Sunday, September 16, 2012


Bur-marigolds at the Montezuma Audubon Center, Savannah, NY, in September

Check your local damp meadows and marsh edges for a golden haze of beautiful, yellow, native wildflowers called bur-marigolds (Bidens species). Resembling small sunflowers, the bright-yellow flowers have an average of eight rays around a central disk. Not surprisingly both the sunflower and bur-marigold are in the Aster (or Composite) family.

Two species may occur in New York. The Showy, or Larger, Bur-marigold (B. laevis) has rays longer than a half inch and flower heads up to two inches in diameter. This species is found mainly from California across the lower (southern) states, and locally into the Midwest and also New York along the Lake Ontario plain. Apparently it's also widespread along the East Coast to Massachusetts.  A second species, Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua) has smaller yellow flowers that nod as they ripen.  It is widespread across Canada and the continental states except the Southeast and it's the more-likely species in New York, especially the Finger Lakes Region. Both species have opposite leaves that are narrow, long-pointed and toothed along the margins. The leaves of B. cernua are sessile (stalkless) and hug the often-rough stems.  B. laevis is smooth-stemmed with leaves that narrow (taper) at the base. The Finger Lakes Native Plant Society has an excellent species profile on their website.

Bur-marigolds also are known as beggar-ticks and stick-tights, referring to the sharply three-pronged seeds [achenes] that stick to clothes as you brush by a ripe plant.  The numerous seeds are eaten by upland and aquatic birds.

Additional reference:
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb and Gordon Morrison (© 1977), published by Little, Brown & Co.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or you can connect through my Facebook page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier with the profile photo of me birding through a spotting scope. There's a new Fb page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Flowering Rush

At first glance, the individual flowers resemble lilies, and that wouldn't be too far off. Lilies and Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) are both monocots, meaning that their seeds sprout with one initial "seed-leaf" and not two like dicots. The flower heads of Flowering Rush resemble those of chives and onions which makes perfect sense because onions are really lilies. The clusters are in arrangements called umbels (think "umbrella"); all of the flower stems radiate fom a single point at the top of the main, cylindrical stalk. Queen Anne's Lace (Wild Carrot) flowers also grow in umbels, but that plant is a dicot with deeply-dissected, feather-veined leaves.

The leaves of Flowering Rush are narrow, long-pointed and sword-like with parallel leaf veins, again similar to chives and other dicots, but it's somewhat misleading because Flowering Rush is in a plant family of its own. (In fact it's the only genus and species in that family.) It's capable of growing to a height of five feet, under the right conditions, with leaves up to 40 inches long. Most of the time it grows more in the one to four-foot height range.

Flowering Rush is an alien growing on muddy shores along the St. Lawrence Seaway and it has spread to Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes and beyond. It's a Eurasian species brought here as an ornamental in the early 1900's, and it continues to spread from Vermont to Washington and adjacent Canada.

The flowers are rather attractive with three pink and white petals alternating with three smaller pink sepals. In the center are nine pink-and-white male stamens in a radial pattern around six magenta female pistils.

Like all invasive species, it competes with desirable native wetland species, and once started, Flowering Rush is hard to irradicate because the trailing rhizomes spread under the mud and pea-sized bulbils detach, disperse in the water and quickly germinate into new plants. Varieties of this plant growing in the east also produce seeds that can spread on water currents.

There are many desirable native substitutes for Flowering Rush, including Sweet-flag, Northern Blue-flag, Pickerelweed, Giant Bur-reed, Lake Sedge, and Hardstem Bulrush. Blue-flag and Pickerelweed are attractive personal favorites.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or you can connect through my Facebook page at Dave Spier (photographic naturalist) or my personal page, Dave Spier with the profile photo of me birding through a spotting scope. There's a new Fb page for The Northeast Naturalist.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Marsh Wrens

As a group, wrens are small, noisy, brown birds that often hold their short tails upright.  Their bills are thin and curve down to a point for picking and eating insects and spiders.  The House Wren is the most familiar; it is plain brown and nests in tree cavities or nest boxes, often in proximity to human dwellings.

Its cousin, the Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) lives – where else – in cattail marshes.  Its gurgling, rattling trill can be heard any time of day or night.  (If you think you might have heard this wren, you can listen to a recording of its song on the All About Birds website.)  On rare occasions when it perches on a cattail top in the open, you’ll notice a dark cap and light line above the eye.

During breeding season, nests are lashed to vegetation and sometimes hidden in shrubs.  Construction includes a woven dome of grasses and sedges with the entrance on side.

The Marsh Wren population is declining in the east, but increasing in the west.  Major differences in the two subspecies’ songs may indicate two separate species.  The combined winter range extends along the Gulf coast into the Southwest and down through all of Mexico.  A year-round population hugs the east coast from the Mason-Dixon line [the Pennsylvania/Maryland border] south to Florida. During migration, a Marsh Wren can stop in any of the lower 48 states.

The Marsh Wren photo was taken September 3rd from the dike separating the two main impoundments at the Montezuma Audubon Center north of Savannah, New York, where they can be heard, and sometimes seen, throughout the late spring, summer and early fall. You can get an idea of their seasonal distribution (and all the other species) in the Wetlands Complex by looking at the eBird bar chart for Wayne and Seneca Counties, New York.

On Saturday, September 29, there will be an organized canoe trip in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex from 2 pm – 4:30 pm.  Join the Montezuma Audubon Center’s Teacher-Naturalist, Frank Morehouse to explore the Seneca River along Howland’s Island, New York.   Learn about the birds and other wildlife of the area on a leisurely paddle.   There is a fee; canoes, paddles and life jackets will be provided (and binoculars if needed).   Bring water and snacks.   Pre-registration is required by calling (315) 365-3588 or email for details. The MAC website is

Canoeing the Seneca River around Howland's Island, New York (file photo taken July 9th)  - © Dave Spier

Corrections, comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome at  and on Facebook and The Northeast Naturalist.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


M.A.R.S.H. --© Dave Spier

MARSH stands for the Montezuma Alliance for the Restoration of Species and Habitats, a group of volunteers that does everything from removing invasive species to planting new trees.  The next events, scheduled for September 12th, 15th and 22nd from 9 am to 1 pm, will be devoted to collecting ripe seeds from a variety of wetland plants including Arrowhead (a.k.a. "duck potato"), Pickerelweed and Bur-reed.  These species, along with bulrushes and cattails, create a habitat called an emergent marsh.

The seeds will be collected at the Seneca Meadows Wetland Preserve on Black Brook Road, which runs south from Rt. 318 (east of the four corners at Magee) and ends in Seneca Falls, New York. After drying, the seeds will be used to restore habitats on the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area in the Town of Savannah, Wayne County, NY.  The MARSH volunteers are sponsored by the Friends of the Montezuma Wetlands Complex. To sign up, click their website link. BTW, lunch is provided.

The Seneca Meadows website includes a drop-down menu with a description of the trails and a PDF map link.  The I Love the Finger Lakes website has an excellent profile of both the wetlands preserve and the education center.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook nature page and photo page. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Least "Mudpiper"

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 13 - © Dave Spier (#D045935)

What's in a name? Take the compound word "sandpiper." Sand refers to the beach where these shorebirds are often found. The Lake Ontario shoreline of New York quickly comes to mind. Piper refers to the sound made by some species, although it's more of a peep. There's a group of small sandpipers, all similar in appearance, collectively nicknamed "peeps," in reference to their voices. Among these, the smallest is the Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla. Not only is it the smallest to pass through New York, it is the smallest shorebird in the world.

Least Sandpipers begin showing up in New York's Finger Lakes Region in April, peak through May, then decline in June and early July as the last of the birds fly to the Canadian tundra to nest and breed. Early migrants that failed to nest begin returning in early July and this reverse flow continues to build through the summer, peaks in September and trails off to end abruptly before November. The eBird bar chart for Wayne and Seneca Counties (NY) will illustrate this - but you can create a chart for any state or county you choose.

Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029504)

Most of our eastern birds seem to winter along the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Florida, or across the Gulf coast south into Mexico and northern South America.  You can see the entire eBird range map for Least Sandpipers (or any species) on the Explore Data page.

Dark feathers with buffy or rusty edges give sandpipers a scaly appearance on the back and wings. The belly is usually white while the head, neck and chest are various shades of brown. The black bill, used to probe for food, is longer and thinner than the bills of songbirds. Most small sandpipers have black legs, but here is the one distinguishing feature of least's; their legs are yellowish or greenish-yellow.

Least "mudpiper" at Montezuma N.W.R., NY on May 18 - © Dave Spier (#D029488)

The length of a shorebird's bill determines its feeding style and diet. A very short bill, like that of a Semipalmated Plover, limits it to feeding on the surface. At the other extreme, very long bills like those of snipe, dowitchers and curlews, allow them to probe deeply into mud. Inbetween are most of the sandpipers which probe to a shallow depth and capture aquatic invertebrates like insects, small crustaceans, worms, and mollusks such as small clams and mussels. The Least Sandpiper prefers to feed on mudflats giving it the nickname "mud peep." Does that mean we should change its name to the least mudpiper?

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page or photo page or Linked-in. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Adirondack Naturalist and Heading Out.  For more information on the Finger Lakes region, visit

The photo below is a migrating Least Sandpiper on the Lake Onatrio shore at Charlotte Beach (a.k.a. Ontario Beach Park), Rochester, NY on September 18 - © Dave Spier (#1148-13 scanned from a slide)