Tuesday, October 25, 2011

artistic accident

Sometimes I have what I call an "artistic accident," a.k.a. "accidental art."  I unintentionally bumped the shutter release; in fact, I didn't even know it happened till I downloaded the photos.

"Artistic accident" on the Brewster Peninsula trail, Lake Placid - © Dave Spier

Russula mushrooms -- © Dave Spier

Russula mushrooms at Wilmington Notch in early October -- © Dave Spier

For a change of pace, here’s an attractive but potentially poisonous mushroom from earlier this month. It’s one of the Russula’s, a genus with a handful of species, several of which have red caps. I’m pretty sure it’s Russula emetica, a poisonous species. A check of the gills underneath shows that they are attached to the stalk, not free [attached only to the cap and not the stem at the inner gill edge]. To give you some idea of the difficulty in identifying mushrooms, I first referred to Mushrooms of Ontario* which lists emetica as having "nearly free" gills. That would have made it more likely they’re Russula paludosa, a slightly larger species with supposedly attached [adnate] gills according to the book. Next I checked Peterson’s Mushrooms** which describes emetica gills as "adnate (broadly attached to stalk apex)."

As for cap size, the ones I found are in the overlap zone, about three inches across (although I didn’t have a ruler with me).

Alan Bessette, in his book Mushrooms of the Adirondacks,*** lists 13 species of Russula’s, at least of them five of them red, orange-red or wine-red in color. As with many similar-looking groups of mushrooms, a microscope and spore guide are needed for accurate identification. Since edible and poisonous mushrooms can be near look-alikes, it’s best to avoid eating most wild mushrooms.

In the Audubon Pocket Guide,**** the Russula emetica (identical to the ones I photographed) is listed as the "Sickener" with a "hot, acrid taste." Other guides describe it as bitter to sharp pepper. Sorry, I did not taste the Russula's in Wilmington Notch.

The habitat is listed as conifers or mixed woods (a good match to the Wilmington Notch location), but several books also mention bogs and sphagnum moss (common in bogs).

Corrections and comments may be sent to northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

*Mushrooms of Ontario and Eastern Canada, Lone Pine Publishing, © 1999 George Barron
**Mushrooms, Peterson Field Guides, Houghton Mifflin, © 1987 by Kent & Vera McKnight
***Mushrooms of the Adirondacks, North Country Books, Utica, © 1988 by Alan Bessette
****Familiar Mushrooms North America, The Audubon Society Pocket Guides, Alfred A. Knopf, © 1990

Monday, October 24, 2011

Grass River Waterfalls

Basford Falls photo © Donna Mason-Spier
Grass River - Tooley Pond Tract Waterfalls - © Dave Spier

The blog description promised Adirondack geology. This is offered as a down payment.

The South Branch of the Grass River descends the Adirondack dome as it crosses St. Lawrence County and merges with other branches on their way to Massena where the Grass nearly converges with the Raquette River before joining the St. Lawrence River. A particularly accessible section of the South Branch along Tooley Pond Road contains a number of attractive waterfalls.

For geology nuts, the exposed bedrock between DeGrasse and upstream at Clarksboro and beyond is hornblende-biotite granitic gneiss [designated as hbg on the Adirondack Geologic Map prepared by the N.Y.S. Museum]. Like much of the Adirondacks, it is metamorphic, changed by heat and pressure during the Grenville collision roughly 1100 million years ago. Hornblende and biotite mica are dark minerals that give the gneiss a streaky or banded appearance in cross-section. Granitic gneiss contains some quartz in addition to the light-colored feldspar minerals. The Adirondacks are a southeastern extension of the Grenville Province, the eastern portion of the Canadian Shield.

For waterfall nuts, Tooley Road can be accessed from Route 3 just west of Cranberry Lake and going north through Cook Corners, but we sometimes prefer going around and taking County Road 27 from Fine to DeGrasse, turning right toward Clare and then taking Tooley Pond Road from its west end.

