Thursday, November 27, 2008

Arborvitae- Tree of Life

Today is turkey day. But what I look most forward to is stuffing. See most people call it stuffing, because you stuff it in the turkey. I call it stuffing, because I stuff it, as much as humanly possible, in my mouth. Oh, yeah. Comfort food, bring it on!!! So, after spending the majority of the day cramming my face full of stuffing and other high-carb dishes, I was ready to go for a walk, or in my case a waddle, with my sister.

We went next door to the cemetery, one of my favorite places to walk. We had two dogs and my sister's sister-in-law in tow.

Seal, my nephew's dog, was having a great time, making sure we all saw the squirrels. "Hey, guys, are you paying attention! There is a SQUIRREL over there! If we RUN, we might catch it!"

Sissy, could care less. She is not thrilled that Seal is here for a visit. "Squirrel, shmirrel, you are ruining my walky. Why are you here? When are you leaving, you hyper yellow dog that eats all my treats? GRRRRR!"

As we were out and about, admiring squirrels and checking out gravestones, I marveled at the huge White Cedars, Thuja occidentalis, that were planted around the cemetery. Another name for them is Arborvitae, literally meaning Tree of Life (arbor-tree, vitae-life). How ironic!

The story of how the White Cedar got the name Tree of Life is an interesting one. In the 1530's, French explorer, Jacques Cartier was on an expedition along the St. Lawrence River. He had a crew of 110 men and two Native American youth. Almost the entire crew was suffering from scurvy, a terrible disease that causes swollen joints, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, extreme fatigue, chronic diarrhea, bone fractures, tooth loss, purple spots under the skin and death. On their way up the river, he dropped his young guides off at their home village, thinking that they were close to death. Ten days later, he passed by the village and found the boys completely well! He asked how this was possible and was taught how to chop and boil the leaves of the White Cedar to make a potent drink. In deep gratitude for curing their sickness, the explorers carried the tree back to France. The miraculous tree was named “l’arbor de vie” by the King of France and planted in their medicinal gardens.

What a majestic and stunning tree. Compare how tall it is to the fence behind it.

I love the flattened, scale-like leaves of Arborvitae. It also has a very pleasant scent.

I thought the story was very appropriate today. Realizing many of the first explorers to America, the pilgrims included, often did not get enough nutrients to stave off horrible diseases. It is good to take pause and give thanks for all the sacrifices that were and are made to get us to where we are today.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Alien Encounter or Space Shuttle ??!!

While visiting Goose Pond Sunday, Don Gorney noticed a large satellite-like object moving across the sky. He remarked that it might be the space shuttle. I joked that it might be aliens.

And, sure enough, it was aliens! No, not really. Don went home and confirmed it was the space shuttle and station. Here in Indianapolis, there are a few more opportunities to view it. Click on the link below to find out the times to view the shuttle.

Do you live in another area? You can click this link and put in your country, state, and city and find the best viewing times. Just go under the heading Sighting Opportunities on the left side of the screen and put in your location.

While out there at Goose Pond, where there is very little light pollution, we grabbed the opportunity and looked at some of the other stars and planets in the sky. Don shared this great website, Sky and Telescope, that describes what one can see in the sky each night. This week, Jupiter and Venus are almost in alignment. Click on the link below to see what is happening in the night sky each week.

Happy viewing and Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Message For Us All

This past weekend I went to the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) conference at the Garrison near beautiful Ft. Benjamin Harrison Park.

Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens was one of the keynote speakers. His message was potent and timely. He discussed how native plants play a key role in the environment.

Many of us have grown up with the belief that great expansive manicured lawns are attractive. Throw into the mix a few exotic trees and shrubs that are insect resistant, because, heaven's no, you can't have unsightly holes bespeckling the leaves. Make sure you spray the lawn often with chemicals to ensure there aren't any "weeds". Wallah, you have a classic American yard. Unfortunately, this is NOT what we really want. When we rid our yards of native plants (plants that occur naturally in an area) and insects, we are removing valuable food sources or links in the food chain for most living things. Many animals rely on insects for food. Bats, birds, raccoons, opossums, moles, shrews, most rodents, spiders, salamanders, frogs, snakes, turtles, toads, skinks, etc... rely on insects for a great source of protein and fat. Caterpillars, pound for pound, are higher in protein, iron, thiamine and riboflavin than beef. By removing the food source, we are also discouraging the wildlife to visit our yards, as well. Would you live in a place if there was no way to find food nearby?

