Friday, June 28, 2013

Black Elderberry

Elder usually has seven sharply-toothed leaflets,
but the number can vary from five to 11.
© Dave Spier

Common Elder, a.k.a. Black Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, syn. Sambucus nigra, ssp. canadensis) is a native member of the Honeysuckle family. Beyond the opposite, pinnately-compound leaves, there's little resemblence to indicate the relationship. 

Numerous, small, white flowers are crowded into flat-topped terminal disks that are conspicuous in late June and early July in New York. The flower clusters can be dipped in batter and deep-fried like fritters, or wait for the dark-purple, juicy berries to ripen and make a pie. The dark fruits give the shrub it's alternate name, American Black Elderberry. Aside from the mentioned edibility, take note that the leaves, twigs, roots and unripe fruit are toxic due to cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloid.

The woody stems contain white pith that can be removed in order to make a flute or whistle. This musical quality is the basis of the genus name; in ancient Greece, sambuce was a musical instrument. Given the toxicity of the stems, though, I'd rethink this use for the plant.

Common Elder's range spans all of the southern states from California to Florida, north across most of the Lower 48 (except the Great Basin and Pacific Northwest) and continues north into eastern Canada. There's a range map on the USDA Plants Database. Many of the states have more detailed maps down to the county level. For example, the opening photo was taken at Newtown Battlefield State Park, near Elmira, NY, but the shrub occurs in other scattered locations across New York State.

This elderberry seems to require more sunlight than it's woodland cousin the Red-berried Elder, so look for the purple-fruited species on the edge of woods, usually in lowland spots where there is extra soil moisture, although I would not describe it as a true wetland species because of its low anaerobic tolerance. We live on top of a drumlin ridge and a Common Elder has "volunteered" to grow behind the garage where it is somewhat sunny, at least part of the day. We can assume the original seed was dropped by a bird. A number of species including robins, catbirds and waxwings are berry eaters. I'd be interested in knowing whether elderberry grows near you.

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Yellow Warblers

Many warblers have at least some yellow, but I imagine if there's one that deserves the name of the color, it's the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia).

The spring migration has come and gone, and now we have to be content with the summer residents that remain. Robins seem to be everywhere, and unfortunately so are the starlings and grackles. High in the tree tops, you might hear an oriole; they seem to prefer big cottonwoods here. If you have orioles near you, what trees do they prefer?  Orioles can be relatively common, but seldom do we get a good look at the male's flashy orange and black.

male Yellow Warbler at the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage (southwestern New York,
always the first weekend after Memorial Day) during a bird-banding demonstration

Another colorful songster, though relatively common, is likely to be overlooked unless you’re in the habit of scanning shrubby wetlands and thickets while listening for its "sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet" song. Check the tops of shrubs and dwarf willows for a bright but tiny spot of yellow. With binoculars, look for rusty-red streaking on the breast. This is the male Yellow Warbler, one of 51 North American species of wood warblers – many of which are now uncommon or quickly pass through on their way north. The Yellow Warbler on the other hand is relatively common and a widespread nester from coast to coast across the northern 2/3rds of the U.S., Alaska and most of Canada with breeding populations extending down through coastal California and central Mexico. (If you're submitting an eBird report, you can use the "Add Details" button, and then the "Breeding Code" button to record any breeding behavior you observe or hear.)

female Yellow Warbler at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, NY

Warblers are small birds, generally four to five inches long, with slender, straight-pointed bills used like tweezers to collect insects. Warblers are very active and it’s hard to get a good look at any of them. Most prefer woodlands in various stages of growth from scrub to mature forest and for this reason they are referred to as wood warblers. Within these habitats, some warblers stay in the treetops (giving birders "warbler neck"), some hide on the ground and the majority travel in-between. Yellow Warblers are somewhat unusual in preferring more open settings. Willow thickets and isolated shrubs in cattail marshes seem more to their liking, but any thicket will do in a pinch.

male Yellow Warbler checking its reflection for a rival in our camper window

The Yellow Warbler is a common summer resident that begins returning at the end of April. The remainder trickles in throughout May. Aptly named, they are yellow on the head and underneath, olive-yellow on the back, and a mix of olive and yellow on the wings. Males are brighter with reddish streaks on the breast. The more aggressive and dominant males have darker streaks. Females are duller with faint rusty streaks on the sides. If you get a close view, look for yellow tail spots that are usually missed.

Brown-headed Cowbird egg in Yellow Warbler nest (Bradford County, PA)

The Yellow Warbler is one of the species most frequently parasitized by cowbirds, but they have developed a defensive strategy against the blackbirds. After a cowbird egg is deposited, the Yellow Warbler builds a new nest on top of the old and lays a new batch of their own eggs. If the cowbird returns, the warbler repeats the process. The record is a six-story nest (although there is an unconfirmed report of a 10-story nest near Cayuga Lake, NY, in 1923).

As a species, the Yellow Warbler is perhaps the most widespread of the warblers, but there are three distinct groups with four subspecies. Together they span the continent and range from the Arctic down through Mexico and the Caribbean to the northern reaches of South America. You can find an interactive range map on eBird.
pair of Yellow Warblers at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, NY

On their territories, Yellow Warblers sing two types of songs with a number of individual variations. One song type is used to attract a mate, while the other is used to defend territories against other males. With wetlands being a limited resource, there is intense competition for prime nesting space. After mating, recognition of individuals becomes important, so minor variations in songs become important. You can find more information along with a static range map and recordings of Yellow Warbler songs on All About Birds.

Yellow Warblers have only one brood per year and as soon as the young are independent, the species begins its southward migration. They are one of the earliest summer nesters to leave. Some are gone by the end of July and (almost) all have left by the time goldenrod is in full bloom.

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.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dame's Rocket

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis) is another invasive alien, albeit an attractive one, in the mustard family. It is now widespread along roadsides, woods edges and damp thickets, but it started as a garden escape after it was introduced from Eurasia. (There's a range map on the USDA Plants Database.) Many years ago, we tried growing it on our dry hilltop, but it never took hold (probably a good thing in retro-spect), so look for it in lower areas with partial shade. It seems to prefer moist soil but avoids true wetlands.  As an example, at the Montezuma Audubon Center, it grows throughout the walnut grove and around the edges, but it’s generally absent from the open fields.

Also known as Purple Rocket, this biennial or short-lived perennial herb comes in a range of colors from pale lavender to hot pink and purple. All of the blossoms on an individual plant are usually the same color, but adjacent plants may vary widely. Light and dark colors are often mixed together in the same vicinity and sometimes you’ll find flowers with white streaks on purple petals. Rarely, several colors are mixed on the same flower. The four petals make an “X” or cross, which is characteristic of the mustards (the Brassicaceae, formerly Cruciferae). At first glance it resembles Phlox, but Phlox has five petals (the same as the number of letters in its name).

Dame's Rocket in front of Yellow Rocket (Common Winter Cress, Barbarea vulgaris)

The purple variety of Dame’s Rocket generally produces more seeds per plant and seems to be the dominant color. The stalked seed pods are thin and erect and split open when ripe. The plant usually grows several feet tall. The lance-shaped leaves are long-pointed, toothed along the margins and they alternate (i.e., are not opposite) along the hairy main stem below the flower and seed clusters.

more of the complete Dame's Rocket plant showing some of the leaves

The best time to enjoy this plant may be when it’s backlit by the afternoon sun. In the evening it gives off a lovely fragrance, probably timed to specific pollinators that rest during the day. This is reflected in another common name for the plant, the night-scented gilliflower. The scientific genus name, Hesperis, is Greek for evening.

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.