Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Bloom Index, Part II

It’s a fresh new month and time for an update to our bloom-dates table. But first, my friend Gerry Rising, Nature Watch columnist for the Buffalo News, reports that phenologists are asking regular jamokes to share their observations of trees and wildflowers. You can become a citizen scientist by noticing when chokecherries or even dandelions bloom in your back yard.

Two Web sites collect this information: the National Phenology Network and Cornell University’s Project Budbreak. Plant and animal life cycles can be susceptible to climate variations, so phenologists (the people who study seasonal patterns) are interested in your observations.

Following are median bloom dates for June from Mike Kudish’s Adirondack Upland Flora. Mike says the dates are most accurate for 1,500-to-2,000-foot elevations (the “Adirondack upland”).

June 1: Jack-in-the-pulpit, chokecherry, Solomon’s plumes
June 2: Low sweet blueberry
June 3: Wild sarsaparilla
June 5: Clintonia, bog rosemary
June 6: Bunchberry and white baneberry
June 7: Canada mayflower and bog laurel
June 9: Starflower and black chokeberry
June 10: Fringed polygala, three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, nannyberry
June 12: Labrador tea, Indian cucumber, small cranberry
June 13: Pink lady’s slipper
June 14: Hooked buttercup (Earliest sunrise, 5:13 a.m.)
June 15: Blue-eyed grass
June 17: Wild raisin, common cinquefoil
June 20: Sheep laurel
(June 20-23: Longest days of the year, 15 hours, 41 minutes)
June 26: Bush honeysuckle and tall meadow rue
June 27: Wild iris
June 29: Wood sorrel

The late naturalist Greenleaf Chase made a list for the Nature Conservancy of rare blooms on some of its Adirondack protection sites. On alpine summits he found Lapland rosebay aflower in early June, Diapensia, Labrador tea, bog laurel and mountain sandwort in late June. Greenie would visit the Clintonville pine barrens in early June to see Ceanothus herbacea (prairie redroot). Viola novae-angliae (New England blue violet) also flowers in early June on the Hudson River ice meadows near North Creek; Listera auriculata (a native orchid called auricled twayblade) blooms there in late June.

Lastly is a list of plants that amateur botanist and hall-of-fame pitcher Christy Mathewson identified around Saranac Lake in June 1922: wild carrot, bunchberry, mountain laurel?, sheep laurel, wintergreen, trailing arbutus, labrador tea, star flower, moss pink, forget-me-not, heal-all, ground ivy, bluets, ox-eye daisy, dandelion, hawkweed, Canada hawkweed, spring beauty, yellow pond lily, live-for-ever, horsetails, blueberry, twin flower, red berry elderberry, hop clover, harebell, yellow wood sorrel, sundrop, dewberry, wild red raspberry.

Boys, take note: being good at sports is nice. Being good at sports and knowing your wildflowers? That’s hot. Special thanks to Adirondack Daily Enterprise columnist Howard Riley for finding Mathewson’s handwritten list in the Saranac Lake Free Library archives and sending me a copy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Sunflower Project – Another Family Activity

Last summer I grew some amazing sunflowers – they must’ve reached ten or more feet in height and over a foot across the blossom! I also grew some smaller sunflowers, in all shades from a chocolaty red to a brilliant yellow. My sunflower bed became one of my favorite gardens, especially last fall when the chickadees came to steal the seeds (afterall, I planted the flowers to provide food for the birds).

Then I discovered The Great Sunflower Project (http://www.greatsunflower.org). This outfit’s goal is to sign up folks around the country to plant sunflowers and monitor them for bee activity. It’s kind of like the Lost Ladybug Project I wrote about earlier, except this time it’s bees that are in the spotlight. (The photo is from their website, by the way, taken by Ginny Stibolt.)

Most of us have heard about the crashing honeybee populations, better known as Colony Collapse. There are many theories out there as to why it’s happening, but I don’t think anyone has nailed down THE reason yet. Honeybees, however, are non-native insects, brought over to this part of the world for their honey-making skills and pollination efforts. That said, North America is home to many native bees (over 4,500 species of bees, according to the Great Sunflower Project’s website), most of which are important pollinators in their own right.

But even many our native bees are having some difficulty surviving these days. One reason, according to the website http://nature.berkely.edu/urbanbeegardens, is how we are gardening. The latest gardening fad is mulching, either with natural materials like wood chips or with synthetics like plastic or landscaping cloth. Mulching is touted for its weed-suppressing, water-conserving qualities, something every gardener appreciates. These ground covers, however, make it nearly impossible for ground nesting bees to find ground in which to nest. And in urban areas, which already have a surplus of impenetrable ground, thanks to roads, driveways, parking lots, lawns, etc., this can spell doom for some species of bees.

So, the Great Sunflower Project is recruiting gardeners, students, teachers and general nature nuts like me to survey our gardens for bees. If you sign up early enough, they send you a free packet of seeds (this year it was Lemon Queen Sunflower seeds). It’s too late now for the freebie seeds, but you can find Lemon Queens at many seed shops or catalogues. You plant your seeds, they grow and bloom, and then you watch for bees, timing how long it takes for five bees to show up at your plant(s). You send your data to them and that’s about it. But they aren’t looking for just any ol’ bee. Specifically, the sunflower folks want to know about bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees and green metallic bees. A quick buzz through their website will provide you with ID info for these species – it doesn’t get much easier than this!

Perhaps you don’t have sunflowers, or maybe you aren’t a sunflower fan. Not to worry – you can also monitor bee balm (if you need some, see me – I have a surplus of the stuff), cosmos (great companion plant for your veg garden, by the way, because it attracts these important pollinators), rosemary, tickseed and purple coneflower.

Maybe you are hesitant because you are afraid of getting stung. Did you know that bees are really quite shy and mostly are just too busy going about their own business to worry about you? About the only time most bees “attack” is if their nests are threatened (and by the by, male bees lack stingers). So if you are just puttering around your garden, taking notes on bees, they will happily ignore you and continue collecting pollen, sipping nectar, or looking for mates.

Need more reasons to participate? The Urban Bee Garden website has some great tips for bee watching, including interesting bee behaviors you can witness. For example, some male bees actually sleep overnight inside flowers; if you get up early enough you can catch them snoozing in their blossom bowers. Other males are very territorial, protecting “their” flowers from other males. In truth, they are on the lookout for females and spend most of their time driving away potential rivals.

This weekend I will probably plant my sunflower seeds and brace myself for the influx of bees. I’ve already noticed bees of many stripes about my gardens, some at the flowering shrubs, others hovering over bare ground, no doubt testing its potential for a nest site. I know that my yard is a great bee haven, thanks to the many flowering companion plants I scatter among the veg, but also thanks to my lax gardening standards: mulch is spotty at best these days. Watching the flowers for specific bees will give me just one more excuse to stay outside and learn something new about my fellow earthlings; the vacuuming and dishes will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Adirondack Rain Brings Little Reflief From Drought

As I sit here this morning contemplating my Wednesday post, the rain seems to be at a temporary lull. During the night I awoke to the steady beat of the rain and even as I let the dog out (and later toweled him off), I smiled: we need this rain and it is very welcome.

Rain has always been something we took for granted here in the Northeast. Some years might have been rainier than others, but overall, our rain could be considered moderate. We had no really bad floods and no real droughts.

Until lately.

Since I’ve been living in the Adirondacks (I moved here in 2000), we have been in drought conditions. According to the government hydrologist person who came through the VIC a couple years ago, we’d been in a drought since the late 1990s. Hard to believe! But looking at the precipitation numbers this year, the reality is there to see.

This winter we had an average amount of snow, but it was below average in the amount of moisture in it. As a matter of fact, three of the last four months had the lowest liquid levels in the six years we’ve been a National Weather Service Co-op Station. May seems to be making up for it (closing in on six inches for the month), but one month of rain does not make up for an entire winter’s deficit.

