Letters from Home

Maddie wanted cowboy boots for Christmas.  I didn’t dare buy them and put them under the tree because (a) invariably they wouldn’t fit, and (b) I would never pick out the right style.  So, I gave her an IOU and shortly after Christmas, we went to a country-western store so she could pick out her own.  That’s when it started.

On the way home, we tuned in a country-western radio station… to make the boots feel at home… yes… that was our actual rationale.  We had never really listened to this type of music before, but strangely, we found ourselves liking it.  The songs were about homey kinds of things.  The singers articulated the words so that I could understand them.  The tunes were singable.  Who knew?

Since then, I’ve had the radio on that station rather frequently.  I even assigned it to button number 2… right next to the NPR button.  When I get tired of talk, I can switch to music.

A few days ago, I was listening to the radio on my way to work and found myself wiping away a tear over John Michael Montgomery singing Letters from Home.

I don’t know any servicemen or women… but I found myself wondering what I’d write if I did have a loved one on the other side of the world serving our country and humanity… Probably just everyday stuff… probably just chatty news from our day to day world… And a lot of I-love-you and I’m-proud-of-you and Stay-safe kinds of things. I composed imaginary letters in my head as I drove.

A week or so ago, I got a phone call at work. The local DAR chapter would be having a luncheon and the speaker they had lined up had cancelled. Would I fill in with a program about Audubon? I was happy to oblige. When I arrived, there were note cards at each place setting. After we ate, the mistress of ceremonies explained that their chapter was participating in Project Patriot. She encouraged each of us to write a note to a serviceman or woman. The cards would be collected and sent off in a care package.

Some of the guests at my table had a hard time getting started and weren’t sure what to write.  Not me.  I knew exactly what to write… because I had practiced it in my head while driving a few days earlier.

LolliI told my mystery person that it was the end of February and it was still snowing.  I told how much my black-mutt-dog loves the snow and how she bounds fearlessly through it on the trail of deer and squirrels.  I told about tracking mink and river otter and finding my awesome antler… and I said how proud we are of our service personnel and how grateful we are for the work they do.

I don’t know who will get that card or how they will react to receiving chatty bits from a complete stranger…  But it felt good to write it.

What a Find!

It’s not that I’ve never seen one before. I’ve seen hundreds. Maybe thousands. We have dozens of them at the Nature Center – sitting out for visitors to touch…

It’s just that I had never found one myself in the woods…

Friday was my day: tromping around Spatterdock Pond, looking to see if there were still any signs of the River Otter. (The kids saw slides and rolls there Monday.) I found mink tracks… but no otter signs.

But what’s this? under a tree, tracks leading up to it, the snow all melted down where the animal had slept… and there, poking out of the snow… my very first… (can you guess?)
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Delightful Walk

Barn-1We’re on the verge… on the verge of spring.

Today’s walk started at 9am with temps in the 20s, and sunny, clear-blue skies.  By the time we got back to the car it was 11 and the temps must have climbed to the 30s, because the snow felt a little melty and the jacket was off.

Along the way there were hints, too… some you could see, and some you could hear.  For example, the sumac is pretty picked over.

Staghorn Sumac
Some of the clusters have no fuzzy red berries left at all…

And some of the culprits who have been munching those berries all winter have traded in their chick-a-dee-dee-dee for their high-low, fee-bee territory-mating song. Cardinals, too, were practicing spring time songs, as were Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

The sun beat down on a protected bank next to a creek providing a perfect spot for coffee and cookies. The dogs played along the bank, munching on sticks, stones, and chunks of ice that they broke away from the edge.

First DropWith weather like this – warm days, cold nights… it won’t be long before it’s time to tap the trees!


It was a truly delightful walk.

Arbor Vitae

I trudge down the old road between the red pine plantation on my right and the horse pasture on my left. The deep snow doesn’t slow the dog as much as it slows me. At the bottom of the hill we cross the creek and start up the road on the other side. Every time I walk this property, I marvel at the resourcefulness of the farmers who have owned it for generations. I could write volumes from the observations here…

Before I reach the top of the rise, my path is blocked by the skeletal remains of a once majestic tree.  I look for clues to what species it is. The branching pattern is unfamiliar to me.

Eastern White Cedar-1

Most of the “leaves” are gone. A few brown ones remain… needles that aren’t needles – more like reptilian scales surrounding the twigs… just enough to give me the informatin I need.

Eastern White Cedar-2

Ironic that this dead tree is called Arbor Vitae – Tree of Life.

