Monday, August 2, 2010

The Cougar Question: Have You Seen One?

Several months ago, I confessed here on Adirondack Almanack that I once saw a cougar—or thought I did. I say “confessed,” because if you tell people you saw a cougar in the Adirondacks, some of them will look at you funny.

Others will tell you about their own cougar sighting.

I’m bringing up cougars again because the Adirondack Explorer recently received an interesting letter from Don Leadley, a longtime outdoorsman from Lake Pleasant. Leadley responded to an Explorer column written by our publisher, Tom Woodman, discussing our endless fascination with the possibility that cougars may be living in our midst. » Continue Reading.


Monday, August 2, 2010

DEC Seeks Turkey Survey Volunteers

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is encouraging New Yorkers to participate in the Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey, which kicks off in August.

Since 1996, DEC has conducted the Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey to estimate the average number of wild turkey poults (young of the year) per hen statewide and among major geographic regions of the state. This index allows DEC to gauge turkey populations and enables wildlife managers to predict fall harvest potential. Weather, predation and habitat conditions during the breeding and brood-rearing seasons can all significantly impact nest success, hen survival, and poult survival.

During the month of August, survey participants record the sex and age composition of all flocks of wild turkeys observed during normal travel. Those who want to participate can download a Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey form from the DEC website to record your observations. Detailed instructions can be found with the data sheet. Survey cards can also be obtained by contacting your regional DEC office, by calling (518) 402-8886, or by e-mailing fwwildlf@gw.dec.state.ny.us (type “Turkey Survey” in the subject line).

On the DEC website:

Summer Wild Turkey Sighting Survey

Citizen Science Initiatives

DEC Regional Office Contact Information


Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Closer Look at Bees: Pollen and Body Parts

The more I learn about bees, the more interesting they become. This morning I was out photographing the insects and flowers in our butterfly garden, and a large portion of the insects I saw were bumblebees, which were mobbing the globe thistles. When the bumbles are this plentiful, it makes studying them a bit easier, for space is at a premium. When they find a good spot to feed and collect pollen, they stay there until the resource is exhausted. So armed with my macro lens, I started stalking the bees.

One busy little lady was well-laden with pollen, her pollen sacs bright orange bulges on her hind legs. This got me to wondering about pollen sacs. What exactly are they? Are they actually pockets in which the bees stuff pollen, or are they just sections of leg around which pollen is piled? I had to know more.

As it turns out, bumble bees have a very interesting system for storing pollen, which begins with pollen collection. Because they are extremely fuzzy animals, pollen sticks to them every time they visit flowers. It sticks to their antennae, their legs, their faces, their bodies. They become one giant pollen magnet.

One of the really neat things I learned about bumble bees (and apparently beetles and ants), is that they actually have a special structure just for cleaning their antennae. Located on their front legs is a special notch. The inside curve of this notch is lined with a fringe of hairs that work like a comb. Have you ever watched a beetle, ant or bee wash itself? It will draw its antennae through this notch, and the comb-like hairs brush off pollen and any other debris that might be there. Pretty nifty.

Meanwhile, the middle legs are also equipped with brush- (or comb-) like hairs. These are run over the body, scraping off the collected pollen. From here the pollen is transferred to the pollen presses located on the hind legs.

At this point we have to take a good look at those back legs. Just like us, the bee’s legs have a tibia, which is the lower leg (think of your calf). On bumble bees the tibia is flat, somewhat convex, shiny and surrounded by hairs, some of which are rather long and stiff. This forms what is called the pollen basket. Located at the lower end of the tibia (think of your ankle) is a comb-like structure, and on the metatarsus (think of your heel or foot) is the press. These two structures work together kind of like levers.

So, the pollen (which has been moistened with nectar to make it sticky) is transferred to the press and the bee manipulates the press and comb to press the pollen onto the bottom part of the flattened tibia. Each new batch of pollen is pressed onto the bottom of the basket, pushing the previous batches further up. When the basket is full, it will bulge with upwards of one million grains of pollen. The hairs that surround the tibia hold the pollen in place while the bee flies from place to place, either collecting more pollen, drinking nectar, or flying back home to stock the nest with this carefully gathered food, which is what her offspring will eat when they hatch.

Bee pollen is considered one of the all-time great foods. Of course, the information I found on the nutritional content of bee pollen is specifically for honey bee pollen, but bumble bee pollen is probably very similar. So, here are some statistics on honey bee pollen:

• It is a complete protein;
• It is the only known food to contain all 22 amino acids that the human body needs but cannot produce for itself;
• It contains more protein than any meat or fish;
• It takes a honey bee about an hour to collect one pellet (basketful) of pollen;
• A teaspoon of honey bee pollen contains about 1200 of these pellets.

