Posted on August 26th, 2010 6 comments Add a comment >>
August seems to be a good time to find the parasites in the botanical world. First a definition-parasite(in the plant world) refers to any plant that feeds solely off another plant(host plant), but not always harming the host.
So what are they living off of? In the soil, growing among the many roots of nearby plants, are tiny hair-like fibers known as mycorrhizal fungi. These fibers are supporting the bigger tree & wildflower roots. But it is these mycorrhizal fibers that the pine sap, and others, are getting their nutrients from.
A slight deviation from that relationship is the parasitic life of beech drops which live entirely off of the nutrients of a host beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) root system. If you could dig down along the stem of beech drops you would find a connection directly to the beech tree root.
Amazing to think that there is a whole other world of plant relationships under the soil that we are just beginning to unravel!
A great spot to observe these parasitic plants(better in early August) is along the new trail system at Henry’s Woods in Lake Placid.
Other notes from the field are the recent swarming of winged ants that are coming out of their underground tunnels to fly around, mate, and then die…all in about 24 hours!
As I waited at a traffic light one early evening I saw hundreds of flying insects flying through shafts of sunlight and then they would disappear in the shadows. As I later parked my car at home I could see thousands of winged ants crawling all over the lawns, looking as if the ground was literally moving under my feet.
Can anyone tell us the species of these ants??
The next day I saw a large group of ring-billed gulls flying in circles and feeding on the flying ants. As a human I can relate to this….when blueberries come into season, I’m all over those fields plucking berries for a few days!
Photo Credit: Beech Drops(wikipedia)
Posted on August 2nd, 2010 Add a comment >>
Shorebirds(by that I mean the family of birds made up of sandpipers, plovers, and related species) are slowly winging their way south from that magical region in Canada known as the tundra. Having arrived there in mid to late May, shorebirds quickly take advantage of the sun-warmed tundra surface to breed.
It’s not always that welcoming in the tundra with the occasional late spring snowstorm that arrives or the lingering snow-pac and ice still clinging to the shorelines of many tundra lakes and ponds. But a breeding pair usually find a soft, protected spot of tundra ground to hollow-out and call home.
The shorebirds endure the often chilly days and nights and eventually produce eggs and successfully brood/hatch 2 to 3 young on average, during June and early July. Again, the dangers of tundra living await the young in the forms of predatory falcons, jaegers, fox, and the fearless gulls that come looking for an easy meal.
Once reaching fully-fledged status, the young are on their own(can fly after about 20 days). In the paradoxical world of idyllic settings of nature, we find many bird species (after a few quick lessons in feeding) leaving their young to fend for themselves.
Shorebird females are usually the first to leave the breeding grounds, then the males, followed by the “hatch-year” young a couple weeks later. All eventually “regroup” on the wintering grounds of coastal South America(Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil)
OK, but how do the Adirondacks enter into this amazing migration pattern? Well, we are not on a huge flyway for shorebird migration but we do get few winging their way over the Eastern Adirondacks, specifically along the Lake Champlain Valley.
On this map you can find Hudson Bay, and it’s smaller “tongue” of James Bay, directly north of the Great Lakes. Many shorebirds nest along the shorelines of these bays and nearby tundra. During the “fall” migration south(from late July to late September) many species of shorebird use a direct flight path from James Bay south through Ontario and Quebec, and are often funneled down through the Champlain Valley, eventually reaching the Hudson Valley and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Once on the ocean, most shorebirds make a bee-line for S. America!
Where should I look for shorebirds? In the agricultural fields of eastern Clinton and Essex Co’s., and over in Addison Co., VT, take a look at newly-plowed fields. It gets even better if there is standing water along the rows of the fields. This draws out the insects from the mud and reveals a good food source for the shorebirds.
One notable migration stop-over site is Noblewood Park, in Willsboro, NY. Slowly walk out onto the sand spit that builds-up at the mouth of the Boquet River. In mid August to late September, look carefully for some shorebirds and gulls sitting along the sand-spit.
Just watching one sandpiper feeding along the shore allows you a glimpse into the monumental journey that these bird make twice a year from Canadian tundra to the warm beaches of a South American winter.
Photo credit: Semipalmated sandpiper – Wikipedia photo
Posted on June 23rd, 2010 Add a comment >>
On Friday, 19 June, over 50 science-loving-mud-seeking-water-diving-naturalist-types found themselves giddy w/pleasure at being the first public group to investigate the natural world of a 14,600 acre Adirondack Nature Conservancy property near Tupper Lake.
Taking about one year to plan and coordinate, the gates to Follensby Pond were finally opened to this select group of Naturalists, Researchers and Educators as they begin to inventory as a much as they can of the living world around them-in 24 hours….aka…a “Bioblitz”!
Yours truly was handed the task of coordinating the survey of all birdlife on the property during the 24 hours. After choosing a great crew of birders we all set out on our given paths and started listing birds that we see and hear.
After all the data sheets were handed back in, and then tallied, and re-tallied just to make sure!, we ended up with a species count of 75-not bad for 24 hours.
All the credit goes to the brave (for there were lots of blackflies and mosquitoes!) lads and lasses that endured the beating sun, the fresh summer breezes, the refreshing waters, and the startlingly beautiful scenery around us….OK, it was pretty darn nice out there but we did fight some bugs to count all our species.
An early count of around 280 species of various organisms were tallied by the end of the 24 hours but many organisms still have yet to be identified due to similarities w/other species or details that can only be seen under lab conditions. For example, many dragonflies and damselflies can only be identified under microscopes and the same goes for many species of mushroom and some sedges that were found. Also many aquatic and terrestrial insects needed to be taken to a lab for further investigation.
The deep interest levels that all 50 of us shared that day was very evident. As we slowly filtered our way back to “base camp” to break for lunch, or tally up species, many colleagues were asking, “What’d you find? Anything unexpected?”. Or if a crew spotted something out of their own specialty area they would tell others all about it.
A wonderful sense of camaraderie filled the 24 hours as each taxonomic group performed their work. Many would gather at the tote board to see what new species were collected or identified.
A tip of the hat goes to The Adirondack Nature Conservancy who’s tireless work and coordination allowed for all of this data collection to occur. Of historical note, all this data was gathered on a piece of property that was once visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russel Lowell, Louis Agassiz, William James Stillman, and other great minds of the day. This “gathering” of minds took place on Follensby Pond during the month of August in 1858, and became known as Philosopher’s Camp. They also named the camping area “Camp Maple”.
As we walked the woods or followed the shoreline, we all had, in the back of our minds, a developing picture of what it may have felt like to walk these woods back then and perhaps to discuss nature with them.
Photo Credit: Bioblitz tote board- Brian McAllister
Posted on June 13th, 2010 9 comments Add a comment >>
I set out this morning to get in another boreal bird survey that I conduct for the Wildlife Conservation Society. My destination was Madawaska Pond, about 10 miles northwest of Paul Smiths, NY. As I got out the car I new it would be a fine morning, because instantly I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling 20 feet from my car. I was right, things got better.
As I wandered down the densely forested logging road with several pockets of boreal wetlands along the way, I encountered wonderful views of a Gray Jay family w/two very darkly colored young.
The Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were also very vocal.
However, the highlight of the day turned out to be a poor viewing of a singing Tennessee Warbler in an area where the dense conifer forest merges into the boreal wetlands of Madawaska Pond. I was so excited that I pumped my fists into the air in final victory of this great encounter. Well that victorious bubble soon burst after I returned home.
Turns out three birder friends were at this very same spot and heard the very same bird I heard only several days earlier. They, unlike my poor viewing of the bird, were able to see the bird singing, and one of them officially recorded the song with his recording equipment. But much to his amazement and bewilderment, he was witnessing a Nashville Warbler singing the song of a Tennessee Warbler. He would not have believed it if he had not observed it.
Alas, my victorious pumping of fists was all for not. However, this brings to mind what a very interesting bit of bird vocalization “anomalie” we just witnessed.
So what was going on there? Did this Nashville Warbler just randomly pick up the song of a Tennessee Warbler. Was this Nashville, as a chick, raised in an area where Tennessee’s were also breeding and singing and simply learned a Tennessee song?
Or was this bird just not satisfied singing a “city” song and felt compelled to sing a “state” song!!…sorry.
Whatever the answer, it is still a mystery that birders, across the globe, face as we learn more about bird song. It is not all that uncommon for birds to learn whatever song they hear growing up as a chick in the nest(other than parents). This has been replicated in laboratories.
Yes there is also that instinctive process of learning the song that your parents sing for you. But to add another twist is the fact that some birds (of a different species) can take over care and feeding of a unrelated nest.
Well, we like to think we know a lot about nature but then there’s always that curve ball that humbly sets us back a step or two.
Photo Credit: Boreal wetland -Brian McAllister
Posted on June 2nd, 2010 2 comments Add a comment >>
In an earlier posting I described the movements of a fox I was observing in St Lawrence County.
After a few days of watching the adults hunt to feed the young ones, it looks like the family came out to check out the surroundings, and there I was with my camera and so I turned on the video button.
Well it’s not National Geographic video quality but it’s pretty darn cute! Click below to see video. Enjoy!
Photo Credit: Red fox adult with young – Brian McAllister
Posted on May 31st, 2010 Add a comment >>
What has bright yellow legs and is black and white all over? And by the way you have to travel up a mountain to see it in our neck of the woods.
The blackpoll warbler leads an interesting life as far as warblers go. During fall migration most species of warbler travel down the eastern US, often following the coast or higher elevations of the Appalachian Mts. But our little blackpoll has a different route.
After nesting just below the treeline on many of our Adirondack High Peaks in the thick spruce-fir forests, the black poll will often wind its way south and east to the New England coastline or farther south to the Long Island coast.
Here, if the winds are just right-meaning a good tail wind from the north, our tiny two-ounce bird takes flight into the night-time skies. Loaded down with fat layers on its body, the blackpoll starts on an incredible migratory journey that takes it out over the open Atlantic Ocean and it may not land on solid ground until it reaches the Caribbean Islands and northern South America for it’s winter holiday. If it’s tired it may stop off in Bermuda for a brief rest and refuel….whew!…that’s almost 90 hours of non-stop flight.
If your birding pursuits take you on a search for Bicknell’s thrush on, let’s say Whiteface Mt, take a moment to stop along the trail or roadside and listen for the extremely high-pitched song of this bird. A quick repetition of “tsi-tsi-tsi-TSI-TSI-TSI-tsi-tsi-tsi” rising in strength in the middle of song.
Once you pinpoint the song, scan the tops of the stunted trees before you and look for a small black-capped bird, not unlike the black-capped chickadee, but with black stripes on the breast and dark wings. Then look for the definitive ID clincher of yellowish legs.
I often describe the blackpoll song as a fast-moving squeaky wheel going by you as you stand still (soft at first, then growing in volume, then softening) as compared to the flat, monotone squeaky-wheel of the black and white warbler.
If you look for this bird during fall migration you’ll be fooled by its appearance. Just before summer ends it will molt into light-green-yellowish colored feathers with some white and dark striping.
Hopefully you’re planning a hike up your favorite Adirondack Mt. this early June, maybe in search of a Bicknell’s thrush, and as you do you’ll take the time to look and listen for this little, inconspicuous, black and white bird, with the unpretentious song.
