There is a tiny bird that lives in the Adirondacks whose body weight equals that of two pennies. Its overall size in not that much bigger than a hummingbird, and it does not migrate south to escape the freezing temperatures of the North Country. I often think of these birds as the late afternoon sun dips behind the mountains and the clear star-lit skies suck back up all the warm air that felt so good during the sunny day. I think of what it must take for this bird to survive just one night at 24 below zero Fahrenheit. » Continue Reading.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs needs only one look at a running turkey to have a change of heart. This winter a female turkey has made my back yard a daily stop in her travels, and let me tell you: there are few things in life so prehistoric-looking than a turkey going full tilt trying to escape your camera lens.
The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one of two species of turkeys in the world. The other is a denizen of Central America and as such is of little importance to us here in the Adirondacks. No, we are concerned with our own native bird, the one of such character and pride that Ben Franklin thought it should be the symbol of our country.
When Europeans first descended upon the eastern shores of North America, turkeys ruled the roost, so to speak. Millions of them populated the woodlands, providing food for man and beast alike. But, as is the habit of mankind, forests were cut and turkeys were eaten. As early as 1672 keen observers of nature were already remarking that turkey populations were not what they once had been. In 1844, the last wild turkey in New York was reported in the extreme southwestern part of the state; after that, they were gone.
For years nothing was done to rectify the state of things, turkey-wise. By the turn of the century (c. 1900), approximately 75% of New York had been cleared, agriculture and development dominating where once forests grew. Without healthy forests, turkeys could not survive (hard mast, such as acorns and beechnuts, is a major part of their diet). As the century plodded along, however, many farmers left home, moving to the cities where jobs were more likely to be had. Old farmland began to revert to forests, and slowly turkeys started to come back, making their way northward from Pennsylvania. By the 1940s, the southwestern part of the state was once more populated with these large bronze birds.
To help things along, New York State converted a central New York pheasant hatchery into a turkey hatchery in 1952. Over the next several years, thousands of turkeys were released into the wild. Sadly, this operation was doomed to failure. Speculation was that the released birds were too tame and therefore lacked the brains to escape (or fight) predators. It was also thought that their natural reproduction was too low to sustain a viable population. So the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) went to Plan B: capture wild turkeys and relocate them.
This new plan began in 1959 and saw New York’s wild turkey population successfully soar from about 2000 birds to over 65,000 by 1990. The relocation program was so successful that the DEC started shipping birds to neighboring states to help them reestablish their own dwindling populations.
I saw my first wild turkey in the early ‘80s out at Letchworth State Park. There were two or three of them, and they flew up into a tree along the edge of a small ravine. Prior to this I never would’ve guessed that turkeys could fly. Three years later, a friend of mine shot a turkey and decided we should give it to my mother for Mother’s Day; so he and I and all my roommates drove to my parents’ house with the turkey in tow. It barely fit in the oven, but it was a mighty tasty bird. Ten years later, turkeys were all over the farm fields back home: whole herds of them marching along the rows of cut corn. (And yes, I use the word “herd” intentionally, for when they are walking along the ground en masse, they are definitely a herd.)
Back in the ‘80s it was believed by biologists that turkeys wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh winters the Adirondacks can dish out. Imagine their surprise when turkeys not only moved into the mountains, but thrived! Hardly a week goes by all year that I don’t see a turkey or two, or ten. Sometimes they lurk along the roadsides, picking up grit or maybe hunting insects; other times they are strutting across a neighbor’s yard.
A couple years ago, I came across a hen and her poults hiding in the shrubbery between the second and fourth holes on the local golf course. I was walking the dog, and of course he started barking, so the hen took off, dashing away into the trees with most of her progeny in hot pursuit. Two, however, were left behind. I sat the dog down and we waited. And waited. One of the poults peeped and trotted off after the long-gone parent, but the other remained behind, peeping its distress. Even though I knew better, the pitiful cries got to me and I finally decided to go “rescue” the thing. My plan was to carry it to the patch of woods in which its mother had disappeared and set it down where she could get to it without having to come near me and the dog. Big mistake. No sooner had I picked up the ungrateful bird then it let out a squawking and wailing that brought the mother running and flapping from the woods. A velociraptor had nothing on her. Fearing for my safety (I’ve heard tales of the damage a turkey can do with its spurs), I dropped the poult, snagged the dog’s leash, and we high-tailed it out of there. That was the last time I tried to help a “stranded” wildlife baby.
And just in case you needed further convincing that turkeys are dinosaurs in disguise, watch a herd of them come trotting across a lawn or field when the early morning fog is lying close to the ground. All you need is to cue up the music and you are staring at a living tableau from Jurassic Park. Add a rock wall for them to jump on, and the scene is complete.
It was -7 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, but I don’t think the local turkeys were much fazed by this. Indeed, I think they are here to stay, and that’s a nice thing, for every patch of wilderness should have its resident dinosaurs, and for us the wild turkey fills the bill nicely.
One thing for sure, this list is not complete. There are perhaps thirty important people who didn’t make this short list. Suggestions from readers on the original post seeking nominations offers a much more complete list of those influential in the Adirondacks, but I said ten, and so here is ten. I’ve listed them roughly chronologically.
Something I found interesting: five of these men (yeah, they’re all men) were born in the eighteen years between 1840 and 1858—an Adirondack Greatest Generation? » Continue Reading.
Several years ago, while living in an old farm house in rural central New York, I woke one morning to a strange sound. It was somewhere between a cough and a bark, and it was coming from in front of the house. I crept through the bedrooms upstairs and peered out the window. To my surprise, I saw a red fox skulking around the sugar maples, apparently calling for its mate. Fast forward to about four years ago when someone sent in a recording to NCPR asking if anyone knew what the mysterious sound was. Although it had been several years, I recognized it immediately: the coughing bark of a red fox. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget it.
The Adirondack Mountains are home to two species of fox: the red (Vulpes vulpes) and the grey (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Both are small members of the dog family, and both, especially the grey, are considered to be cat-like canines. Their small size, their eyes with vertically contracting pupils, and the grey’s ability to climb trees certainly make them seem more like cats than dogs, yet there they sit on the taxonomic tree next to Fido, Wiley and The Wolf. » Continue Reading.
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? » Continue Reading.
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.