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.

Nature News: At what point should we give up trying to control the invasives?

published June 24 2021 in The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Fosters’ Daily and other Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.

I’ve been driving back and forth to Manhattan fairly frequently to visit my aunt and like to spend some of the long drive checking out the vegetation growing in the various rest stops.  There is one pretty little clover-type plant growing in both my super-sandy scrubby field and in most of the roadside rest stops and median strips, bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), that I decided to investigate further.  This is not the lotus blossom famous for its beauty or, in Greek mythology for its narcotic powers (check out the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey fame), but rather the name given to the genus of a group of plants in the pea family.  The species name, corniculatus, refers to its common name ‘bird’s-foot’ in reference to the ripened seed pods which curve outwards resembling a bird’s foot, each toe curved like a talon (hence “corniculatus” meaning small horns).  The “trefoil” part of the name, which means ‘three leaves’ is a misnomer, these actually have 5 leaflets, three prominent ones and two hidden beneath.  

Bird’s-foot trefoil are beautiful, aggressive, soil-building, nitrogen-fixing non-natives -sue pike photo

3-foot taproots, fibrous mats of rhizomes–yikes!!

If you take a close look you’ll see that they do have clover-like leaves and flowers that resemble most of our other wild peas.  Sadly, they are non-native, have spread throughout the United States and up into Canada and Alaska and are considered noxious invasives in some states.  A native of Europe and Asia, they were introduced as forage for livestock. With their 3-foot taproots and fibrous mats of rhizomes they can quickly take over an area, smothering other native species.  

Considered edible but all parts are poisonous

I thought, since they are in the pea family, they might be edible. Here’s where it got interesting.  After some intensive googling I found one of my favorite descriptions of its edibility:  “Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, is a member of the Pea Family and has been considered both edible and medicinal but be aware that all parts of this plant are poisonous.” (cargocultcafe.com).  This is one of those plants that contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides (cyanide) that are not a huge issue in small amounts (and have been used medicinally in the past)  but can be lethal to humans if enough is consumed.  However, for wildlife it is a different story; bird’s-foot trefoil  is considered a choice food by Canada geese and deer and attracts a variety of pollinators.  

Most of the flowers in my meadow aren’t native anyway….

While I would love to have only native species growing in my yard, I would guess that at least 50% of the plants growing in my field/lawn are non-native.  This is partially because these mowed fields are not a native habitat to this area and so attract and support any non-native open field plant that can get a toe-hold.  I am trying to figure out whether to control this plant to keep it from dominating the field, reducing the overall biodiversity, or to eradicate it completely. Given that we have nutrient-poor sandy soil that many plants don’t like to grow in to begin with, and, as a legume it is a nitrogen-fixer, I’m leaning towards controlling but not eradicating it.   In addition, bird’s-foot trefoil has beautiful clusters of bright yellow pea-like flowers shot through with streaks of red which the bees, wasps and other pollinators seem to love as much as the dandelions, butter-and-eggs toadflax, black-eyed-Susans and daisies that populate the field, which, by the way, are also non-natives. 

Nature News: Where’d the chickens go? The real life story of the foxes and the chickens

published June 19 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and more Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.

We are seeing lots of evidence of baby animals in our backyard these days. 

A persistent little red squirrel we’ve named Rusty is always coming by to see whether we have any seeds for her young. We figured out she was a female this spring when her eight teats were suddenly impossible to ignore. Baby nuthatches and house sparrows follow their parents through the trees begging for food. We can’t go into the barn until the young phoebes have finally left the nest. And, our neighbors told us about a red fox den just a couple houses down, with beautiful little pups (or kits, both are acceptable names for young foxes) frequently spied rolling around outside their den. 

Red fox pups play outside their den next to neighbors’ house -steve morello photo

I have yet to see the fox, but, unfortunately my chickens have. We had a nice small flock of 11 chickens shrink to an even smaller flock of one lonely bird within two weeks. We don’t know this for a fact, but based upon the piles of feathers that leave a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb-esque trail up toward the fox den, we have a fairly good idea who the predator is. At least there are some well-fed young foxes out there!

Don’t encourage foxes by leaving out bird food or free-range chickens.

It isn’t a surprise that we have red foxes in the neighborhood. I’ve caught them a couple times with the game camera and have seen their tracks in the snow. I can’t really begrudge them my chickens. I was reading a post by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – How to Prevent or Resolve Conflicts with Foxes – and it is fairly obvious that our fox “problem” is our fault. “Research suggests that humans create the conditions for conflict by deliberately or inadvertently providing animals with food and shelter. Preventing or removing access to these attractants is the first essential step to resolving a wildlife problem. This includes eliminating access to shelter, being smart about garbage, planting native plants to attract birds rather than using bird seed, protecting poultry and livestock, and being a responsible pet owner.”  While I love having my chickens free range (chickens are intelligent, curious birds who love exploring their surroundings), I’m not being a responsible poultry owner by letting them free range into a red foxes’ hungry jaws. It never even occurred to me that foxes might love bird feeders as much as bears. 

Our red foxes are probably not native

The red foxes that live in New England are probably not native. There is a huge amount of debate about this in the research community, but what most agree on is that there were subspecies of European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in the northern boreal forests of North America prior to European colonization of these parts. We also have a definite native, the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which has a more southern distribution than the red fox, is smaller and more cat-like, and can climb trees. The native North American red fox (now considered a subspecies of the Old World red fox) didn’t do well with the influx of colonists and subsequent habitat disruption, so the gray fox was the one more frequently encountered. Those early colonists liked to fox hunt and didn’t do so well tracking the gray foxes up into the trees, so instead imported red foxes from Europe for recreational fox hunting, and now this red fox has spread throughout the continent. In fact, red foxes are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world and can wreak havoc upon small mammal and bird populations (think about what their introduction to Australia, that lacked this kind of predator all together, must have done to native bird populations!).  

Native or not, red foxes aren’t going anywhere. They can actually be quite beneficial to have in your neighborhood since they do a wonderful job controlling rodent populations (we have a fairly robust rat population – due to all the chickens – so this is great!). 

The Irish word for fox might be the root of the word shenanigans

And, if you think about it, the Old World red foxes  are the type of species expected to do well with a human presence. They are wily animals. Coyotes are one of their main predators around here, so to keep the coyotes at bay, red fox tend to stay close to humans, our presence inadvertently protecting them from coyotes. The Natural Resource Council of Maine has a great post about fox wiliness, with a great fun fact “The Irish word for fox, ‘sionnach’, is believed to be the root of ‘shenanigans,’ to play tricks.”

I have reinforced my chicken pen and acquired some more chickens. I hope to keep these chickens from escaping and getting in harm’s way, but chickens are wily, too. I worry that they’ll figure out how to get out of the somewhat protected chicken run and wander, like the hapless chickens before them, straight back to the hungry local foxes’ jaws.

Nature News: Lambsquarters A Prolific Weed You Can Eat

Published June 12, 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily etc

We recently bought a beautiful load of composted pig and cow manure from a local farm.  I’m still working on building soil in my garden (our native soil is mostly sand–left over from the last glaciers that plowed through this area), so any organic content is great.  Travelling along with the manure was a healthy crop of lambsquarters.  This is a weed that grows almost everywhere–anywhere there are people and soil to grow in.  

Lambsquarters growing in profusion from the composted pig manure -sue pike photo

Lambsquarters are in the beet and spinach family!

Lambsquarters is a member of the goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae) which also includes beets and spinach.   Lambsquarters is not native to North America, but does have an interesting history here.  It is thought to have originated in Europe and Asia and then was spread to Africa, Australia and the Americas by human activity a really, really long time ago. Recent archeological studies have found seeds stored by Native Americans pre-dating the arrival of European colonists(who also most certainly brought lambsquarters with them to the Americas), suggesting that these plants were among the earliest invasive species (perhaps we could call them paleo-invaders along with the humans who brought them) in North America. 

Goose foot-shaped leaves are one distinguishing feature

This fast-growing summer annual typically grows to about three feet tall and, while its leaves can take on a variety of forms depending upon growing conditions, usually has ovate to triangular leaves with toothed or slightly lobed edges with a white coating on the undersides. The scientific name for lambsquarters is “Chenopodium album” which refers to the shape of the leaves. “Chenopodium” comes from the Greek for goose foot – it really does resemble a goose foot. The species name “album” is Latin for white; this refers to that white coating which distinguishes it from other members of this genus.  You can generally guess that a plant has a long history with humans based upon its common names.  

White gritty coating on the underside of this leaf vanishes when you cook it -sue pike photo

One common name for lambsquarters is goosefoot-due to the shape of the leaves.  According to “The Real Food Encyclopedia” (foodprint.org) ““Lamb’s quarters goes by lots of different names, including “white goosefoot,” “pigweed,” “dungweed,” “baconweed” and “wild spinach.” One of its names, “fat hen,” comes from its supposed ability (as a feed) to fatten chickens.” These names speak to its many uses by humans-as a feed for pigs, as a substitute for spinach (it cooks up just like spinach), how great it tastes with bacon.  I love the name “Dungweed”, it  resonates with me and my big pile of pig manure.  

Eat the Weeds!!

There are a couple reasons lambsquarters accompanied humans on our migrations around the world.  It is extremely nutritious-it has even more protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and vitamin A then spinach.  Like spinach it is high in oxalic acid–which interferes with absorption of calcium and iron (among other things), so should be eaten in moderation, or blanched.  Blanching leaches out a good amount of the oxalic acid. Before you panic and decide not to eat lambsquarters, be aware that  rhubarb, tea, beer, almonds, chocolate and bananas are also high in oxalic acid.  

The goose-foot shaped leaf is very distinctive -sue pike photo

Lambsquarters has also spread so far because it has all the traits to make it a highly effective weed.  One plant can produce 70,000 seeds.  These seeds are tough, they can survive most digestive tracts (hence all those cute little lambsquarter plants springing out of my manure pile).  While this is a wind-pollinated species, it most often self-pollinates, ensuring a next generation. It also is resistant to many herbicides–which I think is great since herbicides are poisons that we shouldn’t be using in the first place.   I guess the take-home message here is if you want to control it in your garden, eat it before it goes to seed.  Or, alternatively, you can try letting some go to seed and harvesting the seeds-lambsquarters are in the same family as quinoa and amaranth-wouldn’t it be great to produce our own version of superseeds at home in our backyards? We are in the middle of a heat wave, most likely caused by our huge carbon footprints.  This is one small way to reduce our carbon footprint and create a more sustainable future-eat the weeds! 

Nature News: It’s baby bird season at the Center for Wildlife

published week of June 1, 2021 in the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald and other Seacoast Media Group print and digital sources.

This spring a robin built a nest in the dense lower branches of a fir tree next to our house.  It started sitting on eggs back in April.  Even though the nest was visible from the window it was so well camoflaged we didn’t actually notice it until it was built and the robin was sitting in it.  My partner, a wildlife photographer, wanted to try to take pictures of the nestlings but didn’t want to disturb the robin – there is always that possibility that a bird will abandon a nest following too much disturbance.  So we waited, perhaps  3-4 weeks before trying, but when we went out with the camera, the robins were gone. We’ll never know whether a predator got into the nest (it’s still intact and looks undisturbed so we hope not) or whether the babies fledged and left. But, after a quick tutorial on baby birds while visiting the Center for Wildlife’s (CFW) new facility in Cape Neddick last week I’m hopeful that the babies are out there now.

That bright orange mouth outlined by the rubbery yellow beak
make a perfect target for the parents when feeding their young. sue pike photo

This is baby animal season-the CFW has been receiving a wide variety of baby animals every day, from squirrels to opossums to countless baby birds.  The new facility gives the CFW the ability to house all these stressed and injured animals in comfortable, safe conditions and give them the state-of-the-art medical care they might need to survive and return to the wild.  According to executive director Kristen Lamb the best way to help spring babies is to protect their environment.  “1. Save tree work and removal for the colder months when wildlife are not nesting with young.  2. Keep an eye out after wind storms for young that have fallen from the nest.  3. Remember that not all young found are always abandoned, fledgling birds and other animals often spend time away from mom once they have reached a stage when they are almost ready to leave their nest or home.  4.  When possible, it is beneficial for wildlife when our domestic cats are kept indoors (especially in the spring).”  The advice about tree work hit home-they currently have some juvenile crows that were displaced from their nest during  tree work.  

Baby birds stay with their own–in this case robins–so that they will
not imprint on other species -sue pike photo

When a lone baby bird is brought to the CFW, as soon as it is able it is placed with others of the same species so that it can get to know what it should look like and learn the language of its species.  This is critical to the care of these youngsters-they can’t imprint on humans, or any other species and be able to function independently in the wild, they need to be surrounded by their own species.  This is one of the many reasons why, if you find an abandoned baby animal (first observe it for a while to make sure it is truly abandoned-most baby birds that people find are fledglings, they can’t fly well but probably have a parent close by feeding and protecting them), you should bring it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Other reasons to not raise a baby bird yourself: It is illegal to raise any wild bird in captivity unless you have the proper licenses.

Baby robins waiting for their every 20 minute feeding. Sue Pike photo

In addition, baby birds have specialized diets tailored to who they are -insectivore or seed eater- and nestlings need to be fed every 15-20 minutes, from sunrise to sundown. One study found that robin parents made feeding trips back and forth to the nest over 400 times in one day! 

Empty robins’ nest! We’re hoping the nestlings fledged. -sue pike photo

I asked Kristen whether it was plausible that the baby robins in the tree next to our house could have fledged (left the nest after acquiring enough feathers) and left so quickly.  She said certainly, American robins will often have 2 broods per summer with the total time from laying the egg to fledglings leaving the nest less than a month. Robins are super quick to rear their young and get them out of the nest.  Most birds are. Nests are dangerous places to be-they are predator magnets.  If I were a raccoon or a weasel I would spend a good part of my time in the spring looking for nests full of appetizing little nestlings.  

So, this time of year, watch for baby birds out on their own, but, if you find one, pay attention to what it is doing, back away and watch from a distance.  There is a good chance a parent is waiting nearby for you to leave and that the baby is really a teenager, out of the nest, hopping around and building up its flight muscles, in no need of rescue.

Nature News: Warblers are small, but colorful insect eaters

published May 17, 2021 in the York Weekly, Porstmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast Media Group local papers

I have a friend who has had bird feeders for years and is fairly knowledgeable about most of the birds that visit her feeders.  However, the other day I was telling her about the warblers that were coming through my yard and she asked me what exactly a warbler is. She had heard of warblers but had never knowingly seen one at the feeder.  But, warblers are small and quick and if you didn’t know what to look for your brain might lump them in with other small birds that are difficult to identify.  Another reason my friend might have missed encountering warblers is because most of the warblers in the United States and Canada (over 50 species breed up here) don’t visit bird feeders.

Warblers are neotropical migrants lured here by our bugs.

Warblers are among the smallest birds in our woods and can be among the most colorful.  They are neotropical migrants, meaning they overwinter in the new-world tropics (hence neo-tropics) migrating to North America in the spring to breed.  Starting perhaps mid-April they have been moving into and through New England on their way north.  Why come up here?  Why leave balmy Central and South America?  Insects!  It’s black fly season! I also heard my first mosquitoes today.  The lure of a high-protein bug-diet, necessary for raising young, is what brings these insect-eaters north. 

This palm warbler is one of the many warblers that migrate through in the spring. stevemorello.com photo

What is a warbler? According to Encyclopedia Britannica, warblers are “any of various species of small songbirds belonging predominantly to the Sylviidae, Parulidae, and Peucedramidae families of the order Passeriformes. Warblers are small, active insect eaters found in gardens, woodlands, and marshes.” (According to The Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy warbler course I’m taking there are actually 8 different families of birds with the name warbler!).   When we talk about warblers here in the U.S we are referring to the new world warblers (also known as wood warblers).  The wood warblers are more closely related to orioles but got the name warbler from their physical and behavioral resemblance to the old world warblers. 

Some tips on how to identify the confusing array of warblers.

While warblers have a wide variety of colors and patterns you can learn to recognize them by their overall shape-small with narrow insect-eating bills, short to medium tails, and, as mentioned before, they are active foragers, always moving about looking for their next meal.  If you want to take the plunge, the next step is to try to identify some.  This group is notoriously difficult to identify.  Because they are so active it can be hard to get a good look so you have to train yourself to look for a variety of features–color, wing bars, eye rings vs eye lines, breast markings or patterns on the tail.  Paying attention to where they are foraging is also helpful as many have divided up available habitat into different foraging areas to avoid direct competition for food (this is called resource partitioning).  A famous example of resource partitioning is from a 1958 study by Robert MacArthur in which he described how 5 different northeastern warbler species had divided up their foraging area-blackburnian and Cape May warblers preferring the tops of trees, while black-throated green warblers stuck to the inner branches around the middle. 

Watch for new warblers to show up at feeders throughout the spring

Spring is the best time to be looking for warblers.  Just like the spring wildflowers that are welcoming in the season, the arrival of these tiny migrants to our woods heralds the warmer days to come.  And, if the bears haven’t yet forced you to take down your bird feeders some might come by to check out the suet.  We’ve had yellow-rumped warblers, blue-winged warblers and palm warblers drop by this spring and have been hearing many more in the trees. So, while I am lamenting the arrival of the black flies and mosquitoes  I am also happy about it-more bugs means more warblers.

Nature News: The Ancient Life Cycle of the Mayfly

published 05/10/2021 in The York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald and other Seacoast Media Group publications

Life aquatic-what lives under the mirror-like surface of a local stream?

I don’t know why I was worried, but I was.  While preparing to lead a stream exploration I was worried that it was too early in the season to find anything interesting in the stream.  Worried despite the evidence all around me-while kayaking last weekend my son and I had encountered flights of mayflies, the aquatic juveniles metamorphosing into flying adults all around us, ethereal sprites fluttering up from the surface of the water into the sun.  Despite the black flies that are already plaguing us in the garden. Despite the warm spring days.  So, I went down to the little river/big stream that meanders through the valley behind my house and checked to see who was out and about in the stream bed.  I found tiny water boatmen, diving beetles and tons of juvenile mayflies (aka nymphs) and so realized I could stop worrying about a lack of aquatic life.  

What lives under the glassy surface of a stream? sue pike photo

A large number of insects spend a large part of their life cycle in an aquatic environment-take mosquitoes, their aquatic juvenile stages love growing up in stagnant water.  Black flies, on the other hand, prefer to lay their eggs in faster moving streams which, because of all that movement, are better oxygenated.  Damsel and dragonflies, caddisflies, stoneflies and mayflies are also aquatic up until they molt into the adult stages of their life cycles. 

It’s a great time to look for mayflies, the water is getting warm enough to wade in and swish a net around in search of interesting critters.  And over the next few weeks (and long into the summer–the name mayfly is misleading, different species in this group emerge at different times), if you are lucky, you might encounter mayfly nymphs molting into adults and swarming over the surface of a local stream.  

Mayflies are among the most ancient orders of insects on Earth!

Mayflies are an ancient order of insect, the Ephemeroptera, a taxonomic order that was here about 100 million years before the dinosaurs.  The term “Ephemeroptera” comes from the word “ephemeral” meaning short-lived and “optera” meaning “winged” referring to the short lifespan (a couple hours to a couple days) of the winged adults whose only purpose is to mate. The aquatic juveniles, called nymphs (or naiads) pass through numerous instars (growth stages) becoming gradually more adultlike with each molt.  This is called incomplete metamorphosis.  Unlike the complete metamorphosis of something like a butterfly that has a pupal stage in which everything about the body gets drastically rearranged, the mayflies gradually change with each molt (in which they shed the exoskeleton they’ve outgrown) until they become adults.  Mayflies are the only insects to have 2 adult stages-the first winged damselfly to emerge from the water is sexually immature, this stage quickly molts into a fully reproductive adult-the final stage in its life cycle that mates and dies.  

Life aquatic: two mayflies and a diving beetle. sue pike photo

Mayfly anatomy follows the basic rules of all insects.

If you want to look for mayfly nymphs you need to know a little bit about their anatomy in order to identify them.  Mayflies have 3 body regions: a head with relatively big compound eyes, a thorax to which the 6 legs are attached and an elongated abdomen which has beautiful leaf-like (or feathery, depending upon the species) gills extending from the sides and 3 cerci (thread or antenna-like appendages) that extend from the tip. The gills can be different sizes depending upon whether the mayfly lives in still water or running water.  In still water the gills are larger than in running water because there is less oxygen in still versus turbulent water. The gills also help protect the mayflies from predators by sending water off and away from their bodies at different angles-making it hard for predators to track them. If you want to explore mayfly identification in more detail, check out the UNH Center for Freshwater Biology (www.cfb.unh.edu) or the Stroud Center (www.stroudcenter.org) for really great identification keys.

The mayfly life cycle is a beautiful, ancient cycle happening in a stream near you.

The mayfly life cycle ends (or begins-depends upon how you look at it) with reproduction.  Their life cycles are timed so that entire populations of nymphs molt and leave the water in synchrony, with the flying adults forming huge swarms over the water. The males grab passing females with elongated front legs and they mate in flight.  The female then dips down to the surface of the water to lay her eggs, when done she often falls to the water’s surface to die, oftentimes feeding fish in the process. The males don’t stick around but rather go off to the nearby land to die.  It is a beautiful, ancient cycle, not to be missed, and could be happening at a stream near you.

You can find more of my posts about backyard nature on Instagram @pikeshikes