(Honey bees, by the way, have crevices on the backs of their knees, and it is into these that the gathered pollen is stuffed.)

It is now clouding up and the bees have probably left the garden. I know, however, that the next sunny day we have, I will be out in the garden watching the bees. I want to see if I can actually witness a pollen press in action. Perhaps some of you will do the same. If you get to see a bee pressing pollen onto its pollen basket, I hope you will let me know.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

10th Annual Loon Census A Success

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program, Adirondack residents and visitors, and other partners have successfully conducted the 10th Annual New York Loon Census.

More than 300 lakes and ponds were surveyed by more than 500 volunteers during this year’s census—up from 200 lakes and ponds last year. The data obtained during the census will be added and compared to those collected in years prior to gauge the status of the breeding loon population in and around the Adirondack Park and across New York State. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Adirondack Wildlife Through the Seasons Lecture

Lake Placid photographer and regular Adirondack Almanack contributor Larry Master will show images of the diverse wildlife that can be seen through the cycle of an Adirondack year. Mammals, birds, and amphibians of the Adirondacks will be featured.

This special presentation of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) will be held on Saturday, July 31, at 8:00 PM at the ADK’s High Peaks Information Center, located at Heart Lake in Lake Placid. This presentation is free and open to the public.

This presentation is part of ADK’s Saturday Evening Lecture Series which offer presentations on natural history, backcountry recreation, Adirondack history, art, and music.

The Adirondack Mountain Club, founded in 1922, is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to protecting the New York State Forest Preserve and other wild lands and waters through conservation and advocacy, environmental education and responsible recreation.

For more information about programs, directions or questions about membership, contact ADK North Country office in Lake Placid (518) 523-3441 or visit our Web site at www.adk.org.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Adirondack Nature: Reflections on Raindrops

Who among us hasn’t been enchanted by dewdrops on a spider’s web or raindrops clinging to the tips of fir needles? A garden after rain is filled with pools of quicksilver as droplets merge together on leaves and glisten in the sunlight. It’s magical, and it draws the eye of many a naturalist and photographer. The perfectly round shapes, clearer than the finest crystal, reflecting the world in perfect (if upside-down) miniature…what isn’t there to love?

I’ve been thinking about raindrops recently, wondering why some are flattened blobs while others maintain their spherical figures. I was also wondering why they make such wonderful lenses, even if they reflect a topsy-turvy world. These are really very elementary questions, to which we all learned the answers back in high school physics, but sometimes these lessons are forgotten in the fog of time. Perhaps now, when rainy summer days provide us with ideal laboratories for study, is the time to revisit them.

First, why are some droplets round and others flat? Water is composed of molecules that have a positive charge on one end and a negative charge on the other. As we all know, opposites attract. This attraction means that the water molecules within a raindrop or a dewdrop cling tightly to each other. In the absence of any outside influences (gravity or a container), the droplet wants to assume the smallest possible shape with the least amount of surface tension, and that shape is a sphere. Spheres have the smallest amount of surface area for any given volume. A sphere is a conservative shape and the easiest shape to maintain.

Now, take your droplet, and put it on a flat surface, like a leaf or a tabletop. Depending on the texture and composition of the flat surface, your droplet is likely to lose its perfectly round shape (unless it is a very tiny droplet). Gravity is working against it, flattening it out, leaving something that resembles a dome more than a sphere. If your surface is something that produces great adhesion, like a paper towel, your droplet will disappear as gravity pulls it completely into the surface.

On the other hand, if your surface of choice is broken up (say, really bumpy or hairy), and if it has water repellant (hydrophobic) material on it (like waxes), your droplet will retain its shape. Lotus leaves are classic examples of perfectly waterproof surfaces; water droplets roll off them like so many ball bearings. This is because the surface of a lotus leaf, when seen beneath a powerful microscope, has more bumps than a sheet of sandpaper. These bumps are topped with waxes. The end result is that the water droplets are able to maintain their spherical shapes and just roll along the surface.

Water drops are extremely popular with photographers because they are tiny little lenses. Almost anyone with a camera has at one time or another taken a photograph of a droplet and noticed that inside the globe of water was a tiny upside-down world. This is a property of convex lenses, which is essentially what a droplet is. Whatever is behind it appears to be captured, upside-down within its sphere – almost like a snow globe. Some photographers stage their images, to capture a perfect rose within the droplet, or the surrounding landscape as though shot with a fisheye lens. It can be very dramatic. The trick, however, is to focus on the reflection, not on the droplet itself. This is sometimes more difficult to do than you would think.

