in the state has fallen by 85% and Sulfur Dioxide pollution is down by 90%, with a corresponding improvement in Acid Rain.

Successes we don’t typically consider include the closure of outdated and poorly located landfills (more than 100 in Adirondacks alone), the elimination of the tire dumps (including more than 27 million tires statewide), the cleaning up of Superfund and brownfield sites (1,800 statewide) and the thousands of water bodies large and small around the state that have been cleaned-up in the last 40 years through waste-water management.

We may not consider those victories as much as we should, but local wildlife certainly has. In 1970 there was just one occupied Bald Eagle nest in New York State, in 2010 there are 173. Eagles and other raptors we rarely saw in the 1970s and 1980s, birds like the peregrine falcon, are now fairly frequent sights; ravens and osprey have returned to the Adirondacks. Wild turkeys have exploded from about 25,000 in 2010 to 275,000 today, and so turkey hunting has returned to the Adirondacks. Native trout have been returned to more than 50 ponds according to the DEC, and the average number of fish species has increased by a third offering increased angling opportunities. Beaver, fisher, and otter have flourished in cleaner, more diverse waters and so trapping seasons have returned for those species. In 1970 there were no Moose in the Adirondacks, today there are 400 to 500 in the region.

Clean water, clean air, and open spaces were the demands at the first Earth Day in 1970. Those demands were met by legions of combative corporations, industry alliances, business groups, chambers of commerce and their attorneys. A look at a local paper on any given day shows that those battles continue, but 40 years has shown that the environmental movement has been an enormous success. Despite the attacks and “enviro-nazi” insults, the former hippies, political greens, organization environmentalists, and wildlife conservationists who have made up the environmental movement have much to be proud of.

Illustration: Earth Day 1970 Poster