published June 24 2021 in The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Fosters’ Daily and other Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.
I’ve been driving back and forth to Manhattan fairly frequently to visit my aunt and like to spend some of the long drive checking out the vegetation growing in the various rest stops. There is one pretty little clover-type plant growing in both my super-sandy scrubby field and in most of the roadside rest stops and median strips, bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), that I decided to investigate further. This is not the lotus blossom famous for its beauty or, in Greek mythology for its narcotic powers (check out the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey fame), but rather the name given to the genus of a group of plants in the pea family. The species name, corniculatus, refers to its common name ‘bird’s-foot’ in reference to the ripened seed pods which curve outwards resembling a bird’s foot, each toe curved like a talon (hence “corniculatus” meaning small horns). The “trefoil” part of the name, which means ‘three leaves’ is a misnomer, these actually have 5 leaflets, three prominent ones and two hidden beneath.
3-foot taproots, fibrous mats of rhizomes–yikes!!
If you take a close look you’ll see that they do have clover-like leaves and flowers that resemble most of our other wild peas. Sadly, they are non-native, have spread throughout the United States and up into Canada and Alaska and are considered noxious invasives in some states. A native of Europe and Asia, they were introduced as forage for livestock. With their 3-foot taproots and fibrous mats of rhizomes they can quickly take over an area, smothering other native species.
Considered edible but all parts are poisonous
I thought, since they are in the pea family, they might be edible. Here’s where it got interesting. After some intensive googling I found one of my favorite descriptions of its edibility: “Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, is a member of the Pea Family and has been considered both edible and medicinal but be aware that all parts of this plant are poisonous.” (cargocultcafe.com). This is one of those plants that contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides (cyanide) that are not a huge issue in small amounts (and have been used medicinally in the past) but can be lethal to humans if enough is consumed. However, for wildlife it is a different story; bird’s-foot trefoil is considered a choice food by Canada geese and deer and attracts a variety of pollinators.
Most of the flowers in my meadow aren’t native anyway….
While I would love to have only native species growing in my yard, I would guess that at least 50% of the plants growing in my field/lawn are non-native. This is partially because these mowed fields are not a native habitat to this area and so attract and support any non-native open field plant that can get a toe-hold. I am trying to figure out whether to control this plant to keep it from dominating the field, reducing the overall biodiversity, or to eradicate it completely. Given that we have nutrient-poor sandy soil that many plants don’t like to grow in to begin with, and, as a legume it is a nitrogen-fixer, I’m leaning towards controlling but not eradicating it. In addition, bird’s-foot trefoil has beautiful clusters of bright yellow pea-like flowers shot through with streaks of red which the bees, wasps and other pollinators seem to love as much as the dandelions, butter-and-eggs toadflax, black-eyed-Susans and daisies that populate the field, which, by the way, are also non-natives.
published June 19 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and more Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.
We are seeing lots of evidence of baby animals in our backyard these days.
A persistent little red squirrel we’ve named Rusty is always coming by to see whether we have any seeds for her young. We figured out she was a female this spring when her eight teats were suddenly impossible to ignore. Baby nuthatches and house sparrows follow their parents through the trees begging for food. We can’t go into the barn until the young phoebes have finally left the nest. And, our neighbors told us about a red fox den just a couple houses down, with beautiful little pups (or kits, both are acceptable names for young foxes) frequently spied rolling around outside their den.
I have yet to see the fox, but, unfortunately my chickens have. We had a nice small flock of 11 chickens shrink to an even smaller flock of one lonely bird within two weeks. We don’t know this for a fact, but based upon the piles of feathers that leave a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb-esque trail up toward the fox den, we have a fairly good idea who the predator is. At least there are some well-fed young foxes out there!
Don’t encourage foxes by leaving out bird food or free-range chickens.
It isn’t a surprise that we have red foxes in the neighborhood. I’ve caught them a couple times with the game camera and have seen their tracks in the snow. I can’t really begrudge them my chickens. I was reading a post by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – How to Prevent or Resolve Conflicts with Foxes – and it is fairly obvious that our fox “problem” is our fault. “Research suggests that humans create the conditions for conflict by deliberately or inadvertently providing animals with food and shelter. Preventing or removing access to these attractants is the first essential step to resolving a wildlife problem. This includes eliminating access to shelter, being smart about garbage, planting native plants to attract birds rather than using bird seed, protecting poultry and livestock, and being a responsible pet owner.” While I love having my chickens free range (chickens are intelligent, curious birds who love exploring their surroundings), I’m not being a responsible poultry owner by letting them free range into a red foxes’ hungry jaws. It never even occurred to me that foxes might love bird feeders as much as bears.
Our red foxes are probably not native
The red foxes that live in New England are probably not native. There is a huge amount of debate about this in the research community, but what most agree on is that there were subspecies of European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in the northern boreal forests of North America prior to European colonization of these parts. We also have a definite native, the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which has a more southern distribution than the red fox, is smaller and more cat-like, and can climb trees. The native North American red fox (now considered a subspecies of the Old World red fox) didn’t do well with the influx of colonists and subsequent habitat disruption, so the gray fox was the one more frequently encountered. Those early colonists liked to fox hunt and didn’t do so well tracking the gray foxes up into the trees, so instead imported red foxes from Europe for recreational fox hunting, and now this red fox has spread throughout the continent. In fact, red foxes are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world and can wreak havoc upon small mammal and bird populations (think about what their introduction to Australia, that lacked this kind of predator all together, must have done to native bird populations!).
Native or not, red foxes aren’t going anywhere. They can actually be quite beneficial to have in your neighborhood since they do a wonderful job controlling rodent populations (we have a fairly robust rat population – due to all the chickens – so this is great!).
The Irish word for fox might be the root of the word shenanigans
And, if you think about it, the Old World red foxes are the type of species expected to do well with a human presence. They are wily animals. Coyotes are one of their main predators around here, so to keep the coyotes at bay, red fox tend to stay close to humans, our presence inadvertently protecting them from coyotes. The Natural Resource Council of Maine has a great post about fox wiliness, with a great fun fact “The Irish word for fox, ‘sionnach’, is believed to be the root of ‘shenanigans,’ to play tricks.”
I have reinforced my chicken pen and acquired some more chickens. I hope to keep these chickens from escaping and getting in harm’s way, but chickens are wily, too. I worry that they’ll figure out how to get out of the somewhat protected chicken run and wander, like the hapless chickens before them, straight back to the hungry local foxes’ jaws.
Published June 12, 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily etc
We recently bought a beautiful load of composted pig and cow manure from a local farm. I’m still working on building soil in my garden (our native soil is mostly sand–left over from the last glaciers that plowed through this area), so any organic content is great. Travelling along with the manure was a healthy crop of lambsquarters. This is a weed that grows almost everywhere–anywhere there are people and soil to grow in.
Lambsquarters are in the beet and spinach family!
Lambsquarters is a member of the goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae) which also includes beets and spinach. Lambsquarters is not native to North America, but does have an interesting history here. It is thought to have originated in Europe and Asia and then was spread to Africa, Australia and the Americas by human activity a really, really long time ago. Recent archeological studies have found seeds stored by Native Americans pre-dating the arrival of European colonists(who also most certainly brought lambsquarters with them to the Americas), suggesting that these plants were among the earliest invasive species (perhaps we could call them paleo-invaders along with the humans who brought them) in North America.
Goose foot-shaped leaves are one distinguishing feature
This fast-growing summer annual typically grows to about three feet tall and, while its leaves can take on a variety of forms depending upon growing conditions, usually has ovate to triangular leaves with toothed or slightly lobed edges with a white coating on the undersides. The scientific name for lambsquarters is “Chenopodium album” which refers to the shape of the leaves. “Chenopodium” comes from the Greek for goose foot – it really does resemble a goose foot. The species name “album” is Latin for white; this refers to that white coating which distinguishes it from other members of this genus. You can generally guess that a plant has a long history with humans based upon its common names.
One common name for lambsquarters is goosefoot-due to the shape of the leaves. According to “The Real Food Encyclopedia” (foodprint.org) ““Lamb’s quarters goes by lots of different names, including “white goosefoot,” “pigweed,” “dungweed,” “baconweed” and “wild spinach.” One of its names, “fat hen,” comes from its supposed ability (as a feed) to fatten chickens.” These names speak to its many uses by humans-as a feed for pigs, as a substitute for spinach (it cooks up just like spinach), how great it tastes with bacon. I love the name “Dungweed”, it resonates with me and my big pile of pig manure.
Eat the Weeds!!
There are a couple reasons lambsquarters accompanied humans on our migrations around the world. It is extremely nutritious-it has even more protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and vitamin A then spinach. Like spinach it is high in oxalic acid–which interferes with absorption of calcium and iron (among other things), so should be eaten in moderation, or blanched. Blanching leaches out a good amount of the oxalic acid. Before you panic and decide not to eat lambsquarters, be aware that rhubarb, tea, beer, almonds, chocolate and bananas are also high in oxalic acid.
Lambsquarters has also spread so far because it has all the traits to make it a highly effective weed. One plant can produce 70,000 seeds. These seeds are tough, they can survive most digestive tracts (hence all those cute little lambsquarter plants springing out of my manure pile). While this is a wind-pollinated species, it most often self-pollinates, ensuring a next generation. It also is resistant to many herbicides–which I think is great since herbicides are poisons that we shouldn’t be using in the first place. I guess the take-home message here is if you want to control it in your garden, eat it before it goes to seed. Or, alternatively, you can try letting some go to seed and harvesting the seeds-lambsquarters are in the same family as quinoa and amaranth-wouldn’t it be great to produce our own version of superseeds at home in our backyards? We are in the middle of a heat wave, most likely caused by our huge carbon footprints. This is one small way to reduce our carbon footprint and create a more sustainable future-eat the weeds!
published week of June 1, 2021 in the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald and other Seacoast Media Group print and digital sources.
This spring a robin built a nest in the dense lower branches of a fir tree next to our house. It started sitting on eggs back in April. Even though the nest was visible from the window it was so well camoflaged we didn’t actually notice it until it was built and the robin was sitting in it. My partner, a wildlife photographer, wanted to try to take pictures of the nestlings but didn’t want to disturb the robin – there is always that possibility that a bird will abandon a nest following too much disturbance. So we waited, perhaps 3-4 weeks before trying, but when we went out with the camera, the robins were gone. We’ll never know whether a predator got into the nest (it’s still intact and looks undisturbed so we hope not) or whether the babies fledged and left. But, after a quick tutorial on baby birds while visiting the Center for Wildlife’s (CFW) new facility in Cape Neddick last week I’m hopeful that the babies are out there now.
This is baby animal season-the CFW has been receiving a wide variety of baby animals every day, from squirrels to opossums to countless baby birds. The new facility gives the CFW the ability to house all these stressed and injured animals in comfortable, safe conditions and give them the state-of-the-art medical care they might need to survive and return to the wild. According to executive director Kristen Lamb the best way to help spring babies is to protect their environment. “1. Save tree work and removal for the colder months when wildlife are not nesting with young. 2. Keep an eye out after wind storms for young that have fallen from the nest. 3. Remember that not all young found are always abandoned, fledgling birds and other animals often spend time away from mom once they have reached a stage when they are almost ready to leave their nest or home. 4. When possible, it is beneficial for wildlife when our domestic cats are kept indoors (especially in the spring).” The advice about tree work hit home-they currently have some juvenile crows that were displaced from their nest during tree work.
When a lone baby bird is brought to the CFW, as soon as it is able it is placed with others of the same species so that it can get to know what it should look like and learn the language of its species. This is critical to the care of these youngsters-they can’t imprint on humans, or any other species and be able to function independently in the wild, they need to be surrounded by their own species. This is one of the many reasons why, if you find an abandoned baby animal (first observe it for a while to make sure it is truly abandoned-most baby birds that people find are fledglings, they can’t fly well but probably have a parent close by feeding and protecting them), you should bring it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Other reasons to not raise a baby bird yourself: It is illegal to raise any wild bird in captivity unless you have the proper licenses.
In addition, baby birds have specialized diets tailored to who they are -insectivore or seed eater- and nestlings need to be fed every 15-20 minutes, from sunrise to sundown. One study found that robin parents made feeding trips back and forth to the nest over 400 times in one day!
I asked Kristen whether it was plausible that the baby robins in the tree next to our house could have fledged (left the nest after acquiring enough feathers) and left so quickly. She said certainly, American robins will often have 2 broods per summer with the total time from laying the egg to fledglings leaving the nest less than a month. Robins are super quick to rear their young and get them out of the nest. Most birds are. Nests are dangerous places to be-they are predator magnets. If I were a raccoon or a weasel I would spend a good part of my time in the spring looking for nests full of appetizing little nestlings.
So, this time of year, watch for baby birds out on their own, but, if you find one, pay attention to what it is doing, back away and watch from a distance. There is a good chance a parent is waiting nearby for you to leave and that the baby is really a teenager, out of the nest, hopping around and building up its flight muscles, in no need of rescue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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