When I get home, I open my tree books and search the ‘net. The first three sources list three different ways of presenting the common name:  Arbor Vitae, arborvitae, or Arbor-vitae.  It also goes by Cedar, White Cedar, Northern White Cedar, and Eastern White Cedar.  The Latin name is Thuja occidentalis.

The USDA range map is a little misleading for it shades an entire state when the tree is found anywhere in the state. 


The Forest Service map attempts to be a little more precise… But since the tree is now cultivated for ornamental uses, you can find it in places outside the native range maps.

Forest Service Map

Since I do not live in the tree’s official native range, I assume that the fallen tree was planted here, like so many of the trees on this property, and I wonder what the motivation was for selecting this species.

It is doubtful the landowners wanted the tree for its vitamin C, though the foliage is rich in it and the tree therefore rich in the legend of a cure that saved a French expedition. The story is well told by retired horticulturist Gerald Klingaman at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension site:

In 1536, the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491 – 1557) was sailing up the St. Lawrence River with a crew of 110 seamen and a pair of native youths he had picked up on his first voyage to modern day Canada two years earlier. He was looking for the famed Northwest Passage to China and made it as far upriver as possible.

After the sea crossing and the trip inland, the crew was suffering from scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency, which causes bleeding gums and tooth loss, bleeding under the skin, extreme fatigue and often death. On his way upriver, he left the two natives in their home village, expecting neither to survive the serious scurvy attack, which had beset them during the Atlantic crossing.

In his journal, Cartier described the condition of Domagaia, the younger of the two boys as “very sicke and his knees swollen as bigge as a cild of two years old, and all his sinews shrunken together, his teeth spoyled.”

After ten days absence he returned to the Huron village of Stadacona – today the site of Quebec – and found the two boys alive and well and fully recovered. On seeing their speedy recovery, he appealed to the boy to show him how the cure was achieved.

Shortly Cartier was presented with several branches of the evergreen tree and told how to chop and boil the leaves to extract the elixir that would cure the crew. [source]

Because of this miracle, Cartier is reported to have transported Arbor Vitae to France after this expedition, making it the first North American tree to be introduced into Europe.

I read on, looking for a more plausible motivation for planting this species. Since the landowners of the property I walk have been practical farmers for generations, I would guess they were thinking of future fence posts when they planted. The wood of the Arbor Vitae is soft and lightweight, yet resists decay for decades.

Eastern White Cedar



Lolli attempts conversation with Beaver while Mozart surveys the frozen pond.

I wasn’t out “naturalizing”. I was just out for a walk. I needed the exercise… so did the dogs. I needed to fill my lungs with fresh air. I wasn’t looking to learn anything new or to see anything all that different…

Then orange caught my eye, squeezing out from the bark of an Eastern Hemlock tree on the side of the beaver pond.

I photographed it (with both cameras)… assumed I knew what it was – Witch’s Butter – duh… and moved on.

Then I sat down to write a post about Witch’s Butter.  I dug out books and surfed the ‘net…  and got confused.

Witch's Butter?

First of all, the common name “witch’s butter” can be applied to more than one species of fungus.  So, I was right!  But the question is… what species do I have here?  I dug through other pictures of orange goo I have taken over the years.  I had assigned Latin names to many of these at the time I took the pictures… but now, reviewing the resources, I’m no longer sure…

Witch's Butter

Witch's Butter

Witch's Butter

I’m no mycologist and to be honest, I’m not all that dedicated to identifying these to the species level… But as I read about the different jelly fungi, I became fascinated at the inter-relationships with other living and dead things.  Some fungi feast on dead organic material, some on living (non-fungal) tissues, and still others parasitize other fungi.

I’ll give you some of the clues here, and maybe we can try to puzzle out which species is which from my photographs together!

Tremella mesenterica is found on decaying hardwood.  Peniophora rufaAccording to Michael Kuo at MushroomExpert.com, T. mesenterica is parasitic on the mycelium of another fungus in the genus Peniophora which might be hiding under the bark even when you see no fruiting bodies. Peniophora are resupinate crust fungi. (I just learned that word, too – resupinate means “seemingly turned upside down”.) I don’t know what species T. mesenterica likes to parasitize… but I happened to have a picture of P. rufa, so I’m including it here.  Hmm…   #3 above was on a dead hardwood… Maybe that one is T. mesenterica?  I didn’t see any Peniophora on that trunk, but I suppose it could be there hiding beneath the bark…

Tremella aurentia is “gregarious on downed hardwood” and parasitic on Stereum hirsutum (false turkey tail) and is described as “yellow-orange, shiny when wet, otherwise dull.”  Hmm… in picture #1 above, the description is right.  Those grayish/green mini-shelves could be old S. hirsutum as the normally orange stripes are reported to fade over time – and while it usually grows on hardwoods, is occasionally found on conifers.  The tree was definitely still standing, however… and I THOUGHT it was still alive…  Hmm…  I’d still go with T. aurentia for picture #1 based on my sloppy naturalizing.  (UPDATE 2/13/2010:  I went back yesterday in an attempt to correct at least a bit of my sloppy naturalizing… the trees with orange goo were indeed hemlock, but they were also indeed quite dead… still standing, but dead.)

