Signs of Summer 7: Bird Sounds

Carolina wren (photo by D.Pancomo, Wikimedia Commons)

Carolina wren
(photo by D.Pancomo, Wikimedia Commons)

It is a cool, breezy day today, and I am very happy to have been able to turn the air conditioning off (with an acknowledgment that I REALLY appreciated it during all of the recent days of high humidity and ninety degree temperatures!). At last I can open up the windows and breathe fresh air and listen to all of the noises going on outside.

On top of the steady percussive sounds of rain dripping off of the tree and shrub branches, the birds are really putting on a musical show. The sparrows (white-throated, song, and chipping) and the house finches are singing and trilling the main song with punctuations of blue jay whistles and robin cackles. The Carolina wrens are rolling out their long cadences, too, along with the buzzing of the chickadees and titmice. I can even hear some starlings chipping and fluting off my neighbor’s tree. Every moment is a new combination of sounds and textures. You can almost make out the new hatchling cardinals tucked up in their nests in the arbor vitae calling to their parents for more food.

Many nature writers have talked about the purpose and the complexity of these bird sounds. Jon Young in his book “What the Robin Knows” could tell without looking when a neighbor’s cat entered his backyard by the subtle changes in tone and tempo of the surrounding bird songs. Information was being exchanged, you just had to open up your ears and mind to hear and understand it.

An article about six weeks ago in the New York Times (May 18, 2015) took the discussion of bird songs to even higher levels. Two biologists (Erick Greene at the University of Montana and Jesse Barber at Boise State) talked about their research into the functionality and importance of bird songs. Bird songs, they agreed, were important not only for a specific bird species but for many other species of birds and even mammals that share the same forest habitat. Many of these songs had local and very immediate impacts, while others exerted their influences over great distances.

Photo by A. Wolf, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by A. Wolf, Wikimedia Commons

For example, chickadees seeing a raptor will begin to sing out their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call. This song calls other chickadees to the area to set up a “mobbing” of the potential predator. Erick Greene found, though, that was much more information in these mobbing calls than simply “get over here!” If the raptor was especially threatening to chickadees (if it was, for example, a relatively small, agile hawk like a Cooper’s hawk), then the chickadees sent out their distress call more frequently and added more “dees” to the endings! If the raptor was less of a threat (if it was a large, but fairly clumsy Goshawk, for example that a chickadee could expect to evade fairly easily) then they slowed down their calls and abbreviated the “dee” endings! Greene also found out that red squirrels picked up and mimicked the chickadees’ distress calls and even seemed to be aware of the gradations of their relative threats (red squirrels were MUCH more cautious when the Goshawk level of a warning was given!).

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Photo by D. Daniels, Wikimedia Commons

Chipmunks, on the other hand, seemed to be more clued into warning calls from tufted titmice. Titmice were also carefully listened to by many species of small birds including red breasted nuthatches. Titmice were called the “crossing guards” of the forest by Katie Sieving of the University of Florida for their influence in keeping other bird species from going out into open areas of the forest habitat during a predator warning event.

Further, Greene’s study on lazuli buntings clearly showed that a threatening hawk cruising several miles from a bunting inhabited site was perceived by the buntings by means of a rolling chatter song that ripped across the forest ecosystem at a speed of 100 miles per hour! This song was spread at frequencies too high for the hawk to hear, so the warning was being transmitted on a “private” channel for all of the small, potential prey birds. In response to the multispecies clamor the buntings were able to dive into protective shrubs well before the approaching hawk burst into their feeding habitat.

Barber is also testing what happens when the quality of the bird song warning system is compromised. Noise pollution is becoming a very serious problem even in remote areas of the United States. It was noted that 83% of the land area of the lower forty-eight states is now within two thirds of a mile of a road. Further, expanded oil and gas exploration not only generates substantial noise from drilling machinery and activities, but also includes extensive expansion of roads and road usage.

Noise is directly stressful to birds. Their overall health, vigor, and size declines in noisy environments. Noise also blocks group generated alarm calls causing individuals to increasingly have to spend their individual time and energies watching out for predators and other dangers. This energetically expensive individual “alert” time would have been better spent feeding or resting. Barber’s “artificial road noise” experiments showed an overall 25% decline in bird abundance in noisy areas with some areas being entirely forsaken by all native bird species!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

My yard is regularly patrolled by a pair of sharp-shinned hawks. The hawks have to come into the feeder areas via all sorts of hidden routes in order to avoid detection by the chickadees, titmice and blue jays. They need to grab their prey quickly and rapidly exit the area to avoid mobbing especially by the bold jays. The sharp-shins do get an occasional bird and, obviously, secure sufficient prey to live and reproduce on, but they have to be good at the stalking, swooping, and killing or the information system of the feeder birds will thwart them. The impact of a predator is almost always the ecological and evolutionary improvement of the prey species. Instead of bigger, faster and stronger, the feeder birds are just more verbal!

Enjoy the summer!

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Signs of Summer 5: Leaves of Three

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I take my dog Izzy for a short walk every morning right after she has her breakfast. We try to get out before the dog across the street (who is either Izzy’s arch nemesis or her boyfriend, I am still trying to figure out which) wakes up and before the general human activity up and down the block gets in motion. Izzy and I have a quiet and almost always very fruitful short walk and she can start her day with an empty bladder and colon. Always start your day with success!

Box elder (Photo by homerwardprice, Wikimedia Commons)

Box elder (Photo by homerwardprice, Wikimedia Commons)

Anyway, the other morning I was looking at the trees growing in the woodlot that borders my street as we walked along on the narrow grass strip. The names of the trees clicked along in my still un-caffeinated brain: choke cherry, sugar maple, yellow poplar, black cherry, gray birch, red maple, box elder.

And I stopped (Izzy kept on going). Box elder? I was not aware that any box elders grew in my wood lot. Box elder(Acer negundo) was a tree of my childhood. It was the tree that lined the cool, shady street that I grew up on in northern Ohio. It was the fast growing but weak wooded tree that got collectively obliterated when a thunderstorm rolled down that same street on a July 4 evening (a couple of  years after we had moved away) and turned the street from a leafy tree tunnel to a barren strip of asphalt. It is the only maple with compound leaves! How could I not have seen it here before?

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

By now Izzy was several houses away, and I ran after her and coaxed her to start back with me toward home. I stopped again at my “box elder.” Triple leaflets branched out high over my head in a dense mass of green. It was so tall! It had to have been here for years!
Something, though, wasn’t right. I looked more closely and saw the thick, fuzzy vines wrapped around the trunk of an old maple tree: leaves of three! My “box elder” was a tree sized mass of poison ivy!

