Friday, June 27, 2008

The Latest Natural Happenings

In the flower world, white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) and twin flowers (Linneae borealis) are now blooming.

On our walk down to the pump house down on the Hudson River last Tuesday, I saw my second wood turtle of the year laying eggs. This one was much smaller than any other wood turtles I've seen laying eggs - maybe 7" or so along the length of her carapace. She had eggs in her nest and she was taking a pause while Toby and I were nosy. I wished her well and we moved on. When I checked on her next yesterday, it was undisturbed - no fox or raccoons have raided it yet.

Despite the rainy days of the last week, we probably gained no more than a half-inch of moisture. The Hudson River is down, although still paddle-able. I may try and put in the Spitfire one of these days down at the pump house before the water gets too low. Today would be a good day, I have the time, but it is Guaming again out there, and that's never a joy to be out in.

I've seen a couple bats darting over the yard at night during the last week or two. They are most likely big browns (Eptesicus fuscus), which, according to an article I just read, are one of the few species that have not been hit by white-nose syndrome (WNS). It seems that little browns, Indianas, eastern pipistrelles and northern long-earreds are the ones affected. I plan to attend a lecture on WNS on the 7th down in Bolton Landing. If you are in the area and interested in the topic, stop on in for the talk. You can find it listed in the event schedule for the Adirondack Invasive Species Awareness Week, which is the second week of July. Take a gander on-line at

Monday, June 23, 2008

Mystery Plant

I put this one out there for any and all to try and identify. I found this mystery plant growing in my "field" two days ago, and I don't know what it is. I've tried keying it out using Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (which until now has never failed me), and I even tried to find a matching photo in the Audubon wildflower field guide, but to no avail.

So, here is a photo of the flower head (there were/are two, each on its own stalk), and one of a leaf (note how it wraps around the stem).

The insects on the flower are rose chafers, which arrived en force yesterday, much to my dismay, and are eating all the flowers on fruiting trees and shrubs, such as grapes and viburnums, as well as the leaves of apple trees, hops, et al. If anyone has a cure for these, please send it along, too. There are just too many for picking off (I've done that and filled entire mason jars in under an hour), and garlic spray doesn't seem to deter them any (plus, spraying the garlic when the plant is in bloom deters the bees, which means no pollination, and thus no fruit - might as well let the chafers eat the flowers as it will have the same result).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

One-flowered Cancerroot - a short tale

About, oh, four years ago, while mowing one of the paths through the “field” portion of my yard, I came across this strange flowering plant. It was a pale pinkish-lavenderish color, with yellow down the throat, and no discernable leaves. In fact, it had no green on it anywhere – the stem was as ghostly in color as the flower. Upon consultation with my trusty “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide,” I determined it was one-flowered cancerroot (Orobanche uniflora), aka: ghost pipe, and naked broomrape.

I looked for it the following year, but didn’t see it again until yesterday, when I was once again mowing a path around my “field.” I found not one flower, but several separate clusters, and none in the same place as the ones I discovered four years ago. As it turns out, this delicate plant rarely appears in the same place twice.

So today I began a search for information on one-flowered cancerroot. As it turns out, there is not a whole lot of information “out there” about this plant; most of what I found was clinical statistics, like height, color, habitat. Still, weeding through it all I think I can piece together a fairly interesting natural history of this ephemeral plant.

O. uniflora is a member of the Broomrape Family. All but one member of this family are parasitic, unable to produce their own food via photosynthesis (hence the lack of green parts). Instead, broomrapes obtain their food (and water) from other herbaceous plants (such as clover, saxifrage and sunflowers) via their roots, which attach to the roots of their oblivious host plants.

A denizen of damp woodlands and thickets across much of North America, one-flowered cancerroot is described as rare or of special concern in many locations, while in general it is considered to be common. Since the plant only grows 3-10” tall, and is often hidden among its taller neighbors (and rarely grows in the same place twice), I imagine it can be difficult to ascertain a concise record of its presence.

Based on photographs I found on the internet, this flower varies in color from a real purple to essentially white. It has a splash of yellow down its throat (reproductive parts), and the stem is sticky (at least according to descriptions; I felt the ones in my yard and while they do have some fine hairs along their stems, they were not sticky). According, one-flowered cancerroot is pollinated by bumblebees. Based on the flower structure, this does not surprise me. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled the next sunny day that I’m home and see if a bumblebee visits “my” clusters of flowers.

It seems that cancerroot seeds can stay dormant in the soil for quite some time – up to several years – just waiting for the right chemical compounds to become available in the soil courtesy of other living plants. Once the seeds germinate, their roots seek out host roots and latch on, stealing water and nutrients in order to keep themselves alive.

I paged through my Native American Ethnobotany tome to see if anyone had a use for this strange plant, and while other members of the genus Orobanche were used for a variety of medicines, O. uniflora apparently never has been. Two of its relatives, beechdrops (Epiphagus virginiana) and squawroot (Conopholis americana), are known for their astringent properties. As for the name “cancerroot,” it seems it was applied without much forethought, merely taking into account that other members of the family do have medicinal properties.

And there you have it: one-flowered cancerroot. 2008 seems to be a good year for it, at least in my yard. This is a spring-flowering plant (April through June), so the next time you find yourself in damp woodlands or thickets (or unmowed lawns near the forest’s edge) before the summer solstice, keep an eye turned to the ground and scan for these pale purplish plants. Let me know if you see any bumblebees pollinating them.

Slugs, Wood Sorrel and White Birch Leaves

Yesterday evening, for a change of pace, Toby and I took our evening stroll over at the Camp Santanoni Preserve, detouring from the traditional route in to the Farm and Camp by taking the connector trail over to the VIC property. It had been raining off and on throughout the day, and temperatures had become quite pleasant...although humidity was high. As a result, the mosquitoes were out in great numbers.

Still, it was a pleasant walk in the early evening and Toby got to sniff new stuff, which is always a joy (to him).

Learned something new, but not too surprising: slugs are repelled by dog urine. As all dog folks know, new routes mean a lot of territorial marking on the part of the pooch, and Toby was going full bore, marking every other tree, shrub, log, tall plant, rock, etc. When he went to sign in on one particular log, I noticed a rather large slug stretched out along the side (looking rather leech-like, actually). As soon as the golden stream splashed upon its slimy back, the slug recoiled, releasing its hold on the log and plopping to the ground in a tight wad. When we walked passed the log again later on (as we were leaving the trail), the slug was still there, still bunched up. I'm pretty sure it was still alive, though. Could it be the salt in the urine that the slug objected to? Or might it be the whole chemical cocktail that makes up urine? Hm.

Two other discoveries yesterday evening: wood sorrel blooming, and white leaves on an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) seedling (see photo below). One leaf was half green and half white, the other totally white. I brought them in to work to photograph, but the color has faded to tan - like the tan of dead beech leaves in winter. Still, one gets the idea. Is this color variation caused by a virus, as it is in tulips and in other plants with variegated leaves? I can see that someone could possibly make a fortune breeding beech trees with white (or variegated) leaves for the landscaping/horticultural market.

Other blooming observations: lots of one-flowered cancerroot (Orobanche uniflora) is "blooming" in my yard (will try and get photos tonight and blog it tomorrow), and viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare) opened up overnight (I suspect the rain).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Luna Legacy

Yesterday evening while on our walk down to the Hudson River, I found the right hind wing of a luna moth in the weeds along the roadside. No other evidence of the insect was about. A bat's late night meal?

I brought it home so I could include it here with a photo because what struck me about this wing is how furry it is:

What is the purpose of this furriness? Does it, like the furry hairs on early plants like coltsfoot, help it keep warm? I don't know. I'm still looking for information.

Meanwhile, here is some background info. about the luna moth:
  • The luna (Actias luna) is a Saturniid moth.

  • The adults live for only about a week and have no mouth parts (in other words, they don't eat - that could explain the short life span as an adult).

  • Up in the northern part of its range (Canada), the luna only produces one generation a year, while in NY and NJ (and similar latitudes) it produces up to two, the first adults generally appearing around April and May, and the second generation 9-11 weeks later.

  • The larvae are usually listed as feeding on hickory and walnut leaves, but this gave me pause since we don't have those here. As it turns out, they also eat birch, alder and sumac, all of which grow up here in the mountains.

