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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

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

Turkey vultures are most closely related to storks

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

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

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

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

Nature News: Where’d the chickens go? The real life story of the foxes and the chickens

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. 

Red fox pups play outside their den next to neighbors’ house -steve morello photo

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.

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: 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.