Tuesday, March 30, 2010

More Tracking Books

Following the enthusiastic advice of my blogging pal Squirrel, I ordered a couple new tracking books. I've been eagerly awaiting their arrival - what tracking bibliophile wouldn't? They arrived today - hooray!

I was uncertain at first about getting this book, Stories in Tracks and Sign, but after reading it, I'm glad it did. The author, Diane Gibbons, presents a wide variety of photographs of animal tracks from all over North America, and each is followed by a painting that shows the animal in the process of making those tracks. This is very helpful in learning how to use your imagination to picture how the tracks you see were made (which can often be quite a challenge). Her subjects range from easy (deer trails) to challenging (mole crabs on the beach). A good book to add to one's tracking library (or to borrow from someone else's tracking library).

This book is put out by Stackpole books, the same folks who published Mark Elbroch's mammal and bird tracking books (which is why it looks a lot like them). I can already tell that Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates is going to be a well-thumbed book in my field pack. Not only does it include insect (and invertebrate) footprints where appropriate, but it also includes other insecty (and invertebratey) things, such as eggs, cocoons, and feeding sites. Every curious naturalist should add a copy of this to his or her stash.

Thanks for the tip, Squirrel!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

An Early Blackfly Season?

I was talking to my friend Edna the other day and learned that the blackfly larvae are already active. Edna is one of our local Bti agents - folks who apply Bti to the streams and waterways as part of an on-going effort to control blackfly larvae. You all got to meet her last year here.

I had stopped by Edna's two days earlier to drop off photos of the beaver pond, so she could see how it had changed since last summer when she treated it (before beavers). At that point she said that the larvae they were finding were still torpid - not active. But two days later she was telling me that they (the larvae) were squirming and wriggling in massive clumps to beat the band. Treatment had begun.

Does this mean an early blackfly season? Or a longer one? Only time will tell.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Set Your Clocks

Next Saturday (27 March), from 8:30 PM until 9:30 PM, is the Fourth Annual Earth Hour.

What is Earth Hour? It's an international "event" designed to bring our (the people of the developed world) attention to our ever growing energy needs. The Event started in Australia in 2007 and has since grown to cover the planet, with millions of people participating. The goal is to increase our awareness of climate change, but I also think it could have an impact on night-time light pollution - it could be part of the Dark Skies movement.

During this one hour, on this one day of the year, people are encouraged to turn off all their lights. Just think of what the global energy savings might be from just this one small action.

If you want to learn more about this movement, visit the Earth Hour Website.

Then set your clocks for 8:30 PM next Saturday and sit in the dark for an hour with your friends and family. Who knows...it might even be fun.

They're Heerrre

Overslept again, so Toby and I were on a quick walk this morning. We were cruising by the rescue squad when I heard it. Could it be? Again. Cheerily Cheerily. It must be. A robin.

And sure enough, as we were coming back down the home stretch, a bird with an unmistakeable chunky brown body and yellow bill flew up into a tree. Then another flew across the street. The next thing I knew, I was seeing robins everywhere.

And it's the first day of spring. How appropriate.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wearin' o' th' Green

Saint Paddy's Day found me outside scouting the trails for animal tracks. We had a school group coming the next day, and I knew recent conditions were less than ideal for making, not to mention finding, tracks. Almost two weeks of mild weather, lots of sunshine and a wee bit of rain, plus some pretty strong winds, were bound to make things interesting.

Here's what the trail looked like:

Between the debris and hard, icy snow, it was going to be interesting!

Of course, I found myself distracted my all sorts of naturey things. Who could resist this fungus? Look at all the tiny wee holes on the underside - fitting that it is a polypore, eh? I believe this is Fomes fomentarius, the tinder polypore.

Despite questionable conditions, I was able to find a few tracks. As one might suspect, mouse and squirrel tracks were non-existent, but heavier animals, like deer, left pretty good tracks behind.

Along the sunny shore of a wetland, I found wild iris starting to emerge.

And the sphagnum moss was looking quite thick and juicy. I'm wondering if this is the "cat sphagnum" I learned about from Evelyn last fall.

This small shrubby plant was also along the side of the wetland. It's stem was fuzzy - almost downy. The buds look familiar, but I must be having a senior moment because I can't place it.

Here's some of the bright green that the Earth was wearing just in time for this Irish holiday. The leaves are even shamrocky in shape. Of course, this is goldthread, not shamrocks, but even so, it was nice to see on St. Patrick's Day.

This jumping spider was one of several I saw traversing a mossy rock in the sunshine next to the beaver pond. Here it is modeling for us a very nice little pixy cup lichen - I suspect it is a mealy pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea).

