Thursday, December 22, 2016


A Bufflehead drake

     Among our smallest ducks, Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are one of the most noticeable winter ducks along rivers and large waterways. Their common name is a corruption of "buffalo" and "head" due to the oversize appearance of their heads, particularly in the drakes (males). Their Genus Bucephala is also Greek for "broad forehead" or "bull-headed." The rest of their scientific name albeola is Latin for "little white" and refers to the overall look of the small adult drakes as well. Linnaeus originally named them Anas albeola in 1758.
     This diminutive waterfowl, the smallest diving duck we have, with the Green-winged Teal being its only challenger to smallest duck in all North America, averages 14 inches and rarely gets to over a pound and a half. It has numerous other common names including Black-and White Duck, Bumblebee Duck, Butterbowl, and Butterball. The latter two names can refer to its chubby shape, or to the amount of butter that needs to be added to make these game birds palatable. They are also sometimes called "Pound of Butter" due to their shape, average weight, and again the amount of butter needed to make them them edible.
     Though these tiny ducks have a chubby, big headed look to them, the adult males (drakes) are also quite striking. From a distance they have strongly contrasting black and white appearance. In reality, when seen closeup, their head colors have a glossy greenish and purplish gleam to them. It makes them quite distinctive even from a distance. The females and first year males are a darker overall color with a distinctive white cheek patch behind the eye, which along with size differentiates them from their larger cousins in the same Genus, the Goldeneyes. 

A Bufflehead drake follows a hen along the water.

     Buffleheads are diving ducks, with their feet set well back on their bodies to assist in swimming. They are awkward on land, and are rarely seen walking other than when the females are leading the young to the water. They prefer diving in shallow (less then 15 feet deep usually) water. They spend quite a bit of time underwater, easily submerging themselves every few seconds for 10-25 second dives. Their quick disappearing and appearing acts have given them another common name: Spirit Ducks. Here's a short video of several hens diving:

     The diet of Butterballs is about 80% animal matter. The food preferences change seasonally. About 40% of their summer diet consists of insects such as dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. This changes to crustaceans, mollusks and occasional fish in the winter, particularly since many spend winters in open shallow saltwater bays and estuaries where insects are scarce.
     Like most diving ducks, Buffleheads have to run or patter along the surface prior to being able to get airborne. But these little divers don't need near as much of a take-off strip as most other diving ducks. They seem to almost effortlessly take off after just a few steps along the water surface. Some stories even tell of them coming straight out of an underwater dive and taking off, though I myself have never witnessed this.

A Butterball hen patters across the surface of the water before taking flight.

     Butterballs live throughout northern North America and are strong fliers. Some have ended up in Japan and other parts of Asia, while others have been seen in the British Isles and other parts of Europe. Though they tend to fly low over the water, they can also fly at very high altitudes when migrating and have a swift and direct flight pattern.

A Butterball drake flying in its typical low pattern over the water.

     Unlike many other birds, Buffleheads are fairly monogamous and will remain with the same mate for several years at a time. They rarely will try and breed until their second year of age. They usually pair up in late winter or very early spring. The drake typically does a head bobbing display and tries to get the hen to follow him. Males tend to display aggressively against each other and quarrel quite a bit. Here's a short clip of them displaying:

     Buffleheads migrate back late in the season, they're one of the last ducks to leave for their breeding grounds, waiting until the ice breaks in their northern territories. They normally are restricted to nesting in Canada and Alaska, though a few stray into the USA and long mountain chains. They show great nest fidelity, returning to use the same nest sites year after year while they're available.
     Interestingly, they have a similar range distribution as a type of woodpecker called the Northern Flicker. This is because they've evolved to make use of the holes flickers make to nest in. They've evolved their small size so they can fit into these cavities (mostly in aspen trees near water) which most other larger cavity nesting ducks cannot use. It is uncommon for them to use any other woodpecker holes or larger holes because they end up being out competed, including by their Goldeneye cousins. They will however use man made nesting boxes that have similar proportions in hole size.
     Hens lay 4-17 creamy white eggs (though 8-10 is more typical) in their nesting hole which they line with feather down pulled from their chests. Approximate 30 days later, the chicks all hatch at pretty much the same time. A day later, they jump from their nest cavity (which could be 40 feet up though, 8-10 is more typical) to their waiting mother below who leads them to the water. Less than 2 months later, the young fledge. Occasionally, chicks separated from their siblings may join another mother's brood. If they survive their first few months, they can live quite a long life. The oldest on record was one that was banded and released that was 18 years and 8 months old in 1975. 
     Butterballs, despite decoying easily, are not heavily hunted. Because of their high animal diet, they are thought to taste fishy and unpalatable (even if covered in butter) and so not sought after. Their numbers, despite loss of habitat, have remained steady over several years and they population is considered stable. 

A Bufflehead hen.

     Buffleheads are one of the first ducks to arrive in our area during migration and one of the last to leave. They stay around our region in small flocks and so I get to watch their antics over most of the cold weather months during even the roughest weather, enjoying the quick disappearing and appearing acts of the Spirit Ducks. It is little wonder that these active, tough little birds were added to the coat of arms for the town of Sidney in British Columbia. I'm just glad they add to the winter spirits anytime during the cold months when the water isn't completely frozen over and I dare venture along the water to take a hike.

A small flock of Buffleheads feeding on a river.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Carolina Chickadee

    The cold snap today reminded me of one of our best loved backyard birds, the Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis). The Black-capped Chickadee usually lives more North of here, although they venture into our region during severe cold weather and food shortages. Their energy and resourcefulness, along with some unique biological adaptations, allow them to live in our yards year round despite the weather. In winter, when most other insect eating-birds have migrated, they augment their diet with seeds. People who feed birds are likely to find chickadees to be among their best customers, being particularly fond of black oil sunflower seeds. Feeders can be a real benefit when it gets extremely cold (under 10 degrees F). Chickadees need 20 times more food in winter than summer to maintain their metabolisms, so the extra seed or suet can be a life saver. Finding 60% (the equivalent of 250 sunflower seeds for a chickadee) of their body weight in food each day is not easy. As if planning ahead, they frequently cache food away under loose bark or other nooks and crannies.
     Chickadees have several ways of conserving energy in winter. Like most birds, they fluff up their feathers (of which they grow up to 30% more in winter) to trap body-warmed air. They also can reduce their body temperature as much as 20 degrees on winter nights to conserve fat reserves, an adaptive form of hypothermia.
     Chickadees are extremely curious and often take unwarranted risks. Bird watchers know that it’s often a chickadee that’s first to respond to the “pishing” call “birders” use to lure birds out into the open. They often lead mixed flocks of birds in mobbing screech owls and other predators as well. Some of their many calls are used to warn each other and even other animals of danger also. Tom Starr, a notable figure in Cherokee history, claimed to have had his life saved when he heard a tsikilili (chickadee) give its warning call. He realized he was being followed and supposedly escaped to safety. To the Cherokee, a tsikilili is considered a "bringer of news". I believe Tom Starr’s story. Oftentimes I’ve heard chickadees raising a ruckus and investigated. Usually it was just a cat, but sometimes it was a snake, screech owl, or something even more interesting.
     Once I was testing my skills calling turkeys at a park where I worked, when the gobblers I was “talking” to suddenly went quiet. I thought I had hit a sour note when I heard something approaching me. It was a red fox, apparently looking for a turkey dinner. Several chickadees heralded his arrival, and it may have been their calls that saved a turkey’s life. The chickadees got to within a foot or so of that fox (and the fox got within 5 feet of me before I stood up and gave it a good scare), trusting in their quickness to let them get away. With that much commotion and pestering, it would have been hard to sneak up on anything. There are stories about chickadees actually yanking hair from dogs and foxes to use in their nests. 
     It’s easy to get chickadees to nest in your yard, as they will use just about any bird box (or existing cavity), but you can exclude larger birds by making the entrance hole about 1-1/8”. Try putting a box up in February (they may even roost in it on colder winter nights) in an evergreen tree if possible. Six to 12 feet is plenty high. You can increase the chances of getting them to accept your gift by placing some leaves inside, since chickadees often use “house cleaning” as a pair bonding ritual. If you get them to nest, don’t disturb them. You might get a surprise if you do, as female chickadees can produce a scary snake-like hiss. More importantly, you can cause harm by stressing them and it’s illegal to bother nesting wildlife anyways.
     Chickadees raise their young as a pair. 5-8 eggs (with 6 being the most common number) of small white eggs with reddish spots are laid in the cavity. The nest is lined with moss, and often includes grass, feathers, and hair. I've heard stories of them plucking hair from live animals such as dogs, but have myself only witnessed one pulling hair off a dead red fox. It takes 11-12 days for the eggs to hatch and then another 13-17 days for the nestlings to fledge. They may raise up to broods in a season. They feed their young insects almost exclusively, with caterpillars and spider egg sacs being their favorite foods any time of year. It takes about 9000 caterpillars to raise one brood of young. In fact, some studies have shown that when live food isn't available, the young will die if fed only seed. That is why chickadees prefer to nest in places with native trees as opposed to places with nonnative plants, with their reproductive success being at stake. 
     Some people have tamed chickadees to the point of eating out of their hands. I once did exactly this. It was amusing to watch them chisel open seeds or try and wrestle them from my fingers when I refused to let go. They seem to pick the fattest seeds first, normally taking them to a more secluded place to actually eat them. Even if you don’t have as bold chickadees as I had, these little dynamos are fun to watch all year long, whether pestering a predator, stealing a tuft of hair from a dog for their nest, or making use of a bird house. Since chickadees can live up to 12 years (though wild ones live much shorter lives) and are so easy to attract, you may want to be a good neighbor and really get to know them.

A pair of chickadees enjoy a feeder meal. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Northern Pintail

A Northern Pintail drake and hen

     The Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) is one of our handsomest and most widespread ducks. The adult drake (male) is graced by a long tail (up to 1/4 of their body length) which gives rise to many of its common names: Pintail, Sprig, and Sprigtail. Even it's scientific name refers to Anas Latin for "duck' and acuta or "acute" for its pointed tail. This name was given to it in 1758 by Linnaeus himself. Young males and hens (females) lack the long plumes, but still have pointy tails. 
     Pintails are large, though slender ducks. Drakes can be up to 30 inches long and weigh 3lbs. Hens are smaller, rarely reaching 25 inches and 2.5lbs, a size difference that is greater than in most other ducks. Their long, thin necks and slender build gives them a graceful appearance, making them recognizable even when the tail is not present.

     The long neck comes in useful for these dabbling ducks. It allows them reach deeper than many other ducks when tipping-up for food. Though 90% of their diet is made up of seeds and grains (they love wild rice), they also eat some crustaceans, mollusks, and invertebrates. This is particularly true in the summer and by the developing young.
     Their slender appearance makes them fairly distinctive in the air and gives them a sleek look. Pintails are fast fliers, with some claims they can fly upwards of 65 miles an hour. This have given rise to other common names for them such as the "greyhounds of the air" and the "greyhounds of ducks." Like other puddle or dabbling ducks, they can take off directly into the air, needing no room to run along the surface like most diving ducks do. 
    Sprigs are also very strong fliers. Some populations regularly fly from Alaska and the West coast to overwinter in Hawaii. A leg band was recovered from a bird banded in Canada and then ended up in England 9 days later. Birds banded in Japan have been recovered in North America. They regularly overwinter in the Deep South, into the Caribbean Islands, into Central America, and have even been found as far South as Colombia. 
     Only the Mallard is more widespread in its breeding range than the Pintail. They live in North America, Europe, Asia, even in some parts of Africa. In North America, they are far more common in the West than the East. 
     Sprigs are early migrators also. Most start heading South in September with the majority of them out of our area by the end of November. They prefer fresh water, but will also congregate, sometimes in large flocks (often mixed in with other duck species) in estuaries and brackish water. 
     Interestingly, though they leave winter conditions fairly early in the season, they are also among the first to return to their Northern breeding grounds in spring. By April many are in far Northern Canada and Alaska, ready to nest as soon as the ice breaks. 

Pintail hen and drake

     Pintail hens use a shallow depression to lay their eggs, typically nesting their very first year. Though they usually build their nests within 40' of the water, they've also been known to nest farther away than the majority of other dabbling ducks, some over a mile away from a water source. They also tend to prefer more open areas to nest, occasionally nesting rather close to one another. In some areas, they nest in old stubble fields for instance.
     This preference for more exposed locations though means that they lose a fair number of nests to predation (especially to foxes, skunks, and raccoons). More over, one study in Canada showed that over half the nests were plowed up or otherwise were destroyed by agricultural practices. They are also quite susceptible to drought conditions which can cause large losses in some years.
     Since Pintail hens also tend to have smaller clutches than other dabbling ducks (6-8 eggs on average), their numbers can fluctuate greatly from one year to another. Despite their cosmopolitan nature, their numbers have declined steadily, averaging 2-3% declines yearly starting in the 1960's. That has led to a 72% reduction in their numbers from their historical records. In 2009, their breeding population was estimated to be about 3.2 million birds.
     But Pintail hens are devoted mothers. They alone incubate their clutch of gray to olive-green eggs for 22-25 days. If threatened by a predator, the mother duck will often try to distract it, feigning injury to lead it away. They will keep up the "broken wing" act for far longer than most other ducks and have been known to aggressively defend their nest if need be too. 
     The precocial young follow the mother to water soon after hatching. It normally takes them a little under 2 months to be able to fly, though they may hang out with their mother longer than that. In the far North where the days are longer to allow them to feed almost continuously, the young may mature much faster and be flying in under 5 weeks. 

It takes a while for the drakes to get to full breeding plumage. This is a first year male pintail.

     If they're lucky, they can live for quite a while. The record for the oldest North American Northern Pintail was by a drake from Saskatchewan, Canada who lived to be 22 years and 3 months according to his recovered leg band. A Pintail in Holland supposedly lived to be 27 years and 5 months. 
     I don't get a chance to see as many Pintails as I do other ducks. So I'm thrilled when see them during the Fall migration, or hear the drake's whistle or hen's quack. Sometimes I only catch a brief look at their sleek flight as these wary birds fly by, but it's always nice to see. 
Here's a short video of a small flock of Sprigs:


Friday, December 2, 2016

Belted Kingfisher

A female Belted Kingfisher

     There are about 95 species of kingfishers (depending on which expert you listen to) worldwide. There are 3 that can be found in North America, but only one in the East and throughout most of United States and Canada, the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryl alcyon). Their scientific Genus name is derived from "mega" meaning "great" and "Ceryl" who was a Greek lady who was tragically grieving for her drowned husband before the gods turned them both into the first kingfishers. "Alcyon" is Latin for "kingfisher" but derived from another myth where Halcyon was punished for claiming to rule the gods, but later was allowed to become a bird. 
     These mid-sized birds have many features fairly unique to them. First of all they're sexually dimorphic. Now many birds are, but in the vast majority, the males tend to be larger and more colorful. It's just the opposite with kingfishers. Not only is the female slightly larger, but also has brighter coloration. Female Belted Kingfishers also have an extra chestnut-colored band across their chest that the males lack. As part of their pair bonding ritual, males typically give a fish to the female in what has been called by some a matrimonial testament that they are good providers.

A female Belted Kingfisher shows its extra "belt" mark across its chest, though the fused toes are not that evident.

     Kingfishers have a top-heavy look. They have big beaks and large heads, but very short legs. More over, they have unusual toes. Two of them are actually fused together. This strange arrangement allows them to be used as shovels when pushing out dirt.
     That's another strange aspect to these birds. They actually nest in burrows underground for the most part. They seek steep banks with loose soil and then excavate a burrow, first using their stout beaks to peck out chunks, and then shoveling them out using their strange feet. Both the male and female take turns digging. It may take them from 3 days to 3 weeks to dig their tunnels, which angle upwards in case of flooding. Since they may use the same site each year, these burrows may range from 3 to 15 feet in length, extending deeper each year as they clean them out.
     At the end of this burrow, the mother lays 5-8 white eggs which are incubated by both parents. The female tends to sit on them at night while the males take over during the day. In 22-24 days, the young are born. The nestlings cling together to maintain body heat. They are fed by both parents, starting with partially digested fish before moving on to whole fish. The young leave their holes about 29 days later, but stay with the parents 3 or so weeks more. During this time, they learn to fish, this sometimes taking the form of having the adults drop food into the water for the young to dive after.
     Belted Kingfishers are sit-and-wait predators. They normally sit on a perch where they have a good view into the water. Upon seeing potential prey (mostly fish, but also crayfish, molluscs, amphibians, even small reptiles or mammals, whatever is available), they either drop down or hover over top. They dive into the water to seize their prey, normally flying back to their perch once they're successful. There they typically beat the fish into unconsciousness against the perch before tossing it into the air. They catch the fish headfirst, so the spines are less of an issue as they are swallowed whole. Later on, inedible parts (scales, bones, etc.) are coughed back up in pellet form. 
     Belted Kingfishers migrate all the way into Central America and the Southern states. Occasionally they've turned up in South America and even Europe. But many also stick around as long as they have open water to fish and the prey remains available. 
     Belted Kingfishers require clear water in order to be able to see their prey. Populations have declined of late, but this bird still remains one of the most widespread in North America. I am thankful for this, as I love hearing their rattling call. I've often enjoyed their company and fishing ability while fishing myself, although I'm sometimes jealous of their success. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Red Maple

The beautiful color many Red Maples have in the Fall.

     Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is considered by many to be the most common and widespread tree in the East. Although it prefers moist environments (it is sometimes called Swamp or Water Maple), it can tolerate and even flourish in many more habitats. It can tolerate the widest soil conditions of any North American native tree. It is resistant to even droughts once established and is not a favorite of deer. Because of this adaptability (along with some other qualities I'll mention later), it is one of the most frequently planted landscape trees. Perhaps it is overly planted in some cases. We often see it so heavily dominating planting plans that we recommend they find alternatives. Just about the only thing it doesn't tolerate is burning, and since we've suppressed forest fires, it often out competes other native trees such as oaks and hickories.

Red Maple leaves and samaras.

     Red Maples are medium sized trees, rarely growing taller than 90'. Like all maples, they're opposite leaved and their paired winged seeds are called samaras. They're the "helicopters" many kids play with and watch twirl down when thrown up in the air. The seeds start to germinate upon making contact with the ground. 

Even the buds of Red Maple can be red in color.

     Red Maples are aptly named. Anthocyanins present in many parts of the tree impart this coloration in the Fall, particularly in acidic soils. The flowers, though small, also stand out in early spring, often in March, blooming before the tree leafs out. They provide much needed color over a still bleak landscape. The flowers are both wind and insect pollinated. Red Maples are not long lived trees, most don't get much older than 150 years, but they can start flowering by the time they're 5. 

Red, sometimes called Scarlet Maple, flowers in bloom.

     Man has been making use of Red Maples for quite a long time. According to noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman, numerous indigenous tribes found uses for them. The Cherokee made an infusion from the bark to treat cramps, measles, diarrhea, hives, and what Moerman recorded as "female troubles." They were also among several tribes who also made an eye wash from the inner bark: the Ojibwa, Iroquois, and Potawatami for instance. The Iroquois also thought red maple could be a blood purifier and the dried bark used to make bread. Along with the Potawatami, they also used it to wash and deodorize their traps. The Seminole thought red maple could treat hemorrhoids, sore limbs, backs, muscles, and other of what they called "ball game sicknesses." The Abnaki used the sap as a sugary sweetener.
     Francis Porcher, a Confederate doctor charged with developing uses of native plants as substitutes for goods no longer available due to wartime Union blockades, also mentions it's uses to make sugar. He thought it quite inferior though to Sugar Maple. He also noted the use of the bark to treat eye issues. 
     Maples have been used to obtain sweet syrup well before Europeans arrived into North America. Although all maples can supply sap that can be converted, none are as concentrated as are the Sugar Maples. Red Maples are not only lower in sugar concentrate, but they also have a shorter time they can be tapped. By the time buds start to open, the flavor becomes affected and no longer productive. The wood is a bit brittle, so sometimes the tree is referred to as Soft Maple in the commercial timber industry. But it is still used in furniture and other goods. Male cultivars tend to be more colorful, but also often are considered as producing highly allergenic pollen. Female trees on some cultivars may be less colorful, but also are considered to be much less likely to cause allergies.

Cut red maple twigs with buds are often a sign of squirrels feeding.

     But it's wildlife who may benefit the most this commonly planted tree. 297 different caterpillar species have been documented feeding on maples, which feed birds and bats. Many bird species eat the samaras, though they are not a preferred food as they become available during the early summer when birds feed more heavily on insects. Though toxic to horses, many mammals feed on maple. Deer don't prefer the foliage however, meaning it has a competitive advantage being allowed to grow in place of other plants deer consume. 
    As you can see, there are many reasons to plant this tree. No wonder it is the state tree of Rhode Island. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wild Grapes

Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia) is among the most common of our wild grapes.

     Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.) are an often misunderstood, but extremely valuable plant in our local woods. There are over 60 different species in North America, with 11 in Virginia, and 7 in the DC area. These woody vines can grow over 100ft in height and some varieties (granted in Europe) are known to live over 400 years. Most older vines have exfoliating bark and forked tendrils which help identify them. There are many species of birds that utilize the shredded bark to build their nests and many who favor nesting in the tangles themselves.
     There are many people who mistakenly think that grape vines are harmful to trees. Others mistake them for the invasive nonnative vine Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) which can smother and shade out native plants, and while removing it, accidentally destroy the grapes. One way to tell the difference is that Porcelainberry has white pith in its stems rather than the brown of grapes. 

Porcelainberry is easily mistaken for grape when not in fruit, but is not edible and is an invasive nonnative vine.

     Native grape vines are rarely damaging and will not kill healthy trees. They do not strangle and constrict the tree trunks (girdling them) like many nonnative vines who did not evolve with them actually do. Let's recall that if they really did kill off the native trees, they would have done so a long time ago. So these native vines get an undeserved bad rap and are actually a beneficial and integral part of the woodland edges.
     People have had a long association with grapes of course. Viticulture has been around and tied with civilization and even religion for centuries. When the Norse first reached North America there were so many grapes that they referred to is as Vinland. Survivalists know that cutting a section of vine can yield quite a bit of watery sap that can be used as an emergency water source. Parts of Virginia are well known for their domestic grape production and parts are definitely wine country. 

Muscadine Grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) or Scuppernong are among the biggest native grapes and is the most cultivated of the native grapes.

     Native American Indian tribes have of course always used grapes as well, not just for food, but for a multitude of other reasons. Noted ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman recorded many of these uses. The Iroquois for example used grape parts to treat anemia, stomach troubles, kidneys, urination issues, and even chewed the leaves to treat such mundane things as hiccups. The Menominee squeezed grapes to use as an eye wash. The Chippewa, Delaware, and Oklahoma all used it to wash hair (and some to treat pulmonary problems, diarrhea, rheumatism, and diabetes). The Mohegan, Seminole, and Shinnecock all used various grape species for dealing with headaches. The Cherokee thought parts of grape could deal with diarrhea, stomach ailments, liver problems, blood disorders, urinary irregularities, and even used the wilted leaves to draw soreness from breasts after birth. The Choctaw treated fevers with grape and used the sap to induce lactation in new mothers. The Seminole also used it for stomach aches, fevers, as a religious emetic, and as cordage for such things as coffin lashings. 
     During the Civil War, Dr. Francis Porcher was tasked with finding wild alternatives to goods no longer available to the Confederacy due to war and blockades. He did an amazing job compiling these uses. Most of his book entries were short and to the point, but he devoted several pages to uses for grapes. These included use as a dye, but he devoted most to the production of wine in great detail. 
      Animals of course make the most use of these native vines. While many mammals eat the fruits, helping to disperse the seeds, over 100 bird species have been documented eating grapes. They are a favorite of many of them. Another 79 caterpillar species have been documented using grapes as host plants to feed on, especially sphinx moths. These of course then feed many birds, 96% of which feed their young insects and preferring caterpillars over all others. All 17 of the bats found in the region also eat insects, and most favor the moths these caterpillars turn into as well.

The daytime flying wasp mimic Grapeleaf Skeletonizer Moth is one of the many that feed on grape. 

     I've eaten many a wild grape myself, knowing the best fruiting takes place along edges where the vine gets sun. They are much smaller than domesticated varieties and vary widely in flavor. Some, such as Frost Grapes, are much better tasting after they're hit by frost. Some are are tart and others sour, but I always enjoy trying them. So appreciate the wild grapes that grow in our parks and woodlands, knowing they have a rich history of uses by both humans and wildlife. 

Frost Grape or Winter Grapes (Vitis vulpina

Frost Grapes taste much better after they've been touched by frost and can be eaten (even as wild raisins) even well into winter, giving them their other common name of Winter Grape. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Buck Moths

     So while waiting in my tree stand for a buck to show up, I noticed quite a few Buck Moths instead. These are quite different from most moths in a couple of ways. First they fly during the day rather than at night. Secondly, they come out during the late Fall when most moths have already completed their adult lives. 
     Buck Moths are called buck moths, some people say, because they come out during the deer rut when bucks are looking for mates. That was indeed true this day, as they were floating around right after the sun warmed the day enough from the frosty night before. Before flying, these moths, like many moths do, tremble and shiver, warming their flight muscles. They can operate in much lower temperatures than the vast majority of other moths. 
     The various species (our local version are Eastern Buck Moths, Hemileuca maia) are actually members of the Saturniidae, the giant silk moths such as Luna and Cecropia moths. Like most of them, the adults don't feed at all. Unlike most, the gregarious caterpillars are covered in stinging hairs. Early on they feed on various oaks, but later can feed on several other deciduous trees. Males are smaller than females, and males have reddish tips to their abdomens as opposed to the black tips of the females.
     When they encounter trouble, they often curl their heads under their body, lift their wings to expose their bright colored hairy bodies, and play dead. They can sit motionless for a good period of time in this position, until the danger hopefully goes away. Some believe they are distasteful to some predators. 
A Buck Moth plays "dead.
     I always love seeing these moths so late in the Fall, a reminder of warmer days. They flutter around in such an obvious fashion, that is until they think their lives are in danger and play dead. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Laugher or Marbled Tuffet Moth

The Laugher

     I love the names we give creatures sometimes. Take this caterpillar I found today. It is commonly called The Laugher, the larva of of what is sometimes also called the Marbled Tuffet Moth Charadera deridens. The name is derived according to stories from the adult moth having what looks like eyes and a smiling face on its wings. Others say that the caterpillar shows some vaguely grinning faces that change as the caterpillar matures, the grin growing smaller each time as the head capsule gets blacker. Even it's scientific epithet deridens comes from the French for "to deride, mock, or laugh at." 

     The Laugher is a hairy caterpillar with long setae (hairs) that are clumped together and emerge from each wart on its body. It's head capsule is very dark black when mature, but much lighter the younger it is, with 3 triangular tooth looking marks before it pupates. It can vary a bit in color, but is generally pale colored.
     This species usually has two broods or generations around here. It is adapted to being able to eat tough old deciduous leaves of trees, especially beech and oak, which most caterpillars often can't feed on. That's why you can find them often in the Fall when many other caterpillars have wrapped up their life cycles. This Noctuid moth overwinters as a lightly wrapped cocoon. 
     I've actually wanted to find The Laugher for quite a while. Even though its quite common, the most common of the 5 species in its Genus Charadera, I had never found one. That is until today. No joking, I was quite happy to finally find The Laugher, as was evident by the smile on my own face when I found it.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Lion's Mane, Satyr's Beard, and Bearded Hedgehogs, Oh My...

Lion's Mane (Satyr's Beard) on a dying tree

     Fall rains often bring an explosion of mushrooms. One of my favorites is a distinctive one that goes by a variety of names: Lion's Mane, Satyr's Beard, Bearded Tooth Mushroom, Pom Pom Mushroom, and Bearded Hedgehog Mushroom among many others. In Japan it goes by the name Yamabushitake and is used in many Asian dishes.

The soft toothy projections that disperse the spores are fairly evident here

     Toothed Mushrooms disperse their spores by dropping them below their toothy fringes. It is considered edible, as I mentioned before, particularly in Asian vegetarian dishes. It is supposed to taste like seafood and substitute for it. I wouldn't go that far. I think it absorbs the flavors of what's around it and can add consistency and act as a soup thickener though. It shows up for sale sometimes in specialty shops and farmers markets. 

Diced and sliced

     It can come in various sizes. Our urban forester Vincent Verweij once found a huge one weighing several pounds in a tree that had to come down for safety reasons. That meant there was plenty for all of to share. My whole family agreed that it was delicious! Now it's something I hope to find every Fall.

Some sizzles in a pan in my kitchen

     Interestingly, some people are investigating it for supposed medicinal values. So far it is showing remarkable promise, some studies showing it can help improve memory, help with nerve damage, and improve other memory issues. Regardless of all that, I found it an interesting thing and tasty treat for my family.

Our urban forester Vincent Verweij with just a portion of a huge Lion's Mane from a tree that had to be taken down.
A small Satyr's Beard, with a Leopard Slug ready to feast on it too

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Goldenrod Safari

A Goldenrod patch at my home

     This time of year, many people notice how abundant goldenrods are in our open areas. Since this coincides with many people getting hay fever allergies, they wrongfully blame the goldenrods they notice, rather than the ragweed and other real culprits that they don't. Showy flowers such as goldenrods have larger and heavier pollen that is transferred by pollinators such as insects. Wind pollinated plants do not need showy flowers since they need not attract any pollinators, but need to produce an abundance of light weight pollen in the hopes some of it is carried onto another flower. Those plants, especially ragweeds, are what cause the issues this time of year.
     Goldenrods are an important and abundant Fall flower. Many animals depend on them. We have close to 50 species in Virginia alone, so they're adapted to many growing conditions, but most favor open, sunny locations. Due to their adaptability and showiness, many goldenrods are garden staples, both here and in other countries. In some parts of the world however, due to their adaptability, North American goldenrods have the potential to become invasive. They have some allelopathic traits, exuding chemicals that inhibit the growth of certain plants (such as maples) that also help them compete.
     The Genus name "Solidago" translates to "making whole" and points to worldwide use of this plant group for many medical and other uses. In  North America, famed ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman listed too many uses by native peoples to cover here. I will mention just a few for one of the most common species, Solidago canadensis, Canada Goldenrod though: The Iroquois used it for such various things as treating body pains, using the roots as an emetic to induce vomiting, and even to assist in getting better luck, deeming it "gambling medicine" as did the Navajo. The Potawatami used the blossoms for dealing with fevers. The Zunis chewed the flowers when they wanted rid themselves of a sore throat. The Shuswap believed a bath made from goldenrods could assist a mother at childbirth. The Meskwaki believed it could be used as wash for children who did not talk or laugh. The Thompson used it for everything from treating diarrhea, to using it in steam baths for treating paralysis and cripples, to using it to treat cuts and sores on their horses.
     Francis Porcher, a Confederate doctor charged with finding local sources for medicines no longer available during the Civil War, also found uses for it. He wrote that it could be used for cordage, making usable rope. He also said it made for a medicinal tea and a valuable dye.
     In Europe, their species had long been used. According to folklorist Jack Sanders, it was greatly revered. He noted that herbalist Nicholas Culpeper called it a "sovereign wound-herb, inferior to none" and that English herbalist Donald Law deemed it "as much a panacea as any plant could be." More fanciful uses were attributed to it by diviners and witches. 
     Thomas Edison was a big believer in goldenrod use. He experimented and succeeded in making rubber from certain Solidagos. He even bred his own type that grew to twelve feet tall to maximize the rubber compounds. Henry Ford even gave him a Model T with tires made from his goldenrod rubber. 

European Honeybees make great use of goldenrods this time of year, benefiting us with honey.

     Of course, it is wildlife that have the most uses for goldenrods. In addition to feeding on the many insects that use Solidagos (see below), birds such as goldfinches, juncos, pine siskins, trukey, indigo buntings, and various sparrows all feed on the seeds. Despite the chemicals in them that made them such sought after medicinal plants, mammals such as rabbits, voles, mice, beaver, muskrat, groundhogs and deer (although others consider it deer resistant) all make use of it.
     Insects make the most use of them (and feed such things as birds and bats in the process). A study in 1996 found 103 species that fed extensively on Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), while another on Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) in 1948 collected 241 insects on it over a year. Over 13 species of grasshoppers favor them, as do 16 bug species, 9 aphids, 7 leaf hoppers, and countless beetles (including 15 leaf beetles). Caterpillars numbering 115 different species have been documented feeding on goldenrods (and which then of course become the main prey of birds and bats). Tons of pollinators visit the flowers, including 7 bee species that are oligolectic, requiring that specific pollen in order to be able to reproduce. One species for example, Andrena solidaginis, even has Solidago as part of its name to show how necessary it is for its survival. There are several galls that are particular to goldenrods also. These in turn have certain resident and parasites that will also live in them.

Goldenrod Bunch Galls are caused by a specific gall midge, the Cecidomyd midge Rhopalomya solidagnis. Note that its scientific name contains the genus Solidago, showing how they live no where else.
The Goldenrod Round Gall is caused by the tephritid fly Eurosta solidagnis, in our area usually restricted to either Tall or Canada Goldenrods. One of these has been raided and now has a hole in it, likely helping to feed a chickadee or downy woodpecker over the winter.
Elliptical Goldenrod Galls are formed by 2 kinds of moths. This one is  open and so may have emerged already.

     As you can see, goldenrods are extremely valuable plants and deserve to be included in our gardens and landscapes, not simply because of their beauty and adaptability, but for the wonderful wildlife value they have. There was even a movement to make goldenrod our national flower in the late 1800's. It has had to settle for being the state flower of both Kentucky and Nebraska, and the state wildflower of South Carolina. 
     I thought that to show you just how much wildlife like them, I'd take you on a short "Goldenrod Safari" showing just a small portion of the common things you can find making use of a goldenrod meadow, especially this time of year. So enjoy:

Long-horned Locust Borer beetles, yellowjacket mimics, love goldenrod. They eat the pollen, pollinating it at the same time. They often kill 2 birds with one stone, mating while feeding on the goldenrod.
Daytime flying Ailanthus Webworm Moths are often found nectaring on Goldenrods.  More on them here:
Migrating Monarch and Buckeye Butterflies (such as this one) find goldenrod blooms to be life savers on their travels.
Several very similar looking wasp mimic moths are commonly found sipping nectar on goldenrods, such as this Yellow-collared Scape Moth.
Numerous Syrphid or Flower Flies favor goldenrods, most being excellent bee and yellowjacket mimics.
Bees love goldenrods, like this bumblebee and its larger carpenter bee cousin.

     So the next time you pass a Goldenrod patch, do more than smell the flowers (though you can at least do so with out fear of allergies). Stop by and conduct a little safari, trying to see how many different animals are using them.