Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Yellow Iris

Yellow Iris at Allegany State Park in NY (Red House Lake in the background) during the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage -- © Dave Spier

Yellow Iris -- © Dave Spier

Another beautiful alien, this one escaped from water gardens...

Yellow Iris, also called "water flag," grows in the shallow edges of wetlands and ponds where the depth is generally less than 10 inches. It has spread across the United States and you can find a distribution map on the USGS website. Since I live in the Finger Lakes region of New York and travel Route 31, I mostly notice it along sections of the old Erie Canal on my way to the Montezuma Audubon Center.

The scientific name, Iris pseudacorus, comes from Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow (referring to the many colors in this family of plants) plus a contraction of the Greek words for "false sweetflag," referring to the similar, sword-like leaves, although sweetflag is actually an arum related to Jack-in-the-pulpit and Skunk-cabbage. Both the iris and the Sweetflag have long-pointed leaves with a prominent mid-rib.

The showy, yellow blossoms - up to four inches across - have three falling sepals surrounding three erect petals. The flowers are held above the leaves by stalks reaching a height of three to four feet. This made the species attractive to horticulturists who brought the plant to the United States in the early 1900's from its native European and North African habitats.

In suitable climates (generally the Southern Sates) it can be used to treat sewage and remove metals from wastewater. Given time this long-lived perennial can form dense, single-plant (monotypic) stands to the detriment of our native wetland plant species. It spreads by using underground rhizomes as well as seeds. Even though associated with wetlands, it can survive a drought up to three months and the seeds can survive a fast wildfire.

Be careful when handling this plant; it's poisonous and can cause skin irritation.

Yellow Iris and leaves at Allegany State Park in NY during the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage -- © Dave Spier

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dame's Rocket

Dame's Rocket in front of Yellow Rocket - © Dave Spier

Normally I see it on our way to the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage in southwestern New York the weekend after Memorial Day. It blankets low areas, stream banks, flood plains, woods edges and partially shaded wild areas. Dame's Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, usually peaks around Memorial Day, but it might be early this year. Look for patches of showy wildflowers several feet high with a mix of purple, pink, lavender and nearly-white blossoms. Sometimes a single flower will sport multiple colors or stripes on each petal. The central flower tube generally hides the male and female reproductive parts (stamens and style). Each blossom with its four petals can be nearly an inch across.

Dame's Rocket at the Montezuma Audubon Center
© Dave Spier

Dame’s Rocket is one of many members of the Mustard Family. It arrived here from Eurasia as a garden flower but escaped to the wild and successfully colonized a variety of habitats (a process termed naturalization). In other words, it’s an alien. If you can get past looking at the flowers and smelling their fragrance, you might notice that the alternate, lance-shaped leaves are toothed along the edge and end in long points. Each leaf attaches directly to the main stalk without a leaf-stem (petiole).

Dame's Rocket is sometimes confused with Phlox species which have opposite leaves and five petals.

In case there are no Dame’s Rockets in your neighborhood, there are plenty growing at the Montezuma Audubon Center just north of Savannah, NY. To find out about upcoming programs at the Montezuma Audubon Center, phone (315) 365-3588, send an e-mail, or visit the MAC’s website.  It’s free to just visit the center and walk the trails and look at the wildflowers and birds.

Comments, corrections and questions are always welcome at  The MAC's e-mail address is

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Bodie Island lighthouse, NC, in April. © Dave Spier

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks -- © Dave Spier

One of our favorite birds returned from the south earlier this month. In fact, three of them were at the feeders at the same time, but we’re still waiting for a female which resembles an overgrown and overstuffed sparrow, but the males are a dramatic combination of black and white with outstanding rose-colored bibs, hence the name, Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The term grosbeak is a contraction of the words gross and beak with "gross" coming from an old French word meaning big or thick in reference to the stout, conical beak of these birds.

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak banded by the late Bob McKinney, a long-time friend, at a previous Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (held annually on the first weekend after Memorial Day in southwestern New York).

Their primary food is seeds which they crack with that heavy bill. We often see them at our sunflower seed feeder. In the spring they also eat flower buds and I’ve photographed them in one of our cherry trees while the fruits were still totally green. During the summer they feed on small fruits and insects. I have one old report of grosbeaks eating young gypsy moth caterpillars as fast as they could catch them. They've also been observed catching cucumber beetles, canker worms, tent caterpillars, army worms, cut worms and cinch bugs. (Those so-called worms are actually caterpillars.) More power to these birds! If you want to plant some trees and shrubs to entice these birds, they seem to prefer the seeds, fruits and flower buds of serviceberry, elderberry, mulberry, dogwood, hawthorn and wild cherry. They also eat the seeds of beech, hickory, elm and maple.