At 1.4 miles, there’s a woodland trail to Basford Falls. It’s maybe a half-mile? walk with a descent to some very old white pines as you reach the falls.  The following Basford Falls photos are © Donna Mason-Spier:

top of Basford Falls - photo © Donna Mason-Spier

At 2.0 miles, there’s a parking area and information kiosk for Sinclair Falls, but save yourself a few steps by driving west on Lake George Road and parking just before the bridge. Sinclair is more of a long, curving slide than steep drop, but impressive none-the-less. The following Sinclair Falls photos are © Donna Mason-Spier:

At 3.1 miles, Tooley Pond Road goes uphill past a side channel at Twin Falls. This involves almost no walking, but a little exploring will find the remains of an old mill. (A viewing point below the main falls is posted.) The following Twin Falls photos are © Donna Mason-Spier:

At 3.3 miles, the road passes Stewart Rapids which can be seen from the shoulder. Continuing to 3.5 miles, the trail to Bulkhead Falls is now overgrown and nearly impossible to find, so I’ll save that for another time when I can scan some old slides.

At 6.1 miles, stop for Rainbow Falls. There’s an old clearing set off by boulders and a trail along an old road for maybe a quarter mile to a footbridge over a side channel. Once on the island there are several trails, but be very careful when you reach the cliff with overlooks; there are no railings and wet footing can be slippery. The following Rainbow Falls photos are © Donna Mason-Spier:

from the footbridge to Rainbow Falls - photo © Donna Mason-Spier

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Northern Harrier, once known as the "marsh hawk," is what I call an Adirondack peripheral species more common around the edges. It's a slender and buoyant hawk with a somewhat owl-like face. The hawk's long wings and tail are designed for life in the open. If it tips toward you, look for the distinctive white rump patch. When soaring, the wings are held in a shallow V (called a dihedral) with the tail fanned. At low altitudes, the tail is usually closed and the wings held flat to the sides. In a steep glide, the wings are sharply bent and swept back like a fighter jet.

Mostly it flies low over the grasslands and the marshes while it looks for small mammals, especially Meadow Voles (also called field mice) which are caught with a sudden pounce. Sometimes this large bird's flight drifts back and forth, then stops momentarily to hover before pouncing. In warm weather it hunts snakes, frogs and insects. When all else fails, carrion is eaten.

Male Northern Harrier eating prey (probably a vole) in a field -- © Dave Spier

In the winter, harriers hang around with Short-eared Owls and share the same fallow, grassy fields where mice have had time for a population explosion. Both species will use fence posts for hunting perches as they listen for prey. Though unrelated species, the facial disks of both harriers and owls seem to help focus sounds on the ears.

The harrier's Latin name, Circus cyaneus, refers to its circling flight and the supposedly blue plumage of the males. The color is actually gray, but that's only half the story because females and juveniles are brown, an unusual disparity for raptors. The bodies of juveniles are orangish underneath. The name harrier is Old English for "harassing with hostile attacks." Other colloquial names include blue hawk, mouse hawk and white-rumped hawk. Males are smaller and more agile and catch smaller prey, including birds.

Female Northern Harrier (note the white rump) over a marsh -- © Dave Spier

Harriers breed from Alaska across Canada to the Maritimes and south into the United States as far as a line from California to Pennsylvania. The 2000-2005 N.Y.S. Breeding Bird Atlas contains 32 breeding records for harriers in the core Adirondack region (not counting the Champlain lowlands). Of these, six are confirmed, three more are probable and 26 are possible. There is a heavy concentration of harrier breeding records in the St. Lawrence lowlands of northern Jefferson County. In fact, the Adirondacks are surrounded by numerous records including the Champlain area.  (Click for a map)

Most harriers head south for the winter and return in the spring, but a number of birds, likely adults with good hunting skills, will stay in the north (see the previous post about the Fort Edward Grasslands Important Bird Area).

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Male Northern Harrier tearing apart prey in a field -- © Dave Spier

Raptor Survey Volunteers Needed for Fort Edward IBA

Northern Harrier(male) -- © Dave Spier

From the Oct. 21 issue of Field Notes...

"Be a part of DEC's continued effort to monitor the movement and habitat use of raptors like the northern harrier, short eared owl, red-tailed hawk, and others this winter. Currently, volunteers are needed to help survey these birds of prey at the Fort Edward Important Bird Area in Washington County, NY. You can volunteer to participate in one or more surveys conducted once a month from December through March. If interested in participating, or for more information, please contact Theresa Swenson at tgswenso@gw.dec.state.ny.us by December 1."

