Nature at 55 (revisited)

White Trout LilyLast spring, I wrote about observing nature at 55 miles per hour.  That’s how I found the big patch of White Trout Lily (that I had been driving past for 9 years and never noticing).  I stopped again this year for more photos.


I also stopped at a couple of other spots that catch my eye as I drive and got these:

What are these?
I’ve never seen these any place else.  And they’re so perfect and colorful, I was sure they must be some sort of domesticated thing… But I think they are actually a wildflower!  Native to our area, even!  Moss (or Creeping) Phlox (Phlox subulata).  They are on a rocky, dry roadside bank on Route 60 (Foote Avenue) near “The Glen.”


White Trillium Closeup
Certainly I see these all over the place.  But there is one spot on the east side of Route 62 between the traffic light and Riverside Road where you can see a rather large patch of them.  White Trillium (Trillium grandiflora).


Marsh Marigolds
These, too, are everywhere.  But on the west side of Route 62 they spill into the ditches from a woodland creek and are just lovely…  Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).

What caught your eye at 55 miles per hour?

Wood Anemone

While tromping around the woods, wandering from one muddy spot to the next looking for footprints (really hoping to find a fine bear print) I happened on this perfect specimen of Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia).

Wood Anemone

Wood Anemone Range MapA spring flower of the northeast, it likes moist woods and streamsides, which is where I found this one.  If it makes you think of a white buttercup, don’t be surprised.  It is in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).  Another common name, Windflower, might come from the fact that the stems are slender and the flowers tremble in the slightest breeze.  Literature reveals other references to wind (these probably referring to the European species A. nemorosa).

Greek legends say that Anemos, the Wind, sends his namesakes the Anemones, in the earliest spring days as the heralds of his coming. Pliny affirmed that they only open when the wind blows, hence their name of Windflower, and the unfolding of the blossoms in the rough, windy days of March has been the theme of many poets:

‘Coy anemone that ne’er uncloses
Her lips until they’re blown on by the wind.’

Culpepper also uses the word ‘windflower.’ In Greek mythology it sprang from the tears of Venus, as she wandered through the woodlands weeping for the death of Adonis –

‘Where streams his blood there blushing springs a rose
And where a tear has dropped, a wind-flower blows.’ (source)

Wood Anemone Closeup

And so it begins…

… another spring/summer banding season…

Scott Stoleson and his team, Linda Ordiway, Don Watts, and Emily Thomas came to Audubon today to begin five weeks of banding.  They will be at the Pavilion field Saturdays through May 23rd from 7am until 11am.  If you live nearby, you should definitely plan a Saturday morning visit to the Center to watch the demonstrations…  So much to learn… so cool to see the little birdies up close.

AMRO - First bird of Spring 2009 Banding at Audubon
Scott looks on as Emily holds the first bird of the season, an American Robin female, for her photo opportunity.  This might be the little lady building a nest in the rafters of the pavilion.  We’ll have to wait and see…

Black-capped ChickadeeBlack-capped Chickadees were plentiful…  I think we banded six!  They are so cute when the come to the feeder, or better yet eat out of your hands…  But in the nets, and attempting to band… that’s another story.  With that tiny little beak a chickadee can grab on hard and strong when it wants to.

(Emily makes grumpy faces when she has to band a Chickadee.)

Three different kinds of sparrows made it into the nets…  I was disappointed in my photos of the Lincoln’s Sparrow… the only one that was in focus, it had its eyes half-closed:

Lincoln Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrows winter south of us and breed north of us… This little guy is just passing through.  It had no visible fat, so we guess it may have arrived last night.  Having used up all reserves, it will eat up, store more fat, and then move further north before looking for good breeding habitat.

Another north-bound migrant is the White-throated Sparrow.  Emily and Don mentioned knowing of a couple of breeding pairs as far south as Forest and McKean counties in Pennsylvania.  But most head further north.

White-throated Sparrow
I have had one singing “Oh Canada, Canada, Canada” in my backyard every morning for a week.  I wish he would stay, such a pretty song…  But alas, I fear he will move on.

