Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Almanack Welcomes Birding Contributor Brian McAllister

Adirondack Almanack is delighted to announce that Brian McAllister is joining the site as resident bird columnist. Brian is a naturalist, educator and one of the Adirondack Park’s most dedicated birdwatchers. His interest in all things avian often takes him beyond the Blue Line (two trips to Cape May this fall alone).

Starting tomorrow, Brian will post birding news every other Thursday at noon. We feel very lucky to know him and to introduce him to Almanack readers.

In his professional life Brian has taught ornithology lab and how to interpret habitats at Paul Smith’s College. The Saranac Lake resident has been involved for six years in an Adirondack boreal bird survey for Wildlife Conservation Society. He also served as a natural history consultant to the Wild Center, a naturalist with the Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Centers and the Adirondack Mountain Club, as well as field assistant with the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program. He helped the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society design a natural history education program and is one of the founders of the Great Adirondack Birding Celebration.

Brian is a contributor to the Adirondack Natural History blog and has his own site, Adirondacks Naturally.

He’s also just the best guy to take a walk in the woods with. He notices things most of us don’t, knows what they are and is able to open your eyes and ears to them in a way that never leaves you. We welcome him to the Almanack.

Photograph: Brian McAllister on Ampersand Mountain


Sunday, September 20, 2009

DEC Announces Pheasant Stocking Locations

In time for the opening of Pheasant Season October 1, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) will be stocking easily accessible areas where upland game bird hunting opportunities are generally limited. 2,500 pheasants will be distributed at locations in six counties. A second stocking will occur later this season.

Since some of the locations are on private land where the public is allowed to hunt, DEC asks hunters to maintain cooperative relationships with landowners by keeping hunting groups small, seeking permission, avoiding driving through fields or blocking roads or driveways, and staying in areas where public hunting is allowed.

For the third consecutive year DEC is providing a Youth Pheasant Hunting Weekend on September 26-27 to provide junior hunters (12-15 years old) an opportunity to hunt pheasant the weekend before to the regular season begins.

Listed below are pheasant stocking locations by county in DEC’s Region 5. “YH” indicates a site stocked prior to the youth hunt weekend and “RS” indicates a site stock prior to and during the regular season.

Clinton County

* North of Brand Hollow Road, west of Rt. 22B in the Town of Schuyler Falls (RS only)
* Lake Alice Wildlife Management Area in the Town of Chazy (YH & RS)
* NOTE: Monty Bay Wildlife Management Area will not be stocked due to better pheasant habitat at Lake Alice.

Essex County

* Near the junction of Lake Shore Road & Clark Road on state land in the Town of Westport (YH & RS)

Franklin County

* North of Rt. 11 between Brockway Road & Garvin Road in the Town of Bangor (RS only)
* Howard Road (also known as the Griffin Road) in the Town of Fort Covington (RS only)

Fulton County

* Rt. 140 west of the Village of Ephratah in the Town of Ephratah (RS only)
* Rt. 67 Ephratah Rod and Gun Club in the Town of Ephratah (RS only)

Saratoga County

* Daketown State Forest in the Town of Greenfield (YH & RS)

Washington County

* Carter’s Pond Wildlife Management Area in the Town of Greenwich (YH & RS)
* Eldridge Lane in the Town of Hartford (RS only)
* South of the Village of Whitehall between County Rt. 12 and the barge canal and along Greenmount Road in the Town of Whitehall (RS only)
* Eldridge Swamp State Forest in the Town of Jackson (YH & RS) – note that Eldridge Swamp is often wet, knee boots are recommended.

For further information on pheasant hunting and release sites contact the DEC Region Wildlife offices at 518-897-1291 (Ray Brook) or 518-623-1240 (Warrensburg) or visit the DEC web site at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/9349.html for more information on pheasant hunting.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dealing with Frost in the Adirondacks

Last night the Weather Gurus predicted a low of 25 degrees Fahrenheit for Newcomb. Brrr. In anyone’s book, that is chilly. Thanks to a wet growing season, followed by a very dry September, I find that my garden has needed very little in the way of frost protection. With the exception of a couple pumpkins, this year’s garden is unconcerned with crisp weather.

But perhaps your garden is a different story. Are you one of the lucky few who have tomatoes? Perhaps you have squash and corn still ripening. Or maybe you put in some late season veg, like kale or other greens. If you fit into this category, then you’ll want to be alert for freezing forecasts and ready to ward off Jack Frost.

