Nature News: Red maple buds enjoying the last days of dormancy before budburst

published Feb 24 2021

I have a bad habit of always looking to the future, winter isn’t over yet but I’ve found myself starting to think about signs of spring to come.  As an exercise in centering myself in the here and now, especially since we are finally in the middle of a beautiful snowy winter, I wandered around my backyard appreciating what the woods had to offer.  I found animal tracks and hemlocks still encased in ice. The waterfall, covered with a blanket of snow, could be heard gurgling underneath and river ice cracked and boomed.  A hint of color, in addition to the green conifers, was provided by the brilliant red buds of the red maple trees.   

Citizen Science!!

Last March I started a 3-month bud-watch project with my students in an attempt to get them outside, doing science as we plunged into remote learning.  I participated as well.  I found a beautiful young red maple tree with some bright red buds dangling at eye level and decided to follow those, entering weekly information about the state of the buds into an online citizen science database called Project Budburst (budburst.org). While doing this, I felt like I really got to know this tree. I even (rather uncreatively) named one particular bud ‘Red’ and another ‘Rosie’.  So, I visited Red and Rosie Junior (new buds on the same twig)  this past week to see how they were getting on.  

They were both there, chilling out in the wintry weather.  I could count the number of rings around the twig that are the remnants of previous years’ terminal buds (the buds like Red and Rosie that emerge from the tip of the twig).  Using these rings I was able to figure out that the twig itself was about 3 years old and also see where this twig had added about an inch of new growth to where the buds formed last year.   

Red maple buds right now–waiting to burst in the spring Sue PIke photo

I had recently read an article (The Sex Life of the Red Maple by Richard Primack of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum) that got me wondering what gender these buds actually are.  Red maples usually have all male or all female flowers, but some are a mix of both (called perfect flowers) and sometimes a supposedly all male tree will produce fruit.  Last spring when I named them I was more focussed on when these buds were breaking (opening up) than considering their gender.  So I checked my photos of the buds in flower from last year and found that both Red and Rosie were male flowers with the characteristic stamen composed of a long thin filament supporting the anther-a narrow disk that contains the pollen.  This doesn’t mean the whole tree is male-red maples are notorious for not following strict gender-roles.  I’m looking forward to checking later this spring to see if these still are producing male flowers or whether they’ve switched to female flowers.

Red maple buds from the same branches last spring (in April after they burst). You can see from the long stamen that these are males. Sue Pike photo

But, bud burst will happen later, right now the buds are still dormant.  Buds are wonderful structures, tough little capsules that surround and protect the embryonic flowers and leaves.  The outer part is actually made of modified leaves, called bud scales, that are tough enough to keep out insect pests and also help insulate the inner tissues. These buds formed last fall at the end of the growing season when the trees had enough food and energy to make the buds. This is a critical strategy for overwintering–trees can’t wait until the spring to make these structures–they won’t have enough leaves and there isn’t enough light.  So instead, in the fall everything the tree needs to flower and reproduce, to form its first leaves and start to photosynthesize, is packed inside those tiny buds, dormant now, waiting for warmer and longer days to burst into new growth.  I like to think that, like me, those nascent flowers and leaves are cozily wrapped up in their buds, enjoying the lazy days of winter while dreaming about spring.

Nature News: Red-breasted nuthatches are feisty little birds

Red-breasted nuthatches are one of my favorite birds. Admittedly, I have a lot of favorites, but these are at the top of my list perhaps because they, as birds with a more northerly range than the white-breasted nuthatch, are a little less common around here and are therefore more of a treat to see. Or perhaps it is that perky line through their eye and the red on their breast that makes them look a bit more dressed up than the white-breasted. Perhaps it is the amount of energy that radiates from such a tiny body as it stakes a claim to my birdfeeder, chasing away much larger birds.

Red-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

Two species of nuthatch live in our part of New England: the larger, more common white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), which prefers mature deciduous forests, and the smaller red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), which prefers coniferous forests. You will often hear these birds before they show up at your feeder. Audubon’s field guide describes the white-breasted nuthatch call as a nasal ‘yank-yank’ and the red-breasted’s as a “tinny yank-yank, higher pitched and more nasal than the call of the white-breasted nuthatch.”