Other recent sightings:

Last night I saw my first fireflies of the season. Actually, it may have been only one firefly. Still, it was the first of the season.

Last Thursday (11th) evening, along the same route to the Hudson, we encountered two snapping turtles digging nests and one wood turtle. I used to see several wood turtles along this stretch of road in early June, all digging nests and laying eggs, but a couple years ago they paved the sandy turn-around and this has severely limited potential nest sites.

The latest bloomers include marshmallow (Althaea officinalis), sow thistle (Sonchus olaraceus - a non-native with aggressive tendencies), blackberries (Rubus alleghaniensis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium - also non-native, but naturalized), purple vetch (Vicia americana) - all your common "roadside weeds." My favorite is birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus cornicalatus), another non-native currently in bloom; I love it for its stunning yellow color.

The wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are starting to fruit now - I saw the first ripe ones along the roadside this morning.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

After the Storm

It was a blustery day in the Adirondacks yesterday (actually, it was blustery pretty much all around NY). Severe thunderstorms crossed the state, and tornado watches were initiated. As we sat here in the dark, listening to the weather radio and watching the temperature drop from 81 to 64 degrees (Fahrenheit), and tracking the storm on the computer, we were pretty sure that the darkening sky and the whipping wind spelled doom for us. And yes, the storm was headed for Newcomb...but the other end of town. The VIC got maybe a drop or two of rain and that was it.

The boss was greatly disappointed.

Still, the weather redeemed itself later on when a second stream of storms passed over during the night, yielding great thunder and lightning displays, and strong gusting winds. No hail or tornados, and only 0.2" of rain, but it was a more impressive display.

Today, however, it is a different world. The heat and humidity of the last several days has passed and it is a glorious true Adirondack day. The air is cool thanks to the strong wind that is blowing, which is serving double duty by helping keep the insects at bay.

On a quick trip around the Rich Lake Trail, we had some neat finds:

a funky red slime mold;

bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) - note the flowers are actually in the center, and the white "petals" are actually bracts, like the red "petals" on poinsettias;

dragonflies (how many wings do you see?);

and the day's star - rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum).

The dragonflies have me flummoxed (what a great word). Eight wings?!? I have two photos, taken about 15 minutes apart (one when I headed out on the trail and the other when I came back), so they are likely of two different individuals, and each one shows eight wings! Could it be a trick of the light? It's not shadows, because the colored spot on the leading edge of the wings is in color on all eight wings. Could it be from the wings moving and the camera capturing what is essentially double exposure (but I don't recall the wings being in motion when I took the photos)? Or maybe we have mutant dragonflies! The jury is out on this one. I have a call in to a dragonfly person - will keep you posted.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Biting Insect Grand Slam

Step right up, folks! Now's the time to get 'em all. Yessiree - all four of your major biting insects are out and about NOW!

We've got yer black flies, yer deer flies, yer mosquitoes and even yer noseeums!

No standing in line! Just stick your nose out the door and you, too, can delight in the seasonal joys that only these winged wonders can provide.

Bug shirts? Only if you want to swim in your own sweat!

Bug dope? The little biters just laugh at it.

You can run, but you can't hide. So join the fun with hundreds of your fellow tourists - the Adirondacks in June - it can't be beat.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Reigning Monarchs

Yesterday afternoon, in near gale force winds, I saw my first monarch butterfly of the season! It was blowing about the yard, looking for nectar in the flower beds. Luckily, plenty of stuff is blooming now.

Last year we saw our first monarch at the end of May. We were all struck by this since it is a butterfly we usually associate with July, and this just seems way to early to be seeing them.

A few tiger swallowtails have been around, but certainly not in the numbers of the previous two years.

The little blue butterflies (Melissas?) and hairstreaks have been around the last couple of days as well.

I need to brush up on my lepidopteran ID skills.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Nestbox Updates

There's good news and there's sad news on the nestbox front.

The sad news is that Sunday I found my ambitious chickadee (eight eggs) had been evicted. Her eggs were scattered on the ground at the base of the post (some with holes in them), and she was nowhere to be seen. Four or five twigs were lying on top of the mossy nest: wrens.

The good news is that yesterday I did a full check on the nestboxe trail, and found a bluebird nest with five eggs, a chickadee nest with seven eggs, a wren nest with three eggs, and a tree swallow sitting in an empty box trying to look like she wasn't there. This is the first time tree swallows have been evident using a box outside my yard.