The next time it rains, or we have a good and dewy morning, go outside as the sun rises and search for the perfect droplets. A wee crystal ball perched on a milkweed leaf; a spider web sparkling with watery beads. Knowing the science behind the magic will not diminish your experience; it should make it all the more marvelous. Now, if you see a perfect ball of water, you know to look closely at the leaf on which it is perched: is it hairy or lumpy? You might just need to use a hand lens to know for sure.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

DEC: Burn Ban Resulted in 33% Fewer Wildfires

The number of wildfires during New York’s traditional high-fire period declined 33 percent in 2010, following the enactment of new restrictions on open burning, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). DEC forest rangers responded to 34 wildfires from March 15 to May 15 in 2010 compared to 51 during the same period in 2009.

New York enacted tighter restrictions on open burning in 2009 in an effort to reduce the impacts of airborne pollutants and to limit the risks of wildfires. While the new regulation allows residential brush burning for most of the year in towns with a population of less than 20,000, it prohibits open burning in all communities during early spring (March 15 – May 15) when the bulk of New York’s wildfires typically occur. Among the factors that enable wildfires to start easily and spread quickly at this time of year are warm temperatures, wind, the lack of green vegetation and the abundance of available fuels such as dry grass and leaves. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Daddy-Longlegs Myths Explained

You’ve got to love Urban Legends. Some of them are just so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that people actually believe them. Others, however, are understandable because they are based on misinformation that could be true but simply isn’t. Take for example the lowly daddy-longlegs, or harvestman.

To begin with, this animal, while it is an arachinid, is not a spider. I know, it looks like a spider, and spiders are arachnids, but so are scorpions, and they are not spiders either. In other words, not all arachnids are spiders.

So, how is a harvestman different from a spider? Let’s consider some spider basics. What do we usually associate with spiders? Webs! Most spiders have some sort of silk-spinning apparatus, even if they don’t spin those classic webs that immediately spring to mind. Harvestmen, however, do not. They have no spinnerettes; they have no silk glands.

How about biting? Spider bites are often attributed to any small bite-like thing that appears on arms and legs while one’s been asleep (most spiders are more likely to get squished when you roll over and are therefore not likely to bite you). Then there are spiders like black widows, brown recluses, and tarantulas—all seen as highly dangerous biters (in fact, tarantulas don’t even belong in this category, but that’s fodder for another blog). I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that harvestmen have the most venomous bites, but because their mouths are too small, they can’t bite people. (Sound the buzzer here.) This is Urban Legend #2.

Harvestmen do not have venom! No venom means no venomous bites. This myth is further laid to rest when one takes a good close look at the mouthparts. Harvestmen do not have fangs, hollow or otherwise. Instead, their mouths look more like grasping claws, which is what they are, and they are too small and weak to damage our tough hides. Spiders need venom to immobilize their prey; harvestmen do not (see below).

Now, I don’t know if this next one is an Urban Legend or not, but it sure sounds like it should be. If detached from the body, a harvestman’s leg will continue to twitch. This is actually true, and it is a defensive mechanism. Harvestmen, like almost all critters in the world, have to constantly be on the lookout for predators. To avoid becoming someone else’s happy meal, these arachnids have a few strategies up their proverbial sleeves, one of which is to detach a leg and then dash away. The twitching, abandoned appendage often distracts the predator long enough to allow for a safe exit.

Other defensive actions include the secretion of foul-smelling liquid from scent glands, playing dead, or even, in some species, gluing debris to their bodies to serve as camouflage.

Daddy-longlegs are actually rather beneficial animals to have around. For one thing, they help keep the world tidy. Most species are omnivores, consuming small insects and plant material, including fungi. Other species are scavengers and as such they clean up after other things have died or pooped. It may not be the food of choice for you or me, but we should be grateful that there are animals out there that like this stuff; otherwise, we’d be up to our eyeballs in, well, corpses and scat.

This brings up another difference between spiders and harvestmen. Spiders liquefy all their meals and slurp them up. Harvestmen, however, are capable of eating chunks of food. Remember those grasping claws they have for mouthparts? Thanks to these claws, they are able to exploit a whole realm of food that spiders, which are strictly predators (although one herbivorous species was recently discovered), can not.