We caught two White-throated Sparrows.  Both had rather a lot of fat that will provide them with the energy they need to fly further north.  You can see the fat when Emily blows on the feathers, separating them:

White-throated Sparrow - Fat

This one was so chubby he wouldn’t fit in the small pill bottle we used to weigh his buddy…  So he had to move up to the medium size container.  After weighing, he sat for a bit before flying off:

White-throated Sparrow Weighing Tube

This one will stay and breed here.  Song Sparrow:

Song Sparrow

This tricky little birdie flew away before we could weigh it.  Then, when we re-captured it, we forgot that we didn’t have its weight!  House Wren:

House Wren

The early bird catches the worm and the early bander catches the birds… when things got slow later in the morning, we amused ourselves looking for herps.  Linda impressed us all with her ability to reach through rose bushes and pull this handsome fellow out of the pond:

Green Frog


While examining the critters of the vernal pools, we also found Caddisfly larave.  The larvae of many species of Caddisfly build cases around them and the case is both species-specific and habitat specific.  The one pictured below seems to have used dead plant material and arranged it lengthwise.  Can you distinguish its head and thorax sticking out at the lower left end of the picture?

Caddisfly Larva

The first Caddisfly larvae I learned about were in a stream and had built their cases from small pebbles.  Since then, I have found many other species in different watery habitats with cases built from leaves, twigs, and other organic material.  Here’s one from another pond with a different arrangement of plant material:

Caddisfly Larva

Here is a 22 second video of the this fellow moving about.  If you have your sound on, you’ll hear voices speculating about the critter’s emotions and food preferences…

I don’t think he was unhappy.  I think that’s how he steers!  And I don’t think he eats mosquito larvae – though I could be wrong.  Most often in vernal pools I see them munching on amphibian egg masses.

While the larvae and pupae are aquatic, the adult will be airborne:

Caddisflies attach their cases to some underwater object, seal the front and back apertures against predation though still allowing water flow, and pupate within them. Once fully developed, most pupal caddisflies cut through their cases with a special pair of mandibles, swim up to the water surface, cast off skin and the now-obsolete gills and mandibles, and emerge as fully formed adults. <source>

Adults hatch synchronously making it easier to find a mate.  (Fly fisherman time some of their outings to coincide with these hatches.)  The adults in most species don’t eat.  Here’s a particularly large species photographed by Jenn Forman Orth:

I’m pretty sure this is not the species that uses vernal pools… but the adults of most species have this same basic body shape.

Learn more:

Fairy Shrimp

Fairy ShrimpI had read about them.  I had seen pictures of them.  I had heard mini-lecture/explanations about them.  But I had never seen them with my own two eyes – alive and swimming in a vernal pool… until now!  I think they might be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

In this photo, the one on the bottom is definitely a female – the dark blob between her thorax and abdomen is a brood pouch containing eggs.  I’m not sure about the other one.  Fairy Shrimp have two sets of antennae.  The second set on males should be extra long as it is used for grasping the female during mating… we can’t really see this indivdual’s other antennae.  Maybe the other is also a female whose brood pouch has already been emptied?  It sort of looks like there is an empty pouch there, doesn’t it?

Biologists say that Fairy Shrimp is an obligate species in vernal pools.  In other words, Fairy Shrimp must breed in temporary, fishless pools that dry up in summer.  Other obligate species are Wood Frogs and Mole Salamanders (Spotted, Marble, Jefferson, and Blue-spotted).  If any of these species are found in a pool, it can be designated a true Vernal Pool.  Vernal Pools have become a focus for many conservationists and there are many programs to locate and catalog them throughout the US.  Click here to read about a Vermont Vernal Pool program, for example.

Fairy Shrimp are fresh water crustaceans that swim with 11 pairs of leaf-like legs.  Here’s 8 seconds of video of the little critters swimming in a pan:

(The other dark wigglers in the pan are mosquito larvae.)

Fairy Shrimp have amazing adaptations for survival, including these noted in Scott Green’s article (link below):

Though the resting period usually varies between 6 to 10 months, eggs have been hatched in a laboratory after 15 years. Eggs have been subjected to temperatures as high as 99C and as low as -190 C and remained viable.

Here are the Fairy Shrimp and mosquito larvae in their natural setting:
How Many Can you See

We visited several vernal pools last Friday and we saw one or two Fairy Shrimp in all.  But one pool – the one that was shrinking most rapidly – that one was just teeming with them!  It was amazing.

Learn more:

Vernal Pool

I’m 52 years old, and I still like to go mucking around in the ponds.  I guess all those years of singing I Won’t Grow Up at Girl Scout Camp, then later in the show Peter Pan caused a self-fulfilling prophecy…  Anyway, I just can’t resist going to the ponds in spring…

A bunch of us went out with Dr. Tom Erlandson to visit several ponds at the Erlandson Overlook Park (named in his honor).  Seems none of us can grow up, eh?