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) grows abundantly in almost any habitat affected by humans. It thrives on disturbance and favors the edges and overlaps of fragmented ecosystems. It grows abundantly not only in my yard and in the ecotones between my mowed field and the surrounding woods and the woods and street but also almost anywhere in Western Pennsylvania. Deborah and I saw so much poison ivy when we hiked the Baker Trail back in 2010 that we wanted to make Baker Trail t-shirts with a poison ivy logo on them!

As I have previously noted about poison ivy (on our “Virtual Nature Trail” and also in this blog) many animals greatly benefit from poison ivy. Songbirds eat its white berries, and deer browse on its tender leaves. If fact, there is only one animal that has a problem with this plant: humans). In a sensitized human the delayed hypersensitivity reaction following exposure to the urushiol oil of poison ivy can range from an annoying itch to a life threatening anaphylactic shock.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A very logical question to ask about this impact of urishiol on humans is “why?”
There are scores of websites that talk about this property of poison ivy’s urishiol and relate it to a protective function for the plant. If it is a known cause of such toxic unpleasantness, then people will leave it alone. And, if people leave the plant alone, it will grow and thrive in its ecosystems.

That is very logical, but there is no long-term, evolutionary relationship between humans and poison ivy that could have led to the selection of this “protective” feature. Further, no other animals generate the allergic reaction to urishiol that humans do. As I said, birds avidly eat its berries (all of which contain urishiol), and deer and other browsers readily consume its urishiol-rich leaves. How could urishiol be protective when it has no impact on these potential consumers?

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

An Asian relative of these species may point us toward a possible answer about the function of urishiol in poison ivy. The Oriental Lacquer tree is a Toxicodendron species that grows in China and Japan. The sap of this tree has been harvested for many centuries to make a high quality varnish for wooden furniture. The urishiol in this sap is a major constituent of the lacquer and reacts with water and air to form a hard, protective encasing material. It is hypothesized that the urishiol in all Toxicodendrons carry out this function. Toxicondendron leaves are quite delicate in structure and are, thus, easily damaged by even light physical trauma. The urishiol in the damaged leaves could react on air exposure to form a resealing lacquer that helps to reestablish the structural and protective integrity of a damaged leaf. The plant benefits ecologically and evolutionarily via this urishiol repair system because it is able to put less of its total system energy into the construction of its leaves. It is thus able to make more leaves and grow more rapidly on a specific amount of available energy.

(And, by the way, the lacquers on these pieces of Chinese and Japanese furniture are capable of generating a “poison ivy” reaction in a sensitized individual. Be careful what you sit on!)

So the urishiol might be there to help repair damaged leaves. Why does it trigger such a powerful immune reaction in humans and, apparently, no reaction at all in all other organisms that come in contact with it? I have only one answer: I don’t know!

Izzy and I went back to the house. I filled up the bird feeders with sunflower seeds and dumped a scoop or shelled corn and a handful of peanuts on the ground beneath them. The crows were hungry and were cawing and calling from spruces next to the yard. Two squirrels waiting in the arbor vitae for me to go back into the house, and a blue jay watched from the red maple. They would all dive for the peanuts as soon as I went back into the house.

Coffee was more important right now that either poison ivy or box edlers.

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Signs of Summer 4: Looking for Salamanders

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A couple of Mondays ago Deborah and I headed out for a hike up at Harrison Hills Park in northern Allegheny County. Our plan was to do a couple of hours on the rolling terrain of the park’s trails and, during pauses while Deborah looked at wildflowers, I planned to turn over some rocks and logs to look for salamanders. There is a back story here which I will get to eventually.

Photo by B. Lucas Wikimedia Commons

Photo by B. Lucas Wikimedia Commons

It was a very good day for a salamander hunt: it was cool, almost cold, really! (I even had to go back to my house to get some long pants and a jacket for the hike!). It was also cloudy and the days before had been very rainy. The soil and litter cover would be wet and very conducive to salamander activity. Salamanders are primarily nocturnal, so we expected that they would be tucked away in their daylight hideaways. Pennsylvania has a nice array of salamander species (twenty-two species from eleven genera and five families according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission). Deborah and I have frequently seen red spotted newts (especially their red colored, land-dwelling efts) (and newts are just salamanders, by the way) on hikes up in the Allegheny Forest. We have also seen salamanders on hikes in the Laurel Highlands and on our campus nature trail. I have even found salamanders in my driveway drain here in Kiski Township. We assumed, then, that there had to be salamanders in Harrison Hills Park.

Salamanders are, of course, amphibians. They are vertebrates capable of living on land and in aquatic habitats, too. Some species of salamanders are primarily terrestrial while others are exclusively aquatic. Almost all salamanders, though, lay their eggs in water and those eggs hatch into aquatic “tadpole-like,” larval stages. These aquatic larvae have gills and feed on algae and invertebrates in their pools and ponds. They are also eaten by larger organisms (especially fish) and as a consequence have a very low, overall rate of survival!

Photo by J. Haklm, Flickr

Photo by J. Haklm, Flickr

One “solution” to this vigorous snacking on their eggs and larvae by fish involves salamanders laying their eggs in isolated, fishless “vernal pools” rather than in larger ponds and streams. These vernal pool larvae experience a much reduced fish-predation pressure but are often under a severe time constraint to grow and develop quickly because these pools typically dry out in early weeks of summer. This reproductive strategy also requires significant spring rains to fill the temporary pools. Pictured to the left is a spotted salamander. It is the most common salamander in Pennsylvania and is one of the “mole” salamanders (so called because it makes a burrow in which it spends the daylight hours). Spotted salamanders obligatorily rely on vernal pools for their reproduction.

Aquatic salamanders keep their gills into adulthood while the terrestrial ones rely on relatively simple lungs and also their moist skin to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. When you pick up a salamander you are guaranteed to get your hand covered with slime, and it is important to remember that all sorts of bacteria live commensally in this mucous coating (so, always wash your hands after playing with or petting a salamander!).

Adult salamanders eat all sorts of invertebrates and are in turn eaten by many larger predators (including snakes and many types of birds). An article about Pennsylvania salamanders by Ben Moyer published about a year ago in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mentioned finding eleven redback salamanders in the crop of a recently shot wild turkey!

Salamanders specifically and amphibians in general are under a great deal of stress here in Pennsylvania. They have experienced significant reductions in their distributions and in their numbers. Loss of habitats (especially loss of vernal pools and other wetlands), acid rain, air pollution, and habitat fragmentation (many amphibians travel significant distances to return to their mating pools in the spring and the more roads they have to cross the greater the likelihood of fatalities) have all contributed to their declining numbers.

Globally, a chytrid fungus epidemic is causing what has been characterized in the scientific literature as an amphibian mass extinction. Many species of frogs and salamanders in Central America, South America, eastern Australia and western North America have been annihilated by this devastating and rapidly spreading disease.

