Sunday, December 18, 2011

White-throated Sparrows

I'd say this is an adult tan-morph White-throat based on The Sibley Guide to Birds, page 494.

White-throated Sparrows begin returning in October.  They spend the summer across much of Canada and the North Country, but for some of them, this is far enough south to endure the winter.  Many more go as far as the Gulf and Southern States.  A few western birds hug the Pacific coast in winter.

In the fall, it’s hard to find a good rendition of their song, likened to “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” (hence the nickname “Peabody-bird”).  Perhaps these are young birds, but they have until spring to get it right.  Of course if you’re a Canadian resident, they sing “pure sweet Canada-Canada-Canada.”  Up there it’s known as the Canada sparrow.

Likely a first-winter White-throated Sparrow in December (in an ornamental Serbian Blue Spruce) - © Dave Spier

As adults, this species comes in two genetically-based color races (a.k.a. forms, morphs, or phases) known as white and tan.  Adult "white-morph" birds have high-contrast black-and-white racing stripes on the crown, yellow lores (the area between the eye and bill) and bright-white throats.  The adult "tan" race or version has brown and tan (or beige) head stripes, dull-yellow lores and a dull-white or light gray throat.  The differences have nothing to do with age or gender or geographic distribution as I understand it.  Both types are found mixed in the same population, a situation biologists refer to as polymorphism, or “many forms.”  That said, after the fall molt, the variation is less pronounced in their winter plumage.  To confuse matters, first-winter White-throats resemble the tan race, with lower-contrast head markings and a more-pronounced lateral throat stripe, a.k.a. malar-edge stripe or simply malar stripe.  Many field guides describe "bird topography" with illustrations of various field marks and their names.  In The Sibley Guide (the large, nationwide version), it begins on page 15, with the White-throated Sparrow as the example on page 16.

There are also behavioral differences.  White-morph males are more aggressive while tan females are better care givers.  Tan males and white females fall in the middle.  Ninety percent of the time, one color phase mates with its opposite and it is believed this balances their behavior characteristics.  After the young fledge from the nest, the brood is divided into two groups and each parent cares for only half of the fledglings.

White-throated Sparrows often associate with Dark-eyed Juncos, another type of sparrow.  Both species are ground feeders and at my house they clean up the sunflower seed dropped by the goldfinches, chickadees and other birds above them.  (With sunflower seed getting so expensive [about $25 per 50-pound bag, up from $11 a few years ago], I’ve taken some old metal garbage cans that rusted through on the bottoms, turned them upside down and placed screened tray feeders on top to catch the falling seed.  It used to pile up on the ground faster than squirrels, chipmunks, doves and other ground feeders could clean it up, and then the seed would mold and I’ve have to throw it away.  The screened trays allow precipitation to drain through on milder days, and the birds have a second chance to eat the seed.)

On rare occasions, White-throated Sparrows and juncos have been known to mate and hybridize.  [Off topic, we saw a pure-white junco when we were in Shenandoah National Park early in October.  It was hanging out with other juncos and a flock of Chipping Sparrows on their way south.]

During the summer, White-throated Sparrows consume high-protein insects, but the rest of the year they switch to a vegetarian diet consisting mostly of fallen seeds.  In the wild, they find their food by scratching through dead leaves and grass.  They also eat the fruits of dogwoods, cedars and spicebush.  These native shrubs and trees are plentiful at the Montezuma Audubon Center (MAC), but the sparrows have plenty of competition from thrushes and other berry-loving birds in the fall.  (The Audubon center also hosts a flock of American Tree Sparrows that over-winter in the walnut-grove thickets and brush piles.)   

White-throated Sparrows might be confused with White-crowned Sparrows which are also gray-breasted but lack the yellow lores and usually lack the white-throat.  In the fall, young white-crown’s resemble the color of tan-phase white-throat’s but have what I call a “butch-cut” or slight crest toward the back of the head.  Most of the white-crown’s are long-gone, having migrated farther south; they pass through about two weeks ahead of the white-throat’s.