Do you need further convincing that harvestmen are not spiders? Then take a look at the bodies of these two animals. Let’s back up for a moment and start with insects. How many body parts do insects have? Three: head, thorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a spider have? Two: cephalothorax and abdomen. How many body parts does a harvestman have? Two—but they look like one. This is because on the harvestman the joint between the cephalothorax (head) and the abdomen is so broad that the two body pieces look like a single, oval-shaped part.

If you want to get really technical, you can look at the structures these animals use for breathing. You and I have lungs. Spiders and scorpions have book lungs, rather complicated structures that involve alternating layers of air pockets and tissues filled with hemolymph, which is the equivalent of blood. Harvestmen, on the other hand, breathe through spiracles located near their legs, and the air is transported through trachea into the body for gas exchange. This system is much like that found on insects, like grasshoppers.

Most daddy-longlegs are nocturnal, and their drab coloration reflects this. Some, however, are brightly colored and decorated with striking patterns. These individuals are active during the day, and perhaps these colors serve to communicate their presence to prospective mates, or to warn predators away.

So, the next time you see a daddy-longlegs, resist the urge to squash it, or to call it a spider. Instead, take a good look at it. Watch what it does. Is it patrolling your garden for tasty morsels? What color is it? Is it out during the day or night? It’s kind of nice to get to know your neighbors, and knowing your garden neighbors is equally pleasing. And like any good neighbor, these arachnids help look after your property for you. Give them a silent thanks and let them live to see another day.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Adirondack Forum Will Consider Invasive Species

Registration is now open for a free Adirondack Forum on Invasive Species. The Forum, a one-and-a-half day event, will be held August 10-11 at Paul Smith’s College. You will learn how you and your community can be prepared for harmful invasive species invading Adirondack lands and waters.

The Forum will highlight initiatives underway in the region; showcase local successes and challenges as told by community members; feature up-to-date information about new invasive species; and identify important next steps that groups must collectively take to have a real and lasting impact on this challenging environmental and economic issue. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Second Glance: Mimicry and Speckled Alder Syndrome

Nature is full of little tricks. Just when you think you know something, it turns out that the one you are looking at is something else. It’s enough to drive a naturalist nutty, but it’s also the driving influence that will force a naturalist to hone his/her observation skills.

Back in my undergraduate days, we had a professor who described the whole look-at-only-one-characteristic-and-draw-a-conclusion scenario as Speckled Alder Syndrome, stated with one’s hand open, palm facing one’s face about an inch from one’s nose. In other words, you are only seeing one thing and ignoring everything else that will help you make a correct identification.

I admit it: I suffer from Speckled Alder Syndrome.

In all fairness, however, Mother Nature does conspire against us. And by “us” I mean all living things in general. From plants to reptiles, butterflies to parasites, the world is full of mimicry – living things that copy the looks of other living things all in an effort to deceive.

Mimicry comes in a variety of flavors: Batesian, Mullerian, Emsleyan, Wasmannina, Gilbertian, Browerian…and more. Most of us learn the basics of mimicry in high school biology, and usually by graduation we’ve forgotten all of it, except perhaps some of the examples, like monarch and viceroy butterflies.

What American child hasn’t grown up knowing about monarch butterflies? These large orange and black flappers are easy to identify and are the stuff of many an elementary school lesson on metamorphosis. Almost any child can recognize a monarch caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly at a hundred paces. Well, maybe ten paces, but you get the idea.

Enter the viceroy. This is the butterfly we all learn about in biology as the one that mimics the monarch. There are a few differences that the trained eye can pick up, such as the smaller size, the extra black line across the hind wings, and the row of white spots that dot the black border band of those hind wings.

To the untrained eye, however, they look the same. This is mimicry at its best. Up until only a few years ago (the 1990s), everyone believed that the viceroy, thought to be a tasty morsel, was mimicking the monarch. We knew that monarch caterpillars ate milkweed, and that the sap from the milkweed made them taste bad. As adults, the bright orange and black coloration served to warn predators to leave them alone or suffer an upset stomach, or maybe even death.

What tasty morsel wouldn’t want to copy this? Why, if I taste good to predators, I’d want to make them think I taste bad so they would leave me alone. What better way to do so than to copy something that tastes bad? This is known as Batesian mimicry: something harmless mimicking something harmful.

As it turns out, however, viceroys also taste bad! As larvae, they feed on trees in the willow family (willows, poplars, cottonwoods). These trees contain salicylic acid, the stuff from which aspirin is made. Birds, or other predators, that eat a viceroy get the same reaction that some people get when taking regular aspirin: it tastes bitter and can cause an upset stomach. There are no buffered viceroys out there. One taste, and the predator will never again eat something that is orange and black. Mission accomplished.

