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.  

Nature News: Harvesting oyster mushrooms in the wild

By Susan Pike

Oyster mushrooms growing up a live poplar Sue Pike photo

I am thinking that with the predicted relatively mild (for this time of year), wet weather this week we could still see some mushrooms popping up in the woods. I hope so. I’ve found a tree that seems to be hosting some oyster mushrooms. I’ll be visiting it again this week in the hopes of one last harvest.

I am very hesitant to forage for mushrooms in the wild. I won’t eat anything I have found growing from a stump, a dying tree or the forest floor unless it has absolutely no poisonous look-alikes and I have quadruple-checked its identity. Keeping that in mind, while out in the woods a few weeks ago, I happened upon a tree bearing what I knew must be oyster mushrooms. I checked them with iNature as well as some Googling, then cut some from the tree (but left some for others, people or animals) and walked out with my handful of mushrooms and plans for dinner.

Dinner! Sue Pike photo

Know the substrate!

Being a teacher comes in handy sometimes. It is amazing how many current and previous students I often meet while out on the trail. This time, a previous student, now in college, was out hiking with his roommates. He is a marine bio major, one roommate was an environmental engineer, the other was a forestry major. This was great. The forestry major could help with the ID! One of the things to look for when identifying fungi is the substrate from which they are growing. Mushrooms are usually substrate-specific. Chanterelles grow from the soil, usually under oak and beech trees, but sometimes under conifers. Turkey tails usually grow on deciduous trees. The currently trendy, medicinal reishi mushrooms are only found on conifers, primarily hemlocks.

Oyster mushrooms are most likely to grow on deciduous trees so I wanted to make sure that was the kind of tree “my” oyster mushrooms had been harvested from. Luckily, the young forestry major was able to identify the tree as a poplar, which checked off one more box in the positive identification of these mushrooms.

Double check your ID with field guides-the more different ones the better.

I have at least 10 different mushroom field guides. So, when I got home I checked them all, looking for other characteristics of oyster mushrooms: they can smell of anise (mine did), the stems have no ring (mine didn’t), and it was the right time of year. Finally, I sent photos to some mycologist friends just to be absolutely sure and they concurred with my identification. So, I cooked some up for my dinner to make sure that they sat well with me. They did, and the next night fed my family. Is it worth it going through all this to eat a mushroom that I can buy at a local farmers market or grocery?  I don’t know about everyone, but the satisfaction of eating something found in the wild can’t be beat.

Most trees can be identified by bark alone…I’m not great at that….but am fairly certain this was a poplar

Is mushroom picking sustainable?

However, I worry about the sustainability of foraging. It is a luxury that I can go out and forage, it’s a hobby. I don’t need to do it.  And I worry, if I take mushrooms from the forest, what about the deer, rabbits, squirrels and mice, not to mention, the numerous insects that also feast upon fungi? They can’t pick up some wild mushrooms at the grocery. So, I don’t always pick mushrooms, and when I do, I leave some for everyone else.  

What about the mushrooms themselves? Overharvesting should always be avoided. If you are picking mushrooms whose gills are open, there is a good chance they have already released their spores. They’ve done their job, so that is a good time to harvest.  The point of a mushroom is reproduction. The mushrooms we eat are the fruiting bodies (reproductive parts) of fungi. They contain the spores which they disperse for reproduction.

What exactly are you eating? A fruiting body?

When you eat a mushroom, you are eating something organized in a bizarrely different way from our plant and animal neighbors. When nature gives the cue that it is a good time to reproduce, mushrooms are formed from hyphae, thin threads that make up the “body” of most fungi. The hyphae are always there, they extend throughout whatever substrate the mushroom emerges from – a rotting log, the forest floor, the soil, sometimes forming vast networks (called mycelia). These are the white threads you find if you dig through some leaf litter or turn over a rotting log. That mushroom you are eating for dinner (the fruiting body) is composed of these long tubular hyphae, molded into fantastic shapes, their only goal – to release spores and reproduce. That’s what my oyster mushrooms were doing, releasing spores to the wind.

I’m looking forward to a few more mild, rainy, mushroom-friendly days. Oyster mushroom season lasts through November in the Northeast. However, most of the time I will enjoy just looking and only occasionally bring some home for dinner.

Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at Dover High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at spike3116@gmail.com. Read more of her Nature News columns on paper (the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly etc) or online at Seacoastonline.com, here at pikes-hikes.com, and follow her on Instagram @pikeshikes.

Nature News: Sparking Curiosity About What Doe-Eyed Creatures See

published on seacoastonline.com and in The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Fosters Daily Democrat etc.