But, back to Harrison Hills and our walk: we parked near the large upper playground of the park where a busload of school children and an armada of parental SUV’s had gathered for a very chilly, end-of-the-school-year picnic. We headed off on the red blazed Scout’s Trail and stopped in low spots along the way to turn a log or a rock or two, but we didn’t see any salamanders.

Photo by Mike's Birds Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Mike’s Birds Wikimedia Commons

Crossing the edge of the soccer fields we watched two male Baltimore orioles streaking around each other and singing their territories from the tops of bordering trees. We walked past the pond (the water lilies were in flower!) and turned a few more logs but still no salamanders. Last year at this time we watched dozens of American toads mating in the pond. It is quiet here today, though. We then followed the yellow blazes up and down the hilly terrain of the very reliably wet and frequently muddy Rachel Carson Trail. We turned some logs over in the wet bottom sections of the trail, but still no salamanders.

We heard pileated woodpeckers calling and pounding away, and we came across several, large, black cherry trees that they had carved up with their rectangular, chiseled holes. We heard another bird singing off in the woods, but couldn’t place its song or see it through the layers of branches and leaves. We also startled several deer from their deep, daytime hideouts.

We walked for almost two hours noting the waxing and waning flowering of many plant species and fruitlessly turning over logs. We then returned through the picnic din of the celebrating school children and climbed back into the car ready for some hot soup. We were far too damp and muddy, though, (salamander hunting is dirty work!) to go anywhere but home to get some. A nice walk: not many new flowers, only a couple of birds, and, sadly, no salamanders.

The question about salamanders was posed by Patrick Kopnicky: are there any salamanders in Harrison Hills Park? He had never seen any there, but was that because they were just uncommon or just because they were nocturnal? He speculated that the proximity of the roads and highways might make the surface water quality in the park too salty for salamanders. The lack of suitable spots for significant vernal pools in the park might also be a factor that would greatly limit the occurrence of salamanders. Also the two ponds in the park are both full of fish which we know would not be good for many salamander species. I told Patrick that I would look around. No answer yet, but I will keep looking!

Happy Summer!

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Signs of Summer 3: A Hike at The Todd Nature Reserve

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The Todd Nature Reserve (formerly called “Todd Sanctuary”) is a rocky, stream crossed, 176 acre site owned and maintained by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. The Reserve is in Sarver in southeastern Butler County and has been, for all of the thirty-two years Deborah and I have lived in this area, one of our favorite places to hike. There are five miles of crisscrossing trails in the reserve that include a two mile “Loop Trail” that encircles the site’s perimeter and takes you from stream beds to ridge tops and back again through young to middle-aged hemlock stands and a variety of mixed hardwood forests. There are also a number of shorter trails (with wonderfully descriptive names like “Hemlock,” “Indian Pipe,” “Pond,” “Warbler,” and “Polypody”) that interconnect fern capped rock cities with densely vegetated copses and the human-constructed pond (built in 1969).

When we arrived (12:30 in the afternoon on a beautiful Saturday afternoon!) there were seven other cars in the parking area! This might be a record parking lot crowd for Todd! Many of the people apparently had decided to walk the Ravine Trail (we heard their voices disappearing down into the hollow), but even with the ones that stayed up on the forest trails, we felt like we had the reserve to ourselves. These trails never seem to be heavily used and have, in our experience, never been at all crowded.

Photo by J.McCulloch, Flickr

Photo by J.McCulloch, Flickr

At the parking area there is a tall, wooden tower with a chimney swift picture and descriptive sign on it (there is, as we will find in little while, a second, wooden, “swift tower” up by the Naturalist’s Cabin, too). Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) are native birds of North America that, quite obviously, existed here prior to European colonization (and the subsequent construction of chimneys!). Chimney swifts are small, dark gray birds with long, slightly curved wings, and stubby tails. Roger Tory Peterson famously described them as “a cigar with

Photo by National Park Service

Photo by National Park Service

wings.” These birds are gregarious. They often nest in very large groups and forage on the wing for flying insects in smaller groups of 3 to 4 birds. The anatomy of their legs and feet prevents them from perching on branches or even walking on the ground. They are designed specifically to grip onto the vertical sides of their chimney habitats. Before there were chimneys in North America these swifts utilized tall, hollowed out trees and vertical crevices in cliffs for their resting and nesting habitats. It is likely that the proliferation of human-made chimneys increased their numbers significantly. Lately, though, the numbers of chimney swifts have begun to decline possibly because of a decreasing number of suitable chimneys for their roosting and nesting. In 2010 they were re-classified as “near threatened,” and the construction of artificial, vertical roosts seems a logical way to reestablish their needed habitats.

Deborah and I watch chimney swifts flying out over our field at home almost every summer morning and afternoon. It has been estimated that a mated pair of swifts with three nestlings will catch and consume up to six thousand housefly-sized insects each day, and if we converted that figure into to “mosquito-sized” insects I bet that it would sound even more impressive!

Baneberry (Photo by D. Sillman)

Baneberry (Photo by D. Sillman)

We hike down the gravel path to the bridge that crosses the ravine of the small creek that connects into Watson Run (the main stream that cuts through the reserve) and, passing the Naturalist’s Cabin cross a field that is VERY full of poison ivy! We are careful to stay in the middle of the narrow trail! On the way Deborah sees two plants (one in flower and one just past flowering) that she does not recognize! We stop while she takes pictures and closely examines the leaves and flowers. One of the plants she identifies as baneberry (Actea spp.) while the other is still under consideration.

We walk past the tangle of poison ivy and enter the cool and quiet of the shady hemlock forest that lines the banks of the creek. THIS is my kind of forest! The air is cool and wet and smells of damp hemlock needles. The sunlight is broken up into spotlight-like rays that highlight some of the forest floor plants and leave the others in deep shade. The water flow over the rocks in the creek makes a steady background noise that is loud enough to cover up the scuff and crackle of our boot steps. It is so peaceful!”

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The Loop Trail is clearly blazed with red marks. We hike steadily up and leave most of the hemlocks behind. In the hardwood stands there is a large amount of downed wood. Branches and entire trees have fallen in parallel lines all around and all along the trail. This is a sign of a young forest shedding its early successional species and, possibly, stretching itself into a more complex structure. The downed trees are foot diameter black cherry that are well riddled with woodpecker holes and some even larger oaks that may have succumbed to the accumulated stresses of the repeated gypsy moth outbreaks of the early 1990’s. A few of the trees are broken high up on their trunks probably after some weakening events. There are also many others that have been completely wind thrown and lay across the forest floor with twelve to sixteen foot root balls that have been pulled up out of the shallow, rocky soil. In these sun gap areas black cherry and yellow birch saplings an inch in diameter and twelve feet tall grow thickly. I think that it would be possible to determine the ages of the wind throws by measuring the sizes of the fast growing trees within their sun gaps.

In the understory vegetation there are a large number of white oak seedlings and saplings! Looking back at some of my notes from 2010 I mention that there were very few oak seedlings along this trail! These oaks, then, are a recent addition to this forest! In time, with luck, a fine oak forest will come to dominate these upland sections.

Mayapple plant with flower bud circled

Photo by D. Sillman

The broad, flat, parasol-like leaves of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) spread out alongside the trail. Most of the plants are setting their fruit but a few still retain their delicate, white flowers. This perennial plant grows from expanding rhizomes and often forms large, interconnected patches of dozens to hundreds of genetically identical plants. Mayapple relies on soil fungi (mycorrhizae) to assist their uptake of soil nutrients. Competition with plants that inhibit these soil fungi (like garlic mustard) can be very harmful to Mayapple. Reproduction in Mayapple is via both vegetative growth (the expanding rhizomes) and via sexual reproduction (flowers that form fruit after pollination). There is a steep physiological cost involved in making flowers and fruit, and, as I have mentioned before, and this cost can significantly drain the energy reserves from the colonial rhizome and may even cause the interconnected clonal colony to die.

There are small gnats swarming around our faces. These gnats are mentioned in almost every set of notes that I have taken on walks in Todd! They seem to fly slower than we can walk, though, so keeping moving reduces the density of their clouds. Multiflora rose is growing in scattered patches that are larger than they were five years ago. Garlic mustard is also more abundant. These two invasive species have the potential to do a great deal of harm to the native plant species in the reserve. There is still a very nice array of native plants that are still in flower: columbine, clustered snakeroot, bluets, violets, golden ragwort, wild geranium, Canadian mayflower, and sweet Cicely light up the trail with their blooms. Ferns are also abundant along the trail including Christmas fern, evergreen woodfern, New York fern, sensitive fern, interrupted fern, hayscented fern, cinnamon fern, and rattlesnake fern (one of Deborah’s favorites). There is also an abundance of raspberry and blackberry along the trail (good news for some quick snacks on our later summer hikes!).

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

As we walk up to the pond, bullfrog tadpoles as big as my thumb dart from the open water into the leaf covered bottom mud. Several adult bullfrogs float half submerged among the dense leaves of the pond lilies. In the distance green frogs make their distinctive, plunked calls. Two wood ducks swim near the far shore and hide in the shoreline vegetation upon seeing us. Deborah and I agree that we need a pond. Just being near the water is relaxing and rejuvenating!

We hike back toward the cabin crossing a stone path over the running creek. An old, shallow limestone quarry is off to the right of the trail. The rocks and the carved out depressions are completely covered with overgrowing vegetation.

We cross the cabin bridge and hike up the gravel trail toward our car. The way up seems much longer than the way down had been. There are only three cars left in the parking area, but we have only seen one other group out on the trails.

We open up the car doors to let out the accumulated heat. The air is warm and dry and a hunt of insect spray underlies the scents of the surrounding woods. It is beginning to really feel like summer!

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Signs of Summer 2: Herbs and Mushrooms, Treasure in the Woods

Photo by US FWS

Photo by US FWS

Wild ginseng (also called “American ginseng” (Panax quinquefolius)) is a slow growing, perennial, understory plant that was once found extensively throughout our Western Pennsylvania forests. Wild ginseng makes a thick root over a period of four to six years in which a chemical called “ginsenoside” becomes highly concentrated. Ginseng root is used in traditional, Oriental medicine and has a long list of potential impacts and applications. It is said to lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels, to promote relaxation and reduce stress, and to increase body strength. Scientific testings of these medical impacts by independent researchers, however, have not clearly demonstrated ginseng’s effectiveness or usefulness as a treatment for human diseases or infirmities.Belief, however, can be a very powerful force!

Photo Public Domain

Photo Public Domain

American ginseng was first discovered in 1702 in southern Canada by a French Jesuit who had read about the ginsengs of China and recognized similarities in both the morphology and also the native uses of this North American plant. Subsequently American ginseng was found growing all through the eastern forests of North America, and its harvest (often by free ranging “seng-diggers” (like Daniel Boone!)) and exportation to China quickly grew into an industry that was exceeded in terms of cash flow and profits only by trapping and the exportation of furs. By the late 1800’s the growing scarcity of wild ginseng led to the controlled cultivation of the plant, and by the 1970’s very little wild ginseng remained. Today the United States, primarily from cultivated plants grown on ginseng farms, exports over one hundred million dollars of ginseng to Asia.

It is still possible to find wild ginseng in our eastern forests, but as Hilary Appelman indicated in her February 3, 2015 Penn State News article the continuing pressures of its illegal harvesting is seriously impacting its distribution. Landowners are being encouraged to cultivate ginseng in their forested habitats in order to reestablish this once important plant back into our ecosystems.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Deborah and I occasionally see dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius) plants along our hikes. These plants, though, do not produce the large, ginsenoside-rich roots that has made the closely related American ginseng so desired. If we do find any wild, American ginseng we would probably keep its locations secret in the hope that these plants could, over time, re-establish themselves in at least some small corner of our Western Pennsylvania woods.

Late Spring and early Summer is also the time of year to find a few types of edible, wild mushrooms. One type that is highly prized by mushroom collectors is the morel. We have come across morels in a variety of places but almost always they are associated with American elm trees. The impact of Dutch elm disease has reduced the abundance of the American elms, but there are still enclaves of this magnificent tree throughout our Western Pennsylvania woods.

Morels are the reproductive, spore-producing structures of a variety of species within the fungal genus Morchella. Morels are found throughout the forests of North America and in most of the temperate forests (i.e. forests that have significantly cold “winters” usually with appreciable snow) of the world. Their wide tolerance of ecological conditions, though, and their ability to handle (and even thrive upon) massive ecological fluctuations, have resulted in their frequent occurrence in many other types of ecosystems.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Morels are delicious, and also very distinctive mushrooms, but they should be collected and consumed with caution. Toxins that can cause digestive upsets are typically broken down in cooking, but morels can also concentrate pollutants, herbicide and pesticide residues, heavy metals, and even radioactive nucleotides from their environments. Collection of these mushrooms from disturbed or polluted areas is discouraged. Also, eating morels, even after cooking, while also consuming alcoholic beverages is discouraged because the ethanol in the drinks can intensify the toxicity of the chemicals in the morel’s tissues. You have to enjoy your morels without an accompanying glass of wine!

Morels can be found in wide range of natural and human modified habitats and in association with a wide range of tree species. Elms, in particular, as I mentioned before, are a very commonly associated tree. It used to be thought that morels were fungi that lived by decomposing the dead or dying tissues of trees and other plants. More recently, however, this “saprotrophic” ecological existence has been expanded to account for the presence of these fungal species in association with the living roots of many of their associated trees. These root-symbiotic fungi are called “mycorrhizae,” and they function to significantly assist the host tree in the absorption of soil nutrients.

The tendency of morels to form mushrooms in great numbers after fires or during and after their host tree’s death may be an example of this mycorrhizal fungus receiving a saprotrophic nutrient burst from the dying host, or it may reflect an evolutionary strategy by the morel species in which reproductive spores and formed and dispersed from a soon-to-be exhausted host system.

We have found several morel sites along our hikes over the years, but we have not collected any of the mushrooms. Most of our hikes skirt the edges of mining and chemical agricultural sites, and, so, we are quite wary of the toxin levels in the mushrooms. Also, we want the morel spores to spread along the trails and establish as many new mycorrhizal systems as possible.

So out in these Spring and Summer woods are species rich in history and chemical and nutritional potentials. Beauty and utility! Happy summer, everyone!

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Signs of Summer 1: Honey Bees, Millipedes, and Migrant Birds

Photo by I.Tsukuba, Flickr

Photo by I.Tsukuba, Flickr

Last week Deborah and I were down on Roaring Run with Rob and Michele Bridges getting ready for a late afternoon bike ride and walk when I saw a great cloud of honey bees hovering over a recently mowed area near the start of the trail. I hadn’t seen such a dense crowd of honey bees along this trail in years and so went over to watch them.

The bees were very calm but also very intent in their search patterns over the freshly cut area. They kept landing and rising and moving from spot to spot in a very random but, somehow, very orderly manner. It was like they were going from flower to flower in a field, but there were no flowers in their search area. I did see a number of cut violet leaves in the low growing plant mix of the “lawn,” and I wondered if the bees might have been foraging among the violets prior to the mowing and then have continued to receive and interpret chemical “flower” signals even after the flowers had been torn away? When I came back to the trail head after an hour and half of riding all of the bees were gone. Very curious, indeed.

Photo by AlphaWolf (Wikimedia Commons)

Photo by AlphaWolf (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I noted a lack of forest millipedes on Roaring Run (compared to previous years), but I am very glad to report that they are back in their expected numbers! Rob and I had to keep our eyes on the trail ahead because there were dozens and dozens of them (called the “North American millipede,” Narceus americana) crossing the path in front of our bikes. These millipedes thrive in cool, moist forests that are full of leaf and woody debris. They are important components of the decomposer web by which carbon in plant materials is converted into soil organic matter and nutrients are recycled for new plant growth. They are large but quite harmless to people. They can, if they are disturbed, however, secrete a yellow liquid that can stain your fingers. These millipedes are eaten by many birds, amphibians and reptiles, and they are a particularly favorite food of shrews. I managed not to run any of them over, but there had been some millipedes beforehand that had not been so lucky.

I am still searching for several of our expected migrant bird species! Today, Deborah and Michele saw a male and female rose-breasted grosbeak flying together across the path near the start of the trail, but there are many other species that are still “missing.” I have not yet seen a scarlet tanager or an indigo bunting, although both of these birds are expected summer residents along Roaring Run. I also haven’t seen or heard any wood thrushes, another expected species along this trail. I did see a hermit thrush in Harrison Hills Park and may have even spotted its nest, but I want to hear the wild, fluting song of a wood thrush before I can really acknowledge that summer has arrived! Sometimes you just get out of phase with these birds: your time of looking just doesn’t match up with their time of activity. I need to shift my bird-biking trips to other times of day!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Just past the three mile marker along the bike trail we saw an early patch of fire pink growing out of the crumbling soil of an exposed slope. Its bright red petals stood out sharply against the bare, black soil of the slopes. Fire pink was the flower that Deborah and I saw every day of our Baker Trail hike five years ago. As we hiked north in the early summer, we followed its blooming phases all the way up into the Allegheny Forest.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Our bluebird nesting project up at Harrison Hills Park is going along very nicely! We have decided to call ourselves the “Cavity Nesting Team” because of the abundance of not only bluebirds but also tree swallows that are utilizing our nest boxes. The team has steadily dealt with repairs to the poles and boxes, wasps, house sparrows, and most recently explosively growing poison ivy and the specter of deer ticks along our access paths. The team celebrated the first hatching of “our” bluebirds with a level of joy usually reserved for new additions to one’s family! Our data so far: four boxes have confirmed bluebird nests with eggs (above is a photo of bluebird eggs in one of our boxes!), and, as of mid-May, three of these boxes have nestlings (a total of twelve to fifteen baby birds (they are very hard to count when they are all smushed together in the nest!)). Five of the nestlings fledged last week, and we will be checking the boxes to see if the others have followed suit! Five boxes have confirmed tree swallow nests, and four of these nests contain 4 to 5 eggs (no nestlings as of last week, but we’ll check again this weekend!). Two boxes had house sparrow nests, and one box has a wren nest. I will let you know how fledging goes over the next few weeks!

Summer is here! Enjoy!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 2 Comments

Signs of Spring 13: Gypsy Moths and Tent Caterpillars

Photo by O. Leillinger Wikimedia Commons

Photo by O. Leillinger Wikimedia Commons

I was riding my bike down on the Roaring Run Trail last week looking for arriving, migrating birds when I noticed something else entirely. Crawling across the gravel surface of the trail along with a surprisingly small number of forest millipedes (“surprising” because I have notes from last year at this time that the trail was absolutely covered with these millipedes!) were an equally small number, but regularly occurring, crossing parade of gypsy moth caterpillars.

Gypsy moths (Lymantra despair) were/are one of the great invasive scourges of our eastern forests. A brief review of their history: they were brought to North America (Medford, Massachusetts to be precise) in 1869 by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot who intended to breed them with Asian silk moths so that he could develop a domestic silk industry. The gypsy moths escaped from Trouvelot’s home and quickly became a recognized pest in the oak forests of New England. In 1906 the U.S Department of Agriculture released an exotic, European parasitic, tachinid fly (Compsilura concinuata) to try to get the exploding gypsy moth populations under control. Over the next eighty years the USDA repeatedly released more and more of these tachinid flies throughout affected forests in a vain attempt to control the spreading gypsy moths. As pesticides were invented, they were thrown at gypsy moths, too. Pathogenic fungi were also developed and used to weaken and reduce the gypsy moth masses.

Photo by K. Wixted, Flickr

Photo by K. Wixted, Flickr

Those of us of who remember the gypsy moth outbreaks here in Western Pennsylvania in the early 1990’s can recall trees covered with writhing masses of caterpillars, and sidewalks, streets, and driveways coated with their slippery, crushed bodies. We also remember that we had to wear hats when walking in the woods because of the constant raining down of tiny fecal pellets from the swarms of gypsy moth caterpillars feeding on leaves up in the tree canopies. Many oak trees were completely defoliated, and some oak trees were killed. But, then the explosive numbers died back and for most us “went away.”

There are still significant areas of Pennsylvania where gypsy moths are an overwhelming pestilence, but many more areas of forest where they have become a baseline part of a tolerable equilibrium. Maybe the pathogenic fungus was the key weapon for control. Maybe letting the population become so dense and unstable triggered a crash from which the species has not yet recovered. Either way, biking along Roaring Run Trail and dodging a few crossing gypsy moth caterpillars is so much better than the slipping and sliding over thousands of their crushed carcasses just 25 years ago!

Unfortunately, though, those tachinid flies that were released during eighty years of fruitless attempts at biocontrol became established in North America and are doing a great deal of harm.

Let’s think about these parasitic flies and how they interact with their host caterpillars. First, many parasites of moth caterpillars lay their eggs on the surface of the skin of the larvae. Since larvae go through a number of growth and skin shedding stages (their “instars”) many of these surface eggs are in fact shed with each instar molt. Also, many of the moth parasites are very specifically matched to a species of moth caterpillars. Consequently, the parasite becomes active only during the seasonal activity time of the host caterpillar and has a very focused and direct impact on a specific moth species. These two features of the host/parasite interactions enable both species to reach equilibria populations in which persistence of both species without explosive growth is achieved.

Compsiulra concinnata, our introduced tachinid fly, however, exhibits none of these focusing or restraining parasitic features. This tachinid fly inserts its eggs into the body of a host caterpillar. No skin molting will shed the lethal parasite eggs once they have been injected into the caterpillar. Also, this tachinid fly displays the antithesis of host specificity. It parasitizes nearly two hundred species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Coleoptera (beetles) and Symphyta (sawflies) in North America alone. Further, C. concinnata instead of having its life cycle timed to the seasonal cycle of a particular host has the ability to have up to four generations in a single year. Each generation will encounter different butterfly, moth, beetle or sawfly species and have deleterious impacts on each of them.

There was, then, no targeting of C. concinnata on gypsy moths! Almost every native moth and butterfly species in North America was exposed to this aggressive, generalist parasite! Monarch caterpillars are killed by C. cincinnata, as are luna moths, cecropia moths, polyphemus moths and promethea moths. The decline of these “giant silk moths” in particular has been observed throughout their North American ranges, and some experts feel that C. cincinnata is responsible for over 80% of their population loss!

Photo by D. Gavey Flickr

Photo by D. Gavey Flickr

Looking up from the gypsy moth caterpillars on the bike trail path I notice that the masses of tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) are growing especially thickly on the terminal branches of the cherry trees all along the trail. These caterpillars are an inevitable sign of late spring or early summer, and, while they are not as beautiful as some of the other aspects of the season we have mentioned in the past, they are the principal food of one of the glorious birds in our area: The Baltimore Oriole. As I wrote in a blog several years ago:

Photo by Mike's Birds Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Mike’s Birds Wikimedia Commons

“The oriole males are vying with each other for prime breeding territories and are getting ready for the anticipated arrival of the females. Baltimore orioles (and this species is distinct from Bullock’s oriole so recent attempts to lump both species together as the “northern oriole” are not valid) spend their winters in southern Mexico and Central America and then in the spring spread themselves out across their breeding territories in the United States from North Dakota to Maine and Oklahoma to the Carolinas.”

The orioles time their mating and egg laying and nestling emergence to the abundance of the eastern tent caterpillars! Fast food for fast growing nestlings! As John Irving once wrote in his novel “The Cider House Rules,” “be of use!” He could have been describing the tent caterpillars!

So, caterpillars are all around us! Some are vestiges of a colossal, human generated disaster and others are enmeshed into the natural trophic network and serve as the primary fuel for some glorious baby birds. Sunlight to leaves to caterpillar to majestic orioles: it sounds so simple!

Enjoy the Spring and Summer!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 1 Comment

Signs of Spring 12: Spiders and Stink Bugs

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

A couple of days ago I was down in my basement washing up my beer making equipment in preparation to brew a batch of a double IPA for the coming summer. The hardest part of beer making is getting everything clean and sanitized so that there are not too many extraneous, competing microorganisms battling with the introduced yeasts to take the sugars of the brewing wort into odd, biochemical directions. You want as simple of a microbial community as possible in your fermenting system in order to guarantee a predictable (and delicious!) outcome. Brewing, then, is just another branch of applied ecology!

Anyway, making beer mostly involves washing and cleaning equipment, and I was leaning over the big laundry tub sink in the basement, scrubbing my ale pail with hot, soapy water when a delicate cellar spider (Pholcus phalangiodes) (photo above) drifted down on a silk strand from the ceiling over the sink. I did not want the spider to fall into the hot water so I pinched my thumb and pointer finger on the silk line and tried to gently move it over to the safety of the wall shelf. The spider, though, reacted violently to my touching its drop line and immediately released its thread and pitched itself into the hot water below.

I have a long, mutualistic relationship with our basement spiders, and this sudden death (almost an arachno-suicide) upset me. These spiders are active and abundant all year round in our basement and besides eating each other also, I am sure, consume a wide variety of insects that might otherwise thrive in the cool dampness of the basement. I have even seen brown, marmorated stink bugs caught up in the webs of these small spiders (although I have only seen larger, more robust spiders actually feeding on the stink bugs (see discussion and pictures below!)).

So I looked up at the ceiling from which the pholcid spider had come and saw the reason why it was so eager to get away. Wedged next to the floor joist was a large, fishing spider (Dolomedes tenebrosus.) who had been undoubtedly hunting the frail little pholcid.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Fishing spiders are impressive! Females have a body that can be slightly more than one inch long (about the length of a chap-stick tube!) and legs that can be 2 to 3 inches long! Holding one of these spiders in my hand (which is hard to do because they are very shy and hard to catch!) their legs easily span the width of my palm. We have had fishing spiders in our basement and garage for many years, but I hadn’t thought of their “super-predator” role in our basement ecosystem before. The pholcid spiders, who are active predators themselves, may be the primary prey of these larger arachnids.

The fishing spider stayed in its spot up on the ceiling until I finished scrubbing the ale pale. It was waiting for another snack to wander by and showed amazing patience and focus.

I have written about brown marmorated stink bugs four or five times over the past five years. Their sudden appearance in Western Pennsylvania in the fall of 2010 and their explosive numbers in the springs and falls ever since have made them a very unwelcome sign of both spring and fall.

The brown, marmorated stink bug (scientific name: Halyomorpha halys) is a native of northeast Asia (Japan, Korea, and China) and, apparently, is just as annoying there as it is here! Its use of human habitations as hibernation refuges, and its ability to communicate via pheromones and then aggregate in great numbers in some selected house, barn, porch, garage, or any other stink-bug-determined-suitable building makes their presence both in their native and also in their invasive regions impossible to ignore.