This kind of mimicry, where you have two harmful species that look similar, is called Mullerian mimicry.

The viceroy’s mimicry doesn’t end here, though. As a caterpillar, and as a pupa, it takes on the appearance of a bird dropping. That’s right. The caterpillars are green and white, while the pupae are brown and white. What bird is going to snack on the previously digested remains of some other bird?

Then you have Emsleyan mimicry, where something deadly looks like something that is slightly less harmful. How can we be sure this isn’t just another case of Batesian, where something harmless looks like something dangerous? It all comes down to learning. If I eat something deadly and thus perish, how will I ever learn not to eat that thing? On the other hand, if I eat something that only makes me sick, I am likely to avoid anything that looks like the offending food. Therefore, by mimicking something less harmful, the deadly species increases its chance of being left alone.

Some forms of mimicry apply only to plants, some apply only within a single species. It’s enough to make the mind whirl.

I am learning not to take everything at face value. Most of the time I am not in such a hurry that I cannot take the time to take a second glance. Good observation skills are worth their weight in gold. You never know – you might just discover something new, even if it is only new to you.


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bill Porter: Friend of Wildlife, Ecology, and Education

The weather was pleasant at the Long Lake pavilion, and the dialogue at this year’s Common Ground Alliance stimulating enough. Then, my thoughts strayed to the fire tower on top of Goodnow Mountain, and what I could see from it. So, off I went. This being my first hike of the summer, I took my time and climbed the fire tower just as dramatic clouds and welcome summer rains moved in, allowing glimpses of the scintillating lake country, and High Peaks Wilderness to the north. Out below me was Lake Harris, the Newcomb VIC, Rich Lake, Arbutus and and Catlin Lakes on the 14,000-acre Huntington Wildlife Forest, one of the world’s best and longest running experimental forests.

Some of my most interesting moments in the Park have been in the Huntington Wildlife Forest with Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) faculty who helped me gain some understanding of dynamic predator-prey interactions in the central Adirondacks. A lot of the prey constitutes tasty Adirondack hardwoods, consumed by its predator, white-tailed deer, which in turn faces its great killer each winter – deep, long snowpack. Dick Sage, Ranier Brocke, and Bill Porter generously provided us with many ecological insights, such as how to do shelterwood cutting of forests on private lands to benefit wildlife, insights from decades of faculty-student work at this unique wildlife field station.

Indeed, those three stalwarts from ESF might remind us that we could have more “common ground” in the Adirondacks if we consciously recognized our collective fascination with the Park’s wildlife, and thought about working together to benefit from this common passion.

I especially wish to thank Professor Bill Porter, who will soon leave his professorship at ESF for new adventures at the University of Michigan. I was fortunate to join the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks when four of its board leaders considered visits to Huntington Wildlife Forest as essential background education for any staff that sought to protect the Forest Preserve and the Park. Prof. Bill Porter not only welcomed these engagements with advocates for the Park, he pushed his small staff to schedule as many as possible.

The very first speaker I ever invited was Bill Porter, at Paul Schaefer’s behest, in 1987. Bill spoke about the fact that the central Adirondack black bear, that lover of berries and veggies, was also adept at catching and eating white-tailed deer fawns in the spring. He presented an image most of us had never thought about, the black bear as ambusher and meat-eater. It was the first of many presentations about Adirondack wildlife that made people sit up and take notice. It dawned on me that to get people into a stuffy room and out of the beautiful Adirondack outdoors, make wildlife your topic.

As Bill’s responsibilities increased, he pushed all the harder on his public communications. He went on to chair the Adirondack Research Consortium, and made the College’s wildlife research more accessible. His presentations on wildlife ecology were fun and interesting. Remember the gas molecule theory in high school, he would ask his audience? Most people would squirm uncomfortably. Well, forget it when it comes to deer biology. Ah. We relaxed. Deer, Bill informed us, do not simply disperse from areas with lots of deer to fill the least concentrated areas of their habitat. Females, or does have a complex social structure called kin groups which greatly effects their affinity for an area, and includes their faithfulness to the places where they were born. So, deer are not distributed uniformly on the landscape at all. Central Adirondack deer societies, like our politics, are local.

Bill Porter’s ability to convey the broad story lines and myriad details of Adirondack wildlife ecology have never failed to amaze me. Later, I learned what an excellent strategist he is. Porter had long believed NYS DEC was flying blind when it came to managing the Forest Preserve because they lacked a thorough digital inventory using GIS (geographic information systems). ESF had the equipment and skilled students to help digitize the data and train DEC in how to access it for more informed public lands management. What Bill needed were advocates to push DEC and the Governor’s staff to fund the work, and make use of the data. With Audubon, the Association, ADK, WCS and Adirondack Council, Bill found his advocates. Here was a partnership to improve understanding and management of the Park’s Forest Preserve we all could believe in. In the last ten years, the GIS project has resulted in greatly improved State Land inventories and much stronger working relations between academia, DEC and private advocates for the Forest Preserve.

This success was followed by Bill’s visionary creation, backed by ESF President Neil Murphy, of SUNY ESF’s Northern Forest Institute, acquisition of Masten House above Henderson Lake as a future wilderness training center and ESF’s decision, announced last month, to manage the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center in 2011.

So, thank you, Prof. Bill Porter. I will miss you. You have made my Adirondack experience so much more meaningful. You have made partnerships for the more than human world tangible and productive. Thanks to your efforts, young people with your thirst for knowledge and passion will be communicating in new and exciting ways about Adirondack wildlife for years and years to come at the Northern Forest Institute, the Masten House, and the Newcomb VIC.

Photo: The view from Goodnow Mountain, Rich Lake in the foreground.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Adirondack Serpent: The Northern Watersnake

Monday I was walking along the shores of the Hudson River in search of a particular orchid. The sun was out, the wind was blowing, and lots of flowers were in bloom. A few frogs hopped away from the clumsy thud of my boots, and damselflies darted here and there. There was a sudden rustle in the vegetation and something slithered across my path. I watched as the tail disappeared into the greenery, only to reappear on the other side as the snake slid into the waters of the Hudson: a northern watersnake, Nerodia sipedon.

This is a serpent that, as its name suggests, is equally at home in the water and on land. A rather robust animal, it is described in the literature as being “relatively large and heavy bodied.” In other words, this is no slender slitherer like our common garter snakes, nor is it cute in its tininess, like the red-bellied, brown or green snakes.

Northern watersnakes, to the untrained eye, might make one think immediately of water moccasins, or cottonmouths, both common names for the same venomous snake found in more southerly states. But we live in the Adirondacks where the only aquatic snake we have can be startling, can give a memorable bite, but is completely non-venomous.

Most of the snakes found in the Adirondacks are small to moderate in size, but the northern watersnake can grow upwards of four and a half feet long. Color can vary, but in general these reptiles are brown, or tan, with brown or reddish-brown bands or blotches. The animal I saw had a coloration very much like a milksnake, lighter in shade than I am used to seeing on these animals, although that could have partly been thanks to the water in which it was submerged when I took its photo. The older the animal, the darker its coloration. This is attributed to the tannins of the water in which they reside, which darken their scales over time. Perhaps my snake was fairly young, despite its size.

According to the authors of The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State, many New York specimens have red stripes on their faces. Sadly, I wasn’t close enough to this one’s face to see any such markings.

Found in almost any body of freshwater, northern watersnakes tend to prefer habitats that have some good vegetative cover nearby, like cattails or wet meadows. This explains why it made a run for the water as I blundered along the shoreline looking for my orchid (which I never did find). The Ice Meadows are quite verdant now that high summer is in full swing; between the heat and the rain of recent weeks, the vegetation has become quite lush – perfect for hiding cunning hunters.

Because they are excellent swimmers, it is not surprising to learn that these snakes commonly catch and eat fish and frogs. I remember watching one choke down a rather large sunfish along the banks of the Passaic River down in the Great Swamp in New Jersey. It was an impressive feat, considering the size of the fish, but down it went, leaving a fish-like bulge in the snake’s throat as it slid back into the water to avoid our curious stares.

The rest of this reptile’s diet is filled with birds, small mammals, young turtles, and even insects. In other words, if the snake can catch it and get its mouth around it, anything is fair game; this includes carrion, which occasionally makes it into the diet.

When I was a youngster and just learning about animal classification (back in ’72 it was), we were told that the only animals that gave birth to live young were mammals – it was part of what set us apart from the rest of the critters. Then I learned that there are mammals that lay eggs! And later on, I learned that some snakes have live birth. The world was not as simple as I had been led to believe.

As it turns out, there are quite a few snakes that give birth to live young, and the northern watersnake is among them. While gestating, the female will often bask in the sun, warming up her internal offspring to make them develop faster. When the time comes, she gives birth to 15 to 30 babies. Better her than me!

