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Author: tncondon

Identifying Trilliums

Identifying Trilliums

I took a walk yesterday in the Ed Piela Wildflower Garden in Stanley Park, Westfield.  The flowers are coming up both native and exotic.  My companions were interested in the different varieties of trilliums you see along the trail.

First, we came to the Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) with its bold white flower and bright yellow center.  Many of these are in bloom her right now.  You might expect such a dramatic blossom would be hard to misidentify, but there is a white version of the more common Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum) or Wakerobin.  So look to the petal edge for confirmation.  The Large-flowered trillium has an undulating edge while the Wakerobin has a straight edge.

There is another white trillium we might find here in Western Massachusetts and one of my companions asked about it on our hike.  Of course, this other trillium is a higher elevation species, so I suggested visiting the AMC property Noble View up in Russell, but suggested that they wait a bit since this other trillium usually blooms later.  On the off chance that I was wrong, I took a walk up to Noble View today and hiked the border trail to the left at the main entrance and was surprised to find the Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) already in bloom.  The Painted Trillium has a smaller flower with a splash of purple in its center.  Location and this color splash easily separate it from the other two white trilliums.

Back at Stanley Park we came across a final species of Trillium, the Dog Trillium (Trillium sessile) or what we called it in Tennessee, Stinking Benjamin.  This unusual trillium holds its petals straight up to form a cone which insects have to navigate to get to the nectar and pollen.  The cone acts to keep the sexual parts of the plant warmer and drier for this early spring bloomer.  The flower also produces a pretty rancid smell which seems to be attractive to insects, but to us smells a lot like a wet dog, hence the name.

I hope you get a chance to get out and see these trilliums and the other wildflowers this spring.  You can find more interesting facts at our Natural history page on wildflowers.  Check it out.

The Greening of My Hills

The Greening of My Hills

I can distinguish no less than eleven shades of green in the hillside I see before me.  I name them: lime green, forest green, emerald green, olive green, sea green, shamrock, neon, yellow-green, pale green, blue-green and grass-green. This patchwork of hues brings a smile to my face this time every year here in the hilltown where I live.

 

Fresh, light-colored twinkly catkins stand out against the dark-colored pine needles that have weathered the winter.  Even a single rhododendron sports contrasting greens as new emerging leaves look almost yellow against last year’s leathery forest-green foliage.  Does every plant species have its own emergent color? 

 

Soon the light-colored foliage will darken as chloroplasts pack the mesophyll. The earth is breathing heartily once again in its annual upsurge in gas exchange, sugar production and carbon sequestration.  It is a beautiful sight to see the greening of my hills.

 

Who put Pepper in my Footprint?

Who put Pepper in my Footprint?

Who put Pepper in my Footprint?

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With about twelve inches of snow on the ground my husband and I decided to hike up Mt. Tekoa.  We took turns breaking trail as it was exhausting going.  If we didn’t make it to the top we agreed that was okay, but we’d trudge along as far as we could.  When we hit the ridge, snowmobilers had packed the snow and it was much easier going, so we made it to a vantage point.  After pictures and lunch with a view, we headed back down.

Following our trail back down we made a most curious observation.  Every one of our previous foot depressions was peppered with little black springtails, Hypogastrura nivicola.   These tiny creatures, sometimes referred to as snowfleas, are not fleas at all; nor are they even insects.  They are another type of arthropod classified as a hexapod.   They must have something in multiples of six I suppose.   But these tiny creatures, now clearly visible against the snow, are abundant year-round. They usually live in the leaf litter eating fungus, algae and decaying leaves while being quite invisible. Some scientists postulate that overcrowded conditions down below force some to migrate up through the snow, but it remains a mystery as to exactly why they collect on top of the snow like this.

We spend considerable time on our knees crouched over observing these weird creatures hurling themselves about.  Under their abdomen is a spring, called a furculum, which can catapult them 100 times their body length in distance.  It’s fascinating to watch little dots randomly appearing and disappearing by the hundreds in every footprint.

Next winter walk you take in the woods, get your pants snowy and kneel down to examine this “snow pepper.”  Come up with your own ideas as to why springtails burrow up through the snow to hurl themselves about in plain sight.

Nancy Condon

*My thanks to Mary Holland, of Naturally Curious for technical information on Hypogastrura nivicola

Red Shoulder Hawks

Red Shoulder Hawks

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Last summer I had a pair of red-shouldered hawks in the woods out back.  Every morning they would come up from the creek and circle with their repetitive cry.
They are back this year, calling to each other.  I have been practicing with my long lens and caught these pictures on February 24.  I could hear them during the blizzard on March 14 and am wondering how they fared.

 

It’s Raining Bacteria

It’s Raining Bacteria

I came out of work on Friday to a fresh layer of snow.  The storm had just passed and the sky was beautiful.  The sun was low so cast a beautiful glow onto those mid-winter storms against a deep blue sky.  I jumped into my car just as Science Friday was starting on NPR.

Did you know that those clouds are full of bacteria?  What are they doing up there and should we be concerned?  You can learn more at Science Friday, but here is what I gleaned from the broadcast. 

Soil bacteria are being lifted off the earth all the time.  A quick gust of wind or even just a steady, gentle breeze is enough to separate a bacteria from the soil, a plant surface, or even your skin. 

A quick aside, most bacteria is benign to us and some is even beneficial.  We call that bacteria that actually helps us our microbiome.  Very few bacteria actually hurt us.

So the bacteria gets dislodged and it catches a ride on warm rising air.  These daily convection cycles in our atmosphere carry the bacteria as high as the stratosphere.  As we all know, as you go higher into the atmosphere it get colder and eventually moisture condenses into clouds.  Well, it turns out that you need something for the moisture to condense upon.  Scientists call this process nucleation and it can occur on dust or bacteria.   Which by the way are probably frozen solid at this time.  Some moisture will form around a bacterial cell and then other moisture will start to condense on it.  When you get about a million specks of moisture all clumped together their mass will cause it to fall as a raindrop.  With a cell of bacteria at its core. 

Bacteria can use this process to spread across the globe, so are they spreading disease?  Remember, most bacteria are harmless.  They go about their lives decomposing dead organic material.  But the verdict is out as to whether or not plant bacterial and fungal diseases can be spread in this way.  Listen o the whole broadcast at https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-microbiome-of-the-clouds/

Tom Condon

A Birch Falls in the Forest

A Birch Falls in the Forest

 

Saturday night the cold front came through Western Mass.  With it came some pretty strong winds and one tornado.  The earliest tornado to hit Massachusetts ever.  It slammed through Conway so we gave Tom Ricardi a call.  No damage to his property or the birds although he lost power for most of the week.

I was away that night, so when I returned on Sunday I was surprised to see a tree down in my backyard.  A big white birch had been tipped up by the winds.  As it came crashing down, yes, I believe that a falling tree does make a sound even if no one is there, it brought with it a small black birch.  Today I spent the day cutting and splitting the two trees.  As Henry David Thoreau would say, this was the first of the three ways that tree will warm me.  The next will be hauling the wood to the shed and the last will be burning it in my stove.

As I write this I am being warmed by some birch I cut and split two years ago.  I love birch, they are the iconic tree of the North Woods.  There white bark shines bright against the dark of hemlocks, spruce and firs in the summer.  And their golden leaves glisten in the fall.  But, they are a pioneering species which means that they grow fast and die young.  And so, they tend to come down at unexpected times. 

As a scout, I have also loved the tree for its bark which contains flammable oils.  But this has always confused me.  What advantage is there for a tree to have flammable bark?  Now I am going to personify for a bit, so please forgive me.  But maybe the tree is thinking of its progeny.  Birch trees will flower this spring and produce thousands of seeds, most of which will fall onto shaded forest floors.  To germinate, these seeds will need lots of sunshine.  This isn’t going to happen in a shady forest, so the seeds will wait.  They’ll wait for a fire.

But, how do you get a fire to open a canopy without burning up the forest floor?  You have to get the fire up into the trees and get it to move fast.  Fortunately, flammable bark will do just that.  Now, don’t worry too much about the parent trees, if you have every split fresh birch, you know the wood and inner ark is full of moisture.  He trees can take the fire right up with limited damage. 

Tom Condon

Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary Winter Lectures

Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary Winter Lectures

Winter lectures at the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary are offered free of charge on
Saturdays at 1:30 pm.  Space is limited; call 413-267-9654 or email
lectures@norcrosswildlife.org<mailto:lectures@norcrosswildlife.org>  to register.
In case of inclement weather please call ahead, check our Facebook page or visit
www.norcrosswildlife.org<http://www.norcrosswildlife.org>.

Saturday, March 4th

Gypsy Moth and Winter Moth
Do you remember last summer? Joe Elkinton has been a professor of entomology in the
Dept. of Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst since 1980. His lab conducts
research on population dynamics and biological control of invasive forest insects,
including winter moth, hemlock woolly adelgid, black oak gall wasp and gypsy moth.
He is currently involved with efforts to introduce predatory beetles to control
hemlock woolly adelgid and a tachinid parasitoid to control winter moth.

Saturday, March 11th
Weird Sex in
Nature: How Plants Get It On
One of the most romantic features of a plant is its flower, which we know is a major
way that plants create new plants. You would think that plant sex is probably about
as interesting as watching paint dry, right? Think again. The ways plants, algae,
and fungi reproduce tell us a lot about how procreation has evolved over time. Join
Elizabeth Farnsworth, a Senior Research Ecologist with the New England Wild Flower
Society, for this racy lecture about the many interesting reproductive strategies
these species pursue. Be prepared to blush.

Saturday, March 18th
From
Pine Barrens to Whip-Poor-Wills
Fire has played a critical role in shaping the post-glacial landscape of
Massachusetts, resulting in a mosaic of highly specialized and occasionally quite
rare ecosystems across the region.  As modern attitudes about fire on the landscape
have shifted toward exclusion and suppression a new set of ecological issues has
arisen: everything from difficulty in regenerating oak forests to the near absence
of the once common song of the whip-poor-will.
Chris Buelow, a Restoration Ecologist with the MA Natural Heritage & Endangered
Species Program, will provide an introduction to fire history in Massachusetts,
describe the fire adapted natural communities of our area, the processes that
maintain these communities, the specialized plants and animals associated with them,
and how these communities are being managed by various organizations today.
[cid:image003.png@01D2730F.DBA2A9E0]The Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary was established
in 1939 by Arthur D. Norcross. Its present area includes thousands of acres of
wooded hills, ponds and streams. It is maintained by the Norcross Wildlife
Foundation, Inc. whose purpose is the conservation of wildlife and the active
practice of conservation for the benefit of the public. This includes propagation of
native plants, the preservation of birds and wildlife and the conservation of land
and water.

Sanctuary hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00am to 4:00pm. Trails are open,
conditions permitting.  There is no admission charge.

The Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary is located at 30 Peck Road in Wales, MA.
Please use this address if you are navigating here with a GPS.

Dogs Who Love Their Job

Dogs Who Love Their Job

Dogs who love their job

Topaz, Violet, Venus, Ulu and Rosie are just five of the twenty beautiful Alaskan husky sled dogs I met last weekend.  Marla BB of Hilltown Wilderness Adventures brought them all to DAR State Forest so we could take a dog sled ride.  First I made the rounds to meet the pups, my face getting a thorough licking from each lean, white, friendly dog.  Then we led each eager worker to one of the two sleds where Marla arranged them according to their specialty, whether it be lead dog, trainee, right side, left side or other factors I’m not privy to.   Once hooked up to the sled, each dog said “Let’s GO already!” by barking and leaping.  Straining to hear Marla’s instructions over the commotion, Tom and I quickly situated ourselves onto the toboggan after ten dogs were hooked up to our sled.   In an instant, we were off.  No more clamoring from the dogs –  just the swish of snow under the runners as we sped along under dog-power through the tree-lined, snow-covered trails in DAR. Experiencing the quiet winter forest in this way was simply magical.

We are told the Alaskan Husky is a mix of Siberian husky, German shorthaired pointer and greyhound.  They are active dogs, bred to work.  They would not be happy in a household where they don’t get daily exercise and a chance to run.  Very trainable and smart, hard-working and affectionate, Alaskan Huskies are an amazing dog. Before we leave, each gets a raw chicken thigh and a butt rub as a thank you for a memorable winter ride.

 Nancy Condon

Porcupines on Tekoa

Porcupines on Tekoa

Tuesday was a beautiful winter day.  Skies were clear and blue with temps in the low 40s.  We decided to take a hike up Tekoa Mountain in Westfield.  Although the snow was soft, making hiking tiresome, it was perfect for tracking.  Along our hike we found deer, bobcat, and porcupine tracks.  In fact, we found lots of porcupine sign.  There was scat and there was plenty of hemlock bows scattered on the snow.

Now porcupine tracks in deep snow are not what you would really call tracks.  With their short little legs, they more snow plow than walk through the forest.  But, follow the trail and there will be no doubt it’s a porcupine.  The trail will move from hemlock groves to rocky hillsides. 

In the hemlock grove you will find sure signs of the feasting rodent, hemlock bows under most trees.  As well as scat, small and oval.  Porcupines will climb hemlocks and then reach out and chew off the ends of branches.  They prefer the younger growth at the ends of these branches, so they will nibble them off and drop the older growth to the ground.  As you might imagine, its too much work to climb down to use the bathroom, so down falls the scat as well.  I guess it goes without saying, be careful when in a active porcupine grove. 

Follow the trail away from the hemlocks and you will eventually come to a large rock pile.  The porcupine has made his den down deep under some rock.  If you crawl down in, you’ll know when you have found the den from the smell.  Porcupines themselves smell, but they are also terrible housekeepers.  Their den is also their latrine.  Although they might stink, they are still worth the search.  So if you find yourself out on a fine, winter day, go look for the signs of the porcupine.

 

 

 

Cover Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9928288

Body photos by Tom and Nancy Condon

CEDAR WAXWINGS

CEDAR WAXWINGS

CEDAR WAXWINGS

On Friday, February 17th I was walking in Mittineague Park, accompanied by sunny, bright, blue sky.

The day was sublime. For some reason, unknown to me, I stopped by the central meadow and looked up into the sky and then over to a barren maple tree. And there to my surprise was a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, perched not too close together, and not making a sound. The silence was stunning, like I was witnessing something special. The birds were facing south by west facing into the sun, appearing perfectly content.

Their features were clear and sharp. The tufted cap, black mask and some smooth gray reminding me of beech bark. Most were preening themselves and a few were fanning their tail feathers, revealing that bright band of yellow. The birds seemed very calm and content not bothered by my stopping so close.

The time spent there seemed magical.

Dietrich Schlobohm

Read More About Cedar & Bohemian Waxwings