The love-hate relationship with some caterpillars can be vexing even for a nature lover

Sue Pike seacoastonline.com Published August 18 2022

I find I have to constantly keep my knee-jerk reactions to certain insects in my garden in check.  I tend to have an us vs them mentality when it comes to insects that I find feeding upon the foliage of plants I hold near and dear to my heart.  I planted a hedgerow a number of years ago that is just starting to flourish.  In it grow a variety of native shrubs-spicebush, elderberry, chokecherry, serviceberry.  The idea is to create safe harbors and food sources for native insects and birds.  Last week two different caterpillars showed up on the serviceberries.  These two caterpillars perfectly illustrate my sometimes conflicted reaction to the insects that eat my plants-a tiger swallowtail caterpillar and some yellow-necked caterpillars (Datana ministra).

Tiger swallowtail caterpillars rest during the day in webby hammocks Sue Pike photo

Tiger swallowtail caterpillars are adorable: medium-sized plump green caterpillars with a swollen thorax (the segment right behind the head, which in this case covers the head) sporting two prominent false eye spots used to scare away would-be predators.  The flying adults are large yellow and black butterflies with the dangling tails, fairly common in this area.  There are two similar tiger swallowtails found in this area.  The range of the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) extends further south and the Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) further north.  To make things more confusing, these two species hybridize in central New England-so this particular caterpillar might be a cross between the two species.  Since it is difficult to distinguish hybrids from Eastern and Canadian tiger swallowtails, I have referred to this caterpillar as a tiger swallowtail-that much I’m sure of. 

Yellow-necked caterpillars are cute in their own way-dark heads, a bright yellow segment just behind the head (hence the name), with sporty brown and yellow stripes running the length of their bodies.  But they lack those engaging cartoon eyes and, more importantly, they are very gregarious-I counted at least 50 on the serviceberry bush.  Groups of ten or more were clumped on the branch tips, actively stripping the serviceberry of its outermost leaves (unlike the low-key solitary tiger swallowtail). Later this summer they will burrow into the ground to overwinter before emerging next spring as small moths.  Instead of the delight I felt upon seeing the tiger swallowtail caterpillar I immediately began planning their demise.    

Yellow-necked caterpillars are not as ‘cute’ as tiger swallowtails and are more obvious defoliators. Large groups can quickly strip branches bare of leaves. Sue Pike photo taken at littleriverphotoworkshop

If you do a search on tiger swallowtail caterpillars you’ll find lots of interesting life-history, nothing about ‘control’ since these are not considered a pest species.  Yellow-necked caterpillars, on the other hand, are considered pests.  They can cause damage to planted fruit and shade trees, but in their natural environment, in a forest for example, they do not significantly damage their host trees.  

The purpose of my hedgerow is to provide food and shelter for native species.  Both the tiger swallowtail and the yellow-necked caterpillars are doing what comes naturally, feeding on the leaves of the trees and shrubs in my hedgerow.  Both of these species provide food for birds, predaceous bugs and parasitic flies. As I considered the fate of my yellow-necked caterpillars I realized that removing them meant removing a food source for others as well as contributing to the decline of a native insect.  I figure that if the yellow-necks feed according to plan they will defoliate just the outer branches of my serviceberry bush.   If I’m lucky some robins (robins evidently love yellow-necked caterpillars) will discover them and provide a little bit of control. But if not, my serviceberry should survive this natural pruning, and hopefully next year will support even more backyard diversity.

Hopefully my serviceberries are healthy enough to withstand these yellow-necked caterpillars! Sue Pike photo

Black bears can have a coat of many colors in Alaska

Sue Pike seacoastonline.com Published August 9, 2022

While working as a naturalist in Southeast Alaska this summer I learned so much about the vastly different flora and fauna found in the temperate rainforest that we were traveling  through.   But even more eye-opening was when I experienced wildlife common to New England in a totally different way.  One species we frequently encountered that I now see in an entirely different way is the black bear.

Brown variation of a black bear foraging on barnacles in Alaska’s Inside Passage Sue Pike photo

When you go to Alaska you expect to see brown bears (the coastal name for grizzly bears), but we saw just as many black bears. Those of us from the East Coast were not too excited by our encounters with black bears.  We were jaded. We all had stories of black bears ripping down our bird feeders or hanging out on our back porches…we were there to see the iconic Alaskan brown bears.   However, with time we began to appreciate just how wild these bears were compared to our suburban black bear neighbors.  In Alaska we watched black bears coming down to the intertidal to eat barnacles and mussels or flip up rocks to catch all the interesting crustaceans that live underneath.  This was a far cry from our bird-feeder plundering backyard bears. 

Black bears (Ursus Americanus)  are found throughout most of North America-from northern Mexico up to the treeline in Canada and Alaska.  Black bears are the smallest of North America’s native bears (black, brown/grizzly and polar), and are the only bear found in the eastern US.   East Coast black bears are usually black, but out west black bears come in a host of colors-anywhere from black to brown to blue/gray to white (the rare and elusive ‘spirit’ or Kermode bear).  In fact black bears have more coat color variation than most North American mammals!  One has to wonder what name black bears would have been given by European settlers if first encountered on the West Coast.

You can tell this isn’t a brown bear (aka grizzly in some parts) by the lack of a shoulder hump and snout shape. Sue Pike photo

The actual reason for these different color phases isn’t known but there are several plausible theories.  The darker black bears are better camouflaged in our deep East Coast woods.  Out west where their habitat includes more big open meadows, lighter colors could provide more camouflage as well as some protection from the more intense solar radiation (like wearing lighter colored clothes in the summer). We saw brown black bears in SE Alaska, a temperate rainforest where thick coniferous forests stretched from the shoreline up to the treeline, one would think the lighter color could be a liability there.   Another interesting idea posits that the brown coat color is a form of mimicry-making black bears look like their larger, more ferocious cousins, the brown/grizzly bears.  The best way to tell a grizzly from a black bear is to look for the grizzly’s telltale shoulder hump.  Black bears can also be distinguished by having a rump higher than the shoulder, a straight face profile with an often lighter muzzle and tall, somewhat prominent ears.

One of the biggest lessons I learned about black bears from my experience in Alaska was just what opportunistic feeders these animals are. Watching them smash barnacles and mussels in the intertidal and then licking them from their paws one minute, contentedly munch on salmonberries the next, then graze on coastal sedges like a deer while waiting for the salmon to run made me realize I don’t really know what they eat in my backyard besides bird food and blueberries.  According to Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife “Although bears eat meat, their diet is primarily vegetarian, including early greening grasses, clover, and the buds of hardwood trees in the spring, fruits and berries in summer, and beechnuts, acorns, and hazelnuts in the fall. This diet is supplemented with insects, including ants and bees (their larvae, adults, and honey), and occasional mammals and birds. Bears are not considered efficient predators, but they are known to prey on young deer and moose in late spring, and will consume carrion. Bears are intelligent, and adapt rapidly to new food sources, including agricultural crops and food placed to attract other wildlife, such as bird feeders, and untended garbage.”  

We are slowly heading into fall, a time when bears will be bulking up for their winter-long fast.  Females in particular need to put on an enormous amount of fat to support fetal development and milk production.  So, if you haven’t done this already, keep a tight lid on garbage and bring in the bird feeders at night if you have a significant bear population in your area.  Problems between bears and humans are more likely to occur if we allow bears to become too familiar with us. While I knew this already, because we were out in the wilds with bears so much in Alaska this became more real. When walking in the woods with bears (both black and brown) we wanted them to leave when they heard us coming-not view us as a potential source of food. 

Nature News: Rare northern blazing stars found in abundance on Maine’s Kennebunk Plains

Sue Pike – seacoastonline.com 8/23/22

Northern blazing stars blooming now in the Kennebunk Plains littleriverphotoworkshops.com

It’s not too late to see northern blazing stars in all of their glory.  You need to find some dry grasslands, preferably with sandy soil, and look for a spiky purple flower.  I was up visiting the Kennebunk Plains this past week looking for these beautiful flowers, a wonderful place to look for rare and unusual plants and animals.  These grasslands are home to grasshopper sparrows (endangered in Maine) and upland sandpipers (threatened in Maine).  This is the home to one of only two known populations of the endangered black racer snake. There is a big sign that tells you all about these gorgeous snakes, however (for those of you not into snakes) the chance of seeing one is virtually nil.   

The reason to go to the Kennebunk Plains to see northern blazing stars is that they occur virtually nowhere else in Maine.  Also, the Kennebunk Plains population of this plant  is thought to be the largest in the world.  Northern (aka New England) blazing stars are native to the northeastern United States, in fact they are endemic to this area-meaning they occur nowhere else in the world.   Sadly northern blazing stars are rare and protected in most of New England-they are state-listed as threatened in Maine and endangered in New Hampshire.  While northern blazing stars can be found in a variety of habitats-from grasslands, meadows, cliffs, beaches and coastal meadows, even anthropogenic (man-made or disturbed) habitats, a place like the Kennebunk Plains with its vast sandplain grasslands that are kept open by the use of controlled burns presents as ideal viewing as you can get.  

The reason to go to the Kennebunk Plains to see northern blazing stars is that they occur virtually nowhere else in Maine. Sue Pike Photo

If you are interested in the bigger picture you might want to visit the Kennebunk Plains simply for its grasslands, which are considered to be one of the rarest and most threatened natural communities in New England.  The Kennebunk Plains was formed by glacial retreat approximately 14,000 years ago.  Meltwater streams formed outwash plains composed of well-sorted sand and gravel. These sandy soils have little capacity to hold water and nutrients and so the vegetation is subject to recurring drought and fire (maine.gov). Many of the plants that thrive in places like the Kennebunk Plains are therefore drought and fire-adapted.  Species like the pitch pine which have thick bark that acts as armor against fire and serotinous pine cones-a type of pine cone covered with a thick resin that needs to be melted (by fire) before the cone can open and release its seeds.  Fire also benefits the northern blazing star.  Studies have shown that following fire there is an increase in the number of flowering plants and seeds produced per flower head, as well as a decrease in the amount of seed predation by moth larvae. Fire also increased seedling establishment and growth by reducing leaf litter  (Peter Vickery, 2009). 

This particular habitat with this particular soil type isn’t restricted to the Kennebunk Plains, you can find it in the Wells Barrens, even my backyard-this is unfortunate for all the non-drought and non-fire-adapted plants I keep trying to grow there.  

I have grown blazing stars in my garden for years and years, however I haven’t been growing our native northern blazing star (Liatris novae-angliae).  Globally, there are about 45 species in genus Liatris. They are all native to North America. The blazing star you can find in most local greenhouses is Liatris spicata (Licata is the genus, spicata is the species), a species with a more southern natural distribution. This is what I grew in my garden until I began my quest to preserve local biodiversity by planting native species whenever possible.  Liatris spicata is often marketed as a native plant, but now I know to always double check by looking for the species name-in this case ‘novae-angliae’.  As a result of visiting the Kennebunk Plains while the blazing star was blooming I have a new vision for the sandy soil parts of my property-instead of changing the soil into something it’s not, I plan to embrace the glacial heritage of this land (this speaks to the Earth Science teacher in me!) and work on restoring the sandplain grassland habitat it was meant to be.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

High school biology comes in handy sometimes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long boiling time produces more flavorful sap

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

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

Tapping trees is incredibly easy to do!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

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

Turkey vultures are most closely related to storks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantages of holding onto your leaves in winter

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

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

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

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

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

Leaves need sunscreen in winter!

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

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

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

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

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

Teaberry is a wonderful addition to any wildlife garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wonders of a dichotomous key!

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

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

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

It is nice to still have mysteries in the world.

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

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

Nature News: The Common Loon

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

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

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

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

Loons are built for swimming

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

Loon scanning the depths for fish sue pike photo

The search for young loons and rafting loons

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

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

Looks to me like social hour for loons sue pike photo

Loons get more social as summer progresses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angelica stands out against the green cliffs of Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flies flock to Angelica!