I hadn’t given it much thought, since northern watersnakes have been a regular part of my outdoor experiences, but it seems that while once commonly found throughout New York State, this hefty reptile has disappeared from part of the St. Lawrence River Valley and from much of the Adirondacks. Southern slopes in the southeastern part of the park (Lakes Champlain and George) seem to be where they hang out these days. Warrensburg fits into this geographical range, so it’s not too surprising that I found this specimen.

Like many a child, I’m not averse to picking up the occasional snake that crosses my path, but I do limit my snake handling to small and more docile species. I’d never attempt to grab a northern watersnake. For one thing, it will put up quite a fight. While striking and biting, it will also release copious amounts of various bodily substances, like feces and musky secretions. All of this stuff smells as bad as it sounds. And even though it is a non-venomous snake, the bite can be nasty. Not only will it hurt when the animal sinks in its teeth, but the wound will bleed like a son-of-a-gun because the animal’s saliva is laced with anticoagulants – all the better to subdue its prey with, eh? In other words, this is a snake better left alone and admired from afar.

So, if you see a northern watersnake on your journeys through or around some of the Park’s wetlands, rest assured that it won’t harm you if left alone. Watch it for a while. Who knows, maybe, like the one I spotted, it will turn its head and watch you back. Interesting animals, snakes are, and well-worth the time to get to know.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History

The other evening I was walking along the shoreline of a local wetland, enjoying the songs of the thrushes, the ripples made on the water by insects and small fish, and the rustle of the tall, emergent vegetation in the light breeze. The edges were muddy – sometimes completely barren and squishy, while in other places thick with plants. Life was everywhere.

When we think of wetlands, the plant that most likely comes to mind is the cattail, with its green, sword-like leaves and brown corndog-like flowerheads. It is a plant that is known around much of the world. In some places, like parts of Africa, it is considered a menace, choking waterways and aiding and abetting the spread of malaria. Historically, though, especially in North America, this plant has helped pull humanity through harsh winters where cold and starvation could’ve had the final say.

Cattails are in the grass family, as are many of the plants we now depend upon for food (corn, wheat, rye, millet). Like its modern-day counterparts, the cattail is a highly edible plant. Practically the entire plant is edible at various times of the year. In late spring when the base of the leaves are young and tender, they can be eaten raw or cooked. As summer approaches, the stem, before the flowerheads develop, can be peeled and eaten like asparagus. Soon the male flower is growing, and before it ripens, it can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. Once it’s ripe and producing pollen, the pollen can be harvested and added to baked goods as an extender for flour and a thickener for sauces. From late fall until spring, the rhizomes, those horizontal stems that grow underground, can be dug up and eaten like potatoes.

Historical utility didn’t end with food. Throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the Northeast. These structures were constructed first from poles stuck into the ground and bent into a dome-like shape. More saplings were tied horizontally to the sides, creating a sturdy framework. The outside of this framework was then covered with some sort of mat, or shingles made from bark, depending on what was available. Where wetlands dominated, cattail leaves were sewn into mats that were tied to the wigwam. Early Europeans commented on how weather-proof these homes were – warmer and drier than the structures made by the more “civilized” settlers.

A variety of medicines were made from cattails. The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains. The downy seed fluff was applied to bleeding wounds and burns.

But wait – there’s more! Leaves were bundled together and sculpted into the shape of ducks to be used as decoys. Not only were these decoys used to attract real waterfowl, but also to lure in other animals that considered waterfowl food, like wild canines. Cattail leaves were also made into dolls and other toys, woven into bags, baskets, mats and hats. The dried flowerheads could be dipped in grease or wax and lit to provide a slow-burning light that smoked extensively, effectively keeping insects at bay. The seed fluff was used as tinder, stuffed into bedding and pillows, and during WWII was stuffed into life vests and seats cushions for tanks and airplanes.

The usefulness of this plant is not limited to historic records and a few modern foragers, though. Several scientists are studying the economic viability of converting cattails into ethanol. Currently, about 95% of our country’s ethanol is made from corn, which is an energy intensive crop (it needs a lot of water, and a lot of petroleum is also consumed in its production). Corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol per acre. Sugar cane is also converted into ethanol, at about 640 gallons per acre.

Cattails, on the other hand, need very little encouragement to grow. In fact, many of the ethanol studies are growing them in sewage lagoons that are the by-products of hog farms. Not only do the cattails clean and purify the water in which they are grown, but when they are converted into ethanol, they can produce up to 1000 gallons per acre. There seems to be a fair amount of promise in this.

