Fans of Adirondack history will want to check out the Adirondack Chronology. The Chronology is a project of the Protect the Adirondacks!’s Adirondack Research Library at the Center for the Forest Preserve in Niskayuna. The Chronology consists of a chronological listing of significant events (natural or human-made) over the years and centuries, back to prehistoric times, that have taken place directly in the Adirondacks or which directly impacted the Adirondacks. The document, available as an online pdf, stretches to more than 300 pages and covers everything from the Big Bang (15 billion years before present) to a sunspot cycle in 2012 and 2013 that is predicted to causing major impacts on global electronics. The Chronology also includes an extensive and useful bibliography of relevant sources.The Chronology is easily searched using the pdf search function, making it one of the most important documents for Adirondack history. » Continue Reading.
In the 1840s, a new fad was sweeping the British Isles: Pteridomania, the fern craze. People of all ages and social groups were flocking to forests and fens to gather ferns as herbarium specimens. Special glass boxes, known as Wardian cases and looking a lot like little greenhouses, were built to provide perfect microhabitats for these sometimes fussy plants. The desire for all things ferny took over home décor: garden benches, planting pots, wood carvings, stencils, wallpaper, plant stands, fabrics – you name it, someone one decorated it with a fern. And while this craze lasted for about fifty years, it somehow never made it to the states.
Sure, a few fern-o-philes turned up on this side of the pond, and 1895 even saw the founding of the American Fern Society (which is still active today). For the most part, however, the natural history obsessions of this country seem to have turned towards wildflowers, birds and mushrooms.
As a generalist type of naturalist, I’ve always been kind of fond of ferns. They have a delicate wispiness about them that I find rather appealing. Well, at least some do. Some ferns are rather sturdy-looking, like sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Others, like the non-native Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum), sport beautiful two- or three-colored fronds. Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) breaks the rules by growing in an almost circular fashion. Some ferns seem to be able to grow just about anywhere and are thus quite popular in gardens (ostrich ferns – Matteuccia struthiopteris), while others are pretty reclusive, their tastes limiting them to limestone cliffs (slender cliffbrake – Cryptogramma stelleri – found only at Ausable Chasm).
Any walk through the Adirondacks is bound to turn up at least a couple ferns. In just about any wetland area you are likely to find two very common ferns: royal (Osmunda regalis), and cinnamon (Osmunda cinnamomea). And while these two really do look nothing alike, for some reason I’ve developed a mental block with them, causing me to cross-identify them most of the time. Royal fern is very open and airy, with wide-spaced leaflets, which look a lot like the leaflets of the locust tree. Cinnamon fern, on the other hand, is typically ferny in appearance, but its fertile fronds are a wonderful cinnamon color (hence the name).
Hay-scented ferns (Dennestaedtia punctilobula) have been accused of being invasive, using chemicals (allelopathy) to prevent the regeneration of other forest plants (namely trees that are valuable in the timber market). And it is true that in areas where hay-scented fern occurs, it often grows in massive solidarity with itself. I read a couple studies, however, that stated that it wasn’t allelopathy that was preventing forest regeneration, rather it was simply the aggressive nature of the plant. When a bit of forest has been opened up, the extra light reaching the ground is a godsend to the ferns. They start to grow like crazy. If deer or other herbivores come in and browse the area (deer tend to not like hay-scented ferns; they’ll browse down the other understory vegetation), the ferns send out new growing bits to fill the voids, thus increasing their reach. In the end, it is the shade caused by the dense growth of ferns that prevents the regeneration of tree seedlings, not allelopathy.
A fern that delights me to no end is blublet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera). This nifty fern (see photo above) develops little green ball-like growths on the backs of the leaves. When mature, these balls drop from the leaves and if they land in a favorable location, they produce a new fern. Ferns in general reproduce via spores, much like mushrooms, mosses and lycopodiums. Bulblet fern also produces spores, but it goes above and beyond in its reproductive duty with the additional boost is gets from its bulblets.
A couple years ago I was thrilled to find rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum) along one of our trails. The three triangular-shaped leaves circle the stem, and from their center rises the fertile frond, which the namer apparently thought resembled the tail-end of certain venomous serpents.
We have a giant glacial boulder on the property that looks a lot like a huge human head, and on its top, like a green buzzcut, is a healthy population of common polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum). When I stop to talk about this fern, I love to tell visitors that at one point in time people believed that if they carried polypody spores in their pockets they would be rendered invisible. Of course, this only applied to polypody of oak, and this was during the Middle Ages in Europe, when people believed all sorts of odd things about plants. Needless to say, it doesn’t work with our common polypody.
Within New York State, all ferns but three are protected by law. Those three are sensitive, bracken (Pteridium aquilinium) and hay-scented. With these exceptions, it is illegal to collect our native ferns, not that there is probably too much worry about this. I can’t see Pteridomania sweeping the state any time soon. Even so, for those of us who are plant enthusiasts, we should limit our collecting to specimens caught on camera, or those purchased from legitimate nurseries.
Probably because ferns are not terribly popular in the ID department, there are only a handful of useful fern ID books out there. Some were written by scientists for scientists, but there are a couple pocket-type guides that make fern identification fairly easy, such as the Fern Finder by Ann and Barbara Hallowell. If you think you might like to try your hand a learning your ferns, pick up one of these guides. You won’t be disappointed.
I’ve become quite fond of photographing insects. This could be because they are so prevalent (when it’s not winter), or it could be because they are so diverse. As a child I disliked anything with more than four legs – “bugs” just creeped me out. Entomology was a required course in college, with its requisite insect collection, but it wasn’t until I started photographing insects in my latter years that their beauty began to intrigue me.
And once one has a collection of insect pictures, one’s curiosity begins to take over. Just what kind of insect is it? Is it a pearl crescent or a northern crescent? A native sawyer beetle, or the Asian longhorn? A plant hopper, leaf hopper or tree hopper?
I’ve been going through some of my insect photos lately and trying to figure out who’s who. Some have been fairly easy to identify, while others have left me confounded. Take the insect in the photo above. My first thought was “shield bug.”
Shield bugs are in the insect order Hemiptera, which are the true bugs. True bugs? Indeed. Contrary to popular opinion, not all insects are bugs. True bugs (and there are about 80,000 species worldwide) are defined by their sucking mouthparts. Think aphids. Cicadas, water boatmen, and water striders are also among the Hemipterans.
Shield bugs are alternatively known as stink bugs, thanks to thoracic glands that produce a rather foul-smelling liquid. When the insects feel threatened (attacked by a predator, picked up by a curious human), they release this fluid and a stench fills the air, usually resulting in the insect’s release.
Not finding a positive ID in my insect field guide, I sent my photo off to www.BugGuide.net, where the friendly insect folks informed me that it is a shield-backed bug (Homaemus sp.), which is often classified with the stink bugs. According to one of the responding entomologists, the only Homaemus we have in New York is Homaemus aeneifrons, so I now had a place to start my natural history investigation.
The problem with insect ID is that there are so many species. As in millions and millions worldwide. And chances are a good chunk of the world’s insects have yet to be discovered. To make things worse, identification doesn’t necessarily mean that much is known about a particular insect. It has been classified and labeled, but that may be it. And so it seems with my shield-backed bug.
A couple hours skulking around various internet entomology sites turned up precisely two pages with anything remotely related to the natural history of this insect. On the first, it was listed as one of several insects to feed on goldenrods. On the second, I discovered that its habitat includes weeds, sedges, swampy meadows and dry places; it is believed to over-winter as an adult; it is presumed to have only one brood per year in the northern part of its range. And that’s it.
So I find myself left wondering if my shield-backed bug, which is classified with stink bugs, has the stink gland that its relations has. Since we are now in the bowels of winter, I have no way to verify this (my photo, sadly, does not have scratch and sniff capability). Somehow, I find my curiosity unfulfilled.
Still, the good naturalist doesn’t let this get her down. Should she not get distracted by other interesting finds, next summer she’ll hunt down another Homaemus and give it a poke and a sniff. She might take note of which plants she finds it on, whether it was feeding there or just resting, and whether others are near by. There’s always room for scientific investigations when it comes to insects, for entomology is a field that still has plenty of unknowns.
One of the plants that make the Adirondacks special is the blueberry, which likes to grow in, or alongside, a variety of wetlands. I recall one of the highlights of summer camp was when the nature counselor made her blueberry fritters. Campers and counselors alike would flock to her nature room as the rumor of fritters spread like wildfire. Her “Live off the Land” camping trips were never complete without blueberry fritters for breakfast.
But blueberries aren’t just special to people; lots of wildlife benefit from the fingertip-sized fruits, not least among them birds and bears. Not all blueberry fanciers are after the fruits, though. The blueberry stem gall wasp (Hemadas nubilipennis) is more interested in the stems of the plant. Highbush, lowbush, the variety probably doesn’t matter, not when reproduction is on the line. » Continue Reading.
It’s safe to say Bob Marshall had left a lasting impression and significant legacy by the time of his death at the age of 38. Although he served only briefly in government—in the 1930s he was chief of forestry in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then head of recreation management in the Forest Service—his ideas about wilderness preservation have had a lasting impact on wild places across the nation. Best known as the founder of the Wilderness Society, Marshall, with his brother George (and their guide Herb Clark) were the first Adirondack 46ers. The book Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, edited by the Adirondack Almanack contributor and Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, presents a variety of Marshall’s writings related to the region.
Bob Marshall’s father was Louis Marshall, considered a key player in the founding of the New York State Forest Ranger program and the State Ranger School in Wanakena. Bob Marshall grew up in New York City but spent youthful summers formulating his wilderness ethic in the Adirondacks. Although he was a prolific writer, only eleven of his articles or journals have been published, and so Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks in an important contribution to the history of the Marshalls, wilderness preservation, and the Adirondacks. » Continue Reading.
We’ve all seen it: a branch, a fence post, a sign where the snow that fell upon it seems frozen in a perpetual state of falling off, never quite letting go. How does it do that? It’s not like snow is endowed with abs of steel, or, like a snake, has near mythical suspension abilities thanks to overlapping scales. Or does it?
I’ve been taking the time this winter to read up on, well, winter itself. To most folks snow is merely frozen rain, end of story, but there are people out there who make it their life’s work to study snow, in all its glory, and they have discovered some pretty amazing things. I’m not just talking about how every snowflake is different, or how when water freezes it expands and floats. That’s old hat. I’m talking about the hidden characteristics of snow, those little details that make or break winter survival for small mammals and alpine skiers. It’s pretty amazing stuff.
Snow, as it turns out, has three different phases of metamorphism: destructive, constructive and melt. Each one has its own set of characteristics that influence the snowpack around us. We’ll start with the first and work our way through them.
Let’s say it’s a typical winter day here in the Adirondacks. Flakes of snow drift lazily towards the ground, eventually landing to add their fluffy mass to all those that have gone before. From the moment a snowflake forms, it is acted upon by myriad outside forces, wind and temperature not the least among them. Their delicate forms, be they needles or plates, are battered, melted, and reshaped. Ultimately what remains is a rounded grain of ice. Smaller grains are absorbed into larger grains until all the grains of ice in the snowpack are comparable in size. The warmer it is, the faster this happens.
As you can probably guess, each time a small ice grain melds into a larger one, the associated pockets of air around the grains decrease. Bit by bit, the snowpack gets denser. The grains bond together more strongly. As the bonding increases, so does the mechanical strength of the snow. This is what allows piles of snow to ooze over the edge of a supporting structure while never actually letting go, like in the photo above.
Next comes the constructive metamorphism, alternatively referred to as the creation of a temperature gradient within the snowpack. Basically, what happens is this. The snow at the bottom of the snowpack is warmer than the snow on top. This makes sense, since the earth is warm and the air is cold. Because it is warmer below, the snow at the bottom of the pack begins to sublimate, turn from a solid directly into a gas, in this case from ice to water vapor.
It’s a basic property of physics (the Second Law of Theromdynamics) that stuff migrates from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. Therefore, the water vapor produced at the lower portions of the snowpack moves upwards towards colder and drier regions. As the vapor cools, it re-condenses on the ice crystals around it, increasing their size and thus their strength. Meanwhile, sublimation continues below, shrinking the size of the ice crystals at the bottom, reducing their strength, and creating what is known as depth hoar, a very loose and fragile type of snow that makes travel easier for the small mammals that run about under the snowpack while at the same time making it more treacherous for alpine travelers – think avalanche.
The final change that occurs in snow is the melt metamorphism. This may seem pretty straight forward: the air warms up, the snow (and ice) melts. Ah, but the devil is in the details, and this is no different with snow.
Fresh snow is nature’s best reflector of shortwave (solar) energy. Translation: it keeps away the heat of the sun, thus reducing the likelihood of melting. However, as we all know, snow rarely stays in that pristine white condition. Road salt and sand, bird seed and old leaves, branches, bits of bark, cone scales…all sorts of stuff gets onto the snow, changing it from the perfect reflector into something that readily absorbs longwave energy, what we commonly think of as heat. This heat is coming from earthbound objects, like trees. Trees are dark; they soak up the solar energy (shortwave) and release it (longwave) to the surrounding environment. This is why trees (and rocks, and buildings) are often seen with a dearth of snow at their bases – it has all simply melted away.
The details of melt metamorphism have to do with energy exchange: the energy released when a solid becomes a liquid, and the energy required for liquids to refreeze, and how this affects the snowpack as the liquid moves downward through the layers. Suffice it to say that at the end of this process, the entire snowpack has reached a uniform temperature.
Rain and fog continue the melting process. Again, we are looking at energy transfer, but this time from the atmospheric moisture to the snowpack. This is directly influenced by the air temperature and the amount of moisture that is penetrating the snow. In the final analysis, as water evaporates and condenses, energy (heat) is lost, which melts more of the surrounding ice, which evaporates, and condenses…until all the solid water (ice) is gone (either liquid or vapor).
What all this sums up to is the simple fact that the snow beneath our feet is constantly, and I mean constantly, changing. From moment to moment it is never the same. This gives whole new meaning to the phrase “there is nothing permanent but change.” So, we should all go outside and enjoy the freshly fallen fluffy snow while we can, for tomorrow it may be gone.
As we stumble through the winter woods, some of us take note of the things around us: hemlocks bowed with snow, mouse tracks scurrying for shelter, the tattoo of a woodpecker upon a distant tree. But one of the wonders of winter life that stands out for me is the naked bud of the witch-hobble plant.
Witch-hobble (Viburnum alnifolium in most books, although apparently it is now V. lantanoides) is one of our native viburnum plants. A shrub of moderate height, its common names (witch-hobble, hobblebush) reflect its tendency to grow in dense clusters in the understory of the forest, where its flexible stems and branches ensnare the feet and legs of many a passing mammal. Okay, maybe it’s only the human mammal that gets caught up in the tangle.
At one time folks claimed that having this plant growing around one’s abode would protect one from witches, for they could not walk through it. By this logic, every person who has ever tried to push his way through a thicket of the stuff is endowed with the mystical powers allotted just to witches.
However, it turns out that in this case “witch” is a corruption of the Old English word wiððe (pronounced “withy”), which we know today as “withe.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, wiððe means “twisted cord, willow twig”; today we define withe as supple, as in flexible and easily bent. This describes the stems of witch-hobble and witherod (another of our native viburnums, which also goes by the name wild raisin, V. cassinoides), both of which are somewhat floppy of stem, bending over with ease so they can put down roots and expand their domains. This contributes to witch-hobble’s ability to ensnare the unwary.