“Hatch” is thought to have come from the word “hack” as in hacking through nuts

Their common name, nuthatch, comes from their habit of wedging seeds that are too large to eat whole, like acorns or sunflower seeds, into cracks in the bark and then hacking (hatch is thought to have come from the word hack) them open with their long sharp beaks. If you see nuthatches carrying what look to be an inordinate number of seeds away from your feeder there is a good chance they are stashing them for use later in the winter. They’ll cram them into crevices in the tree and hide them under bits of lichen or bark.

Nuthatches eat a wide variety of insects in both summer and winter, but will also eat seeds and nuts when insects are scarce. Both types eat all kinds of birdfeeder offerings – seeds and nuts, as well as suet. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithologym, red-breasted nuthatches will take the heaviest food item available. I can’t wait to experiment with this idea by offering a variety of seeds with different weights and seeing which ones my red-breasted nuthatch chooses.

White-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

Nuthatches have a number of adaptations that allow them to walk headfirst down a tree

Nuthatches are probably best known for their habit of moving headfirst down tree trunks in search of food. They have strong legs, feet and claws that help them grasp the bark as they move in all directions up and down a tree. By moving headfirst down a tree trunk they are able to find insects hidden in nooks and crannies in the bark that are often overlooked by birds moving up the tree. The Canadian Wildlife Federation describes the red-breasted nuthatch as having “a greatly enlarged hind toe and a stubby tail, which are probably both adaptations for climbing downwards; the toe provides secure footing, and a long, floppy tail could get in the way.”

Nuthatches line their nest holes with pine pitch

One final favorite thing about red-breasted nuthatches – they will excavate holes in dead trees (or use pre-existing holes) and line the outside and inside edges of the hole with pine pitch. It isn’t clear exactly why they do this – the smell is thought to somehow discourage predators. I was able to watch a red-breasted nuthatch nest cavity in full swing last summer. To avoid getting into the pitch, the tiny birds zoomed into the hole without stopping, presumably putting on the brakes upon entry. They would dart out of the hole in the same way, not stopping to perch in the opening as I kept expecting them to do. It looked like an extremely difficult maneuver and certainly added to my admiration for these feisty little birds.

Originally published February 16, 2018 seacoastonline.com, The York Weekly, Fosters Daily, the Portsmouth Herald

Nature News: Red maple buds enjoying the last days of dormancy before budburst

I have a bad habit of always looking to the future, winter isn’t over yet but I’ve found myself starting to think about signs of spring to come. 

As an exercise in centering myself in the here and now, especially since we are finally in the middle of a beautiful snowy winter, I wandered around my backyard appreciating what the woods had to offer. I found animal tracks and hemlocks still encased in ice. The waterfall, covered with a blanket of snow, could be heard gurgling underneath and river ice cracked and boomed. A hint of color, in addition to the green conifers, was provided by the brilliant red buds of the red maple trees.   

Red maple buds as they appear this week, in late February, in Maine. Dormant and waiting for the longer, warmer days of spring to burst. Sue Pike Photo

Project Budburst is a great way to get involved in citizen science!

Last March, I started a three-month bud-watch project with my students in an attempt to get them outside, doing science as we plunged into remote learning. I participated as well. I found a beautiful young red maple tree with some bright red buds dangling at eye level and decided to follow those, entering weekly information about the state of the buds into an online citizen science database called Project Budburst (budburst.org). While doing this, I felt like I really got to know this tree. I even (rather uncreatively) named one particular bud “Red” and another “Rosie.” So, I visited Red and Rosie Jr. (new buds on the same twig) this past week to see how they were getting on.  

They were both there, chilling out in the wintry weather. I could count the number of rings around the twig that are the remnants of previous years’ terminal buds (the buds like Red and Rosie that emerge from the tip of the twig). Using these rings, I was able to figure out that the twig itself was about three years old and also see where this twig had added about an inch of new growth to where the buds formed last year.   

I had recently read an article (“The Sex Life of the Red Maple” by Richard Primack of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum) that got me wondering what gender these buds actually are.

 Red maples usually have all male or all female flowers, but some are a mix of both (called perfect flowers) and sometimes a supposedly all-male tree will produce fruit.  Last spring when I named them, I was more focused on when these buds were breaking (opening up) than considering their gender. So I checked my photos of the buds in flower from last year and found that both Red and Rosie were male flowers with the characteristic stamen composed of a long, thin filament supporting the anther – a narrow disk that contains the pollen. This doesn’t mean the whole tree is male. Red maples are notorious for not following strict gender roles. I’m looking forward to checking later this spring to see if these still are producing male flowers or whether they’ve switched to female flowers.

The same buds as above–Red is top left, Rosie is lower right–at the end of last April (2020). You can tell that the buds that have flowers aer males by the long stamen composed of a thin filament and pollen-carrying disk-shaped anther. Sue Pike Photo

But, bud burst will happen later; right now, the buds are still dormant. 

Buds are wonderful structures, resilient little capsules that surround and protect the embryonic flowers and leaves. The outer part is actually made of modified leaves, called bud scales, that are tough enough to keep out insect pests and also help insulate the inner tissues. These buds formed last fall at the end of the growing season when the trees had enough food and energy to make the buds. This is a critical strategy for overwintering. Trees can’t wait until the spring to make these structures – they won’t have enough leaves and there isn’t enough light. So instead, in the fall everything the tree needs to flower and reproduce, to form its first leaves and start to photosynthesize, is packed inside those tiny buds, dormant now, waiting for warmer and longer days to burst into new growth.

I like to think that, like me, those nascent flowers and leaves are cozily wrapped up in their buds, enjoying the lazy days of winter while dreaming about spring.

Published February 24, 2021 in seacoastonline.com, the York Weekly, Fosters’ Daily & the Portsmouth Herald.

Nature News: Long-tailed ducks give a glimpse of the Arctic

long-tailed duck

published Dec 28, 2020 in local Seacoast newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

I moved to North Berwick, Maine, a couple years ago and while getting to know my immediate neighborhood I’ve neglected visiting the beach. Especially in winter, my favorite time, because it isn’t crowded and the bracing wind and ice-lined shore is an exercise in exhilaration. So, I’m trying to visit at least once a week. 

During a recent trip to catch the sunset, it happened to be low tide and walking along the sandy river mouth where it bends to meet the beach, we watched a variety of sea ducks floating in the shallows and diving for prey. A cinnamon-brown female eider dove and brought up a crab.  Tooth-billed mergansers and buffleheads took turns diving down and popping up.  And, most exciting for me, some long-tailed ducks were also out hunting.  

Check out the eponymous two long central tail feathers on this long-tailed duck.

Long-tailed ducks are spectacular birds, the males in particular. Both their summer and winter plumage is a striking contrast of black, brown and white. In the summer, they have mostly black heads with white cheeks, while in the winter they have mostly white heads with black and brown cheeks.

They are on the small size – they looked tiny compared to the large, blocky eiders hunting nearby – and get their name from the two long tail feathers that stream from behind the males. Another distinctive feature of these ducks is the loud, yodeling call of the very vocal males. Sometimes the call is described as sounding like “Tom Connolly,” which gives it one of its common names. 

Two male long-tailed ducks at Parson’s Beach in Kennebunk.

Of all the sea ducks, long-tailed ducks spend the most time in and under water. They are the only ducks to use their wings, not their feet, to propel them through the water, allowing them to dive deeper than other ducks – to depths of up to 200 feet!

The majority of their diet is any kind of aquatic invertebrate (a variety of mollusks, crustaceans, insects, but also fish and even plant matter) they can catch or find. Being able to dive so deep lets them feed on the aquatic invertebrates that live at the very bottom of the water column (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology).  

These are true ducks of the north. They have a circumpolar distribution, breeding on small tundra lakes, bogs and wetlands of the high Arctic: Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Arctic Russia and Northern Canada. They come down here, to the coast (and large freshwater lakes that don’t freeze over), to overwinter, oftentimes forming large flocks that will stay out at sea unless pushed inland by a storm.  

One of the reasons I love living in New England is that while we can still enjoy nice warm summers, we get a taste of the Arctic every winter when the Northern winds howl and bring blizzards and ice storms.

We also get beautiful Arctic migrants frequenting our backyards. Watching a flock of snow buntings sweep over a barren icy field, or a snowy owl hunkered down in the dunes, or a long-tailed duck diving for mussels feels, to me, like the Arctic is reaching out and saying hello. With rapid climate change becoming more and more of a reality, I think we need to grab these encounters with the wild north while we still can.  

Birch Trees Bending

Published in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily (and more) Dec 14 2020

I went up to Blue Job Mountain State Park for a walk last weekend.  There was a lot more snow up there than where I live in North Berwick.  Lining the parking lot were the birch trees, bent over, touching the ground, with their heavy loads of icy snow.   Hiking up to the summit of Little Blue Job was an obstacle course as we worked our way around all different types of trees, some were flexible like the birch and bent by the snow, some had snapped.  

Birch and beech saplings on a snowy afternoon

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed.

This got me thinking about birches.  They are known for bending and not breaking.  Most of us read Robert Frost’s poem about boys swinging on birches in high school, but there is a part about the birches themselves  “Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away.  You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.  They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,  And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed.” where Frost talks about how birches bend and aren’t broken by the snow.  He talks about how sometimes they stay bowed after a long winter “So low for long, they never right themselves:  You may see their trunks arching in the woods.  Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground.”  The sad thing was, people had made it worse by walking over their heads, cementing them into the icy trails.  Many were snapped by the weight of feet and all it would have taken was that first person on the trail to free the birches from their icy load, pull them out of the snow and let them spring back up towards the light.  

Adaptations to the North

This ability of birches to bend is an adaptation to living in the north.  We have a number of different species of birch in New England, among them, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), is one of our most widely-distributed trees, found from Newfoundland west to British Columbia and south to New York and South Dakota.  It is also one of a handful of broad-leaved trees that can live in the far north.  It  can live so far to the north because of those flexible branches.  Its northern neighbors, balsam fir and hemlocks, have a different adaptation to the same conditions and are cone-shaped; their long sloping branches help snow slide off instead of collecting on the branches and causing them to snap. 

Hemlocks conical shape lets snow slide off (eventually!)

Flexibility isn’t a paper birches’ only adaptation to northern climates.  During cold winters the thick, dark bark of an oak or ash becomes a liability, absorbing sunlight during the day and heating up, only to cool down again, usually quite rapidly, at night. This heating and cooling can kill the cells of the cambium, the layer of cells between the bark and the wood that is responsible for the growth of the trunk. Rapid temperature fluctuations can also severely injure a tree by causing frost cracks to form in the bark.

In contrast, the highly reflective, light-colored bark of a paper birch doesn’t absorb the sun’s radiation and heat on cold winter days, and so avoids the damage caused by rapid heating and cooling.

What causes this extreme whiteness? That white powder that coats the bark is primarily composed of a chemical called betulin. The cells in the outer layers of bark contain betulin crystals that are arranged in such a way as to reflect light and appear white.

Free the Trees!!

My walking partner is a tree enthusiast.  She felt sorry for all those forlorn birches bending under their heavy loads, and even more sorry for the birch tops that had been cemented into the trails by uncaring feet, or even worse, those that had snapped due to this trammeling.  She started clearing as many as she could.  Pulling the tops out of the snow and letting the trees spring free.  It was exhilarating and infectious to watch.  I joined in and we spent more of our time freeing birches than walking.  I don’t know whether this really will help the trees survive the winter, but figure it can’t hurt.   I’ve read that Frost once said “it was almost sacrilegious climbing a birch tree till it bent, till it gave and swooped to the ground, but that’s what boys did in those days”.  I agree, it is sacrilegious, and feel like now we should know better.  Trees have a hard enough time these days, if you see one struggling with the snow, why not help it out?

Stephanie Eno clearing snow from bowed maple and birch saplings

Nature News: Blue jays intelligent, striking, not feeder-hogs

published Nov 30 in the Portsmouth Herald/the York Weekly and other print newspapers as well as online at seacoastonline.com

I have been participating in some great citizen science – Cornell Laboratories “Project FeederWatch” – excitedly logging in all of the birds I see at my feeder.  It is a whirlwind of activity and color. My newest, most exciting, most colorful additions, have been a red-bellied woodpecker and a flock of beautiful golden-yellow evening grosbeaks.

Blue jays can seem annoying as they raid bird feeders this time of year, but they’re fun to have, they are striking and intelligent and great to watch! photo by steve morello www.stevemorello.com

My most annoying visitors, in my mind, have been the blue jays. I don’t remember so many last year. Now, we have a good-sized group of five or six that visit every morning, scaring away the other birds, sitting at the feeder and stuffing themselves with expensive black oil sunflower seeds, hogging the feeders while everyone else (tiny chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches) hangs out in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to grab one seed.

Two things dawned on me this past week as I watched. The chickadees were taking single seeds, carrying them up to a safe roost, hammering them open and extracting the seed from the shell. I realized that the blue jays weren’t actually gorging on all those seeds, they were instead filling something, I assumed their crop, and then carrying the seeds off.

Gular pouches vs crops vs gizzards

I consulted my go-to resource for everything about birds – www. allaboutbirds.com from Cornell Lab: “Blue Jays carry food in their throat and upper esophagus — an area often called a “gular pouch.” They may store two to three acorns in the pouch, another one in their mouth, and one more in the tip of the bill. In this way they can carry off five acorns at a time to store for later feeding.”

I’m curious how many sunflower seeds they can carry – I’ve read upward of 100 – I, personally, have observed blue jays picking up 20 to 25 sunflower seeds before flying off.  

Learning about the gular pouch (not the same as a crop or a gizzard) shed new light on blue jay anatomy and behavior for me. The gular pouch (or sac) is different from the crop. The gular pouch is an area of stretchy throat skin, attached to the lower mandible of the beak, that can be used for storage. One of the most famous gular pouches is that found on pelicans – that obvious expandable throat sac where they comically store all those fish. 

In comparison, the crop is a thin-walled sac located between the esophagus and the stomach, part of a bird’s digestive system, that is sometimes used to store partially digested food before regurgitation or further digestion. Blue jays, like all members of the corvid family (crows and ravens, etc.) do not have true crops. Then there’s the gizzard, which I always thought was in the throat, but actually comes after the stomach.  Gizzards often contain grit to help grind up tough grains. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Just like those chickadees, when a jay wants to eat a sunflower seed, it has to do it one at a time, holding the seed between its toes and cracking it open.

I’ve learned to examine my biases about birds before judging

The second thing that dawned on me was that I take blue jays for granted, and, in fact, my preconceived notions about their behavior made me see them as bullies and aggressive feeder-hogs when they really aren’t. They aren’t feeder hogs any more than the evening grosbeaks who descend en masse and drain the feeders. And, while they will do tricky things like imitate predatory birds to scare other birds from the feeder and do attempt to dominate the feeder, if you watch long enough you’ll see that all those other birds generally get a chance at the food. You’ll see that “mild-mannered” birds like mourning doves, cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers scare them off, you’ll see those “timid” chickadees and titmice (they aren’t timid) swoop in and take seeds after blue jays have noisily and flamboyantly arrived at the feeder as often as they do when there are no blue jays.

What’s more, blue jays are one of the most intelligent and striking birds to grace our woodlands. This is why it’s worth getting the back stories on local wildlife, knowing just a little bit more about a wild neighbor can completely transform your perspective.

Nature News Pileated woodpecker: a powerful bird

published Dec 8 2020 in the Portsmouth Herald/York Weekly and other print seacoast newspapers as well as at seacoastonline.com

Pileated woodpeckers are an iconic woodpecker, Woody the Woodpecker made flesh; they are crow-sized with striking black and white markings, both male and female bear a flashy red crest. Large and brash, they swoop through the forest uttering primeval jungle-bird calls, somewhat incongruous to hear in the winter.

We’ve just recently had a pileated woodpecker tear apart a rotten tree, it literally ripped so much out of it about 4 feet off the ground that the tree fell over (this can evidently be an issue when pileated woodpeckers excavate nest holes in telephone poles).

Now it is attacking what I thought was a healthy, giant, old hemlock that must not be as healthy as it looks because this woodpecker is undoubtedly drawn to the sounds of carpenter ants or some other insect pest eating the tree from within. Pileated woodpeckers are often blamed for killing trees, but while they may hasten death all evidence indicates that they only do significant damage to trees that are already infested and on their way out. 

Woody the Woodpecker The name “pileated” comes from the Latin for “capped,” referring to their bright red cap.  I had always thought that pileated woodpeckers were the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, however, according to the American Bird Conservancy, it is more complicated; “It turns out that the popular mid-20th century cartoon character Woody Woodpecker was actually inspired by a persistent acorn woodpecker that staged a cameo during animator Walter Lantz’s honeymoon, calling and drumming at the couple’s cabin. Lantz’s wife Gracie suggested that Walter make a cartoon character of the bird — and so Woody was created. But credit is due to to the Pileated Woodpecker as well: Woody’s shaggy red top-knot much more closely resembles a Pileated Woodpecker, and the cartoon character’s characteristic laugh, originally voiced by Mel Blanc of Warner Brothers fame, sounds more like a Pileated Woodpecker’s call as well.”

In addition to their large size and brilliant red crests, another noticeable feature of pileated woodpeckers is their extra long neck. These long necks give the woodpecker more force than a shorter neck, necessary for ripping deep holes in trees, which they accomplish by wedging their long, stiff, tail against the tree trunk while they hammer away with their heavy, sharp beaks.  

These are elusive birds-signs are more often seen than the bird themselves I find it so thrilling to see pileated woodpeckers in the wild, but these are elusive birds that I rarely see. This year I’ve glimpsed just one flying off through my woods – its size and characteristic slow, undulating flight a dead give-away. The only sign that it was in my neighborhood, the excavated tree.

Next time you go for a walk in the woods, look for the big rectangular holes and wood chips beneath. Years ago, while on a tracking walk with Dan Gardoqui of Lead with Nature (leadwithnature.com), I learned that one fun thing to look for in the wood chips at the base of the trees is pileated woodpecker scat. A quick look through their scat makes it pretty obvious what their primary food is – carpenter ants. We found some nice samples of pileated scat on that walk, chock-full of big, shiny, black carpenter ant heads, thoraxes and abdomens (I still have a vial with the remains). Dan is really good at finding things in nature – sit in the woods somewhere and he’ll find a single strand of deer or fox or coyote hair, likewise, on this walk there was pileated woodpecker scat galore in that pile of wood chips. I, personally, have never found any since … but I’ve never given up trying, it makes looking through every pile of wood chips from a pileated woodpecker’s excavations an adventure.

Nature News: Harvesting oyster mushrooms in the wild

By Susan Pike

Oyster mushrooms growing up a live poplar Sue Pike photo

I am thinking that with the predicted relatively mild (for this time of year), wet weather this week we could still see some mushrooms popping up in the woods. I hope so. I’ve found a tree that seems to be hosting some oyster mushrooms. I’ll be visiting it again this week in the hopes of one last harvest.

I am very hesitant to forage for mushrooms in the wild. I won’t eat anything I have found growing from a stump, a dying tree or the forest floor unless it has absolutely no poisonous look-alikes and I have quadruple-checked its identity. Keeping that in mind, while out in the woods a few weeks ago, I happened upon a tree bearing what I knew must be oyster mushrooms. I checked them with iNature as well as some Googling, then cut some from the tree (but left some for others, people or animals) and walked out with my handful of mushrooms and plans for dinner.

Dinner! Sue Pike photo

Know the substrate!

Being a teacher comes in handy sometimes. It is amazing how many current and previous students I often meet while out on the trail. This time, a previous student, now in college, was out hiking with his roommates. He is a marine bio major, one roommate was an environmental engineer, the other was a forestry major. This was great. The forestry major could help with the ID! One of the things to look for when identifying fungi is the substrate from which they are growing. Mushrooms are usually substrate-specific. Chanterelles grow from the soil, usually under oak and beech trees, but sometimes under conifers. Turkey tails usually grow on deciduous trees. The currently trendy, medicinal reishi mushrooms are only found on conifers, primarily hemlocks.

Oyster mushrooms are most likely to grow on deciduous trees so I wanted to make sure that was the kind of tree “my” oyster mushrooms had been harvested from. Luckily, the young forestry major was able to identify the tree as a poplar, which checked off one more box in the positive identification of these mushrooms.

Double check your ID with field guides-the more different ones the better.

I have at least 10 different mushroom field guides. So, when I got home I checked them all, looking for other characteristics of oyster mushrooms: they can smell of anise (mine did), the stems have no ring (mine didn’t), and it was the right time of year. Finally, I sent photos to some mycologist friends just to be absolutely sure and they concurred with my identification. So, I cooked some up for my dinner to make sure that they sat well with me. They did, and the next night fed my family. Is it worth it going through all this to eat a mushroom that I can buy at a local farmers market or grocery?  I don’t know about everyone, but the satisfaction of eating something found in the wild can’t be beat.

Most trees can be identified by bark alone…I’m not great at that….but am fairly certain this was a poplar

Is mushroom picking sustainable?

However, I worry about the sustainability of foraging. It is a luxury that I can go out and forage, it’s a hobby. I don’t need to do it.  And I worry, if I take mushrooms from the forest, what about the deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice, not to mention, the numerous insects that also feast upon fungi? They can’t pick up some wild mushrooms at the grocery. So, I don’t always pick mushrooms, and when I do, I leave some for everyone else.  

What about the mushrooms themselves? Overharvesting should always be avoided. If you are picking mushrooms whose gills are open, there is a good chance they have already released their spores. They’ve done their job, so that is a good time to harvest.  The point of a mushroom is reproduction. The mushrooms we eat are the fruiting bodies (reproductive parts) of fungi. They contain the spores which they disperse for reproduction.

What exactly are you eating? A fruiting body?

When you eat a mushroom, you are eating something organized in a bizarrely different way from our plant and animal neighbors. When nature gives the cue that it is a good time to reproduce, mushrooms are formed from hyphae, thin threads that make up the “body” of most fungi. The hyphae are always there, they extend throughout whatever substrate the mushroom emerges from – a rotting log, the forest floor, the soil, sometimes forming vast networks (called mycelia). These are the white threads you find if you dig through some leaf litter or turn over a rotting log. That mushroom you are eating for dinner (the fruiting body) is composed of these long tubular hyphae, molded into fantastic shapes, their only goal – to release spores and reproduce. That’s what my oyster mushrooms were doing, releasing spores to the wind.

I’m looking forward to a few more mild, rainy, mushroom-friendly days. Oyster mushroom season lasts through November in the Northeast. However, most of the time I will enjoy just looking and only occasionally bring some home for dinner.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at spike3116@gmail.com. Read more of her Nature News columns on paper (the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly etc) or online at Seacoastonline.com, here at pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.

Nature News: Sparking Curiosity About What Doe-Eyed Creatures See

published on seacoastonline.com and in The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Fosters Daily Democrat etc.

White-tailed doe gazing at a drone in Addison ME photo by Everett Grant

My classes have been remote this fall. This is a hard thing for a science teacher-I like my classes to be messy, to get outside and explore, to get to know my students face to face, not through the lens of a computer’s camera.  I try to bridge the electronic gap by sharing stories about things I have recently seen, hoping to make some kind of connection, spark some curiosity.  

Last week I was telling my biology class about some people out walking in Kennebunk Plains who were wearing blaze orange vests that had a black camo pattern.  I said I thought this was weird–if you’re wearing bright orange, why the need to camouflage?  I had a few hunters in the class who explained about it being deer season and the necessity of wearing blaze, which led us off path and down the rabbit hole following the question, what exactly do deer see?  Can they see that bright orange vest?  If so, then the camo pattern is pointless.  But, if they can’t see bright orange, then the camo makes sense.  This didn’t fit in with my daily curriculum plan, but it is biology, so we did some research.

I had always thought that deer were color blind, and so thought I knew the answer to the question I had posed-what do deer see?  Turns out I only knew part of the story.  

If you have ever looked at the face of a white-tailed deer you have noticed its prominent  brown eyes.  Doe-eyed means (according to the Oxford Dictionary) “having large, gentle, dark eyes.” Deer have large eyes because, as a prey species, they need to be able to see as much of their environment as possible so that they can flee at the slightest hint of danger.  Their eyes are placed to the sides of their heads allowing them to see in a wide arc without moving their heads – a helpful adaptation for survival.  Deer have the eye placement of prey, humans, with our forward-facing, binocular vision that allows for better depth perception have the eyes of a predator.  Deer can both graze and watch for predators at the same time, we humans would need to post a guard.

But, what can deer see? Can they see that blaze orange vest? 

Like many nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) animals, deer have a much higher density of rods in their retinas compared with cones.  Rods are light receptors (more than 1000 times more sensitive to light than cones).  Because deer are most active at dawn and dusk they need to be as sensitive to light as possible, packing lots of rods into their retinas helps them see very well in the dark.  Cones, on the other hand, are active at higher light levels, they detect color and are responsible for high resolution vision.  According to Penn State’s Jeannine Fleegle,“Even though deer have less than half the number of cones in the eye as humans, deer can still distinguish among different colors. During low-light conditions, deer are likely more sensitive to the blue to blue-green portion of the spectrum (due to the high rod density). Studies indicate that deer are less sensitive to light of long wavelengths (orange and red) and rely upon their perception of only 2 colors – yellow and blue.” (from “The Eyes Have It” published in the Deer-Forest Blog  2015). 

This means that red, orange and green all look the same to a deer-meaning that blaze orange vest might very well blend into the surrounding greenery.  But to truly blend in you have to be careful what material your vest is made out of and what you wash it with.  Deer lack a UV filter in their eye-they can see further into the UV spectrum than we can (we have a UV filter in our lens, presumably to help protect our eyes from damaging UV radiation-an issue when you are most active in daylight).  Shiny materials and cloth washed with various detergents and brightening agents all emit more radiation in the bluer/UV part of the spectrum and will stand out to a deer in the same way that blaze orange vest stands out to us. 

Sparking curiosity?

What we learned in class is just the tip of the iceberg in the study of deer vision. Other aspects of deer eyes come into play-their horizontal pupils for one.  Why do some animals have horizontal pupils? Great question! Sadly the quarter is over and I won’t get to pursue this in class, but I’m hoping that, having been introduced to the interesting differences between human and deer vision, my students might want to investigate this question all on their own.

Nature News: The albedo effect affects the warming of Earth’s atmosphere

published November 9, 2020

Lonesome Lake with ice cover. photo by Sue Pike

I was up in the mountains this weekend hiking up to North Kinsman Mountain via Lonesome Lake. It was so warm for November. Even though we had packs full of winter gear, even though we started early, a warm breeze had begun to blow and we were down to T-shirts and shorts within the first mile.

This is a beautiful little lake nestled in among the mountains at around 3,000 feet. When we got there, it was still mostly covered with ice. There was even ice and old snow along the shaded parts of the trail. I was struck by how warm it was in the surrounding woods and rocky outcroppings, yet cold by the water.

I am about to teach a big climate unit in my freshman Integrated Earth Science class.   Earth’s energy budget is a big part of this, so the sun and its interaction with the Earth have been on my mind. Walking through this dramatic change in air temperature made me realize that I was experiencing the albedo effect. 

Albedo is the fraction of incoming solar radiation reflected back (instead of being absorbed) by an object. The term “albedo” comes from the Latin for whiteness. The albedo effect is a measure of how much of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space. This is one of many factors that affect the warming of the atmosphere. Solar radiation passes through our atmosphere, strikes the ground and is either reflected back into space or absorbed and re-radiated as heat. So a surface with high albedo that reflects a lot of the solar radiation warms the atmosphere less (if at all) than a surface with low albedo that absorbs solar radiation and transforms it into heat.

Lonesome lake near Mt Kinsmen in the White Mountains. The ice kept this area cooler-albedo! -Sue Pike

When I realized what I was feeling, I got so excited. It was like I was walking through one of my science class experiments. I really wished my students were there with me so we could experience albedo together. Walking through the forest, or further up the mountain, the incoming solar radiation (short wavelength energy) was being absorbed by the dark green forest and granite and changed into longer wavelength energy (heat).  The atmosphere was heating up and we felt warmer. By the lake, that incoming solar radiation was reflecting off the ice, bouncing off at the same wavelength, there was no conversion to heat and so the immediate area was cooler. I can talk about this phenomenon in class, but imagine how cool it would be (pun intended) to be standing next to a big ice-covered lake mirror and make this connection.

Why care about albedo? It is a huge regulator of Earth’s climate. Understanding albedo helps us understand why we are experiencing accelerated warming of the poles. As temperatures warm and ice melts, the open ocean with its low albedo replaces ice cover that has a high albedo, increasing the amount of solar radiation transformed into heat, increasing the temperature. This is a positive feedback loop that only ends when the ice disappears. We are, in effect, rapidly losing a giant northern mirror that reflects solar radiation back into space before it can be turned to heat.

Examples of climate feedbacks, like albedo, are all around us. I guess this is obvious, but it hasn’t always been so to me. Until I learned what albedo was I wouldn’t have recognized what I was experiencing on that hike. I wouldn’t have gotten so excited. This, for me, is one of my biggest motivators as a teacher and a learner. The more we understand the science that underlies the world around us, the better we can appreciate it, which might just motivate us to protect it.