Some veg are hardy and can take the cold. In fact, there are veg that improve with cooler temps, like carrots. Many a gardener has claimed that carrots only get sweeter with the cold. I’m testing this theory this year by leaving most of my carrots in the ground as late as possible. But other veg are more tender and in need of some TLC if they are to survive.

Over the last couple of years I’ve invested in floating row covers. These fibrous white sheets come in varying thicknesses depending on the amount of protection you desire. The thicker the cloth (heavier the weight), the more protection. This is beneficial for frost protection. Row covers also reduce light transmission, so in the springtime lighter weight material might be preferable so that the plants can get enough light to sprout and grow.

A cheaper alternative to agricultural row covers is bed sheets. Sheets, towels and blankets sprout in many a garden with fall rolls around. Like row covers, they are draped over plants and pots, keeping the frost from killing tender leaves and fruits. A key to remember here is that you don’t want your cover to touch the plants. The cover is acting like a roof and walls, keeping the warmer air of the day trapped around your plants, and keeping the cold air of night away. If the cold air can get under your blankets, or if your sheet is touching the plant beneath it, the cold can still cause damage.

Usually, though, I find that by the time killing frosts arrive, the thrill of the garden has faded somewhat. The novelty of picking beans and making tomatoe sauce has worn thin. I go out and drape tender plants with sheets, row covers, blankets, using clothespins to hold them all together, but if the frost sneaks in and kills the beans and tomatoes, I find I can get over it pretty quickly. Usually it’s the still unripe winter squash and pumpkins that that merit the most attention.

You could go the route of The Fan. The idea here is that the fan draws the warm air up from the ground and sends it out over your plants, displacing the colder night air. Or you could try misting your plants before night settles. There’s a claim that misted plants will develop an outer layer of ice crystals that will protect the rest of the plant from damage. Hm. Then there are smudge pots. These essentially create localized smog, which traps heat and keeps the plants from freezing.

If you have only a few plants that need protection, there are some nifty options out there that you can try. One is called a water wall. This plastic device is essentially a plastic cylinder that you place around your plant. The cylinder is made of pockets/tubes that you fill with water. During the day the water absorbs heat, which at night is released slowly, keeping the plant within its embrace nice and warm. At about $12 a pop, this can be expensive if you’ve got, oh, say 90 tomato plants to protect.

We used a similar but much cheaper option in the greenhouse where I used to work in New Jersey. We brought in our empty milk jugs and filled them with water. During the day the heat of the greenhouse warmed them up, and at night they released that heat, keeping the inside temps relatively steady as the outside temps fell. I’m sure it would work just as well in a garden, especially if you covered the plants and sun-warmed jugs with a sheet.

Straw bales can also provide your garden with some protection. Stacking up bales around your sensitive plants will block the outside air. Toss a blanket, or old window, or a frame covered with plastic, across the top and you have a temporary greenhouse (or cold frame) that will serve you well.

Gardening in the Adirondacks can be tricky even in a good year. With frost possible in June and August, we are left with only a few short weeks to breathe easily in the belief that our plants are safe. But with some careful planning (the selection of seeds and plants, the layout of the garden, the construction of cold frames, a collection of plant protectors), we can extend our season and eke a few more days or weeks out of our harvest. And if you really want to get into it, you can build a greenhouse, or a high tunnel system, that will permit you to have harvests all year ’round…but that’s another story.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hornets or Wasps: Learning to tell the Difference

When I came back from my vacation in early August, we had an impressive addition to the Visitor Center’s building: a large hornet nest. Apparently it was already under construction back in early July, but it was small enough then that it escaped my notice. But by the second week of August it was over a foot long, and it has continued to grow since then.

Many visitors have commented on the impressiveness of this nest. As one walks down our driveway to the building, it is often the first thing one sees. For a while, it even looked like a sculpted face of a woman, created by some long ago master of the marble form. Today it looks more like the face a man, with a big bulbous nose and a serious frown. Most visitors call it a paper wasp nest, and that is not surprising, since paper wasps also create papery nests on buildings. But this nest was made by bald-faced hornets, and I’ll share with you some of the differences between these insects.

First off, paper wasps, yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets are all technically wasps, and they are all in the same family: Vespidae. Members of this family are distinguished from other wasp families by the way their wings are held when at rest: folded and slightly to the side. They all have similar life cycles. The fertilized queen overwinters and come spring she sets out to build a small nest from masticated wood fibers. After a few cells are built, she lays her eggs inside. The larvae hatch, the queen feeds them, and when they pupate, the queen has a few helpers, all of which are sterile females. More cells are built by the queen and her staff, and the queen lays more eggs. This continues throughout the summer. As the season winds down, the queen lays a final batch of eggs that develop into males and non-sterile females. The old queen and her workers die off, the new queens mate with the males, the males die and the now-fertilized queens seek shelter for the winter and await spring.

The major differences that you and I will notice arise in the structure of the nests. Paper wasp nests are a series of cells that are exposed to the elements. Picture a papery honeycombed structure – that’s about it. The queen makes it by chewing up bits of wood and other fibers and forming them into cells. Hornets build cells, too, but their cells are covered with an external wall – the upside-down tear-shaped papery nest that we see in trees and under our eves. Yellow jackets build their nests underground, and like their cousins the hornets, they surround the cells with papery walls.

Most of these insects are black with yellow stripes, but the nest at the VIC was made by bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculate. These insects are distinctive because they are black and white. If you look closely, you will note that the face of each of these hornets is also white, hence the name. “Bald” does not mean “hairless.” Well, it does today, but the original word was “probably from Celt. bal ‘white patch, blaze’ especially on the head of a horse or other animal,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. So, “bald eagle” means white eagle, “bald-faced hornet” means white-faced hornet and so on.

Bald-faced hornets and yellow jackets are notorious for their aggressive nature. Like many people, they have a large personal space (around the nest), and if you enter it, be prepared for retaliatory actions. If you see these insects just flying around in gentle weaving patterns, they are probably foraging and not interested in you. In fact, bald-faced hornets are actually considered to be rather shy when not defending the nest. If, however, they are flying directly at you, and at great speed, then you know they mean business, and it is time to make yourself scarce. Good luck.

As the chilly nights of autumn approach, activity slows down at wasp nests. Nests built in or near the ground often become food for other animals, like raccoons and bears. Once temperatures have hovered around freezing for several days and nights, it is likely that any remaining insects inside have perished. Now it is safe to remove the nest, and even to take a look inside. Old wasp nests make interesting decorations in houses, and great educational tools, espcially for children.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Book: Adirondack Wildflower Portraits

A post script to our series on wildflower bloom dates: we’ve received a copy of a new book by Chestertown-based photographer Curtiss M. Austin called Adirondack Wildflower Portraits. Last year, over the course of a single spring-to-fall season, he photographed flowers within a mile of his home and organized 60 of them chronologically, by the date he found them in bloom.

The book is more album and almanac than field guide, though Austin provides Latin names and a few facts about each species. It won’t help you key out a flower but it might surprise you. The photographer pays as much attention to the diminutive and ignored blooms of plants like common mullein, cow vetch and curly dock as he does to blue flag irises and day lilies. “Many wildflowers are very small, but close-up they are just as interesting and beautiful as larger flowers,” he writes.

The 130-page 8″ x 8″ paperback will be available soon at Amazon.com and at Austin’s website for $19.95.

Photograph of crooked-stemmed aster taken September 22, 2008 by Curtiss M. Austin, from Adirondack Wildflower Portraits


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Leatherleaf – An Adirondack Heath

The other day I was paddling a peaceful lake with a friend, poking around a pocket wetland along one of its shores, when I came across a lone leatherleaf plant (Chamaedaphne calyculata). It stood out for two reasons: one, it was all by itself, and two, it was knee deep in water.

Leatherleaf, also known as cassandra, or dwarf cassandra, is a classical denizen of bogs, although it is often also found on the edges of wetlands, where the water from a pond or lake starts to turn acidic.

Typically, leatherleaf moves into bogs after sphagnum mosses are established, making it an early pioneer of these wonderful wetlands. One of its functions is to extend the edge of the peat mat, creating more bog habitat as it goes, thereby giving other plants a toehold in the soggy environment. Because it reproduces by sending out new sprouts from specialized roots and branches (as well as by seeds), leatherleaf forms dense colonies of clones, sometimes as dense as 200 stems in a single square meter of space. If you thought witchhobble could trip you up, you should try pressing through a stand of leatherleaf!

In the broadest sense of the term, leatherleaf is an evergreen shrub. Some of its leaves fall off in autumn, but many of them persist for an additional year. None remain on the plant for a second winter. But what really stands out about the leaves is their variation. On most of the plant, the leaves are tough, leathery, and olive-drab, and they have an almost vertical orientation on the plant’s stems and branches. But if you look at the top of an upright stem, a rather droopy horizontal twig arises with much smaller leaves. This stem produces the flowers and fruits of the year. Come fall, the leaves drop, the fruits are eaten, and the stem shrivels up and dies. Right now you can go out and find leatherleaf bedecked with ripening berries on its many horizontal twigs.