A few White-throated Sparrows will stay here through the winter, but more return on their way north in the spring.  They stop for a few weeks in April and sing their characteristic song, well refined by then, before continuing north.

High-contrast, white-morph White-throated Sparrow in April with black and white "racing" stripes on the crown. - © Dave Spier

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Largest Gull

Adult Great Black-backed Gull (December) -- © Dave Spier

The Largest Gull
© Dave Spier

The world’s largest gull, the Great Black-backed (Larus marinus), is a coastal species of the Northeast.  It breeds in the Canadian Maritimes, migrates through New England and now winters from the lower Great Lakes to the mid-Atlantic coast.  When I started birding in the early 70’s, it was still an uncommon visitor to the Lake Ontario shoreline, but its range has expanded southward from the original North Atlantic stronghold.

As the name implies, the gull’s wings and back are sooty-colored (more like slate than pure black).  The underparts are pure white, but in the winter, the white head exhibits some dusky streaking.  The legs are light pink and the adult’s bill is yellow with a red spot toward the tip of the lower mandible.  Sailors nicknamed these birds “the coffin carriers.”

Immature Great Black-backed Gull (January) -- © Dave Spier

It takes four years for Great Black-back’s to reach adulthood.  Young birds have light-colored heads that are more of a pale brown.  Their bills are dark and massive.  Wings and backs are relatively dark with a fine checker-boarded pattern.  The feet may be pink, but the legs start out as a dark bluish-gray.  A light rump accents a dark tail band.  Over the next several years, they gradually morph into the high-contrast adult plumage.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull eating a fish; note passing Wood Duck (October) -- © Dave Spier

Gulls, by their nature, are scavengers.  Their natural diet is dead fish and their job in life is to keep the beaches and shorelines clean.  Most gulls stick to this formula, but the GBBG, by virtue of its size, has discovered that it can become a predator.  I discovered this aspect many years ago when I was driving down the east side of Seneca Lake and noticed a Black-back attacking a small duck.  The victim was a female goldeneye that kept diving to escape, but every time it re-surfaced the gull would peck away at the bloodied duck.  As I recall, the goldeneye finally got away, or else the gull just gave up the struggle and went elsewhere for easier pickin’s.  In the “modern” world, easier often means garbage.  Depending on the season, they also eat fish, invertebrates (including insects), small mammals, eggs and carrion.  Given the opportunity, they will steal food from other gulls.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull eating a fish on the Erie Canal (February) -- © Dave Spier

In the late 1800’s, before protection was enacted, Black-backs were hunted to collect their feathers to supply the women’s hat industry.  The result was a population crash.  In the long run, their numbers have rebounded and continue to rise as their range expands southward.  This has become a new problem along the Atlantic coast where the gulls prey on colonies of terns and puffins.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull at Montezuma N.W.R. (October) -- © Dave Spier

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

Letchworth Park (cont'd) -- © Dave & Donna Spier

Railroad bridge 234’ above the river at Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Train on railroad bridge 234’ above the river at Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

[Part 1 of this article is the previous post directly below this one.]
Roughly 350 million years ago [during the Devonian period, named for Devon, England where rocks of this age were first studied], western New York was still submerged under an inland sea near the equator. Sediments washing down from the Acadian Mountains to the east continued to fill the basin with layer upon layer of deposits that solidified into a thick sequence of shales, siltstones and sandstones now partially exposed in the Letchworth gorge. [For comparison, older rocks deeper in the Catskill Delta are exposed at Taughannock Falls State Park, profiled in an earlier blog (see October 27). The Tully limestone at the base of the Taughannock gorge formed as a shallow reef near the edge of the inland sea between Middle and Upper Devonian time.]

Rainbow in the mist below Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier
After exploring the Upper and Middle Falls, we drove north and briefly stopped at the Archery Field Overlook next to Great Bend canyon. Sometimes there are Turkey Vultures from the resident flock working the air currents, but today we didn't see a single one.

Great Bend canyon south from Archery Field overlook-- © Donna Mason-Spier

Great Bend canyon north from Archery Field overlook-- © Donna Mason-Spier
Our final stop of the day at Letchworth was Wolf Creek and a walk out to the point. Steep cliffs drop to the river below. A short spur trail to the south leads to a Red Pine barely clinging to the dry rim. Erosion has left the inner roots exposed at the base of the trunk.  In the park, Red Pine is at the northern limit of its range.

Red Pine on the rim near Wolf Creek -- © Donna Mason-Spier
Donna had predicted a nice sunset and sure enough we got one, although we had to detour to find an open view to the west-southwest.  After taking a few shots, we found a wet corner of the field with a nice reflection as the color began to fade.

Sunset from Freshour Rd. near Shortsville -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Letchworth Thanksgiving -- © Dave & Donna Spier

Trees on the canyon rim at Letchworth State Park, NY_© Donna Mason-Spier

This year’s Thanksgiving weather was pretty decent by western New York standards.  In fact, it's been the fifth warmest November on record.  Where we were, the weather didn’t live up to predictions, but we did get some sunny breaks in the afternoon between the morning cumulus clouds (probably coming off Lake Erie) and the evening cirrus coming in from the west that gave us a beautiful sunset to end the day.

Donna and I renewed our tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Letchworth State Park about midway between Rochester, NY and the Pennsylvania state line. After entering the park at the Mt. Morris [north] end, we drove the roughly 15 miles to the waterfalls near the south end. First stop was Inspiration Point which has heated restrooms open year round. There is a handicap-accessible interpretive trail along part of the rim and starting from the parking lot.

View from Inspiration Point -- © Donna Mason-Spier

At the end of the last Ice Age, glacial fill [clay, silt, sand and gravel that's part of the Valley Heads Moraine] blocked the return of the Genesee River to its ancestral valley just northeast of Portageville at the south end of the park. The river was forced west to the lowest divide and there it cut a new channel and began carving canyons through solid rock. A series of three waterfalls continues to deepen the gorge as they erode upstream [southward]. At Inspiration Point a short walk takes you to an overlook with a distant view of the Middle and Upper Falls.

From there we backtracked slightly to a side road and a short drive to Trailside Lodge for a picnic lunch.  Some years we have a little company; this year we had it all to ourselves. There are lots of tables inside, the building is heated and it turns out there are heated restrooms there too.  Our more-regular Thanksgiving dinner would be later at home.

Fireplace inside Trailside Lodge where we ate a picnic lunch -- © Dave Spier

District #2 schoolhouse beside the road to the trout pond -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Cross-bedded sedimentary rock layers on a natural joint plane
[roadcut beside main park road] -- © Donna Mason-Spier

After lunch, we continued south with a brief stop at the old schoolhouse near the Trout Pond and then down the hill past Glen Iris to a one-way drive descending to the old flood plain and a choice of parking areas. Our first direction was a short walk south to the Upper Falls which was nearly obscured by spray and mist rising from the plunge pool. It’s difficult to see, but the caprock is 28 feet of Nunda sandstone supported by weaker Gardeau sandstones and shales. Both formations are part of the late-Devonian West Falls group which in turn is part of the larger Catskill Delta underlying the Finger Lakes and Genesee regions.

Trail to Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier
Deh-ge-wa-nus Creek descends to the river above Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

At Letchworth Park, you can walk uphill past the crest of the Upper Falls and look back to see a rainbow in the mist when conditions are right. The rainbow is highest in late fall and early winter when the sun is near its lowest angle of the year. In the afternoon, the rainbow is downstream from the west side trail.  If you go, you might want to also take some pictures of the historic 234-foot high steel railroad bridge. They're talking about replacing it with a modern arch bridge.

