Monday, May 21, 2012

Spruce tip syrup

I'm about to head to France for 10 days so I thought I'd post one more before I leave. Expect more in June!

What: Spruce and fir buds burst in late spring (which means it's almost summer!!). I heard about spruce syrup in November while up in Juneau, Alaska. They use Sitka spruce, but I used an ornamental white spruce. I imagine that spruce syrup is a rather recent invention, following the spread of cheap sugar to the northwest. I prefer the taste of the raw hemlock buds to fir and fir to spruce. Spruce was the most abundant so I used this for making syrup.
New growth on spruce tipsNewly emerged male cones on spruce
Drying candied spruce budsNewly emerged female cones on spruce

Friday, May 18, 2012


Dandelion with house fliesDandelion flower head
Dandelion flower in cross-sectionDandelion flower gone to seed

What: Dandelion is one of my favorite flowers and edibles. It's one of the first to pop up and last herbaceous plants to send it's energy back to its roots for the winter. More often than not in any given area you can find the plant in all four stages of its reproductive life during the whole growing season (with flower buds, flowers, pollinated flowers, and seeds - or achenes - sticking out from the "receptacle").

In the photo on the top left, the early and abundant flowers are providing some of the first food for a pair of house flies (Musca domestica). Dandelions are in the Aster family and have what's called composite flowers meaning that the big round yellow guy sticking up (called a calathidium) is actually closer to a 100 mini flowers (called florets) than one flower (similar to how coral or the Portugese man o' war are not individual organisms but a collection of organisms that resemble and function as a single organism).

I didn't find a good source on the anatomy of a dandelion flower, so I thought I'd offer one here. In the bottom left photo of the dandelion in cross-section you can see the bracts - the little greenish purple guys beneath the flowers, the receptacle - the u-shaped structure that holds the seeds and has sap oozing out of it, and ray flowers - which are bisexual flowers that are attached to the receptacle and give the flower head - or ligulate head - its appearance. If you look at the underside of the flower head, the outer most florets have a beautiful maroon coloration to them and look like the bracts. If you look closely, each "petal" is actually 5 fused petals (notice the teeth at their tips) and corresponds to an individual flower.

The white fluff are the pappus and will form the all to familiar white parasols that float the seeds up to 5 miles away. Just above this, the split curly structures are the pistils (female) and fused to this in a ring at the base of the pistils are the stamen. I got this all straightened out after conferring with Liz Thompson and Matt Kolan. The fat short stubs in the middle of the flower head are florets that have yet to open (and might not open at all). And that's it! If you're going to learn flowers, dandelions probably aren't the best place to start.

Ecological notes: Dandelion thrives in places with little nutrient availability. As such, it has deep taproots that can access scant minerals deeper down. It's leaves spread out generously (called a basal rosette) and lay flat both to block other plants from sprouting near it (which would siphon away nutrients) and to take full advantage of the sunlight. The biggest one I've seen was more than 2' across! They're perennial so they can sprout up early in the spring and get their basal rosette out before other things can germinate.

Where: Everywhere (but the photos were taken in my backyard and an access road adjacent to Centennial Woods).

Other notes: Because of how common this plant is, it has lots and lots of names. Dandelion - Taraxacum officinale - translates in to "Tooth of the lion" because of the large teeth on the leaves. The French call it pissenlit, or "piss in bed" because of its diuretic qualities (often used to purify the liver). The species epithet, officinale, is mideval-Latin and indicates that it was used medicinally (as with the specific epithet for jasmine, lavender, rosemary, comfrey, ginger, fennel, rhubarb, and speedwell).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jewelweed & Poison Ivy

Poison ivy leaflets emerging, note: woody stemPoison ivy vine on pine, Note: furry aerial roots
Poison ivy has woody stems
What: I got poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), at least I think I did, this year for the first time ever. I know I've been exposed to it numerous times before so I was disappointed that I might have finally reacted. This year I thought I'd try what Eric Garza ( had mentioned to me a few years ago: nibbling a bit of the leaves to build up immunity. I started small, with a bit no bigger than my pinky nail. I waited a couple of days without reaction and nothing happened so I ate another one of the small leaves. That was two days ago and I'm still here. I'll try one more small leaf this year and see if I react to the plant again.

An old timey journal says that anything alkaline (or basic) will temporarily alleviate symptoms but does not grant long-term immunity to poison ivy (Dr WF Dieffenbach's "Treatment of Ivy Poisoning" in Southern California Practitioner v.29). The author describes his experience developing a strong adverse response to poison ivy, finding out about auto-lacto therapy (drinking milk of an animal that had grazed on the toxin), and testing the treatment with success. He fed a cow grass and poison ivy then consumed a pint a day for two days. That year he developed no further rashes. In following years he developed a rash again, indicating that immunity is not permanent and follow-up treatments are required. Admittedly the article is quaint in its anecdotalness (it was published in 1917), but warrants a closer look at treatments for ivy poisoning. **It is appropriate to note here that the plural of anecdote is not data. Also pertinent is that I'm not an apothecary, healer, or medical professional and I only recommend doing this after doing your own research/asking the plant itself.

Jewelweed showing its paired cotyledons and emergent secondary leaves Ecological notes: Centennial Woods is filled with poison ivy, as are most places that are wet, but well drained, and rich, but not excessively so. As is convenient with mugwort growing near poison oak out west (mugwort can be used as a poultice to treat the itchiness caused by urushiol in poison oak), here in New England jewelweed (Impatiens capensis and I. pallida) almost always grows near poison ivy (but the reverse is not true as poison ivy is much less common).

Where: The photos are from Centennial Woods. Below are a couple of look-alikes, at least in the early stages. On the left is sarsaparilla, which has 3-5 leaflets, doesn't have a woody stem, and splits into three branchlets. On the right Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which has suction like discs on the ends of their tendrils and five, not three leaflets.
Virginia creeper is a look alike, but has five leaflets and has suction disks at end of tendrils
Warning: While I've seen catbirds eat poison ivy berries with gusty, people should never eat older leaves or berries and definitely don't burn poison ivy. If you do try eating young leaves or milk from goats be extremely cautious. Only try exceedingly small amounts at first. And most importantly, do your own research. I'm quoting stuff that I found that proves what I want to believe, I'm sure there's a thousand other anecdotal sources out there that contradict what I've written.

Other notes: Poison ivy is in the same genus as other toxic plants like Poison sumac (T. vernix), poison oak (T. diversiloba out west and T. pubescens out east). The genus is in the Cashew family, Anacardiaceae, which also includes staghorn sumac (delicious) and, not surprisingly, cashews. Members of Toxicodendron are occasionally placed in Rhus, the same genus as staghorn sumac.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Game cam in Centennial Woods

Deer on left with small spikes (future antlers)
2 deer, one scratching its earWayward travelers
What: When we heard about the proposed development near the section of Centennial Woods next to the Sheraton we thought it would be a great idea to go set up a game cam on one of the nearby deer trails.  We  wanted to capture some of the wildlife traveling through this corridor so that we can show the importance of this area to the development council and the public.  This is a really remote part of Centennial Woods in that no human trails run very close to it.  When we were out exploring it for the first time we found parts of a deer skeleton and we were struck by the unique feeling that this section of the woods has.

Three species crossed the game cam's path during the three weeks we left it out there.  We saw a pair of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), an eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and the rare Homo sapiens :).  We were surprised that we didn't get more animals coming through this trail but we didn't bait the game cam and these animals have a very wide home range, so this is understandable.

Ecological notes: This area of the woods is unique because it acts as a border for Centennial Woods.  Borders are special areas in the woods because we see different species composition and activity in these parts.  It is important to protect these areas that act as a buffer zone and provide corridors for wildlife to pass through.

Where: Centennial Woods near the Sheraton hotel

Other notes: You may be able to see the nubs on the buck's head where his antlers will emerge later this season.  It was exciting to examine this remote area that we would have not likely spent much time exploring if it hadn't been for the proposed development.

Here's a map showing where we set the game cam up.

View Game cam in a larger map
View Game cam in a larger map

Spring peeper & Toads

What: I can now hear the chorus of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus) in the retention pond under the power lines in Centennial Woods, which is about .2 miles from my house. There are fewer gray treefrogs this year, but the trade off is a solitary spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) and a solitary bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeiana (you can barely hear the bullfrog around 55 seconds in to the video), both are firsts for me in the last 4 years of monitoring amphibians in Centennial Woods. The wood frogs are no longer making any noises.

Ecological notes: Toads sing when the temps get around 60 degrees or higher. The recent rains seems to have brought out more of them. If these temps keep up, we should start seeing some fireflies in the near future! I was also surprised to see a beaver swimming around in the retention pond. I haven't seen them this far from Centennial Brook before. This one slapped its tail at me three times indicating that it might be an different beaver than the three that live in the brook that know me much better.

Where: Centennial Woods power line retention pond

Other notes: The taxonomic groups of bullfrogs, spring peepers and toads have recently been changed. When a species gets moved to another genus it keeps its specific epithet (the second part of the latin binomial). The former names for the three are Rana catesbeiana, Hyla crucifer and Bufo americanus, the bold parts changed, the non-bold parts remain the same by convention. I personally prefer the old names for reasons outlined quite well in this article on the taxonomy of treefrogs: Pseudacris vs Hyla

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tree drool

Drool at base of white cedar tree Bubbles accumulating in groove at base of elm Drool where water landed after dripping off scar on red maple
What: The trees were drooling! I'll cover this later when I get some better photos of tree drool, but in short, the appearance of pools of white foam/bubbles at the base of trees during rainstorms is connected to stemflow (the amount of water that flows down a trees trunk, rather than falling directly to the ground). As rain washes down the surface of a tree, it picks up lots of stuff (minerals, pollen, spores, dead bug parts, etc) that dissolve into the flowing water. Somehow this decreases the surface tension of the water allowing the water to more readily bubble. I'm not so satisfied with this explanation (surprisingly little is known about tree drool) and will look into it more...

I did notice that the bubbles have an oily irridescence and seemed to pool at points where bark funneled and suddenly stopped or, as on the red maple in the photo above, where a scar or branch dripped water to a lower spot on the tree. Seemed to also be at the base of larger trees with mature bark.

Ecological notes: First soaking rain in a long while. Felt really good to be out in the woods with the fresh smell of rain washing the trees clean. The warm weather combined with the rain and everything just exploded. Things had been becoming green and now the woods has this vibrant fullness to its green.

Where: Centennial Woods

Other notes: First kingfisher in Centennial Woods in 2 years. Beavers are going to town on the hemlocks - probably not much longer for CW.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Canoe trip

What: I had to drop some paper work off at All Souls Interfaith Gathering so Jon Dowds and I decided to canoe there from Rock Point in Burlington (maybe about 11 or 12 miles). Everything wound up working out perfectly, with the weather probably the nicest it could possibly be - no wind at all, mid-60s, and sunny - plus it was a week day so we mostly had the lake to ourselves. I strapped my camera to the canoe and set it to take a photo every 3 minutes. Unfortunately the camera slipped down right after I set it then slipped further down even later, so the result of the time lapse was somewhat disappointing.

Ecological notes: Lots of lady bugs on the surface of the water. Notable birds included a few loons down by Shelburne Farms, swallows (tree and barn) out at Juniper Island, a greater black-backed gull by All Souls, and then chipping sparrows, white-throated sparrows galore at All Souls.

Where: Lake Champlain

Other notes: I was struck while canoeing at how the quality of the water's surface changed. At one point it looked like the gridded light and dark greens of a well-manicured soccer field, other times it had a lazy metallic roll to it. Zac Ispa-Landa was telling me about Wade Davis's book Wayfinders. Davis (who has the wonderfully rad title of National Geographic Explorer in Residence) details a Polynesian culture that frequently canoes open water beyond sight of land. The navigators are so in tune with water they can read the slightest variation in the vibrations of water against the bottom of a canoe. They can successfully navigate to small islands thousands of miles from their origin, islands, they didn't know existed by reading the way water ripples over the surface. I could tell when we went over the turbulent ripples from a passing boat or see the wide v-shape being cut behind a goose angry at our presence, but only the most obvious stuck out. What, I wonder, was the full range of music skipping over the surface of the lake that I wasn't hearing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Adventures with gray squirrels

Young gray squirrel in Laura's basementAdult gray squirrel eating silver maple seeds
What: My neighbor has a squirrel problem that I was happy to help with. She replaced the insulation on her chimney a couple weeks ago and thought that she had taken care of the problem, but apparently she was mistaken. On Friday I helped her chase out one of the squirrels. It turns out there were three more (much much smaller) gray squirrels still in the basement. I sealed a hole in the chimney, and coerced a couple into boxes then relocated them outside. The last young one definitely proved the most difficult. We set a havahart and baited with peanut butter, to no avail. Saturday morning a friend and I went into the basement and tried to catch the squirrel. It cornered itself in a stack of winter tires. It was growling pretty fiercely, but we managed to wrap the tire in a cover for the grill and then carry the whole thing outside. The video is the Great Releasing of the Squirrel. It was pretty much spring loaded and disappeared off along the fence line in a few short seconds.

Ecological notes: I had noticed the gray squirrels in my yard being a bit extra frisky in mid-February during some of the warmer weather. They breed twice a year so I assumed that this was breeding behavior. Their breeding affairs are a rather violent and complicated matter. Females often have scarred ears and necks from the males biting them during copulation. As females are only in estrus for a single day, promiscuity is the rule (a less charged word might be polygyny - many males mating with a single female). Ecologists like John Koprowski (who wrote some awesome stuff on squirrel mating behavior in the early 90s), suggest that females can be seen as a limited resource and are therefore highly prized and fiercely defended (like the black walnut in my backyard come September). A dominant male will thusly defend a female (or at least access to her) during the breeding season. Part of this is behavioral male-to-male aggression. But part is physiological.

During copulation the male will ejaculate and then secrete a gelatinous substance that hardens into a plug. The male has to then fend off other males until the secretion hardens (about 20 minutes), which effectively blocks another male's sperm (gross, right?). I would assume that the reason males have such gargantuan testicles during breeding season is to have such powerful blasts of semen as to break through other male's copulation plugs (aka mating plug, sperm plug, vaginal plug, or sphragis).

If the adult in Laura's basement had been an adult then she would have mated in that mid-February warm spell, gestated for a month and a half, then given birth to little naked helpless pups in the beginning of April. It'll be less than two more months before they're fully weened and ready to tackle the world. This would put them out on their own by about June 1st, so it's not unlikely that the group of four was a mother and her three pups.

Where: Latham Ct

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Super moon!!

Super moon (full moon at perigee)
What: Full moon last night was just incredible.

Ecological notes: The moon has an eliptical orbit and last night it was the closest that it will be this year (called the perigee). The super moon appears 30% brighter than normal and about 12% larger than normal. Rising over the Greens, the swollen moon dominated the horizon. The light altocumulus clouds were glowing and it was actually hard to take a picture and pull any detail out of the moon because it was so bright.

Where: I took the time lapse photos from my house in Burlington.

Other notes: There will be a partial solar eclipse on the new moon (May 20th).

Friday, May 4, 2012

"Marine layer" over Lake Champlain

Sunset with marine layer over Lake Champlain & Juniper Island
What: Tonight while driving to Tractor Supply Callan and I stopped at Overlook Park and were treated to a beautiful sunset. The clouds rolling gently over Juniper Island was so simple and beautiful. Big breath in.

Ecological notes: Some things are so beautiful a naturalist type of explanation seems so paltry in comparison. I will say that looking out over the thin layer of clouds sweeping across the lake reminded me of being back in California. Some early morning hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains took me up the hills out of the fog and above the low marine layer. I could look out over the Pacific Ocean and see only the Channel Islands and occasional peaks in the chain of Santa Monica mountains poking their ancient noses above the clouds.

Here's where it gets nerdy: we get those marine layers in Southern California all the time because the water is relatively cool (particularly near Point Conception in Santa Barbara) and the air often significantly warmer. When you get a really warm air mass moving over a relatively cool body of water. The water cools the air nearest the surface, and as it cools it gets denser, effectively getting trapped beneath the warmer, less dense air above. If the air mass cools enough, water vapor will condense out and form clouds (similar to pushing warm air up a mountian - as it rises it cools and forms clouds, which explains why Camel's Hump is always covered in clouds). This cold layer effect is exacerbated when you have a low pressure system that lifts the warm air and makes the trapped cooler layer thicker (as we did tonight). We just had all that rain and the air was warm (67 when I took the photo) so the air was humid to begin with (87% on, so all the conditions were right for a cool little marine layer.

Where: Lake Champlain and Juniper Island

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Woodchucks, red shouldered hawks, and some insects

What: What a grand spring day. I'd never been to Woodside Park in Essex and on a whim while driving home from a great day teaching at Founders Elementary I stopped by to check it out. Turns out it's an incredible patch of floodplain forest and some floodplain controlled cattail marshes/ponds with heaps of wildlife. Below are some of the photographic highlights (including a couple blurry ones, mostly because the subject matter was so good).

Woodchuck carrying leaves to denWoodchuck standing guard
Male hairy woodpecker in ostrich fern fieldRed-shouldered hawk sitting on nest in old red oak
Eastern commaMourning cloak
Red admiral with slightly tattered wing(Juvenal?) duskywing
Sensitive fern fiddlehead and young frondYoung interrupted fern fertile frond
Marsh marigold flower gone to seed (with Pimpla ichneumon wasp I think)Marsh marigold flower with spotted lady beetle
Bluet with spotted lady beetleSix-spotted tiger beetle hiding in the duff

Ecological notes
: This is more of a photo essay, but I was impressed with the number of flying insects out and about. Just as I arrived, Patty, who works at the detention center, tipped me off to a red-shouldered hawk nest. The hawk wasn't on the nest so I walked the loop first. The spring ephemerals were out in abundance - trout lily, marsh marigold, stinking benjamin, large-flowered trillium, bloodroot, wood anemone, and a few others. So were the insects. I noticed that a duskywing (skipper family based on the curved knob at the tip of the antennae, but couldn't ID to species) was "mobbing a morning cloak" which was interesting. Each time the mourning cloak got near the skipper chased it off. Birds do it, why not butterflies (probably because other butterflies aren't predators on caterpillars)?

At the end of my walk, I spent about an hour and a half watching the nest of a red-shouldered hawk (pictured above). The hawk made lots of angry calls as I approached (lasted about 5 minutes before stopping). While on the nest it only moved its head and rarely that. It seemed to look more energetically when the crows flew by, even though the crows didn't pay much attention. Met Tom Jiamachello as I was leaving and he said the pair had nested her the previous three years.

I spotted a little woodchuck denning up next to the tracks. The soils are all deltaic sands, perfect for digging in and there were several other holes in the area. The woodchuck left noisely over the dry leaves, stopping to nibble what looked like celandine, but I couldn't tell for sure. It was gone for about 20 minutes and returned a bit noisier carrying a huge bundle of oak leaves in its mouth. It dropped them off in a hurry then came out and stood watch for another few minutes before disappearing back down its tunnel.

Where: Woodside Park.

Other notes: While looking up information on the butterflies I noticed that the Red Admiral, Eastern Comma, and Mourning Cloak all overwinter as adults, which I thought was interesting, and so not surprisign that they're among the first butterflies to see in large numbers in the spring.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

What: I have been seeing these flowers a lot during my recent wanders in the woods and never knew what they were called! Their droopy shape managed to catch my eye a couple of times along with their beautiful red hue. I found this group growing at a pretty high elevation towards the summit of Mt. Philo, in between the cracks of a boulder. ( I found out later that Red Columbine is also sometimes referred to as Rock Bells! Its pretty amazing to see where some plants grow!

Ecological notes: The Red Columbine is a member of the buttercup family and likes to grow in shady, rocky areas. The plants grow up to three feet tall and is native to North America. It is pollinated by hummingbirds and contains a very sweet nectar! This plants blooms from March to July and sets fruit mid summer.

Where: These pictures were taken hiking Mt. Philo but I have also seen these beauties in Centennial Woods and the Burlington area.

Other notes: This plant is also referred to as honeysuckle which is the name I knew it by. As I peeled back the petals I sucked out the sweet nectar and was immediately brought back to those summer days eating honey suckle in my backyard as a child. Red Columbine is a popular garden perennial because it lives up to 3-5 years and can regenerate itself by seed.

 I am still wondering why these flowers face downward and what purpose this serves the plant?