Friday, December 29, 2017

Juncos - Snowbirds

Dark-eyed Junco

     Juncos are common winter visitors throughout much of the USA. These woodland sparrows are quite variable in appearance, especially out West and by region, where some 15 different subspecies and races are recognized. Formerly many of these were recognized as different species, but now they've mostly been lumped together in the East to one species. What were sometimes called Northern, Eastern, or Slate-colored Juncos now are all called Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). 
     While living most of the year in forested portions of Canada and at higher elevations, they migrate over to become our winter residents. This winter time appearance has given them another common name: Snowbirds.

An aptly named Snowbird.

     Once they do arrive though, they're all over. Project Feeder Watch has listed them as the most commonly reported winter bird. They're considered among the most abundant forest birds, with a population estimate of 630 million. Juncos are commonly found in mixed flocks (often accompanying white-throated sparrows and bluebirds in particular) of 10-30 birds. Where the different ranges overlap, several subspecies of different juncos may flock together for the winter. There are definite hierarchical orders to juncos which play out when they're feeding, with those juncos who arrive earlier to a winter territory ranking higher than later arrivals. By the way, there are several accepted names for a flock of sparrows such as juncos. These include calling them a crew, a flutter, meinie, quarrel, or (my favorite) a ubiquity of sparrows/juncos. Be aware though, that few actual birdwatchers use any of these terms, simply referring to them to them as a flock. 

A Junco and White-throated Sparrow feed together.

     While somewhat variable in appearance, juncos tend to be gray and dark along their top half and light colored below, with pale beaks. Their most distinguishing feature though is the flashing of their white tail feathers as they pump them when they fly. The flashing is supposed to serve as both a warning device to fellow juncos and as distraction to any predators following them.
     Some dark-eyed juncos do not migrate at all, including some in the Appalachian mountains. These year-round resident birds, like many non-migratory birds, have shorter wings than the ones who fly so far away for the winter. Of those who do migrate, males tend to stay farther North, and the same individuals tend to go to the same wintering grounds each year. 
     Juncos feed in typical sparrow fashion: hopping along, pecking and scratching for food. They're mostly ground feeders, with 75% of their year-round diet made up of seeds. They're not too picky about the seed types, eating chickweed, sorrel, and lambs-quarters for example. At bird feeders, they usually go for the spilled seed on the ground, preferring millet over larger sunflower. They eat most of their insect food during the breeding season. In fact, like many other primarily seed-eating birds, they feed their own young almost exclusively an insect diet. Interestingly, the insect food at first when given to their young tends to be regurgitated prey. 
This short video shows juncos feeding:

Another Dark-eyed Junco, showing some of the variability typical of juncos. 

     Once they're back at their breeding grounds, males get very territorial in defending their woodland homes. Females pair up with them, preferring the ones with the flashiest white tails. Nests are normally built on the ground and are well concealed. They tend to be covered over, but can be very variable in appearance. The female incubates the eggs, though both parents feed the 1-2 (rarely 3) broods of young the high protein insect diet they crave. Three to five whitish eggs (with dark smudges on the larger end) are laid, with later nesting attempts having fewer eggs. After 11-13 days, the eggs hatch. The young develop quickly, and though they do not usually fledge and leave the nest until 9-13 days later, can in an emergency run very quickly to escape danger. If all goes well, they may live 3-6 years, though the record  is one that was 11 years and 4 months old that was noted in 2001.
     I enjoy the antics of these snowbirds. The flocks are very active and noticeable while they're foraging. They add a lot of liveliness to what can sometimes be a very drab landscape in winter. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Crows - Of Mobbing and Murder

     We have two species of crows in the DC area: the common American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchus) and the slightly smaller Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), which is usually associated with water. The two are tough to differentiate (apart from the nasal like calls of the Fish Crow) and often flock together. Fish Crows have been expanding their range inland along waterways. American Crows are the largest of the true crows in North America at 16-20 inches, compared to the 14-16 inch Fish Crows. The rest of this article will be about American Crows, though much is also true of Fish Crows.
     All crows (called corvids because they're in the Corvidae family, the crows, ravens, magpies and jays) are considered among the smartest of birds, with good reason. American Crows are incredibly adaptable creatures with some amazing natural history allowing them to thrive.
     First of all, crows will eat just about anything. While they prefer animal protein (they love worms for example), they will eat quite a bit of plant material as well. And they won't be fooled by such scare tactics as scarecrows or fake owls to keep them away, being much too smart for that. The lengths corvids will go to get food are legendary, with some types of crows worldwide using tools, stealing fish caught ice-fishing, cracking nuts under car tires, using water to soften hard foods, and such. But our own crows are also very adept at getting food. Here's a short video of crows taking advantage of red cedar fruits:

     While they love to eat meat, crow beaks are not always strong enough to make them great scavengers. But they will take advantage of road kill, letting the car tires help them to not only kill their food, but break the skin open to allow them access to the softer insides. Crows will also raid bird nests, eating both eggs and young. This is one of the reasons you see birds gang up and mob them all the time. As they sometimes target poultry, this does not always endear them to many farmers. 
     They will also eat young animals, though again, it isn't easy for crows to dispatch potential prey with their beaks. It sometimes takes some great effort and time for them to finally kill their food. They will occasionally cooperate in order to do so. I've seen several crows all ganging up on a young rat, pecking at it, chasing and cornering it among each other until it finally died. Crows will also raid pet bowls, scavenge garbage and go after baby turtles. They will sometimes follow the edges of forest fires to catch whatever the flames force out into the open. I've seen them patrolling the edges of vernal pools, intercepting frogs as they make their way to the ponds to lay eggs. When they have enough food, they may cache leftovers for later use. If they eat something indigestible such as feathers, fur or bone, these get coughed up in pellets similar to owls. 

Crows are curious, and that occasionally gets them into trouble. We had to untangle this one when it got tangled up in line. 

     Some people think that curiosity is a sign of intelligence. Well, crows certainly are curious, but their inquisitiveness is tempered by lots of caution. Still, they do go out of their way to check out novel developments. I think it humorous when I see a crow sitting next to a fake owl meant to scare it away, for instance. They love to investigate shiny objects as well it seems. We had some who would regularly walk through our Arlington County native plant nursery and pull most of the plant tags and labels out of the pots and discard them on the ground. Here's a short video of them doing just that: 

     American Crows will also make use of tools, a trait most other animals don't share. One example is of a captive crow who learned to use a shallow container as a cup to carry water over to its dish to moisten the dry mash it was fed. Another involves one that shaped a stick so it would fit into a fence post to pry food out. Others have learned to pick up mollusks and drop them from great heights to break them open. In another example, a captive crow would use a slinky toy as a head-scratcher. One learned to drop pine cones and other tree parts onto the heads of climbers getting too close to its nest. Some crows use another bird behavior called "anting" where they stir up an ants' nest and let the ants swarm them, or pick up individual ants in their beaks to preen their feathers. The belief is that the ants not only kill parasites on the birds, but by spraying formic acid also reduce the presence of pests on their bodies. In what may be a unique use of a "tool", a crow was famously photographed hitching a ride for a while on the back of a flying bald eagle. Crows are capable of learning and even teaching one another, as some examples below will show. Some crows have even learned to be mimics, including saying some words and copying voices. 
     Crows have a very complex communication system. They make many other sounds in addition to the common "caw", but the same "caw" can mean a variety of different things based on how quickly it is repeated, how many times it's made, and the context as well. Many people are most familiar with the 3 sharp caws given by sentry crows that are keeping watch over the flock. It also seems that each crow sounds different enough from one another that they can tell individuals apart. Crow calling is a favorite study subject among researchers studying animal communication due to its complexity. 
     Crows not only learn, but appear to have remarkable memories and can teach one other. One experiment showed that when researchers captured crows, once they returned to the area, the crows could recognize them and tell them apart from other people. They would harass the researchers and warn each other of their presence. They did this even 9 years later, and amazingly birds who had not been handled themselves learned to recognize the researchers and warn others years later. Hunters and farmers have even tried to accustom crows to their presence, carrying broom sticks as gun-props in the hopes that they would learn not to fear them. But the crows are able to tell the difference of when they are carrying a gun instead of broomsticks. Many hunters and farmers have tried to trick crows with fake-gun props, and the crows always seem to figure it out. It is little wonder that scarecrows, fake owls and other scare tactics are useless, even when changing their clothes or imparting motion. 

Crows love to bathe and will do so almost daily even in winter, frequently in large numbers.

     Mobbing is a common defensive behavior among birds, and crows use it quite often. This is when birds gang up and harass a potential predator. They may not actually strike their perceived enemy, but they don't let it rest or hunt, eventually causing it to leave the area. Crows may use this as a means to teach their young what predators to avoid as well. 
     I've used crows mobbing as an educational demonstration many times. My set-up is a bit more elaborate in order to trick them, if only briefly. I use a fake owl that I place out there as the predator (sometimes a large great horned owl puppet, sometimes a stuffed taxidermy mount). At its feet, I place a crow puppet, usually on its back with feet up in the air and wings spread in as dramatic a death-pose as I can achieve. I then hide nearby and use a mouth call along with a recording of crows mobbing. The first few are apprehensive when they appear, and I need to be well hidden or they quickly notice something is amiss. But as their numbers increase, so does their daring. It is sometimes like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" movie, so many aggressively gather and scream bloody murder. But this is very short-lived. Soon they see through the ruse and leave. I can rarely get away with dong this in the same area more than a couple of times a year before they get wise that it's a trick.
     It appears that crows also learn how to be good parents. Crows normally are not sexually mature until after their second year, and many don't breed until their fourth year or even later. During the interim after they themselves leave the nest, most assist their parents in raising their younger siblings. Each year, the previous years' young assist in feeding and protecting the nest. In this way some think they learn the best ways of being successful as parents, and the extra helps helps more young crows survive. It is not uncommon for families of up to 15 crows covering 5 generations to all be present raising young.

A pair of crows

     So during the late winter and early spring, crows pair up, often with the previous year's same mate and often mating for life. While they have interesting courtship displays, (preening one another, males bowing and spreading their wings for the females, and showing off with diving and circling), this is not often seen. Once the pair has bonded, they tend to not have as many courtship displays anymore in the years that follow. 
     Once paired up, the pair builds a nest, preferring evergreens as a nest site when they're available. It is often hidden, with the normally noisy birds keeping quite quiet around the nest. From 3-9 (though 4-5 is most common) dull bluish green eggs are laid, incubated solely by the females, hatching about 18 days later. With lots of help from their older siblings, young leave the nest 3-5 weeks later. The young crows tend to have bluish eyes at first. crows only nest once a year, but after their first successful attempt, they tend to be fairly successful in raising young most years that follow. Being so smart and adaptable, they have been recorded as living over 16 years in the wild, and the record is of one that lived 59 years old in New York as a captive.
     While their extended families and clans form the basis of their flocks, and while they tend to use a set family territory, this can be quite variable. Crows living in urban areas have much smaller territories for instance. During the day, family members may leave and join larger flocks before coming back to join their families. While in the larger flocks, family members also don't seem to hang out together very much either.
     Crow behavior changes quite a bit in the winter though. Crows tend to join flocks more, particularly before dusk. These can be huge aggregations, some 2 million strong per roost have been recorded, though of course numbers are usually much smaller. Some historic roosts have also been around for over 100 years. There's safety in numbers. 

A murder of crows...

     There are quite a few generally accepted names for flocks of crows. The most popular is to call them a murder. But they're also sometimes called a congress, a cauldron, a muster, or a horde. These noisy (and sometimes messy) aggregations may be very unpopular near people, leading to some jurisdictions trying harassment tactics to discourage them in certain areas. Crows being as smart as they are, these are not always very successful, leading to more lethal means of controlling numbers and trying to break up roosts. Dynamite has even been used in the past.

Attempted murder of crows...

     Recently, crow numbers in some areas took a dramatic drop, with some surveys showing a 45% drop in their population numbers. West Nile Virus when it was accidentally introduced into our area took a huge toll on them. Crows are more susceptible to it than any other bird, with most infected birds not lasting even a week. But those that survived, due to their adaptability and intelligence, have made a huge come back. A 2014 survey estimated there were 27 million crows in North America. 
     Crows may not be every one's favorite bird, and indeed to some they're a nuisance or even a pest. but there's no denying their adaptability and intelligence. People may grudgingly admire these large, common birds. Around the world, corvids have been part of folklore and legend, be it the crows in Aesop's fables, or the mythical ravens in Norse mythology. I'll leave you with one tale of our own crows, a legend attributed to the Delaware tribe, the Lenni Lenape. Back in my stoyteller days, my version was part of a much longer creation story, but here are the elements at least regarding crows.  One of many versions, the story of the Rainbow Crow:
     It starts with a long, bitter and dark winter. The deep snow and darkness finally worried all the animals, who were tired of stumbling in the darkness and suffering from the cold. They all gathered to see what they could do about it. In the most common version of the tale, it is decided that a messenger should go to the great spirit and ask for help. The journey would be long and dangerous with the darkness and snows. As they were fearful of disturbing the spirits, and since only a very intelligent creature would be able to find the way, there were not a lot of volunteers. But the most beautiful of all birds, the Rainbow Crow, volunteered to speak on their behalf and ask for aid. Having one of the most elegant of voices, this was seen as fitting as well.
     After a perilous voyage, Rainbow Crow eloquently made his point, asking for help on behalf of all the animals, and providing a gift to the spirits of his song. The great spirit provided a magical gift called Tindeh (fire) for him to take back as a present for the animals, to provide light and warmth until the season changed. It was burning at the end of a stout branch for the beautiful messenger to carry.
     Rainbow Crow grabbed the fire stick by the end in his strong beak and returned to the people. Again, the journey was a long one. Soon the fire stick started to burn down to the end he was holding, yet he could not let go lest he lose this precious gift. So he ignored the heat and smoke and flew on. Soon the flames were scorching his beautiful feathers. He could not help but breathe in the fumes. When he arrived back at the animal village, his beautiful feathers had burned black, covered in soot and ash. When he tried to speak, his speech  was hoarse from the smoke, his eloquent voice forever gone. 
     All the other animals rejoiced for Rainbow Crow's sacrifice had provided them with a great gift providing light and warmth, All rejoiced that is except for Rainbow Crow, who had gone from the most beautiful of voice and feather to now being among the ugliest. But the great spirit appeared to him in a smoky vision. He reminded Rainbow Crow that his daring deed had saved the people, and he would always be remembered for his bravery and intelligence. He added that he also would not be hunted for food, for the smoke had made his flesh burnt and ill tasting, no one would want to eat crow (more on how this saying came to be in the comments below). Since his voice was also not attractive anymore, few would want to cage him for he had no song to offer rather than a hoarse "caw". But seeing that Rainbow Crow was still suffering, the spirit gave him another gift. His black feathers were not just dull black any longer, but under the right light would have a beautiful iridescence all their own. So it would ever be for the descendants of Rainbow Crow: always to be admired, if sometimes grudgingly, for all their remarkable abilities for those who take the time to look for them. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Mangy Foxes

Red Fox with Sarcoptic Mange (wikimedia commons by Juan Lacruz)

     Several times a year the topic of mangy foxes comes up. Mostly this is by well-intentioned people who want to interfere. Since I end up explaining so often why that shouldn't be done, I decided to put together a blog article I can refer people to each time it happens. Of course, many people may not read all the way through all this information and there are others who just don't want to listen, but this is my attempt to let people know a few things about this. 
     First of all, let's make something clear: it is illegal to treat foxes with medication for mange. Period. This is true in most jurisdictions everywhere, including all of Virginia and Maryland. Here's the Virginia Code for example: 
29.-1-508.1 Use Of Drugs on Vertebrate Wildlife
A.   With out a written authorization from the Director or his designee, it is unlawful to administer any drug to any vertebrate wildlife, except in accordance with a permit issued under the provisions of this title or regulations adopted by the Board. This prohibition shall include, but not be limited to, drugs used for fertility control, disease prevention or treatment, immobilization, or growth stimulation. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the treatment of sick or injured wild animals by licensed veterinarians or permitted wildlife rehabilitators. This section shall not limit employees of agencies of the Commonwealth, the United States, or local animal control officers in the performance of their official duties related to public health, wildlife management, or wildlife removal. For the purposes of this section, the term "drug" means any chemical substance, other than food, that affects the structure or biological function of wild species.
B.   The Department may take possession and dispose of any vertebrate wildlife if it believes that drugs have been administered to such wildlife in violation of this section.
C.   Any person violating this section is guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. (2004, c. 171.)
     There are numerous good reasons for this law. Even assuming that the correct dose is known and administered (not giving a correct dose may of course result in additional issues and there may be possible side effects regardless), the most common drug used, Ivermectin, is not meant to be used for treating foxes. Any such use is outside its scope. Wildlife rehabbers have even had their licenses revoked for assisting in such illegal activities as helping others treat wildlife using this medication.
     The usual method it is administered is by hiding it inside the food that is offered to the fox. This then assumes the fox gets all the medication and that other creatures don't consume it. If they do, that may also cause additional problems. For instance, some dog breeds, such as collies, can be sickened and even die if they consume Ivermectin. Since it hasn't been tested and is therefore not approved for use on other wildlife, how it affects them is not always known. For example, it will also kill certain species of turtles. Now you may say that turtles don't eat such foods (and you'd be wrong), but also don't forget that the medication can get into the environment through fox feces and urine and perhaps into the water ways. Such are just some of the unintended consequences that are possible. 
     But there's lot more to this. For instance, sarcoptic mange (the most common form of mange, caused by a mite) is one of the only population controls for red foxes. Red foxes by the way, are not native to the DC area, having for the most part moved in to the region, with a small amount of English red fox thrown in from attempts to introduce them for hunting purposes. So they're not supposed to be here. Our native fox is the Grey Fox, which is now severely declined in our area, with some thinking this may also be partially to blame due to competition from the naturalized red fox. Here's more on red foxes from a previous Capital Naturalist Blog:
     Sarcoptic mange affects red fox disproportionately from other creatures, including other canines. Grey Foxes for instance are much less likely to be affected, as are coyotes and dogs, though they can be, as can very rarely even humans. My own dog for instance was affected by mange, picked up from a mangy fox that was being attracted to my yard thanks to a neighbor unwisely feeding it, and then later I found out, also treating it with Ivermectin. By the way, feeding such creatures not only concentrates them and thus allows for easier disease transmission, but may cause them to lose their fear of man and lead to other confrontations or misunderstandings. By the way, red foxes who have had mange are also more likely to get it again, as the medication does not give immunity. It may just be postponing the inevitable.
     But let's say that a red fox is treated and the mange goes away (though perhaps just temporarily). By choosing to try and help this predator, you affect other wildlife. You affect the prey base and the other predators who now have to compete with a predator who isn't even supposed to be here in the first place and has been given an unfair advantage by being fed. Many of these other predators themselves are declining in numbers. The red fox eats their prey (and they eat more than just rodents) and may even prey on them as well. This can include hawks, owls, shrews, snakes, weasels, bobcats, and so many more. Since in many places we have very large populations (too many?) of red foxes already, their numbers can really impact native wildlife.
     This not only means ground nesting birds, but of course rodents and such small creatures as rabbits. When fox numbers decline, their numbers expand, feeding other small predators and helping these small creatures themselves. But red foxes also eat fruits and other plant matter as well, directly competing with herbivores and other omnivores. So its not just quail, waterfowl and other ground nesting birds, but also raccoons and possums among so many others. By choosing to help one charismatic nonnative predator like a red fox, you have countless effects on so many others.
     While it may help you feel good, in the end you did not do nature a favor by interfering. The difference you actually made is often a negative one to other native wildlife, even if the things affected are not as charismatic or as easily noticed. So nature can be cruel, but its more important to think about the native natural community rather than an abundant and charismatic individual. Letting nature take its course is a wiser thing for the ecology and other wildlife. Sorry to be a downer, but thinking of the larger implications and doing so in a balanced and non-emotional way is how we should make wildlife decisions. If nothing else, please follow the law, as it is in place for good reasons. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Hickory Nut Primer

A selection of the most common hickory nuts (Carya spp.) in the DC region.

     Every year people ask me about different nuts they find. Hickory nuts (Carya species) seem to always come up. While I'm no expert, I thought I'd give a few pointers on telling them apart that mostly works for me. Consider it a short introduction into hickory nuts. If you plan on tasting any, I'll give a few pointers. The universal rule for most nuts is to float test them first. Take their hulls off and drop them in the water. Those that float have air in them, likely from insects, and are not worth either planting or eating. The ones that sink are the most likely to be viable and have intact meat in them. While not perfect, it works most of the time.

A float test of hulled hickory nuts. The floaters have air pockets and thus not likely any good, the sinkers are heavy with meat.

     The easiest to identify is the Pecan (though many people don't even know that it is a hickory), since many people have eaten the shelled version before. However, Pecans are not really native to the DC area, being more of a Southern tree. Some folks though have planted it locally. Since it tends to not self pollinate very well, the few trees that do produce usually only yield a few nuts around here. The sapsuckers really like to get at the bark it seems too. If there are more than one tree, then you're in luck. I had several trees growing outside of my dorm room in college (William and Mary), but since the locals knew the timing better than I did for getting the nuts, I was pretty unsuccessful in getting much. It's a long nut with well defined ribs that stretch from end to end and has more meat to it than any of our other hickories. They are considered the best tasting. Below are a few photos of Pecans.

A Pecan, Carya illinoinensis. Note the elongated look and well defined ribs on the hull.

A few Pecans with a typical hickory-like leaf.

Our local DC trees, since they tend to not self-pollinate well, produce only a few nuts.

     One of the most noticeable hickory nuts around here is the Mockernut Hickory. The nuts are big and light colored since the hulls split early to drop the light colored fruit. You usually just find the nuts themselves already out of their hulls. They are considered edible, but there's a good reason they're called mockers. Though by their size they promise a good yield, after cracking them you find very little meat in them to eat. They mock you by how little nut meat you get after you work so hard to crack them. Often the nut is so hard to crack that what little was in there is broken up and seems to yield even less than you could ever imagine. Below are some photos of Mockernuts themselves.

A Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) both with and without a hull and next to its pubescent (thus tomentosa in its name) leaf.

Several of the large Mockernuts on the ground with their hulls that I gathered from the ground around them They typically don't have any hulls on them by the time they fall off the tree.

     Much larger and producing much more edible nuts is the Shellbark Hickory. This is has the biggest nuts of all our hickories, and the fruits are quite tasty and yield good amounts of meat.  This species though really isn't native to the DC region however and so is even less common than Pecans around here, few people knowing what it is and therefore not bothering to plant it. Since you're a bit unlikely to find it, I won't write any more on it, but you can find out more if you wish from this Capital Naturalist Blog article I penned on it previously: 

     Shagbark Hickories are also large and said to be edible. They also are not local, being found more in the mountains than in DC. The trees themselves are easy to tell apart due to their shaggy, peeling bark. Below are some photos to help you identify this hickory.

The telltale peeling bark of a mature Shagbark.

Shagbark Hickory leaves and nut.

The sizeable nut of a Shagbark Hickory.

     Much more common and fairly easy to identify is the Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra). The nuts tend to retain their hulls even well after falling from the tree. They do not have very well defined ribs and the hulls don't split as often more than just a bit down the nut. More importantly, they have what I like to think of as a "snout." Now, this is not why they're called pignuts, but that helps me to remember how to recognize them. While some folks consider them edible, their name comes to them due to most folks believing they're fit for hog food. Their flavor is supposed to be quite variable, but that's assuming you find viable and edible nuts. My experience is that they are often infested with weevil grubs and thus often empty or buggy. When scouting for hunting locations, I often find tons of these lying on the ground, but a quick inspection usually results in many of the hulls having the telltale hole of a weevil. I think twice as to whether or not to try and hunt such an area as it doesn't have as much food for wildlife as you think you see. Below are some photos of Pignuts.

A Pignut Hickory with leaf. Note the "snout" that sticks out.

A Pignut with its snout and showing a weevil hole.

     Much less common and often not recognized is the False Shagbark Hickory. It goes by many other names as well, such as Sweet Pignut, False Pignut, and Red Hickory, (Carya ovalis). It is indeed quite easy to confuse with some of the other hickories and most people are not even aware that it exists around here.The easiest way to identify it I've learned is by its nuts. They have fairly well defined ribs and tend to split about halfway along their seams down the nut. Whether it has a hull or not, look at the tip though. If it looks like a tied-off balloon end, then you have C. ovalis. Said to be much better tasting than pignut and the hickory nut that follows, I've yet to try one, though I'm not sure why. I'm going to make it a point this season to do so. Below you'll find some photos that hopefully will help you identify it.

A handful of Carya ovalis, whatever the common name you choose to use. Note that whether with the hull or not, the end looks like a tied-off balloon.  

     Another very common hickory is Bitternut or Swamp Hickory (Carya cordiformis). Its nuts are said to be ill tasting, thus its common name. They're fairly small as well. The round nuts tend to hang on to their hulls, which also are extensively ribbed but only about half way down the nut. That is their best identifying feature in my opinion, though others point to their downy yellow buds as the way to go. The nuts do have little points to their ends, but not as extensively as the pignut or sweet pignut. The photo below may help with identification.

Bitternut Hickories still hanging on the tree. Note the ridges that go about half way down the nut and the pointy end.
     So that's a quick down and dirty look at our local hickory nuts and how I tell them apart (most of the time). Hopefully these clues can help you as well. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spotted Orbweaver Spider

     Among the largest and most commonly seen spiders in the Fall are the Spotted Orbweavers (Neoscona crucifera and less commonly Neoscona domiciliorum). With webs that can be over 2 feet wide and their tendency to attach them at just above eye level to structures such as buildings, these seem to call attention to themselves this time of year. 
     During the earlier part of the year you likely never noticed them. Not only were they much smaller as spiderlings, but they hide during the day. They would tear down and consume their webs every morning, so you often didn't notice their webs they constructed nightly. They did this to avoid daytime predators such as birds or wasps from finding them. Mud Dauber wasps for example often sting and paralyze many of these when they're young, stashing them in their mud nests as living paralyzed food for their own babies. 
     But by Fall, they're often too big for wasps to eat. Many wasps have also concluded hunting and egg laying by this late in the year. So the spiders sometimes hang out during the day. Many birds also don't go after them as much, having no babies to feed or they themselves leaving on migration South. Prey also gets scarcer as it gets colder, so leaving the web up during the warmer day increases the chance of a catch. Consequently, Spotted Orbweavers don't hide as much and also don't tear down their webs and rebuild them at night as much once autumn arrives.
     So while there are definitely fewer of them around, they're bigger and hide less. They also often choose to build their webs around our porch lights and buildings, as the artificial lighting attracts insect food to get snared in their webs. They now stay out more often and tear their webs down less, all the way until the first few frosts kill the adults. Their webs are good at intercepting all sorts of aerial or jumping prey.

A Spotted Orbweaver captures a katydid.

     Spotted Orbweavers and other members of their Genus Neoscona (which mostly look similar) are sometimes called Barn Spiders. That name however is better applied to another large orbweaving spider, Araneus cavaticus. They look quite similar but these are much less common in the DC region. They have wider "shoulder" and lack the broken "L" shape (the spots that give them their names) on their abdomens that Spotted Orbweavers posses. 

A look at the spots on the belly of a Spotted Orbweaver in a broken "L" shape that gives them their name.

     Their scientific name has interesting origins. Eugene Simon, the person who named the Genus as Neoscona in 1864, was just 16 years old when he did so and not good at speaking Greek. Finding one "in the reeds spinning a web", he meant to say just that, but instead the name he gave it translates to "spinning a reed." Despite the goof, the Neoscona name stands. The specific epithet "crucifera" means "cross bearer" due to the shape the markings often take. Some call it a Hentz Orbweaver Spider as the person finding this particular species was named Hentz. In fact the previous accepted scientific name for it use to be Neoscona hentzii. To make names even more confusing, another very similar spider, Nescona domicilorum ( meaning "house dweller"), which is a bit more brightly colored and has other difficult to see differences is also called the Spotted Orbweaver. Luckily as far as life style, they both are much the same so what I write here pretty much holds for both.

A Spotted Orbweaver hangs head down in its web at night.

     These are large spiders and so easily seen in the Fall near our buildings and sometimes causing concern. But they are relatively harmless to people, only biting under duress. Though almost all spiders have venom, many cannot even break the skin. This one does get large enough to potentially do so, but a bite is rare and supposedly only results in a tiny bit of temporary pain or maybe swelling. 
     The web, as mentioned, is generally 5-8 feet high and often 2 feet across. They often use existing structures like buildings for support. Other wise they're a typical orb web, with concentric circles and with sticky spoke web connections. The spider hangs head down in the middle when hunting (though they can hide in a corner or in a folded leaf when scared, making use of the hidden retreat). While both males and females make webs when young, the males stop making them when they become adults and instead go in search of a female. 
     Once they mate, females usually lay a single egg sac holding about a 1000 eggs that is commonly hidden nearby in a folded leaf or other cover. There they overwinter and baby spiderlings are born in the spring, often throwing silk into the air to parachute away and create their own orb webs. 
     I get many inquiries about these spiders "showing up" by porch lights and buildings in the Fall, the people not knowing the spider has been hiding there all summer, venturing out at night to build its web before recycling it by eating it in the morning. It's only now that people notice these larger adult orbweavers, not realizing they benefited from the spiders catching prey the whole summer long, never causing a problem and very unlikely to cause any now. 

A Spotted Orbweaver near its retreat, or hide, a curled leaf shelter hanging from its web.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Arlington's Parks & Rec Digs In Pollinator Patch

The newly established wild flower meadow along the entrance to Long Branch Nature Center in mid September.

     For the last couple of years, Arlington's Parks and Recreation Department has been having a volunteer day where almost all our staff get together to volunteer a day of work and perform some team building and networking. Last year, the theme was very much environmental centered all around Arlington's nature centers. Project choices included a stream cleanup, milkweed seed cleaning, removal of invasive shrubs, tree planting, native plant garden work, and a restoration meadow planting. While they were all a success (you can see a few of the projects in action here:, I'd like to expand on the meadow planting.
     The site chosen for creating a wild flower meadow was along the entrance to Long Branch Nature Center, at a site that had been treated for exotic invasive plants. Natural Resources staff pre-placed 580 pots, in small patches, representing 24 different native species for planting. The plants were all germinated from seed collected in the Arlington area, so these were about as locally native as you could get. Four-fifths of the plants were actually grown in the County's new native plant nursery.

Here's what the site looked like as we pre-placed the pots to plant and before we seeded the area. All the plants were locally produced and mostly from the new County native plant nursery, 580 in all representing 24 species. Note the tree location and compare to the first photo.

     The day of the event was in late October of last year. County staff volunteers planted all 580 plants and then helped to water them in place. It took the better part of the day as the ground was fairly hard and there were quite a few plants. We knew we would not see any results until the next year. That the deer were already munching on them the day we placed the pots out was also less than encouraging. But we had every intention of watching them succeed, forming a wild flower meadow, a pollinator patch that we got certified as a Monarch Way Station and living up to the County's Monarch Pledge as well. You can read more about monarch way stations here:

     But what a great success it turned out to be! While quite a few plants had indeed been eaten by deer, many survived and flowered, attracting not just pollinators, but many other insects and other wildlife as well. While I missed taking photos of the earlier blooming plants, here's just a few of the plants in bloom along with some wildlife, mostly pollinators. In addition, here's a short video showing just some of the more than dozen monarch caterpillars that were raised there:

     So take a photographic journey to the DPR Digs In Pollinator Patch and Monarch Way Station at Long Branch Nature Center to see what was in bloom and who was visiting them on just 2 days recently. You can only imagine all the wildlife that benefited that we are not aware of, but I thought I'd share a few plants and critters below.

A Bumblebee enjoys a meal on Green-headed Coneflower.
A Syrphid Fly, a fly who gets protection by mimicking a bee, pollinates a Tickseed Sunflower
An Ailanthus Webworm Moth enjoys a sip on a Thoroughwort.
A Spicebush Swallowtail enjoys a visit to a Cardinal Flower.
Locust Borer Beetles are yellowjacket mimics who enjoy Goldenrods.
Both a Sweat Bee and a fly share a Helen's Flower (Sneezeweed) bloom.

Lots of bees, like this Bumblebee, like Wingstem.
I missed the small solitary bees that usually the Bluecurls, a lovely little wild flower.

Didn't see who visited the Bluemist Flowers.
I wasn't there in the evening to catch the pollinators for Evening Primrose.
We had several species of Asters planted, most of which provide late season nectar sources for pollinators. 
While 19 caterpillar species may feed on New York Ironweed, 2 species of Melissodes bees have to have the pollen from it or they can't reproduce.

While we meant for this to be a pollinator patch, lots more than pollinators benefit, including wildlife who eat the the
                                                        plants like this Woolly Bear munching on a Eupatorium.

     So there you have a quick peek at the results of our pollinator patch for at least a couple of days worth of blooms. We're quite happy how it turned out, and so is our the wildlife it seems. Can't wait to see the results from this year's DPR Digs In volunteer day at Fort CF Smith! 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Northern Watersnake

A Northern Watersnake basks in an Arlington, Virginia pond.

     The Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) may well be the most misidentified snake in the East. Due to its living in close proximity to water, large size, variable coloration, ability to flatten its heads to appear triangular, and what some consider a feisty nature, many people confuse it for the venomous Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth) snake. This despite cottonmouths actually not living in the DC area, being limited to Southern Virginia at most. 

A Northern Watersnake eating an American Eel it has dragged out of the water. Not the dark bands thickest along the top of the body.

     Northern Watersnakes are thick-bodied snakes, up to 55 inches in length (though most are 2-3 feet on average). They can have a wide range of color, and the tannins and mud in the water may also stain them. Most however have dark bands across their back that are wider than the light colored bands along their bodies. The dark bands narrow along their sides and thicken along the top of their backs. These bands tend to turn into blotches by the time they reach their tails. The bands also fade as they grow older, becoming difficult to see on the oldest and largest specimens. These snakes also have crescent-shaped marks along their bellies, but that is obviously not an easy thing to see.

Note the crescent-shaped marks along the belly of this watersnake. The tail is almost completely dark underneath.

     Watersnakes (all one word is the scientifically accepted way of spelling the name) are quite common, being found in every county in Virginia and almost all the DC area. They are almost always found in close proximity to water. They can swim completely submerged, which differs from many other types of snakes.

Juvenile Northern Watersnakes are more boldly patterned than adults. Note that the dark bands are wider than the light colored ones and that they are widest at the top of the back. This youngster is swimming submerged underwater. 

     Northern (also called Common) Watersnakes are diurnal, being most active during the day. They feed primarily on fish and amphibians, which are swallowed alive. They will however sometimes pull their prey out of the water and eat it after it has died, particularly if it is putting up a good struggle. They're also one of the few snakes who will eat carrion. Here is a video taken during our Arlington Bioblitz of a watersnake that has wrestled an eel out of the water to eat: 

     Because fish and amphibians are so slippery, watersnakes have very long and pointy teeth, pointing backwards to help hold on to prey. They also have a mild anticoagulant in their saliva. Since they will bite defensively, this can make a bite look scary, though the watersnake really can't do any real harm. The vast majority of the time they try and flee. If captured or cornered, they will flatten out to look bigger, hiss, strike, musk, and even discharge feces, so it's best if they're left alone. Some people report being attacked by them, but what has often happened is that the snake is trying to get to a burrow that the person is in front of, or trying to get aboard what they think is an island when it's someone canoe. They really just want to get somewhere and a person happens to be in the way. This unfortunately adds to the misconception that they're dangerous or aggressive however. 
     Female watersnakes are larger than males, sometimes twice the size. If you see a large one, it is almost certainly a female. This size difference allows them to be able to produce more young. From 6-70 (though 20 is more typical) young are born alive from eggs retained within the mother's body, often from August through October. The largest females produce the most young. Males are attracted to females, finding them by searching for pheromone trails. This sometimes result in "mating balls" of one large female surrounded by 2 or more suitors. If nothing happens to them (lots of things such as herons, raccoons, large fish, snapping turtles, foxes, and mink will eat them, specially when young), they can live up to 9 years and 7 months.
     Though these snakes can appear dangerous, they really just want to be left alone. They're fascinating creatures who are important predators in our waterways, when not serving as prey themselves to other wildlife. Here's one last look at one as it swims away, trying to avoid any confrontation: