Canon 50mm f1.4

Last Sunday started out so beautiful.  By afternoon, the clouds were rolling in and it was getting pretty dark.  Darn!  I had wanted to get outside with the rented lens.  OK, Let’s go anyway!

Hawthorn Leaves

Whose Leaves are These?


I took the last one just before the rain cut loose and I had to stuff the camera under my jacket and run for the car.  The wind was blowing pretty hard!

It just seems like the colors are more brilliant when there is no sun.  What do you think?

What IS That?

Do you ever walk by stuff and wonder, “What IS that?”  The first time I saw this stuff, that is exactly what I wondered:

Wooly Alder Aphids

Stand of Alder Near PondAt this time of year, they are particularly easy to see because many of the leaves have fallen from the trees… specifically from the Speckled Alder (Alnus incana ssp. rugosa).  A shrubby tree that loves wet places, we have plenty of these at Audubon.  And somebody loves it!

Wooly Alder Aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellatus) can actually be found on one of two host plants – Alder or Silver Maple.  At this time of year, though, you will probably see colonies like this only on Alders.  I pulled a few off and put them on the palm of my hand.  At the bottom left of the mass, you can see a pretty good image of one critter, legs down, facing toward the right, her back covered with the “wool” that gives her the name.



Aphids in my hand

Her?  How do I know it’s a female?  Well, I think I’m right on this… though the various accounts I find online don’t always jive with one another.

If I’m I’m comprehending what I read, the wingless ones are always female.  They can stay on their Alder host all summer and sometimes even through the winter reproducing parthenogenetically.  That means females produce eggs which produce more females, with no male needed for fertilization of the egg.  The eggs are held inside the body until they hatch, so young emerge from their mothers live.  Look at this cute little girl, also in the palm of my hand:

Young One
She has only a little “wool” so far!

Now here comes the wild part:  When there is an environmental stressor, such as the onset of winter, some eggs will miraculously produce winged individuals that may be either male or female.  (OK, there’s probably a scientific explanation… but to me it’s miraculous.)  These will fly to Silver Maples where they will mate.  Each female will produce one fertilzed egg which will be “glued” to the bark of the tree for overwintering.

Come spring these eggs produce female aphids which find their way to the newly emerging Silver Maple leaves, whose plant juices they eat.  They reproduce parthenogenetically building up large numbers of mostly wingless females.  Periodically, though, some or all of the offspring manifest wings and fly back to Alders.  The generations that live on the Alders don’t target leaves for their meals.  Instead, they pierce through the bark on the trunks and branches to access the alder sap.

As if that weren’t fascinating enough, beneath colonies of aphids, you will often find black, sooty spots on the branches. And from these will grow strange, sometimes golden, sometimes black fungi.

Sooty Mold   Sooty Mold Fungus

These fungi are not attacking the tree – they are purely superficial.  They thrive on honeydew – the sweet, concentrated plant sap that is produced by the aphids while they eat.

Which brings us to ants who protect the aphids in exchange for the honeydew… and ladybugs and lacewings that like to eat aphids… and…  Oh, what’s that quote about everything’s connected?  It’s all so intriguing, isn’t it?

Learn more:


I have two:

Moose:  a very old cat who likes to lay in front of the refrigerator, because it’s warm there.

Lolli:  a good hiking buddy… but never satisfied.  The walks are never long enough, the biscuits never plentiful enough…  She’s a rotten dog…  (in the nicest sense of the word).

I’m practicing with a 50mm f1.4 lens I rented from  I like the narrow shallow (thanks Dave) depth of field on these…  and no flash!  Works great in very low lighting.


Today I hiked a very short section of the Allegany State Park – Finger Lakes Trail – North Country Trail.

ASP FLT NCT Sign at TrailheadEventually, I plan to hike the entire stretch of FLT-NCT that goes through the Park in four consecutive days staying at each shelter. For today, this was all I could manage – in to a shelter, eat lunch, and out again…

The sign at the trailhead notes that this trail is for foot traffic only. No bikes. No horses. No ATVs. It is a hikers’ trail – and a really gorgeous one at that. The first bit of the trail from Bay State Road takes you through an open clearing. From the top of this clearing, you have a pretty view of the round-topped Allegany mountains with Route 86 – the Southern Tier Expressway – winding its way among them.

View from the top of the clearing

Where is the TrailAs you approach the edge of the woods, the trail gets steep, and in the woods it is pretty rugged until you reach the top of the ridge. In the woods, I was very grateful for the freshly painted white blazes. With all the newly fallen leaves, it would have been impossible to see where the trail goes without them!

Old Fence-line at top of the Clearing

Just Gorgeous WalkingYour descent on the other side of the ridge will be steep at first, then gentle. Eventually, you seem to be on level ground for the rest of the way to the shelter. The best part of topping the ridge is that the traffic noise finally fades, then is completely silenced.

I have now visited all three shelters on the trail. They are all relatively new and in good shape. The folks that use them seem to take pretty good care of them.