One of "our" RBGR's singing in a cherry tree -- © Dave Spier

The male grosbeak's song has been likened to a robin after singing lessons. It is a slow, rich warble. The female also sings, but her version is softer and shorter. Their short call note, on the other hand, is more like a sneaker squeaking on the gym floor.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are said to favor open woodland and the edges of swamps and tree-lined streams. They’re a frequent visitor or resident at the Montezuma Audubon Center just north of Savannah, NY. Our yard has a lot of grown trees and, even though we're up on top of a drumlin hill, it appears to meet their needs. Hopefully they'll raise another family here like they did last summer. They build a rather flimsy nest and sometimes you can see the pale blue eggs through the bottom. The male helps incubate the eggs during the day, accounting for about 1/3 of the time on the nest. The female does the remainder and continues throughout the night. When not on the nest, the male is either standing guard nearby or bringing food to his mate. Another old report mentions carrying potato bugs to feed her on the nest. After fledging, young grosbeaks resemble the female and young males begin to show a tinge of pink in the fall. By this time, the adult male begins to lose his brilliance as he takes on buffier tones while his rose color turns to dull pink, making it easier for him to hide in the open tropical forest of the species’ winter range across Central America, Cuba, or the near reaches of South America.

Same male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Bodie Island lighthouse, NC, in April. © Dave Spier

Your outdoor comments, corrections and questions are always welcome at

Additional range information: The Rose-breasted Grosbeak, based on eBird reports, is found primarily north and east of the Great Plains with higher concentrations from the Mid-west and Great Lakes to New England and also northwestward across Canada to the Northwest Territories. During migration, it can be found anywhere east of the Rockies and across the South with a few sighted in the Western states. It spends the winter in Central and South America.
The website All About Birds contains a standardized range map:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

-- © Dave Spier

Yes, it was alone, and yes, this is typical behavior for this species. They often travel by themselves or small flocks at most. After spending the winter in South and Central America, Southern Mexico or the Caribbean, these birds stop briefly at the Montezuma Wetlands Complex to refuel and be on their way to Canada. We see them from mid-April to mid-May, but the peak is during the first week of May, so the one at Malone Unit #1 on Savannah Spring Lake Road (Wayne County, New York) was right on schedule. I found a second one at the edge of a puddle in a farm field, another typical habitat for this species.

The Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) is eight or nine inches long and thinly built. The white eye ring, speckled dark wing and darker "shoulder" bend are keys to identification. The somewhat similar but chunkier Pectoral Sandpiper lacks these features and has a more densely streaked breast with an abrupt lower border. The legs of both species are olive-yellow and both have medium-sized bills. The Solitary’s rump and center of the tail are dark, but these features can be hard to see. They become more important when separating the Solitary from its close relative, the slightly larger Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) that has a white rump and mostly white tail.

After shorebirds reach their breeding grounds in Canada, the males of other species defend a territory, build a nest and usually help with incubation. The Solitary has a somewhat different tactic, though; it lays its eggs in the deserted tree nests of songbirds including those of robins, blackbirds, kingbirds, jays and waxwings.

For most shorebirds, the parents usually split up after the eggs hatch and only the father remains to care for the chicks. The female leaves a few days after hatching and sets off on a leisurely migration south. Here in the Finger Lakes Region we see this as a longer stay for shorebirds on the return trip, beginning in July for some species and lasting through October for others (like the Dunlin). Most Solitary Sandpipers pass through central New York from mid-July to late August with a few birds lingering until early October, but global warming may shift those dates.

Questions and corrections may be sent to The Northeast NaturalistFor more information on birds around the Wetlands Complex, visit the Montezuma Birding Trail website: There is a special page describing birding hotspots in the Town of Savannah.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Red Admirals

Red Admirals
© Dave Spier

On April 15, I received an email from a birding aquaintance who was more interested in the estimated 500 Red Admiral butterflies migrating through his yard. With that in mind, the following evening I noticed over a dozen Red Admirals racing and chasing each other above my driveway. They were moving so fast, I doubt I could have identified them without that heads-up in my mail. About the same time, I came across Laurie Dirkx' excellent photos of a Red Admiral ( More photos are on her Facebook page and flickr photo-sharing account. Write to me at Northeast Naturalist for more specific links. Laurie lives in the Town of Ontario, Wayne County, NY, and has a photography business.

With the return of milder weather after a brief cold snap, the Red Admirals have resumed activity. Many of them spent the winter as adults, while others remained in the chrysalis (pupa) stage. I’m not sure which history applies to the ones we’re seeing now. There was a short clip on tonight's local evening news about it. It's estimated the number of Red Admirals is about 10x the normal migration, probably due to the mild winter.

Red Admirals are dark above with a reddish-orange band across the middle of each forewing and continuing along the outer edge of each rear wing. The undersides are brown with bits of subdued color giving a camouflaged effect.

These butterflies feed on a variety of wildflowers and lay their eggs singly on nettle plants where the caterpillars eat the leaves. I’m still trying to get the nettles out of my one garden, but persistent roots keep it coming back every year. The nettles are mixed in with some peonies, making it difficult to eradicate them without digging up the whole patch and starting over. Now that I know about the connection to Red Admirals, I’m leaving other nettles in a wild patch at the back of our property. Speaking of nettles, they grow profusely along the dikes surrounding the ponds on the west side of the Montezuma Audubon Center.

Questions and corrections may be sent to