When spring rolls around, witch-hobble blooms with flat heads of flowers that are as big as your hand. The white flowers later turn into bright red fruits, which are loved by many a woodland creature, such as ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, brown thrashers, and squirrels.
As the days shorten and the nights get cooler, the leaves of witch-hobble start to turn a blotchy purple color, making them look rather bruised. The year is winding down and the plants in the woods are preparing for winter’s dormancy. Next year’s buds are secured for the winter, the sap is stored in the roots, and this year’s seeds have been produced and disseminated. It’s time to sleep.
This brings us back to those buds, which are now blatantly obvious in the winter woods, thanks to their sulphur-yellow color. Most plants in our northern forests have what we consider typical buds: little conical things that are covered with scales. Some buds become mighty branches over time, while others house next year’s leaves. The scales themselves are actually modified leaves, and are a relatively new evolutionary trend in the plant world, developed to keep the new life within safe from the rigors of winter (cold, dry air).
Not so with witch-hobble. Witch-hobble has gone a different route, one found more frequently in the tropics, where cold temps and dry air are not typically a problem, regardless of season. Because the tropics are usually warm and damp, buds don’t need protection from the elements, so they don’t develop scales.
Primitive plants also have scale-less buds. I suspect this is because way back in the days of the dinosaurs, when primitive plants ruled (and you thought the dinosaurs were in charge), the climate was essentially tropical, so, again, there was no need to protect new growth in weather-proof cases. Instead, these warm-climate plants, primitive and modern both, sport what botanists refer to as naked buds – those with no protective covering at all.
In the evolutionary world of bud development, there is a progression that runs the gamut from totally naked (embryonic leaves exposed to the world), to hairy (anything from a light pubescence to downright wooliness), to scales (some thin and papery, others additionally coated with a lacquer-like goo). Those of us who spend time gazing at plants through hand lenses are quite familiar with the differences; the rest of the world remains in the dark.
Now, knowing that scales developed to keep a plant’s future leaves protected from the elements of winter, one has to wonder why in the world witch-hobble (and the other viburnums, for that matter) has chosen to do the Lady Godiva routine. What sort of evolutionary advantage is there to having naked buds in the north? This is a question that I’ve had difficulty answering. The internet was no help; my 100-year-old botany books were no help. I called my friend Evelyn who recommended a couple more friends – the search for an answer was on. Nancy Slack was able to shed a little light on the situation.
Long story short, there are 120 species of viburnums in the world, growing variously from North America all the way to Java. Of these, some have scaly buds, and others do not. Those species found in the Adirondacks (witch-hobble, witherod) are in the naked bud category. Viburnums are not primitive plants, so we can’t claim that they are a hold-over from ancient times; it seems that they’ve just done very well without bud scales. When you look closely at these sulphur-colored buds, you see the basic leaf shape sitting right there, exposed for all the world to see. The “skin” of these embryonic leaves, however, is quite thick, and it is rather fuzzy. It seems that these two traits are all the viburnum needs to survive our cold, dry winters. They are tough little buds, able to face the worst winter can throw at them and still unfurl in the spring, to bring bright green leaves to the forest understory.
Once again old Mother Nature threw a puzzle in our laps, the proverbial gauntlet that the curious naturalist, like a cat, simply cannot refuse to pick up and pursue. It’s these little conundrums that make being a naturalist interesting, frustrating, and ultimately, triumphantly enjoyable. Grab yourself a hand lens and get out into the winter woods – you never know what mystery is lurking just around the next bend.
Thanks to two new digitization initiatives there are now much larger collections of books online about the Adirondacks. The full text and images of some 140,000 books in the public domain, most published before 1923, are now available at the Internet Archive. The books come from the collections of the Library of Congress and Cornell University – many with Adirondack connections.
The newly available books from Cornell cover a variety of subject areas, from American history, literature, astronomy, food and wine, engineering, science history, home economics, travel and tourism, labor relations, Native American studies, ornithology, veterinary medicine and women’s studies.
The Library of Congress collection covers the period from 1865–1922 and include many difficult to obtain works, including hard-to-find Civil War regimental histories. The oldest work from the Library of Congress is from 1707 and covers the trial of two Presbyterian ministers in New York, but many of the works relate to the Adirondack region.
Among the new Adirondack works now available are:
E.R. Wallace – Descriptive guide to the Adirondacks (1894)
A. L. Byron-Curtiss – The life and adventures of Nat Foster, trapper and hunter of the Adirondacks (1897)
Albert Abraham Kraus – A hemlock bark study in culled forests of the western Adirondacks (1918)
Bob Marshall – The high peaks of the Adirondacks (1922)
Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester – Historical sketches of northern New York and the Adirondac wilderness (1877)
Warwick Stevens Carpenter – The summer paradise in history; a compilation of fact and tradition covering Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Adirondack Mountains, and other sections reached by the rail and steamer lines of the Delaware and Hudson Company (1914)
Henry W. Raymond – The story of Saranac; a chapter in Adirondack history (1909)
And a lot more…
Photo: Rusisseaumont Hotel, Lake Placid, c. 1900 from “The eastern slope of the Adirondacks. its mountains, lakes & springs” . The hotel was built in 1892 by the Lake Placid Improvement Company. It was destroyed by fire on July 2, 1909 and never rebuilt.
