Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Goldenrods -- © 2008 Dave Spier

First, to clear the air, goldenrod does not cause hay fever or allergies. That job is done by ragweed, a distant relative with tiny, inconspicuous green flowers and copious amounts of powdery, wind-blown pollen. Goldenrod, on the other hand, has sticky, relatively-heavy pollen carried from flower to flower by insects such as wasps and bumblebees. In fact, the yellow color of golenrod serves to attract the various insects needed for pollination.

Wherever there's abundant sunshine, goldenrods take over with a tangle of underground roots and chemicals that inhibit the growth of competitors. It takes a number of years, but they can dominate small patches of real estate and this continues until shrubs rise above the challenge and begin shading the goldenrods. Assuming there are no other disturbances, trees eventually win the battle for sunlight and recreate a forest, but that takes decades. That said, there are even two species of goldenrod, the Zig-zag and the Blue-stemmed, that survive as individuals or small patches in some woods.

There are actually dozens of different goldenrod species, each adapted to slightly different growing conditions. Many have offset, but overlapping, growing periods so they are not all competing for insect attention at the same time. The individual blossoms are crowded together, usually along the top stems where they are most visible. To see the differences in their basic structure, one needs to look closely or use a magnifying lens. Many resemble miniature daisies. Of course, many things do because the daisy family (usually called the aster family) contains one-tenth of the world's flowering plants. Their basic design is a central disk of compact florets surrounded by showy petals called rays. There are a few exceptions to this rule, including ragweed, which has lost (or never developed) the corolla of rays. Unfortunately, ragweed blooms at the same time, and in many of the same habitats, as its showy cousins that get the blame. So, if you can, spare the gold and pull the ragweed.

You might call me the goldenrod ambassador.

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(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, August 25, 2008. All rights reserved.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Painted Turtles

Painted Turtles
© 2008 Dave Spier.
Perhaps the commonest turtle in New York State is the painted. Often seen sunning itself on a log, and frequently basking in a group, the painted turtle will slide into the water at your approach. It also can be seen crossing roads and a number of people, myself included, are inclined to carefully stop and help the turtle across before it becomes another road pizza.
Painted turtles are recognized by smooth, dark-green or black shells edged with red plus colorful patterns of red and black on their necks and legs and yellow stripes on the head. The local race (subspecies) in the Finger Lakes Region is the Midland Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta marginata. The average length of the shell is five inches with a record over seven inches. Females are generally larger than males. The large scutes, the pieces that make up the carapace, or top shell, alternate instead of running straight across the back. If you turn the turtle over, the plastron, or bottom shell, often has a dark blotch that individually varies in size and shape. Our subspecies ranges from southern Ontario and New England to Tennessee. Along the east coast, it interbreeds with the eastern race of this species which has a plain, pale plastron.
The painted turtle's diet varies with age. Adults eat mostly aquatic vegetation, but youngsters eat high-protein insects, crayfish, worms, carrion, tadpoles and small mollusks like snails which they find in any shallow body of water, be it pond, marsh, ditch or stream backwater. Lacking teeth, they depend on beaks with sharp cutting edges and inside the jaws are flat, crushing surfaces. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded ectotherms that warm themselves from the rays of the sun. The food they eat is used for growth and cell repair and not for generating body heat. As a result they need less food than warm-blooded birds and mammals.
Unlike the amphibians from which they evolved, reptiles have scales or bony plates covering thick, waterproof skin. This reduces loss of body moisture and allows them freedom to roam far from water. In the case of turtles, the bony carapace is fused to the spinal vertebrae and ribs. Once fully grown, the armored shell offers excellent protection against predators. Young turtles are not so fortunate and may be eaten by anything from raccoons to night-herons.
Reptiles differ from amphibians in another important respect. They are not restricted to laying eggs in the water. Amphibian eggs resemble fish eggs and are fertilized externally. Reptile eggs are fertilized internally. Many reptiles, turtles included, lay eggs covered with leathery shells and these are buried on land after digging a hole in damp soil using their clawed hind feet. Painted turtles generally lay half a dozen elliptical eggs in a clutch between mid-May and July. Incubation takes 10 or 11 weeks. Parents never care for their young which are fully developed and totally on their own from birth.
Turtles as an order have been around for an estimated 200 million years. Obviously, their basic design, two external shells connected with a "bridge," has proven highly successful in the survival game. The name "turtle" comes from "tortue," the French word for tortoise. The scientific name, Chrysemys picta, means "golden tortoise painted."
Underwater, basking turtles of the genus Chrysemys have a preference for what fishermen call structure. Fallen branches, logs, weed beds or sharp dropoffs provide escape cover for both turtles and fish. The next time you're out fishing, let the common painted turtle lead you to structure and probably a better catch.
Finally, turtles spend the winter buried in mud at the bottom of communal hibernating ponds. Lying dormant, they obtain oxygen through the linings of the mouth, throat and rear end of the gut. Makes me glad I'm not a turtle.
[For a discussion of the snapping turtle, see the May 21, 2007 issue of the Times of Wayne County: and go to p. 18 of the PDF.]
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(This copyrighted article and photograph first appeared in The Times of Wayne County, August 18, 2008. All rights reserved)


© 2008, Dave Spier
The Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is a member of the Sunfish Family. Based on technical characteristics, it is related to Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, Rock Bass, Black Crappies and the Pumpkinseed (or Common) Sunfish. Bluegills are identified by blue edging on the gill cover and a dark "earflap" plus a dusky thumbprint-like marking on the rear of the top (dorsal) fin. They are colored dark green on the back, white on the belly and yellow or orange (or sometimes dark gray) on the breast. Down South, they are called bream. They are now widespread in New York as a result of being stocked to serve as food for bass in farm ponds.
Bluegills spawn in early summer. The male builds a nest by fanning his tail to create a circular depression in shallow water. This removes silt that might smother the eggs. The female then joins him and they slowly swim around the nest while emitting eggs and sperm which settle to the bottom. The male guards the nest until the young disperse. At this stage, the third-inch long juveniles are transparent and move about freely. When they reach an inch in length, they return to hide in the vegetation of the lake, pond or slow-moving stream where they were born. They feed on tiny animals collectively called zooplankton. As they grow, they eat insects, crustaceans, other invertebrates and sometimes smaller fish. Older fish also consume plant material. Bluegills have been known to live 10 years and reach a length of 10 inches. In warmer climates they grow to a record 16 inches and just under five pounds.
All sunfish have sharp spines on four of their fins. These points help protect them from predators like bigger fish and large birds. If you've ever caught a sunfish and carelessly grabbed it, you know about these spines.
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(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, August 11, 2008. All rights reserved.)