Photo Credit: Blackpoll warbler-Wikipedia
Posted on May 15th, 2010 1 comment - Add a comment >>
While traveling along the wonderful “wildlife-watching ” roads of St Lawrence County, I stumbled upon this red fox as it trotted through a dandelion-covered field. On my return trip on this road, about a half-hour later, the same fox came up to the roadside, this time it’s long pointed snout held 3-4 “meadow mice” packed in a toothy grip. Putting 2 and 2 together, I figured it was heading to a nearby hedgerow which most likely was a the site of the family den…many young mouths to feed!
On another note, this weekend appears to have all the makings for great migrant bird movements. So far I’ve tallied up some great sightings of warblers, vireos, and other migratory birds. Two highlights so far are a Scarlet tanager, and a Philadelphia vireo
Along Lakeshore Road, just north of Westport, some friends and I found a Golden-winged warbler, and a blue-winged warbler, both singing their hearts out in a second-growth field on the west side of road. A description of this area can be found in Adirondack Birding by John MC Peterson and Gary Lee. Chances are these birds are on territory and so they’ll be singing for a while longer. Hope you get to see them!
Photo Credit: Red Fox-Brian McAllister
Posted on April 18th, 2010 2 comments Add a comment >>
I wonder if in 1881, amateur ornithologist Eugene P. Bicknell, had any idea what a whirlwind he would cause in the birding world by classifying his new-found thrush as a subspecies. Back in the day they assumed this thrush was a just a subspecies of gray-cheeked thrush(a bird lesson for another day). Fast forward to 1995 and the birding-powers-that-be officially gave Bicknell’s thrush it’s current name and status as a species of thrush.
As birders eagerly watch for Bicknell’s thrush on Whiteface Mt near Lake Placid, they are grateful to Eugene because he added another bird to the big list, which in turn adds another “tick” off the list for the hardcore birders among us.
But over the years we’ve learned a lot about Eugene’s bird, and it now stands precariously on a delicate precipice that could easily crumble. Bickies are listed as a “Bird of Special Concern”. As you look at the range for this bird you see a very small wintering ground in the Caribbean and a very localized breeding ground here in the northeast.
To make matters worse, Bickies nest in a very inhospitable area – they prefer the harsh climate of the very thickly-wooded red spruce-balsam fir forest found at higher elevations of the Adirondacks, Green, and White Mountains in northeast US.
Your best bet to see a Bicknell’s is to take a drive up the Whiteface Mt Toll Rd which is certainly eaiser than climbing the other mountains where Bicknell’s is found, but if you’re the hiking type and enjoy a good workout, then try Wright Peak, Hurricane Mountain, Blue Mountain, or even Cascade Mt(outside Lake Placid).
On Whiteface, stop, look, and listen along the stretch of road between the “Lake Placid Turn” and the “Wilmington Turn” before coming to the top.
Chances are you will hear the thrush before you see it. The peak time to observe this bird is during the early breeding season(late May-early June) when they are most vocal. You can hear the song here
As with other members of the thrush family, the Bicknell’s is somewhat drab brown in color with a pale white breast w/darker spots on the throat and upper breast. Many sharp-eyed birders are able to discern a reddish color to the feathers of the tail and larger(primary) feathers of the wing.
Also the paler brown coloration on the cheek of Bicknell’s differentiate it from the “gray-cheek” of the gray-cheeked thrush…clever name, eh?
Here’s the other ID clue that you need to know. At a point on most of the High Peaks around here you come to an elevation where the Bicknell’s shares habitat with it’s other cousin the Swainson’s thrush. That’s somewhere around the 2500-3000 ft level. But if you are beyond that elevation, in the thick spruce-fir forest, then there’s a very good chance you are looking at a Bicknell’s
Well pat yourself on the back and then buy yourself a beer to celebrate your accomplishment…not many get to see this bird, and it’s pretty high on the list of “priority sightings” for many birders.
Better yet, save the money from the beer and give it toward a research organization that’s keeping tabs on one of our prettiest but most imperiled thrush!
Photo Credit: Bicknell’s thrush – Wikipedia
Posted on April 9th, 2010 Add a comment >>
It reminds me of the Munchkins scene from the Wizard of Oz where they all start coming out of their hiding places after Dorothy’s house lands in their village, and Glinda the Good Witch tells the Munchkins it’s safe to come out now.
Spotted Salamanders-Ambystoma maculatum, are in the beginning stages of their breeding cycle and the warm spell of last week, along with a gentle nights rain is allowing for the nightly migration of salamanders from their protected winter homes to vernal pools of standing water.
After spending many winter months curled up in some crevice between a rock and tree root or old mammal tunnel, these salamanders are awakened by the need to mate. They “smell” their way to a nearby fish-less, spring rain-filled puddle or pool on the forest floor.
I happen to like the vernal pools around the Black Pond Trailhead parking lot on Keese Mill Rd(in Paul Smiths). After a good soaking rain in mid April it’s worth taking a walk to a woodland pool or small pond and look for these critters slowly migrating their way to water.
In the pools males will produce small white packets of sperm(spermatophore) that they attach to a small leaf or stick. The females will follow a few days later and enter the pool looking for spermatophores. Lying on top of a spermatophore, the female will gather it up into her reproductive organ and it will fertilize her eggs internally.
Soon after this she will lay a clump of gelatinous eggs in a pond and over time this egg mass absorbs water and swells to softball size. You may see these in shallow areas along a ponds edge. It often gets covered with algae also.
The human attraction to this yearly phenomena is to monitor and safely guide the salamanders that end up having to cross some of the roads leading from woodlands to the vernal pool. Many Paul Smiths College students participate in this endeavor along Keese Mill Rd. and safely carry spotted salamanders to the other side of the road.
Along with the spotted salamanders you can often find Wood Frogs-Rana sylvatica crossing these deadly roads. They’re on the same pathway that the salamanders are on….getting to the water. In a large enough vernal pool you can find both salamanders and wood frogs actively mating on warm April nights.
Following close on their tails are Spring Peepers-Pseudacris crucifer. We’re all familiar with the often deafening chorus of peepers on a spring night around wetlands. This thumb-sized member of the chorus frog family can be pretty hard to locate among the grasses around a pond. They often tuck themselves under the overlapping grasses and disappear from view.
Although April showers do bring May flowers, it’s well worth the effort to explore the early, wet April nights in your favorite Adirondack woodland.
Photo credit: Spotted Salamander -Wikipedia
Posted on April 1st, 2010 1 comment - Add a comment >>
We have come to expect the normal Adirondack spring consisting of cold spells with snow, followed by some melting, followed again by a cold spell with sleet or something miserable like that.
However, Spring 2010 is fast becoming the most enjoyable to many “spring-seeking” outdoor enthusiasts. The record high for Saranac Lake on this date is 74 degreesF set in 1989…we were just 4 degrees shy of that today.
Seems this warm spell has set into motion many winged migrants taking to the airways. I saw my first mourning cloak butterfly today. Fascinating to think that this butterfly(in adult stage) can hibernate through a wicked Adirondack winter! What a pleasure to see it floating through the air.
Looking at all the internet reports of bird sightings these past few days reveal that bird migration has gotten a bit of a jump with this warm air from the SW.
I saw my first great blue heron, eastern meadowlark, eastern phoebe, eastern bluebird(do you sense a direction pattern here?), and my first merlin(small falcon) all today.
While working in St Lawrence County recently, I’ve spotted many daffodils just beginning to poke out of the warming soil in many front yards. Also noted today….very small, dark brown spiders that were floating in the air on the ends of silken threads that they released into the wind. They will float on the wind until the threads catch on to some object…usually my head!
Keeping track of spring sightings(a.k.a.: Phenology), or any season for that matter, has become a favorite activity for many naturalists, and birdwatcher alike. Get a few field guides for your library and hit the trails.
Here’s to “earrach”…. “spring” in the Irish language.
Photo credit: Eastern Meadowlark-Brian McAllister