The Wild Center’s Winter Wildays return in every Saturday and Sunday from January 9th until March 28th 2010 with an entertaining and enlightening schedule for the whole family. Here is the announcement from a Wild Center press release:
Saturday events grow your skills. Learn more about easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint with Home Composting, Heating with Biomass or Small Windpower in the Adirondacks. Admire some of the wildlife, like Boreal Birds or the Timber Rattlesnake, that make their home in the Adirondacks. Improve your photography skills with leading photographer Carl Heilman or discover what it takes to raise chickens in your own backyard. » Continue Reading.
With the recent arrival of a large flock of evening grosbeaks at our feeders, my mind has drifted to one of the main reasons these birds, which are native to the Pacific Northwest, are here in the East: the spruce budworm.
[And this, of course, sends my memory plunging down the rapids of my stream of consciousness to my days at forestry school, where a good friend from New Jersey, who was a huge Bruce Springsteen fan (it was the ‘80s, after all), referred to this forest pest as the Bruce Spudworm. The spoonerism has stuck with me ever since. I therefore dedicate this post to Cynthia.]
Evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), often called grospigs around here because of their propensity for emptying birdfeeders at lightning speed, are striking birds. They are big and chunky, the males stunning in yellow, black and white. We see them mostly in the winter, when flocks descend upon birdfeeders and inhale all the seed in a matter of minutes. Once in a blue moon a few might hang around in the summer, but winter seems to be their season.
Even so, one cannot count on seeing evening grosbeaks every winter, for they are rather nomadic, showing up in great numbers one year, and then disappearing, sometimes for years at a time. This sporadic pattern has been documented for well over a century, and there seems to be a tie-in with the spruce budworm.
The spruce budworm (a type of moth, actually) comes in a couple different flavors: the western worm (Choristoneura occidentalis) and the eastern worm (Choristoneura fumiferana). The western spruce budworm is, as you may have guessed, native to the western part of North America. It didn’t turn up in the United States (from Canada) until 1914, when it was first reported in Oregon. Since then, it has spread across much of the Pacific Northwest towards the Rockies, its larvae devouring the foliage, staminate flowers and developing cones of conifers throughout the region.
Here in the Adirondacks, we are blessed with the eastern spruce budworm. Also a native insect, the first major outbreak recorded in the U.S. was in Maine in 1807. The next major outbreak was in 1878, and since 1909 there have been several waves of devastation. In the east, balsam fir is the insect’s tree of choice, so you can imagine the impact this would have on the Adirondack forest. Spruces are also consumed (hence the name), and even hemlocks on occasion, but nothing is hit quite like the firs.
Like many forest insect pests, the spruce budworm’s havoc is wreaked in a cyclic pattern: it’s always out there, eating away at the trees, but the infestation only becomes problematic when the population suddenly swells and takes over the forest. With the spruce budworm, the cycle is about every 40 to 60 years.
Enter the evening grosbeak. Way back when, evening grosbeaks were only seen on occasion in the Pacific Northwest (there were much fewer people in the woods back then). Slowly, they started moving eastward, and by 1854 they had come as far east as Toronto. In the winter of 1889-90, huge flocks were seen in New England. Then they disappeared again for another twenty years. In the winter of 1960-1, evening grosbeaks appeared as far south as Georgia, with huge flocks taking over feeders and forests across the eastern U.S. I bet a lot of birders were thrilled to add them to their lifelists!
It is believed that these irruptions (a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a population) were in large part due to the birds’ fondness for spruce budworm larvae. Although primarily seed eaters, specializing in extracting seeds from the cones of spruce and fir trees, grosbeaks supplement their diets with tasty insect snacks, and spruce budworm seems to be a favorite. Scientists believe that these birds followed the western spruce budworm eastward, and then started snacking on the eastern spruce budworm. When pest populations irrupted, the birds followed close behind.
The sudden increase in spruce budworm larvae can result in a catastrophic loss of spruce and fir trees, adversely affecting the timber industry and forest ecosystems. In order to deal with this, chemicals were employed to combat the insect pests. Unfortunately, birds that eat the larvae (including Tennessee, bay-breasted and Cape May warblers) were also negatively impacted. In fact, studies have shown that evening grosbeaks will not return to areas that have been sprayed for spruce budworm, even if the larvae population increases.
In an effort to try to cut down on the use of toxic chemicals, research has been done to determine if biological controls can be used instead. Science has discovered both a virus and a fungus that infect spruce budworms, but unfortunately neither is particularly deadly – at least not at a level that would benefit the forest. The bacteria B.t. (Bacillus thuringiensis) has been proven effective for small infestations (fewer than 50 larvae on an 18” branch), but major infestations (more than 8000 eggs per 100 square feet of foliage) are barely touched.
Maybe we should try breeding warblers and grosbeaks and have them in stock to release when infestations occur.
Since the last major outbreak of the eastern spruce budworm was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we should be about due for one. Some birders are speculating that this might explain the great numbers of grosbeaks at the feeders, and the reports of more warblers downstate. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to see the grosbeaks, even if their presence means more trips to the feed store for seeds.
