Monday, May 20, 2013

Crow's Path and brief break

Beaven celebrating spring with a melodica
What: This week is super hectic for me, and then I'm leading an 8-day trip based on the adventures of John Muir (we're hiking to the highest point in Vermont, then paddling the Winooski River to the lowest elevation). As the semester ends and I wrap up other programs, I'll be taking a little bit of a break from posting.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poison ivy, yet again

What: The above is an amalgamation of 23 photos I took of poison ivy leaves last fall (the three leaves are actually leaflets and collectively form a single leaf). I then put the transparency of each image at 1/23 to get the final result. I got the idea from visual artist Jason Salavon.

Last year in my post I wrote about eating the young leaflets as they got bigger and bigger. This April I got a little rash on my wrist (same spot as 2 years ago) and so I decided to try the treatment again. I started as the leaves were first bursting open 2 weeks ago. Each day for a week I ate a tiny leaflet (progressively bigger, starting with a piece about half the size of my pinky nail). I then moved to about once every other day. Plants are less potent when they're young (why you harvest medicinals later on in their life cycles when they can put more energy into their chemical defenses). So as I developed a defense to the urutiol by ingesting the plant, the dosage was getting more and more concentrated as the leaves get older. It's probably too late to start this year if you're interested in this treatment, but maybe next year. And some people have much much worse reactions than I do so I would strongly suggest doing lots of your own research on folk remedies and this type of tolerance-development before trying on your own. You run a risk of having a severe systemic reaction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Commas and cloaks

Adult Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)
What: It's been a busy couple of weeks wrapping up my semester at CCV and starting to wrap up at Crow's Path for the Spring. Today I did find a cormorant skull, that I'll post photos of in a few days. In the meantime, enjoy these photos of an eastern comma and a mourning cloak. They're among our first butterflies to emerge in the spring. Now with the prolonged warm weather and appearance of more and more flowers (how about all that celandine along the bike path, marigold along mucky drainages, and gorgeous and subtle green flowers of striped maple?) there are many more adult butterflies and moths appearing.

Overwintered adult mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)
Ecological notes: While out in Centennial Woods a couple of weeks ago I was watching a couple dozen or so mourning cloaks flitting around. Occasionally they'd come into another's territory and they'd spiral whimsically up into the sky together. It was elegant and graceful and then the awkward comma would get all huffy and jump into the mix. At first it seemed confused, like it didn't know that the mourning cloaks weren't possible mates. But then it seemed more like it was getting angry that the mourning cloaks were in its breeding area and was just trying to chase them away. The tiny drama was endearing in that condescending, anthropomorphic kind of way.

Both species breed in the spring, and this is the only time of year this territorial behavior is observed. Apparently my theory of defending breeding areas has largely been dispelled in recent years according to a local entomologist, but it seemed the easiest and most obvious explanation. More appealing than, "the commas get confused and can't tell the mourning cloaks from a female comma").

Where: Centennial Woods

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bud scales & the most adorable leaf ever

What: The forest is mostly green now that all the buds have opened or are opening. While out in Centennial Woods the other day I was collecting leaves of all different sizes from Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Like other maples, the scales on Norway maple buds open and form these elongate leaves that subtend the normal leaves (seen as the plus sign in the photo below). Buds are made out of modified leaves and these are deciduous once the normal leaves (there's probably a technical name for these) are more fully developed.

Something must have gotten messed up somewhere along the way on one of the branches I was looking at. It appeared that the bud scale decided that it was going to get back to its roots and form a leaf. In the photo above, the mini leaf was actually attached to the tip of the bud scale leaf.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Cut stem of bloodroot oozing red sap
What: With all the bloodroot coming up in our woods, I got curious what other poppies we have here in Vermont. And it doesn't look like much. Magee and Ahles's Flora of the Northeast, which is a complete record of all vascular plants in NE and NY, lists 6 genera and 9 species. Only two of these are found in Vermont, bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and celandine poppy (Chelidonium majus). I posted about bloodroot last week. Celandine is an extremely abundant plant, at least in Burlington, growing in sandier, but moist waste places. It has beautiful yellow flowers and super furry stems/undersides of leaves. I've used the sap as a dye and got a yellowish-orange color.

Bloodroot rhizome cut in half to show showing "blood" beading up on surface
Ecological notes: I was mostly curious because things in the poppy family exude a milky sap that has a yellow/orange/red hue to it. The sap of poppies (family Papaveraceae) contains isoquinoline alkaloids, which are narcotics. These compounds are largely toxic to animals and have a fowl smell. Morphine comes from opium poppy (Papaver somnifera). I'm not sure exactly why the sap is pigmented, but it may serve as a visual warning to would-be-predators not to eat the plant, as any broken part of the plant will readily ooze the brightly colored sap.

Celandine leaf stem broken to show yellow sap

Friday, May 3, 2013

The three hares - May 1

What: The month of green! I had meant to get this up a couple of days ago, but didn't have a chance. The snow has melted and our woods and lawns now have a greenish tint to them! So exciting. The powerlines still seem a bit drab, but there's lots of fiddleheads from cinnamon, interrupted, and sensitive fern coming up in the area and the sumac buds are bursting (they're the straight sticks in the foreground). Phragmites (the light brown reeds along the brook) shoots are erupting.

Phenology notes from previous month:
  • Osprey nesting
  • Woodcocks "peent"ing
  • Spring ephemerals coming up (e.g. bloodroot, hepatica, spring beauty)
  • Grass greening
  • First dandelions coming up
  • Spring migrants arrive in droves, big flush still to come
  • Colder species of amphibians singing in full force (toads, treefrogs, bullfrogs still to make their full debut)
  • First leaves appearing in understory
  • Maples starting to leaf out
  • Sapsuckers returning, as second flush of sap starts flow (as non-maple species start to get sap flowing)
  • Woodchucks are out and about
  • First warm nights
  • First 70 degree weather
  • Fireflies out and about, not mating yet
  • Shorts and t-shirts abound!
  • Snow and ice has all melted
  • Dawn chorus is louder and louder (starting around 5am with robins then chickadees then cardinals then song sparrows, at least near my house).

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Spring ephemeral a day - Hepatica

Shelburne Bay

What: The most fascinating thing for me about hepatica is that as it comes up some of the leaves don't quite make it above the leaf-litter, or make it just part way. Where the leaves are exposed to the sun they are a dark purple, while the shaded parts are a bright green.

Another common adaptation of spring ephemerals is fuzziness (lots of species of ferns have some similar adaptation covering their fiddleheads). The fuzz is analogous to the loft of a down jacket. It creates a buffering layer around the plant. I'm convinced that this layer - ecologically called a boundary layer - is one of the most significant factors that plants and animals have adaptations for. We experience a boundary layer in cold water. If we stand in calm cold water we feel it get warmer and warmer the longer we stand there. Our body heat radiates out and warms the water, effectively increasing our boundary layer. The boundary layer can dwindle if we start walking or if the water is moving (e.g. wind action or water flow in a river). Wearing a wetsuit creates a thin boundary layer between the suit and our bodies that helps warm us.

Regardless of how strong the wind or current is, we always have at least a thin layer of no friction around us. It's why even on the highway, that layer of dust stays pressed against the hood of our car. It's also why at the top of Camel's Hump, all the plants hug close to the rocks to shelter from the wind. It's also why the reproductive part of the moss up there sticks up above the moss, to get out of the boundary layer and let the wind drag the spores away.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spring ephemeral a day - Bloodroot

What: Look for bloodroot in hardwood forests enriched by calcium-rich bedrock. The flowers are variable, but generally have 8 petals, and can have up to 20 or so, though I usually see them in the 8-10 range.

The leaves come up first, cupped around a flower bud.l The flower opens first as the leaf begins to unfurl. I got to the spot around 3pm, but got distracted by a pair of deer. I followed the deer for a few hours and when I got back I noticed that many of the flowers that had previously been opened began to close up. 

Turns out bloodroot flowers are indeed nyctinasitc (flowers that open during the day and close at night; from nycto: nigth + nastic: non-directional response to external stimulus). My initial suspicion for why plants do this is that they might be selectively pollinated by a specific diurnal pollinator (but the flowers don't appear very specialized for this) or that it could protect the flower's reproductive parts from the cold night temperatures of the early spring woods. I found another proposed theory that points to weather as well, but a different threat. With temperatures so high during the day and cold at night, the temperature swing means lots of dew in the morning. If the stamens - where all that pollen is - get wet from the dew, then pollen the pollen won't transfer as well to insects.

Seedlings sprouting up. These first year plants won't develop flowers.
Where: Centennial Woods, as far as I know there is only one place in Centennial Woods with a bedrock exposure (down the slope on the southeast corner of the hospital commuter parking lot at the end of Carrigan Dr). The bedrock is Winooski Dolostone (dolostone is also called magnesian limestone), which has a higher concentration of calcium. So in that little plot there's an excessive amount of bloodroot, which is found nowhere else in those woods.