Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Death Eaters at the VIC

How could something so small and delicate have such a gruesome reputation? Here it is: early coral root (Corallorhiza trifida), one of nature's saprophytic plants. (That there is my finger next to it, to give you an idea of size).

Up close, it's really a beautiful little thing, an orchid in miniature. But, despite its greenish color, this plant cannot make its own food. Instead, it gets it nourishment from dead and/or decaying matter, hence the term saprophyte.

Our interns and I stumbled across this flowering death eater (ha ha - couldn't resist - and yes, I am a Harry Potter fan) along the Rich Lake Trail this rainy afternoon. We found not just one, but several, some growing singly, others in little clusters.

I love saprophytic plants - they are lovely, unusual, and fill an important niche in our world. Beauty is everywhere - even tiny - even in death.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Sign of Warm Weather

I stumbled across my first snake of the season this morning as I was taking down the VIC's hummingbird feeders for a cleaning. This very handsome garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) sunning itself on the stones by the garden. I rushed inside for the camera, and fortunately the snake obliged me with a good photo shoot. My goal was a shot with the tongue flicking in and out, and I was able to get several!

When you think about it, snakes are truly amazing animals. First off, they have no legs, and yet they are able to get around the world with very little difficulty by simply using muscular contractions (we should all have such great abdominal muscles) and their scales. They can even climb trees!

Then you have their senses. Snakes have no ears to speak of, nor do they have ear drums. So how in the world do they hear things? Apparently, they have what is called bone conductive hearing, which means, in the snakes' case, that they feel vibrations through their lower jaws (and sound, as we all know, is essentially vibrations). This was discovered through the study of the physics of boat movement through water. A boat (or ship) moves in multiple (up to six) directions all at the same time. A snake's lower jaw, which is actually two separately articulating pieces, can do the same thing. Vibrations reach the jaw and travel along it to a cochlear mechanism (inner ear) where they become electrical signals that are shunted along to the brain, which then tells the snake, "Wow! Did you hear that?"

AND...just to make it even more interesting, because each side of the lower jaw moves separately (have you ever watched footage of a snake swallowing an egg and seen the lower jaw essentially walk over the egg?), the vibrations travel to two separate cochlear mechanisms, and voila! you have stereo hearing. How cool is that

Let's move on to the sense of smell. In the photo above, our friend the snake is flicking out its lovely red tongue with the black forked tip. What it's doing is sampling the air. As the tongue flicks about, it's picking up scent particles in the air. After the tongue disappears back into the snake's mouth, the forked tip fits into the openings of the Jacobson's Organ, located in the roof of the mouth. This organ captures those scent particles and sends a signal to the brain, which then tells the snake, "Hey - that's a mouse! Dinner!" or "Nothing here, keep going."

Snakes do not have eyelids. This is something that some folks focus on as a creepy thing about snakes: they don't blink. I choose to look at it like this: snakes have a protective scale over their eyes and if you find a shed snake skin, you can see this scale. They don't need eyelids. It's pretty neat.

Most of all, I love the way snakes feel. They are not wet and slimy - they are dry and soft and feel sort of like a basketball.

All in all, snakes are fascinating animals, and if you look closely, you will see a snake always looks like it's smiling. And why not - snakes are immensely beneficial animals, at least in our part of the world. Thanks to snakes we are not over-run with rodents.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mid-May Flowers at the VIC

I have a flower walk this morning, so yesterday I cruised the trails to see what was actually blooming. I was surprised by the variety I found (and disappointed that once more I missed the trout lilies). So, here's a quick synopsis:

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) are still blooming, but if you want to see them, I recommend you come soon for they will soon be on their last proverbial legs.

That said, the Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) are now in full flower!

Lots of violets! The yellow one I believe is Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), while the white one is Northern White Violet (Viola pallens) and the blue one is Northern Blue Violet (Viola septentrionalis).

And one of my favorites - Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). It's such a sweet little flower - I love the purple veins against the white petals.

Uvularia (as in uvula - the "hangy-down part" in the back of your throat) is one of my favorite flower names! In common language, this is the Sessile-leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), aka: wild oats.

Witchhobble (Viburnum alnifolium) is just getting started. I'd guess about 30% of the shrubs I passed yesterday had some blossoms.

Shad (Amalanchier sp.), on the other hand, is in full bloom all around Newcomb.

Bluets (Houstonia sp.)are doing well in open areas (usually near water). I suspect these are Creeping Bluets (H. serphyllifolia), which are a deeper blue than regular bluets, and also have rounder leaves.

And Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), aka False Miterwort, is only just starting to open as well. I'd say about 15% of what I found yesterday had some open flowers.