It is thought that this insect was first released into the United States in Allentown, PA in 1996. It apparently traveled from northeast Asia in a shipping container that was delivered either to the port of Philadelphia or Elizabeth, New Jersey and then trucked to Allentown. Five years later this new, alien, invasive species was recognized and identified by entomologists at Cornell University, but by then significant populations were being observed throughout eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. This insect has spread to thirty-five states primarily in the eastern United States. It has very large populations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Delaware, Ohio, and North and South Carolina. It has also spread to California and Oregon allegedly via a car driven by a person traveling from Pennsylvania to California in 2005.

There is a consortium of university and government researchers who are looking into the basic ecology and biology of the brown marmorated stink bug. Their goal is to come up with effective control measures to stem this growing biological invasion. The group (called “Stop BMSB”) is funded by the US Dept. of Agriculture and includes fifty researchers from tem universities (including Penn State!). They even conducted a “citizen’s science” survey last fall to try to determine some of the ecological and behavioral features of this bug. Their “2014 Great Stink Bug Count” asked homeowners to go out around their houses every day to determine the numbers and locations of any stink bugs that are present. Every little bit of data might help!

But here is the interesting thing: when the stink bugs first made their appearance here in Western Pennsylvania almost every potential predator was actively repelled by their pungent scent. Spiders, birds and almost every other type of possible insect eating invertebrate and vertebrate species actively avoided contact with the stink bugs, and, subsequently, their populations grew out of control. In the fall of 2013 and in the spring of 2014 we caught thousands of stink bugs in and around our house. We filled up cases of one liter, plastic bottles with their carcasses! Last fall, though, the huge numbers did not come, and this spring I have caught maybe a dozen total stink bugs over the past month. A far cry from the thousands of just twelve months ago!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

What has happened? Spiders are now actively eating stink bugs. The picture Deborah took of this jumping spider (Phidippus spp.) chewing its way into the captured sink bug is a great example! Birds (especially titmice and chickadees) flare up to the window screens of the house and snag unwary stink bugs. They fly them over to nearby branches and gobble them down! The predator guild of our surrounding vertebrate and invertebrate community has adapted itself to this new (and formerly incredibly abundant) food source! Control has been achieved, at least in the area immediately around my house!

Anyway, my basement spiders are trapping stink bugs even while they are being hunted by the larger, fishing spiders. The birds and outdoor spiders are also establishing a new equilibrium with, apparently, controlled stink bug menace. Invasive species are not always this quickly contained. If anyone is having any stink bug experiences this spring, please let me know!

Next week, another great topic! Gypsy moths! The fun keeps rolling along!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 2 Comments

Signs of Spring 11: Wildflowers on the Nature Trail

Deborah went out on a Nature Trail walk this week while I was giving (and grading) some finals. She spotted (our) first Baltimore orioles of the spring (two males fighting for mating territory along the Spicebush Trail up along the stream). She also saw a number of wildflowers along the trail and has classified them as “plants everyone should notice” and “plants that only biologists are likely to notice.” I have added some discussion about some of the plants. It’s worth taking the short walk out to the trail to see them! The plant names with *, by the way, link to species pages on our Virtual Nature Trail if you would like to read more about them!

Plants that everyone should notice:

Yellow violet flower and leaves

Image credit: D. Sillman

Violets!  Mainly purple and yellow violets – These are the most obvious flowers along the Nature Trail right now. There are many species of violets out in our woods and they range in color from a deep blue-violet to pure white. Left alone violets spread through their shady, moist soil habitats via rhizomes and seeds and can even cross the line from wildflower to weed if they invade flower beds, lawns, or agricultural fields. Their heart shaped flowers are waxy and resistant to many herbicides which make their control as weeds quite difficult. The leaves of violets are used as food by a number of moth and butterfly species. There is an ongoing discussion about the scent of violet flowers. Some maintain that the flowers have no smell while others describe a sweet, powdery scent that seems to come and go. The chemistry behind these observations centers on a ketone called “ionone” that is a major component of the violet flower’s chemical signature. Ionone actually smells initially sweet but then desensitizes your olfactory receptors thus blocking your sense of smell. It takes a couple of seconds for the receptor to recover and then the scent of the violet flower seems to return! Try it!

*Garlic mustard – unfortunately abundant and in full bloom out on the trail! This European, alien invasive species was introduced to North America in 1860. Its use as flavoring herb for food led people to grow it in herbal gardens, but it rapidly escaped cultivation and has spread throughout forest and field habitats in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Canada. A single plant can produce up to 8000 seeds, so its potential growth rate spread is enormous. Garlic mustard also produces a rich array of allelopathic chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants and can even kill the mycorrhizal fungi on which these plants depend for their nutrient acquisition. A final feature of this plant that accelerates its invasion of our ecosystems is that white-tailed deer tend not to eat it! So while almost every other plant in our woods is passing though the digestive tract of deer, the garlic mustard continues to grow, flower and produce its prodigious number of seed!

Mayapple plant with flower bud circled

Image credit: D. Sillman

Mayapple – its distinctive “umbrella” leaves are abundant throughout our woods!.  Flower buds have formed under the leaves (circled on image) and we predict beautiful flowers in about a week. This distinctive “parasol” plant has thick, shiny green leaves and will form a partially hidden, nodding white flower. This perennial plant grows from expanding rhizomes and often forms large, interconnected patches of dozens to hundreds of genetically identical plants. Mayapple relies on soil fungi (mycorrhizae) to assist their uptake of soil nutrients. Competition with plants that inhibit these soil fungi (like garlic mustard) can be very harmful to mayapple. Reproduction in mayapple is via both vegetative growth (the expanding rhizomes) and via sexual reproduction (flowers that form fruit after pollination). There is a steep physiological cost involved in making flowers and fruit, and this cost can significantly drain the energy reserves from the colonial rhizome. This energy loss may even be sufficient to kill the large, clonal colony. Dispersal, though, of the species via the fruit, and the genetic mixing and variation that arises from sexual reproduction are advantages well paid for by this stress.

Spring beauty flower

Image credit: D. Sillman

Spring beauty – almost done!  Delicate white flowers, but you’ll need to look carefully! Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), in addition to being a very reliable “sign of spring,” is also edible from its root and thumb-sized, underground corm to its green, leafy stem! A number of references describing both food uses by Native Americans and European explorers and settlers include spring beauty (especially its carbohydrate rich corm) as an important food item. It would seem a shame to pull up and destroy such a delicate flowering plant for such a tiny meal, but if you were really hungry I suppose beauty must yield to calories.

And briefly:

Three flowers

Image credit: D. Sillman

Wild geranium – beautiful purple flowers!
*Red Trillium – gorgeous, but you might miss it if you don’t know where it is!
*Jack-in-the-Pulpit – a wonderful wildflower that is fairly abundant on the trail, but it’s green color makes it really easy to walk right by it and not see the flowering parts!
*False Solomon’s Seal – not blooming quite yet, but very distinctive and beautiful leaves
Rue anemone – also delicate white flowers, only in one place on the spicebush trail.  Worth hunting for!
Cut-leaved toothwort – also mostly done flowering, but a few are persisting

Plants that only biologists are likely to notice:

Chickweed – Chickweed grows especially well in damp, cool habitats, but it can tolerate and even thrive in a very broad range of moisture and temperature conditions. It is a native of Europe that has spread almost everywhere that Europeans have colonized (or maybe just even visited!). It is a cold tolerant annual that can, in areas with mild winters, persist all the way through the winter season. It grows in high latitudes (up close to the Arctic Circle) and at high altitudes. Its stems hang limply over the ground and are covered with small (1/3”), paired, oval leaves that open during the day and close at night. Rising over the greenery of the stems and leaves are tiny (1/2” across) white flowers whose five petals are so deeply divided that they look ten-pointed stars. Each flower only lives for one day and is capable of self-pollination (a very useful feature in a flower that opens weeks before most insects are stirring!). Chickweed, though, flowers almost continuously throughout its growing season and can on milder days be cross-pollinated by several species of flies. A single plant can make 2500 to 15,000 seeds! These seeds can germinate in the warming spring soils or persist in the soil systems for up to ten years without losing their viability. The seeds are eaten by many species of game and song birds, and the leaves are consumed by a wide range of mammals. Humans eat chickweed seeds and leaves, too, and brew plant parts into a variety of medicinal teas and poultices.

Purple dead nettle – this is another alien invasive plant that is widespread throughout our woods, fields, and lawns. It is also on a short list of plants hated by Carl Meyerhuber! Patches of purple dead nettle (called “dead” because it does not make the “stinging” chemical of its fellow nettle species) and ground ivy form ideal habitats for many small animals. In the past we have seen quite a few American toads and garter snakes hiding out under the protective cover of the dead nettle leaves.

And briefly:

Ground ivy (or as we prefer to call it, Gill-over-the-Ground) – small irregular purple blue flowers, ubiquitous!
False mermaid – looks like a weedy groundcover, but makes tiny white flowers – no one will notice this.
Yellow corydalis – small irregular yellow flowers, common
Small flowered crowfoot – small easy to miss flowers

Spring is racing into summer! Hang on!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 1 Comment

Signs of Spring 10: Crows and Jays

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

All winter I have had the same early morning routine seven days a week: I take my dog Izzy out for her morning walk somewhere between 6:30 and 7 AM. She has had her breakfast and is ready to reacquaint herself with the scents out along my street and, most importantly, do her “business.” Every coat I own has a stash of little blue, dog waste bags in their pockets! After a 15 or 20 minute walk about, I return Izzy to our glassed-in porch and take a bucket of black oil sunflower seeds, a scoop of shelled corn, and a triple handful of peanuts in the shell out to fill up the bird feeders. I have to do this every day because the deer come in every evening and eat any seed that managed to last the day. I try to balance the birds’ appetites with the portions I put out so that I don’t end up spending too much money feeding (really expensive!) sunflower seeds to deer!

When I go out with my seed buckets and peanut bag I always have a couple of acquaintances watching me. Up in a nearby red maple there is usually a crow staring down into the yard in silence, and up in the blue spruce tree that borders the front yard there is a blue jay who inevitably starts “pinging” his pure whistle tone at me.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

I fill the feeders and dump the peanuts and go right back into the porch. I then let Izzy in to get her dog biscuit reward and look back out the window at the peanut pile. There is always at least one, sometimes three blue jays on the peanuts frantically stuffing as many peanuts as they can into their gular, throat pouches. They only have a few seconds before the look-out crow lands on the edge of the road and after a careful evaluation of the yard starts walking in toward the peanut pile. Usually a second crow lands and joins him just as he reaches the pile. They send the blue jays scattering.

The crows sit and methodically finish off all of the peanuts (unless the school bus drives by and scares them off. Then the jays might have another crack at the stash!).

I remember sitting at my writing desk four or five years ago watching a group of crows and blue jays argue about the fading winter and the coming spring. It was early April and the blue jays were probably starting their spring nests and the crows were checking out the nest area for some edible eggs. The racket was incredible! And, there were only four birds doing all of the high volume fussing!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Both crows and jays are members of the Family Corvidae. Corvids are known for their intelligence and for their wide ranging feeding habits. Although blue jays eat mostly seeds, nuts and insects, I have seen them pick robin hatchlings out of their nests and fly off with them. I have also seen them flying past with small eggs in their beaks. I have also seen crows acting even more aggressively than that! I have watched them knock cardinals out of the air and pounce on them. I have also seen them pick baby red squirrels off of tree branches as the squirrels walked along behind their mother. These feeding behaviors are some of the reasons that corvids aren’t widely loved birds!

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

Blue jays play a complex role in the avian community. Although they do occasionally at least eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings, they also serve as an early warning system for predators, especially hawks and owls. If a group of jays sees a hawk or an owl they scream their warning cries and then fearlessly mob the larger predator and drive it from their territory. This is a behavior that benefits not only the blue jays but also all of the other bird species in the area.

Corvids are also accomplished mimics and can not only pick up numerous calls and songs from their environment but also can be taught to produce many human words and even phrases. One sound that I frequently hear blue jays make is the call of a red-tailed hawk. What a fantastic tool to clear a bird feeder and, thus, have all of the seed to yourself! Once, high up on a nearby ridge, I followed the call of a red-tail through a dense copse of young red maple trees. After several minutes of hunting I finally spotted a bright, shining blue jay perched at the top of one of the maple screaming out over the valley like a hunting red-tail. I think that the sound and its echo were quite pleasing to him!

I have a great fondness for crows and can forgive them their predatory ways in appreciation of their amazing intelligence. Their ability to solve problems, devise hunting strategies and communicate those strategies among the individuals of their flocks are extremely impressive behaviors. Crows also recognize people and learn who are potential threats to them (like ornithologists who check on their nestlings or catch and band them! There was one well known ornithologist at Cornell had conducted an active, and somewhat intrusive egg count in the nests of the campus crows who was unable to walk across campus without being followed and harassed by mobs of angry crows!

Maybe crows even recognize those people who feed and care for them! My “morning crow” recognizes me and I am sure begins to anticipate the satisfying taste of breakfast peanuts as soon as he sees me come out to the feeder with my seed buckets! Although he’s too cautious to come any closer than the top of the maple tree while I am out in the yard, perhaps someday he will communicate with me more personally.

I will keep you posted!

Happy Spring!

Posted in Bill's Notes | 1 Comment