I saw a couple bluebirds in my yard yesterday and this morning, so I may check my own nestboxes this week and see if any have decided to move in (so far it has been a bust).

Great Finds with Little Kids

We had a group of kindergarten and first graders in today for a birding program, and one member of the group was this very quiet little girl who, because she was so quiet and did her own thing, found lots of great insects and a dead mole (hairy-tailed mole, Parascalops breweri).

Now, most folks don't get excited about insects or dead things, but I do. We went over to check out the mole, and as I lifted it up, explaining various adaptations that make a mole a mole, two gorgeous black and orange carrion beetles scuttled away from it, hiding themselves in the humus and bark chips.

(This is the beetle burying itself under the mole.)

I went out later, armed with the camera, and captured the photos you see here. Sadly, only one beetle remained, and it did NOT want its photo taken! I did my best, but the best is blurry.

(Notice the orange blobs at the end of the antennae.)

Afterwards I looked it up on-line. At there is a great section of photos of various carrion beetles. Turns out mine is a Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus carolinus. Here is a copy of the photo from the BugGuide website, used here with permission of the photographer, Scott Nelson:

Now is this a great-looking insect or what?

I've developed quite a fondness for carrion beetles. They are large, they come in wonderful shapes and colors, and what's even more fantastic is that they have these absolutely groovy antennae! My beetle had shortish antennae with orange blobs on the end. Some have great feathery combs for antennae.

Reading up on this beetle, I found that usually two, a male and a female, work together when they find a carcass, burying it beneath the ground for use later. When I went out to photograph the insects, the mole was already being buried. The head was writhing about, looking reanimated, and if I hadn't known better, I would've thought the thing was coming back to life. This was the actions of one of the beetles, working diligently to move and bury the mole. I went again a while later and the mole was 60% buried!!! These beetles work fast!

This is a family of insects I encourage everyone to get to know.

Here's my recipe for attracting carrion beetles to study: take one mason jar and fill with water. Collect in the jar insect pests from your garden (Japanese beetles, rose chafer beetles, etc.) and fill the jar (you wanted to kill off these insect pests anyway). Put the lid on and let it sit outside in the sun for a week or so, fermenting. Pour the contents out in a pile and check on it in a day or two or three. This is how I found my first carrion beetles, lovely yellow and black insects the size of the end of my thumb. They had comb-like antennae...very cool.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

First Walk of June

(My apologies ahead of time. I've been working on this for two days and STILL cannot get things to line up correctly. Looks great when I work on it, but when I publish, alignments are all out of whack. It's not for lack of trying.)

What a great morning for a walk! I grabbed the camera and headed out in search of the early June flowers, specifically pink lady's slippers. Lots of plants are blooming, from trees and shrubs to flowers and saprophytes. So, here is a summary, with select photos from the walk.

Still blooming, although some just barely: witch hobble (I found some still in bloom on the Peninsula Trail, but mostly they are finished); purple trillium (a surprise); painted trillium (many are fading).

Budding, but not blooming: Canada mayflower (I'm always amazed at how long it takes for this one to actually open its flowers); wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis); yellow clintonia/bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis); false Solomon's seal/wild spikenard (Smilacina racemosa).

And the stars of the day - the flowers with flowers:

A foursome of Pink Lady's Slippers or Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule); Early Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) - the saprophytic plant (cannot make its own food- gets nourishment from dead or decaying matter); and Foamflower/Miterwort (Tiarella cordifolia) - varieties of this native wildflower can be found in nurseries and garden centers.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis); Goldthread (Coptis groenlandica); and Bluets/Quaker Ladies/Innocence (Houstonia caerulea)

Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum); Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisamea atrorubens); and
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) - sorry, no picture.

Assorted birds were also making their presence known: red-eyed vireo, black-throated green warbler, black-throated blue warbler, robins, black-capped chickadee, hairy woodpecker.

My two favorite finds of the walk were a tiny tiny red eft and the flowers on the striped maple. The latter reminded me of the beautiful decorations Japanese women used to wear in their hair. As a matter of fact, I was so struck by these flowers, that I've decided they are the plant of the month!