The Fort Edward Grasslands IBA in the Hudson River Valley is 13,000 acres east of Fort Edward and south of Route 197. (This is southeast of Glens Falls outside the Blue Line.)  [bold blue type indicates a link]

Short-eared Owl -- © Dave Spier

Friday, October 21, 2011

Winterberry -- © Dave Spier

Winterberry at Nick's Lake before the leaves turned color and fell -- © Dave Spier
To brighten your days after the leaves have fallen, look for a native wetland shrub with prominent red berries that hug the twigs. This is American Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a type of deciduous holly. In other words, it loses its leaves in fall, making the bright red fruits more impressive. Some people call it black alder, but it's no relation to the alders in the birch clan. "False alder" would be more like it. It's also known as "fever bush" because the berries were used medicinally by Native Americans. It has also been called Canada holly, Michigan holly, possumhaw, swamp holly, Virginia winterberry, and common winterberry holly.

The Winterberry's genus, Ilex, is the Latin name for the Mediterranean holly oak, another non-relative, and the species name verticillata means whorled, probably referring to the way the berries hug the twigs. The holly used at Christmas, Ilex aquifolium, is a European import with spiny-edged, evergreen leaves. "Aquifolium," meaning pointed leaves, was the Latin name for holly.

Another view of Winterberry (holly) at Nick's Lake, Old Forge -- © Dave Spier

Winterberry occurs naturally throughout the eastern United States where it grows in swampy thickets, peat bogs, and lowland roadsides. It often marks wet acidic soils. In the spring, small yellowish-green to white flowers grow in the leaf axils (where the leaf stems attach to the twigs). The male flowers grow in crowded clusters on separate plants. The alternate leaves, with their blunt points and toothed margins, fully appear after the flowers so as to not interfere with pollination by bees and other insects. The red fruits appear in September and persist into winter, assuming the birds do not eat all of them right away.

Winterberry makes a nice addition to any landscape scheme and adds a showy touch of color to an otherwise dull December day. This shrub does well in moist, acidic soils with full sun or partial shade. The trick is to have at least one male plant to pollinate up to nine female bushes in the vicinity. The added benefit of this native is more food for robins, bluebirds, and waxwings before they head south.

Does winterberry grow near your home and what animals eat the fruits? Contact me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

Another view of Winterberry (holly) at Nick's Lake, Old Forge -- © Dave Spier

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Black Ducks -- © Dave Spier

Black Duck preening at Nick's Lake, Old Forge (autumn) -- © Dave Spier
Frank Morehouse III* sighted two Black Ducks in addition to Wood Ducks, Mallards, Ringnecks, three Hooded Mergansers, one Common Merg, an Osprey and a Great Blue Heron when he was at his camp on Lake Abanakee the first weekend of October. He also heard a Pileated in the mixed woods nearby.

American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) have been a declining species since the 1950’s. For a time it was thought that hybridization with encroaching Mallards was the cause, but there’s little evidence to support this. More likely, a combination of factors including degradation of their primary winter habitat in the Chesapeake region is the cause. A new study by Ducks Unlimited will look at competition for nesting space, hybridization, depletion of food supplies, winter habitat and other variables.

The Black Duck’s summer range covers much of eastern Canada and New England with a year-round range from the Great Lakes to the mid-Atlantic. The highest breeding densities are in Maine and Nova Scotia according to Ducks Unlimited. Many Blacks migrate further south to a zone from Arkansas to the Carolina’s with higher concentrations to the east.

Blacks are large ducks, the same size as Mallards with the same shallow-water "dabbling" behavior to find food, primarily plants and small aquatic animals.   Some natural foods can be dangerous, though.  Northern Woodlands magazine has an article on a Black Duck that died from eating too many newts.

In bright sunlight at close range, Blacks are actually dark-brown with a lighter brown head. Females and males are nearly identical, although females are slightly smaller and have a greenish bill instead of yellow. In flight the white underwing linings contrast with the dark body. The Black Duck's speculum, the colored patch on the wing, is purple while the Mallard's is blue with two white edges. Also, Mallards have a white tail edge.

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*Frank is from North Creek in the Town of Johnsburg. He attended Ranger School in Wanakena and worked for D.E.C.’s Camp Colby near Saranac Lake. He is now a naturalist dividing his time between the Montezuma Audubon Center and Seneca Meadows Environmental Education Center. His grandfather was a well-known conservation officer in the Adirondacks.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Blue Jays -- © Dave Spier

Blue Jay in Red Maple -- © Dave Spier

Speaking of Red Maples (in my previous blog post), I have a photo of a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) in a Red Maple. During our two-week September-October camping trip around the 'dacks, the ubiquitous Blue Jay was the number one bird sighted, not in total numbers (that would be Canada Geese heading south) but in number of locations and frequency encountered. Sometimes I would hear an unusual bird call, only to track down another Blue Jay or even a Blue Jay family. Not all of their songs are raucous, and they are also capable of mimicking a Buteo or Accipiter call.

Jays are noted for burying acorns and beechnuts for use through the winter. Beech need all the help they can get as they succumb to disease (but I'll save that for another blog). Oaks, beech and American Chestnuts are all close relatives and the jay is credited with their rapid return to the north following the melting of the last continental glacier. Nut-bearing trees advanced up to 380 yards a year, thereby leapfrogging the maples and birches with their wind-blown seeds. The Adirondacks are generally too cold for oaks and the chestnut, which once dominated forests across southern parts of the state, was wiped out by the blight, but there's not much the jay can do about that now. [While we're on the subject of the Ice Age, it's speculated that spruce advanced as fast as the ice melted and likely grew right up to the edge of pro-glacial lakes. This is based on pollen counts taken from bog cores that span the intervening thousands of years.] In a Wisconsin study, jays were found to carry between three and 14 beechnuts up to two-and-a-half miles per trip. Most were stored in the throat and mouth plus one more in the beak. It was also noted they chose travel routes with good escape cover in the event a migrating hawk – usually a Cooper's – spotted them.

For more on the Blue Jay statewide, please visit the northeast naturalist blog.  [bold blue type indicates a link]  Questions and corrections may be sent to northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

Monday, October 17, 2011

Red Maples -- © Dave Spier

Red Maple reflection beside Bear Mtn. trail, Cranberry Lake, NY - © Donna Mason-Spier
The Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is a widespread eastern species growing from Florida and the Gulf states to the Canadian Maritimes and southern Ontario Province. In the South it is referred to "swamp" maple when it grows in the bottomlands. In the Northeast it is one of several "soft" maples (in comparison to the Sugar Maple which has "harder" wood). It is common in the Adirondacks on the lower slopes below 3000' where it mixes with Yellow Birch and conifers. It grows in poorly-drained areas as well as sandy soil poor in nutrients.

The Red Maple's leaves have three or sometimes five lobes with saw-toothed edges. The notches between lobes are fairly shallow and the center lobe is usually broader at the base and tapers to a point. In the summer, when the wind flips the leaves over, you'll notice they are whiter underneath - just like their close cousin, the Silver Maple. Red Maple leaves turn red in autumn, but the tree's name also refers to red leaf stems and red flowers in spring. The twigs, buds and seeds are also reddish.

Red Maple leaves in the Wilmington Notch area - © Dave Spier

When we were in Keene Valley in ealy October, there was a clearly-delineated horizontal band of redder foliage across the mountain slopes. This color change works its way to lower elevations in sync with falling temperatures.  Visit the D.E.C. website for more on Why Leaves Change Color. [bold blue type indicates a link]

Red Maple bark is light-gray and smooth on young trees, becoming darker, ridged and scaly with age. At the transition phase, the bark may show what I call large "thumbprint" patterns.

You can tap Red Maples in late winter, but the sap's sugar content is lower than either Sugar Maple or Silver Maple.

Red Maple beside the Moose River from Thendara's Green Bridge - © Dave Spier

Questions may be sent to northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

detail from photo of Red Maple beside the Moose River - © Dave Spier

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Palm Warbler -- © Dave Spier

Palm Warbler at Bloomingdale Bog, September 30, 2008 - © Dave Spier

The Palm Warbler (Dendroica palmarum) was probably named in the winter when an early ornithologist first saw one in a palm tree, perhaps along the coast from the Carolinas south to the Gulf, or somewhere in the Caribbean, or even in portions of Central America. I’ve seen them foraging on lawns in South Carolina during our annual February-break trips, and yes there were palms (actually Cabbage Palmettos) nearby.

Its summer breeding range is remarkably different and far to the north (at least by warbler standards) across much of Canada, the shores of Lake Superior, the Adirondacks and most of Maine. It nests in bogs, open boreal (northern) conifer woods and areas with heavy undergrowth near water.

I’ve found them in Bloomingdale Bog in the Adirondacks and since they are often mentioned in association with this location from May through the end of September, I assumed they bred there too. To check on this I went to the New York State Breeding Bird Atlas page on the D.E.C. website and then refined my search to the 2000-2005 data for Palm Warblers.  A comparison to the 1980-1985 Palm Warbler data (one record) shows a remarkable increase in breeding activity (but some of this just might be better detection rates or increased effort).  The only New York breeding records for Palm Warblers are in the Adirondacks.

Another source of information on Palm Warblers in the Adirondacks is eBird – http://ebird.org – using their "View and Explore Data" pages. You can find range maps by species and species lists for specific locations like Bloomingdale Bog. Using the "Bar Charts" tool, clicking on "New York" and "hotspots," then scrolling down to "Bloomingdale Bog" I was able to see all the species reported and their seasonal distribution. Clicking on the "map" box* for Palm Warbler sightings brought up a terrain map of the vicinity with all the report locations. Clicking a specific location button will allow you to access the actual checklists reported. The data is rather incomplete, especially in the fall, so this is also a request to stop by the bog and help paint a more complete picture of the birdlife there. Please submit "complete" checklists (reporting all species seen, even the mundane) as this will tell researchers at Cornell what species were NOT present! This type of data is important in building accurate range maps. 

Given their winter range to the south and summer range to the north, Palm Warblers can be found anywhere in between during migration.

Males and females are identical, unlike many warbler species where the female is a duller, lower contrast version of the male. In the Palm Warbler, there are two versions of the bird, but it has nothing to do with sex. A brighter, more colorful subspecies is found along the coast in its eastern breeding range, while a duller morph (form) occupies the so-called "western" part of its range.

All warblers eat insects when they can find them, but any warbler that winters north to the Carolina coasts must supplement its diet with berries and seeds. Being an omnivore allows the Palm Warbler to be in the vanguard of the spring warbler migration, along with Pine Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Joan Collins commented that "Palm Warblers are the first warbler species to arrive in spring in the Adirondacks. Males are singing on territory by the second week of April (years ago, before our springs became much warmer, you could find them in the bogs with snow still on the ground!). They are closely followed by Pine Warblers and then Yellow-rumped Warblers in arrival dates. So you can begin to look for Palm Warblers by mid-April and they leave in late September-early October." Joan is a licensed birding guide; her company is Adirondack Avian Expeditions & Workshops.  She was featured in the May-June, 2010 Adirondack Explorer in association with the Hamilton County Birding Festival.

[bold blue type indicates a link]  Corrections and questions may be sent to northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com

[*repeat of map link: http://ebird.org/ebird/map/palwar?bmo=01&emo=12&byr=1900&eyr=2011&env.minX=-74.172&env.minY=44.363&env.maxX=-74.072&env.maxY=44.463&gp=true ]

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Red Berries -- © Dave Spier

If you're in the woods and searching for migrating birds, scouting for hunting season, or just hiking for exercise, you're likely to notice any dense clusters of bright scarlet berries growing on stalks maybe half a foot to a foot high, assuming they haven't fallen on the ground.  We came across some next to the Moss Lake Trail near Eagle Bay.
The pair of large, three-parted leaves that provided nourishment through the summer have wilted and disappeared to better reveal the red fruits to the world.  The idea is for wild animals to eat the berries and disperse the seeds in their droppings as they travel.  This is the strategy of Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema sp.), a well-known wildflower that prefers moist woods.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Common Loons -- © Dave Spier

Common Loons on Middle Pond near Saranac Inn  © Dave Spier
Native Americans referred to this bird as the "Spirit of the Northern Waters." Common Loons (Gavia immer) breed across Alaska, the entire width of Canada, and the northern-forest zone from Minnesota to the Adirondacks and New England. During autumn migration, eastern birds are most likely heading for the Atlantic coast where the juvenile birds will remain for three or four years before returning north, but some will go as far as the Gulf Coast.

Loons are large birds. They measure 32 inches in length and have a wing span of nearly four feet. Males are larger than females. From March through October, the adults sport high-contrast black and white plumage. The heads and beaks are black, their necks have white or gray bands, the breast and belly are white, the sides black and the back is extensively checkered. The only color is in the red eyes. Juvenile loons, and adults in winter plumage, are overall gray or dark gray with white on the throat and upper breast. They may have a faint, light gray, partial band around the neck.

On the water, loons ride low like a submarine, an appropriate metaphor because they dive to catch their food. A number of adaptations help them do this. Their feet are far to the rear and to the sides to facilitate paddling underwater and their marrow-filled bones are thicker than other birds. For this reason, loons are heavy birds that require a long stretch of open water to get a running start to become airborne. Once in flight, their thick necks are balanced by large feet trailing to the rear. The relatively small wings make diving easier, but flying is more laborious. The location of the feet at the rear makes it nearly impossible for loons to walk on land, so they nest on the edge of islands where they can just slip into the water if danger approaches.

Loons face a number of manmade threats. Air pollution from mid-western power plants and auto emissions contains sulfuric and nitric acids and mercury. These are carried eastward by prevailing winds and fall as acid rain, in turn killing many of the small fish and organisms that loons depend on for food. Chicks can starve to death before four weeks of age. Acidic water also converts mercury to an organic form that enters the food chain and becomes concentrated in loons at the top of the ladder. This methyl mercury attacks the bird's nervous system, interfering with its ability to catch fish. In high enough concentrations, the birds die from mercury poisoning.

Loons also become entangled in discarded fishing line and die of lead poisoning after they ingest old fishing sinkers which are mistakenly picked up from the bottom along with the small stones used to grind up food in their gizzards. These hazards also afflict a host of other waterbird species. Shoreline development and increased recreational use of northern lakes pose additional threats to loons as they lose traditional nesting sites and face increased boat and jetski traffic.

Adult Common Loon with juvenile on Middle Pond  © Dave Spier

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Aspens (and Grouse) -- © Dave Spier

If there's one plant that's key to the winter survival of grouse, it's the aspen tree. Closely related to cottonwood, another poplar, aspens come in two species, the quaking (or trembling) and the bigtooth. Both are fast-growing, short-lived trees that colonize old fields, woodland edges, burned forests and sunny breaks in a woods where a large tree has blown down. They need plenty of light to grow and will not reproduce in the shade of their parents or other large trees. On the other hand, the shade they produce makes a good habitat for long-lived trees like oaks, maples and beech. The aspens stabilize the soil and reduce erosion and their shade suppresses competition from shrubs. Although grouse need the shrubs for escape cover and autumn berries, it's the large aspens with their abundant crop of flower buds that will get the birds through the winter. The grouse is so dependent on the aspen that the range of both these species corresponds very closely across North America.
Young aspens, when comingled with bushes, provide grouse with protective cover to raise their broods. As the trees reach 12 to 15 years of age, the grouse lose interest and move on. The woods have become too open for the grouse to hide. As the aspens reach 30 years of age, the situation reverses and grouse return to the trees during cold weather beginning as early as October. Grouse particularly relish the large male flower buds, the ones that will resemble pussy willows in the spring -- if they're not eaten before they can open. The fruits of female poplars hang in long, clustered catkins that release cottony seeds. These are eaten by numerous birds and mammals in addition to the Ruffed Grouse. Aspens also reproduce by cloning themselves from long, underground stems. In this way, they often form circular, monocultural groves with tall trees in the center and short, young ones on the edges.
Poplars, aspens and cottonwoods are all members of the same genus (Populus) in the willow family. The leaves are toothed and triangular shaped or rounded-triangular. In one species, the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides), the long leafstalks are flattened, allowing the leaves to flutter in a light breeze. The Quaking Aspen might otherwise be called the small-toothed poplar. Its close relative, the Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata) has very coarse saw-like teeth around the leaf edges.
When they're young, aspen trees have smooth, greenish or light-gray bark that changes to dark and furrowed as they mature. When the bark is particularly light, aspens can be mistaken for birch. The bark of aspen saplings is an important food in the diet of beavers.
Aspens seldom grow more than 40 or 50 feet high and a foot in diameter before disease, insects or storms kill them. The soft and brittle wood has been used to make paper pulp and woodenware. Dead aspens quickly rot, but this is an advantage to the chickadee which can use its short bill to excavate a nesting cavity in the soft pulp.
It might be said of the aspen, "Live fast; die young."

Big-toothed Aspen leaf on trail to Harper Falls (Grass River)  © Dave Spier
(This is the third article in a loose series around the theme of Ruffed Grouse.)
Contact me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com More of my articles can be found on my other blog at http://northeastnaturalist.blogspot.com/ and more nature photos can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_spier and http://picasaweb.google.com/northeastnaturalist

Autumn Grouse © Dave Spier

Ruffed Grouse near Lake Durant  © Dave Spier

In September and October, we spend a good deal of time camping in the Adirondacks, much of it in the northern portions from St. Lawrence County eastward to the Clintonville Pine Barrens and then south into Essex and Hamilton Counties.  On some of the trails we hiked, we flushed one or two Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus), a.k.a. partridge, from the edge. Even though they were hidden (more like invisible), as we approached too close for their comfort, they exploded in a noisy burst of frantic wing beating meant to scare and disorient us (and it works). It's a very effective ploy against predators. In the dense woods, the birds are quickly out of sight even though they only fly relatively short distances. Since grouse do not migrate, they have no need for long-distance flight.

Grouse depend on their brown camouflage to remain invisible. Chances are we hiked past other grouse that held tight because they were further from the trail edge. If we had taken more breaks and stopped along the trails, additional grouse may have flushed from cover as they became nervous about what we're doing. Instinctively, they seem to know that a stopped "predator" may be getting ready to pounce.

Grouse habitat in the Adirondacks can be described as dry woods with a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees and a thick understory of hobblebush or dense ground cover. The trail along the north side of Taylor Pond is a good example. Now that the leaves have mostly fallen, grouse concentrate in thickets. These spots also provide berries important in their fall diet. After the berries are consumed, grouse turn to aspen buds which will get them through the winter months. Aspens are fast-growing, but short-lived, pioneer trees found on sunny edges of young woods and openings in more mature forests. Also known as poplars, they are related to cottonwoods and willows.

Sometimes called the "king of game birds," the Ruffed Grouse is admired by sportsmen (or sports persons, if you prefer). The Ruffed Grouse Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving grouse and woodcock habitat since 1961. You can find out more by visiting their website at http://www.ruffedgrousesociety.org/ and clicking on the various links.

(This is the second article in a loose series around the theme of Ruffed Grouse.)

Contact me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com  Additional articles not related to the Adirondacks can be found on my other blog at http://northeastnaturalist.blogspot.com/ and more nature photos can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_spier and http://picasaweb.google.com/northeastnaturalist

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Partridgeberry -- © Dave Spier

Donna and I just returned from another extended camping trip in the Adirondacks where we frequently encountered a small, matted plant growing beside many of the trails. This species is widespread across New York and it's often found in moist woods.

In the fall, it's the small, red berries that first catch your attention. They're edible, but dry, seedy and tasteless, so leave them for the grouse to eat. I've never been fortunate enough to see a grouse [partridge] actually eating these fruits, but apparently that's how it got its name, Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens).

The plant's creeping stems, growing close to the ground, are lined with opposite pairs of rounded or slightly heart-shaped leaves, often sporting a light mid-rib [vein] down the center of each leaf. The leaves are small, less than an inch long and dark green year round.

In early summer, many of the trailing stems terminate in a forked pair of white or pink trumpet-shaped flowers, each with four or five petals. These turn into the scarlet berries (actually Siamese-twin berries) of fall.

Partridgeberries at Greenwood Creek State Forest (just outside the Blue Line)  © Dave Spier
(This is the first article in a loose series around the theme of Ruffed Grouse.)

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