In the spring, you will find leatherleaf in its other beautiful form: hung with many delicate white bells along its horizontal branches. If you are lucky, you may see its chief pollinator, the bumblebee, fumbling around each dangling flower.

As the season progresses through summer, other insects visit this plant, although few are considered pests. Look for the foamy blobs of heath spittlebugs, which, like other spittlebugs, have whipped the sap of the plant into a protective frothy coat. You might also find leafhoppers, leaf miners, or even cyphon marsh beetles. This time of year it is easy to find copious spider webs tangling the upper branches; they make for some great early morning photography. The dense stems provide shelter for larger wildlife as well, such as nesting ducks.

Leatherleaf is such an unassuming plant, yet for grouse within its range its berries and buds are an important food source. White-tailed deer and snowshoe hares are also dependent on leatherleaf for food in winter, the former eating the twigs and leaves, the latter the twigs and bark. Not to be outdone by wildlife, humans have also made use of leatherleaf, both as a medicine (febrifuge and topical anti-inflammatory) and as a beverage.

To see leatherleaf, or other equally fascinating bog plants, hie thee to thy nearest wetland. If you are timid about getting your feet wet, or if you are concerned about damaging the fragile wetland ecosystem, you can visit wetlands at both Visitor Interpretive Centers (located in Newcomb and Paul Smiths), where wooden boardwalks will take you right up to many wetland plants safely and dryly.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wild Center Program, Workshop Feature Wildlife Photography

Author and wildlife photographer Eric Dresser will present a wildlife photography program and workshop at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake on September 26th. From 11:00 am – 12:00 pm Dresser will offer Wild About the Adirondacks, a program of photos of Adirondack wildlife throughout the seasons. During the presentation, which is being offered in partnership with The Adirondack Photography Institute, Dresser will discuss his photography techniques. The program will run for about an hour and is free for members or with admission.

During a second event later that day (1-5 pm) Dresser will lead a Wild About the Adirondacks Photography Workshop and Tour from 1-5 pm, also at The Wild Center. This workshop will offer photography techniques to help participants capture unique moments through outdoor wildlife photography and indoors photography utilizing the museum’s exhibits. The field photography part of the program will provide a special focus on equipment. According to the Wild Center’s spokesperson “Eric enjoys working with all levels of photographers however having some familiarity with camera equipment as well as basic photo techniques will make the workshop more enjoyable.”

A biography of Dresser provided by the Wild Center notes that:

Eric Dresser is an internationally published photographer who specializes in wildlife and landscape photography from the northeastern United States and Canada. His credits include Adirondack Life Magazine, National Wildlife Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, L.L. Bean Catalogues and many more. Eric is also an instructor for the Adirondack Photography Institute. His first book “Adirondack Wildlife” will be available in the 2009. With over 35 years of experience in the field, Eric has developed many strategies for getting up close and personal with his wildlife subjects. His love and passion for our natural world can be seen in his photographs.

The Wild about the Adirondacks workshop cost $63.00 for Wild Center members ($70.00 for non-members). To register (which is both required and limited) for the workshop contact Sally Gross at 518-359-7800 x 116 or email sgross@wildcenter.org

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Take A Child Outside Week Events At The Wild Center

According to a recent announcement, The Wild Center‘s upcoming series of events will help “break down the modern obstacles that keep children from discovering the natural world.” Their Center’s stated goal is to help children across the Adirondacks develop a better understanding and appreciation of the environment in which they live. To those end’s the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks will will host Take A Child Outside Week events from September 26th through October 2nd. On Saturday, September 26th and Sunday, September 27th, the Wild Center will host naturalists for three family activities each day. Throughout the week, Monday, September 28th through Friday, October 2nd there will be activities for kids and families after school from 3:30PM – 4:30 PM. These programs are most appropriate for ages 7-12 yrs. No registration necessary. All programs are free for members or with paid admission.

Here is the complete list of the week’s events from the Wild Center:

SATURDAY, September 26th:

11:00 a.m. Discovering Pondlife: Get your feet wet sifting for aquatic invertebrates in Frog Pond. Learn how to ID the smallest pond life and even check out some of the things you find in the pond under a microscope.

1:00 p.m. Sensory Walk: Explore the pond with a Naturalist and learn how you can use your senses to explore the natural world around you.

2:30 p.m. Fly Fishing: Learn to fly fish with Northern New York Trout Unlimited using yarn casting poles in the tent. Then move out onto Greenleaf Pond with the professionals and catch (and release) fish from pond.

SUNDAY, September 27th:

11:00 a.m. Pond Life: Explore Greenleaf Pond with a naturalist and see all kinds of pond life. Find frogs and turtles and learn how to ID them.

1:00 p.m. Sensory Walk: Take a walk around the pond with a Naturalist and learn how you can use all your senses to explore the natural world around you.

2:30 p.m. Nature Photography: Bring a Digital Camera or borrow one of the Museum’s and take a walk down the Museum trail to take photographs of the sights you see. Then pick your favorite and print it out to take home.

After School Activities

3:30pm – 4:30pm all week – Kids and families, join us afterschool for a Green Hour of fun outdoor activities including nature photography, sensory walks, getting lost and found, fort building and discovering what lies beneath Greenleaf Pond. No registration required.

MONDAY, September 28th: Nature Photography: Grab your digital camera and join a naturalist for and outdoor activity called “Camera” then take a hike down the trail and take photographs of the sights you see. Then pick your favorite and print it out to take home.

TUESDAY, September 29th: Nature Play: Take a walk down the trail with a naturalist and play some outdoor activities. Search or hidden objects, use your nose to find similar scents and other activities along the Museum Trail.

WEDNESDAY, September 30th: Pondlife Discovery: Walk around the pond and search for pond life, learn how you can ID turtles and frogs, then sift for aquatic invertebrates in Frog Pond. Come prepared to step into the water and maybe get your pants a little dirty.

THURSDAY, October 1st: Sensory Walk: Come take a walk with a naturalist and learn about your 5 senses and how different animal uses their senses.

FRIDAY, October 2nd: Fort Building: Take an off-trail hike into the Museum property and build shelters with only what nature supplies.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Adirondack Sawyers: Our Longhorn Beetle

A couple years ago I went out with a local biologist to listen for whippoorwills as part of a census that was being conducted in the Adirondacks. We were assigned some back roads around Bolton, and we had to drive them after sunset. Several times we would stop, get out of the vehicle, and listen for the tell-tale “whip-poor-will” call.

One of our stops found us surrounded by trees in the middle of nowhere (a real backwoods road). It was dark, and it could’ve been creepy, in that way that only dark, strange woods can be at night. As we stood there listening to the silence, we started to hear a strange sound. It’s hard to describe, but overall it could be likened to a quiet, slow sawing sound – like that of a bowsaw being drawn through wood on short strokes. Fortunately, both of us were prepared, for we both have degrees in forest biology. If we hadn’t, this sound might’ve freaked us out. But thanks to our education and a love of the woods, we were pretty confident that what we heard was the chewing sound of a sawyer beetle.

Sawyer beetles are also known as longhorn beetles, and the most common one in the northeastern United States is the whitespotted sawyer (Monochamus scutellatus). This native beetle, recognized by its very long antennae (longer on males than females) and the white spot “between its shoulder blades” (technically at the top of the elytra, or wing covers), makes its living by chewing the bark on the underside of twigs of the balsam fir, assorted spruces, and white pine. This behavior results in flagging: dead twigs, readily noticeable by their reddish color. To some, this damage is merely cosmetic. In fact, many foresters only consider the insect to be a secondary pest, for it often will turn up in trees that are already dead or dying.

The adult female looks for ideal sites for egg-laying: crevices in the bark of weak or recently killed (or cut) trees. After hatching, the larvae start chewing their way into the tree. The youngest instars hang out beneath the bark, while the older ones make their way into the wood, tunnelling towards the heart of the tree. As pupation approaches, the larva turns a 180 and heads back towards the surface. The opening to the world beyond is blocked up with a plug made of wood chips, behind which the larvae pupates. As an adult it emerges from its woody tomb and goes in search of a mate, the cycle beginning once again.

If you want to avoid sawyer beetles on your property, you need to manage the dead and dying timber. Additionally, if you have cut logs lying around, remove the bark and set them in the sun. This will make them less appealing to females looking for egg-laying sites.

The whitespotted sawyer should not be confused with the Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis), an invasive that is making its way northward, leaving a trail of dead trees in its wake. So far, this beetle has not gotten into the Adirondacks, but that could be only a matter of time. If you find longhorned beetles around your property, learn to identify them; there are only a handful of species in our area and being able to ID them could help save our forests from unwelcome invaders.

By the way, we never did hear any whippoorwills.


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Phantom of the Adirondacks

“You have to get your camera and get a picture of this really cool bug!” exclaimed my coworker breathlessly. So I grabbed the camera and went outside. The insect in question, as soon as I had it in my sights, promptly took off and vanished. After much skulking around, I was finally able to capture its image. “I think it’s some kind of cranefly,” I said, based on the long skinny legs and the overall body shape. But, not being an entomologist, I wasn’t about to stake my reputation on it, so I sent the image off to BugGuide.net for confirmation.

