Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Naked in the Woods: Witch-Hobble

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.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Online Sources for Adirondack History

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)

Report of the Adirondack Committee, [New York State] Assembly of 1902 (1903)

And a lot more…

Photo: Rusisseaumont Hotel, Lake Placid, c. 1900 from “The eastern slope of the Adirondacks. its mountains, lakes & springs” [1901]. The hotel was built in 1892 by the Lake Placid Improvement Company. It was destroyed by fire on July 2, 1909 and never rebuilt.


Monday, January 4, 2010

The Almanack’s 10 Most Popular Stories of 2009

Here is our list of the Adirondack Almanack‘s ten most popular stories of 2009, in descending order.

History of Adirondack Airplane Crashes
This year’s tragic death of two in the crash of a Piper Cherokee 140 single engine aircraft en route from Saratoga to Malone spawned this look at the some 30 major plane crashes that have happened in the Adirondacks since 1912. Adirondack danger and disaster stories have always been an Adirondack Almanack reader favorite. I’ve covered thin ice, earthquakes, drownings, bridge collapses, mining, boating, and of course, our 10 Deadliest Accidents in The Adirondack Mountain Region.

New Study: Coy-Wolves Evolved To Hunt Local Deer
A new study by scientists from the New York State Museum showed how local coyotes have evolved to be bigger and stronger over the last 90 years, both expanding their geographic range and becoming the top predator in the Northeast – by interbreeding with wolves. 2009 was also notable at the Almanack for our addition new natural history contributor Ellen Rathbone. Ellen’s regular looks at our natural world have included how feral cats impact wildlife, the joys of macro wildlife photography, local unique trees like the Black Tupelo; she has stuck up for skunks, pondered porcupines, and even gave three cheers for carrion beetles (“nature’s sanitary engineers”).

Kids Enter Big Tupper Ski Area Fight
One of the big stories in the region in 2009 has been the reopening of the Big Tupper Ski Area. Back in March, when reopening the old slopes was still very much tied to a development plan that included 652 high-end home and townhouses, a 60-room hotel, and more, Mary Thill took a look at the movement to enlist kids in the plan to make the development happen. “The project has become a sensitive issue, drawing questions about its scale, financing, tax breaks, new utilities and backcountry building lots,” Mary wrote, “Inside Tupper Lake, there have been shows of political and public support. Some have questioned whether asking kids to wear ski jackets and carry signs shills them into a much larger debate. And to miss a point. Nobody is against skiing.” Indeed, nobody was against skiing, and Tupper Lakers eventually worked diligently, apolitically and successfully to reopen their slopes.

Upper Hudson Rail Trail Planned: North Creek to Tahawus
When the Almanack broke the news in October that there were plans afoot to transform the northern end of the Upper Hudson Railroad into a 29-mile multi-use trail from the North Creek Railroad Station to Tahawus, it sparked a great discussion between supporters and critics of the plan the spilled over into a follow-up post by new Almanack contributor Alan Wechsler. “We already have a paved path from North Creek to Newcomb – it’s called State Route 28N,” the first commenter opined. The ensuing debate covered the history of the rail line, the role of the federal government in seizing Forest Preserve land in war time, and the legal questions surrounding its subsequent abandonment.

Adirondack Park Agency Releases 2009 Land Use Plan Map
The release of the Adirondack Park Agency’s 2009 Adirondack Park Official Map was a very popular post this year. The new map (the first since 2003) includes recent state land acquisitions and the overall framework for protection of the Adirondack Park’s public and private land resources. More than a dozen times our contributors wrote about maps and geography this past year. The Almanack looked at the digitization of the reports and surveys of Verplanck Colvin, the disappearance, and then reappearance of the Adirondack Park on Google Maps, the longest Adirondack rivers, and lakes and ponds of the Forest Preserve. Two highlights came from our resident paddling guru and regular Almanack contributor Don Morris who offered Adirondack Waterbody Trivia, and a geographic look at the Adirondack eskers paddlers often see in their travels.

Adirondack Trout And Salmon Season Opener Tips
One of the great things I love about the Almanack is the variety of readers we have. Readers from all walks of life. Hunters, trappers, and fishermen and women, are right there with vegans, animal rights activists, and just plain folks who appreciate wildlife too much to kill and eat it. Mary Thill’s report on a Bald Eagle’s awful encounter with a leg hold trap brought out both sides, and the wife of the man who set the trap. We considered the near extinction and reintroduction of beaver, the battle (some success, some distress) over reducing mercury pollution in fish, and a major crackdown on deer poaching.

Adirondack Fall Foliage Seen from Space
Sometimes short and simple, fun and interesting, are just the ticket. Our discovery of a NASA satellite photo of the Northern Forest and parts of southeastern Canada taken several years ago at the peak of fall color was hugely popular.

Opinion: Hiking, Drinking and News at Adirondack Papers
Mary Thill struck a nerve with local media folks (and even sparked some hate mail) when she questioned the wisdom of two new publications by local newspapers, including the Post-Star‘s leap into the weekly entertainment rag business, what she called a “crayon-font attempt to take ad share away from the excellent but shoestring real community newspaper.” The post inspired a collaboration with the Lake George Mirror‘s publisher and editor Tony Hall. Hall has offered some enlightening insight into the origins of the APA, the question over whether State Senator Ron Stafford was really an environmentalist, and some great expanded coverage of Lake George. The partnership with the Lake George Mirror opened the door for a similar weekly contribution from Adirondack Explorer editor Phil Brown, who has come forward with a return to the Battle of Crane Pond Road, some insight into Clarence Petty, and when it’s alright to call it a day. The jury is still out on the Adirondack Daily Enterprise better-designed hikey new outdoor-recreation publication as a business decision, but the bimonthly, called Embark, is gradually growing a low ad percentage; it appears to be helping keep at least one reporter employed, so we wish it well in 2010.

Canton Eddie: Turn-of-the-Century Safecracker
Adirondack history has always been a forte of the Almanack. When someone robbed a Tupper Lake bank it inspired a look at one of the region’s most infamous thieves. Canton Eddie was the perpetrator of a string of at least 30 robberies in New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Another highlight of 2009 at the Almanack was the publication of Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack, which included Canton Eddie’s story, and a whole lot more Adirondack history.

The Adirondacks: Gateway for Quebec Hydroponic Marijuana
Whether a measure of what Adirondackers are really doing behind closed doors, or a testament to our fascination with crime drama, when Mary Thill (clearly the winner of this years “readers’ choice” award!) covered the July story of the largest border drug bust ever, readership went off the charts. “A billion dollars worth of this weed funnels through Clinton, Franklin, and St. Lawrence counties annually, according to Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne,” Mary wrote. “A look at the map is all it takes to see that much of it travels through the Adirondack Park on its way to Albany, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and as far south as Florida.” The news was a fascinating inside look at where some American marijuana comes from, but probably no surprise to those who were following the other big drug story of the year: the discovery of some 800 marijuana plants growing in Essex County.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Winter Wildays at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake

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.


Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bruce Spudworm and the Evening Grospigs

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.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Adirondack Birds: The American Goldfinch

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.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Eastern Chipmunk in Winter

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

 


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

There’s No Such Thing as a Snowshoe Rabbit

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.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Adirondack Lemmings

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.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Balsam Fir – An Adirondack Classic

The smell of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) brings a rush of Adirondack memories to anyone who has spent even a smidgeon of time in the Park. Whether it’s from sun-warmed needles scenting summer days at camp, or the woodsy scent of a balsam pillow on a cold winter day, for many people balsam fir means Adirondacks.

Now, I could use this post to regurgitate the statistical facts of the tree (it has blunt needles up to an inch and a half long, dark purplish cones two to four inches long, smooth to thinly scaly bark studded with resin blisters, grows forty to eighty feet tall and can live up to two-hundred years), but that would be boring. Instead, I’d like to take a look at how the balsam fir has ingratiated itself into the lives of so many people. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Weasel: Black and White and Curious All Over

In my humble opinion, one of the most adorable animals in our Adirondack woods is the weasel in winter. To be more precise, it’s two animals: the short-tailed weasel, or ermine (Mustela erminea), and the long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata). Both animals, with their pristine white fur, black-tipped tails, black button noses and alert black eyes, embody the essence of cute and curious, while at the same time filling the role of efficient predator.

Most of us, upon encountering a weasel, would be hard pressed to say if it was the long- or short-tailed variety, mainly because the encounter is likely to be fleeting. As the names suggest, the primary difference between these two mammals is the tail length: on the long-tailed weasel the tail is almost half as long as its body, whereas on the short-tailed weasel the tail is maybe a third of the body length. The short-tailed weasel is also the smaller of the two, but sometimes, without a side-by-side comparison, it can be difficult to tell which you have. According to D. Andrew Saunder’s Adirondack Mammals, the long-tailed weasel is the less common of the two species, but you couldn’t prove that by me, because I think every weasel I’ve encountered has been M. frenata.

Long and slender, weasels are ideal little predators. Their tubular bodies and short little legs enable them to flow easily across the landscape and into the dens of their favorite prey: mice and voles. But, just like any good predator, if the opportunity arises to take something larger, like, say, a gigantic snowshoe hare, it will. Food is food, and if the weasel can take it down, it will.

When it comes to energy conservation, however, this lithe body shape is far from ideal. If you look at most northern mammals, you see a tendency towards rounded body shapes, with abbreviated ears, short snouts, and short legs. Compactness is what it’s all about, for by being stocky an animal is better able to prevent heat loss during the long, cold winters. So how is the weasel, with its long body, short fur, and big ears, able to compensate? By feeding heavily and feeding often.

Many references, in describing weasels, refer to their tendency to partake in “bloodthirsty killing sprees.” This is really no more than an anthropomorphic description of an efficient hunting strategy. If you had to consume upwards of forty percent of your body weight every day just to stay warm, you’d probably do as the weasel does: take advantage of every prey item that passes your way. And if this means killing a whole family of mice when you are really only hungry for one, well, then you will just have to store the extra food away as insurance against lean times. Of course, this biological imperative is not likely to endear you to the farmer whose chickens you just wiped out.

While I know that weasels live in my neighborhood year-round, it really isn’t until winter that I become aware of their presence. As with all winter wildlife, any movement they make is recorded in the snow. The track pattern that catches the eye as distinctly weaselish is the 2×2 pattern, wherein you see two footprints side-by-side, followed by a space with no tracks, then another set of two. This pattern is made as the weasel leaps over the snow, its back humped slinky-like, its hind feet landing in the same pair of prints the front feet just made. Anyone who has had ferrets in his life knows exactly what this looks like (I used to have ferrets, so I speak from experience).

Winter is also when weasels are at their cutest, for it is now that they are all decked out in their splendid white fur. The only color that remains is the black tip on the tail, and the alert black eyes and little black nose. In the summer, the only white they sport is the fur on their bellies, the rest of their pelage being a basic brown (the tail keeps its black tip, regardless of the season). A weasel discovered in the spring or fall is likely to be a mottled mix of brown and white as the animal goes through its change. In the fall, the brown fur is shed and the new fur grows in white, thanks to hormones turning off the production of melanin, the pigment that determines coloration in fur (and hair, eyes, and skin). Come spring, the process is reversed and melanin is turned back on, causing the new fur to grow in brown as the white fur is molted out.

But why change color at all? It’s all about camouflage. Because it is constantly on the move looking for its next meal, a weasel’s cryptic coloration isn’t designed to improve its odds as a predator. Instead, it serves to help it avoid becoming dinner for something bigger, like a coyote, hawk or owl. This is also where the black-tipped tail comes into play. In one account I read, a hawk was presented with a stuffed weasel that had no black-tipped tail. The hawk attacked this presumed-food item on the head every time. When presented with a stuffed weasel that had a black-tipped tail, the hawk hesitated before striking (weasel has more time to escape) and then, more often than not, attacked the tail end (increasing the odds of weasel survival).

If you’d like to bring weasels to your property this winter, you can try putting out stashes of suet near good weasel habitat, such as brush piles. If there are weasels around, this will likely draw them out, for they are highly inquisitive animals and suet is a high-energy food source that will not fight back if pounced upon. Of course, you might have to fend of squirrels and other wildlife that are also attracted to your bait station. I may try this myself this winter, once the bears are denned down, and see if I can finally capture a photograph of weasel in its winter whites.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Dearth of Adirondack Oak Trees

Oaks are one of those trees for which we have an almost visceral attraction. They symbolize strength and permanence; they almost ooze power. Native peoples used the nuts for food (you really have to blanch them first, though, or else they are very, very bitter) and for dye (I’ve made a lovely soft grey dye for wool from white oak acorns). When the first settlers came to this new world, they were impressed (especially along the coast of Maryland) by the vast quantities of oaks. Back in the motherland, however, our oaks were considered inferior to English oaks, but in reality, if cured correctly, American oaks were every bit as durable as those from the British Isles. Used for everything from ship-building to cooperage (making barrels), flooring to firewood, oaks played a major role in the expansion of the human race, at least in the western world. And yet, here in the central Adirondacks, we find ourselves facing not just a scarcity of oaks, but a downright lack of these mighty trees. Why is that? » Continue Reading.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Preparing for Winter Animal Tracking

As we sit and wait for the snow to start (and stay), I find myself chomping at the bit, anticipating another season of animal tracking. For some people winter means skiing, while other folks get excited about winter birding. For me, though, winter means we finally have obvious signs that we are not alone, that we share the Park with various animals that mostly escape our notice the rest of the year: martens and fishers, otters and mink, foxes and hares, porcupines and grouse.

Sure, there are people who see these animals during the rest of the year. We all hear the coyotes yipping and howling at dusk. Deer, well, deer and turkeys are about as common as fleas on a dog these days: anyone who’s driven through the Park has likely seen either, or both, along the side of the road. Paddlers routinely report having watched otters at play. Squirrels abound in every yard and on every tree in the forest. The woods and wetlands are full of bird songs and the calls of frogs and insects. By late summer beaver activity is painfully obvious. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Holiday Tradition: The Annual Christmas Bird Count

The freshly fallen snow has gently coated (well at least for a few hours!) the Adirondack woodlands and fields around our neighborhood. Time to brush off the binoculars, grab the field guides, and find those mittens and wool tuque.

It’s Christmas Bird Count time! I thought I would give a few details about the history of this tradition dating back to 1900. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Favorite Bird: Red-Breasted Nuthatches

One day last year I was teaching a group of elementary school students the basics of bird watching and bird ID. It was June, the end of the school year, and the morning was mild. Armed with binoculars, we crept around the end of the building, and our silence was rewarded by a family of red-breasted nuthatches hopping headfirst down the side of a tree.

The newly-flighted juveniles were learning the ropes from Mom, who was instructing them in the fine art of foraging. As with many juvenile birds, the youngsters looked larger than the adult, courtesy of their still downy feathers. It was a great find for me (I’ve only once before watched an adult bird teaching its off-spring to find food), and even the kids seemed to appreciate this glimpse into the otherwise hidden lives of our resident birds. » Continue Reading.