Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Warblers!

We are in the midst of warbler migration. The forests are full of these small, colorful birds moving through the treetops in search of insects to fuel their tiny bodies. Many of these species fly hundreds of miles to move from their wintering grounds in South America, Central America, and the southern US to their breeding grounds in the the northern half of the continent.

Take some time over the next few weeks to view some of the members of this colorful group of birds as they move through our area. Below is a small sample of some of the warblers we've been seeing around Bechtel Lake and Lost Pond. These two locations, as well as the Brookside Trail and Cole Kettle, are fantastic places to view migratory species. What do they all have in common? Water...and insects. All of the photos below were taken as the birds rested between bouts of inhaling numerous insects around Lost Pond.

Not sure how to ID these energetic little birds? Join us in the coming weeks for bird walks at the sanctuary. See the list of programs to the right of this page and visit our website for details.

Palm Warbler


Yellow-rumped Warbler (male)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (female)

Pine Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-White Warbler (male)


-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Plants: Blooming and Springing

There are more flowers blooming in the forests. Many of these early flowers are growing, flowering, and setting seed before the forest's leaves emerge to collect the sun's energy. Many other plants are beginning their growing season as well. Below is a sample of the plants you can easily find growing along the Easy Loop Trail:

Spring Beauty is a small, five-petaled flower with slender, grass-like leaves sprouting through the leaf litter this time of year. Look for a large cluster along the portion of the Easy Loop Trail leading downhill, out of the pine stand (near the labeled Hop-hornbeam and White Ash trees).

Red Trillium is a unique plant in which nearly all parts come in threes: 3 leaves, 3 sepals, 3 petals. New York State has listed this flower on the state's Protected Native Plant List, indicating that it may not be "picked, plucked, severed, removed, damaged, or carried away". Doing so would certainly hinder the plant's ability to reproduce in addition to robbing everyone else the priviledge of viewing this gorgeous spring wildflower. See this Trillium near the Sugar House, mixed in with the wild leeks.

Skunk Cabbage is a most prominent sight in all areas with moist soils. Though it has long since flowered, the large leaves are beginning to unfurl, giving the streams, lakesides, and swamps a very tropical vibe. The name Skunk Cabbage comes from the stinky smell of the flower and the crushed leaves of the plant. See plenty of these plants along the stream on both ends of Bechtel Lake.

Fiddleheads are sprouting up all over the forest. In the case of the Christmas Fern above, these new fronds are replacing the dried out, wilting fronds of this evergreen species. Also referred to as monkey tails, the fronds of the many species of ferns slowly unravel to absorb the abundant light that showers across the forest floor this time of year. Near the intersection of Easy Loop and Chickadee Trail, keep an eye out for the fiddleheads from various species like New York, Cinnamon, Interrupted, and Hay-scented Ferns.

Enjoy your spring!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Earth Day Resolutions

Wednesday, April 22 is Earth Day. Each year Earth Day catches more attention in our media. Most people these days are more aware of how their actions and their community effects the world around them. Global warming, species extinctions, oil spills, and other "bad news" makes their way into and out of our news casts and newspapers every now and then. It is often overwhelming to learn about all of the negative things that are happening to our environment and planet. It's enough to make some folks believe that nothing can be done to stop, slow or reverse our planet's ecological demise.

But Earth Day is more than a celebration of our planet's resilience and the beauty that still remains. It's a chance to make a positive change. It's Planet Earth's New Year's. And in keeping with the traditional New Year's, it's a chance for all of us to make some resolutions. There is a great deal of small steps each one of us can make around our homes, at work, at school, and in our communities.

I've made a list of resolutions for myself to keep this year. Each of the items on the list are things that I'm certain I'll be capable of completing. A few of my resolutions are new things I've not tried before, and others are things I'm currently doing but resolved to do better.