Gosh, I love it when I’m right. It turns out this beautiful insect is a Phantom Cranefly (Bittacomorpha clavipes). It gets its name from its cryptic coloration. I know what you’re thinking: black and white is hardly cryptic. Why, the insect stands out like a sore thumb. AH, but when the insect flies into the shade, the body seems to vanish, phantom-like, with only the white bars remaining visible. This explains why I had so much difficulty tracking it every time it took off.

It turns out, however, that this delicate insect has an even more interesting bit of physiology than its coloration. The part of the legs that we might liken to ankles is specially modified. Up close, these sections are swollen and concave in shape. When the insect flies, it spreads its legs out and the wind catches the “ankles”, pushing the insect along like a little kite.

The Phantom Cranefly begins its life when the female lays her eggs, singly or in small clusters, along the edge of water. Soon the larvae emerge and begin a life of scavenging organic matter in the shallow water. The strange larva is easy to recognize by its “tail,” which is, in fact, the larva’s breathing tube. Just like a snorkle, this apparatus is lifted to the water’s surface, emerges long enough for the insect to inhale, and then down it goes again to continue scavenging. When the larva is ready to pupate, it crawls out of the water and digs into moist soil. There, beneath the ground, it goes through The Change and becomes an adult. The adults exist for one purpose only: to breed and pass on their genes. As such, they do not eat (or if they do, it is very little and no scientist has discovered what it is).

It’s really a rather uneventful life, so perhaps the boredom is broken up by the flashy colors and nifty body ornamentation. At the very least, these insects are attractive to insect enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. So keep your eyes peeled, and if you see a small wispy black and white kite drift by, take another look. It might just be the Phantom of the Adirondacks.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

In The Battle Between Feral Cats And Wildlife, The Cats Win

Recently a woman dropped off an injured robin at our front desk for the local wildlife rehabilitator to pick up. It was in a roomy box and I simply set it aside until the rehabber came, knowing the animal was already under stress and didn’t need me peeking in at it. A couple days ago I asked the rehabber how the bird was doing.

“It was a cat attack,” she said. “It was badly injured – broken wing, head and neck injuries – it didn’t survive.”

I expressed my condolences, but instead of wanting sympathy, she exclaimed “People shouldn’t let their cats outside! We need to tell them this!” So here I am, passing the word along.

Cats are natural predators, and birds, as well as mice, squirrels, snakes, baby rabbits, and insects, are on the menu. We may not think about it much if Fluffy brings home a sparrow once a year, and if it was only that, it might not seem so bad.

But, coincidentally, Audubon Magazine just came out with an article by Ted Williams about this very topic and the statistics are staggering! In one study in rural Wisconsin it was determined that there are at least 1.4 million cats running loose in the wilds of that state, and on average they are each eating about six birds a year. If you do the math, that comes out to almost eight million birds! And chances are they aren’t starlings or English sparrows, invasives we could well do without. No, these are often warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers…neotropical birds that spend the summers breeding in the north. Birds whose futures are already on shakey ground thanks to habitat loss. Birds whose populations may already hang in the balance.

Much of the article focused on the Hawaiian Islands, where feral cats (and the introduced mongoose) are wreaking havoc on the native birds, many of which are endangered species.

Well, we say, the solution is easy: trap out the cats. And it would seem easy, except cats have a huge and powerful lobby. Cats? A lobby? Yes – believe it or not, feral cat advocacy groups have sprouted up all over the US (and its territories). Their philosophy is to trap the cats, spay or neuter them, and then release them back into the wild. In theory, they will not be able to reproduce and over time the colonies will disappear. In reality, you’d have to trap and fix 70-90% of the cats in any wild population to even make a dent in the population (and that doesn’t factor in other feral cats, or newly dumped pets, joining the existing colony). Cats are difficult to trap, so in reality, that percentage is rarely reached. But let’s say 90% get fixed and are all turned loose again. Those cats may not be able to breed, but they can still hunt, and that is the problem.

So the advocacy groups put out kibble. Fluffy will be fed, then, and won’t be hungry. Well, if you have a cat, you know that Fluffy doesn’t necessarily hunt for food. Fluffy hunts for the thrill of the stalk, the joy of the capture, the pleasure of playing with the prey.

While reading the article, I was horrified to learn that the cats’ lobby is so strong that Fluffy and his friends have more protection than endangered species! It’s hard to believe.

Nationwide, millions and millions of birds lose their lives to cats. Many of these cats are feral, but many are also pets, pets that are let outside so they can “do what cats are supposed to do.” In rural areas, the numbers are high, for farmers like their barn cats, and we rural folks like to believe that cats should be able to hunt. But the truth is that the wildlife cannot support Fluffy’s habits. Not only are the birds suffering, but in some places Fluffy has reduced the wild prey to such levels that the natural predators don’t have enough to eat. And then there’s the spread of disease, things like toxoplasmosis, which can be deadly.

When I walk around my neighborhood, I often see my neighbors’ cats out for a stroll or a hunt. And recently I’ve seen young cats, no doubt feral, that are lurking around bird feeders and garages, looking for small mammals and birds. And I admit, I let my own cat out occasionally in the summer, but my yard is fenced and he’s too old, fat and lazy to chase a bird. Or so I tell myself.

The upshot of this story is a plea to folks to think twice about letting Fluffy outside to hunt. Most domestic cats are content to live the life of Riley indoors, where food and comfort are in plentiful supply. If you feel Fluffy needs to hunt, there are plenty of cat toys out there that you can supply, and this will also give you the opportunity to spend quality time with your cat. And if you know of a feral cat, or a feral cat colony, consider the impact it is having on the wildlife. Instead of maintaining it, look into capturing the offeder(s) and getting it/them into an animal shelter. Remember, there are plenty of cats in the world; it’s the wildlife that is in decline.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An Adirondack Poison: White Snakeroot

‘Tis the season for White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). This pretty, weedy plant can be found blooming in many of our forests from late summer “until frost.” Hm…that could be any day now, if you believe the weather reports!

One of the nice things about white snakeroot is that it is one of our native plants. According to my field guide, it is classified with the bonesets and Joe Pye weed – a Eupatorium. However, botanists, like birders, can be found reclassifying living organisms on an almost daily basis, it seems, and now this plant is in a separate genus: Ageratina.

I think that because we are surrounded these days with warnings about non-native invasive species, we tend to slip into the idea that native plants must all be good. In one sense they are: they are good for the ecological niche in which they have evolved. But this doesn’t make them “good” plants, necessarily. White snakeroot is an excellent example of this, for it is poisonous.

Back in the 19th century, many many people died from a disease that was labelled “milk sickness.” It seems that some milk (and, it turns out, meat) was tainted with something that made the cattle ill and killed people. The disease was known to wipe out large portions of early settlements (Abraham Lincoln’s own mother was one of its victims), and it became such a problem in parts of Kentucky that a $600 award was offered in the early 1800s to anyone who could find the cause of the disease.

Although not officially identified until 1928, legend has it that Dr. Anna Bixby (1809-1869) identified the causative agent long before that. Supposedly many of her patients were dying from milk sickness, and, as was probably fairly common at the time, the disease was blamed on witchcraft. Dr. Bixby knew there must be a more rational explanation, and noted that the disease only turned up in late summer and into the fall, and it seemed to be based on something the cattle were eating. One day she met up with a Shawnee woman who told her that white snakeroot was the culprit. Dr. Bixby fed a bit of the plant to a calf, which promptly displayed all the symptoms. She had all of the plant torn out from the fields and forests where cattle were grazing, and remarkably, the disease went away. Sadly, she never got credit for this (nor did the Shawnee woman).

What happens is that cattle eat white snakeroot when there is no other forage around, so it’s not like it’s a primary food choice for them. The plant contains tremetol, which is the poisonous compound. Tremetol is stored in the meat and milk, and thus it gets passed on to people who consume these cattle products.

That said, according to Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany, the Cherokee and Iroquois did use this plant for a variety of medicines, including treatment for urinary ailments, as a diuretic, and as a treatment for venereal diseases. He doesn’t say, however, how well the medicines worked.

Still, just because a plant is toxic doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it – just don’t eat it! As you walk through the woods, perhaps along a shady path, keep your eyes open for a scraggly-looking plant about three to five feet tall. The leaves are jagged, and the top has a flattened cluster of white flowers. If you are lucky, you may find some butterflies nectaring on it, for it is one of their foods. Take the time to get to know it, for it is a lovely plant. Then note where it is so you can be sure your cattle don’t graze upon it.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Silent War – Fighting Adirondack Invasives

Invasive species are everywhere: birds, bugs, fish, flowers, fungi. It seems that every time you turn around, a new invasive species has sprung up, each with its own inherent threat on the local ecosystem. What we don’t hear about, however, is often the solutions that are applied to address the problem.