Shelter and Picnic Table

There are privies at each and a water source, though signs warn that you should treat the water. I don’t know when I’ll be able to do the 4-day. But I am really looking forward to it! This is a gorgeous trail and well-maintained.

Finger Lakes Trail

North Country Trail

I Know Everything

My mom thinks I know everything.  Well, maybe not Everything.  But at least everything about nature.  Earlier this month she dragged me over to her friend’s house where she was sure I could tell her the cause of a pile of dried grasses.  I made a guess…  but really… I have no idea.

A couple of days ago, though, she brought me something I did know about.  She brought me this:

The Great Mystery

Mom was pretty sure those were Oak leaves, but she had never seen such weird looking acorns.  “Ha!” says I.  “They aren’t acorns!  They’re galls.”


“Yeah!  And they’re caused by wasps!”

Helloooo! Anybody In There?

“No way.”


One of the many, many, many definitions of gall on is this one:

Any abnormal vegetable growth or excrescence on plants, caused by various agents, as insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, and mechanical injuries.

Galls can be found on a wide variety of plants.  But consider these facts from the University of Florida website on Insect Galls:

  • Of the 2,000+ insects in the U.S. that produce galls, 1,500 are either gnats or wasps.
  • 80% of all gall wasps produce their galls on oak trees.
  • 60% of all known insect galls occur in the oak family.

I found this picture of the wasp that causes the gall at another website.  (Click the picture to go to that website.)

Wasp that causes Oak Apple Gall
Biorhiza pallida: Don’t worry!  This wasp can’t sting you…

Scientists are still figuring out the life cycle of this wasp.  Here’s what they think so far (I think…):  Adult wasps – male and female emerge from the galls in June or July.  They mate and then drop to the ground.  The females burrow down into the ground and lay eggs in the roots of the oak.  Larvae emerge and feed on the oak roots for over a year before pupating.

Oak Apple Gall- Inside

Only wingless females emerge from these underground pupae in early spring and crawl up the trunks of the trees to find new leaves.  They inject eggs (which got fertilized how, exactly???) into the mid-vein of the leaves (unless you read a different website which says they lay their eggs at the base of a leaf bud).  The growth hormones of the insect larvae react with chemicals in the leaf causing the leaf to grow into an apple-shaped gall around the larvae (or larva?  See below).  When these larvae pupate and emerge in June or July, they can be either male or female.

As I said, scientists are still studying this wasp’s complicated life cycle. I found some discrepencies from one website to the next. For example, one said that each gall contains only one larva. Another said that these galls are multi-larval, but that a gall will only contain one gender.  I don’t know about the gender thing, but I did find a gall on the ground one summer and could not resist the tempation to open it, even though I knew that I was probably going to kill the inhabitant…  (Go ahead, slap me!)

Oak Apple Gall- Larva Perhaps
I’m going to have to go with that multi-larval account, based on this picture…

So, the truth is… I don’t know Everything.  And I especially don’t know Everything About Nature.  But then, neither do the scientists…  (Don’t tell my mother, kay?)

Learn more:

Little Fall Snakes

So yesterday, I’m sitting at my desk and the phone rings with that double-ring that means it’s an internal call.  Pat is calling from the front desk.  “Um, Jen?  Could you please come down here for a minute?”

“Sure,” I answer.  “What’s up?”

“There’s a snake in the building.”

“Cool!  I’ll be right there!”

It lay quite still on the carpet.  Apparently, Pat had walked by it several times thinking it was a stick that she would eventually pick up and throw out.  When she approached it, though, it moved!

How to Hold a Snake

As you can see, it was just a bitty little thing.  But a special one!  This is a Short-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis brachystoma).  What’s so special?  Well, it’s range, mostly.  It has a pretty small one, living in the southern most parts of three western New York counties and parts of Western Pennsylvania.  There is one small isolated population near Horseheads in Chemung County, New York.

Short-headed Garter Range Map - Gibbs Breisch

Amphibians and Reptiles of New York StateThat map is from a pretty awesome, relatively new book called The Amphibians and Reptiles of New York State – a collaboration of several scientists including James P. Gibbs, Alvin R. Breisch, Peter K. Ducey, Glenn Johnson, John Behler, and Richard Bothner.  Yeah.  If you are a herp nerd living in New York, put this book on your letter to Santa!

Anyway, Short-headed Garters are just adorable little snakes.  I guess they can get as long as 22 inches or so, but when I find them, they are pretty small.  How this one got into the building, I just don’t know.

Short-headed Garter
Pretty cute, huh?

The other snake that I’ve seen this week – twice in one day, in fact, is another that rarely grows longer than 20 inches or so…  I didn’t have my camera when my Kindergarten group found them, so this picture is from last year:

Little Snake
Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi)

Far more abundant and widely distributed, this snake can be found from southern Canada to northern Mexico east of the Rockies.

In fall, it is not uncommon to see snakes on the move, heading toward their hibernacula – places where several (sometimes hundreds) of snakes gather to spend the winter.

Learn more: