Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Balsam Fir – An Adirondack Classic

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

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


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Weasel: Black and White and Curious All Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Dearth of Adirondack Oak Trees

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


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Preparing for Winter Animal Tracking

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

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


Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Holiday Tradition: The Annual Christmas Bird Count

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

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


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Favorite Bird: Red-Breasted Nuthatches

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

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


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Feeding Birds: Tuppence a Bag

The little old lady who sat in the square selling birdseed in the Disney version of Mary Poppins was offering a pretty good deal: a bag of birdseed for only two pence. Admittedly the bag was probably pretty small, and a tuppence went a lot further at the turn-of-the-century, when the story is set. When I walk into the bird paraphernalia shop to purchase seed today, I’d best have my checkbook handy, for I’ll need a lot more than tuppence to cover the needs of the greedy diners at my feeders, but I figure it’s worth the expense. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Black Knot Fungus – Scourge of Adirondack Cherries

Nature is constantly at war with itself. Romantics tend to see nature as colorful sunsets, fox pups playing around their dens, and bluebirds feeding their young. People with a more utilitarian outlook see nature as either a source of food (deer, turkeys, blackberries), or something to be conquered at all costs (human needs come first). There is truth in all views, but not one of them is exclusively “correct.” Nature has its warm fuzzy moments, but in reality, it is, as the saying goes, “red in tooth and claw.” This holds true for plants as well as animals.

Sometimes I think it’d be kind of nice to come back as a tree. Trees can live a long time. They provide food and shelter for birds and other wildlife. They help pull pollutants from the air and make oxygen for us to breathe. But they are also food and shelter for insects and fungi and myriad other pathogens. And then there’s the weather: wind storms, ice storms, lightning – these can all take their toll.

Not far from my house there’s an area that was once cleared and is now rapidly returning to a cluttered, tree- and shrub-filled tangle of growth. Certain species dominate the growth, and in the shrub department it is blueberries, chokeberries, and choke cherries.

Choke cherries (Prunus virginiana) are a native shrub that can grow to 30 feet in height. Around here, however, every specimen I’ve seen has been shorter than I, courtesy of the local pruning service: Odocoileus virginiana, the white-tailed deer. The berries are full of antioxidants and are edible by people (best in jams and syrups, where you can counteract their astringency with a good dose of sugar). Keep in mind, though, that the plant is toxic to horses.

Choke cherries, like other cherries and plums, are susceptible to a native pathogen called Black Knot Fungus (Dibotryon morbosum). The patch of choke cherries that I visit weekly is riddled with this fungus. It looks like someone has stuck a bunch of burned corndogs on the branches. This time of year the blackened growths are as obvious as the nose on your face, but when the disease is in its earliest stages, it can be very difficult to detect. If you are growing cherries or plums commercially, or even for your own enjoyment at home, you will want to know how to detect this virulent pathogen as soon as possible.

Black knot begins its colonization when spores are released from the parent fungus. The spores come in two varieties. The first are asexual, called conidia, and they appear as an olive-green, velvety growth on the black knot cankers in their second spring of growth. From early spring to early summer, wind and rain break off the conidia and spread them to new infection sites. The second kind of spores are ascospores, and these are formed sexually through the fruiting structures of the fungus, which are found on knots that are beginning their third year of growth. Like the conidia, they are spread by wind and splashing rain from early spring to early summer.

Once the spores are airborne, either blown or splashed, some will land on young wood, such as twigs and branches. Here the spores settle in for the long haul, either entering the plant via wounds or directly inserting themselves through the bark. Often entry is at the crotch of the twigs and branches. If the weather is wet (wet being a relative term, for it only needs to be wet for a few hours), and the temperature is between 55 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions are ripe for infection.

So, the spores start to grow. Mycelium snake their way into and all along the wood of the tree/shrub. During the first year of growth, a small brownish blob may appear on the infected stem. It’s not terribly noticeable, which is why the disease is easily overlooked until it is well-established. Year two rolls around, and now the knot grows rapidly. At first it is soft and develops a greenish-brown color: this is the sign that the conidia are developing. As summer number two progresses, the knots, which are now rather large (they can grow up to a foot in length over time), start to harden and turn black.

Eventually the knots can encircle the twig/branch on which they are growing, effectively girdling it. The end result is a dead twig/branch above the knot. And even though the knot is now hard and crusty, its edges can continue to grow. Eventually, the oldest parts of the knot will break down, and this opens them up to invasion by boring insects (not insects that are dull conversationalists, but insects that will chew their way into the woody tissue of the plant, potentially bringing with them a whole new set of pathogens).

Some authorities consider black knot to be a minor disease, while others call it a serious problem. The latter are probably involved with commercial fruit growers, for whom black knot can indeed be a serious problem. But even if you only have a single cherry or plum, you want to know how to deal with this fungus, for if left untreated, it will work its way through the cherry and plum population, eventually killing off all the trees.

The first thing to do is routinely inspect your trees. You want to nail the fungus as early as possible, so know what the first summer’s growth looks like. If you miss it, and you don’t notice the knots until they are well-formed, it is still not too late. Grabbed your pruners and cut off the offending branch(es). You want to cut about eight inches below the canker to ensure that you are getting most of the mycelium inside the wood. Gather all your prunings and burn them. Or bury them deep in the ground.

If cankers have formed on the trunk of your tree (not as common, but still possible), dig them out with a knife and chisel, taking an additional inch of wood all around. If the resulting hole is greater than two inches across, paint it with shellac and cover with tree-wound dressing. You will also want to destroy all affected wild trees/shrubs in the immediate area. The recommended distance is 600 feet. If you have an orchard you need to protect, contact your local extension office to find out what dormant sprays and fungicides are recommended.

It’s a war zone out there. Fungi, insects and other pathogens are attacking trees and shrubs; trees fight back with sticky saps and toxic chemicals. Some plants call in the cavalry, in the form of insects that will attack the offenders (such as ladybugs vs aphids). The next time you go for a walk in the woods, think about this. Take a look around. See if you can find some evidence that all is not as calm as it seems.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adirondack Tree Identification 102


Now that we’ve mastered the trees with opposite branching, it’s time to turn our attention to those whose branches alternate from left to right (more or less). There are many species of trees that fit this category, and many of them exist here in the Adirondacks. To write even a quick ID guide for all of them would take more space than we have here, so I’m only going to touch on those that are most commonly found.

So there you are, staring at your mystery tree. You’ve determined it’s not a conifer, and its branches sprout in an alternate fashion, one to the left, one to the right, etc. It is autumn, or perhaps winter, so leaves have fallen off the majority of the deciduous trees. Perhaps, however, your tree is still hanging on to its leaves. The leaves are tan in color and they have a crinkly, papery feel to them. If you look at the buds, they look like tiny cigars: long and pointy. In fact, if you poke the bud into your finger, it might even hurt, like you pricked your finger with a needle. If your specimen is a young tree, the bark is likely a smooth pale grey. Older specimens, while historically also a smooth pale grey, today look worn and tired. The bark seems to have slumped; it is cracked and may even be falling off, a victim of disease. Your tree is the American beech, once one of the grandest trees in our northern forests, and a staple in the diets of many animals, from turkey and bears to squirrels and deer. The big clue for beech is the leaves (I know, I wasn’t going to dwell on leaves, but there’s always the exception). Beech leaves persist throughout the winter, making this tree very easy to identify in the snowy woods.

Let’s say, instead, that your tree has bark that is peeling off sideways. Ah-ha! Birch, you say. Yes, but which birch? In youngish specimens, it is easy to tell white birch from yellow, but sometimes older specimens have darkened with age and suddenly it’s no longer so easy to tell them apart. White, or paper birch, typically has bright white bark, the underside of which is a pinkish color. When it peels, the strips are fairly wide, and thick. Yellow birch is more bronze in color, and its bark tends to peel off in thin papery ringlets. A really big clue that you can use to tell white birch from yellow is smell. If you can find a small twig hanging from a branch low enough to reach, scrape a short section with your fingernail and give it a sniff. Does it smell like wintergreen? If so, you have a yellow birch. And yes, black birch (aka: sweet birch) also produces this aroma, but it’s not as common around these parts as the yellow. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a black birch. As for grey birch, well, in the Adirondacks that’s strictly an ornamental tree, found in yards. It’s easily recognized by the black “moustaches” that decorate the bark where every branch sprouts from the trunk.

If you are lucky and have musclewood/ironwood/blue beech/American hornbeam, you will be able to recognize it in a heartbeat, for the trunk of this smallish tree resembles a forearm that is bulging with muscles. There’s nothing else like it.

American hop hornbeam is another one of our smallish trees. The fruits look like hops – layered, papery scales. The bark is also quite distinctive; it looks like many narrow rectangles stuck lengthwise to the side of the tree, some of which are peeling up from the bottom.

Believe it or not, we have quite a number of American elm trees around. Large, mature specimens, while not common, are easily identified by their classic “vase shape”. If you find a small one with leaves, you’ll note that they are asymmetrical in shape and feel like sandpaper. The bark, however, can come in two different varieties: smooth (not smooth like a beech, but more like it once had ridges that were then flattened), and furrowed (narrow ridges that weave in and out of each other, much like the white ash, but not corky in texture).

And then there’s my old friend the black cherry, the bane of my college dendrology days. I finally came to the conclusion that if I was facing a tree that I could not ID, it must be a black cherry, and this actually worked pretty well, but it’s a lousy way to identify something. Today I can give you a much easier, and more accurate, way to identify this tree: the bark looks like burnt cornflakes. You can’t miss it! Black cherry bark is probably one of the easiest to identify off all the trees. Even kids in first grade can easily learn this tree. Burnt cornflakes = black cherry. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Learning to identify trees can be a lot of fun, but you don’t want to tackle them all at once. Start with something easy, like the conifers. Then work your way through those with opposite branching, and finally take on the alternates. Try to learn the distinctive characteristics of each. In some it might be the leaves, in others the bark, the buds, or even the fruits. Remember that seedlings and saplings often look a lot different from mature specimens. And location, location, location: you won’t find a sugar maple in a swamp, and likewise you won’t find a black spruce where the soil is rich and loamy.

Once you learn your trees, the forest becomes just that much more familiar. The next thing you know, you’ll be learning to identify the other plants that keep the trees company. And then you just might find yourself wondering “I wonder what this plant can be used for?” That’s when plant ID ascends to a whole new level and things become really interesting. So, give it a go…you never know where a little bit of knowledge might lead you.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Adirondack Tree Indentification 101

I was a Stumpy – a student at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry. While an undergrad, I was enrolled in the Dual Program: Resource Management (forestry) and Environmental and Forest Biology. A required course for forestry majors, as you might well imagine, was dendrology, or the study of trees, and a huge part of dendro was simply learning to identify one species of tree from the next.

Looking back at my dendro class through the lens of time, I am constantly amazed at how difficult I found tree ID. The tree that gave me the worst trouble was the black cherry, which today I could almost identify blindfolded, standing on one foot, and with both hands tied behind my back. I suspect it was the leaves.

When most people learn to identify trees, they try to learn the leaves, but for the novice, one lobed leaf looks much the same as the next. Red maple or sugar? Maybe it’s striped maple? A serrated, or toothed, leaf looks like any other serrated (or toothed) leaf. Aspen? Cottonwood? Elm? Hophornbeam? Birch? And then what do you do when fall has wreaked its havoc on the trees, leaving the forest naked? How in the world are you supposed to know which tree is which now?

Over the years I have refined my tree ID skills, and today when I teach tree ID, I may touch on leaf shape and form, but I spend more time looking at those parts of the tree that are visible year round: the bark and branches. In fact, I’ve boiled the whole subject down to a series of simple questions that even kids as young as ten are able to follow.

First, take a look at your tree. Is it a conifer (does it have needles) or a hardwood (does it loose its leaves in the fall)? If it is a conifer, we next address the needles and bark. Do the needles turn yellow and fall off in the fall (larch)? Does the bark have blisters that ooze a sticky aromatic resin when punctured (balsam fir)? Are the needles attached to the tree via small “pegs” (spruces)? Maybe the needles flattened and scale-like and the bark looks like a cat’s been using it for a scratching post – that would be a cedar. If you crush the cedar’s needles, they have a beautiful citrus-y scent that is very distinctive.

If said tree is not a conifer, it must be a hardwood (or deciduous). So we look at how the branches are arranged on the tree: are they opposite (like my arms) or do they alternate (like my left arm and right leg)? Very few species of trees here in the northeast have opposite branching, and they are easily remembered by recalling the phrase MAD Cap Horse. MAD stands for Maple, Ash, Dogwood; Cap refers to the family Caprifoliaceae, which are the honeysuckles; Horse is simply horsechestnut. Since honeysuckles are really more shrub-like than tree-like, I usually ignore them as a category. Here in the central Adirondacks we don’t have horsechestnuts, so I delete them as well. This leaves us with MAD.

Around Newcomb, we have only a few species that we can squeeze into the MAD classification. Maples: red, sugar and striped. Ash: white. Dogwood: grey-stemmed, red-osier, alternate leafed.

The dogwoods we have up here are pretty small trees, barely more than shrubs. Their buds look like onions, or the domes of eastern orthodox churches seen in photos from Russia and the Ukraine (well, sort of; flowering dogwood, which we don’t have, has onion-shaped buds, and red-osier sort of does; with a little imagination, so does the grey-stemmed). If you take a look at their leaves, the veins are curved, or arched (arcuate). But if you’re standing in the woods craning your neck upwards to figure out what the leaves look like, you aren’t looking at a dogwood, and so, like the honeysuckles, we can easily eliminate dogwoods from consideration.

The process of elimination as brought our opposite-branched trees down to two possibilities: maples and ashes. If the leaves are still on the tree, and you can see them, this can be a clue. Ashes have compound leaves: each leaf is composed of multiple leaflets. Maples have simple leaves with three to five lobes. But suppose the leaves have fallen off and all you can see is the bark. Not a problem. Take a good close look. Feel the bark. Is it kind of corky? Can you easily stick your thumbnail into it? Does it look like many small ridges that weave in and out of each other? If so, you are looking at the white ash, the tree that sportsmen love, for its wood has been the primary source of such sports equipment as tennis rackets and baseball bats.

But suppose it’s not a white ash that you are staring at. If the branches are opposite, and you’ve eliminated all but the maples, then it must be a maple. Striped maple is easy to identify, for it rarely gets larger than three or four inches in diameter. I’ve seen some specimens that push a six inch dbh (diameter at breast height, which is measured at 4.5 ft. above the ground), but they are not common. Striped maple, true to its name, has white-ish stripes on its smooth greenish bark. Its leaves are large and look a lot like goose feet.

Red maple, well, that’s a tree that likes to have its feet wet. If you are in a lowland area, near a marsh or other wetland, and you see a tree with opposite branching, it is likely a red maple. Its leaves, if you can find one, have three distinctive lobes, all with sharply pointed teeth. The sinuses, or dips between the lobes, are also pointy, forming a nice sharp “v”.

Sugar maple, that tree adored by leaf peepers and pancake-lovers alike, prefers to live on rocky slopes, with its feet away from the water. The bark on a mature specimen is pale grey and kind of looks like it is made from plate armor (sometimes you need to apply a little imagination). Some of the sides of the plates may be peeled away from the trunk of the tree. If you find a leaf still attached to the tree, you will note that it has five lobes, and instead of sharp pointy teeth, it has gentle swoops. The sinuses between the lobes are u-shaped, as opposed to the v-shape of the red maples.

When it comes to the trees that are alternately branched, we are facing a larger selection of species, and I’ll write about them next time. In the meantime, take the information I’ve given you here, grab a kid or two, and head out into your yard. See if you can find some trees with opposite branches and try your hand at identifying them. The next time you go for a hike, see how many opposites you can find. Do they like each other’s company? Can you ferret out other clues that you can add to your ID arsenal?

Once you start to recognize tree species, you will begin to notice other plants (and animals) that associate with them. Forest communities will become apparent. Before you know it, the trees of the forest will seem like old friends, familiar faces you can recognize in any crowd, and I find that hiking with friends makes being outside that much more pleasurable. Perhaps you will, too.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Adirondack Family Activities: ADK Leonid Meteor Shower

My husband and I were up in the pre-dawn morning with probably half the world to essentially watch a fiery burning of debris enter the atmosphere. To then describe to my child a scientific reason for getting out of bed took a bit of research and a chat with an expert.

In layman’s terms (that is all I’ve got) the Leonid Meteors got their name from their apparent relationship to the constellation Leo. The meteors, some no larger than a speck of dust, derive from the parent comet Tempel-Tuttle. Ernest Tempel (December 1865) and Horace Tuttle (January 1866) individually recognized that the Tempel-Tuttle Comet was a recurring one.

The Tempel-Tuttle Comet takes a little over 33 years to orbit the sun. Each time the comet is closest to the sun it sheds particles that cluster together. Depending on where Earth passes through in the comet’s debris trail depends on the intensity of the meteors. Some years there can be as many as 500 meteors falling per hour. This year is not a “sky is falling” type of meteor year but certainly a way to introduce children to astronomy. The phase of the moon coupled with a clear night is what will make viewing the Leonids a pleasurable experience for all.

President of the Tupper Lake Observatory Mark Staves says, “The Leonid Meteor shower does occur every year but since we will have a new moon on the 18th, moonlight won’t be a factor. Moonlight usually diminishes the effect of the meteors. When the light from the meteor shower competes with the moonlight it is not as spectacular.”

He says, “After midnight start to search for meteors toward the east. As the morning progressives look toward southeast and then about 5:00 a.m. the meteors should be toward the south.”

The Adirondack Loj will be hosting a meteor-searching, s’more-eating campfire this evening at Heart Lake. Even though the early dawn of November 17th was predicted as the peak of the meteor shower the darkened skies coupled with the wide-open mountaintops over Heart Lake will present perfect viewing.

The timing of this event is late for little ones. This free program is hosted by an ADK naturalist and runs from 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. tonight. If you can’t make this event the meteor showers will still be able for viewing from any dark wide-open space through the 20th of this month, lessening in frequency as the moonlight brightens in intensity.

“They (meteors) can be intensive,” Staves says. “It would help children to understand that what they are actually seeing is something as small as a speck of dust but traveling 50 times the speed of sound.”

When something so small hits the atmosphere so fast the heat created causes the sand-sized particles to vaporize Staves summarizes.

As for the Tupper Lake Observatory, board members are in the process of putting together the necessary permit applications to the Adirondack Park Agency.

“We have architectural renderings for a Roll-Off Observatory,” Staves says. “The 24-30’ building will have a gantry roof structure so that the whole roof can come off. All the equipment will be set up there permanently. The roof will roll off completely and have a full view of the night sky. We anticipate breaking ground summer of 2010.”

Photo Credit: Simon Filiatrault


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Porcupines: Armed and Dangerous

At the mention of the word “porcupine” most of us conjure in our minds the image of a medium-sized brown animal covered with long quills. But beyond this, I’d be willing to say that the average person knows very little about our second largest rodent, a relatively shy animal with poor eyesight, little muscle tone, and a fondness for salt. So, I thought I’d look into the cultural and natural history of the porcupine and see what interesting tidbits I could come up with to expand the average person’s knowledge of this denizen of our Adirondack forestlands. What I found was really quite interesting. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November in the Adirondacks

November often seems like the most barren time of the year. The bright colors of autumn have passed, leaving a world of greys and browns behind. Lawns may still be green, but it’s a dull green that’s slowly turning brown. The days are shorter and more chill, and we reach for our sweaters and blankets. Woodstoves are fired up, and the tang of woodsmoke fills the air. People seem to be preparing for hibernation.

But the curious naturalist doesn’t go into hibernation. For many nature nuts, November is the time when secrets are revealed. With leaves off the trees, new woodpecker holes are visible. The line of sight through the forest no longer stops about three inches into the woods. Dens in rocks begin to look lived in, and beaver activity becomes quite pronounced. Signs of feeding, be it bears or squirrels, moose or chickadees, can be found with very little effort.

November is the time to explore. There are fewer distractions now that flowers are not blooming and insects are not buzzing. Everything seems to have been distilled to its essential nature. No more lazing around – it is time to get down to the business of survival, for winter is not far off.

Galls, as mentioned in previous posts, are highly visible in this time between the seasons and make perfect objects for nature studies. Dried flower heads (weeds, to some people) stand out with their own stark beauty and are ideal candidates for winter floral arrangements. In fact, there is at least one book out there to help you identify these ghosts of flowers past: Weeds in Winter, by Lauren Brown.

Many mornings are now kissed with frost. Few things are as beautiful as Jack Frost’s artwork, especially in the early morning light. From spears of ice lining late autumn leaves, to feathers and swirls on frozen puddles, these ephemeral gifts of the season presage the coming winter.

And just when you think it is time to pack away the t-shirts and shorts, Mother Nature throws us a bone with a glorious day of sunshine and warmth. Moths and flies dart around in hopes of finding a pre-winter snack, and last minute outside chores are hastily done. Sure, November can be gloomy if you don’t know how to appreciate it, but take a page from the naturalist’s book, and you will soon find yourself looking forward to the month that hangs in the cusp between autumn and winter.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest

It’s time to haul that albino jack-a-lope out of the attic; time to dust off that high quality deer butt door bell, or other animal rump art, and head down to the big city to show ’em how its done. Yes – it’s strange taxidermy time and “Science Geeks, Nature Freaks, and Rogue Geniuses” will be gathering Sunday, November 15th at the 4th Annual Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest at the Bell House, a 1920’s warehouse converted into a music and events venue in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The event is hosted by the Secret Science Club, which bills itself as a “lecture, arts, and performance series.”

“Show off your beloved moose head, stuffed albino squirrel, sinuous snake skeletons, jarred sea slugs, and other specimens,” the event announcement reads, “Compete for prizes and glory!” There will be a “feral taxidermy talk by beast mistress Melissa Milgrom,” author of the forth-coming book, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy and an appearance by the Grand Master of Taxidermy, Takeshi Yamada. But the highlight of the event will be a juried taxidermy show judged by a panel of “savage taxidermy enthusiasts” that includes Robert Marbury, co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, and Secret Science Club co-curator Dorian Devins.

The contest is open to any and all taxidermy (homemade, purchased, and found), preserved and jarred specimens, skeletons, skulls, and gaffs and beyond. The organizers are quick to point out this year that wet specimens must remain in their jars. Prizes will be awarded for categories that include best stuffed creature, most interesting biological oddity, and more.

Entrants need only contact secretscienceclub@gmail.com to pre-register, and arrive at 7 pm on the night of the contest.

The contest was begun in 2005 by Secret Science Club co-curators Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson as a promotion for this taxidermy-inspired book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger. “The event has since taken on a life of its own,” the organizers tell us, after first-year winners Andrew Templar and Jim Carden (co-owners of the Bell House) began providing a permanent home for what has been dubbed a “beastly annual smack-down.”

Photo: Mike Zohn of Obscura Antiques received the 2008 Order of Carnivorous Knights Grand Prize for his “shadowbox mise en scene” of albino weasels posing as miniature polar bears.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Newcomb: Identifying Roadside Roses

Perhaps November is really not the time of year to try to identify roadside roses. Sure, the hips are lovely, and they certainly look as though they should be distinctive. Lots of trees are easily identified by their fruits alone, so why not roses? How difficult could it be?

I confess right up front that while I appreciate roses as much as the next person, I am not a rose aficionado, one of those people for whom roses are the sole reason for existing on this planet. I enjoy their colors, their fragrances, and their abundance of brightly colored fruits in the fall, but I don’t dedicate my life to their propagation. Perhaps if I spent a little more time among the roses, however, I wouldn’t find myself in my current predicament.

Last month I took some nice photos of some of the rosehips I found growing along Route 28N. It was early morning, there had been a crisp frost overnight, and I had my new lens to play with. I ended up with a nice image or two, and all was fine…until today, when I decided to write up an article about our local roadside roses. I mean, if you are going to write about something, you really should be able to identify what it is, beyond the obvious (rose). It turns out that sometimes this is easier said than done.

I started where I always start when trying to identify plants: my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It listed several species, and had color illustrations of flowers, leaves, and even some of the hips. But since all I had to go by were some photos of the hips, I thought I should try to narrow the field by finding out what species actually grow in New York.

According to the Revised Checklist of New York State Plants, by Richard S. Mitchell and Gordon C. Tucker, New York is home to no less than twenty-eight species of roses, seventeen of which are non-natives, and two of which are endangered. Unfortunately, this checklist is just that: a checklist. It doesn’t give tips for identifying the plants it lists, nor does it provide a list of plant locations.

So, I next turned to the state’s new on-line nature information website: New York Nature Explorer (http://www.dec.ny.gov/natureexplorer/app/). It’s supposed to be your one-stop-shopping location for identifying and learning about the plants and animals of our fair state. I typed in “rose” and hit “search.” It turned up exactly one rose in the entire database (although it also listed things like rose pagonia – an orchid— and rose-breasted grosbeak—a bird). What happened to the other twenty-seven?

Not to be discouraged, I went to Google and ran searches for each rose on the checklist (it’s been a long morning). I found lots of photos of flowers, but few of hips. And none seemed to match mine. The light at the end of the tunnel was getting further and further away.

Turning back to Newcomb’s, I counted nine species of roses, all of which occur in New York. The other eighteen from The Checklist that were not listed are all non-natives, apparently garden types that jumped the garden wall. I figured that I had found my best possible source for ID help. Ironically, it was where I had started about four hours ago.

A couple, like the swamp rose (Rosa palustris), were easy to eliminate from my search – they require wetlands, or at least habitats that are more amenable than the dry, salty side of a highway. Smooth rose (R. blanda), as you might guess from its name, is a relatively thornless species. Looking closely at mine, it didn’t qualify. Not only was the stem covered with thorns both large and small, but so were the stipules at the end of the fruit.

The fruit of Rosa rugosa, a common escapee, look like balls that have been flattened on both ends. The fruits on my specimen do not fit this mold. I was ready to settle on it being a pasture rose (R. carolina), but all photos and drawings I found of this species were nowhere near as thorny as mine. My hopes of success were now pretty well dashed.

But that’s the great thing about being a naturalist—I have an undying curiosity to know the answer. I may not learn the identity of these roses today, tomorrow, or even this year. But you can rest assured that come summer next year, when the roses bloom and fill the air with their perfume, I will be out there with my field guide (and camera) in hand, determined to identify these plants. Even if I have to send specimens to the authors of The Checklist.