Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A close call

Toads, for me, are like the perennial underdog, the bad news bears of the amphibian world. They're goofy and clumsy on land, often tumbling down rocks or embankments as they pronk around. Much of Burlington is on sandy deltaic sediments from the Champlain Sea. It drains well and there are scant wetlands, save along the Winooski River, flood zones along the lake, or retention ponds built to handle run off. I live near the latter most habitat and from my windows can hear toads trilling on the first warm (50+ degree) nights of spring. After 8 years of seeing toads in my garden and wishing they had a breeding habitat, I finally got around to building a pond. I got toad eggs and raised them to mature tadpoles before releasing them into the pond. After about 2 days of filling the pond with water we already had a couple of competing males trilling away.


I've been seeing more and more toadlets (tiny, ~1/2") popping around, so looks like my first parenting project was a success! But not all is well in the land of toads. Today while out at Derf Beach (Fred's Beach to many, at the north end of North Beach), I was pulling poison ivy when all of a sudden I was spooked by a strange two-headed, two-legged beast. I yelled and jumped simultaneously. And then I realized what I was looking at!
Oh, that leg. Not sure how the snake got both legs into its mouth. But it did. 

A yellow jacket showed up and curiously buzzed around the toad for a while

Eventually the snake wormed its way backward and over the green ash roots. Perhaps in response to us, trying to covet its meal. Each animal seemed to move in bursts followed by small movements trying to gain leverage. 




Oh, how my heart went out to that poor toad. And what a beast of a toad, easily one of the largest toads I've ever seen. We surmised that it was puffing out its chest to make it difficult for the garter snake to swallow it any further. We watched the struggle unfold for about 10 minutes before we had to leave. Perhaps the most striking realization that I had was that toads don't have facial expressions, a simple observation but so dramatic when I realized that this toad was having perhaps the most dramatic and terrifying experience of its life and it's face was totally stoic, or rather unchanged. As we were leaving someone called us back for the culmination of the struggle. The snake had decided it had bit off more than it could chew and released the toad from its grasp. A sad day for snake enthusiasts, a great day for toad-a-philes, and a fascinating, but morally neutral day for ecologists :)

Here's the toad post-battle.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The many moods of Lake Champlain

Just wanted to share a few images I've taken of Mink Bay at Rock Point over the past few weeks.

One of the more intense storms of the summer. Sudden gusts up to 40mph brought in sheets of rain for about 30 minutes. This was about 5 minutes before it hit

Calm and delightful sunset at Mink Bay

Paddling out past Lone Rock.

A fair weather cloud

Gap between Lone Rock and the Secret Cave

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Poison Ivy ID Quiz

Test your identification knowledge to see if you can tell the difference between PI and other common look alikes


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Identifying Poison Ivy

Poison ivy leaf shape. Two mittens on the sides giving a thumbs down with bilateral symmetry on middle leaflet.
I've posted in the past about poison ivy (1, 2, 3), but thought I'd post again, this time with an eye to identification. My goal with kiddos at Crow's Path programs is to get them to be able to subconsciously identify poison ivy while running around playing games. This definitely takes practice - lots of dirt time looking, drawing, studying - but once you create a search image and lock it into your brain you no longer have to think to activate that process. Awareness, to a certain degree, becomes a passive, embedded process.

My original post on poison ivy from so many years ago focused on the diversity of poison ivy, but also the general form. It's amazing to me that we can identify a species from a thousand different angles under a thousand different lightings. No two poison ivy plants are the same size, shape, color, texture. But the patterns are distinct enough that our brain can readily generalize a specific form and lump it in with other similar forms and parse it out from dissimilar forms.

Poison ivy with damage from a leaf miner
Researchers recently found the same process happens with ducklings, which immediately after hatching are able to imprint onto a mother figure. Imprinting isn't about recognizing a static form, like a circle or star, but rather a complex moving creature that will guide them to safety. The guide may be sneaking through tall grass, flapping their wings, or swimming across the surface of the water. Whatever their varied shape, a duckling's survival depends on its ability to recognize their alpha. So to do humans share an ability to recognize and lump, though as the ultimate generalist omnivores fortunately we lack the lazer like focus on a specific entity and instead have a far less specific and infinitely more powerful ID skillset. Being able to recognize many different forms translates to us being able to recognize and consume some 600 different genera in any one location (Carol Yoon describes this odd upper limit of 600 forms in her book on taxonomy Naming Nature, referring to a person's ability to name a max of about 600 different species, bands, products, etc from memory).



Forging a search image requires spending time looking closely (or I guess just subconsciously assimilating small bits of information over long periods of time works too as I don't ever remember learning to identify dandelion or pigeons or Katy Perry, but here I am capable of recognizing her almost instantly on a poster at Staples). As much as this can work, looking closely is more fun, more transferable, and more interesting. So, looking closely at poison ivy might reveal:

Stem
  • A woody stem
  • Each aerial stem typically has only 1-2 leaves emerging from it
  • Alternate branched leaves
  • Poison ivy that has taken to vining, at least in our region, is very uncommon
  • When it does vine it uses aerial/adventitious roots to attach to tree (not tendrils, spiraling, or hooks)
Leaves
  • The 3 leaves are actually 3 leaflets that together form one leaf. 
  • Smooth (not waxy or hairy)
  • Leaves often show signs of damage from leaf miners
  • Form a T-shape, with two on side having short petioles (leaf attachments) than the middle leaflet
  • Side leaflets are asymmetrical, middle one is bilaterally symmetrical
  • Two side leaflets often look like they're given a thumbs down

Flowers/fruits
  • The fruits are like little whitish yellow pumpkins and readily pop off the stem
  • They're often hidden beneath the leaves so difficult to find
  • I've observed deer and catbirds eating them
Roots
  • Reproduce mostly via runners (I've hand pulled poison ivy and if you get a runner you can pull up a few feet of horizontal roots!!)
  • Roots are dark brown and around an 1/8"-1/4" in diameter at most.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne's Lace flower in full bloom. Note purple, almost black flower, in center of umbel
When I first learned to identify wild carrot, or Daucus carota, I was eagerly followed its name like a blinking road sign down to the earth. I dug up its root, letting its earthy mint scent wash over my nose. I gently patted the sand from the white carrot pinched delicately between my fingers, nipped off the leaves, and popped the little treat in my mouth. Yum. Domestic carrots often lack the richness of flavor of their wild ancestor, though make up for it, I suppose, in size.

Side view, showing umbel-ness of inflorescence. All flowers originate from single point

I harvested a bunch of the little carrots that summer, but somehow spent surprisingly little time with the plant. It wasn't until the following summer, when I got bees, that I really paid much attention to the above ground part of the plant. I noticed my bees particular zeal for the flat splay of delicate white flowers. Each umbel (a clumb of short-stalked flowers all emerging from a central point) is marked centrally with a deep purple whose purpose, I read, is to guide bees and other pollinators in. More than guide the insect to the inflorescence as a whole, it guides the insect towards the center of the umbel, ensuring that it will come in contact with as many florets as possible before visiting the next plant. 

The mythology of the plant's other name, Queen Anne's Lace, refers to one of several different Queen Annes, who pricked herself while making her lace. A lone drop of blood fell forth from her fingers, tarnishing the otherwise perfect lace. One odd thing about the sanguine flower is that it is sterile, a sacrificial flower to draw in pollinators! Felix, a kiddo in our Whittler's Wharf camp at Crow's Path brought me the above specimen. As we were looking at the flowers I noticed that one of the clusters actually had a second sterile purple flower at the margin of the umbel in addition to the one located at the center (this is visible as a dark, upside down heart on the top left of the above image).

This Queen Anne's Lace, oddly enough, doesn't have the sterile central flower

And just a bonus shot showing a developing inflorescence