And this morning I found the first Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema sp.)! I looked yesterday and didn't see any, so they may have come up overnight. As you can see from the first photo, it is only just emerging. The second one I found (we see the interior of this one) was fully open. There are several species of Jacks (just visit any botanical garden and you will see some delightful varieties, most of which are Asian); Newcomb's Wildflower Guide lists three: Indian Turnip (A. atrorubens), Northern (A. stewardsonii) and Small (A. triphyllum). I believe we have the first one - Indian Turnip - note the green and purple stripes on the spathe. It is the most common of the three, and the earliest to bloom.

Coming soon:

Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

Bluebead Lily (Clintonia borealis), aka Yellow Clintonia

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), aka Moccasin Flower

Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana)

So hit the woods, folks! Now is the time to see the woodland flowers. Once the leaves fully emerge on the trees, these delightful flowers will disappear until next spring.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Wrinkled Thimble Caps and False Morels

Toby and I decided to cruise a back trail the other evening, breaking up the usual routines around the neighborhood. It was a mild evening and the sun was still up, although sunset was not too far off. Usually once the blackflies start biting and the mosquitoes are abundant, we abandon the wooded routes and stick to the roads, where the insects are a bit less aggressive, but on this particular evening, the pull of the woods won out.

We slogged through a couple seeps, sighed at the scattered trash, and then I saw it: a brown, crinkly, brain-like mushroom cap. At first I merely glanced at it, but then I stopped and gave it a good look. Hmmm, thought I. Could it be a strangely shaped morel (Morchella sp), or could it be something else?

I'm not a mushroom harvester, so I don't claim to really know mushrooms well. But I do enjoy seeing them in all their great variety and, up to a point, I enjoy trying to figure out what they are.

So, this morning, upon remembering my mushroom find, I grabbed my Lone Pine Field Guide Mushrooms of Northeast North America and started to look for it. The picture of the False Morel (Gyromitra esculenta) shows a 'shroom that is the right shape (although shape can be so variable with mushrooms), but on the very next page is a Wrinkled Thimble Cap (Ptychoverpa bohemica) - don't you just love mushroom names - which is the right color (color can also be variable). Both can be found in woods in the spring, and both are widespread and common - no help there.

So, I still don't know for sure what it was, although I think I'm leaning more towards the Wrinkled Thimble Cap (if for no other reason than I really like the name).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nature's Mobile Jewels

Yesterday evening found me planting my peas - I just couldn't put it off any longer. Four beds of peas! That's the most I've done yet, but in fairness, I was using up all my old pea seeds as well as planting my new-for-'09 seeds.

And once the seeds were in the ground, they got a drink (it's hard to believe that despite almost an inch of rain over the weekend the ground is still very, very dry), and then I went to get my row covers to protect those precious seeds from prying beaks.

As I neared the porch (where assorted gardening things are stored), I started to hear a very loud buzzing. "That's too loud to be a bee," I thought, and it was accompanied by a papery fluttering noise. "Perhaps a large moth is flying against the porch window." I looked up, and there was something flying against the window: a male hummingbird! The poor thing had flown in through the open door and was trying desperately to exit through a closed window. He was now trapped between glass and venetian blind.

Ellen to the rescue!

I closed the door going from house to porch (didn't want him to exit the porch by flying into the house), and then lifted the blind to see if he would settle enough for me to grab him. And he did. I gently enfolded his body in my hand (it was like holding air) and carried him outside. The poor little thing was peeping away, no doubt terrified. When I opened my hand to release him, he sat there for half a moment, and zip - he lifted up and away (much like a helicopter), heading towards the neighbor's yard.

I've been reading of hummingbird sightings for the last week and a half or so all around the Park, so I knew they would be showing up in Newcomb soon. The males return first, followed shortly by the females. Everyone will be feeding at feeders and flowers for a while, and then, almost like a tap being turned off, they suddenly seem to disappear. A few weeks later, hummers are swarming gardens and feeders like hoards of bees: the young have fledged and are learning all the good feeding spots from Mom and Dad.

Hummingbird feeders can be a real boon to hummers, especially this early in the season when there aren't a lot of flowers in bloom yet. And you don't need to purchase special mixes - in fact, it's often best if you make your own. Boil 4 cups of water. Put a cup of sugar in a bowl and add the water. Mix and cool. Add to feeders as needed. (Note: you do not need any red coloring in the nectar you have just mixed up.)

What kind of feeders are best? Those that are easiest to clean!!! And yes, you do need to clean them. Hot water and a brush. No soap, no bleach. You want to scrub the part that holds the nectar, and you want to scrub out the feeding ports. If you don't, mold will build up, and this isn't good. How often do you need to clean? Once a week is usually pretty good, but as the season gets hot, you may need to clean more often.

I have discovered over the years that I don't need to have feeders out all summer long. I usually put them out when the first hummer shows up, and once the gardens are in full swing and there are plenty of natural sources of nectar, I clean them up and put them away. What flowers are good for hummers? Oh, anything with a tubular blossom: bee balm, fuchsias, sweet peas, runner beans, nasturtiums...