Two species of cattails are found in New York (and the Adirondacks): common cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia). The Revised Checklist of New York State Plants also lists “Cattail”, a hybrid of these two species.

Common, or broad-leaved, cattail is, well, pretty common. Odds are if you see a cattail, this is it. Its brown flowerhead is about an inch thick, and the leaves are also about an inch wide. Narrow-leaved cattail is also fairly common, but more so along coastal areas. Its flowerheads are narrower – about as thick as a finger (about half an inch wide), as are the leaves. From a distance you can usually tell if you are looking at a narrow-leaved cattail if the upper male flower spike is separated from the lower female flower spike by a space (see photo). On common cattails, the male flower spike sits right on top of the female spike.

This highly useful plant is one that everyone should get to know. Once you learn some of the nifty history of this plant, you will want to then study the critters that find it useful. Birds, mammals and insects all have a stake in this plant. It is worthy of our attention. Once the weather cools off a bit, find yourself a patch of wetland and spend some time with the cattails. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Short List of Summer Adirondack Lecture Series

Even for those who don’t get out onto the rivers, lakes and trails, summertime offers great opportunities for learning more about the Adirondack region thanks to several lecture series that are held around the region. Mostly free (or really cheap) local lectures cover current issues, history, art, culture, wildlife, the environment, outdoor recreation.

I’ve noted a few of what I think promise to be the season’s best lectures below, but be sure to check out the links to see all the upcoming events.

The Huntington Lecture Series – This lecture series takes place on Thursday evenings from July 1 through August 19 at the Newcomb Visitor Interpretive Center (beginning at 7 pm). The series is sponsored by SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Adirondack Ecological Center and is free. LINK.

Paul Smith’s VIC Adirondack Outdoors Lecture Series – The Paul Smiths VIC lecture series will feature six lectures on topics ranging from bears and moose to mountain biking. Co-hosted by the Forest Preserve Education Partnership, the lectures are on Wednesday evenings at 7:30 p.m. The July 21st lecture Moose & Bear: Adirondack Charismatic Megafauna, with DEC’s Ed Reed, sounds great. LINK.

Fort William Henry Lecture Series
– Serious students of local history will want to attend this series of lectures offered each year at Fort William Henry. This year’s schedule has not been released yet, but these lectures take place weekly (free and starting at 7 pm) at the Fort William Henry Conference Center (behind the fort) on Canada Street in Lake George. I take in all of these that I can and have yet to be disappointed. LINK.

Fort Ticonderoga Author Series
– Another classic series for fans of local history. Unfortunately, these events are held at 2 in the afternoon and require paying the admission price of $15. Still, they are worth it. this year’s events feature Carl R. Crego, who will focus on the early restoration history of Fort Ticonderoga between 1908 and 1924 with an illustrated talk (August 15th), and popular local historian Russ Bellico, author of several books related to the military history of the Lake Champlain and Lake George areas (July 25th). LINK.

Adirondack Moutain Club (ADK) Lectures – A wide variety of lectures on local environment issues, natural history, backcountry recreation, and Adirondack art, music, and history are offered throughout the summer by the ADK. Lectures are held throughout the summer at the High Peaks Information Center in Lake Placid, at the ADK’s Member Services Center in Lake George, and occasionally at John Brooks Lodge (though none are scheduled there yet for this year). One highlight here is the August 10th lecture The Great Camps: From the Adirondacks to the Rocky Mountains, a slideshow by Dr. Ralph Kylloe, owner of the Ralph Kylloe Gallery in Lake George and author and photographer of 23 coffee table books on rustic design and rustic architecture. LINK.

Adirondack Museum’s Monday Evening Lectures – This lecture series is one of the most popular in the region. This year you won’t want to miss biologist Jerry Jenkins on Climate Change in the Adirondacks on July 26th, and Brian Mann on August 2nd for “Adirondack Park 3.0” billed as a lecture on the “reinvention of the Adirondacks.” All lectures are held in the Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. There is no charge for museum members. Admission is $5.00 for non-members. LINK

Photo: October 15, 1924. Dedication of Francis Asbury statue, Washington, D.C.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Adirondack Invasive Species Awareness Week Events

Adirondack Invasive Species Awareness Week is underway and groups around the region have stepped up to help spread the word about harmful invasive species.

Coincidentally, the New York State Invasive Species Council has just sent a report entitled A Regulatory System for Non-Native Species to Governor Patterson and the legislature for review. The new report by the NYS Invasive Species Council introduces a process for assessing level of threat, assessing socioeconomic value, and assigning each invasive species into a distinct category for appropriate action. » Continue Reading.