Friday, March 29, 2013

Silver maple buds exploding

What: Spring is definitely here. The energy of the land has shifted and there's a buzz all around that is singing "Life!" One unfortunate change is that the sap has started to go "buddy" - it has a bitter and unpleasant taste to it. This occurs when the buds swell. Right now, the buds on the silver maple outside my window are completely swollen (all that sap that's been flowing has to go somewhere), and they're about to burst. I'll be tracking this little twig over the coming weeks as it leafs out. You can track leaf burst dates with Project Bud Burst.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Discovering sap

Sapcicle on a broken boxelder twig
What: There are lots and lots of stories concerning the origins of sugaring. The stories have grown over many generations and may or may not resemble the original tellings of the story. As was pointed out to me by Judy Dow, basketmaker and member of Oyate, an organization that protects and preserves indigenous stories and culture, many of the stories white people tell about Indians sugaring have been bastardized, distorted, misappropriated, and anglicized. In their new forms, they now tell the stories of colonialization. They may not even reflect how sugaring was discovered in the first place or adequately/accurately portray the culture from which the story may have originated.

Websites for sugaring operations are quick to root the practice in indigenous folklore (whether it be the Abenaki story of Gluskape diluting sugar, the Haudenosaunee story of the chief sticking his hatchet in a tree, or another story of red squirrels chewing branches). I tend to be skeptical of the credibility of websites that generalize these stories and say things like, "The Indians made maple syrup. They would take a hatchet and cut a gash in the tree and insert a wooden or bark shim. The sap poured off into pots. The trees were bigger back then, and must have had plenty of sap. The Indians concentrated the sap by dropping hot rocks into the pot to boil off some of the water." Adding to my mistrust of these sources is that I'm always skeptical until I try something myself to prove (or disprove) it or observe it myself (like watching a red squirrel "tap" a sugar maple at Rock Point and come back later to eat the icicles and lick the wound sites).

Like most things, I'm sure there are elements of truth in all of the stories we've inherited about maple sugaring. My own sugaring origin story, if I didn't already know about sugaring might have begun last week when I started seeing all these rotting white pines laying on the forest floor in Centennial Woods. My attention was drawn to the down slope side, where almost all the stumps had icicles oozing out. The icicles were all a beautiful amber color with these dark hair-like strands curling up on the bottom. I tasted a few and they had an almost coffee-like flavor. They were okay, but not great. On my way back home, I spotted a boxelder that had been crushed by a careless UVM facilities truck, leaving many branches broken (see image at top). At the wound sites, icicles hung down. Each icicle had the sweetest droplet of sugar water beaded up at the tips.

I paddled the Winooski River with Brian on Saturday and at one point we paddled under a silver maple tree yawning over the gentle river. From some past flood event a few of the lowest branches had been broken off. The sap had been oozing out of the broken twigs and in the cold had formed icicles. Brian and I enjoyed sucking the sweet icicles off the branches. With such a sweet surprise, I'm sure any curious mind would have wondered what other trees would ooze a sweet sap and how could they harvest more of it. I'd start breaking branches, bending them over to collect in little containers. I don't know that I would rock boil them, but I'd drink nothing but sap water for the first month or two of spring when it was flowing in the maple genus. I'll bet harvesting sap from twigcicles would have come before "tapping" the trees, or harvesting in some other way from the bole, or trunk, of the tree.

Where: Broken branches everywhere

Other notes: Maples are still the only species to be flowing so far.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Warm water and drainages

Green frog tadpole in pool at base of outflow pipe
What: Last fall the DOT put in a culvert running under I-89 about a quarter mile north of the Patchen Road bridge. They put a bunch of monkton quartzite boulders down to control flow below the culvert. The culvert is actually two pipes, one of which has a significantly slower flow. I was absent mindedly staring into the water watching detritus float whimsically downstream when a flash of movement caught my attention. It took a while for it to move again and when it did I was really surprised at spotting a tadpole!

Ecological notes: Green frogs, bullfrogs, and mink frogs (mink frogs are only found in the northeast kingdom) all have tadpoles that will overwinter. These little guys are green frog tadpoles. There were also some unknown (at least to me) species of fish. One that I was watching had its head pointed straight down into the muck (for more on what that muck was, you can visit one of my favorite websites).

Where: I-89 & Patchen Rd in South Burlington

Unknown fish species enjoying the relatively warm water (probably ~50 degrees) 
Other notes: Ground water temperature is roughly the same as the average annual temperature of that area. Here in Burlington it's roughly 45oF. So if you're a fish and the air is 27, it makes a lot of sense to huddle at springs and culverts where ground water meets the surface.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Of shrews and owls

What: On Saturday Nathan and I went for a wander in Centennial Woods. We were exploring the lower stretches of Centennial Brook in Fox Marsh when we heard some crows making a ruckus to our East. We decided to track down the birds and see what the fuss was all about. Turns out the crows were harassing a barred owl that seemed more interested in napping than paying attention to the crows. After about 15 minutes the crows left the owl at peace. It was interesting to watch the owl over then next 45 minutes or so because any time a crow flew nearby it would caw, just to remind the owl they knew it was there. We walked back to my house to get better binoculars and my camera and the owl was still there by the time we got back. I snapped a couple of pictures of the owl perched near the top of an old white pine.

Short-tailed shrew skull found in barred owl pellet
Ecological notes: I've found a few owl pellets recently, (coincidentally?) all at the base of old white pines. The last one I pried apart was on the small end of pellets, but still had one vole and one shrew skull in it. The shrew skull was beautiful - I've always been drawn to the purple on the enamel of the teeth (as in rodents, the color is due to an iron pigment). Rodents have iron pigments on their incisors and softer exposed dentine (our dentine is hidden beneath our enamel) to maintain a sharp chisel edge. Anemic rats have been found to lack the pigmentation on their incisors! Older scientific articles speculated that the coloration could have been used as a signal (making the teeth visible when the animal grins aggressively). I doubt that, as white is equally visible. In shrews, it could signal health (redder teeth means more virility, as red feathers indicate virility in male cardinals, flamingos, etc).

Challenge: Find its eyes (or ears)!
I'd put more money on it being an architectural thing, increasing the strength of the teeth. Shrews are insectivores (in the order Insectivora, along with moles, neither of which are related to rodents; rodents, in fact, are closer to humans than shrews; shrews are closer to elephants than rodents like voles). Their diet consists primarily of arthropods (those six-legged bugs), which have hard shells. If you ate nothing but crab and had to chew through their shells with your teeth you could imagine your teeth would wear down pretty quickly. Reinforced teeth help their teeth last longer, though most shrews don't live past a year. Mira also found a short-tailed shrew (Blarina brevicauda) in Centennial Woods last week, which would be about the 6th this winter that showed no outward sign of any trauma.

Right front of short-tailed shrew

Rear feet of short-tailed shrew

Some observations we made about the shrew:
  • They have super short hair that rubs well both forward and back (possibly for entering unknown tunnels in search of prey)
  • They have large ear openings, but the external ear itself is super small
  • Their eyes are all but absent
  • Their whiskers are very prominent up the snout
  • The snout seemed to have the same reddish purple color that the teeth have
  • Their claws were exceptionally long
Where: Centennial Woods

Other notes: Almost exactly a year ago I spotted a barred owl in the same spot in the same way. I had actually followed the crows to a nearby spot where they were mobbing a red-tailed hawk.

Monday, March 18, 2013

basswood buds

What: I just wanted to post a quick photo of a basswood bud. My friend Emily Stone told me a few years back that the buds looked like a mouse wearing a motorcycle helmet. I love that description, and it's definitely evident in the photo. The buds are edible and delicious (though a bit mucilaginous). Emily also taught me that you could eat the young leaves when they open. It's one of the first spring greens to come out and such a wonderful treat to be able to eat.

The little bumps visible on the twig are lenticels, the mouths along the branch. Basswood twigs, like most other species, are photosynthetic. If you peel back the outer bark you can see a thin layer of green tissue. The lenticels provide oxygen and other gases to move back and forth in support of respiration.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Possum and more feet

Right front
Left rear
What: Brooke alerted me to a roadkill opossum (Didelphis virginiana) on East Ave the other day that I picked up. I like to poke fun at these bizarre critters, since they're one of the most retched creatures we have. They amble in a dopey, almost drunken way, are often drooling, and are frequently the victims of frostbite, which reeks havoc on their ears and tails. I once watched a possum lick my fence for about 15 minutes. I got close enough to touch it, but not close enough to have any idea of what it was licking. They're certainly a different kind of beast.

Frost bite on ear
Fun facts about the Virginia Opossum:
  • Possums have a super short life span (a 2 year old possum is ancient)
  • They have 50 teeth (dental formula: 5134/4134)
  • Possums don't "play" dead but actually become catatonic. It's an involuntary response, the crescendo of which is the expulsion of a foul smelling liquid from their scent glands. I'd assume that this deters any predator from wanting anything to do with eating the animal (it also starts drooling, will urinate and defecate as well as lower its temperature and heart rate). 
  • They only have awn hair, which explains the raggedy look of their coat (somewhere between the insulative down hairs and the coloration hairs we collectively call the pelt and individually the guard hairs)
  • Only the females have pouches (and they're super small)
  • Possums frequently get frostbite here in Vermont. They're at the northern most extent of their range and have naked tails/ears. Like cardinals, they have moved their range north following urban centers of people.
  • Males have a scent gland on the chest that gives the fur in that spot a gross yellow color
  • They are not winter mammals, and can lose almost half their body weight during the winter
  • Sperm is paired and doesn't swim straight if single
  • They're essentially immune to snake bites
  • They're total scavengers (which might be why I have such an affinity for them) and apparently have a rapacious appetite for calcium so frequently eat road kill skeletons
  • They supposedly even will kill rats, but mostly they scavenger for invertebrates and carrion
  • They have a very very slow metabolism (unlike shrews) and move much slower than most animals their size
Frost bite on tail

Ecological notes: The frostbite they frequently get doesn't matter all that much, nor is their much selective pressure pushing them to adapt to the winter since they live such short live (rarely living more than one full winter). They are continually pushing their range northward. Young possums can hang by their tails, but adults can't.

Where: East Ave

Other notes: Opossum comes from the Algonquian word "opassum" which translates roughly to "white animal". The word was first used in 1608 by Capt. John Smith. His description of "possums" (the 'o' was dropped in writings as early as 1613), is simple and alludes to the oddball-ness of the creature: "An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young."

Other posts with photos of animal feet in them:

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amphibians moving

Wood frog (note black mask on its face)
What: Sophie, Sam and I headed down to New Haven last night after the Crow's Path potluck to check for amphibians. Amphibians start moving from their upland overwinter sites down to breeding grounds during the spring thaw. This usually happens late-March, early-April when temps are 37 or above and we get rain that soaks the ground. I can't find my records, but last year was super early and I think they started moving sometime around March 10th or so. I spend most of my time at Shelburne Pond, but that site doesn't see movement until after the New Haven site (the amphibians cross at the south end of SP, which is north facing and usually thaws around April 1).

We were out from about 9:30-10:15pm and here's our list

  • Jefferson's salamander: 15
  • blue-spotted salamander: 8
  • Jefferson x blue-spotted hybrid?
  • spotted salamander: 6
  • Wood frog: 4
  • Spring peeper: 2
  • 4-toed salamander: 1
  • eastern newt: 5 (all dead)
Ecological notes: The temp had dropped down to about 37 when we got out of the car. All the newts were dead (abbreviated DOR by herpetologists) and we wondered if they had started moving earlier when it was warmer out - maybe coinciding with when folks were driving home. In order of activity level in the 37 degree weather it seemed like Jefferson's were the quickest followed by blue-spotted salamanders and then spotted salamanders. Each had their own jiggly little dance. I'll try and post videos later this month.

Where: North St in New Haven, about a mile north of Plank Rd. Super hot spot, usually one of the first spots in the Champlain Valley to see movement.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

More feet

Front left foot of a mink
What: A friend up in Fairfield had a mink (Mustela vison) kill all of her chickens while she was away on vacation. Her neighbor's dog subsequently killed the mink. I went up on Sunday to pick up the mink, which is in great shape, save a puncture on its back and snout. I see their tracks often, so it was great to get to look up close at their feet - you can actually see "fingerprints" on each of the toes! Like all members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), mink have five toes on both their front and rear feet. (insectivores also have the same number of toes but are considerably smaller). The toes are webbed maybe half way up the digit (mink are highly aquatic), and their toenails were incredibly sharp.

Hind feet (right foot is on bottom) of a mink
Where: Fairfield, VT

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Three Hares (2)

What: Second installment of the series of videos from the same two perspectives tracking change over time in Centennial Woods. The videos are not super impressive yet, but in 20 years it'll be awesome to watch the changes develop over time. I chose these spots because they have dynamic water ways, early successional habitat, repeated disturbance (brush hogging under powerlines), and a mix of conifers and hardwoods. We'll see what develops!
Phenology notes from the past month: Spring is on the way!! Here are some highlights from the month:
  • We had a bit of snow, but mostly temperatures hovering around freezing. 
  • We also had our first rain of the spring. 
  • I've noticed honeysuckle buds that burst open (and elderberries that almost opened), 
  • There's an abundance of skunk prowling around, 
  • Coyotes were scent marking at the height of their breeding season
  • The sap is flowing on maples (silver, red, sugar, and boxelder), 
  • and today I spotted turkey vultures flying north.