Rainbow in the mist below Upper Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

From the Upper Falls it’s an easy half-mile walk north along the Genesee River toward the Middle Falls, probably the most spectacular of the three falls and the main attraction in the park.  Along the way we stopped to take a few pictures of the river which was unusually high and muddy for this time of year due to recent heavy rains.

Ripples on the Genesee River above Middle Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Outcrop in the Genesee River above Middle Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

First hint of rainbow in the mist below crest of Middle Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

 If you continue north on the trail past the crest you’ll reach clearer views of the falls itself. Watch for another rainbow in the mist along the way. William Pryor Letchworth built his Glen Iris mansion overlooking this falls. It descends 107’ over rocks of the Gardeau formation.

Middle Falls, 107’ high, seen from below William Pryor Letchworth's mansion at Glen Iris -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Rainbow in the mist below Middle Falls -- © Donna Mason-Spier

Letchworth Park blog to be continued...

(In the meantime, you might want to check the Genesee River Wilds Project working to develop a series of parks and trails along the river from Letchworth south to Potter County, PA.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ring-billed Gulls -- © Dave Spier

Juvenile Ring-billed Gull at Lakeshore Park (on Seneca Lake) in Geneva, NY [November] © Dave Spier

Gulls are commemorated by a statue in Salt Lake City for saving the day when they ate the insects plaguing early Mormons in Utah.  Less dramatic are the local flocks of gulls that follow plowing tractors to feast on fleeing insects and (I suspect) mice and other small creatures like earthworms.  Gulls’ diets benefit in other ways from human activity.  To see this, just visit a landfill (unless they have trained falcons to patrol the skies).  The gull’s natural role in nature is being a scavenger cleaning the beaches of dead fish, but in reality these birds are omnivorous.

There are three gull species likely to be found in the Finger Lakes region and Lake Ontario during the winter.  Of these, the smallest and probably most numerous is the Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis), sometimes nicknamed the “parking lot” gull.  It’s the one most adapted to life inland away from the sea.  It’s named for the black ring near the tip of the adult’s yellow bill.  Young ring-bills have a pink or flesh-colored bill with a black tip and we’ll discuss other differences.

Juvenile Ring-billed Gull at Lakeshore Park (on Seneca Lake) in Geneva, NY [November] © Dave Spier
Ring-bills require three years to reach maturity.  First-winter birds resemble very dirty adults with dark bars beside the chest, dark streaky heads, spotty sides, mottled brown areas on the wings and a black band across the end of the tail.  The legs are pinkish, unlike the adults yellow legs, but the backs are starting to turn gray.  Second-winter birds are much more adult-like overall.  In addition, legs become pale grayish-green or yellowish and the dark band at the end of the tail becomes broken and thinner.  By the third winter, the gray mantle extends across the back and upper wings -- except for the ever-present black wing tips.  The tail is now all white.  After the first winter, all non-breeding gulls show a little brown on the back of the head.  After adults molt to spring breeding plumage, this brown tinge disappears and a red orbital ring becomes more prominent around the pale eye.  Adults show a white spot at the end of sharply-contrasting black wingtips.

Adult Ring-billed Gull at Lakeshore Park (on Seneca Lake) in Geneva, NY [November]
© Dave Spier
The natural range of the Ring-billed Gull is transcontinental from the Canadian Maritimes to the Pacific Northwest.  Most of these birds travel to the southern states and coastal areas in winter, but the Lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley are mild enough with open water to hold a sizeable population throughout the year.  Ringbills seem to be born with a magnetic sensitivity that would take them in the right direction for fall migration.

Mixed-age Ring-billed Gulls at Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, NY [November] First-fall juveniles bottom center and lower left, 2nd-fall juvenile at right [based on The Sibley Guide to Birds]  - © Dave Spier
Ringbills prefer to nest on islands away from predators, and they will return to the same nest sites year after year if conditions permit.  This behavior is called site fidelity.  They nest in colonies limited only by the size of available habitat.  Given how common and widespread the species is now, it’s hard to imagine that they were once extirpated from parts of their range as a result of hunting for the millinery (hat) trade in the 1800’s.  Their breeding range is again expanding.

