Monday, December 28, 2009


© Dave Spier

Mockingbirds now are noted consistently on Christmas Bird Counts in their adopted home of Upstate New York. If there's one common thread, it's probably their association with Multi-flora Rose thickets.

Once considered a southern species, the mockingbird not only has expanded its range northward, but it is now found there year-round, in large part due to the widespread presence of Multi-flora Rose bushes and their small, bite-size fruits. Mockers reportedly defend fruit trees and berry bushes in their winter territory, but I have yet to see this. Cedar Waxwings, which can strip a tree or shrub of its fruits in hours are particularly prone to being attacked by mockingbirds. Have you ever witnessed this behavior? Mockers, which are larger, have been reported going so far as killing waxwings by pecking them to death.

The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is most noted for its talent of imitating other bird calls. Each sound is repeated three or more times before moving on to a different song from its repertoire. Not being content to stop there, it also accurately mimics sirens, musical instruments, squeaky hinges, burglar alarms and other urban sounds. During the breeding season and even into the fall, this serenade can last into the night. Native Americans named it “cencontlatolly,” meaning “400 tongues.” Mimus polyglottos means “mimic of many-tongues.”

Mockers are most attractive in flight when their dark wings flash prominent white patches. At rest, a bit of the white still shows. Their long tails are also dark and edged in white. Otherwise, the birds are gray on top and light underneath. In size and shape, mockingbirds are similar to their relatives, the catbirds and thrashers.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Jacks and Jills

© Dave Spier

Many people recognize Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema sp.) as a native spring woodland wildflower, but how many can tell which ones are Jill’s? It's actually simple, but we'll get to that later. The plant is in the Arum family and therefore related to Skunk-cabbage, plus Arrow Arum, Sweetflag and Green Dragon. Most of these species have their flowers inside a hood (called a spathe). In the case of Jack (or Jill) the club-shaped spadix resembles a preacher in his canopied pulpit. The actual flowers are tiny and hidden at the base of the spadix, inside the bottom of the hood. Male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers are on separate plants. Now, consider that it takes much more energy to be a female than a male. Pollen production is a short-term process that soon ends, but nourishing seeds takes the remainder of the summer until they ripen and turn bright scarlet red. Does this give you any clues? Female plants are larger and almost always have two leaves while male plants are smaller and have one leaf. But hold on, we're not done yet. The same plant can change back and forth depending on growing conditions!

Like many woodland wildflowers it takes a number of years for an individual plant to reach sexual maturity and begin flowering. Life is tough in the woods. Most of the growing season is spent in the shade of larger plants, primarily trees. It takes time, years of time, to store enough food (energy) underground to meet the added burden of producing flowers. Jack-in-the-pulpits start life as a single, small, compound leaf that grows larger each year until it has enough energy to add a male flower. If life is good, it eventually stores enough food to produce a female flower the following year. This usually takes three to five years. If conditions deteriorate -- there's not enough sunlight or not enough rain or it's too cold -- the plant can go back to being a male and start the process all over again.

Depending on which botanist you consult, there are either three species of Jack-in-the-pulpit or simply three varieties within one species, Arisaema triphyllum. I suspect that some of the confusion comes from the sexual variability within any given population. Aside from that there are variations in physical appearance. Some Jacks have green hoods, others have white-striped green hoods and a third variety has purple hoods usually with light stripes. The leaves are always three-parted and long-stalked. Some varieties can grow a foot high, while others reach three feet. This may be partly a result of soil fertility. The plants generally grow in moist woodlands, often at the edge of a swamp.

Jack-in-the-pulpit fruits ("berry" cluster) in late summer

This plant is also known as Indian turnip, but be warned that the underground corm contains crystals of calcium oxalate which cause an intense burning sensation in the mouth. There's a way around this but take pity on the hard life of the Jack and leave it to grow another year. If you really want to experiment with wild foods, use the plentiful Skunk-cabbage, but email me [linked below] for precautions and details. If you happen to stop at the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, NY, and hike the Warbler Walk trail, you can take a look at both the Jack-in-the-pulpit and the Skunk-cabbage.

one of my first encounter with a Jack-in-the-pulpit in the late 60's or early 70's
(all of the spring shots are scanned from slides)
Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There's also a community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

(This copyrighted article and the first photo appeared in the May 24, 2009 issue of the Times of Wayne County. All rights reserved.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009


First Wildflower
© Dave Spier

At least one wildflower doesn't care what the weather is doing. It can produce its own heat from chemical reactions inside the plant, a process called thermogenesis. This ability may have evolved in early plants during the age of dinosaurs (the Mesozoic) as a way to entice insects to pollinate the primitive flowers. The heat helps the flowers to mature so they can launch odors attractive to insects and provide warmth if the insect spends the night. Later, it can keep the embryonic seeds from freezing during cold snaps.

If you know where to look, this wildflower has been visible since last fall when its pointed greenish-gray tips poked through the mud and leaf litter. It grows in wetlands mostly around the edge of swamps and along stream banks. In late winter the stalkless flower hood, called a spathe, swells and turns maroon or sometimes it's mottled with light green. It resembles cupped hands with an opening on one side and the pointed top may curl over. Inside is a light-yellow ball, called a spadix (or club) that looks like a small golf ball, but instead of dimples, the surface sprouts bumps that are the actual flowers. I'd recommend not looking too closely because the odor has been likened to carrion or dead meat. Then again, it's not for our benefit. It attracts carrion flies as well as bees and gnats which overwinter as adults. Instead of getting nectar, which more highly evolved flowers produce, the insects receive warmth at a time when it's in short supply.

The flowers appear before the leaves because the long root stored enough food the previous summer. The tightly coiled leaves, bright spring-green in color, rise next to the flower hoods and open into a rosette of broad, egg-shaped paddles. Their job is to nourish the seeds and produce an excess of food that can be stored underground for the following spring. Again, I'd recommend not getting too close because the crushed leaves smell like skunk. By now you've guessed that we're discussing Skunk Cabbage, a widespread plant of the bottomlands. It's also been called Polecat-weed, Bear's-foot, Fetid Hellebore, and Midas-ears. Native Americans called it Skunkroot, but were able to eat it by boiling in three changes of water. Early Swedes called it "bjornblad," Anglicized to Byron-Blad, meaning "bear's leaf," a reference to bears eating it in the spring. Makes you wonder about the bear's sense of smell...

Skunk Cabbage is a member of the Arum family, so it's a relative of Jack-in-the-pulpit and Calla Lily. By the time these latter species appear, the spring migration will be well underway and we'll be enjoying warm weather. Or will we? Stay tuned and have faith; spring will arrive. It's inevitable, like the amount of daylight increasing. If you ignore twilight, the length of day and night are both 12 hours around March 20, the date marked on the calendar as the beginning of astronomical spring. It's enough to trigger the return of blackbirds and other hardy migrants that spent the winter a few states to the south, even if they do run into an occasional late snowfall in Upstate New York.

Part of the spathe removed to show the actual flower inside...
There is a range map for this northeastern species at:
...and a related west-coast species called American Skunkcabbage:

Send your comments, questions, or suggestions to Dave Spier, or request hyperlinks to my photo websites. There's a link to my Facebook page at the bottom of the right sidebar.

(This copyrighted blog is based on an article that first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, March 24, 2008. All photos © Dave Spier. All rights reserved. A similar version appeared in a
Montezuma Audubon Center newsletter.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

March Trails - the Wetlands

March Trails – the Wetlands
© 2009 Dave Spier

The change from winter to spring, as much as we'd like it to be a one-way continuum, is never that simple. It would be great if one day it was winter -- and the next day it was spring -- and there was no going back. Instead it's a push and pull seesaw of alternating warm and cold air. A warm front one day is followed by a cold front the next, and then it reverses itself again. Temperatures go up and down, but on the average we drift toward spring.

Since meteorologists keep records on a monthly basis, spring for them begins on March 1. Meteorological winter was December, January and February, the three coldest months of the year. At the opposite end, meteorological summer is June through August, the warmest months. When we speak of spring beginning on March 20, the vernal equinox, we are speaking of astronomical spring when day and night are equal lengths.

Physical weather changes in March trigger biological changes, so we might say that biological spring also begins March 1. The two are closely tied. Even though thousands of Canada Geese wintered on the Finger Lakes, tens of thousands more return from the Chesapeake Bay at the end of February every year. For them, it's spring. Similarly large numbers of Snow Geese are now returning, too.
When the ice melts, walk down to the local pond and watch for the resident Mallards to return. To save time, they formed pair bonds last fall and now they're ready to go. They'll also be checking out grassy puddles in the corners of fields. Unless she's swimming with the drake, you may not notice the drab-colored hen. Her brown-mottled plumage is camouflage to blend with the dead vegetation as she picks a nest site.

Mallards have to share their wetland and field habitats with the Ring-billed Gull, named for the dark band near the tip of the adult's bill. (For once ornithologists made the name accurate and simple.) Gulls are primarily scavengers and their main food is dead fish, but in the spring they move inland and feed on worms, insects and other bits of food gleaned from fields. When not feeding they rest on the meltwater puddles that collect in low depressions. These are only temporary and when they dry out the gulls will return to the lakes. By then the baitfish should have returned to the shallows.

Many ponds are bordered by cattail marshes, still beige from the winter. The exposed edges were matted by snow and wind, but the denser interior is more self-supporting and provides perches for the male Red-winged Blackbirds returning from the south. They flare their red shoulder patches as they sing "kong-ka-reeee," a warning to other males that "this is my turf." In another week or two, the females, which look more like large, brown-streaked sparrows, but with pointier bills, will join the males and begin pairing and preparing for nest building.

Cattail marshes are important storage pools for spring flood waters and they deserve protection for this reason alone. By slowing the runoff, they allow underground aquifers to be recharged. The third benefit is serving as wildlife habitat for waterfowl and muskrats plus secretive animals that we seldom see but sometimes hear.

On slightly higher ground, where it dries out during the summer, willows and Red-osier Dogwood take over. For a sure sign of spring, look in these swampy borders for Pussy Willows, a shrub that seldom exceeds 15 feet in height. The soft, gray-fuzzy buds are really male flowers that later turn yellow with pollen. Since the buds were originally formed at the end of last summer, their only protection through the winter was a single, brown bud scale which gets pushed back as the bud opens. Red-winged Blackbirds looking for a higher singing perch might choose the Pussy Willow.
Another wetland shrub related to willows is the Speckled Alder. More common in the Adirondacks than western New York, it's in the same family as birches, musclewood and hazelnut. Look for the transverse, whitish lenticels on smooth, dark bark. It's a favorite food of the Beaver.

Now look down at your feet and search for the Skunk-cabbage that often grows in this same habitat. A long, starchy tap root fuels their spring growth as they chemically generate heat to melt through any remaining snow and to woft their odors to the first flies emerging from dormancy.

In spite of temperatures in the teens this morning, there are two Red-winged Blackbirds singing from the top of the Silver Maple in the backyard. Normally a tree of the bottomland swamps, this one was probably planted. In about two weeks, the red flower buds will open and release their wind-blown pollen. The timing is risky because that is often when we get ice storms. Warm, moist air trying to return from the south over-runs cold air on the ground and falling rain freezes when it contacts anything below 32° F. (0° C.) The upper trunk and branches -- smooth, gray and brittle -- are easily broken by the weight of glaze ice.

Another maple species that grows on wet bottomlands and creek banks is the Boxelder, or Ash-leaved Maple. The opposite pairs of buds are still closed. If it's a mild day, look in the bark for adult Boxelder Bugs coming out of dormancy. You'll also find them on Sycamores and other flood plain trees. Only adult females overwinter so any you see in March will be looking for a crevice to hide her eggs.

This copyrighted article and photo are adapted from one of my slide shows. They first appeared in the March 9, 2009 issue of the Times of Wayne County.

On March 28 at 10:30 am, I will be leading a hike at the Montezuma Audubon Center (MAC) to look for signs of spring. In the event of bad weather, I will present an indoor slide program. Contact me at to request a copy of the MAC newsletter or go to and look in “Files.” My photo websites are and .

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Center for Birds of Prey

South Carolina's Center for Birds of Prey
© 2009 Dave Spier

On our February trip south, we stopped at the South Carolina Center for Birds of Prey located about 15 miles northeast of downtown Charleston. It's on Seewee Road just east of U.S. Route 17 next to the Francis Marion National Forest. If you're coming from the Georgetown or McClellanville direction, it's about three miles southwest of the Sewee Visitor Center. [for a map, go to their website, and scroll to the bottom of the page] The raptor center is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except holidays) from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Weather permitting, there are guided walking tours at 10:30 and 2:00 followed by free-flight demonstrations at approximately 11:30 and 3:00. You also can walk around on your own to see all of the raptors.
Most of the birds are housed in large outdoor pens. The afternoon we were there, Education Director Stephen Schabel, Jr. (Steve) started our tour at the vultures. The Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, normally depicted with black legs, had one gray leg and one pale-yellow, the result of urination. The ureic acid is thought to act as an antibiotic and a coolant as it evaporates. The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, (in the same pen) stayed on the ground in the back corner. A notable difference between the two genera is their sense of smell. The black has little or none, while the Turkey Vulture has a good sense of smell, at least based on the size of its olfactory lobe in the brain. Vultures are technically not raptors because they do not use their feet to catch prey.
Next stop was an American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, that had imprinted on humans. The otherwise healthy bird, taken as a hatchling, would be ill-equipped to survive in the wild and find a mate. A much larger Peregrine Falcon, Falco perigrinus, is housed separately. In the wild, peregrines eat pigeons and ducks which they can knock down by diving at speeds over 200 mph.
Owls are well represented at the center. The next pen was a British Barn Owl, Tyto alba alba, about half the size of its American counterpart. Barn Owls have their own family, Tytonidae, separate from all other owls. At another stop, a well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl stayed out of the sunlight. These owls want to be seen only during courtship, so a white patch under the chin opens when they are calling to each other. These birds have long wings and live on the edge of the woods, although I have found them nesting in mature forests. Members of the genus Bubo are sometimes referred to as "eagle owls." The center also has a Barred Owl, Strix varia, one of the "wood owls" genus. These birds have shorter, rounded wings and longer tails for life inside the forest. Barred Owls generally prefer wet, bottomland woods. (If you have time, or come early, walk to the Owl Wood, a separate area with more species.)
The guided tour serves as an introduction to the variety of raptors in the avian world, but there's time for only a limited number of species. For a few of the other birds you can see at the center, go to their website, but even that is very incomplete because they have over 30 bird-of-prey species.
Following the guided tour, the group proceeded to the free-flight field. First up was a Harris' Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, a dark buteo of the Southwest. Because this species is a cooperative hunter, the white on the adults' tails allows them to keep track of each other. After the Barred Owl flight, which turned into the Barred Owl perch because of the wind, an active Eurasian Kestrel was brought out. This bird can see UV light which allows it to hunt voles by detecting their urine marks. The final highlight of the show was a Tawny Eagle, a magnificent bird that put on quite a show.
The raptor center is a bit expensive ($12/adult), but I look at it as a charitable contribution to help support their work. In addition to their medical and rehabilitation efforts and on-site educational tours, they offer off-site education programs and they do research and field studies related to the "protection of wild bird populations and their habitats." (For more detail, see )
More photos taken during our visit to the center can be found at

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Red-breasted Nuthatches

The Red-Breasted Nuthatch
© 2008 Dave Spier

At less than five inches long, the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is a little smaller and stubbier than its white-breasted cousin (discussed in the previous blog). The belly and breast are orangish, but paler on the female. There is a bold black stripe that runs from the beak through the eye to the back of the head. Above this black stripe is a distinct white stripe (called a supercilium, although it’s easier to think of it as an eyebrow) and then a black crown, or in the case of the female, a grayish crown. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a beady black eye on a white face, making it a quick distinction from the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s black eye stripe.
Both nuthatch species have the habit of spiraling head-first down tree trunks, giving them the unique nickname, “downheads.” The red-breasted is found in conifers or mixed deciduous and coniferous woods and prefers older stands with some decaying trees. They nest in knotholes or excavate a rotten branch or stump, but abandoned woodpecker holes or nest boxes will suffice in a pinch. Red-breasted Nuthatches apply conifer resin around the entrance to their nest cavity. It’s believed the sticky resin discourages predators and competitors. The feisty little nuthatch also chases away other species like wrens, woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches that might want its nest hole. The five or six light-colored eggs are marked with reddish-brown squiggles and hatch in about 12 days. The helpless babies are fed insects and spiders (yummy!) and grow for two to three weeks before leaving the nest
The word “nuthatch” is a corruption of the English term “nuthack” originally applied to European nuthatches. White-breasted nuthatches will hack apart acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and cherry pits, but the natural diet of the red-breasted is limited to seeds extracted from evergreen cones plus insects and other invertebrates gleaned from bark crevices. In civilized parts of their range they frequent white-suet feeders where they will linger for what seems like hours. They also visit seed feeders but like the chickadees, they dash in, grab a seed and fly off. They interact well with juncos, chickadees, titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches, even the larger jays and cardinals, but they don’t seem to like the larger woodpeckers like the hairy. They have to be constantly on the lookout for predators, mainly Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks which find bird feeders to be a great invention for concentrating prey in one spot. That’s why it’s best to place feeders close to dense escape cover like bushes. Cats are another problem and it’s best to keep them indoors if you feed birds.
The call of the red-breasted has been likened to a toy tin horn as it gives a series of “ank, ank, ank” notes. Pairs stay together year round and use the call notes to keep in touch. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is somewhat migratory, so its numbers fluctuate from time to time, depending on the abundance of cone seeds in its home range. Some of our summer birds may go south, but in other years some Canadian birds may come here for the winter. Across Canada, into the Adirondacks and New England they live in boreal spruce-fir forests. When migrating south, some observers claim that, given a choice, they prefer pine and hemlock, although a report from the Village of Wolcott indicates they’re just as much at home in a row of tall arborvitae trees.
Contact me at or visit my photo websites and
(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, January 7, 2008. All rights reserved.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

White-breasted Nuthatches

The White-breasted Nuthatch
© 2007 Dave Spier

There are two nuthatches likely to be found in New York throughout the year. The common White-breasted Nuthatch prefers deciduous woods and yards while the less common Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers conifers and evergreen woods.
Mention White-breasted Nuthatch, and the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a bird walking head-first DOWN the trunk of tree. Most birds clamber up a tree, or at least perch upright on the trunk. Why would one species reverse the pattern? Simple -- they find food that other birds miss. It gives them a unique perspective on their world. It also gives them a unique nickname, the “downhead.”
Many people are familiar with nuthatches. Perhaps you have a pair or family group coming to your feeder. The white-breasted species (Sitta carolinensis) is a small “songbird” (in the order Passeriformes), although its “song” is more a series of soft, nasal notes resembling “what, what, what” all on the same pitch. Its call is a nasal “yank.”
This bird is only five or six inches long, not that you’ll get close enough to measure it. It’s not as tame as the chickadees and titmice with which it often travels. The White-breasted Nuthatch has blue-gray wings, back and tail-center plus a white face and underparts. The cap, or more accurately the crown-stripe, is black on the male, grayer on the female. When viewing the bird from below, you’ll see the rusty-tan patches under the tail. The stubby tail, if you’re lucky enough to see it fanned in flight, has a white stripe on either side. By comparison, the larger Tufted Titmouse, duller gray on top and white underneath, has a longer tail and crested head while the smaller Black-capped Chickadee has a black throat. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a beady black eye on a white face, making it a quick distinction from the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s black eye stripe discussed in a future blog.
When not visiting your feeder, the White-breasted Nuthatch, a year-round resident, lives in open woods and suburbs populated by large trees, especially oak and pine. In the spring, it builds a nest in a tree cavity by lining the hole with fur, thin grasses and shredded bark. They seem to prefer knotholes, but abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes will suffice. The clutch of speckled creamy-white eggs hatch in two weeks and the chicks fledge in roughly 26 days.
The birds live on berries, such as elderberry and Virginia creeper, plus insects found in nooks and crannies of trees – especially dead trees. They also eat nuts which they wedge in bark crevices and hack or “hatch” apart (hence the name “nuthatch,” a corruption of the English term “nuthack”). Acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and cherry pits are all on their menu. In the winter, White-breasted nuthatches depend on seeds, some of which may be hidden for later use, but I’ve seen other species find and remove such a cache. They also eat insect eggs or dormant insects found hibernating in bark crevices.
Contact me at or visit my photo websites and
(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, December 10, 2007. All rights reserved.)