White-tailed doe gazing at a drone in Addison ME photo by Everett Grant

My classes have been remote this fall. This is a hard thing for a science teacher-I like my classes to be messy, to get outside and explore, to get to know my students face to face, not through the lens of a computer’s camera.  I try to bridge the electronic gap by sharing stories about things I have recently seen, hoping to make some kind of connection, spark some curiosity.  

Last week I was telling my biology class about some people out walking in Kennebunk Plains who were wearing blaze orange vests that had a black camo pattern.  I said I thought this was weird–if you’re wearing bright orange, why the need to camouflage?  I had a few hunters in the class who explained about it being deer season and the necessity of wearing blaze, which led us off path and down the rabbit hole following the question, what exactly do deer see?  Can they see that bright orange vest?  If so, then the camo pattern is pointless.  But, if they can’t see bright orange, then the camo makes sense.  This didn’t fit in with my daily curriculum plan, but it is biology, so we did some research.

I had always thought that deer were color blind, and so thought I knew the answer to the question I had posed-what do deer see?  Turns out I only knew part of the story.  

If you have ever looked at the face of a white-tailed deer you have noticed its prominent  brown eyes.  Doe-eyed means (according to the Oxford Dictionary) “having large, gentle, dark eyes.” Deer have large eyes because, as a prey species, they need to be able to see as much of their environment as possible so that they can flee at the slightest hint of danger.  Their eyes are placed to the sides of their heads allowing them to see in a wide arc without moving their heads – a helpful adaptation for survival.  Deer have the eye placement of prey, humans, with our forward-facing, binocular vision that allows for better depth perception have the eyes of a predator.  Deer can both graze and watch for predators at the same time, we humans would need to post a guard.

But, what can deer see? Can they see that blaze orange vest? 

Like many nocturnal and crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) animals, deer have a much higher density of rods in their retinas compared with cones.  Rods are light receptors (more than 1000 times more sensitive to light than cones).  Because deer are most active at dawn and dusk they need to be as sensitive to light as possible, packing lots of rods into their retinas helps them see very well in the dark.  Cones, on the other hand, are active at higher light levels, they detect color and are responsible for high resolution vision.  According to Penn State’s Jeannine Fleegle,“Even though deer have less than half the number of cones in the eye as humans, deer can still distinguish among different colors. During low-light conditions, deer are likely more sensitive to the blue to blue-green portion of the spectrum (due to the high rod density). Studies indicate that deer are less sensitive to light of long wavelengths (orange and red) and rely upon their perception of only 2 colors – yellow and blue.” (from “The Eyes Have It” published in the Deer-Forest Blog  2015). 

This means that red, orange and green all look the same to a deer-meaning that blaze orange vest might very well blend into the surrounding greenery.  But to truly blend in you have to be careful what material your vest is made out of and what you wash it with.  Deer lack a UV filter in their eye-they can see further into the UV spectrum than we can (we have a UV filter in our lens, presumably to help protect our eyes from damaging UV radiation-an issue when you are most active in daylight).  Shiny materials and cloth washed with various detergents and brightening agents all emit more radiation in the bluer/UV part of the spectrum and will stand out to a deer in the same way that blaze orange vest stands out to us. 

Sparking curiosity?

What we learned in class is just the tip of the iceberg in the study of deer vision. Other aspects of deer eyes come into play-their horizontal pupils for one.  Why do some animals have horizontal pupils? Great question! Sadly the quarter is over and I won’t get to pursue this in class, but I’m hoping that, having been introduced to the interesting differences between human and deer vision, my students might want to investigate this question all on their own.

Nature News: The mating rituals of water striders

published May 6, 2020 seacoastonline.com, the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily and the York County Coast Star

The last time I wrote about water striders, it was the middle of the summer. I was sitting by a pond battling mosquitoes while watching them skate across the surface of the pond. I love how fast they move, which I didn’t understand. Are they skating and digging in their little feet for some purchase on the slick surface of the pond? Or is it a sticky surface that just looks like glass?

Water striders caught in the act of mating photo by Steve Morello stevemorello.com

Turns out not all small insects can do this – walk and skate on water. Water striders can because they have very fine hairs on the undersides of their legs that trap air and repel water. The scientific term for this is superhydrophobic. They can move so quickly because what they are doing is more like rowing, vigorously rowing, creating little swirls in the surface that help propel them forward. For their body size, they move fast, the equivalent of a 6-foot-tall person running 400 miles per hour!