Photo by John Howard

Can't insect just eat whatever plant is available? Research says no. Insects need native plants to survive. They have forged a relationship with specific plants over thousands of years. Their bodies have adapted the ability to digest native plants. They do not possess enzymes to digest foreign plants. They cannot break down the chemicals that those plants produce to ward off predators. Only plants that insects have a long standing relationship with are the ones they can and will eat. Some of the exotic plants from Asia and elsewhere have no natural enemies here.

Because we, as a group, remove native plants whenever a shopping mall, housing addition, or business park is built, we need to start thinking of ways to replace the insects' food. What we can do is plant a variety of native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants in our own landscapes to help lessen the blow. It is not a perfect solution, but it will help. And when we restore the plants, the insects will come back, bringing the birds back, etc... We need to realize that not only do native plants play an important role in most animals' lives, native plants ensure our existence as well.
Over the weekend I visted a wonderful place called Goose Pond in southern Indiana. It is a wetland restoration, or a native planting on a large scale. Each year, more new and exciting species return to this area. King Rails have nested there. Barn Owls have been seen there. Whooping Cranes, Ibis, and Snowy Egrets have visited there. The list goes on. In my next post we will discuss this amazing place located only 2 hours from Indianapolis.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Jaegers-Pirates of the Bird World

I really like jaegers. (And no, I am not talking about shots of liquid evil that causes one to do unwise things.) I am talking about the remarkable birds that frequent the lakeshore during the fall and early winter. These are pelagic birds, normally found on the open sea. I had always wanted to see one, like a little kid wants to see Santa Claus. And this past weekend, I was able to view quite a few. Plus, I had great looks at two individuals. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Pomarine Jaeger. Picture from Wikipedia.

There are three species of jaegers that can be seen in Indiana. One is the Parasitic Jaeger, Stercorarius parasiticus. We couldn't confirm the ID on one of the jaegers I saw, but one was most likely a parasitic, judging by size and field marks. Another is the Pomarine Jaeger, Stercorarius pomarinus. We saw one of these very well. And the third is the Long-tailed Jaeger, Stercorarius longicaudus. This one I have not seen yet, and hope to some day. Maybe this coming weekend :)

There are many reasons for my jaeger fascination. First of all, their body is built for speed and agility. Their wings are shaped almost like a falcon's, long and thin and tapered at the tips. This shape allows them to accelerate along the coast at top-notch speeds. They are very acrobatic, twisting and banking extreme turns. They have even shown the ability to execute a backward somersault when in pursuit of another bird.

Parasitic Jaeger. Photo from Wikipedia. Parasitc Jaegers are remarkably agile fliers.

Another reason I like jaegers is because I also like pirates. What does that have to do with jaegers, you wonder? Well, jaegers are pirates. In fact, it would be more suiting for a swash-buckling pirate to have a jaeger perched on his shoulder than a parrot. Jaegers are kleptoparasitic. This means they steal other birds food. They will find a gull or other bird that has a meal. They will pursue the bird and harass it, bombarding it from below and above until the exhausted creature gives up and drops its bounty. Then, the jaeger will dive after the morsel and snatch it before it is swallowed by the ocean's depth.

Long-tailed Jaeger. Check out that tail! Photo from Wikipedia

Lastly, I like jaegers because they are funky-looking. They have webbing between their toes like gulls, but also have strong, hooked claws so they can capture food. Jaegers prey upon birds, killing some almost their size, and rodents, such as lemmings. They have sharp, hooked beaks, so they can rip open their prey. They have attractive plumage, with contrasting dark and light feathers. They have white patches on the wings to supposedly startle birds aiding in the release of the food. All jaegers have two long trailing feathers on their tail when they are in alternate, or breeding, plumage. The Long-tailed Jaeger's tail feathers are pretty obvious, hence the name.

How can one not love a kleptoparasitic funky pirate bird that does acrobatic tricks?! Keep your eye out for this winged wonder at a coast-line near you.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lakefront Birding and the California Gull

Picture from Flickr

This past weekend I had the pleasure of accompanying my friend and birder extraordinaire, Don Gorney, up north to experience some Lakefront birding. I have been to the Lakefront before, but when the weather had been much better. I soon learned that in order to fully appreciate Lakefront birding, one must go when there are 20 plus mile-an-hour winds and sand blowing in your face!

It was amazing! I had never experienced anything quite like it. When we arrived, we were greeted by many top-notch birders, all huddled around their scopes, peering out into the foggy mist that hung over Lake Michigan. It was raining and around forty degrees, which normally wouldn't be bad weather. But the wind! There was a small building that we pressed up against for cover, and the howl of the wind as it coursed around the edges was almost deafening.

The birds were incredible! We saw squadrons of Common Loons, stretching across the sky forever. We had over 800 that day! We observed over 300 Bonaparte's Gulls, or "bonies", small, fast flying gulls that dart about in tight groups. My favorite birds for the day were jaegers and I will cover them in another post.

A special find for the day was the California Gull. We missed it by TWO minutes; it flew off right before we arrived. Despite missing the bird, Don shared with me a fascinating story of this rare Indiana visitor. (Only 19 accepted records of this visitor since 1979.)

Photo from Flickr

Don asked me "What state has the California Gull as its state bird?" I replied, "I dunno, California?" Nope! It is Utah! Apparently, in 1848, there was a horrible swarm of locust, now called Mormon Crickets, that were eating all the crops. The Mormons prayed and prayed and out of the blue showed up California Gulls that started eating all the insects. There is doubt surrounding the origin of this story or how true it is. Nevertheless, the California Gull is Utah's state bird and there is a Seagull Monument commemorating the event. Nature never ceases to amaze!StumbleUpon

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Curious Find

Winter is a good time to clean my desk. So while moving piles of paper around, out rolled this object. I had picked it up on one of my walks and had meant to take some pics of it earlier in the year. So this morning, I did just that.

The object is about two inches across and very delicate with a thin, papery shell. This is an oak apple gall. A gall is an unusual growth of plant tissues caused by a variety of agents. Insects, mites, fungi, and bacteria can all produce galls in plants. This one is caused by a member of the wasp family, and it has a fascinating life cycle. The wasp is a tiny one, only about a quarter inch in size called Amphibolips confluenta.

Above is the only picture I could find of the beast. Sorry, it is a bit, ummm, dead. This comes from the University of Minnesota. Since the wasp is so tiny, and it has such a unique life cycle, there are not a lot of photos out there. I am bummed. :(

Anyway, on with the story. It starts with a young wasp hatching out of the oak gall. Here in Indiana, oak apple galls usually occur on red, black and scarlet oaks. The male and female wasps will mate, then the female will drop to the ground. She will burrow under the ground and inject eggs in the roots of the oak tree. The larvae will hatch and spend about a year munching away on the roots. Next they will rest in the form of pupae. Then, finally, the wingless females will hatch underground.
The wingless females will crawl up the oak tree trunk in early spring, find a newly developing leaf bud and lay an egg. The single larva will hatch inside of the leaf. It will produce a chemical that will start the formation of the gall. The gall will grow with the larva. The larva will eat and grow until it is ready to pupate, forming a bright green gall. Check here for a pic of the larve that lives inside.
This is a shot of the inside of the gall. Here the larva and pupa spend their time protected from the elements. There are dangers though. Woodpeckers, chickadees and squirrels know there is a tasty morsel inside these galls and will search for these yummy snacks.

Here is the inside of the gall without the outer shell. It feels soft and stringy.
After carefully scraping away all the gobbledeegook (like my scientific lingo?), the chamber is exposed. As you can see, it is no bigger than the end of a pencil.
The outer shell also has a small pinhole, indicating the wasp successfully emerged. Hopefully, it found a mate and the cycle will continue. Oak apple gall wasps usually will not cause too much harm to the trees, so it is not a dangerous pest to worry about.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Home School Jamboree!

Today, Friday Nov. 7th, Eagle Creek Park hosted their fall Home School Jamboree. Home schoolers from around the state came to learn all about nature. Since I was teaching a bird ID class, my co-worker Miranda Sears graciously took the photos. Thanks, Miranda!

Here is the Earth Discovery Center. This is where the magic of Home School Jamboree happens. This new building was opened just last year. It is also featured in the upcoming EEAI conference next weekend.

Joe Schmid, manager of Holliday Park, was teaching his classes on trees. He taught the children how to climb a tree like many foresters do. I have tried this and it is very fun!

Here I am teaching Bird ID. Since the birds were a little sparce, I had placed backup pictures on the trees. The kids would hunt for the pictures and when we found them we would talk about each bird. We would learn each bird's call along with some interesting facts about it. I am in the navy blue jacket next to the girl in pink. (Yes, I know, the kids are taller than me!)

Our fearless leader of the EELS department, Jeff Ward. He taught a program about flying monkeys and the Wizard of Oz. No, not really! He really taught about extirpated animals, animals that once lived here in Indiana. He covered animals like mountain lions, black bear, elk, porcupine and wolves. He is also one of the keynote speakers in the aforementioned EEAI conference.

Karen Johnstone led her classes on an exciting scavenger hunt. They were investigators looking for things animals needed to survive. They were looking for holes, looking under logs, checking for bite marks on leaves, and really exploring!

Brittany Wierda taught a class on orienteering. After they learned some basic skills, kids were able to test them out in the field finding objects. Put red fred in the shed!

Dawn Davis, coordinator of the event, is plum crazy after putting in countless hours of planning.She worked hard to make this wonderful event go off without a hitch. Great job, lady!
And thanks for ordering the warm, sunny weather!


Monday, November 3, 2008

A Fungus Among Us

While we were on our walk Sunday, my sister exclaimed "Now there is something to blog about!" And there on the side of the tree were these really cool shelf fungi.

Below is my hand placed on one of these monster 'shrooms. This would make quite a meal. They are edible, but from what I read, they are not super tasty. Hmmm, maybe if they were dipped in chocolate....

There are many fungi considered shelf or bracket fungi. This one is Polyporus squamosus. It has a couple of common names. One is Dryad's Saddle and another is Pheasant's Back.

So what in the world is a Dryad and why would it have a saddle? Well, a Dryad is a tree nymph. And if you eat some of the other mushrooms that you shouldn't, you will probably see them riding on this saddle-shaped mushroom. :)
The top of this fungus is scaly, covered in squamules. And this is where the squamosus name fits in. The pattern on the top of the fungi are very similar to a female pheasant's back. This is why the other common name for these fungi are Pheasant Backs. Supposedly, many a hunter have snuck up on these fungi when they are located low on a trunk or on a downed log, thinking they have located a resting pheasant.

Mushrooms in the genus Polyporus are stalked, as you can see in the above photo. Polyporus means "many pores". Some fungi have gills, or lamellae, and some, like these, have pores that contain all the tiny spores. The spores act similar to seeds of a plant. Below is a bottom shot showing the pores.

Below is a close-up of the pores. A fungus this size could hold billions of spores. The spores are so minute that they can be carried miles up into the atmosphere and deposited thousands of miles away.
If these spores land on a tree or downed log, they will produce enzymes that break down the wood, releasing the nutrients and minerals to be used by other forest organisms. The enzymes specifically break down lignin, or the brown hard part of the wood. They make the wood so that it appears spongy and moist.

If you want to learn more about these fascinating mushrooms and all about polypores go to Tom Volk's site. He is a professor from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He has a great writing style, is very informative, and is pretty funny at times.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Fall Walk

Sunday, my sister and I decided to take a walk to enjoy the warm weather and get a little exercise. We told the dog we were going for a "walky", leashed her up, and off we went.

Joyce lives next to an awesome old cemetery with 35 acres to explore and lots of tombstones from the 1800's. My favorite part about this cemetery is the huge, old trees. Lots of gnarly oaks, beech, ash and pines. But, the stars of the show were the gorgeous sugar maples.

Sugar maples are always good for color in the fall. They tend to color unevenly, so there will be rich hues of orange, scarlet and yellow all within the same tree.

This particular tree really caught my eye. It seemed to be ablaze with rich crimson color. I circled around it taking shot after shot. The dog grew tired and looked at me as if to say "Hey lady, there are smells to explore and you are holding us up!"

Another view from a different angle of this sugar maple. What a beauty! One might ask, what produces these rich colors? The colors are produced by pigments found in the leaves. There are three main pigments involved in leaf color:

Carotenoids produce colors of orange, yellow and brown. They give carrots their bright orange hue and daffodils their sunny yellow petals. They are always present in the leaf, but the green of chrorophyll usually masks them.
Anthocyanins produce purple and red colors. Apples, cranberries, strawberries, plums, grapes and blueberries all can thank anthocyanins for their color. They can be greater when there is more sugar and sun. Think ripe fruit.
Chlorophyll is the pigment that makes green plants green and has an important role in making sugars for the plant.
Warm, sunny days and cool, but not freezing nights are a good combination to insure ample color displays. During these days, the warm sun cause lots of sugars to be produced in the leaf. Cool nights cause gradual closing of veins going into the leaf and prevent these sugars from moving out. The equation of lots of sugar plus lots of light step up production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, responsible for the rich purples and crimsons. Since carotenoids levels are similar from year to year, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant each fall. Soil moisture can also affects autumn colors. Low soil moisture can hamper sugar production that can affect the reds and purple hues.
Since sugar maples naturally have a high sugar content in their sap, they favor high levels of anthocyanins to produce the rich color that sugar maples are known for.
The countless combinations of moisture and temperature affect the outcome in such a way that there are no two autumns exactly alike. An extra cold spring or summer drought can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. Unseasonably warm fall nights can cause a reduction of color by hampering the closing of the leaf veins and not trapping the sugars. The best combo is a wet, warm spring, a mild summer followed by warm fall days and cool nights.

Get out and enjoy these last days of fall before winter sets in. BRRRRRR!!!!