Here’s an awesome photo posted on Flickr by John Davis, which I think fits the bill for T. aurentia:

Dacrymyces palmatus is the only one of the three that is reported to live on conifers.  I think my #2 and #4 above are probably this species… both were found on downed Eastern Hemlock.  The intensely different shapes/textures confuse me… but then, these fungi are shape-shifters as they age, and depending on the weather conditions.

Mycologists are amazing.  With over 70,000 species identified and named, they believe there could be in excess of a million more to be discovered.  I suppose if I really really really cared, I’d be out there collecting spore prints, testing the fruits with various chemicals, examining bits of tissue and spores under the microscope…

But really, I was just out for a walk…

Get confused:

In case you haven’t heard…

Rose Pogonia StampJeremy Martin, long time stamp collector, avid photographer, Allegany Nature Pilgrimage Dragonfly Workshop leader, member of both Jamestown and Buffalo Audubon Society, etc etc etc… has had one of his photographs selected for a Canadian Postage Service Stamp.

He took photos of the bog orchid Rose Pogonia at the Allenburg Bog, owned by Buffalo Audubon Society. He posted the photos on Flickr. The Canadian Postal Service found them on Flickr and contacted Jeremy.

The stamp is finally available. You can buy some for your collection by clicking –> here.

The original photo looks like this:

Congratulations, Jeremy! We couldn’t be happier for you!

Screech Owl Quest

Don checks kestrel box

Nick and Scott hold the ladder while Don checks the Kestrel box.

Don checks our Kestrel boxes at Audubon.  He suspected an Eastern Screech Owl might be using the one in the parking lot…  He climbed up there and got photographic proof that there was indeed a screech owl using the box!  So, he returned one day with Scott (and the banding equipment).

A crowd gathered to watch, hopeful that they would see one of our most endearing little owls.

Alas and alack…  the bird had flown… perhaps roosting elsewhere in one of our other boxes?

In the bottom of the box there was evidence aplenty that a Screech Owl had been using the box:  pellets gallore and the remains of a cardinal.



We think of owls as being strictly nocturnal… but the Screech Owl may also hunt at dusk before the Cardinals and other songbirds have hit the sack.

Eastern Screech Owl - by Tom LeBlanc

Photo by Tom LeBlanc

Eastern Screech Owls can be either gray or red.  Curiously, later on this very day, a friend of Audubon brought us a poor unfortunate red individual that had been hit by a car and killed. We now have both a gray and a red in the freezer and are looking for a generous donor to send them to the taxidermist. (Audubon has federal and state permits allowing us to collect and display birds collected in this manner for educational purposes.)

Learn more about Screechies:


Trees delight me… no matter the season.
Bursting forth in spring…
Verdant in summer…
Vibrant in autumn…
Bare and skeletal in winter…
Each species with its own pattern,
each individual with its own character.

American Beech
American Beech
ravaged by weather, disease, and time… still living… continually putting out new branches with leaves that will not leave…

Yellow Birch
Yellow Birch
curly, distinctive bark-skin… unmistakable – even when I forget the branching pattern and the shape of the buds…

European Larch
European Larch
bumpy, warty stems promise poofs of soft needles come spring…

Roadside Maple
this youngster stands proud and hopeful by the side of the road, unaware of the strange shape it will take when branches interfere with wires…

Happy Midwinter!

(I hope you’ll click on all my links below to see some other interesting sites, pictures, information…)

February 2nd falls midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. While pop culture celebrates the day as Groundhog Day, for centuries it was celebrated by the Celts as Imbolc.

Celtic DesignThe name of the midwinter festival, Imbolc, comes from a Gaelic word for ewe’s milk, for at this time of year the ewes may be lactating in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. The festival celebrates this and other hints that Spring is starting to overtake Winter.

I plan to celebrate at work with more Snowflake Festival preparations. (Are you going to be there on Saturday?)

Here’s hoping “Phil” sees his shadow. I haven’t seen nearly enough snow yet!

Learn about groundhogs by clicking –> here.