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

Nature News: Dandelions will thrive as climate changes. Here’s why.

published in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Fosters Daily, York County Coast Star 5/24/2021

My Integrated Earth Science class is immersed in its last unit of the year-the science of past and future climates and the mechanisms that underlie climate change.  As an excuse to get outside I made up something called a Climate Change Impact Photo Scavenger Hunt.  The idea was to go outside and take a picture of something that you think might be being impacted by climate change and then do a little research and find the climate change story.   One of my classes really went crazy with photos of dandelions (the other class would have but I stupidly warned them away from dandelions believing them to be boring).   Turns out, dandelions provide a terrific story about how human-caused climate change is affecting dandelion growth, one that applies to many other plants that tend to be ‘aggressive’ growers already, one that teaches a great lesson about the complexity of interactions between living things and a changing environment. 

Elevated atmospheric CO2 causes dandelions to grow larger & spread faster. www.stevemorello.com photo

There have been a number of studies of dandelions in which researchers grew dandelions with elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide (twice current levels) and found that the increased CO2 caused the plants to produce more flowers and more seeds.  The seeds were heavier and produced larger seedlings that grew more robustly.  Then, in a study from Weed Science (“Reproduction of Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) in a Higher CO2 Environment” 2007 by McPeek and Wang) I found this sentence “Furthermore, achenes from plants grown at elevated CO2 had characteristics, such as higher stalks at seed maturity, longer beaks, and larger pappi, which would increase the distance of seed dispersal by wind.”  I love vocabulary-this was just great-achenes, beaks and pappi!  

Plant Anatomy 101

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I did not like my college botany class and failed to absorb the wonderfully rich terminology used to describe the complexity of plants.  If I had, I might have already known about achenes, beaks and pappi-terms I find confusing enough I am almost afraid to write about them.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica an achene is “a dry, one-seeded fruit lacking special seams that split to release the seed. The seed coat is attached to the thin, dry ovary wall (husk) by a short stalk, so that the seed is easily freed from the husk, as in buckwheat. The fruits of many plants in the buttercup family and the rose family are achenes.”  Sunflower and dandelion seeds are also considered achenes.  What this means is that  each little feathery tendril of a puffy dandelion seedhead is an individual fruit. Each of those achenes is an individual ovary containing one seed that is attached to the feathery, helicoptery pappi by a long slender beak.  If the beaks are longer and the pappi are larger, you have larger helicopters (or maybe parachutes? I’m not sure what to call them) that will help carry the seeds further afield.  You put all of these enhanced traits together and you get dandelions on steroids, like the bionic man, they are bigger, stronger and faster. And so, the predictions are that they will thrive in future high CO2 environments. 

Achenes, beaks and pappi! www.stevemorello.com photo

Whether this enhanced proliferation of dandelions is good or bad is all relative and is dependent upon whether you think dandelions are awesome plants or the scourges of a manicured lawn.  They were brought to this country by colonists who considered them medicinal powerhouses, curing all sorts of ailments most likely by providing needed vitamins.  They are good for your lawn-they break up the soil and help aerate it.  They are good for pollinators, a source of nectar that is available from spring through the fall.

In the end I wish I had encouraged everyone in my class to investigate dandelions from the start.  What I found as students shared their reports about climate change and dandelions was that because dandelions are so familiar it was easy  to connect to their climate change story, making the changes that are happening all around us more tangible, more real.

You can find more nature news (including informative nature minute videos about backyard nature) from me on Instagram @pikeshikes

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

published Feb 24 2021

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

Citizen Science!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature News: Red-breasted nuthatches are feisty little birds

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

Red-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

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

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

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

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

White-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

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

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

Nuthatches line their nest holes with pine pitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

long-tailed duck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birch Trees Bending

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

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

Birch and beech saplings on a snowy afternoon

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

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

Adaptations to the North

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

Hemlocks conical shape lets snow slide off (eventually!)

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

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

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

Free the Trees!!

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

Stephanie Eno clearing snow from bowed maple and birch saplings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gular pouches vs crops vs gizzards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nature News Pileated woodpecker: a powerful bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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