  1. Plant a native or fruit-bearing tree or shrub: Planting at least one tree or a cluster of shrubs increases the wildlife value of the landscaping around my yard. Native trees/shrubs provide wildlife with food, shelter, and/or nesting sites. Fruit-bearing trees/shrubs like cherry, apple, pear, hazelnut, blueberry, cranberry, etc can pull double-duty by providing food for you and your local wildlife.
  2. Plant native flowers: I've been working on this one for a while now, but there's always room for improvement. Native flowering plants are important sources of pollen and nectar for the many species of bees, butterflies and other pollinators, in addition to hummingbirds. They typically require less effort, less water, and provide better habitat for native insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals compared to ornamental plantings.
  3. Plant a Victory Garden: Once an American institution during World Wars I and II, the household vegetable garden is making a comeback. The Obamas have plans on an extensive vegetable garden at the White House this spring, and so do I. Well, I'm much more limited with available space in my yard, but I'm going to do my best. I built an 8'x3' raised bed for some tomatoes, green beans, carrots, and onions. With any leftover space I'll squeeze in some annual herbs like basil and cilantro. Other pockets in the garden can be filled with veggies and herbs, too, in addition to growing crops in pots.
  4. Compost: I've had a compost pile near the garden for a few years now for leaves, grass clipping, pulled weeds, etc. I've thrown in some leftover kitchen scraps here and there, but I'm vowing to make a more concerted effort. This fall I'd like to try worm-composting some kitchen scraps inside once the weather turns cold outside.
  5. Make or buy a rain barrel: Capturing rain water from the roof is a great way of providing water for my vegetables rather than using the water from the well. I'll probably make one since shipping a 50-gal barrel seems to be a bit pricey for me. Click here for plans to make a rain barrel.
  6. Replace incandescent light bulbs with CFL bulbs: This is one area where I've been really slacking. I'm going to start replacing my burnt-out incandescent bulbs with CFLs around the house. I've got some in the kitchen and living room so far, so I'm just waiting for more of those other bulbs to blow out.
  7. Recycle: I've been recycling plastic, paper, cardboard, glass and metal for a good while now. Not much escapes into the trash can without a little scrutiny to determine it's recyclability. Now I'm going to focus on recycling batteries, plastic grocery bags (sometimes I forget to take my reusable bags along with me), cell phones, electronics, and computer equipment when the opportunity arises. These items don't show up very often, but they're on my radar now.
  8. Precycling: Now that I've got the recylcing thing locked down, I'm working on eliminating useless, excessive packaging that accompanies some of the goods and products I buy. Buying items in bulk, items in recyclable packaging vs. non-recyclable packaging, or items in containers that can easily be reused will eliminate some of the extraordinary waste that comes from many of our consumer products.
I'd like everyone to keep an Earth Day resolution, too. Feel free to make my resolutions your own, or share your unique resolutions with us.

Happy Earth Day!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, April 13, 2009

Dutchman's Breeches

Spring rains and slowly warming soils will soon bring an abundance of blooming native wildflowers. While many of our lawns, flower beds and gardens have witnessed blooming crocuses and daffodils for a week or so, it is these native plants that are the harbingers of spring in the forested landscape.

Today, I noticed the first blooms of one of our most interesting wildflowers that persist from year to year near the Sugar House. Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) are a very welcomed sight each spring on the hillside. These and many other spring wildflowers grow, bloom and die before most of the trees sprout their leaves and cover the forest floor in shade.
Our Dutchman's Breeches easily go unnoticed when not in bloom. The gray-green foliage blends well into the surround leaf litter and the plant only grows a few inches high. Upon close inspection of it's leaves, it looks suspiciously familiar to Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spectabilis), which often find their way into our formal gardens and landscapes. The two plants are actually closely related, both belonging to the Genus Dicentra. Even the flowers have a similar shape.
Duchman's Breeches get their name from their resemblance to the wide-legged pants once worn by Dutch men. In the picture above, the spray of flowers look reminiscent of a row of laundered pants hanging from the clothes line. You can see these beauties for another week or so while they're still in bloom.

Its really great to find flowers like this still persisting around the sanctuary considering how many have disappeared or are unable to bloom due to deer browsing. This plant is actually quite toxic if ingested, so the deer have a reason for avoiding this particular flower. I wish the others had evolved to do the same.

We'll continue to document other flowering plants from around the sanctuary this spring and share the photos with you here. If you come across something interesting while walking our trails, take a photo, make a note in our wildlife sightings box, and send us an e-mail letting us know what you've found.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Monday, April 6, 2009

Life in a Vernal Pool

I previously posted about the Spotted Salamanders and Wood Frogs breeding in one of the vernal pools on the Wood Thrush trail. While the Spotted Salamanders have come and gone, and the Wood Frogs are soon to follow, there is still a lot of life in this temporary pond. Here are some of the other creatures we've discovered in the pond last Wednesday, April 1.

Egg masses are the only evidence of the Spotted Salamander's visit to the vernal pool. There were nearly a dozen of the oblong masses, each filled with a few dozen individual eggs that are rapidly developing into salamander larva. The majority of the egg masses are like the one pictured below, but a couple of them are opaque. The opaque masses contain an anti-freeze component that protects the eggs from being destroyed should the temperature drop sharply and freeze the shallow pool. As the pool's temperature increases through the course of spring, these eggs will hatch, the larvae rapidly grow, and the adult salamanders will emerge from the water to live life underground until next spring. Very few of the eggs will actually complete their journey to adulthood due to predation and other influences.
Spotted Salamander egg mass

Wood frogs have laid a number eggs the pool thus far as well. At first glance these eggs look exactly like the salamander eggs. However, these eggs are laid in a very loose cluster as opposed to the tightly packed mass of salamander eggs. Wood Frogs also tend to lay their eggs together, making one gigantic blob of eggs floating near the water's surface. The handfull of eggs below were just a tiny fraction of the entire blob that was nearly 3 feet across and 18 inches wide. That's a lot of eggs! Like the salamander eggs, they will soon turn to tadpoles, grow rapidly and turn into adults with only a small percentage actually surviving to adulthood.

Wood Frog eggs

While most of amphibians are in the process of, or soon will be, laying eggs, one local species completed that job last fall. The Marbled Salamander lays its eggs in fall in anticipation of the winter snow and spring rain filling the vernal pool with water. After the eggs hatch, the larvae grow rapidly. The larva pictured below likely hatched a few weeks ago, well in advance of the other amphibians laying their eggs. This is to the advantage of the Marbled Salamander who will grow rapidly by eating the smaller larvae of other amphibian species. Look closely at the photo and you will see the feathery gills of the larva and its two front legs that have already sprouted.

Marbled Salamander larva

While we were searching around the pool, we ran into an American Toad who was quite intent on reaching the water. He wasn't at all interested in modeling for the camera, so we decided to pick him up for a photo op. This also allowed us to figure out if it was a male or female toad. Generally males of amphibian species are the first to congregate in the pools, ponds, and lakes to initiate the breeding season. I assumed this particular toad was a male, but there's one good way to make sure: Hold the toad by his armpits. When males are held this way, they illicit a squeaky, vocal response. Why? Breeding males hang onto females with their front arms tucked into the female's armpits (known as amplexus). When males are jockeying for a mate, sometimes they make a mistake and latch onto another male. When this happens, the male being latched onto makes the squeaky vocalization in protest.

American Toad - Have you ever seen a more handsome specimen?

One more amphibian in the vernal pool that night. Upon returning all of the other specimens back into the water I happened across this Red-spotted Newt. This is an adult. Newts have a complex lifecycle unlike most other amphibians. These critters develop from aquatic larvae to emerge as an eft, which lives on land for 2-3 years. The red eft returns to the water to transform into a permanently aquatic adult capable of breeding. While handling this creature, it seems as though the newt has not a care in world as it casually walks from hand to hand. These guys can be particularly toxic thanks to poison glands in the skin. If another animal puts one of these dudes in their mouth, they'll likely remember no to do that again. The red coloration is a visual warning of the newt's toxicity and care should be taken while (and after) handling these guys.

Adult Red-spotted Newt

While the amphibians are the more attractive members of the vernal pool community, there are a number of other creatures calling this place home. Listed amoung them are a host of insect species: Mosquito larvae, various diving beetles, Backswimmers, Water Striders, Water Boatmen, etc. One of the more interesting to me are the caddisfly larvae. Two different species are pictured below. I'm not sure of their species names, but caddisfly larvae can be identified by the their size and the type of "shell" or case they construct and carry with them. The first caddisfly larva has constructed it's case of leaf fragments tiled together to form a long cylinder. The second larva's case is a spiraled conglomerate of leaf stems and fragments. The adult caddisfly looks a lot like a moth and can be seen around outdoor spot lights and lamps during the warmer months of the year.
Caddisfly larva with case of leaf "tiles"


Caddisfly larva with spiral case of leaf stems and pieces

Interested in seeing more of these amazing creatures in living in our vernal pool? Please join us on April 17 or April 18 for one of our amphibian hikes. Herpetologist Peter Warny will be joining the Westmoreland Sanctuary staff for these events and brings a lifetime of knowledge and experience with both reptiles and amphibians. Please visit http://www.westmorelandsanctuary.org/ for more information about the amphibian hikes.
-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Wet and Wild Nights

The rain we so sorely needed through late March has finally arrived to dampen the soils, fill the streams and replenish our lakes. The onset of our local amphibian's breeding seasons were put on hold until the rains fell as well. On the evening of March 26, the first good rain of the spring soaked the ground. To celebrate the occasion, I dusted off my chest waders, grabbed a rain coat and flashlight, and headed out into the forest.

At the bottom of the Easy Loop trail, a few hardy spring peepers had begun to peep. It was more quiet than I anticipated, but a good sign nonetheless. Around the other side of the lake on the Wood Thrush trail, I ran into an American Toad intent on making it down the hill to the lake on this cold, rainy evening. Air temps were in the upper 40's so the toad was a bit of a suprise. Making my way up the rest of the Wood Thrush trail I was greeted by a familiar chorus of Wood Frogs.

Wood Frog


The vernal pool on the Wood Thrush trail is always of interest to us in the spring. Pools like these nurture a large variety of wildlife species above and below the water's surface. Temporary as they may be (many vernal pools are simply dry depressions in the summer and fall), these fish-less pools are extraordinarily important during the spring season when amphibians and other aquatic life are breeding. Without fish, these species are far more successful at reaching adulthood as long as they do so before the pool dries up. Though there are number of vernal pools all across the sanctuary, the one on Wood Thrush is most accessable to us and easiest to monitor consistently from year to year.

My venture into the rain on the night of March 26 was certainly rewarding. Dozens of Wood Frogs were calling into the night. The water temperature was extremely cold, offering the chance to pick up the sluggish frogs with a careful scoop of the hand. The frogs would become only a distraction from what I was really looking for. I wanted to see some Spotted Salamanders.

Spotted Salamander

Spotted Salamanders and their relatives are known collectively as mole salamanders. They live the vast majority of their life underground consuming soil invertebrates like worms, insects, etc. This habit doesn't allow them to be easily located or observed. But once a year, during the first soaking rain of the spring, they emerge from their underground lairs to breeding in vernal pools and other nearby bodies of water. This is when they can be easily found. And I did just that. I saw 6 different Spotted Salamanders that night in that vernal pool. As they slowly cruised the bottom, using legs and tail to propel them along, I made an effort to hold each one for just a few moments, knowing I likely wouldn't see them again until this time next year.

This past Thursday, April 2 I made another trip to the vernal pool to check for any more salamanders. Of course, they were all gone. Back to their subterranean lifestyle for the rest of the year. Next post...I'll have more images of the wildlife living in the vernal pool.

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist