Nature News:The sap is rising.’ Arrival of maple tree taps starts the countdown to spring

03/01/2022 Special to Seacoastonline Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily

I love winter and have been hoping for a lot more snow, which we got last week, but only after an unseasonably (record-smashing) warm spell.

Much as I love winter and want to stay in the moment, that warm spell has me looking forward to spring. I love the countdown of days marked by the varied signs of spring. A friend sent me pictures of crocuses coming up. Hopefully, they’ll survive the plunge back to cold and ice. Red-winged blackbirds hung out at my bird feeder the day of the snow storm. It was so incongruous to hear their burbling calls – one of my favorite signs of spring –  on the eve of a blizzard. And my neighbors have started tapping their trees, a sure sign that the countdown to spring has officially begun.

Maple tree tapping is a sure sign of spring to come! Sue Pike photo

Last week empty metal buckets, poly buckets and milk jugs appeared on neighborhood maple trees, looking like vampires or tick-like parasites hanging off the tree trunks, draining their blood.  If you think about it, the idea that you can just stick a tube into a tree and out comes sugary sap is quite remarkable. The blood-sucking parasite analogy is quite apt — when we stick a tube into a tree we are tapping into its vascular system, but instead of blood, this vascular system carries sap, water and nutrients throughout the tree.

High school biology comes in handy sometimes!

A tree’s vascular system is composed of tubes called xylem and phloem. Back in high school I learned that xylem carries water and nutrients up from the roots to the leaves and that phloem carries the sugars that are products of photosynthesis down from the leaves to the rest of the plant (the mnemonic I use to help me remember what phloem does is I think ‘flow’–as in flowing downhill). 

Make sure to place your tapping buckets on the south side of the tree. Big trees that are open-grown (not in a forest) will produce the most sap. Sue Pike photo

I had always assumed that the sap for maple syrup comes from the phloem, but I was wrong. When maple sugaring in the spring we are actually tapping into the xylem, the sugars in this kind of sap come from the woody parts of the tree.  This actually makes a huge amount of sense, since maple trees are not photosynthesizing in late winter/early spring- when trees are tapped the phloem isn’t actively carrying sugar down from the leaves, instead the xylem is carrying sap up and throughout the tree.  That colloquial expression “the sap is rising” also alludes to which ‘sap’ is being tapped.

Freezing nights and warm days are the best conditions for rising sap

In the winter, sugars are stored as more complex starch molecules in the woody cells that surround the xylem vessels. In the spring, as temperatures begin to rise, these starch molecules break down into sugar and are released into the xylem from the wood.  The reason we need cold nights and warm days for good maple sap flow has to do with generating enough pressure in the xylem to start pushing its contents — the water and sugars — up from the roots. 

In the early spring, the ground starts to thaw and water begins to move into the roots, generating an upward pressure in the xylem. Cold nights compress gasses in the xylem and cause water to freeze along the inside of xylem tubes.  Warm sunny days melt the ice and cause the gasses in the xylem to expand, generating enough positive pressure in the xylem to cause the sap to rise. This is why a good freeze/thaw cycle is so vital to maple sugar production … the bigger the difference in day/night temperatures, the more sap will flow.

One reason sugar maples are the most commonly tapped trees is their sap has a high sugar content compared to most trees — as much as 3 percent; most other tree sap is only 1 percent sugar.

A long boiling time produces more flavorful sap

Different maple trees and different conditions produce sap with different amounts of sugar. High sugar content at the start of the process of boiling it down to syrup produces lighter, more delicate syrup. Sap with a lower sugar content has to be boiled longer, which caramelizes more of the sugars and concentrates all the other chemicals in the sap that contribute to the maple sugar flavor — this is my favorite kind of syrup.  

There is nothing more satisfying than hearing the drip-drip-drip of sap dropping into your bucket. -Sue Pike photo

Tapping trees is incredibly easy to do!

Last year was the first year I tried tapping maple trees.  Since I only have red maples that is what I used.  I waited too long and started at the tail end of the season with just three taps.  Always an optimist, I tried boiling down my 2 gallons of maple water on the kitchen stove (something everyone says to avoid since it releases so much sticky steam into your kitchen). 

I learned that there is a point where it becomes super easy to burn your syrup–which I did and ended up with a charred, sticky, bitter tablespoon of something that had evolved beyond the deliciousness of maple syrup.  This year, having discovered how incredibly easy it is to tap a tree, I’m going to try again and start earlier  with more trees and more taps and this time, hopefully, get it right.  What better way to start the countdown to spring!

For more about red maple trees go to this article about red maples or my blog post

This article and others can be accessed in local newspapers or online at seacoastonline

Nature News: Ominous-looking turkey vultures won’t hurt a thing

Published Feb 15 2022 in Seacoast Area newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

This past weekend I was really worried. There were no birds at the feeders. Usually goldfinch, chickadees and all those other winter bird feeder birds are swarming to the sunflower seeds and suet. Instead, nothing.

It finally occurred to me to look around. High up, at the top of a giant white pine, were two turkey vultures. These eagle-sized birds looked ominous, like birds of prey waiting to swoop down and eat something. I could see why the regulars were in hiding.

However, unlike other birds of prey, these turkey vultures aren’t a threat to my bird feeder birds.  

I don’t know what they were doing up there, perhaps enjoying the sun, but turkey vultures are true scavengers. They feed on carrion – not goldfinch, chickadees and other small birds. They did not have designs on my birdfeeders.

One of two turkey vultures perching high up in a white pine Sue Pike Photo

Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

Here’s what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to say about their feeding preferences: “Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly, they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. They are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. Thankfully for them, vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.”  In fact, turkey vultures are the only scavengers around here (unlike bald eagles, for example) who can’t kill their prey. Their  feet are more chicken-like than hawk or eagle-like, useless for tearing into prey. Their beaks are the powerful part and can tear through even the toughest cow hide. They feed by thrusting their heads into their prey, a good reason for their bald, turkey-like heads.  

Turkey vultures are most closely related to storks

The word raptor refers to a broad group of birds of prey – eagles, falcons, hawks and, until recently, vultures. Vultures appear to be very raptor-like. One of the shared traits of raptors is their ability to rip into prey with their powerful talons. Vultures don’t do this, they use their beaks. DNA evidence places them as more closely related to storks than to other raptors. After seeing these turkey vultures, I started looking at my chickens in a different light. Looks-wise, my chickens seem very vulture-esque. They aren’t related –beware of basing relatedness on looks!

It worries me to see turkey vultures in winter. They aren’t supposed to be here. When I entered my sighting into eBird.com (an online birdwatching database), I had to add additional comments because they are unusual this time of year. In fact, turkey vultures are relatively, geologically speaking, new to New England even in the summer. I have a 1987 bird guide in which their range doesn’t extend north of Massachusetts, but, a number of “southern” species like red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, cardinals, mockingbirds and turkey vultures have been pushing their ranges north since the last Ice Age.

New England is part of the ‘normal’ turkey vulture range in the summer, but recently, with our warmer winters (and perhaps increasing deer population) turkey vultures are lingering into the winter. These two looked healthy. With their bright red bald heads, glossy black wings and shiny white beaks they are interesting harbingers of climate change to come.

For past columns go to my archives–I update this as much as I can-I literally have hundreds out there–just need to get them into one place (here)

Often overlooked, birch seeds are distinctive and easy to find on a snowy forest floor

Published January 26 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Fosters Daily and online at seacoastonline.com

Even though I am sure I have seen these all my life, I don’t remember ever noticing the actual seeds of birch trees until relatively recently.  This is one of those things that is so easy to overlook, but so easy to observe on a snowy winter’s day.

The seed-producing parts of our local birch trees are borne on catkins. 

Birch trees have both male catkins (which dangle) and female catkins (which stand erect) on the same tree. Male catkins release pollen in the spring which blows around until it encounters and then pollinates a female flower-female catkins are simply clusters of birch flowers.   As the seeds within the female catkin mature, the catkin starts to droop as it prepares to release the seeds.  The seeds (also called nutlets) are winged structures that are so lightweight that they can be carried quite far away and don’t have hard shells (like an acorn), so they germinate quickly–this is why birch trees are often the first trees to colonize after a fire or other disturbance (hence the term “pioneer species”). 

A fallen female catkin with the oval, winged seeds and bird-like bracts scattered around. Sue Pike Photo

If you take a walk in a snowy field (or forest) amongst some birch trees, look down.

  You should see tiny things in the snow, little seed-like structures.  Look closer-you’ll see tiny oval seeds (or nutlets as they are called) with tiny translucent wings and other tiny things that look like silhouettes of birds flying-these are the leftover protective structures of birch seeds. These are bracts, modified leaves that protect the birch flowers. When you see one of those dangly catkins hanging from the tip of a birch branch, what you are seeing is an overlapping series, a cylindrical column, of these bracts, protecting the seeds. The bracts look like they have wings, but compared to the seeds they are heavy-they don’t need to travel as far as the seeds.

Giant yellow birch bract on the left dwarfs the two tiny gray birch bracts Sue Pike photo

Different birch tree species can be distinguished by those protective bracts.  Gray and paper birch seeds are protected by bracts that look, to me, like soaring birds–two outstretched wings, a head and a tail.   Yellow birch bracts look like bird tracks to me– bird tracks with 3 toes and are  much larger than paper and gray birch seed bracts. 

Hopefully we will have more wintery weather here in the Seacoast. 

The snow gives us an opportunity to see things that are normally hidden.  The next time it snows, you really must go outside and see for yourself.  You will need a patch of snow and some birch trees.  Look down.  Look for little soaring birds.  Look for tiny pieces of flotsam that look like bird tracks.  Then look around and you’ll find some birch.

Read more about birch seeds and bracts at naturally curious and birch ID at maine.gov

It seems like a miracle teaberry can survive the winter: but it’s not. Here’s how it works.

originally published January 15 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and online at seacoastonline.com

The snow isn’t too deep yet, so now is a good time to go look for one of the more rugged little plants to grace our woodlands – teaberry. 

Teaberry, also known as winterberry and checkerberry (sometimes even called boxberry), whose scientific name is Gaultheria procumbens, is an evergreen, low-growing shrub or ground cover with dangling white flowers that develop into bright red berries.

You will find glossy green, slender to almost round leaves holding their own against the cold and snow. How does it do this? Why are the leaves so glossy? Why, if you crumble a leaf and smell it, does it emit that characteristic wintergreen smell that graced Teaberry gum, a gum you might remember with fond nostalgia if you are as old as I am? 

Teaberry, also known as winterberry or checkerberry, grows close to the ground in New England to help protect it from the freezing cold photo by Susan Pike

Teaberry occurs from Newfoundland and New England south to Georgia (in the mountains) and west to Minnesota. While in the southern part of its range it might not often have to deal with snowy, cold winters, over most of its range it does. Cold winters provide two major challenges for plants, freezing temperatures can cause cells to rupture and freezing temperatures that lock up water as ice so plants can succumb to dehydration. Plants have a number of adaptations that help them deal with these conditions. 

Advantages of holding onto your leaves in winter

Deciduous plants drop their leaves to avoid losing too much water to the atmosphere during the freezing and therefore dry winter. The problem with this is that they will need to grow new leaves every spring and miss opportunities to photosynthesize on warm, sunny winter days as well as in the late fall to early spring. It also takes a lot of energy to produce new leaves.

Evergreens hold onto their leaves, they can photosynthesize all year (as long as it is sunny and warm enough) and have adaptations that help minimize water loss. A thick waxy cuticle (outer layer on the leaf) helps reduce water loss to the atmosphere. That’s why teaberry has that nice glossy leaf. That’s the waxy cuticle.

Teaberry has a slew of adaptations to help make it through the winter

Both broad leaves and even needle-shaped leaves can curl up as temperatures approach freezing, protecting the little pores on the underside of the leaf (the stomata) that release water vapor into the atmosphere as the plant breathes. To prevent frostbite, evergreen plants will often produce excess sugars that act as antifreeze, lowering the freezing point for their cells. Hugging the ground and getting buried by snow also helps with insulation.  

Reddish-purple anthocyanin pigments help protect the leaves from, weirdly, too much sun in winter Sam Pike photo

Leaves need sunscreen in winter!

This past weekend, temperatures plummeted into the sub-zero, but as soon as the sun came out and warmed the teaberry leaves, they could soak that sun in, photosynthesize and turn the sunlight into sugar. This sounds easy, but one weird thing about staying green in winter is that these little plants can get too much sun. The forest canopy is gone. In the winter, if it is too cold for photosynthesis, the leaf still absorbs the sunlight, and with nowhere to go the sunlight can damage the leaf – similar to how we can get sunburned. 

To help prevent this, these evergreen plants will often produce more red pigments (anthocyanins) that serve as sunscreen. Plants like teaberry don’t exactly thrive in winter, but they hang on, ready to start photosynthesizing for real on those first warm days of spring, ahead of their deciduous counterparts. 

Even though teaberry has been used in food and medicine in the past doesn’t mean we should pick it now.

Teaberry’s characteristic wintergreen smell is one of its most delightful traits. The smell comes from methyl salicylate – the primary component of wintergreen oil. Wintergreen oil (derived primarily from our local wintergreen and its Asian cousin) has been used as a flavoring (tea more traditionally, gum more recently), medicinally, in particular as an ointment for aching muscles and also in perfumes and toothpastes. Luckily for teaberry, the manufacture of synthetic methyl salicylate has reduced the harvest of this woodland plant. 

I originally learned about teaberry as a “trail nibble.” We would pick a leaf or two and nibble on it while walking along (the berries are also edible). However, while this is a delightful plant to want to consume (though methyl salicylate can be harmful in large quantities), teaberry is an important part of forest ecosystems and should be left alone to do its thing – native wildlife need these trailside snacks much more than we do. 

Teaberry is a wonderful addition to any wildlife garden

Teaberry, one of the few green leaves around in winter, is an important winter food for a variety of native wildlife. Chipmunks, grouse, turkey, bear, mice, fox and deer all eat the leaves during winter.  

If you are establishing a wildlife garden, teaberry would be an excellent addition. It likes acidic soil in dappled sunlight (will produce more flowers and berries with some midday sun) and can hold onto water, so once established it doesn’t need additional watering.  Because it spreads through roots and creeping stems it helps to hold soil in place.  Given the right conditions, it makes an excellent ground cover.  What better way to enjoy teaberry than to encourage it to grow in your backyard.

Nature News: How to identify a mystery fish (or anything in nature)

originally published January 15 2022 in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, etc and online at seacoastonline.com

A dead fish washed up on the beach might seem like an unsavory thing to write about, sad and tragic, but sometimes these encounters give us a glimpse into the unknown.  What lives off our coast?  Who dwells in those depths?

A friend recently posted a photo of a fish she found washed up on the beach, asking for help with the identification…. “We found this fish washed up on Ogunquit Beach when we took a walk there last week. We have been trying to identify it with no luck. We’d love to know what it is since we haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s about 2 feet in length from nose to tail, dark shaded scales, tail like a tuna, big eye socket, and upturned mouth. Any ideas are greatly appreciated!”   Those of us who responded to her post were definitely not fish experts–our guesses ranged from young tuna to piranha to something called an Atlantic pomfret.  It turns out that the Atlantic pomfret was the closest to the actual identification, one that had come from a Google image search…but it took some time to corroborate the ID.  

An Atlantic pomfret washed up on Ogunquit Beach last week. The size of a small tuna!

The wonders of a dichotomous key!

While I don’t really know much about the myriad of fish to be found in the Gulf of Maine, I do have two methods to help identify any given fish-ask an expert  or use a guide book/taxonomic key.  I did both. I sent the photo off to friends who know more about fish than I do, but at the same time I scoured my bookshelves for relevant guides (found none) and the internet, where I had better luck.  While, as I mentioned before, I don’t know much about fish, I do know how to use a dichotomous key.  A dichotomous key is usually set up as a series of two choices (often phrased as questions) that lead you to the correct identification.  In the case of this fish, the key I found to Gulf of Maine fish started with these two choices: is the mouth soft, with no firm jaws, no pectoral fin and in form is eel-like, or, does the mouth have firm jaws and are there pectoral fins even if the form is eel-like? Each choice sent me to another set of choices (always 2 choices since this was a dichotomous key), which continued until I arrived at my fish. The key took me to the big-scale pomfret (Taractichthys longipinnis), a member of a group of fish known as sea breams or pomfrets.

One reason old-fashioned dichotomous keys are better than apps…..they make you think.

While there are a number of apps available to help instantly identify whatever you see out there in nature, there is something to be said for using an old-fashioned dichotomous key to identify fish or trees or flowers or birds.  Unlike an app, keys force us to think.  For example, while using a key we might have to look up words we don’t know–in my case, I had to look up what the little bumps between the dorsal fin and the caudal (tail) fin were called–and discovered that they are finlets and are thought to improve swimming performance.  And, by using a key I looked more carefully at this fish…where I had thought it looked very tuna-like, after attempting to ID it with the key I realized it’s mouth and forehead shape looked nothing like a tuna (more like a piranha!). I also noticed how large those scales on its side looked. When my more expert friends responded, they agreed on the big-scale pomfret ID, noting the steep, rounded forehead, the shape of the scales, the long fins (hence the species name ‘longipinnis’)  and more…we had our fish!  

It is nice to still have mysteries in the world.

The big-scale pomfret (also called a long-finned sea bream) is a rarely-caught fish, probably because they tend to be solitary and live at depths of over 1,500 feet.  While this was a big fish at 2 feet in length, they can reach 3 feet.  The world record weighed almost 21 pounds! From studies of their stomach contents it looks like big-scale pomfrets tend to feed close to the bottom on squid and shrimp. 

I didn’t find many fun facts or extensive background information about this fish.  I love this!  It is nice to know there are mysteries out there in the deep.  It is nice to be able to walk our beautiful shoreline and occasionally get a glimpse into that deep ocean world that is so different from our own.

Nature News: The Common Loon

published week of August 16th in local Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online 8/20/2021

As a teacher, all summer is a vacation. In theory, because like most teachers I work in some way during the summer, if not a paying job then doing some sort of professional development for the upcoming school year.  So, I take vacations within vacation during the summer-my most recent being a canoe trip down the Richardson Lakes in Maine.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was hoping to see moose, but it has been too dry up there-they were staying back in the swamps in the woods since the water level of the lake was 8 feet down.  Instead we spent most of our time in the company of loons.  They regaled us at night with their eerie calls. They accompanied us as we paddled from campsite to campsite, getting so close to the canoe that we were afraid to fish and accidentally catch a loon.  While doing so we learned one of their many common calls-the ‘toot’  (which we had previously thought was a dog barking) and got glimpses into their social and hunting behavior.  

Loon sporting beautiful contrasting breeding plumage including brilliant red eye. sue pike photo

The common loon (Gavia immer) is one of those birds that everyone can identify.  Their breeding plumage is beautiful-black and white checks on their back, a black head with a contrasting black and white vertically-striped neck rings, a bright white belly and piercing red eyes (the bright red eye is probably a visual display since their eyes are brightest during mating season). They have long bodies with feet set in back to help with swimming and huge, dagger-like beaks (one of the many reasons we didn’t want to accidentally catch a loon on our lures).  Loons are members of a family of birds -the loons or divers-that are built for swimming underwater, in fact they only go to land to mate and incubate eggs.  

Loons are built for swimming

According to Cornell Lab’s “All About Birds” in addition to their overall body plan, “Unlike most birds, loons have solid bones that make them less buoyant and better at diving. They can quickly blow air out of their lungs and flatten their feathers to expel air within their plumage, so they can dive quickly and swim fast underwater. Once below the surface, the loon’s heart slows down to conserve oxygen.” Loons have been recorded swimming as fast as 20 miles per hour and can turn on a dime.  They can see well underwater-we watched as loons floating on the surface ducked their heads into the water scanning for the small fish (like yellow perch) that are their primary prey before silently disappearing underwater to catch said fish. 

Loon scanning the depths for fish sue pike photo

The search for young loons and rafting loons

When we picked up our rental canoe we were told that the loons seemed to be rafting up early this year (in preparation for migration to the coast) and that there were no chicks on Upper and Lower Richardson Lakes this year.  We hoped to prove this wrong and find some juvenile loons, but didn’t.  

We did, however, see lots of groups of loons congregating (rafting) on the lake.  While they might be readying for migration, they might also be gathering for a loon social hour.  When we saw groups of loons nearby they were more likely to make short barking calls back and forth (the calls that we originally mistook for dogs) rather than their eerie yodeling calls.  We felt there was a group of 4 loons following our canoe (probably just fanciful imaginings on our part) that would be progressively joined by pairs of loons forming a larger group (we once counted 11 loons) that ‘talked’ and fished for a while and then dispersed. 

Looks to me like social hour for loons sue pike photo

Loons get more social as summer progresses

According to the Cornell Lab, earlier in the summer loons are not social and generally stay just as mated pairs (loons have been observed violently defending their territories against other loons), but as summer progresses they will come together into social gatherings at specific times-these gatherings often include non-territorial birds and unsuccessful breeders with successful breeders joining the groups as summer progresses.  In the fall even larger groups form to fish together before migration.  I wonder whether, because of the absence of chicks, the loons were holding their social gatherings earlier in the season than usual?  I hope that the absence of chicks on the lake wasn’t a pattern for other lakes.  Maine Audubon just held their 2021 Annual Loon Count (a great citizen science opportunity for loon lovers) -the data from that should be ready in a few months.  

This could be a loon in its stressed, aggressive ‘penguin posture’ telling us to go away, or the more social ‘vulture posture’ thought to help amplify their yodeling calls. I’m guessing stressed-since we are near it. sue pike photo

One of the many reasons I love living in the north is our proximity to habitat that supports wildlife like the loon.  Finding loons on a lake is a good indicator that the water is clear and unpolluted, that fish swim in abundance below the surface. The loon is one of those icons of the north-its haunting call reminding us of the wild places on earth-the beautiful places untouched by sprawl and urbanization.  

Nature News: Angelica is an Icelandic beauty. Here in New England we have three species

One thing I like to do when I travel is look for similarities with my home in Maine instead of the differences. I’m an armchair Arctic explorer and have tried to figure out why – I think perhaps it is because the Arctic is an extension of where I live, my backyard in a northerly direction.

In the few times I’ve been lucky enough to go to the Arctic, what has excited me the most has been encountering plants (and migratory birds – that is always exciting) up there that I also find in the mountains and even backyards of New England. While in Iceland this summer, one plant loomed large (literally), angelica, a huge not-Arctic looking plant.

Angelica stands out against the green cliffs of Iceland

Different members of this genus are common in New England as well as all over Iceland (and throughout north and northeast Europe, Russia, Greenland and the Himalayas). To me, angelica fits in with our large-leaved summer plants, whereas in Iceland it towers out of place (up to 8 feet high), fleshy, big-leaved, almost tropical looking. Even more incongruous were the ever-present Icelandic seabirds (fulmars and puffins) nesting among the leaves or exotic Icelandic songbirds perched on the heavy flowerheads.  Seeing angelica in Iceland reminded me to look for it when I get back home.

Two species of angelica are common in Iceland. Garden angelica (Angelica archangelica) with large, rounded flowerheads, has been cultivated since ancient times for use as a flavoring and for its medicinal properties and grows everywhere, whereas wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) with its large, flat flowerheads, grows mostly in the lowlands. Here in New England we have three species: purple-stemmed angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) is found in wet places,  sea coast angelica (Angelica lucida), as the name implies, grows along the coast, and hairy angelica (Angelica venenosa), which is rare and is found only in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  

While purple-stemmed and sea coast angelica have a long history of use as a food and medicine, hairy angelica is toxic. I would advise against foraging for angelica for a number of reasons, foremost being it grows in among the highly toxic water hemlock (and the invasive giant hogweed) and looks somewhat similar (these species are members of the carrot family). In addition, all members of the angelica genus contain phototoxic compounds called furanocoumarins that can cause, sometimes severe, skin irritations.  

Redwings, the Icelandic equivalent of American robins, perch on (and eat) angelica

Also, instead of killing wild plants for food we don’t need, why not grow some garden angelica in your garden?  Here’s what the University of New Hampshire Extension has to say about the variety of uses you can put it to: “its large chartreuse leaves with inflated stem bases make a bold statement in the modern herb garden or flower border. The roots, leaves, seeds (many of our native birds like the seeds as well) and young stems are the edible portions, and have a flavor similar to licorice. The leaves can be mixed into salads, the shoots used as celery or turned into candy, and the leaves, seeds, and roots can be used for making tea.”  

Angelica is also a great pollinator plant. It is considered a generalist, attractive to a wide variety of pollinating insects. Here in Iceland, it is often covered with flies (friendly, non-biting flies). More specifically, as a member of the carrot family, it is attractive to Eastern black swallowtail butterflies, which I currently attract with dill and fennel. These butterflies will lay eggs on the plant that hatch into adorable, colorful caterpillars that can often strip my dill and fennel too quickly. I imagine the more robust angelica, large, hardy resident of the Arctic, will be able to stand up to their depredations. 

Flies flock to Angelica!

10+ years between Polyphemus moth sightings

The following are three separate articles I wrote about the giant Polyphemus moth. 2 from the summer of 2009, one from this week. My Polyphemus moth sightings are few and far between! All three published in area newspapers and online with Seacoast Media Group

The Giant Polyphemus Moth is in the woods near you

Published July 13 2021 by Seacoast Media Group, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, York County Coast Star and more

Who doesn’t get excited upon finding a huge moth?  While we don’t have the diversity of butterflies and moths found in the tropics, we do have some remarkable species up here.  The one I found the other day isn’t colorful, but it is huge with striking markings–the Polyphemus moth.  The Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) is the most widely distributed of the giant silk moths in North America.  The ethereal luna moth (Actias luna) is another large, common and well-known silk moth.  These aren’t the kind of silk moth that are used commercially to spin silk, instead the giant silk moth’s silk is exclusively used to spin cocoons.  

You can see the transparent center of the hindwing eyespots Sue Pike photo

Adult Polyphemus moths don’t have mouths! Their only goal is to mate.

While these are common moths, I have seen very few and my experience is tinged with tragedy (the last one I found had an unfortunate encounter with my dog’s water bowl, before that I found one forlornly wandering the woods with a missing wing) so it was nice to find a fairly healthy specimen.  He looked old to me, one of his wings had a big chunk missing (yet he could still fly quite well). Given that the adult Polyphemus moth typically lives for less than a week he must of  had an exciting time in his brief existence as an adult moth. I knew this moth was a ‘he’ because Polyphemus moths exhibit differences in their antennae (sexual dimorphism), the males’ have big bushy antennae–giving the antennae lots of surface area to help detect pheromones released by the females (females have less bushy, more slender antennae). This is important because Polyphemus moths need to find each other quickly.  Polyphemus moths overwinter in their silken cocoons, the adult moths emerging in late spring and early summer. Adults don’t eat, they don’t have mouths (which is weird to think about) their only point in life from here on out is to mate and lay eggs. Mating usually takes place within a day after emergence.  

Male Polyphemus moths have large bushy antennae that they use to track females Sue Pike photo

The females lay their eggs (singly or in groups of 2 or 3) on a host plant.  The caterpillars feed on a wide variety of deciduous trees, for example, oaks, maples, willow and birch, all of which readily available around here.  The young don’t descend as a horde like some caterpillars, instead Polyphemus caterpillars are solitary, eating the entire leaf and then snipping it off at the petiole (stem).  It is believed that this is a protective measure against predators that look for leaf damage as a sign of potential caterpillar prey.  Eventually the caterpillar will spin its cocoon-you can find these attached to a leaf on the host tree or sometimes among debris on the forest floor – and spend the winter getting ready for its finale as one of the largest moths in North America (wingspans can reach almost 6 inches!).  It’s giant silk moth cousin, the cecropia moth, which also can be found in New England, is the largest with wingspans that can reach 7 inches across.

Polyphemus moth ID

How to identify a Polyphemus moth? The adults can vary a lot in color-from tan to reddish brown to dark brown.  To me the defining feature is the large eyespot on each hindwing.  All four wings have a transparent eyespot surrounded with yellow.  However the hindwing eyespot is further outlined with a deep blue that deepens to black, it really looks like an eye.  In fact, the species and common names for this species, come from the giant cyclops, Polyphemus, who had a single eye in the middle of his forehead.  This was the cyclops who trapped Odysseus and his men in a cave and proceeded to eat them until the wily Odysseus blinded him and escaped.  The eyespots on the moth are used to scare away predators.  With the wings folded up the moth is expertly disguised as a dead leaf.  If that doesn’t work, flashing those huge eyes at a predator will often scare it away.

I know going to the beach or a lake seem like more summery things to do here in New England, but how about a moth hunt? Many of the giant silk moths are most active right now-look for them clinging to a windowsill or the side of a shed during the day and flying around lights at night.  They are one sign of summer you don’t want to miss.


From Caterpillar to Moth

Published October 1, 2009

In June I wrote a column about an unfortunate Polyphemus moth that hatched out of its cocoon in my kitchen and failed to survive a fall into the dog water dish.

Fortuitously a reader in Pennsylvania read this column and wrote to me after rescuing a beleaguered Polyphemus moth from a parking lot. She, Carol Guenther, jewelry designer and now caterpillar-wrangler, built an enclosure for the moth, watched it lay eggs, 78 in all, followed along as the eggs hatched into gorgeous caterpillars and recorded their growth and development from egg to cocoon to moth (usually these moths have to overwinter as pupae).

Polyphemus moths are one of our largest moths, they can attain a 5½-inch wing span. Their name comes from the eye spots on their wings, after the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, from “The Odyssey.” These eye spots are a nice example of a defense strategy called mimicry. They hide out, looking a lot like a dead leaf or dead wood, but if this disguise doesn’t work, they flash the eyespots on their hindwings, mimicking an owl’s eyes, and hopefully, startling would-be predators.

Aside from mating, the majority of a Polyphemus’ life is spent as a caterpillar; as a caterpillar they eat and grow. They will molt four times before spinning a cocoon. With each molt they increase in size.

Polyphemus caterpillars recently molted and ready to eat Carol Guenther photo

Carol, lucky and patient person that she is, had the opportunity to observe the whole process.

“As I was putting some of them back in the cage I noticed one who’s head plate was half way down the new head. I knew that it was going to happen soon so I took it to my studio and set up to watch. As I looked closer, I could see that the skin looked funny, like tiny white wrinkles running vertically. I then realized that it probably was beginning to move about inside the skin in order to molt. I grabbed my chair and the camera and sat there. It indeed happened and I shot photos during the whole process. I forgot to check the time but I think it took about an hour.

″ … They apparently attach and secure themselves to whatever they are hanging from and then slowly move forward. When it’s over the skin is attached to the twig.”

The shed exoskeleton from this recently molted caterpillar dangles behind. Carol Guenther photo

Like all caterpillars, Polyphemus caterpillars are vulnerable to a slew of predators. Aside from being green to help blend in with the leaves they eat, after munching on a leaf they chew through the petiole, the leaf stem, disposing of the “evidence.” Smart predatory birds often use holes in leaves and chew patterns to target their caterpillar prey.

Carol’s caterpillars stayed with her for a few months, eating and growing. Finally, they were ready to pupate; to construct a cocoon within which they would undergo their transformation into adult flying moths. To do this they wrapped themselves in a leaf, bound into a case with silk. The case then hardened and turned brown.

When this caterpillar emerges from its cocoon it will be an adult moth Carol Guenther photo

Once metamorphosis was complete, the Polyphemus moths in all their glory emerged and flew off into the night.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all get to know an insect as intimately as Carol did? Polyphemus moths and thousands of other beautiful beings share our backyards, largely unnoticed. I think all of us could learn a lesson here; to stop and really look at something, explore, find out about what is out there and try to understand it.


Catch (and release) your own Polyphemus moth

Published July 9, 2009

This story with a tragic ending started with an egg case given to me by a friend in the dead of winter. We thought it belonged to a praying mantis so I kept it on the kitchen counter, eagerly awaiting the “birth” and dispersal of hundreds of baby mantids; not too thoughtful on my part, since emerging into a kitchen isn’t quite the same as the garden of insects these baby predators instinctively expect.

But instead of praying mantids, at some point a moth hatched from the cocoon. I missed the event but did notice later what I thought was a leaf in the dogs’ water dish. The leaf turned out to be a large moth that must have struggled out of its cocoon, walked a few halting steps to the edge of the counter and plunged down into the water dish.

Tragic enough if it had ended there, but the moth was still alive, a beautiful, giant fuzzy brown moth with crinkled wings. The wings were glued shut, probably because it had floated in the water dish instead of perching on a branch. There is a lovely yet sad part in the Annie Dillard book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” where the author remembers a similar event from her childhood, her last memory being ” Someone had given the Polyphemus moth his freedom, and he was walking away …; crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

My doomed moth-the wings never unfolded. This is a beautiful male with its feathery antennae

My doomed moth, I believe, based on its size and the hints of color I could see in its devastated wings was also a Polyphemus moth. These are magnificent moths, named for the eyespots on their hindwings; Polyphemus was the one-eyed Cyclops from Greek mythology.

Part of a larger family of moths, known as the silkworm moths or the Saturniidae, the Polyphemus is North America’s most wide-ranging Saturniid (wing spans can reach 6 inches) living east of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. A familiar cousin is the stunning Luna moth, a ghostly pale green inhabitant of the deep woods.

These moths exhibit something called sexual dimorphism, meaning differences in the genders. Female bodies tend to be a bit larger than the males, especially when carrying eggs, and have smaller antennae. The males have strikingly large, feathery antennae which they use to detect the pheromones given off by the females. My moth was a male. I didn’t have a female to compare him to, but the antennae were unmistakable.

Polyphemus moths do not eat; like the rest of the Saturniids, they emerge from their cocoons with vestigial mouthparts. Their adult lives are devoted to reproduction. Finding a mate is a special event as this is the short-lived (the moths live just one week) last gasp of the Polyphemus life cycle.

My moth’s life ended in tragedy. I couldn’t bear to let it crawl away, dragging itself to its doom, to be killed by a chipmunk (the image evoked in Annie Dillard’s book was just too haunting and sad), so I froze it and left it by a log to be gently decomposed and returned to the earth.

It is relatively easy to find Polyphemus cocoons as they stand out against the snow of winter, and many people have successfully hatched out the moths. If you want to try this, make sure to house the cocoon in a container large enough to allow the moth to unfurl its wings before they dry shut.

If you would rather see a Polyphemus moth in the wild, check your outside lights at night, or better yet, make a moth trap by stretching a white sheet between some trees in front of a light bulb. You will, hopefully, be amazed by the throngs of unusual nocturnal insects that are attracted to the light and settle on the sheet. (07-13-21 note-as I learn more I become more uncomfortable with attracting wildlife. Nocturnal moths life cycles are already highly disrupted by outdoor lights, why add to the problem? I also now think it is a bad idea to raise moths in captivity. This definitely disrupts a monarch butterfly’s ability to migrate and might, similarly, interfere with natural cues necessary for moth survival. )

Muskrat Love: Overlooked rodents help keep wetlands healthy

published week of July 5th 2021

A friend who lives in Dover and I routinely meet at the Cocheco River to kayak on warm summer afternoons.  I’m always amazed at the wildlife along this river that runs through downtown Dover.  Just a half-mile outside the city, as soon as paved surfaces give way to trees, life explodes: great blue herons, green herons, kingfishers and osprey hunt for fish, huge snapping turtles laze near the sun-dappled surface, little painted turtles bask on logs and wild grapes dangle over the water.  We’ve found a hidden marsh off of the main river that is a fun tangle of lily pads, bladderwort (one of my favorites- a carnivorous aquatic plant!) cattails and pickerelweed.  We are able to kayak through this aquatic jungle thanks to the muskrats that carve narrow passages through the dense vegetation.

Our kayaks were able to navigate through the marsh using muskrat trails Sue Pike photo

Muskrats tend to get overlooked — we’re all aware of beavers and their role in building wetlands with their dams and impacting surrounding woodlots by cutting down valuable timber, but you don’t hear much about muskrats. Muskrats are, in fact, invaluable wetland engineers, removing extra plants and making sure waterways are clear.  They carve channels through dense cattail or pickerel stands that lead into and out of their lodges (trappers routinely set their traps along these canals); these provide space for other plants and animals, helping to keep a marsh from becoming a monoculture.  They also slow the process of succession in a marsh-where the buildup of dead vegetation causes the marsh to fill in and become a field.  Muskrats help keep the perfect mix of water and vegetation in marshes.

Muskrats are not beavers, however, like beavers, they are ecosystem engineers.

Muskrats are not closely related to beavers, nor are they true rats-if you took a mouse and made it bigger and aquatic you would have a muskrat. They are closely related to voles and lemmings, with the characteristic rodent incisors that will grow through the skull if they are not constantly in use. Like their cousin the beaver, muskrats live in the water and build lodges, but are much smaller and are composed of mud, cattails and bulrushes (vs the beavers who use sticks). They also construct floating rafts of vegetation on top of the water to use as feeding platforms.  Like beavers they will also burrow into river banks if conditions don’t support building a lodge. 

Muskrat lodge at end of muskrat trails

Muskrats have taken the basic field mouse body plan and tweaked it for life-aquatic (or rather the environment has selected traits that help muskrats survive in the water).  Instead of the broad, flattened tail of a beaver, muskrats have a rounder, thinner tail that is flattened side-to-side. They use this tail, plus their slightly-webbed rear feet to propel themselves through the water. Their fur is dense, waterproof and buoyant.  My favorite adaptation to aquatic life is their ability to chew with their mouth closed while feeding underwater.  Their lips can close behind their  incisors (front teeth) so that they can keep their mouth closed while nibbling on underwater plants. 

Muskrats are basically large field mice adapted for a life aquatic.

Another great adaptation to aquatic life is their ability to stay underwater for up to 17 minutes.  Most non-aquatic mammals can’t do this because of the need for oxygen and to get rid of carbon dioxide building up in the bloodstream.  Muskrats reduce their heart rate and relax their muscles when submerged to slow down the rate at which oxygen is used and carbon dioxide is produced.  They also can store extra oxygen in their muscles and can tolerate more carbon dioxide in their blood than non-aquatic mammals. This is important, they need to be able to stay underwater for long periods of time while foraging for submerged stems and roots, travelling under the ice in winter and escaping from enemies.  

Without the muskrat our secret marsh would probably be a monoculture of cattails or perhaps would have become so clogged with dead cattails and sediment that it would be well on its way to becoming dry land.  This hidden marsh is a reminder to me that nature is a wonderful balancing act; that unlikely characters, the muskrat in this case, can have subtle feedbacks on a system that are critical for the health of that system–in this case maintaining a healthy marsh.

Milk snakes (all snakes) are our friends.

Originally published June 24 2020 in The York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

While hiking up South Moat Mountain last week, a large milk snake crossed the trail. This was a beautiful snake – reddish blotches ringed in a darker brown against a grayish-tan background.

So, of course, since this is one of the snakes most often confused with a rattlesnake, we began wildly speculating about whether it was actually a rattlesnake, and whether there are any timber rattlesnakes in the region. We were afraid to get too near its head-end; milk snakes aren’t venomous but I think they are much more aggressive than garter snakes.

Milk snake along South Moat Trail Sue Pike photo

I’ve been attacked by milk snakes in the past. Instead of slithering quickly away like their garter snake cousins, they seemed more likely to rear up and try to bite. However, if you do some research into our local snakes, you’ll find that milk snakes are considered to be quite passive. They won’t bother you unless you bother them …. which makes me rethink my stance on the aggressiveness of these snakes …. the only times they seemed more aggressive than a garter snake were times when I was trying to pick one up. Who was the aggressor in that interaction?

Milk snakes mimic rattlesnakes by vibrating their tails in dried leaves.

As we tried to get close to this particular milk snake, it started rattling its tail. We excitedly looked for rattles – but there were none (we still wanted it to be a rattlesnake). It did make an effective rattlesnake mimic, its vibrating tail rattling the dried leaves in a convincing rattlesnake-esque way.

The origin of the name “milk snake” most likely comes from the old belief that these snakes sucked the milk from cow udders. (There is a bird that has the colloquial name “goatsucker” for a similar incorrect belief.) This is likely because milk snakes are common around barns – though they are there in search of mice and rats rather than cow udders. This is one of the many reasons you should leave these snakes alone.

You are unlikely to encounter a venomous snake in New England

There are nine species of snakes in Maine, none are venomous. There are 11 species of snakes in New Hampshire, only the endangered timber rattlesnake is venomous. There are 14 species of snakes found in Massachusetts, only two of them (the endangered timber rattlesnake and the endangered copperhead) are venomous. There is a trend here – fewer snakes the further north you go because snakes are cold-blooded and they don’t do well in northern climates. So the chance of encountering a venomous snake becomes less and less likely. You should assume that if you see a snake around here that you think is a rattlesnake, it is most likely a milk snake.

Timber rattlesnakes used to be found in both Maine and New Hampshire. The autumn 2014 edition of “Northern Woodlands” has a lovely description of the northern expansion of timber rattlesnakes into New England following the last glaciation.

“Approximately 8,000 years ago, a period of global warming called the Hypsithermal Interval stimulated timber rattlesnakes to move north from the vicinity of Long Island. They followed river corridors – the Delaware, the Hudson, the Connecticut, the Housatonic, the Merrimack – and eventually reached southern Quebec and southwestern Maine. Wherever passageways in bedrock or talus led to frost-free winter retreats, the snakes established colonies … Today, rattlesnakes thrive where the human population is sparse – land that is wide-open, wind-swept, and remote.“ (Ted Levin).

Please do not kill snakes!!!!

Currently there are no known populations of timber rattlesnakes in Maine, and only one population in New Hampshire (making it one of the most endangered wildlife species in the state).  The reason for this is unrelenting persecution by humans-they are hunted and they are collected and are therefore gone. They are no longer present in Maine due to hunting and collecting by humans.   I found it incredibly sad that the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department web page about snakes has to explicitly state “PLEASE DO NOT KILL SNAKES. New Hampshire has only one venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake, which is protected by law. If you think you see a timber rattlesnake, please leave it alone, and let us know. There is no reason to kill a New Hampshire snake.”  I would suggest that the next time you see a snake get excited that you are seeing one, that some are still here, managing to coexist with us – we are the threat, not snakes.