I love the way their feet make little dimples in the surface of the water. Sometimes that’s how I first notice them – by the shadows those dimples cast on the bottom of the stream. As a biology teacher, I really love this, a textbook example of the high surface tension of water. They are bending the surface of the water.

I have been surprised to see water striders on my brook and along the edges of the river. I hadn’t realized they lived in flowing water as well as still water. Having never lived along a river until now, I have always made assumptions about who lives where. This was a big one. I always assumed they needed still-water, but there they were, skating upstream against the current, hanging out in the still water along the edges. And, as a wonderful sign of spring, this past weekend, while I was battling newly-hatched black flies instead of mosquitoes, I was able to catch some in the act of reproduction.

I realized these two were mating because they looked huge and on closer inspection it turned out I was seeing two, one being carried on the others’ back. So, I looked into water strider mating behavior. As you would expect, it is fascinating. As far as researchers know, there is no courtship involved. The male mounts the female. If she doesn’t fancy him, she might try to resist by deploying an extremely effective genital shield. However, the males have coevolved a behavior to prevent her from resisting, an extremely diabolical behavior. They coerce the female into mating by tapping out intricate patterns on the surface of the water. These patterns are meant to attract a predatory beetle that attacks from below the surface, the backswimmer. The female, since she is on the bottom, is more vulnerable to attack from below, so usually submits fairly quickly if the male starts tapping. This has been tested in an experiment (Han and Jablonski, “Male water striders attract predators to intimidate females into copulation,” Nature Communications, 2010) in which a small bar was glued to the back of the female. The bar raised the male up high enough that he couldn’t tap. When the male couldn’t tap, females resisted his advances for much longer periods of time.

I have been making more of a point than ever to get outside for some green time, to be in nature, to do some close and slow looking. By spending more time carefully observing water striders, my curiosity has been piqued and I have learned so much more than I would have with just casual observation. Look up slow looking. It’s something we shouldn’t have to be taught, but the art of sitting still in nature and observing what is going on around you is an art form, one that we can all participate in.

Frog and Salamander Egg Masses

published April 29 seacoastonline.com, The Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly and the York County Coast Star

Back in March, something wonderful happened. When nighttime temperatures hit the low 40′, when it was rainy and drizzly, huge numbers of amphibians began to move about, heading toward ponds to mate and lay eggs, most often to the vernal pools (temporary, fishless ponds) where they were hatched.

The two amphibians that participate in this annual early spring-late winter migration are wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

wood frog egg mass
Wood frog egg masses are loose clusters of eggs attached to a stick or branch at the surface. -Steve Morello photo

Wood frogs belong to a group of animals that have the remarkable ability to freeze but not die. To hibernate, they bury themselves in the ground and go into a deep hibernation in which their hearts stop beating, they stop breathing and partially freeze. Then with warm (above 40 degrees F) spring rains they revive, dig themselves out of the ground and head to the water to mate.

Spotted salamanders don’t carry things this far, but they do hibernate in underground burrows and tunnels, also emerging in the spring.

So, this magical thing happened (referred to as “Big Night” by wood frog and spotted salamander aficionados). These hardy amphibians came out of hibernation and headed to their ancestral pools to reproduce. Once they finished mating and laying eggs, they headed back to the woods to lead a very terrestrial existence for the rest of the year. Now, what remains in those pools are their egg masses.

So, now is a good time to check out your local vernal pools to see if you can find frog and salamander egg masses. The egg masses are big and have characteristic features that make it relatively easy to distinguish wood frog from spotted salamander eggs. Almost always the eggs are laid in vernal pools because, due to their temporary nature (vernal pools dry out in late summer and early fall), they are fishless. Fish would love to chow down on those huge egg masses. They are so easy to see.

Once you know what to look for, it is relatively easy to tell a spotted salamander egg mass from a wood frog egg mass; spotted salamander egg masses are surrounded by a jelly coat, wood frog egg masses are not.

If you were to pick up a spotted salamander egg mass (which you really shouldn’t), it would hold together and you would see that in addition to the gel surrounding each egg, there was a thick gel surrounding the entire mass.

If you were to pick up a wood frog egg mass (which you really shouldn’t), it would be looser and would fall apart more easily. The surface would look like a cluster of grapes. Each individual egg has its own gel-coat, but the entire mass lacks the extra protection of that outer layer.

Both wood frogs and spotted salamanders attach their eggs to vegetation (though sometimes spotted salamander eggs will rest on the bottom). Wood frog egg masses tend to be attached to overhanging vegetation or to twigs at the surface, whereas spotted salamander egg masses are attached to deeper branches, below the surface of the water. One interesting variation you might see with spotted salamander egg masses. Some have a clear gel-coat while the gel-coat of others is milky-white. The significance of this difference is unclear, but some research suggests it might confer some protection from predation.

Both wood frogs and spotted salamanders are considered to be obligate breeders in vernal pools, meaning they rely upon vernal pools for reproduction. The Seacoast area has an extremely high density of vernal pools, a habitat type threatened by suburban sprawl. If you know of a vernal pool in your area, try to protect it. These little amphibians have been using these pools long before we were here. They are also extremely important members of our forest ecosystems. They are food for an enormous number of predators – snakes, herons, raccoons, skunks and mink, to name a few.

To me, their migration to vernal pools to lay eggs is one of the most lovely of our signs of spring and each year. I seek those eggs out as a reminder of all the mysterious goings-on in my backyard.

Skunk Cabbage in Spring

skunk cabbage

Whenever I go into the woods this time of year, I look for spring wildflowers to be in bloom. There are a large variety of plants that take advantage of the scanty leaf canopy of early spring to grow and bloom quickly, before the trees leaf out. Where I live in North Berwick we are behind most of the Seacoast region in terms of blooms– my garlic is barely up yet, the ponds by the river still have some ice every morning!!!


In search of wildflowers, I went for a walk (by myself) at Great Works Regional Land Trust’s Rocky Hills Preserve last week and came upon one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in New England-one of my favorite plants-skunk cabbage! This patch of skunk cabbage had been in bloom for awhile, I could tell this because in addition to the flowers the leaves were already out and gloriously unfolded into bright green skunky masses.

It is only after the flowers are pollinated and begin to wilt that the leaves unfurl-this is how I knew pollination was long over-those huge cabbage-like leaves. Early in the spring the skunk cabbage sends up a fleshy, highly-modified leaf forming that distinctive purplish hood. The scientific term for this is the spathe. Inside the spathe is a knoblike structure, a collection of tightly-packed flowers, called the spadix. Next time you see one, take a close look at the spadix. The structure of the spathe is really interesting–the petals emerging from a jigsaw puzzle-like surface that looks, to me, like the carapace of a turtle.

skunk cabbage spadix and spathe
Close up of spadix-this contains the flowers of the skunk cabbage-each of those little frilly bumps is a flower.


In the spring, often before the ground begins to thaw, cells in the spadix start to respire, breaking down starches stored in the root at an alarming rate. This rapid respiration produces heat! Studies have shown that respiration rates in thermogenic (heat-producing) plants such as skunk cabbage often equal those of mammals of similar sizes. The hood acts as an insulator, trapping the heat generated by the spadix, creating a balmy little microclimate (usually a fairly consistent 60- 70 degrees) that can melt the surrounding snow. I love Craig Holdredge’s (from the Nature Institute) description of the air currents generated by this warmth: “Due to the warmth production, a constant circulation of air in and out of the spathe occurs. From the flower head, warmth is generated and the air moves up and outward, while cooler air is drawn into the spathe. A vortex is formed with air streaming along the sculpted, curved surfaces of the spathe. In a habitat with numerous skunk cabbages, a microcosm of flowing warmth and odiferous air is created in which the first insects of spring fly.”


I have a large colony of false hellebore-a plant that looks somewhat similar to skunk cabbage and, as far as I know, inhabits the same kind of ecosystem–wet, marshy areas– growing along my river. I wish I also had skunk cabbage, and wonder why they don’t grow there as well. I have thought about trying to transplant some in, but it is usually a mistake to try to re-engineer an ecosystem. I worry that the skunk cabbage might take over-much as I love them I don’t want them to crowd out the false hellebore (another plant with an amazing back story). Skunk cabbages can form large colonies with extensive root systems that consist of a central rhizome that grows one or two feet into the ground with roots radiating out. The roots contract as they grow, pulling the plant down into the ground as it grows in the spring, keeping the stems and leaves at ground level. So the skunk cabbage, as a whole, grows downward every year, making it extremely difficult to remove. What’s more, these root systems and the colonies of skunk cabbage that erupt from them every spring can be hundreds to possibly thousands of years old!


If you can get outside, take a walk in the woods and look for spring wildflowers. We
are lucky enough to live in a place with 4 distinct seasons and are able to track the
passage of time by immersing ourselves in the highlights of each season (trailing
arbutus is flowering-a highlight, black flies are out in my neck of the woods–not a
highlight!). During this historic and stressful time it is more important than ever to get
some green time if at all possible.