Tom Erlandson and Group

At the first pond, we came across huge egg masses that were hatching.  From the edge of the pond, the masses looked like Wood Frog eggs.  We scooped some into a pan to observe.

Salamander (?) Larvae and Caddisfly Larvae

The amphibian larvae were only about the size of a hemlock needle.  (Do you also see the Caddisfly Larvae in the middle of the egg mass?)  So, we went on blithely telling people that these are Wood Frog Eggs and the little guys are Wood Frog tadpoles…

But then, we looked more closely…

Mystery Larva

The gills are on the outside of the little guy’s head… But are they feathery enough to make it a salamander larva, rather than a tadpole?  Still not sure…  Here’s a little 30-second video in which my friend Mike encourages the little critters to swim for us:

So, what do you think?  Wood Frogs?  Or Salamanders?

Audubon Walk – Part III

Click–>  Part I  *  Part II

White BirchNative vs. Non-native Plantings.  Bruce described the early days of Audubon by saying that they took turns “playing god,”   that is deciding what to plant, what to cut, and what to allow to grow.  Wildlife management strategies change over time as we learn the effects of our choices.  In the early 1970s, folks weren’t as concerned with planting natives as we seem to be today.  Sometimes non-natives do just fine if the habitat is right.  Our Red Pine stands and Norway Spruces are all doing just fine.  The same can’t be said of the White Birches that were planted along the Maple West trail.  White Birch prefers deep, sandy soil like you might find in the Adirondacks… so while White Birch is native to New York State – it is not native to our region.  The consequence of planting it in unsuitable habitat is unhealthy trees.  All of our specimens are in pretty bad shape.  The tree above has been infested with Bronze Birch Borer; you can see and feel the bumps caused by the larvae which are under the bark.

Just to the east of the failed White Birch attempts are native trees that would naturally appear in this type of habitat:  Quaking Aspen.

Quaking Aspens

When plants are matched to their habitat the are healthier.  Duh.

Plantings for Wildlife.  The Red Pines were planted to provide shelter for wildlife – birds in particular.  Now that they are producing cones, they also provide food for Red Squirrels and other animals that dine on pine seeds.  In the early days, other attempts were made to provide food for wildlife.  “Volunteer” apple trees that were found growing in the goldenrod field were encouraged to grow and eventually provide fruit for turkey, deer, and others.  The Red Oaks were planted with the idea that eventually they would produce acorns.  American Chestnuts near the Red Oaks also provide some wildlife food, too.

Robin in the Sumac - by Sarah HatfieldWhen selecting plants for wildlife food, there are 2 kinds to think about:  those that provide a quick meal when the fruit is ripe – such as Serviceberry, also known as Juneberry and Shadbush.  Serviceberries tend to be picked over pretty quickly by birds as soon as they are ripe.  Thought should also be given to plants that will hold on to their fruits through the winter and provide food for early returning migrants.  An excellent example is Staghorn Sumac.  The fuzzy berries that remain through until spring provide valuable nutrition for returning thrushes, such as the American Robin, and plenty of other wildlife as well.

There may be more posts about this walk…  But I’m going to have to start writing about all the stuff we found in the Vernal Pools next…

Audubon Walk – Part II

For previous, click–>  Audubon Walk Part I

A Farm Across the Goldenrod Field.  If you are familiar with Audubon, imagine standing near Bob’s Garden (the Herb and Butterfly Garden) and being able to look across a vast goldenrod field to see the farmhouse near the picnic pavilion.  Bruce tells us that’s how it was in the early 1970s when Audubon first acquired the property.

A few things were done to break up this huge Old Field and provide different kinds of wildlife habitat.

Red Pine StandRed Pines.  First, three small stands of Red Pine were planted to provide a little height and attract something other than Red-winged Blackbirds.  Red Pine (Pinus resinosa), while native to some parts of New York State, is not native to our regions.  When you find Red Pines in our area, they are usually planted too close together and in straight rows.

Red Pine StandThe first stand of Red Pines is just past the Herb and Butterfly Garden on the left (south) side of the Univeral Trail.  There are benches and chunks of an old tree trunk.  The kids love to play in here and turn over the “stumps” to find earthworms and sowbugs.  To find the second, don’t continue on the Universal Trail when it turns right… instead go straight onto Maple West Trail and look to the right (north) of the trail.  The third one is a bit further on – take a right at the Maple to the connector trail.  The stand will be on your left – the west side of the trail.

The Big Red Pine Forest over near Spatterdock Pond was already there when Audubon acquired the property.  (Another source told us that planting was a 4-H project years ago.)