Many of these birds also return to the same wintering locations year after year.  If it worked once, it’s likely to work again in terms of finding food and shelter.

Occasionally a few Bonaparte’s Gulls will spend the winter along Lake Ontario.  This fourth species is smaller than the ringbill, has pink legs, a thin black bill and sports a dark “ear” spot behind the eye.  During spring and summer, adult Bonaparte’s have a black head.

As time permits, I’ll talk about the two larger common gulls.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tall Reeds (Phragmites) -- © Dave Spier

Tall (Common) Reeds, Phragmites australis, at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

          They're most noticeable beside the road in drainage ditches and low spots.  These tall plants with sword leaves and beige plumes extend their grasp year after year.  You may know them by several names including Common Reed, Tall Reed or Phragmites (the generic portion of Phragmites australis, the Southern Reed).  Look closely and you'll notice it's just another hollow-stem grass (though unusually large) with long leaves sheathing the stem.  The feathery plumes at the top are the flowers that turn to brown, then beige, then gray as the seeds ripen.
            During Colonial times and continuing into the 19th century, a native variety of Tall Reed grew along the coasts.  In the early 20th century, a nearly identical, but more aggressive European variety was introduced into one or more Atlantic ports.  Seeds clinging to boat hulls expanded its range along the Erie Canal.  Tall Reed has since exploded into disturbed wetlands where it spreads by seeds, dense tangles of underground rhizomes, and roots that can grow down several feet.  Colonies become dense stands that can choke waterways and crowd out any native wetland plants.  Reeds thrive in alkaline soils, so the abundant limestone and dolostone across Western and Central New York makes an ideal growing environment.  Cutting and burning are ineffective as controls.  Not surprisingly, winter salt runoff has no effect, considering reeds grow in brackish marshes along the east coast.  In fact, the salinity may suppress native freshwater vegetation, tipping the balance in favor of reeds.  This plant seems to be here to stay.

            European reeds have been used for roof thatching and cattle feed, and for making mats, pen quills and low-quality paper.  Native Americans of the Southwest fashioned arrow shafts, prayer sticks, screens and nets from the stems of reeds.  The rootstocks and seeds could be eaten as food. 
            Wildlife makes limited use of reed beds.  Red-winged Blackbirds will nest in the stands and may eat the seeds, thereby increasing dispersal of the plant.  In Europe and Asia, other species of birds are adapted specifically to life in extensive Phragmites stands.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Common Milkweed -- Part 1 (autumn)

Common Milkweed pods split open to release seeds -- © Dave Spier

Ripe pods splitting open to release silky floss can mean only one thing -- the milkweed seeds are ripe and ready for dispersal on autumn winds. Milkweeds need almost no introduction. In fact, the Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is just that -- common and widespread in fields and roadsides. The genus name refers to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, because of the plant's use in folk medicine, much of it derived from native American practices. A quick word of caution, though. Avoid the milky juice which contains toxic compounds including alkaloids, glycosides and cardenolides. Monarch butterflies are immune to the effects of these substances and use them to their advantage by laying their eggs on the plant. The caterpillars eat the leaves, ingest the toxic substances, and become noxious prey to would-be predators. Apparently the effects last into adulthood. One experience of getting sick is probably enough to ward off a bird from eating any more larvae or adults. (Given the date of this post, I'd say this is no longer an issue till next summer.)

The species name, syriaca, is a case of mistaken identity. When the plant arrived in Europe (before 1753) it was believed to have come from the Middle East. Actually this particular species is native to North America. Worldwide, there are 140 species of milkweeds. Once considered to be a family of plants, the group has been downgraded to the rank of subfamily in the dogbane family.

Early settlers used milkweed fluff to stuff pillows and mattresses. The silk could also be spun into candlewicks. Fibers from the milkweed stalk could be made into thread, cloth, fish nets and purses.

The Common Milkweed's sticky, white sap can be used to make a natural rubber. During World War II, when tree latex from Malaysia became unavailable, the government experimented with milkweeds. Commercial-scale production of rubber would have required the redesign of existing processing facilities, so the effort floundered. Eventually most natural rubber was replaced by synthetics made from petroleum.

Milkweed did come to the rescue of the life-preserver industry which had relied on kapok from Java. When that source was cut off in 1942, school children and scout troops in 26 states were paid 20 cents for each onion bag they filled with ripe milkweed pods (roughly 800 pods per bag). The flossy seed hairs are waxy on the outside and hollow on the inside (much like kapok). This makes them super-light and water resistant, which is perfect for life vests. Less than two pounds of filling could keep a sailor afloat on the sea for two days. After the war, milkweed again sank commercially because it was cheaper to import kapok. The only remnants of the war effort are the nicknames silkweed, Virginia silk, cottonweed and wild cotton.

Part 2 will discuss the summer flowers and part 3 the summer butterflies using several photos.

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Common Milkweed seeds travel on silky parachutes -- © Dave Spier

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

November Trails -- Part 2 -- © Dave Spier

Gray Squirrel digging -- © Dave Spier

I'm dressed in complete camouflage, including face net and gloves, and sitting against the base of a tree trunk. A Gray Squirrel approaches, stops momentarily to dig in the leaves, and then continues on its way less than four feet from me. It's totally oblivious to my presence because I'm motionless. This is surpassed only by a memorable experience many years ago, even before I switched to camouflage clothing, when a chipmunk walked across my shoe, unaware of its nature or the presence of potential danger. I was sitting on a log, but again the secret was remaining perfectly motionless and silent.

Autumn's leafy pallet has mostly fallen, but the woods still have color in the sunlight. Green grass and ferns contrast with brown leaves littering the ground while gray tree trunks reach to blue sky. The afternoon's warmth brings out a solitary tree frog peeping in the swamp. Most amphibians are now buried in the mud to hibernate through the winter. Even the hardy tadpoles of bullfrogs and green frogs, the ones that take two years to mature, are now scarce in shallow ponds.

Insects are plentiful. Flies, gnats, crickets and other flying arthropods seem out of place for November, and where there are insects, can spiders be very far? I know I've been sitting too long when I notice a spider stringing webs across my camera tripod.

Daylight is fading as a Pileated Woodpecker, the largest of our tree knockers, flies through the forest canopy and lands high in a tree and lets out its typical repetitive call, similar to a flicker, but louder.

Deer scat (droppings), Allegany County, NY -- © Dave Spier
At dusk I leave the woods, having once again succeeded in finding scads of deer signs -- trails, tracks, scrapes, rubs and scat [droppings] -- but not a single, breathing whitetail. They wait for the cover of darkness to move about. I pass some apple trees on the ridge, another good location for deer, but all I see is the rear end of a cottontail rabbit (another white-tailed vegetarian) as it disappears into the weeds.

What did you see during the warm spell? Contact me at More nature photos can be seen at and 

November Trails -- Parts 1 & 2 are based on an original slide program by Dave Spier.

Buck rub, Letchworth State Park, NY -- © Dave Spier

November Trails -- Part 1

November Trails
© Dave Spier

Unexpectedly warm and sunny weather followed the first feeble attempt at an autumn snowfall. Call it Indian Summer, or just call it enjoyable. Mornings were chilly and dew-laden, but that's normal November. I hope you have a chance to get out and savor the weather before things go downhill again.

The trail through the field back to the woods is dotted with open milkweed pods releasing brown seeds to float on white down. The zebra-striped Monarch caterpillars that fed on the toxic white sap of the summer leaves long ago transformed to butterflies and headed south toward their winter home in Mexico. You might have noticed the Canadian Monarchs passing through New York in early October.

Near the milkweed, the once-plump, off-white berries on Red-panicled Dogwoods are now wrinkled and dry. Chickadees have been snatching as many of the fruits as they can, and the ones that fall to the ground become food for grouse. The shrub's name comes from the red stems that hold the berries, but the gray bark on the main branches gives it the alternate name, Gray Dogwood. [see the previous blog post] Next to the dogwood, a flock of Purple Finches landed in a small tree and then flew again in unison. These birds, red-raspberry relatives of goldfinches, breed across southern Canada and winter in the eastern half of the United States. We see them most often during their migrations.

In the middle of the field, a thorny rosebush is covered with tasteless rosehips that are nonetheless high in vitamin C. These small, red fruits are credited with supporting the expansion of the mockingbird from its southern strongholds to the cold climates of Upstate New York.

Northern Mockingbird in Multi-flora Rose bush -- © Dave Spier

In the woods, small beige moths flit among the trees while a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers chase each other from one tree trunk to the next. In spite of brilliant scarlet feathers on the nape (back of the neck) and crown of the male, the bird is named for an obscure patch of salmon red on the belly between the legs. The bird has to be at just the right angle to see it. The problem with the name is that another woodpecker with an entirely red head and neck took the name Red-headed Woodpecker. That species is a southern bird; we seldom see them in the Finger Lakes region.

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Dogwoods -- © Dave Spier

Gray (Red-panicled) Dogwood berries in the rain - © Dave Spier

Gray Dogwood, an upland shrub named for the gray bark on trunks and main branches, produces white berries prized by songbirds. It is also called Red-panicled Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) because the berry clusters grow on red stems (panicles). By now the simple, opposite leaves have fallen but this makes the fruits more obvious to chickadees and other birds that seem to enjoy them and unintentionally disburse the seeds.

Gray Dogwood colonizes old fields and spreads by underground runners. The result is a dome-shaped thicket with older, taller shrubs up to 10 feet high in the center. New twigs are brown, and the center of branchlets have light brown pith.

Its close cousin, Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera = C. alba) will do the same in wet meadows. It also has white berries prized by songbirds and Ruffed Grouse. The red twigs are eaten by deer and cottontails. If you cut across one of the bright red (sometimes green) twigs with a sharp knife, you'll notice the center is filled with white pith.

Most dogwoods have branchlets with opposite twigs and leaves similar to maples and viburnums. The exception is Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), also called Pagoda Dogwood because of its growth form with whorls of leaves at the end of green twigs.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Goldenrod Ball Galls -- © Dave Spier

Pair of ball galls on Canada Goldenrod stem at Montezuma Audubon Center - © Dave Spier

In August and early September, the field had been bright yellow with goldenrod flowers. Now it’s turning brown, although this too can be attractive when the plants are frosted and backlit by the rising sun. In November, most of the goldenrod leaves will shrivel and drop, exposing abnormal swellings on many of the plant stems. The common ones found on Canada Goldenrod are ball-shaped, resembling miniature basketballs about an inch or more in diameter. Not surprisingly they are usually called "goldenrod ball galls."

To fully understand galls we need to cut one open and look inside. Carefully pry and twist while cutting into the pithy core and try to pop the gall open. At the very center is a small cavity with the even smaller white larva of the peacock fly, Eurosta solidaginis, a relative of the fruit fly. Originally injected into the stem as an egg, it hatched and began feeding. Chemicals in its saliva stimulate the host plant to produce a pithy bulge in an effort to heal the "wound" caused by the parasitic larva. This actually benefits the insect by providing endless food and later an insulating shelter with a hard, weatherproof shell.

The gall, however, is not impermeable. Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees have learned that galls contain a nutritious morsel, and these birds will peck and chisel until they get it. You can recognize their work by the rough, funnel-shaped excavations they leave behind.