Feast or famine – that’s the phrase that seems to describe the precipitation patterns these days. When it does rain, it often comes in buckets, sometimes up to several inches at a time. And while some people think this signals an end to droughty conditions, in fact it is usually very little help. This is because sudden heavy rains tend to become runoff – the dry ground cannot absorb it and it all heads downhill, filling ditches, streams, ponds, lakes. Flooding happens. Even my hometown, which has NEVER had a flood, found itself 1-2 feet under water a couple years ago – the flood of the century. People were fishing in the streets. Amazing.

So when we get gentle soaking rain, like last night (over half an inch), it is something to rejoice. I spent the last three days working in my vegetable garden and conditions were dry. Even with my dripper lines on four times a day, fifteen minutes at a time, the soil was rather dusty. With all my newly planted seeds, rain was needed, and it arrived just in time.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Must-do Nature Events for Summer 2009

Summer. The word conjures up images of the outdoors: sunshine, trees, beaches, birds, flowers. It is THE time to go beyond your door and explore the natural world. There are so many options that, as Calvin noted in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, “The days are just packed.” Here are three summer activities on my “to-do” list this year.

1. Orchid Hunting. Orchids are wonderfully strange wildflowers that hide out in many Adirondack wetlands. Some are in bogs (Ferd’s Bog, near Inlet, is famous for its white-fringed orchids), some are in roadside ditches (like the smaller purple fringed orchids I found last year near home and the green wood orchid I tracked down along the road to Tahawus). But I’ve also found ladies tresses on a dry roadside bank! The best time to go orchid hunting (and this is visual “hunting” – orchids are all protected by law, so do not collect or pick them) is mid-July through early August. Visit a wetland or roadside ditch near you, or go for a drive to a public wetland, like the Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (white fringed orchids, rose pogonia, and grass pinks await you there, although the latter two are at their best late June into early July). I recommend taking along Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide to help you identify your discoveries. » Continue Reading.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Red Efts: Nifty Adirondack Salamanders

Earlier this spring, after our first few bouts of significant rain, the red efts were on the move. They were tiny, measuring just a bit over an inch from the tip of the snout to the tip of the tail, but their bright orange skin made them stand out brilliantly against the dark gray pavement of the road, and each one that I found got a lift as I carried it to a safer location off the road and into the woods.

Red efts are the terrestrial form of the eastern (or red-spotted) newt, Notophthalmus viridescens. More than just larvae, but not quite adults yet, red efts can be considered the teenager stage in the eastern newt’s life. » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adirondack Black Bears

There I was, cruising the VIC’s Sucker Brook Trail in search of spring wildflowers (translation: staring at the ground as I walked along), when to my left I heard a rustle of vegetation. “Ruffed grouse,” I thought, and turned my head, anticipating the explosion of wings as the bird made a hasty retreat towards the treetops. What I saw, however, was no ruffed grouse. It was black, it was furry, and it was galloping away from me a high speed.

My next thought was “someone’s black lab is loose.” Then it dawned on me: this was no lab, it was a bear. A small bear, probably a yearling, but a bear nonetheless. What I saw was the typical view I have of bears in the Adirondacks: the south end of the animal as it’s headed north. If I’m lucky, I’ll see the face before the animal turns tail. And this is how bears are – they fear people. Many people fear bears as well, but unlike the bear, people really have little reason to be afraid of these normally placid animals. » Continue Reading.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Forest Owners: What You Should Know

Master Forest Owner volunteer training is now over, and I can say that if there is one thing I learned, it’s that forest owners need to be familiar with the resources available to them. A free visit from one of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Forest Owner (MFO) volunteers is a great place to start [a pdf list]. An MFO can sit down with landowners and help them consider the issues land owners face that might include agro-forestry, maple syrup production, logging and timber sales, pest and invasive species management, understanding wetlands, soil and water quality, developing a management plan, or just understanding a little more about the land they own. Those with a keener interest in their forested property should consider becoming a volunteer themselves. The next training will be held at the Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, September 9-13, 2009.

Here is a list of the stories I wrote while taking part in the training. We covered a lot more, but these stories provide some information, and more importantly, links to resources:

An Introduction to SUNY-ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center at the Huntington Forest.

Access to DEC information about Adirondack forests and wildlife.

A field trip to the Tupper Lake Hardwoods Mill.

A “whirlwind tour” of Adirondack mammals.

Maple syrup production for forest owners.

Felling trees safely (with training info).

Agro-forestry: making money from your forest without logging.

Water quality best management practices.

Saw timber economics and timber sales best practices.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Saving Fruit Trees from the Frost

The forecast says the low temperature tonight in Saranac Lake will be 22 degrees. The apple tree we share with a neighbor decided to bloom yesterday. What to do?

Since the tree has thrived at an elevation of about 2,000 feet for longer than anyone living in this neighborhood can remember, it must be a pretty cold-hardy variety. But a deep freeze at blossom time really threatens to thin the crop. So we called Bob Rulf, who owns Rulf’s Orchards, in Peru. He said it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to light charcoal in a couple of grills beneath the tree (this is a pretty big tree) and keep the smoke rising. Between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. is the coldest part of the night, Rulf said.

The temperature is only supposed to get down to about 29 degrees in Peru, the more-temperate apple basket of the Adirondacks. Cornell Cooperative Extension advises that when an apple blossom is tight and in the pink it can stand 30 degrees F for an hour; when it’s wide-open white it can stand 28 degrees for an hour, which seems counterintuitive, Rulf said.

His orchard is not equipped with wind machines or any large-scale equipment for dealing with frosts, so he’ll take his chances with the apples. However Rulf does plan to tow a furnace around the strawberry patch tonight with helpers riding along to blow hot air on that crop.

Photograph: Our apple tree in bloom

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Lost Ladybug Project – Perfect for Families

“Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone.”

I never really understood that little ditty when I was a kid. I mean, why would you tell this specifically to a ladybug, as opposed to a bumblebee or a dragonfly?

As it turns out, there is a reason. A quick search on the Web turned up a neat little website on nursery rhymes: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/ladybug_ladybug.htm. It seems that in merry ol’ England it was traditional to burn the fields after the fall harvest to cut down on potential future insect infestations. The farmers knew that this beetle, which they call a ladybird, was the farmer’s friend (they are ravenous aphid-eaters), so this was essentially a courtesy call made to tell the insects to leave the fields before they set them on fire.

Today we find ladybugs mostly in our houses in the winter and spring. This is because these insects seek out good hidey-holes for hibernation (cracks along the outside of the house), and when they detect the warmth and light inside, they move on in. Ladybugs are totally harmless, but they can exude a foul-smelling orange goo from their legs if they are pestered. This is a defense mechanism meant to drive away predators, but to them a broom is just as aggressive as a bluejay, so if you try to sweep them away, they may leave this exudate on your walls and curtains. The majority of the ladybugs that turn up in your house are probably non-natives, the Halloween ladybug being the most common perpetrator. This species is orange and black, and often shows up in the fall.

Despite this apparent evidence to the contrary, many native ladybug species are in rapid decline. Back in 1986, when the nine-spotted ladybug was proposed as New York’s state insect, it was common, but by 1988 its population was in a tailspin. One hasn’t been seen in New York now since the late ‘80s. Only one specimen has been found since then in all of the eastern US, and that was discovered by two children in Virginia.

What can YOU do? Cornell University, home to many a citizen science project, has started the Lost Ladybug Project (www.lostladybug.org). This is a great hands-on project for kids, families, or adults. All you do is go out, look for ladybugs, take their pictures, and send the photos in to Cornell, along with the particulars of where you found the ladybug, when you found it, etc. There are three species they are especially interested in finding: nine-spotted, two-spotted, and transverse ladybugs. If you go to their website, they have lots if photos and color print-outs that can help you succeed in this mission.

I know that I’m going to add ladybug hunting to my list of outdoor activities this summer. I have a patch of tansy that in the past has been loaded with ladybugs, both adults and their larvae (which are strange-looking beasts). Chances are most of these will be introduced species, but you never know…lurking among the immigrants there just might be a native or two.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Adirondack Mammals; The Whirlwind Tour

There are 54 species of mammals in the Adirondacks, and the Adirondack Ecological Center’s Charlotte Demers offers a “whirlwind tour.” Here are the highlights:

Marsupials – the possum. The Adirondacks is in the upper range of the possum, so you often find them with signs of frostbite, particularly their ears. Amazingly they give birth just 12 1/2 days after mating.

Shrews and Moles – There are six different species of what are called “red tooth shrews”. They have an average life span of just a year and eat almost continuously. Our shrews have a toxin in their saliva which paralyzes it’s prey. The pygmy shrew weighs less then a dime making it (arguably) the smallest mammal in the world. The water shrew dives (mostly in streams) for its prey, including frogs and fish. They are often caught in minnow traps. We have two moles – hairy tail (the most common) and the star nose (uglier and aquatic). » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

7th Annual Great Adirondack Birding Celebration

Seven years ago Brian McAllister, then volunteer coordinator at the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center, had an idea: why not host a birding festival in the Adirondacks? After all, birders are committed hobbyists who will travel great distances to add new birds to their life lists, and this would be a great way to promote the Adirondacks and the boreal birdlife that makes the Park special. Fast forward to 2009: the Great Adirondack Birding Celebration (GABC) is still going strong and has a line-up of speakers and field trips that will appeal to bird (and outdoor) enthusiasts of all abilities.

This year the GABC, which will be held June 5-7, is hosted by the Adirondack Park Institute (API), the Friends Group of the Visitor Interpretive Centers. One of the changes for 2009 is a registration fee ($35 for individuals, $50 for families), which not only includes entry to all the programs and field trips, but also to the Dessert Reception and Owl Prowl at White Pine Camp (June 5), the BBQ lunch at the Paul Smiths VIC (June 6), and a one-year membership to the API. » Continue Reading.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Learning to Love the Little Things

It’s human nature to get excited about the “charismatic megafauna” around us. Let’s face it: polar bears, elephants and eagles are impressive. But what about the other 99% of life on this planet? Where is the cheering section for sea slugs? Is there a “Hug a Millipede” campaign? What about bladderworts? As a naturalist, many people ask me what my favorite animal is, or they want to know my area of expertise. It’s a difficult question to answer because the more I learn about my fellow beings on this chunk of space debris, the more fascinating I find each to be. » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Woodcock Watching – A Sure Sign of Spring

Spring arrives in fits and starts. For many it is the longer days and warmer temps that say “spring is here,” while for others the signs are more subtle: the first flowers that bloom (around here that is usually coltsfoot), the first robin in the yard, the first thunderstorm echoing across the mountains. For me, each “first” is another stepping stone bridging the gap between winter and summer, and one of my favorites is the flight of the woodcock.

Woodcocks are odd-looking birds, resembling something that may have been desiged by a committee: the body is squat and compact with a dinky head, an impossibly long beak, and large eyes placed in such a way that the bird almost appears cross-eyed. In fairness, the eye placement really is to the woodcock’s best advantage, since it gives the bird nearly 360 degrees of vision, allowing it to see above its head, in front of its face, and along both sides. I suspect its periferal vision picks up movement from behind as well. And that beak, well, it may look goofy (like a bird with a straw stuck to its face), but it also has some marvelous adaptations: the end is highly flexible and has a sensitive tip that is able to sense worms underground, worms being the woodcock’s preferred food.

But the characteristic that makes this game bird near and dear to the hearts of many a naturalist is the male’s courtship display. You just know that spring is here when you head outside in the evening, right after sunset, and your ears pick up the unmistakable buzzy nasal peent coming from the ball field, golf course, or yard. That would be the male woodcock out strutting his stuff in an open area, hoping to win the heart of a nearby female. But, wait! There’s more! After a few peents, the bird takes off for the sky, twittering away in an almost musical way, ascending the heights in ever-increasing spirals. And when you can no longer see his silhouette agaist the darkening sky, the sound changes to chirping, popping noise as the bird plummets back towards earth in a series of death-defying zigzags. The sounds stop suddenly (the bird is now 50-100 feet aloft), and he lands, only to start strutting and peent-ing once more. As if this weren’t enough to grab one’s attention, note this: the sounds made as he is airborne are not vocalizaions; they are created by the wind created by his flight interacting with his feathers!

I urge you to step out some evening this spring, when the temperature is above freezing, and find yourself a good open space near some woods. Dress warmly and tune your ears for the insect-like peent near the ground. Locate the bird if you can and wait for an aerial display that will impress even the youngest members of your family. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Another New Contributor: Naturalist Ellen Rathbone

Adirondack Almanack is happy to welcome Ellen Rathbone to the ranks of our contributors. Ellen, posting as NatureGirl, is by her own admission a “certified nature nut.” She lives in Newcomb and has been working as a naturalist or environmental educator almost steadily since she graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology. Her work has taken her from NY to NJ to VT and finally back to what she calls her “beloved Adirondacks,” where she has been an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency’s Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

“I consider myself a generalist, since almost any natural history subject is bound to catch my attention,” Ellen told me. “That said, I tend to drift towards plants and ethnobotany (plants are easy to study because they stand still), and I am quite fond of bats (which were the topic for my master’s degree work) and snakes. The more I learn about nature, the more fascinated I become with the complexities that keep our world in balance; it’s an amazing place, this planet we call home.”

Please join us in welcoming Ellen. Her natural history posts will appear regularly on Wednesday afternoons (starting today at 3 pm) and Saturday mornings. On Sunday morning, another treat — Ellen will be providing a local gardening piece! We’re hoping she’ll be adding her naturalist insights at other times as well.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Adirondack Conference to Focus on Alpine Zones

Researchers, summit stewards and others interested in protecting northeast alpine zones will gather in the Adirondacks May 29 and 30 to explore the impact of climate change on these fragile ecosystems. The Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering is held every two years to allow researchers, planners, managers, stewards and others to share information and improve the understanding of the alpine areas of the Northeast. The 2009 conference, the first to be held in the Adirondacks, will feature presentations by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and award-winning photographer Carl Heilman.

Alpine zones are areas above the treeline that are home to rare and endangered species more commonly found in arctic regions. In the Adirondacks, alpine zones cover about 170 acres atop more than a dozen High Peaks, including Marcy, Algonquin and Wright. Because these summits experience heavy recreational use, New York’s alpine habitat is one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the state. Alpine vegetation is also highly susceptible to climate change and acts as a biological monitor of changing climate conditions.

The conference, which will be held at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Lake Placid, kicks off Thursday evening with a reception and Carl Heilman’s multimedia presentation. Friday will feature a full day of sessions on such subjects as “The Effects of a Changing Climate on the Alpine Zone” and “Visitor Use and Management of Alpine Areas.”

On Saturday, conference attendees will have an opportunity to participate in a variety of field trips, such as guided hikes to a High Peak summit, a morning bird walk or a visit to the Wild Center.

The $40 conference fee includes Thursday mixer, Friday lunch, Friday dinner and Saturday bag lunch.

The 2009 Gathering is hosted by the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Steward Program, a partnership of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The Gathering is sponsored by the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the Waterman Alpine Stewardship Fund. Conference partners include the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Adirondack Park Agency Visitor’s Interpretive Center, the Crowne Plaza Resort, New York Natural Heritage Program, DEC, Paul Smith’s College and the Wild Center.

Rooms are available at the Crowne Plaza. For reservations, call (800) 874-1980 or (518) 523-2556. Camping and lodging are available at the Adirondak Loj, six miles south of the village of Lake Placid. For reservations, call (518) 523-3441. Additional lodging options may be found at www.lakeplacid.com.

For more information, call Julia Goren at (518) 523-3480 Ext. 18 or visit ADK’s Web site at www.adk.org.

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