A Lone Douglas Fir:  Back between the first and second Red Pine stand there is a single Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) standing at the edge of the mowed area where we keep a couple of Bluebird boxes.  Bruce told us that it is the lone survivor of a planting of 15 or 16 Douglas Firs – planted at about the same time as the Red Pines and for the same reasons.  The rest of the trees in this planting became deer food.  This one somehow managed to survive despite deer browsing, but is not a stellar example of a Douglas Fir.  Instead of standing as a single tall trunk, this one has multiple trunks – and a very distinct browse line!

Douglas Fir  Douglas Fir

Douglas Firs have very distinctive cones, and the needles smell pleasantly citrusy when you break them.  Douglas Firs are native to North America, but to our region.  In fact, in most of the sources I checked, Douglas Fir is shown as strictly a western tree.  Only the USDA Plant Database shows supposedly native populations east of the Rockies.

Norway Spruce:  If you could fly above the sanctuary near Riverside Road, you would see a long S-shaped stand of Norway Spruce (Picea abies).  Bruce remembers planting that row under the direction of Ted Grisez who wanted it for two reasons:  (1) to screen the view of the farmhouse, and (2) to provide a backdrop for the Arboretum.  Norway Spruce, native to Europe, have naturalized in north central U.S. and adjacent Canada.  In other areas where you find them, they are probably planted.  Look for dramatically drooping branches (all the better to shed snow, my dear) and long cones with stiff scales.

Norway Spruce Line

Learn More:

Click for next –>  Audubon Walk Part III

Audubon Walk – Part I

Bruce Robinson remembers a time when a group standing in this spot could look across a goldenrod field and see the farmhouse on Riverside Road.  Goldenrod Field?He remembers planting a Sugar Maple and a couple of Red Oaks at the curve of this path on what would become the “lawn”.  He remembers digging long straight trenches to divert water away from paths and a long S-shaped trench in which to plant Norway Spruces – a backdrop for the future Arboretum.  He remembers differences of opinion about what should and shouldn’t be planted.

Bruce led a walk on April 14th for a group of Audubon Trail Guides and other friends and told so many fascinating stories…  I’ll try to share some of them in this and a couple of subsequent posts:

Big Sugar Maple at AudubonThe Sugar Maples (and Red Oaks… and a Couple of Cherries).  There is a Sugar Maple that sits on the hill on the southwest side of the Nature Center building.  It is enormous.  It is old.  It is regal.

When Audubon acquired this property in the 1970s and began developing it as a wildlife sanctuary, there were many discussions about that tree.  How can we showcase it?  How long will it last?  What plans should be made for its eventual demise?

If you look under the Big Maple today you will see that it is “kind of a mess,” to use Bruce’s words.  He assured us that the messiness was intentional from the very start.  The 30-40 species of plants that grow under the Maple do two things:  (1) They provide shelter for wildlife.  Indeed, we often see chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits run for cover when we approach with a group of children.  (2) They serve to discourage people from getting too close to the tree  by providing a little buffer zone.

Kind of a Mess under the Big Maple

Back in the 1970s, it was evident that Big Maple had been “in decline” for many years.  Bruce assured Audubon founding members that it was sure to be there for another fifty years.  He assured us the same thing today.  Tree time is so much different than people time…  Still, knowing that no tree can live forever, a new Sugar Maple was planted to take the place of Big Maple – some day… generations later.  Two Red Oaks were planted the same day.

Three Trees
You can’t tell from this picture, but the Sugar Maple in the foreground (with orange and yellow signs) has a trunk only 1/2 or 2/3 the size of the Red Oaks in the background, although they were all planted on the same day.

CompetitionNatural succession provided a couple of trees that are undesirable from Bruce’s perspective – one on the north side of the trail between the two Sugar Maples, and one on the south side of the trail near the Red Pine Stand.  The Black Cherries grew faster than the new Sugar Maple and are now taller, stealing sunlight.  Both sport a feature often found in new forests – forked trunks.  In a new forest where there is plenty of sun, trees often produce forked trunks giving them larger canopies – more leaves for doing the work of photosynthesis.  As the forest grows around the fast-growing Cherries, competition for sunlight increases.  One of the trunks falls away so that the tree can spend its energy getting taller – getting its leaves up to the sun.

Bruce predicted that left alone, each of these Cherries will lose a trunk sometime in the next 4-5 years.  He also expressed his opinion that the Cherries should be taken down to encourage the Sugar Maple.

More next post about this walk and Audubon’s natural and man-made history…  Click–>  Part II  **  Part III