Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Construction Damage: the Root of the Problem

rootsIf April showers bring May flowers, then May flowers bring backhoes. Sure it doesn’t rhyme, but as posies push up, construction crews and equipment also emerge, so maybe it’s true.

Those considering an outdoor project this season should be aware that for landscape trees, soil compaction or/ and disturbance is the root of all evil. I suppose chainsaws and forest fires aren’t exactly kind to trees, but when you spot a sickly tree in a park, yard, or on the roadside, root damage is the ultimate cause in nearly all cases.

It takes minutes to inflict lethal damage to a tree by adding soil, driving, or excavating within its root zone. But several years can pass before the tree gets the memo that it’s dead, as fatal root damage shows up over time.

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Fairy Lights and Princesses of Darkness

fireflyThey’re devilishly intriguing, but fireflies, or lightning bugs as they are sometimes called, are angelic to watch. I have yet to hear of a single person who isn’t fascinated by the show that these glow-in-the-dark beetles put on. In the right location it can seem like a swirling, blinking Milky Way has come to visit. They are able to generate their cold-light flash thanks to a pair of chemicals they produce called luciferin and luciferase. Aside from the obvious and unfortunate name association there, the two light-emitting molecules are exemplars of morality and goodness in the chemical world.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

Meaty Matters: Mushrooms that eat animals

oyster mushroomsThe more we learn about nature, the more distressingly clear it is that nature doesn’t pay that much attention to the stuff we’ve spent decades writing about it. Recently it was established that animals play for sheer enjoyment – it’s not an evolutionary ruse to get them to practice real life, as we asserted for hundreds of years. Real life includes jubilant fun for the majority of animal species.

We once held up “mate for life” critters like penguins and swans as exemplars of marital fidelity, only to later realize that while couples do stay together, you can bet the farm that in nesting season, both partners are slutting around like James Bond on ecstasy. And whitetail deer jumped out of the “herbivore” box we assigned them, caught on video with mouths full of carrion, or pulverizing mice to death for a snack. Despite lacking decent equipment to kill and consume prey, hippos, giraffes, and other “strict herbivores,” as we had described them, routinely break their vows of vegetarianism.

Fungi, whose job it is to decompose organic matter, also flunked biology class, because many common species hunt or trap live prey and then eat them. If I was vegan, I’d worry that chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), which has a texture and flavor similar to that of chicken, or beefsteak shelf fungi (Fistulina hepatica), with the look and feel of raw beef, might be gateway foods back to meatland. What would really blow my mind, though, would be deciding whether it was OK to eat mushrooms that thoughtlessly kill and consume animals.

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Threats to the Long-Lived Bald Eagle

Eagle Facts

The bald eagle is a long-lived bird, with a lifespan in the wild of more than 30 years. Bald eagles mate for life, returning to nest in the general area (within 250 miles) from which they fledged. Once a pair selects a nesting territory, they use it for the rest of their lives. However, bald eagles face threats to their long lifespan and nesting territories due to a wide range of human impacts including habitat loss and plastic pollution. Plastics can find their way into eagle nests in the form of nest building materials, can be ingested through scavenging or through their prey, or cause entanglement leading to injury or death.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

When it comes to baby animals, ‘if you care, leave them there’

fawnNew York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos reminds New Yorkers to appreciate wildlife from a safe distance and resist the urge to touch or pick up newborn fawns and other young wildlife. Human contact with wildlife can carry unintended consequences detrimental to the animals people intend to help.

“At this time of year, New Yorkers may encounter young or newborn wild animals in their yards and mistakenly think they need help to survive,” Seggos said. “While a baby rabbit or a recently fledged bird might appear abandoned, a parent is likely nearby, trying to remain out of view. Please do not touch a wild baby animal; instead, enjoy encounters with wildlife from a distance. Remember-if you care, leave it there.”

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Gypsy moths: The destroyers

Gypsy Moth CaterpillarLike a B-grade horror film sequel, the aliens have awakened once again. Perhaps we felt a glimmer of hope at the end of the 2020 version when an entire generation of ruthless monsters died off in droves and left us in peace. But remember that closing shot of their disgusting, furry egg-mass blobs cleverly hidden out of sight? Well they’re hatching now.

If you missed last year’s gypsy moth performance, you have a better chance of catching it this season. Unfortunately. Based on egg-mass sampling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that areas in central and western NYS which saw moderate to severe gypsy moth outbreaks last year can expect heavy damage this year. NYSDEC’s gypsy moth page can be found here.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Long eared owls always look surprised

Long Ear OwlOwls are birds of prey of the order Strigiformes, which are divided into two main families. Strigidae has 220 wide ranging species, for example round faced owls filling all possible sizes between the great horned owl and the elf owl. Tytonidae has 20 species, distributed worldwide everywhere but the polar regions and northern regions from Canada through eastern Russia, for example, heart faced owls like the barn owl.

Eight owls are found in the Adirondacks: Snowy owl seasonally, Great Horned owl, Barred owl, Long eared owl, Short eared owl, Barn owl, Eastern screech owl and Northern saw whet owl, all year-round residents.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Saw whet owls: A shrew’s nightmare

Saw whet owls appear nearly as strange as their name sounds. At seven to nine inches long, weighing in at two to six ounces, with a stubby wingspan of sixteen to nineteen inches, saw whets are the smallest owl in the Adirondacks, though surprisingly not the smallest in the world, coming in at twice the weight of the insect eating elf owls of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. As with other raptors, female saw whets are larger than males.

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Monday, April 26, 2021

Hey bugs! Fear This!

colorado potato beetleNo offense, but Franklin D. Roosevelt should maybe bug off with his assertion that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” because fear is good for gardeners and farmers.

According to entomologists Nicholas Aflitto and Jennifer Thaler of the Cornell University-based New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSPIM), it can be harnessed as a weapon against destructive pests. Turns out it’s possible to scare harmful insects out of gardens and crop fields.

Ascribing human feelings to bugs may be a stretch, but if something makes the critters run away and hide, it seems fair, not to mention simple, to call that fear instead of “a consistent generalized avoidance response in reaction to certain stimuli” or some such thing. After all, it took biologists a few hundred years to establish that various animals from elephants to birds and turtles really and truly play, and for no other reason than to have fun. Perhaps one day we’ll figure out that invertebrates have emotional lives, too. I suppose that might raise ethical issues around pest control, but let’s not go there just yet.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Brood X – The Emergence Has Begun 

molting cicadaBrood X is coming. In fact, by many accounts the invasion has already begun. The emergence of Magicicada septendecim; a species of 17-year periodical cicadas; the largest periodical emergence of insects on Earth.

    Periodical cicadas are large, fat, dark brown, flying insects averaging about 1 1/2 inches in length, with a 3 inch wingspan. Pigmented veins form a noticeable ‘W’ on the outer end of their front wings. Their eyes are bright red.

    Different broods of periodical cicadas emerge at different intervals. Some appear annually, some at 2 and 4 year cycles, others every 13 or every 17 years. According to Jody L. Gangloff-Kaufmann, a Cornell Entomologist working in community (non-agricultural) integrated pest management (IPM), Brood X (broods are labeled with Roman numerals), sometimes referred to as the Great Eastern Brood, “is one of 15 broods of periodical cicadas that appear regularly throughout the eastern United States.” Each one is distinctly different.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Samurais and Stinkers

Adult male stink bugIn general I’m rather positive about immigrants, but not the six-legged kind. Many of the insects which have made themselves at home here over the past few decades show up with interesting and colorful names like emerald ash borer, velvet longhorned beetle, and spotted lantern fly. Amusing monikers or not, this is a ménagerie of mischief-makers, and one of the more recent arrivals is quite a foul character indeed.

Native to eastern Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), or BMSB to its pals, made its North American debut near Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. The BMSB sucks the life out of many fruits and vegetables with a stout, straw-like rostrum or beak, leading to heartbreak for home gardeners and severe economic losses for commercial growers. Not only is the BMSB hard to control with pesticides, it has no effective enemies here, and as a result its populations can build up rapidly under the right conditions.

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Barn Owls: The Ghostly Rodent Destroyer

Barn OwlHow do you describe Barn Owls? To begin with, what birds are stranger than owls? The oddly inelegant shape, the seemingly humorless and serious demeanor, the hostile and insistent beak snapping, the strength all out of proportion to their sizes?

And then there is the barn owl, with that heart shaped, almost alien, face, the head wagging when surprised or threatened, the long, gawky legs, and that arrestingly loud, drawn out and raspy hiss, like a cobra with a microphone.

Barn owls are a weird and fascinating species, even within the ghostliest of raptor orders, Strigiformes. The Martians have landed, and they have come for your rodents! In an interesting observation, the Carolina Raptor Center, speculating on the origin of ghosts and goblins in people’s minds, and mindful of the link between old barns, church steeples and agricultural fields, in other words, the proximity of villages to barn owl nesting sites, wonder whether the ghostly appearance, odd hisses, screeches and screams of the barn owl, helped foster such nightmares.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Be on the Lookout for Amphibians Crossing the Road

wood frogWith the arrival of spring temperatures, amphibians have begun their annual migrations to woodland pools to breed. Often, they must cross roads to reach these pools. In New York, this migration usually occurs on rainy nights in late March and early April, when the night air temperature is above 40F. When these conditions exist there can be explosive, “big night” migrations, with hundreds of amphibians on the move. Volunteers can help document these locations and help amphibians like wood frogs, spotted salamanders, American toads, or spring peepers safely cross the road. Drivers on New York roads are encouraged to proceed with caution or avoid travel on the first warm, rainy evenings of the season. Amphibians come out after nightfall and are slow-moving; mortality can be high even on low-traffic roads.

Photo of wood frog by Laura Heady.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Who cooks for you, barred owl?

barred owlThere are many species of owls in the Adirondacks, with barred owls being the most common, and the most frequently seen.

We mainly hear owls calling between Autumn and early Spring. Great Horned Owls nest earlier than other owls, and their deep staccato HOO-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO call, sounding most like the stereotyped call we associate with owls generally, is resonant and vaguely threatening.

The Long-eared owl, which resembles a smaller, perpetually startled and skinny great horned, has a call which reminds you more of song bird calls, stretched out with longer pauses between notes, which may be single syllable “ooo” or raspier pleas, sounding almost cat like. Screech owl calls are shrill and loud, sharp and abrupt. If you ever watched the comedy “My Cousin Vinny”, there is a funny scene where the Joe Pesci character, surprised by a screech owl’s scream in the dead of night, runs out of the cabin firing a pistol, followed by a close up of the screech owl. Tiny saw whet owls make a “toot-toot” call, like a small truck backing up. 

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Native bees make due with honeydew

aphid honeydewMarch 21st marked the first day of spring and here in the mountains the warm early spring temperatures have begun to prompt the native bees to wake from their hibernation.  Like many creatures, most native bees store up food during the warm months in preparation for a cold long winter.

The first thing waking bees do is perform a cleansing flight, they expel any excrement that has accumulated during their winter’s rest.

The next thing they do is search for food.  Its not hard to see that there are no trees and flowers in bloom as the snow begins to melt and once again bare ground is exposed.

So what do these amazing little creatures do to survive until blossoms appear?  Unlike colony-building honeybees, solitary bees don’t stockpile honey for times when blossoms are scarce.

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