Keep in mind that hummers eat insects, too! And spiders! So sweet nectar isn't their only source of food, and a good thing, too, since there is little nutrition in sugar water.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It's That Time of Year

AH - nothing says "summer's coming" like your first blackfly bite.

Yes, folks, it's that time of year already. And yes, it is early! Blackfly season traditionally runs Memorial Day through the 4th of July (or so "they" say), but the little buggers started biting here last week (I have the bloody marks to prove it). And while this is the earliest I remember them being active, I can't say that I've found the Memorial Day-4th July adage to hold much water.

So what is an outdoor enthusiast to do?

Well, you get yourself a bug shirt. Here we have Mary modeling the latest in antibug-wear: the tan version of the Original Bug Shirt. Featuring a screened face panel, elasticized wrists and a drawstring waist, this shirt is guaranteed to baffle even the most determined blackflies (works well on mosquitoes, too). Note that she even has the matching antibug pants (no screens, but the ankles are elasticized to prevent sneak attacks from below).

Be warned: the mosquitoes are also out and taking their share of our blood. The only ones that haven't shown up yet are the deer flies and the no-see-ums. The latter are the worst, in my humble opinion, for they are naught but jaws with wings, and each bite feels like a hot needle being inserted into your flesh. You can do things to avoid all the others, but the no-see-ums are so small (hence the name) that there isn't much you can do, unless you wish to bathe in assorted repellents. Generally, this option isn't my cup of tea, but there have been times when I've reached for the natural stuff and dosed all exposed skin liberally. The relief is usually short-lived.

This summer we are all going to miss the bats!

Friday, May 8, 2009

No Sweeter Sound

Every spring I swear I hear a wood thrush singing for one or two mornings, and then all I hear are hermit thrushes. So, I convince myself that the wood thrush was really a hermit thrush, perhaps rusty as it started singing for the new season. Well, this morning as I was coming down the walkway to work, I heard the lovely flutey music that could only be a wood thrush. I spent some time listening to it, trying to garner any small detail that I could so I could verify it inside with a recording. What stood out was the stuttering start to the ee-o-layyy. I rushed inside to the Thayer's Birding Software and queued up the wood thrush. There it was, the stuttering start (reminded me of the old Chia Pet ad: "ch-ch-ch-Chia") followed by that sweet sweet song. It's nice to know that all these years I was right: wood thrushes sing here before the hermits.

But that then brings the ponderable: what happens to them? Do they move on to better habitats, leaving just the hermits behind? I know that wood thrushes are in dire straits these last few years - populations in serious decline, mostly due to loss of habitat. They like woodlands near fields for nesting (I monitored a nest one year for Cornell's Lab of Orthinology's Citizen Science program), but their wintering grounds are under "attack" as well.

The world will be a sadder and quieter place without the song of the wood thrush.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

No Child Left Indoors

It was a wild and windy day this last Saturday. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, was the special guest at the Wild Center, and the day was filled with events and displays by outdoor folks from all around the Park, from non-profits like North Country Audubon, to guide services, outdoor education facilities, and conservation organizations.

The VICs were there:

Rynda McCray and Mike Brennan man the VICs' booth.

...and I was drafted to do programs on plants. I did a couple presentations titled "101 Uses for Plants," featuring my collection of plant-based stuff. I had baskets from assorted tree barks, healing ointments from assorted herbs, moss (world's first disposable diapers), fungi used for carrying live coals, a Native American flute (cedar), and much more. The objects that caught most folks' attention, though, were my bow drill and hand drill, both used for primitive fire-making. A couple young men who teach these skills stopped by and gave impressive demonstrations on their use. Of course, the kids wanted to give it a try, too.

It is Take a Child Outside Week at the VICs, and we at Newcomb have after school programs for parents and their children to help them get outside and exploring. Today we are making Sit-upons (3:30 - 4:30). Wednesday (3:30 - 4:30) it's Who's Zat, a look at what might be lurking in the woods. On Thursday we head to the shoreline for Down by the Water's Edge (3:00 - 4:00). Friday will find us making Nature's Treasure Chests from found objects (3:30 - 4:30), and Saturday we wrap up with Scavenger Hunts (10:00 AM - 3:00 PM). Give us a call if you want to sign up for any (or all) of these programs: 518-582-2000.

Friday, May 1, 2009

I'm Branching Out

No, I haven't turned into an amoeba, but I have been asked to be a contributor to the blog Adirondack Almanack! This is very exciting, and I hope that those who have been enjoying by blogs here will also join me over at If all goes well, I will have my naturalist posts Wednesdays at 3:00 PM and Saturdays at 6:00 AM (thank goodness I can tell the computer to post at that time rather than having to physically do it myself). They've also asked if I could add a gardening post on Sundays (6:00 AM). These will be different blurbs from my posts here (who wants to read the same thing twice), so be sure to stop by and take a gander!

Look for my first post next Wednesday (6 May).

OH! I will still be posting here - never fear!