Anything that brings a splash of color to the winter woods is a welcome sight. Much as I enjoy the stark black and white world of winter, sometimes it just needs a little something extra, and that extra something most often comes in the form of a bright and colorful bird, like the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).
Goldfinches are, as you no doubt know, small finches native to North America. Like many songbirds, the females are rather drab in appearance, sporting olive-green camos—all the better to hide in the trees, my dear. The males, however, are Crayolas on the wing. My favorite crayon when I was a kid was lemon yellow, and to my mind this will always be the color of the male goldfinch.
In the spring, when it’s time to find a mate, the males change into their most colorful suits: lemon yellow vests and breeches, with black shirtsleeves and smart black caps. As with evening grosbeaks, it is a stunning combination: yellow and black. Not everyone can pull it off, but the goldfinch and grosbeak can. To go with this outfit, the birds also develop a bright orange beak. Most of the year the beak is pink, but just in time for breeding it is orange—perhaps it is a better combination with the yellow suit than pink would be. But the beak is more than just eye candy: it is a tool specially designed to access the foods that make up the majority of this bird’s diet.
Like any good bird, the goldfinch eats a variety of foods, from tree buds to insects, even maple sap, but the bulk of its diet is seeds: thistle, teasel, sunflower, cosmos, coneflower, bee balm, ragweed, dandelion, etc. By having a pointy, conical beak, these birds can easily extract seeds from the flower heads of many a roadside, garden and field plant.
This is one reason why goldfinches are easily attracted to places where people live. Unlike many birds, the goldfinch prefers open areas full of “weeds,” so they actually benefit from deforestation and development. Roadsides, fields, meadows, gardens – all these places have great potential to be prime dining spots for goldfinches. Even a basic lawn will attract these colorful birds, unless you subscribe to the perfect-green-lawn-with-nothing-but-grass model of lawn care. I remember as a kid looking at a lawn full of dandelions only to see some of these brilliant flowers take wing and fly away.
One of the first things I ever learned about the goldfinch is that it is one of the latest-nesting birds we have (I think only the cedar waxwing is known to nest later). One of the reasons it nests so late in the season is because it uses thistle down to line its nest, and thistles haven’t gone to seed yet in May and June (or, maybe it uses the thistle down because it nests so late—another example of the chicken and the egg?). Additionally (and probably the real reason it nests so late in the season), because the bulk of its diet is made up of seeds, the goldfinch must put off having a brood of hungry mouths to feed until there is enough food to go around.
Apparently it is this preference for seeds over insects that makes the goldfinch a poor choice for foster parenting. Brown-headed cowbirds, native to the prairies, are nest parasites: they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, abandoning their offspring to the good-will of former neighbors. Goldfinches, however, have proven to be a poor choice for nest parasitism, for not only do they nest late in the season, but the diet they feed their young is not appropriate for young cowbirds, which are primarily insectivorous; few, if any, survive.
As the seasons wind down and the earth settles itself for winter, goldfinches molt once more, exchanging their party clothes for outfits of more subtle shades. It wouldn’t do to stand out in the middle of winter, when all you have to do is find enough food to eat and live ‘til the following spring, when you once more take on the mantle of responsibility to send your genes into the future. Not all goldfinches turn completely dull for the winter, though. We certainly see plenty around here that are yellow enough to brighten up any day.
Goldfinches are rather social birds, preferring to hang out with their friends and relatives. Often, especially in winter, you will find goldfinches in mixed flocks with pine siskins, another small finch that to the untrained eye looks much like a female goldfinch. If you look carefully, though, you’ll notice that the siskin is smaller, more streaked in appearance, and has a smaller, very pointy beak.
If you want to practically guarantee seeing goldfinches in winter, put out some feeders. They’ll happily eat sunflower seeds, but they also like nyjer (formerly called thistle, but technically, these are seeds from a daisy-like plant from Africa). If you want to have some fun with goldfinches, get one of those feeders that has the seed ports below the perches – goldfinches will happily hang upside-down while eating. I’ve even watched them cling upside-down to hummingbird feeders to sip water from the ant traps!
You will know you have goldfinches in your neighborhood if you see a flock of birds fly by, their flight full of undulating dips, calling “potato-chip, potato-chip, potato-chip” as they go. Then rush right home and fill your feeders. Soon you’ll have splashes of yellow coloring your winter landscape. And if you don’t see them right away, don’t worry. Goldfinches are rather nomadic, so they’ll probably be feeding at other feeders in the neighborhood. Be patient. Put out the food—they will come.
Several years ago, a friend of mine from England came visiting with his wife. I was living in rural central New York at the time, and it was summer. Because I was gone most of the day at one job or another, David and Karen had lots of time on their hands to explore. One of the things they enjoyed greatly was watching the many birds and squirrels that lived around the property, especially the chipmunks. I was surprised when David told me that in England chipmunks were sold as pets in the pet stores. Half-heartedly I told him we could make our fortune: I’d send him chipmunks and he could sell them – we’d split the proceeds. We never did it, but it was fun to think about.
While many people consider chipmunks to be pests, they are one of our more endearing squirrels. I suspect that part of their charm comes from the fact that we don’t see them for almost half of the year. Contrary to popular belief, though, chipmunks don’t hibernate the winter away, not really. Unlike true hibernators, who sink so deeply into a comatose state that it takes a bit of doing to wake them up, chipmunks could be considered light sleepers.
A true hibernator spends the summer and fall seeking out all possible food items and eating them. The goal is to put on as much fat as possible, for once the big sleep hits, the animal must live off its stored energy supply. If it doesn’t get enough food before winter, the animal is likely to starve to death, never waking to see the blush of dawn on a new spring morning.
The eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus), however, spends its summer and fall collecting food and storing it away for later consumption. No gluttonous feeding for our small striped friend. Nope, the chipmunk is a hoarder. Deep in its tunnel (which can be up to thirty feet long, with many entrances and exits), chambers are stuffed with the seasons’ harvest: beechnuts (their favorite), maple seeds, sunflower seeds (when birdfeeders are near), et al. Although the chipmunk’s diet is quite varied (seeds, nuts, berries, fungi, invertebrates), the winter food supply is made up of hard foods only (nuts, some seeds), because these are less likely to go bad over the many weeks of subterranean storage. And, just in case you were wondering, chipmunks have been discovered with up to eight pounds of food cached away for the winter.
Chipmunks are not ones to put all their proverbial eggs in one basket, though. On the off chance that something happens to the food stored so carefully within the burrow, chipmunks hedge their bets by scatter hoarding, caching stockpiles of food in various other locations. Sometimes these stashes are discovered by other foragers, and other times they are entirely forgotten. This shouldn’t be considered a waste of resources, though, for any foods not eaten will either eventually decompose, providing nourishment for the soil and nearby plants, or sprout and grow into future oaks, beeches and maples.
Every fall we take note of how late in the season we see chipmunks. If winter comes early, they disappear quickly. This year, however, autumn seemed to hang around forever, and with it chipmunks were seen gathering seeds as late in the season as possible. Once the ground is blanketed in white, though, and temperatures plunge steadily below freezing, we won’t see hide nor hair of a chipmunk for months. Red squirrels will continue to make pests of themselves at the bird feeders, but chipmunks are conspicuous only by their absence. Until a thaw comes. There have been a few times when mild days in February or March have brought the chipmunks out of their cozy dens to forage for some fresh seed on the snow banks below the birdfeeders. It’s always exciting to see their little striped bodies as they flit across the snow, cheeks stuffed with sunflower seeds.
Eventually spring will arrive, and with it the chipmunks come, ready to eat. Everything that is available is fair game. In many cases, this may be the seed from birdfeeders, but it could also be fungi, buds, or nuts and seeds not already consumed during the winter. And it isn’t unheard of for a chipmunk to inhale the eggs of small birds, or even a nestling or two. Food is food, and in the animal world it’s all fair game.
Photo Credit: Charlotte Demers, Adirondack Ecological Center, Newcomb, NY
Tradition can be difficult to refute. And as often as we may disagree with our families, we tend to cling to those things that “grandpa always said,” like calling those wild canids coydogs, and referring to deer antlers as horns. One of the very common misnomers around the Adirondacks is the snowshoe rabbit. I hate to say it, but there’s no such beast; what we have is a snowshoe hare.
Now some folks may think this is splitting hairs (no pun intended), but rabbits and hares, despite looking the same, are different animals. And it’s not merely a case of one having longer (or shorter) ears than the other, or one changing color and the other not. Nope, the differences are extensive, and they include biology, physiology and behavior.
Before you get all flustered, you can rest assured that there are cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridans) in the Adirondacks, but not throughout the whole Park. The cottontail can be found in the southern, eastern and northern lowland parts of the Park. It is not a cold-hardy animal. In fact, like the opossum, it only arrived relatively recently in the Adirondack region, believed to have moved northward as agriculture opened up wilderness areas.
On the other hand, the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) has been around forever and can be found throughout the Park, at all elevations, wherever conifers are present (in wetlands, lowlands, or on mountains). It is an animal designed for the cold, from its large furry feet feet to its varying fur. But the differences are more than skin deep.
For ease of discussion, here’s a list of differences:
• Rabbits have large back feet. The snowshoe hare has enormous back feet (on significantly longer back legs).
• Rabbits live in borrows or dens underground, complete with fur-lined nests. Hares build small depressions on top of the ground for their nests; otherwise, they shelter in dense stands of conifers.
• Cottontails are always brown-ish (unless you have an albino). Snowshoe hares change color: white in winter (with black tips on their ears), and brown in summer.
• Baby rabbits are called bunnies, and they are born naked, blind, and totally helpless (altricial). Baby hares are called leverets and are born fully-furred and with their eyes open; shortly after birth they are ready to explore their surroundings (precocial).
• Bunnies stay in their cozy nests for almost two months before dispersing. Leverets hide in separate locations during the day, only coming together when the mother returns to nurse them; in about four weeks they head out on their own.
• When startled, rabbits tend to freeze, hoping danger will pass them by. When a snowshoe hare is startled, it may briefly sit still, but in a short time it takes off, dashing quickly for safety.
• Rabbits sometimes gather in loose aggregations. Like deer, male rabbits will often fight to determine who is dominant; the winner is the one who usually mates with all the females in the area. Hares, however, are mostly solitary. There is little or no fighting among hares; the males and females just pair up for mating.
Is the world going to grind to a halt if you call a snowshoe hare a rabbit? Probably not, but isn’t it nicer to call a spade a spade? It clarifies things and shows the world that you actually know what you are talking about. Credibility – it’s what it’s all about.
When I think of lemmings, the first thing that comes to mind is Gary Larson’s FarSide cartoon with all the rodents rushing towards the edge of a cliff, one wearing an inner tube. What I don’t immediately think of is the fact that we have lemmings right here in our own back yards. Yes, Virginia, there are lemmings in the Adirondacks.
Admittedly, our lemmings are a different genus that those of movie and cartoon fame. Adirondack lemmings come in two flavors: the southern bog lemming, Synaptomys cooperi, and the northern bog lemming, Synaptomys borealis. They are small rodents, related to, and looking an awful lot like, voles: chunky bodies, beady little eyes, smallish rounded ears that are mostly hidden by shaggy fur. They have short tails and grooved upper incisors, which are the two characteristics that distinguish them from the other voles that live in our mountains.
But before I get into too much detail about these little guys, I’d like to first address the idea that lemmings, obeying some preordained internal message, make massive migrations to the sea and throw themselves into the churning water at the base of towering cliffs, a furry mass-suicide. Don’t you believe it. This whole lemming suicide thing (there’s no better word for it) is entirely fictitious and we can thank Disney for its creation.
Those of us of a certain generation grew up with “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” as mainstays of our Sunday nights. Looking back on many of the nature programs of that era, it’s kind of amazing what we swallowed as fact. In 1958 (before my time), Disney came out with a movie titled “White Wilderness,” a documentary about some of the animals in the far north. The lemming section was filmed in Alberta, a landlocked portion of Canada. Not only is there no sea in Alberta, there are also no lemmings. So, the film crew bought pet lemmings from nearby Inuit kids, and using fancy camera angles and other tricks of the trade, they made these few animals look like thousands. Then, and here’s the kicker, they put the animals on a snow-covered turntable that flung them off the cliff and into the water (a river, not the sea) below. With the narrator using a dramatic voice and just the right words, the stage for the birth of a myth: lemming suicides.
Fifty-one years later, people still believe it.
As stated above, the lemmings depicted in this erroneous film are a different genus from our bog lemmings, but I just wanted to clear the air ahead of time that lemmings do not make massive migrations to the sea to commit suicide. What we do see, however, in lemming populations all over the world, regardless of species, is dramatic rises and falls in the population. For a few years the numbers climb, and then suddenly they plummet, taking the species to near-extinction, only to start climbing again before they bottom out. This could be a reflection of a predator-prey cycle (more prey means more predators; more predators means fewer prey; fewer prey mean fewer predators; fewer predators means more prey, and so on), or it could be because as the rodent’s numbers increase, they consume more food, and soon food becomes scarce. Then the population declines due to lack of food, food supplies begin to increase, leading once more to an inevitable rise in the rodent population. Either way, it’s a cycle and one that is a natural part of population dynamics everywhere.
Back to our bog lemmings. Both the northern and southern have an historic presence in the Adirondacks, but according to D. Andrew Saunders’ Adirondack Mammals, the northern has only been verified recently (in the ‘80s) by one specimen from Whiteface Mountain. Since, based on this evidence, the northern is not that common here, I’m going to focus strictly on the southern.
The big burning questions is: do bog lemmings really live in bogs? The simple answer is not so much in the Adirondacks. Our southern bog lemmings (henceforth referred to as “SBL”) are found mostly in deciduous and mixed deciduous-conifer forests, hanging out in grassy openings and areas where tall sedges, ferns and shrubs grow, providing good cover and easily accessible food. (I caught one once, back in the summer of ’95, just about a mile from the VIC. It was a momentous event in my graduate advisor’s eyes, and he added the animal to his collection of study skins.) Like other small mammals, the SBL creates a maze of connected trails and tunnels to navigate through its chosen home, the former above ground, the latter just below the surface. A distinguishing part of the SBL’s home is the globular nest it builds of various plant fibers. In the summer these nests are found tucked away on top of the ground, sometimes near stumps, other times hidden in clumps of sedges. In the winter, though, the lemmings build their nests below ground, in a side chamber off their tunnel systems.
One of the things I find fascinating about SBLs in the fact that their scats are green, like goose scat! And like geese, this is because lemmings are herbivores that eat a lot of green material (as opposed to lots of twigs and nuts). Grasses and other green leaves make up the bulk of their diet, although mosses, fungi, fruits and roots are also consumed. I even read that sometimes they’ll eat invertebrates, like snails and slugs, but these are a very minor part of the diet.
SBLs are primarily night-active. This is most likely an adaptation to avoid run-ins with potential predators. Snakes, raptors, weasels, raccoons, foxes and coyotes are all potentially after a nice lemming snack. By moving about mostly at night, the lemming can somewhat hide its movements. On the other hand, many of these predators are well-adapted to hunting after dark. All’s fair in a dog-eat-dog world.
Are you likely to encounter a southern bog lemming in your daily travels around the Adirondacks? Probably not, but if you did, you might easily mistake it for just another vole. But rest assured, they are out there, doing their part to keep the greenery cut back and the bellies of predators full. Life is good.
Photo copyrighted by and used with permission from Phil Myers, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan.