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. 

Nature News: Tracking a predatory stink bug

Anchor stink bug hauling this monarch caterpillar (already dead) around the milkweed plant Sue Pike Photo

Ever since my young cousins in New Jersey sent me photos of monarch butterfly eggs and tiny snow white monarch caterpillars with black heads (they don’t get colorful until later in development), I have been looking for the same on my milkweed plants. Unfortunately, the one and only monarch caterpillar I have found so far was dead, killed by a predatory stink bug. While great for the stink bug, this was, of course, tragic for the monarch caterpillar. We were unhappy as well since we have been encouraging milkweeds and planting all sorts of wildflowers in an attempt to create a safe haven for these beleaguered insects.

Initially, watching this menacing-looking bug drag the hapless carcass of the monarch caterpillar around, I was horrified and wanted to know who the culprit was. Identifying insects can be incredibly difficult. I tried some books and the internet, and I decided it was some sort of stink bug, perhaps an anchor stink bug. According to a “Featured Creatures” bulletin put out by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the stinkbug “genus is recognized easily by the enlarged long and broadly oval scutellum (located behind the pronotum) … subapical spine on the front femora; and ventral pubescent patches on the males.” I didn’t know what any of that meant, so I resorted to iNaturalist and the awesome folks at bugguide.net for the final identification. My tiny predator did turn out to be an anchor stink bug (Stiretrus anchorago).

The red arrow points to the ‘anchor’ on the stink bug’s back. Not real obvious here. Sue Pike photo

Now that I knew what an anchor bug looked like, I decided to at least learn what one of those seemingly obscure anatomical terms referred to. I call myself a naturalist and, upon finding out what a scutellum was, realized I’m a fairly ill-informed naturalist. All true bugs have a hard plate, called the scutellum, that is usually triangular, on their backs. The anchor bug’s scutellum is unusually large and U-shaped, something like a shield with a black anchor-like pattern on it. Now that I knew what to look for, the scutellum was, indeed, a very prominent and recognizable feature.

While refreshing my memory on insect anatomy, I was reminded of some of the differences between insects that are known as true bugs (some common examples are cicadas, water striders, stinkbugs and spittlebugs) and other insects, like beetles (not true bugs). It can be difficult to identify insects down to their species, but once you know what to look for, you should be able to distinguish a beetle from a true bug fairly easily. Beetles have chewing mouthparts whereas true bugs eat a liquid diet. True bugs have a beak, which they use to suck out the contents of whatever it is they are eating. The anchor bug uses its beak to harpoon its prey and then inject digestive enzymes that first immobilizes the prey and subsequently turn its insides into goo, which they then suck up with those same beaks. If you look carefully at the photo, you can see a tubular structure attaching the anchor bug to the caterpillar — that’s the beak, firmly implanted in the caterpillar. A number of pests (aphids, for example) are true bugs that use their beaks to feed on the fluids inside plants.

The easiest way to know whether you are seeing a true bug or a beetle is the wings on the back. Beetles have hard, leathery forewings that cover up and protect the hind wings. When at rest, the hard forewings meet in the middle of the back forming a line down the middle separating the two wings. These have to be lifted out of the way when the beetle flies. Only the first part of the forewing of a true bug is hardened (hence the scientific name, Hemiptera, which means half wing). At rest, the wings cross over each other so that from above they have a triangular shape. All true bugs also have a scutellum in between the wings, sometimes it is reduced in size and sometimes it is big and obvious, like in the anchor bug.

Anchor bugs live solitary existences, roaming the landscape in search of prey and are considered to be economically beneficial insects. As generalist predators, they are good biological controls of a variety of pest species (though they really aren’t common enough to make a big dent in a pest population). Look for them in your garden or a nearby field, they are strikingly beautiful bugs with their bold patterns of black and red, yellow or white. Now that I know who they are, next time I see one, I will welcome it gladly and not judge it for killing the occasional monarch butterfly, being, as they are, important members of our local backyard ecosystems.

Nature News: Baltimore orioles are here for our bugs

published May 25th in seacoastonline.com and the Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily etc

Male baltimore oriole Steve Morello photo/stevemorello.com

Our woods are starting to get extremely buggy, so much so I was thinking about ways to kill off mosquito and black fly larvae. I mentioned this to my son and was, luckily, brought back to my senses by his reply–”what about the birds?”.  We do have extremely buggy springs and summers, this is the reason many birds (neotropical migratory birds) migrate up from the tropics to breed in our forests.  They escape the competitive pressures of the tropics (so many species competing for the same resources) and instead spend the energetic capital to come up here where there are fewer competitors and tons of insects and fruit.  They don’t overwinter because the supply of food (insects and fruit) diminishes to unsustainable levels in the fall and winter.  So, I decided not to buy some mosquito dunks to toss into my ponds and let nature take its course.

Female oriole Steve Morello photo
stevemorello.com

One of the flashiest neotropical migrants nesting in our backyard this year is a pair of orioles.  I love these birds-they have a beautiful melodic song, weave intricate, pendulous nests and are so colorful.  The males are resplendent orange and black, while the females and juveniles are a lovely yellow with some orange patches on the breast, gray on the head and back, with two obvious white wing bars (the males only have one).  They are sturdy birds with long pointed bills-resembling the other members of their family-the blackbirds and meadowlarks. Knowing this relationship makes it easier for me to identify their call–it has that burbling quality of a meadowlark’s call.  We put out oranges at the feeder, along with some grape jelly, and they visit, scooping up brilliant globs of jelly that glow in the sunlight. 

This dates me a bit, but I always have to consult my most recent bird book about their name.  I remember when this species was combined with the Bullock’s oriole into one species called the northern oriole because there was so much hybridization where their ranges overlapped in the Great Plains.  Then, back in the 1990s (seems like yesterday), genetic studies determined that they are, in fact, two separate species and so they were given their old names back. 

My favorite thing about orioles, and perhaps the thing they are most famous for, is their nest-a dangling sock-like structure.  I’ve been looking around for the nest but haven’t found it yet–I thought they always dangled from a branch but this isn’t  true, sometimes the nest is anchored to the trunk of a tree.   The females are the weavers, constructing their nests in three stages.  First, the outer dangling sock, which she begins by looping long flexible fibers (grasses, bark, wool, old string or fishing line) over a tree branch and then pushing her bill through the fibers which tangles them and creates knots.  While random in nature these knots form a decidedly strong woven nest.  She’ll do one side first and often works from inside the bowl to shape the rest of the nest. She then adds springy fibers to give more support to the inner bowl and finally soft materials and feathers to line the bowl. (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology).  It generally takes about one week to construct the nest.

While Baltimore orioles are certainly attracted to fruit and sugary liquids (like jelly or the hummingbird feeder) while raising young the majority of their diet are insects which provide the protein needed for growth.  In the fall and spring, before and during migration, their diet shifts to mostly ripe fruit and nectar-these provide the high energy sugars needed for the rigors of migration. 

If you want Baltimore orioles and other neotropical migrants (warblers, tanagers, etc)  in your backyard, don’t use pesticides.  Insecticides kill insects-essential prey for our migratory birds. Remember, the reason migratory birds come here isn’t to visit us, it is for our bugs. 

Nature News: Yellow Toadflax Thrives in Concrete Wasteland

published July 22 with seacoastonline.com and in the Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and other Seacoast newspapers

Yellow toadflax growing through a crack in the concrete. Sue Pike photo

I was up at a farmers’ market in Lewiston and in the midst of a veritable concrete desert, there, at the juncture of an old concrete building foundation and concrete/asphalt parking lot, was a burst of color, of nature, of growth.  A flower I knew as ‘butter-and-eggs’, also known as yellow toadflax, had made its way through some miniscule crack in the concrete to flower surrounded by desolation.  There was even a wasp slurping some nectar.  A little oasis in the desert! 

My first question was how is this possible? It turns out concrete, and probably almost anything we think of as impervious that we lay down on the ground, has microscopic cracks.  A seed germinating under one of those cracks pushes upwards, seeking the path of least resistance which it finds in those cracks and breaks through.  I forgot that there is actually dirt under all that concrete, evidently enough for the roots to grow, the roots help supply the energy for the plant to break through.  That’s all it needs–some oomph from the roots and then the sunlight on the other side of the concrete.  What kills me is that I struggle to grow certain plants in my garden, yet here the little yellow toadflax flourishes amidst the harshest of conditions.

Butter and eggs…what a great name!!

I have always had a soft spot for yellow toadflax, which is also called butter-and-eggs due to its rich two-toned snapdragon-type flower with a deep orange ‘lip’ (the eggs)  sandwiched between light yellow ‘lips’ (the butter).  Like a snapdragon you can squeeze the flower from the side to make it open its mouth.  Who couldn’t love this?  Unfortunately it is an invasive species-originally introduced from Eurasia that has spread everywhere and can be incredibly difficult to eradicate from your garden due to its tenacious creeping rhizomes, vegetative buds on its roots,  prolific seeds and the ability of root fragments as small as half an inch to grow into a new plant. 

According to Larry W. Mitich’s article ‘Intriguing World of Weeds’ (published in Dec 1991 in The Weed Science Society of America’s publication ‘Weed Technology’) yellow toadflax was 

“introduced to America from Wales, as a garden flower, by Ranstead, a Welsh Quaker who came to Delaware with William Penn… Ranstead shared it with other settlers who were eager to get it for use in a lotion that was unparalleled for insect bites….And before the introduction of screen doors, window screens, and flypaper, yellow toadflax was used to fight the swarms of flies that tormented settlers. The plant was boiled in milk which was set out in saucers to poison flies.…..But the widest use of yellow toadflax was for a dye. For centuries it had been used for a yellow dye in Germany, and immigrants, especially the Mennonites, were delighted to find Ranstead’s herb already established in the New World. Soon they were cultivating it in fields for making dye for their homespun apparel and other items.”  Over time yellow toadflax became naturalized throughout North America and has become a destructive weed in many states.  

Same butter and eggs as before–but note the wasp in the flower to the left-it is slightly more in focus than the first image Sue Pike photo

I am torn, I don’t have any in my garden right now, and know it should be avoided as a relatively aggressive, invasive plant.  On the other hand, while watching that tiny patch of yellow toadflax sprouting from the pavement it was visited by at least 3 wasps and a large number of bees-more than I’ve seen visit some of the flowers in my garden.  Friends who have it in their gardens tell me it is a bee magnet.  Only the larger bees can pollinate it since they need to force their way between those two lips to get at the nectar.  In a time where we are actively planting pollinator gardens because of decreased food sources for pollinating insects should we encourage everything that feeds the bees (and other insects)?  I don’t know what I will do about it if it shows up in my garden, but I do know that it made my day to see that yellow toadflax pushing through the pavement of that desolate parking lot, adding some life and beauty and color to an otherwise monochrome landscape.