And right nearby was the tiniest British Soldiers lichen I've ever seen (Cladonia cristatella). Although it could be Gritty British Soldiers (C. floerkeana) - I didn't look closely enough to note the difference and I can't tell from this photo. Reading the habitat requirements of each may give a clue: the former is "equally at home on wood, soil, or even bark (tree bases)", while the latter is found "on earth, rotten logs, or soil-covered rocks, usually in the open." Hm...this was on a rock, in an open spot along the beaver pond. The rock had a healthy population of mosses and lichens, so some soil build-up was present. Both species can grown on soil. Guess habitat wasn't too helpful. Better observations and some chemical testing are in order.

As I sat there enjoying the sunshine and watching the wildlife crawl around the rock, this tree-, plant-, or leaf-hopper dropped in for a visit. I'm waiting to hear back from BugGuide.net for confirmation on what it is. Update: It turns out that this is a diamondbacked spittlebug (which are related to leafhoppers) - Lepyronia quadrangularis. It seems that these insects, which are commonly found in meadows and open spaces, where the young feed on grasses and other plants, safe within their foamy spittle homes, will overwinter as adults. When they do, they move to lower, swampy areas where the microclimate is less harsh and varied. This explians why I found this individual in the woods next to a beaver pond!

Ditto on this little guy. Lots of these were flying about (and landing on me - that's my hand it's crawling across, not Mars). Update: when I sent in my ID request to BugGuide, I mentioned that the back end of this insect had two "tails" like those on a stonefly. The response I got was "That's because it is a stonefly." Well - there you are, then. I looked it up in my Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America and there, on the bottom of page 61 is a tiny little stonefly of the genus Allocapnia. These are "small winter stoneflies" (as opposed to "winter stoneflies") that can be out and about in temps a chilly at 20*F. Since it was well into the 50s, it's no surprise they were out and about. According to my Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, the adults emerge between December and April. As larvae, these insects are shredders, or detritivores, chowing down on decaying leaves that land in the water, consuming up to 30% of their weight in leaves each day.

So, here we are at the beaver pond. Water was rushing through one small opening, but mostly the dam was holding up.

The shallow parts of the pond were still covered with ice. I just loved the soft green of the ice in this section.

On the far side, the beaver lodge was quite visible. Last fall it was a little more difficult to see, but the barren landscape of spring, combined with the bright sunshine and a winter's worth of sticks thrown on the roof, made the bank lodge stick out like a sore thumb. I eventually made my way around to that side of the pond, but couldn't get close enough to see more than a few of the sticks. The beavers picked a good, safe location.

Here's what the slope above the lodge looks like. If these beavers were people, the APA would hit them with a major fine for clearcutting the woods!

Not only was the slope covered with sharp, pointy "stumps," but it was striped with several trails, where the beavers went up the hill to harvest some trees and then dragged them back to the pond. Some of these trails were quite deep and eroded.

Often when beavers cut down trees (saplings) for food, the stump left behind resprouts, sending up numerous new shoots. This one, however, is not likely to do so, for the beavers actually dug out the roots and cut them off as well!

Nearby, an old yellow birch had finally given up the ghost, and the beavers were having at it. The little black spot on the end is a fly. Two of these flies were sponging up the moisture oozing from the end. Sap?

Another old yellow birch, this one perched precariously at the top edge of a steep slope overlooking the pond, also showed signs of sampling by the beavers. I'm going to keep an eye on this one because I'm curious to see if the beavers plan on taking it down, or if this sample is the extent of the damage they'll do.

Although the "pond" part of the pond (to the left in this photo) is still frozen, the "stream" part is open and flowing right along.

Another portrait of my left hand. Have you ever noticed how many left hand photographs naturalists take? Seriously, though, this is a beaver track next to my hand. I had nothing else for scale, and I was simply impressed by the size of the thing. While to the untrained eye this looks like a track left by one of those giant prehistoric beavers, it is in fact merely the melted-out track of an average modern day beaver. Melting snow makes even the smallest tracks look huge.

My scouting trip turned up an additional raccoon track, some otter trails, and a grouse scat, so when the students arrived the next day, we had plenty of animal signs to look for.

Just as new green shoots are a sure sign of spring, so is the lack of trackable snow. It's these conditions that sharpen the observer's eye. We know the animals are still out there, but the signs of their passing are more subtle and we must be more alert if we want to find them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Challenge

For all ye readers of scientific mind, I present a challenge.

Anyone who's taken even a rudimentary biology class has at least a passing familiarity with the classification system applied to naming every living thing on this planet. In this system, there are some basic categories: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

In order to help students remember these categories, a variety of mnemonics have appeared over the years. I grew up with "King Phyl Came Over For Gathering Strawberries," although I've also heard he preferred "Good Spaghetti." A quick search on-line also turned up:

* Kindly place cover on fresh green spring vegetables.
* Krakatoa positively casts off fumes generating sulphurous vapours.
* Kings play cards on fairly good soft velvet.
* Kings play chess on fine grain sand.
* Ken poured coffee on Fran's good shirt.
* Kangaroos play cellos; orangutans fiddle; gorillas sing.