Take for example the Japanese beetles in this photograph. What do you notice about them that is unusual? The white dots on their thoraxes. I pondered these, wondering if they were parasite eggs, warts or merely beauty marks. The number of dots differs on individual beetles, and some have none at all. Because of this variation, and the fact I had never seen them before, I was leaning towards parasites. » Continue Reading.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Wicked Plants – Even in the Adirondacks

Who could pass up a book titled Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities? Certainly not I! Not only is the title attention-getting, but the book is a bilious acid green, the perfect color for poisonings!

I first heard about this book on the radio, and after about a month of waiting, I was able to borrow a copy from the library. After reading it, I had to get a copy for myself; no self-respecting naturalist’s arsenal of natural history reference books would be complete without it!

This tiny tome is chocked full of interesting information about some of nature’s most dangerous plants, many of which surprised me. For example, these days the news is smattered with dire warnings about giant hogweed and wild parsnip (members of the carrot family, yet capable of causing painful blisters and phototoxicity to those who brush up against them), but who knew that cashews could be problematic if not prepared correctly? Yes, cashews are related to poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak. If eaten raw, or if they are contaminated with bits of the nut shells, the person consuming them can break out in a serious rash, which could be exacerbated if one is strongly allergic to urushiol, the irritating oil.

While many of the plants mentioned in this book by Amy Stewart come from lands far from the Adirondacks, there are a fair number that can be found within the Blue Line. Take, for example, elderberry. I remember collecting elderberry blossoms for my grandfather down along the railroad tracks that follow the Mohawk River. He used to make wine from the lacy white flowers. Well, it turns out that most of the plant’s parts (leaves, roots, stems, etc.) contain cyanide. This is especially true of the raw fruits. Cooked, the fruits are rendered more or less harmless, but when consumed raw they could send one to the hospital in a great deal of pain and discomfort.

How about cardinal flower? This brilliantly scarlet member of the genus Lobelia is found fairly commonly along waterways within the Park. As lovely as it is, the red color should be a warning. It contains poisons that are similar to nicotine, and if one were to eat it (although I don’t know why one would), one would likely suffer from tremors, nausea and vomiting, paralysis, and heart problems.

Not only does Ms. Stewart point out plants that are deadly, she includes those that are destructive (like purple loosestrife and kudzu), those that are offensive to the nose (purple trillium and skunk cabbage, among others), and those that actively cause problems (killer algae and gas plant).

I was so surprised at some of the nastiness that Mother Nature has in store for us that I was hesitant to burn the invasive honeysuckles we cut down last year. What if this aggressive non-native plant harbored some sort of chemical that was dangerous when set on fire? Nonetheless, burn it we did (the cut logs had started to sprout and had to be destroyed), and I can report that although I got a snoot full of smoke on several occasions, I have not suffered any ill effects.

Whether you are a plant aficionado, or a nature enthusiast in general, you will not want to pass up this delightful little book.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Macro Photography: Appreciating The Little Things

I really love macro photography. You need a good lens, you need a good tripod, and you need to be willing to get dirty and wet. But when you get right down to it, you discover some of the most interesting things.

Anyone can take a photo of a landscape, or of Billy with jam on his face. But it takes a special kind of person to get up-close photographs of Mother Nature. This person needs patience and a whole lot of determination.

What I love most about close-up shots of tiny things is that it opens up a whole new world. Take this photo, for example. It’s a catmint flower from my garden. Catmint has pale green leaves and a bright aromatic scent. The flowers are small and purple. But until I took this photo and enlarged it on the computer, I had no idea just how beautiful the flowers are. Why, it practically looks like an orchid!

Now that I have a camera available 24/7, I find myself lurking in the gardens, stalking roadside ditches, crawling along the forest floor on my belly – all in search of tiny things to photograph.

Macrophotography can also make identification easier, at least with things like insects. Insects rarely hold still for very long, making field ID difficult. A close-up photograph and enlargement capabilities can tip the scales in the naturalist’s favor. And it’s a nice alternative to the old naturalist’s standby: capture and preserve for later ID. True, there are times when having the specimen on hand is important, but for most of us, a photograph is all we need.

Spiders are another great subject for the close-up photographer. I find that most spiders up close are really rather beautiful. Okay, maybe most of you don’t feel this way, but you’ve got to admit that up close they are, at the very least, interesting. And photographs don’t bite, or sting, or jump!

Every naturalist needs a field kit, and in amongst the field guides and rulers, hand lenses and note paper, it should include a camera with close-up capabilities. Get yourself one of these and you won’t regret it (once you learn how to use it).


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