Monday, April 16, 2012

Trout Lilies

Trout Lilies
© Dave Spier

Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) are early-blooming woodland wildflowers. They're rather small, but showy, with a single, nodding, yellow flower on a stalk between two lance-shaped basal leaves. The plant's name refers to the brown mottling on the green leaves. Apparently it reminded someone of the spots on a trout. The alternate name is Fawn Lily for a similar reason. Another common name is botanically misleading and I'd prefer it evaporate from the vernacular.

What looks like six petals (typical of lilies) are technically three yellow petals plus three tepals that are tan on the back. Trout Lilies grow in communal patches but you might have to search for a blossom. It takes three to six years for plants to mature and then only a small percentage produce a blossom in any given spring.

The underground part of the plant is called a corm, but unlike a tulip "bulb," it is small and narrow. In an emergency, the corms can be boiled and eaten as survival food, but it takes a lot of them and destroys the plants in the process. It's too late now, but the young leaves also can be boiled and eaten. A word of caution, though - some people react to this plant by throwing up, so you might want to rethink eating them.

Trout Lilies reproduce by dividing the corms and, secondly, by producing seeds with oily bumps that ants love. The seeds are then unintentionally dispersed by the ants.

There is a crude range map on the USDA website. It's essentially the eastern half of Canada and the United States north of Florida.

Lilies are monocotyledons (meaning one seed leaf) and all monocots have parallel-veined leaves. Grasses, orchids and palms are other examples.

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.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


Ring-necks -- © Dave Spier

If you’re familiar with the male Ring-necked Pheasant (named for the white collar encircling its neck), you might think the Ring-necked Duck is similarly adorned. Well, talk about a misnamed bird, and this one fits. It actually has a chestnut-brown collar hidden between a dark neck and black breast on the male. It’s virtually impossible to see in the field, or should I say, on the pond. It was named by hunters and early ornithologists holding one in their hands. I mention early ornithologists because they collected birds for study at the end of a shotgun before binoculars were improved in the mid- to late-1800's.* This is how John James Audubon acquired specimens to serve as close-up models for his famous paintings in the 1820's. After shooting them, he’d pin the dead birds to a mounting board and position them to depict the desired pose or behavior. At the time, America’s natural resources seemed inexhaustible.

The Ring-necked Duck is actually a diver, but it is often found on small ponds during spring migration. It seems more at home with the likes of wigeon and other puddle ducks (also called dabblers). They are on their way to Canada where their breeding range corresponds roughly with the boreal forest. A map of the summer range shows the Ring-neck Duck extending down into Minnesota and eastward through the Great Lakes to the Adirondacks and northern New England.

Male ring-necks have a white ring around their blue-gray bills. Much of the male is dark with a white "shoulder" stripe between the light-gray flanks and black breast. In bright sunlight the head may have a purple sheen and often shows a crest at the back of the crown. Male Lesser Scaup are somewhat similar, with all blue-gray bills and dirty white sides.

Female ring-necks of course are drab with mostly brown tones. They have a faint white ring around the bill and white eye rings.

Questions and corrections may be sent to the Northeast Naturalist.  More information about other birds and birding in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex and Finger Lakes region can be found on the Montezuma Birding Trail website and the Eaton Birding Society website

*Although binoculars were invented in the late 1600's, soon after the telescope, they were low power and difficult to use because of a narrow field of view.   Higher-powered versions presented an upside-down image until 1854 when erecting prisms were added.