(The words starting with "v" stand in for "variety," which applies to plants.)

Still, for the purist, there are even more categories, which can lead to more confusion rather than clarity. For those who want to know 'em all, here's the list:

Domain, Kingdom, Subkingdom, Phylum, Subphylum, Class, Subclass, Infraclass, Superorder, Order, Superfamily, Family, Subfamily, Genus, Species, and Subspecies.

These don't, however, apply to plants, which have some different categories (see note above). For now, we shall ignore plants altogether.

So, faced with this expanded taxonomic list, I tried to come up with a new mnemonic to keep it all in mind (and to keep King Phyl in the picture). After wasting many minutes pondering it, here's what I finally came up with:

Dopey King Sigmund Phyl Saw Cows Singing in Sarah's Oven Saturday; Fortunately Sarah's Goats Stayed Silent.

Here's the challenge: come up with a better mnemonic and let me know what it is!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cattail Critters

Following in the footsteps of naturalists who have gone before (Gerry at Naturespeak and Seabrooke at The Marvelous in Nature), I wanted to see what critters might be lurking inside a cattail head.

So, yesterday, as I drove home from The City (Glens Falls), I pulled over at a wetland to gather me some cattails. There, on the other side of the road, was a state trooper, probably waiting to catch the unwary as they sped by. He kept an eye on me, as I exited my car, walked to the edge of the wetland and severed three cattail heads with my pocket knife. I gave him a jaunty wave as I climbed back into my car. I wonder what was going through his head as he watched this.

Anyway, when I got home, I brought the cattails inside and put them with the pile of stuff to go to work with me the next day.

This morning, I grabbed a paper plate and started to pull apart the first head.

Now, what I was in search of, specifically, were tiny wee caterpillars, the larvae of a tiny wee moth known as the Shy Cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella). These caterpillars eat the tiny wee seeds of the cattail.

Anyone who is familiar with cattails knows that the brown hotdog-shaped head is a tightly compacted collection of millions and millions of seeds. All things being equal, these seeds are just waiting for something to trigger their release, when they will suddenly puff out, like someone pulled a cord on an inflatable life raft.

For the caterpillars, this isn't a good thing. If the seeds puff out and then blow away on the wind, the larvae will be left to starve. So, to combat this, these clever little critters spin a silken hair net over the cattail head. This fine webbing keeps the seeds in place throughout the winter, as seen here:

This cattail hasn't puffed so much. I didn't pull this one apart, but I wonder if I had if I would've found any caterpillars. Perhaps there weren't any in it.

This is what a cattail hopes to look like by spring - a naked stalk that is free of seeds:

I love to pull off cattail fluff. If you are gently, it will peel off and just lie there, looking an awful lot like a freshly sheered sheep fleece.

So there I was with my paper plate and a partially fluffed out cattail. I grabbed a couple sharp pencils and started to dissect the thing. Each poke puffed out more seeds.

I was rewarded almost immediately with a very tiny larva (very tiny, as in, oh, it may have stretched all of 2mm):

A little more poking around, and a larger, older larva turned up:

All in all, I probably uncovered about a half dozen caterpillars. Unfortunately, the heat from the sun and the furnace had warmed these critters up and they weren't hanging around waiting for the census man. I really wanted to get a photo of one nestled in the cattail fluff, but by the time I found one, put my glasses back on, grabbed the camera and tried to focus, it was gone. These buggers can move fast!

Meanwhile, there were lots of other things crawling out of the fluffwork. They were all the same thing though: the bullrush,or reedmace, bug (Chilacis typhae). Here's an adult:

and a juvenile:

and one of each:

These insects are non-natives. Considered palearctic ("of or relating to the biogeographic region that includes Europe, the northwest coast of Africa, and Asia north of the Himalaya Mountains, especially with respect to distribution of animals"), which means they came from overseas, like the rest of us. Back in their native home, these insects infest bullrushes (aka: reedmace), where the adults overwinter in the seed heads (kind of like these here were doing in the cattails). Bullrush bugs (true bugs, in the order Hemiptera, so we can really call them "bugs") eat the seeds of the bullrush. I presume that they also eat the seeds of the cattails.

Like my little caterpillars, they were fast, zooming around so quickly it was very difficult to get any photos.
Here you can see the chase in action, as the bug tries to avoid the paparazzi by hiding in what seed fluff remained on the stripped cattail head:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Just a quickie this morning, but I had to report what I heard last night.

It was about 7:15, and I was heading home along the ol' dog walking route. We (the pooch and I) had come to a halt so he could tinkle, when lo! overhead I heard the unmistakable harsh "honk" of a Canada goose! And where there's one, there's bound to be more, but it was 7:15 PM after all, which means the only things I was seeing when looking up were the stars and street lights.

Looking back across my phenology chart, I see that I usually don't encounter my first geese until the end of March. In 2004 I had geese on 3/11, too, though. Still, it seems a bit early.

This morning, Newcomb was full of red-wing blackbirds, cow birds (I just love their bubbly song), starlings, grackles...collectively referred to simply as blackbirds. They are skittish, though, so the best I can offer photographically is their hasty depatures.

And, last but not least, I heard a flicker this morning, too.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Update: Remains at a Deer Kill Site

It's great to have contacts. I finally sent the above photo to Charlotte over at the Adirondack Ecological Center to see if she knew what it was.

A quick recap: I found this brown ball of stuff at the site where a deer had been consumed by (probably) coyotes. My first thoughts were that it was part of the innards, but the fine texture reminded me more of fecal matter, albeit fecal matter from a domestic animal that eats processed food. As it turns out, I was both right and wrong with both guesses. Here's what Charlotte had to say:

"Your deer gut photo looks like the rumen...not the organ but what was in the rumen. Pretty typical for coyotes and what-have-you to not eat it. Pretty vile (or bile). We see that a lot around carcasses."

So, it wasn't an organ, but it was from the innards. It wasn't scat, but eventually it would've been once it was thoroughly processed.

And there you are!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Looking for More Signs of Spring?

Just in case you need a further dose of spring, hop on over to my gardening blog for some views of spring in Vermont - from my time at Merck Forest and Farmland Center. Just click here and enjoy!

More Signs of Spring

As I drove home from work yesterday, I watched two crows chasing and harrassing a raven. Every time they dove at it, it flipped over and presented its feet. Very cool. My camera was packed in my bag on the seat behind me, so no photos.

This morning, my boss came in and announced not only were the starlings back (she saw two at her feeders yesterday), but this morning she had red-winged blackbirds and grackles. I walked by her house about 8 AM today and didn't see or hear any blackbirds of any kind...must be they waited for the sun to warm things up a bit more.

Meanwhile, back in my yard, I discovered the following additional signs of spring late yesterday afternoon:

The giant pussy willows have emerged.

The black pussy willows have emerged.
These guys are stiff and bristly, not soft
and fuzzy like "normal" pussy willows.

The hazelnut catkins await real spring. Two of my four shrubs
have these male flowers this year. Maybe I'll get nuts this time around?

The apple trees have soft green tips, with what look like
new leaves at the very end.
I actually noticed these
a month or two ago...should've noted last fall when

the pussy willows popped if the apple trees had put out this new growth
at the same time. Will have to keep my eyes peeled better next fall/winter.

The rodents got beneath the snow and snuggled up around this burning bush, using it for fodder through the winter. This is why I wrap the bases of the trees and shrubs I want to protect. I don't mind too much that this shrub was attacked, for it is considered an invasive and is one of three more plants I need to remove from my gardens.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


I've been away the last few days. "Away" meaning I took time off from work. It was beautiful weather - I should've been out doing naturalist stuff. Instead, I did household stuff - cleaning, grocery shopping (a day-long event here in Newcomb because it requires a trip to Glens Falls), and reading. And even though the days were bright and sunny, with scads of blue sky and sunshine, the wind was bitter cold!!! Still, things have been melting. The roadsides are all covered with snert (or is it snirt?) - snow and dirt, or dirty snow. The snow away from the roadsides is alternately rotting and freezing. South-facing hillsides are bare. In other words, it looks like April out there, not early March.

This morning when I went out to fill the feeders (birds have been Spartan lately - even the blue jays are not wiping out the peanuts on a daily basis), I was shocked to see the following signs of spring:

1) Tulips, up almost two inches!

2) Daffodils up about an inch, pushing steadily through the leaves!

3) Azalea buds starting to swell and turn green!

4) The rhododendron leaves turning green!

At 8:30 AM, even Toby was lying down and soaking up some rays.

Even my 50 gallon "rain barrel", which collects the water dripping from my leaky gutters, was full of water. WATER. Not ice! After a clear night! The skim of ice on top was so thin it only took a gentle tap to shatter it. It's been full of mostly ice for weeks.

It's just too early for these signs of spring. Either we are going to have spring really really early this year, or we will get dumped on and all these plants will be sorry they put in an appearance so soon in the season.

When I got to work, I noticed that another warm weather creature had been out and about:

This is the remains of the bag of solidified bacon grease I had at the feeders. Remember the raccoon from my last post? I'd give good odds that it (or one of its friends) finally discovered this high-energy snack a couple nights ago and made short work of it.

Our snow stick is down to about 12 inches. More sunny weather is predicted for this week. It sure seems like spring.