Sunday, November 8, 2009

4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest

It’s time to haul that albino jack-a-lope out of the attic; time to dust off that high quality deer butt door bell, or other animal rump art, and head down to the big city to show ’em how its done. Yes – it’s strange taxidermy time and “Science Geeks, Nature Freaks, and Rogue Geniuses” will be gathering Sunday, November 15th at the 4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest at the Bell House, a 1920’s warehouse converted into a music and events venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The event is hosted by the Secret Science Club, which bills itself as a “lecture, arts, and performance series.”

“Show off your beloved moose head, stuffed albino squirrel, sinuous snake skeletons, jarred sea slugs, and other specimens,” the event announcement reads, “Compete for prizes and glory!” There will be a “feral taxidermy talk by beast mistress Melissa Milgrom,” author of the forth-coming book, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy and an appearance by the Grand Master of Taxidermy, Takeshi Yamada. But the highlight of the event will be a juried taxidermy show judged by a panel of “savage taxidermy enthusiasts” that includes Robert Marbury, co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, and Secret Science Club co-curator Dorian Devins.

The contest is open to any and all taxidermy (homemade, purchased, and found), preserved and jarred specimens, skeletons, skulls, and gaffs and beyond. The organizers are quick to point out this year that wet specimens must remain in their jars. Prizes will be awarded for categories that include best stuffed creature, most interesting biological oddity, and more.

Entrants need only contact secretscienceclub@gmail.com to pre-register, and arrive at 7 pm on the night of the contest.

The contest was begun in 2005 by Secret Science Club co-curators Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson as a promotion for this taxidermy-inspired book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger. “The event has since taken on a life of its own,” the organizers tell us, after first-year winners Andrew Templar and Jim Carden (co-owners of the Bell House) began providing a permanent home for what has been dubbed a “beastly annual smack-down.”

Photo: Mike Zohn of Obscura Antiques received the 2008 Order of Carnivorous Knights Grand Prize for his “shadowbox mise en scene” of albino weasels posing as miniature polar bears.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Newcomb: Identifying Roadside Roses

Perhaps November is really not the time of year to try to identify roadside roses. Sure, the hips are lovely, and they certainly look as though they should be distinctive. Lots of trees are easily identified by their fruits alone, so why not roses? How difficult could it be?

I confess right up front that while I appreciate roses as much as the next person, I am not a rose aficionado, one of those people for whom roses are the sole reason for existing on this planet. I enjoy their colors, their fragrances, and their abundance of brightly colored fruits in the fall, but I don’t dedicate my life to their propagation. Perhaps if I spent a little more time among the roses, however, I wouldn’t find myself in my current predicament.

Last month I took some nice photos of some of the rosehips I found growing along Route 28N. It was early morning, there had been a crisp frost overnight, and I had my new lens to play with. I ended up with a nice image or two, and all was fine…until today, when I decided to write up an article about our local roadside roses. I mean, if you are going to write about something, you really should be able to identify what it is, beyond the obvious (rose). It turns out that sometimes this is easier said than done.

I started where I always start when trying to identify plants: my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It listed several species, and had color illustrations of flowers, leaves, and even some of the hips. But since all I had to go by were some photos of the hips, I thought I should try to narrow the field by finding out what species actually grow in New York.

According to the Revised Checklist of New York State Plants, by Richard S. Mitchell and Gordon C. Tucker, New York is home to no less than twenty-eight species of roses, seventeen of which are non-natives, and two of which are endangered. Unfortunately, this checklist is just that: a checklist. It doesn’t give tips for identifying the plants it lists, nor does it provide a list of plant locations.

So, I next turned to the state’s new on-line nature information website: New York Nature Explorer (http://www.dec.ny.gov/natureexplorer/app/). It’s supposed to be your one-stop-shopping location for identifying and learning about the plants and animals of our fair state. I typed in “rose” and hit “search.” It turned up exactly one rose in the entire database (although it also listed things like rose pagonia – an orchid— and rose-breasted grosbeak—a bird). What happened to the other twenty-seven?

Not to be discouraged, I went to Google and ran searches for each rose on the checklist (it’s been a long morning). I found lots of photos of flowers, but few of hips. And none seemed to match mine. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting further and further away.

Turning back to Newcomb’s, I counted nine species of roses, all of which occur in New York. The other eighteen from The Checklist that were not listed are all non-natives, apparently garden types that jumped the garden wall. I figured that I had found my best possible source for ID help. Ironically, it was where I had started about four hours ago.

A couple, like the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), were easy to eliminate from my search – they require wetlands, or at least habitats that are more amenable than the dry, salty side of a highway. Smooth rose (R. blanda), as you might guess from its name, is a relatively thornless species. Looking closely at mine, it didn’t qualify. Not only was the stem covered with thorns both large and small, but so were the stipules at the end of the fruit.

The fruit of Rosa rugosa, a common escapee, look like balls that have been flattened on both ends. The fruits on my specimen do not fit this mold. I was ready to settle on it being a pasture rose (R. carolina), but all photos and drawings I found of this species were nowhere near as thorny as mine. My hopes of success were now pretty well dashed.

But that’s the great thing about being a naturalist—I have an undying curiosity to know the answer. I may not learn the identity of these roses today, tomorrow, or even this year. But you can rest assured that come summer next year, when the roses bloom and fill the air with their perfume, I will be out there with my field guide (and camera) in hand, determined to identify these plants. Even if I have to send specimens to the authors of The Checklist.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

In Paul Smiths: Owls Of An Adirondack Winter

With a full, November “beaver” moon overhead we plodded along on the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center trails. The crisp leaves of maple, birch, and beech that crunch underfoot seamlessly drowned out all sounds. We need to periodically stop and listen. I give a hooting call mimicking our native Barred Owl. Nothing on this first try. We walk through the woods some more, onto the other trail. “I heard something that time!” one of our listeners calls out. Just a distant dog barking. I move us farther down the trail to my lucky spot. Lucky because this is where I always find the owl we seek tonight.

Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-allll is what my hoot sounds like as it echos off the frosty forest that is as still as the inside of a church. The bright moonlight allows for somewhat easier watching of the silhouetted trees as we look up at them after every hoot is given. Finally a response. But it’s not the normal barred owl call that I expect. It’s higher in pitch and squeaky. I run through the archives of owl calls in my head but nothing clicks. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wild Clematis of the Adirondacks

Any stroll along a damp patch of land, be it river or stream, canal or marsh, is bound to yield discoveries to delight the senses of any curious person. One of my favorite finds, and one that is gloriously obvious at this time of year, is Old Man’s Beard, or Wild Clematis (Clamatis virginiana).

Perhaps this fluffy tufted plant has a warm place in my heart because it was one of the first plants I learned as a naturalist intern fresh out of college. Or maybe it’s because the seedhead resembles, in miniature, a Truffula Tree. A Truffula Tree? Could it be that you don’t know about Truffula Trees? Horrors! Should your literary knowledge be lacking in this respect, then you must immediately get to a library and read a copy of Dr. Seuss’s classic book The Lorax. To quote but one passage: “Those trees! Those Truffula Trees! All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these. The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk. And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.” Those in the know will probably nod their heads sagely, immediately seeing the similarity between the feathery grey-white seedheads of the wild clematis and the puffy, colorful tufts of Seuss’s fictional trees.

Wild clematis, also known as Virgin’s Bower and Devil’s Darning Needles (among many other names in a rather long list), is one of our native vines. While I never saw it while growing up, I find it is quite common up here in the North Country, where it clambers and sprawls over trees and shrubs along many of our waterways. I’ve encountered it along roadsides while strolling with the dog, and I’ve paddled wetlands where it looked like it was choking out all the other vegetation as it groped its way heavenwards reaching for the sun.

To the novice, and when not in bloom or holding forth its seedheads, wild clematis looks a lot like poison ivy. It’s the leaves. Like poison ivy, it has three leaflets making up each leaf, and they are a bit on the toothy side. Unlike poison ivy, however, wild clematis leaves are opposite: they are arranged in pairs as you look at the stem of the vine. Poison ivy leaves alternate up the vine: left, right, left, right, left, etc.

If you encounter wild clematis in bloom, you will likely be surprised to learn that it has essentially no petals. What nonsense, you might say, as you point to the four white “petals” that surround each bloom. Sadly, you are mistaken, for like bunchberry and poinsettias, these are the sepals, not petals, of the flower. Sepals are modified leaves, usually green and seen at the base of flowers (picture a rose, for example). Some flowers, like the aforementioned bunchberry, poinsettia and clematis, have colored sepals (red, white, pink) that look to the average Joe like petals. It may be only a technical thing, but it’s always nice to have your terminology correct.

I have frankly never noticed the flowers of the wild clematis. I’ve seen photographs that show the vines so loaded with blooms that you’d have to be practically blind to miss them, and based on the number of seedheads I see in the fall, it seems that my vision must indeed be turned inwards when I walk by the vines between July and September when they bloom. Nope, I rarely see the plants until fall, when the wispy, feathery seed tufts appear. And when the sunlight of early morning or late afternoon strikes the tufts and lights them up with a blinding glow, my mind clambers “Those seeds! Those clematis seeds! All my life I’d been searching for seeds such as these.”

While contemplating this article, I searched high and low for interesting tidbits and morsels of folklore that would tantalize even the most laidback of readers, but to no avail. How is it possible that such a visually fascinating plant, which climbs its neighbors by wrapping its leafstalks around them, has no “background color” for the eager nature-writer? The only thing I could find was the warning that the plant is toxic. It contains glycosides, which can cause a severe irritation to the skin (it is in the buttercup family, after all, and this is a trait of most, if not all, buttercups). Even so, many native peoples did use the plant for assorted medicines and ceremonial functions.

Like many native plants, wild clematis has beneficiaries among the local wildlife. Because it blooms late in the season, its blossoms are welcome food sources for many critters, including hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Bees also find it a good source of late season pollen.

Now that November is here, and our world has turned from the fires of autumn to the greys that presage winter, we can find some solace in the whimsical seeds of clematis, especially in the low slanting light of early morning or late afternoon. If the sun is out and you find your spirits in need of a lift, seek out these plants at the ends of the day, and I guarantee that you will find yourself smiling.


Saturday, October 31, 2009

Galls Revisited: It’s Not Hard to Be Humble

When one is a practicing naturalist, one must always be willing to say two things. One, “I don’t know.” And two, “Hm…I guess I was wrong.” Y’see, Mother Nature is always ready to send you down the wrong path by making some identifications tricky. And, let’s face it, we can’t all be experts at everything. In fact, as a friend of mine once put it, I don’t consider myself to be an expert at anything, for an “ex” is a has-been, and a “spurt” is a drip under pressure. So, I’m admitting here and now that I stumbled and fell on the ID of the makers of the cottonwood galls posted 24 October. In fact, thanks to a recent post I read elsewhere, these cottonwood galls are caused by the Poplar Vagabond Gall Aphid (Mordwilkoja vagabunda). So, let’s revisit this post and set the record straight.

The clue I should’ve seen right away is that the galls made by the eriophyid mite occur along the affected stem as well as at the tip of the branch; those created by the Poplar Vagabond Gall Aphid (henceforth referred to as the vagabond) are located only at the tip.

The vagabond actually uses multiple hosts over its lifetime. Its life begins as a black egg, which the female has laid either in old galls or in the crevices of the poplar’s bark. Apparently the females have a preference for trees that already have galls on them, a likely indication that these trees are good hosts.

Eggs remain in situ throughout the winter. When spring rolls around, they hatch and the tiny wee nymphs migrate to the tips of their twigs, where new growth is starting to emerge. Here they pierce the tender plant tissue and commence feeding, sucking out the plant’s juices as only aphids can. It is this feeding action that ultimately results in the creation of the distorted hollow “thing” that would’ve normally been new leaves. The nymphs move into this newly formed gall and take up residence while waiting to mature.

Maturation comes with summer, and the now fully-grown adult aphids leave their snug home for greener pastures. While confirmation is still in the wings, scientists think that these aphids possibly spend their summer feeding on the roots of certain grasses. Fast-forward to autumn, and the aphids fly back “home”, taking up residence once again within the hollow chambers of the gall.

Some mating must take place here, because soon wingless females are born inside the gall, and by early November the males appear. But perhaps these two generations are produced via parthenogenesis (females reproducing without the aide of males – it’s more common than you think). I haven’t found any data to confirm either mode of reproduction. Regardless, once we have these wingless females and the males, mating takes place (again?) and little black eggs are once more laid in old galls and the crevices of the tree’s bark. The cycle continues.

When the rumply galls are first formed, they are green, no doubt the result of their original goal in life of being leaves for the tree. By winter, however, they have turned brown and are quite hard. These galls persist on the trees for many years, becoming obvious to the eyes of the curious as autumn claims the tree’s leaves.

The next time you are walking near some cottonwoods, or quaking aspens, or some other member of the poplar family, keep your eyes peeled. You might even bring a gall or two inside for the winter and see if anything emerges come spring (I’d suggest keeping it in a jar, with a lid). Gall watching can be a fun and interesting experiment for the whole family.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Conifers Have Pine Cones: What’s That On My Willow?

About three years ago, while walking the dog along the Hudson River up here in Newcomb, I came across a beautiful pale green cone-shaped growth at the end of a willow twig. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, since I knew that willows do not produce cones. Cones are found primarily on conifers (“cone-bearing trees”), but I know of at least one hardwood that has cone-like structures: alders. This was no alder; what could it be? A little research turned up the answer: a pine-cone willow gall.

Like galls found the world over, the pine-cone willow gall is the by-product of an insect-plant interaction. The insect in question is Rhabdophaga strobiloides, the pine-cone willow gall midge, and the plant, obviously, is a willow. Although these midges are found everywhere a willow grows, it is not likely you will ever actually see one, for they are rather small. Or perhaps you might see one and mistake it for a small mosquito, for it is often described as closely resembling one.

As with other galls, the growth’s formation begins when the adult female selects a suitable place in which to lay an egg. In this case, the mother-to-be chooses a terminal leaf bud on a willow. She deposits her egg in the early spring and then nature takes over. When the larva hatches, it exudes a chemical that disrupts the normal growth of leaves and branches, resulting in the creation of a cozy home that to you and me looks like a pinecone. The larva, a little pink grubby thing, takes up residence in a chamber in the center of the gall, where it eats its fill and then waits for winter to pass.

Spring rolls around and the larva pupates. Before long the pupal skin splits open and out crawls the adult gnat (or midge, depending on who you read). Soon it will be off to find a mate and continue the cycle, ad infinitum.

Now, if you are looking for an interesting project to entertain some kids, or even yourself, collect a pinecone willow gall or six around about March. Bring them inside. Using a sharp knife, slice the gall in half, lengthwise, just off-center. If you do it right, you will expose the little pink larva in its cozy chamber. If you do it wrong, you will slice the larva in two (or, more likely, mash the larva). Assuming you’ve left the larva unharmed, place the gall (with its larva) in a jar with a bunch of wet cotton – this will keep the larva from drying out and dying. Put a lid on the jar. Now you can watch as the larva changes to a pupa, and a week or so later into an adult. Pretty cool

Meanwhile, stick your remaining galls into another jar with a wad of damp cotton. You might want to pin them to a piece of cardboard or Styrofoam to keep them upright and off the soggy fibers. Wait and see what emerges. You may get our friend the gnat, or you may get a variety of other insects, from parasitic wasps, to other species of gnats, or even juvenile grasshoppers! I suggest you keep a lid on this jar, too.

Fall and winter are prime times to look for galls, for now the braches and twigs of trees and other plants are exposed to the elements. Some galls are round like gobstoppers, others football shaped. Some have shapes that defy classification. You can find them on goldenrod, willows, cottonwoods, oaks, spruces, and blueberries, to name a few of our native plants that are likely to sport these growths. Take along a sharp pocket knife and slice a few open to see what is living inside. If you find a gall with a hole on the outside, it’s possible a bird beat you to the hidden morsel inside! Gather a few and bring them home; a collection of galls is a wonderful addition to any naturalist’s stash of nature’s endless treasures.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Cottonwood Galls: Aesthetic Eyesore or Fascinating Formation?

I was out exploring a nature trail with a group of young students recently. We gathered acorns and their caps (they make great whistles), milkweed pods, dried rabbit-foot clover flowers (they are so very soft), and collected bunches of flowers to take home. It seems like everything that could be picked or picked up was. Most of their findings I could identify with relative ease, but there was one item that left me wondering.

Freddy (not his real name) brought me a stick with this wrinkly dark brown thing attached to the end. Since there were some gardens nearby, I thought it was an old dried-out cockscomb flower, but the stick was all wrong: it wasn’t a flower stem, it was a twig. I looked closer and said, “Hm. It’s a gall of some kind.” I glanced around, saw a couple cottonwood trees, and, based on the twig, determined they were the source of the sample. Beyond that, I had no idea, for it was a new gall to me. By then several of the kids had found sticks with wrinkly galls on them. I told them I would look it up when I got back to work and let them know what I found out.

It took some searching, but it turns out it is indeed a cottonwood gall of a type made by cottonwood gall mites (Eriophyes parapopuli), aka: poplar bud gall mites. These mites, which are so tiny that it would take five, lined up end to end, to stretch across a 12-pt. period, can be found on other members of the poplar family, too, not just cottonwoods. One of the things that I discovered in my research that I thought was rather interesting is that these mites, unlike the overwhelming majority of mites and spiders, have only four legs. Not four pairs of legs (spiders and mites), but four legs…period. That’s just wrong. Despite their small size, and obvious lack of appendages, these miniscule pests travel very well, thank you. How do they get around? By wind, water, insects, birds and yes, even people. They are extremely fertile, producing up to eight generations in a single year (thank goodness they only live about a month as adults).

There are hundreds of species of these eriophyid mites, each causing its own form of damage on plants, from stem and bud galls, to rusts and blisters. These wee pests are very host specific, not only to the plant they feed upon, but also which part of the plant they choose. Some species prefer leaves, others buds, and others stems or flower petals. But in the end, they all do the same basic kind of damage: they enter the plant’s cells and suck the life out of them. Literally. They suck up the cell’s contents. It’s the plant’s reaction to this attack, however, that creates the gall, or blister, that you and I see.

When galls are formed, the plant is reacting to growth regulators that the mites injected into the plant’s leaf or stem tissues. These growth regulators stimulate the tissue into abnormal growth patterns and rates. The end result is a pocket formed around the mites, in which they happily feed and reproduce.

Cottonwood gall mites take up residence at the base of a bud, preventing the development of normal leaves and stems. Instead, these wrinkly, lumpy, irregular growths appear on one side of the twig, eventually covering the entire base of the bud or shoot. At first the galls are green, for they are fresh and new. As they age, they turn red, then brown, and overtime they end up a grey-black color. If you look closely, you can see the holes through which the adults emerge when they are ready to move on to a new host.

Individually these galls are merely an aesthetic problem, but if enough of them form on your tree, the tree could become rather stressed, making it susceptible to other problems. But in general, they are not considered to be a serious problem. If you keep a close eye on your plants/trees, you can detect deformities before they get out of control. Look for discoloration or swellings at the base of leaves and buds. Just prune off the infected twigs and leaves. These can then be burned or bagged and taken to the dump. Pruning, by the way, is best done in the spring before the tree breaks dormancy. If you have a heavy infestation, you can try applying horticultural oils right after the buds break in the spring. This won’t get rid of existing galls, but it may prevent the spread of the mites and development of future galls. Alternatively, you can consider the galls to be interesting modern art, courtesy of Mother Nature.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Natural History Along the Hudson River

For several years I have been a contributor to the Hudson River Almanac, a publication put out by the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Hudson River Estuary Program that follows the changes of the seasons all along the 315 miles of the Hudson River, from its headwaters here in Essex County to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s an impressive collection of natural history observations made by scientists and laypeople alike. For a naturalist, this is a fascinating journal. If these waters could talk, what a tale they could tell! » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 19, 2009

More Moose in the Adirondacks

Moose are becoming increasingly common in the Adirondacks. An Adirondack Almanack post dated September 2006 stated an estimated population of 200-400. The latest statistics show the population at roughly 500 for the state park. The number of resident moose is growing and, according to some, reaching a stage at which they may increase more prolifically. Whitetail deer and turkey enjoyed the same numeric spike in recent decades.

Some accounts have placed sightings near Copper Kiln Pond and along the Hardy Road in Wilmington. The northern section of the Northville Placid Trail to Duck Hole and beyond harbors moose as well, based on moose droppings spotted along the trail. Reports also placed a moose and calf along Route 73 between Lake Placid and the Cascade Lake area. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Look at the Shrews of the Adirondacks

On Wednesday I promised you a future with shrews it in, so we’ll take a look at shrews today. Shrews are another member of the Order of mammals known as Insectivora, which is a reflection of their diet: they eat a lot of insects. Much like their mole cousins, shrews spend a good portion of their lives underground, and as such, like moles, they have no (or nearly no) external ear flaps, weeny little eyes, and non-directional fur. Their bodies are also rather long and cylindrical, which helps them move easily through tunnels.

Six species of shrews call the Adirondacks home: the masked shrew (Sorex cinereus), the water shrew (S. palustris), the smoky shrew (S. fumeus), the long-tailed or rock shrew (S. dispar), the pygmy shrew (S. hoyi), and the short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda). Most of these you will never see, for they are rather secretive animals, but one, the short-tailed shrew, is quite common and frequently found in houses, so we’ll start with that one. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mouse, Mole or Vole? Learning Your Adirondack Small Mammals

star nosed molePeople in any field (medicine, education, engineering, archaeology, etc.) become so used to their chosen area of expertise that they soon come to believe that certain things are universal knowledge, even if they aren’t.

Natural history is no exception. Sure, we naturalists figure that most people know a tree from a shrub, but we also expect they know the difference between a mouse and a vole. After twenty years in this field, however, I’ve come to accept that what is obvious to me may not be obvious to everyone else. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Longest Adirondack Rivers

How many times have we seen the Adirondack mountains ranked by height, the tallest 46 separated into a revered category of their own?

There’s a club and way of life dedicated to hiking the 46, and a Lake Placid restaurant offers 46 different sandwiches named for the peaks.

For a change, today we list the largest streams in the Adirondack region.* » Continue Reading.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

It Came From The Cupboard: Larder Beetles

It was small. Black . . . with a reddish band across the middle. It scuttled across the kitchen counter on six short legs. I had to swat at it more than once to kill it. It was . . . a larder beetle.

Larder beetles (Dermestes lardarius) are also known as bacon beetles, and, as you may have guessed, they are frequently found in our kitchens. A member of the scientific family Dermestidae, these insects, while at once creepy and revolting, serve an important function in the world: they clean up messes. That’s right.

In general, dermestids are scavengers, feeding on skin, carcasses, old plant fibers, feathers, dead insects, and so on. They are right helpful out in the wild, but in our houses, they make us wonder about our housekeeping skills. The larder beetle, and its cousin the carpet beetle (there are more than one species) are probably the dermestids most commonly found in your house.

Let’s start with a look at the larder beetle. It is small (a centimeter long at most). It is black at the head and tail ends, with a reddish band running across the middle. Sort of like a woolly bear caterpillar. And it is in your house because there is food there for it: animal-based products. It’s not called a bacon beetle for no reason. Often these insects are found in warehouses, places that store fatty meats (such as bacon), hides, carcasses, etc. Slaughterhouses are probably a good place to look for them, too.

So why do we find them in our kitchens? Most of us don’t have hams hanging in the rafters anymore. If we have meat, it is in the fridge or freezer. Why, I was a vegetarian for seventeen years, and I still had them! What could they be eating? After due consideration, I finally decided it must be the cat (and later, dog) food. But then I read about the larvae. When larder beetle larvae are ready to pupate, they develop prodigious appetites, eating all sorts of household products that would turn our stomachs: wood, cork, paper, textiles, mortar and soft metals, like lead. Well, they aren’t really eating these things, per se. They are actually chewing holes in them to make cozy little dens in which to go through “the change”. Still, they are chewing our stuff. And once they pupate, they are adults, and perhaps it is these newly pupated adults that I am finding in my house.

Carpet beetles, on the other hand, are less fussy – they are simply eating any animal-based product that contains keratin (old fur, old hair, old feathers, old insect parts), although some are also attracted to plants (nectar, pollen). They range in size from one-quarter inch to one inch in length, and they vary in color depending on species. If you have animals in your house shedding away (and what animal doesn’t, with the possible exception of those Egyptian sphinx cats and naked molerats), then your house could be a good candidate for these insects. And the species that like wool can wreak havoc on your precious Persian carpets! One source I found even claimed that carpet beetles can cause allergies, a direct result of our inhaling the shed hairs of the larvae. Ick.

We need to remember, though, that in the wild these insects are really beneficial. They are part of nature’s janitorial crew. Thanks to their yen for skin, fur, feathers, carcasses, we are not surrounded by dead things. Why, they are so industrious that I lost an entire study skin collection to dermestids several years ago (imagine my horror when I opened my collection, which was stored in a wooden wine box, to find nothing left but a pile of dust and wires); they had to be pretty determined to find it. Admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled, but it is this ravenous desire to consume all things once living that makes dermestid beetles the friends of bone collectors.

Bone collectors? I know, it sounds grisly, but in truth it’s not that bad. There are folks who prepare bones, like animal skulls, for display. I have skulls at home, and many nature centers also have collections. And how do you get your bones to be squeaky clean and suitable for display? You bury them with a bunch of dermestid beetles, who will happily remove all remaining skin, fur, feathers, flesh.

You can cut down on the likelihood of having dermestids in your house by keeping your house clean. Vacuum up the pet hair. Scrub the counters. Keep meat in the cold chest. Make sure everything in the cupboard is well sealed. And if a little visitor should happen to show up (perhaps it pupated in your walls), just scoop it up and toss it outside, where it can feast on nature’s bounty safely beyond your eyesight.

Photo by Carolyn Klass, Cornell University


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musings on an Adirondack Autumn

“When will the colors be at peak?” Every year, starting in early August, we get asked this question countless times. We are tempted to give answers like “September 26th at 4:43 PM,” but in truth, one can never know. Predicting the fall colors is about as reliable as predicting the weather – you can only know for sure when it is happening.

Around here, colors start to change in July. Many folks gasp when I tell them this. Isn’t that a bit early? No, not for us. The central Adirondacks have a very short growing season, and as such our springs arrive later and our falls arrive earlier. For those who have a hankering for a spot of color early in the season, the central Adirondacks is the place to be. Want to wait for peak color? Then schedule your trip for late September or early October; if you are lucky, you will catch it in time.

From year to year, the fall color show can be a surprise. Some years the colors are simply stunning – reds and oranges set the hillsides a-glow like so many embers fanned by the wind (this is one of those years). Other years the colors are just “okay.” And then there are the years that are complete duds. Fortunately, the latter are few and far between. We had a dud a couple years ago. The colors were not spectacular, and then the leaves dropped suddenly, all at once. It was a real disappointment for the leaf peepers.

Leaf peeping, as you can probably imagine, is one of the big tourist draws for the Adirondacks, and one of the many things I do is provide Fall Foliage reports for the central Adirondacks. Once a week I send in my report, rating color, guessing percentage of change, and trying to select the best viewing spots. It can be tricky, for it often depends on where you stand. It might be only 50% out my window, but two miles to the east the forest could be 90% changed, while two miles to the west it could be only 30%. Not only that, but what may be 20% when I send in my report might be 70% before the week is out!

How can you tell if it is a good year? I think dark, cloudy days are the best indicators: if on these days the mountains still glow, you know you have a great season on hand.

If you are looking for a good leaf peeping experience, you can’t miss right now if you drive through the central part of the Adirondack Park. Most of the hillsides are very colorful, creating some wonderful reflections in our many lakes and ponds. Once you hit the lower elevations, though, colors are not quite “there” yet. Give them a couple more weeks and they should be pretty good.


Saturday, October 3, 2009

North Country Hitchhikers: Getting Stuck on Seeds

There are lots of plants out there that really grab you…literally. We’ve all encountered at least one, probably more. With hooking barbs or puncturing spikes, they lam onto our shoes and socks, pant legs and shirt sleeves – and heaven help you should you be wearing a woven poncho when you have your run-in with them! Our dogs return from a romp in the field with seeds of all sorts clinging to their fur. Yep, late summer and fall are the time of year to get to know your seeds. » Continue Reading.