Gall fly larvae that escape this fate will chew a tunnel almost to the surface and there they will pupate until they emerge. Winged adults lack chewing mouth parts and can only pop the lid. They do this by inflating a balloon-like bladder (called the ptilinum) between the eyes. You can recognize their work by the small, sharp-edged hole that appears to have been drilled into the gall. The only function of the adult stage is to find a mate and lay more eggs in more goldenrod stems.

Goldenrods are prone to several other kinds of galls. An irregular-shaped growth called the "knotty goldenrod gall" is caused by the gall midge Lasioptera solidaginis. It’s somewhat globular, but not pith-filled. Less obvious is a long, spindle-shaped bulge called the "elliptical goldenrod gall" caused by the caterpillar of a moth.

A third type is very different in structure and occurs at the top of the stem. The "goldenrod bunch gall" is actually a globular head of deformed leaves about two inches in diameter. It is caused by a gall midge, a type of fly related to the mosquito. Its egg-laying apparatus, called an ovipositor isn’t strong enough to pierce the tough stem, so it contends with laying its egg on the tip of the plant.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Taughannock Falls

Mist spraying from the base of Taughannock Falls accents the footbridge near the end of the lower gorge trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
The highest waterfall in New York State is easily accessible off Rt. 89 northwest of Ithaca in Tompkins County. Taughannock Creek flows east and descends the valley slope to end in Cayuga Lake. Since the end of the last Ice Age, the creek, by utilizing two significant waterfalls, has cut an impressive gorge into the plateau. I suggest starting at the overlook on the north rim of the gorge about a half mile uphill from Rt. 89. Through a break in the forest, you gain an overview of the lower gorge below the main falls, plus a glimpse into the upper gorge above this falls.

Drive downhill and turn right (south) on Rt. 89, cross the creek and pull into the lower parking lot on your right. (If this lot is full, there are larger lots on the east side of Rt. 89, toward Taughannock Point, a delta created by the creek from sediments washed out of the hillside.) A three-quarter mile walking trail leads up the gorge through a mature forest to the base of 215' high Taughannock Falls. Yes, it's higher than Niagara, but of course it lacks the width and volume of water. (After all, Niagara drains the four upper Great Lakes on their way to Lake Ontario and then the St. Lawrence.)

The lower falls capped by Tully limestone - © Donna Mason-Spier
Even from the parking area, you can see the lowest falls, created by the resistant Tully limestone caprock. The weak Hamilton shales at the base of this falls are easily eroded with the result that blocks of limestone break off.  Both are members of the Catskill Delta created during the Devonian period.
Joints (tension cracks) crossing Tully limestone above lower falls - © Donna Mason-Spier
Above the lower falls, the creek has washed off the relatively flat surface of the Tully upstream to a wide "step" falls created by another layer of the limestone. Above that another flat surface continues upstream until you reach the black Geneseo shale.

Solution pits and minor joints in the surface of the Tully - © Donna Mason-Spier

Solution pits and a major joint in the surface of the Tully - © Donna Mason-Spier

The "step" falls formed by an upper stratum of Tully limestone - © Donna Mason-Spier

Black Geneseo shale beside the gorge trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
Further up the gorge you'll see the beige cliffs formed by more resistant Sherburne siltstone, a slightly younger rock overlying the Geneseo formation. Both are in the Genesee group.

When you reach the wide amphitheater surrounding the falls, the highest portion of the cliffs are Ithaca shale which begins about 25' above the crest of the falls. At this point the gorge is about 400' deep.

The amphitheater cut into Sherburne siltstone overlying dark Geneseo shale, both formations in the Genesee group - © Donna Mason-Spier

Collapsed pinnacle of Sherburne siltstone, the lighter strata above the dark Geneseo shale - © Donna Mason-Spier

Autumn foliage in the lower gorge, October 23, 2011 - © Donna Mason-Spier

Reflection of autumn foliage on Taughannock Creek, October 23, 2011 - © Donna Mason-Spier

Tree-lined Lower Gorge Trail - © Donna Mason-Spier
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