Bicycle Botany: Rare Junk

IMG_4886.jpg

Actaully, it should be rare Juncus, and I should change the name of this post from  Bicycle Botany to Soccer Botany, or perhaps Fotbol Botany. 

One of the fun things about being a biologist is that I can often find great surprises in the strangest of places. For example I remember back in the early 80's when I was in college I visited New York City. It was a fall day and I was in lower Manhattan when I walked past a tiny park with only four of five trees in it. I heard a strange call coming from the top of one of the trees. I looked up to see a Western Kingbird. A rare bird for anywhere on the east coast, especially NYC. 

As I have stated on my blog before, I enjoy going to see the Philadelphia Union Soccer games with my friend Steve. Also, as I have made mention of I have been knee deep in learning as much about Pennsylvania's plant life as I can this summer.  

The photo above is the back end of parking lot C, where Steve and I like to park on game day. As you may notice, it is like any parking lot with various and sundry weeds around it's edges. This end of the parking lot is usually a mud puddle, or what a biologist would refer to as a wetland. Below is another look at the "wetland." That is our friend Dave looking back at me wondering what kind of nutcake would be so excited about a little mud puddle. 

A common type of plant that you see in places like this are rushes in the genus Juncus. Juncus tenuis is particularly common, I see it just about everywhere here in Southeastern PA. This small "wetland" has a patch of Juncus growing around it and I assumed it was most likely Juncus tenuis, however, there are 29 different species of Juncus found in Pennsylvania and they are all very similar in appearance. So, after one game, I yanked a specimen out of the "wetland" to bring home to put it under my microscope for a closer look. 

Much to my surprise, it wasn't Juncus tenuis, but instead Juncus dichotomus, one of the rarest plants in Pennsylvania! Commonly known as the forked rush, it is known from only 15 sites in Pennsylvania. Perhaps Parking Lot C is number 16. In an incredible stroke of luck, about about a week after identifying the plant from the mud puddle of Parking Lot C, I found another small population in the serpentine barrens of the Stroud Preserve, perhaps site number 17. Here is a poor photo of the plant. Even if the photo was great, it ain't much to look at, but pretty darn exciting if you are a biologist! Oh, by the way, it is the weed with the very straight grass-like leaves in a bunch in the middle of the photo. The fruit pods are the brownish-orange things that are out of focus. 

FORKED RUSH Juncus dichotomus Elliott 10 June 2013, Chester, Delaware County, Pennsylvania.

Bicycle Botany: Lamp Revamp

The microscope in use with my head lamps from my bike. 

Most of my post about Bicycle Botany are about how my bike takes me to distant places to look for plants or about plants that I happen to see on a ride (usually while moving at a snails place up a steep climb, plants are much easier to see that way!). Recently however, my bicycle has made another contribution to my plant obsession. I have a stereo-dissecting microscope with a fiber optic lamp that I use to help identify plants. The bulb in the lamp burned out which renders one's microscope pretty much useless. 

Here is another view of the set up. The head lamp is attached to the arm of the fiberoptic. The battery is attached in the rear. 

The bulb is not an easy one to find; a 150 watt 20 amp halogen bulb. I found them on line but being impatient I couldn't wait that long. Instead, I remembered how bright my headlamps (Niterider Trail Rats) on my bike were and wondered if I could possibly use them for my microscope. Since the fiberoptic "arms" were round, like a handle bar, I thought the lamps might mount there just like on my bike. Well the answer is, yes it does, quite nicely in fact. Click on the photos for a better view.

They are plenty bright. The only draw back is that the batteries need charging after about an hour or two of use. Luckily, I have 4 batteries so I can keep two on the charger at all times. While the preferable option is the have a functioning fiberoptic lamp, my Trail Rat substitute will work absolutely fine until I can find a replacement bulb.  

Ride lots, stop often.  

Russell

 

Stroud Preserve, 15 June 2013

Venus' looking-glass      Triodanis
perfoliata  (L.) Nieuwl.  15 June 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County,
Pennsylvania. 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Venus' looking-glass Triodanis perfoliata (L.) Nieuwl. 15 June 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Whoa! It’s been a long time since I’ve done a bird post to le blog. Since 10 May to be exact. You might wonder where I’ve been. Well, I’ve been here, I just changed gears a little bit from birds to plants. When I was mostly focused on birds, I could go out birding, then come home write my notes as a blog post, post it and be done with it all in 30 minutes or so. Plants are a different matter.

Many plants I know. Most I do not. Especially the hard ones, like grasses, sedges, and rushes. Many of these require that I collect a specimen and bring it home and examine it under my microscope. The technical keys are, well, technical. They also employ the botanical lexicon with which I am quite rusty. So, things are slow and I usually go late into the night working on plant identifications. The result is this doesn’t leave much time to blog [case in point, I wrote this post on the 15th and I’m just getting around to posting it!].

The other complication is that my schedule altered slightly and most of my visits have been in the afternoon well past the time good for birds. This was compounded by the fact that my car, a 1994 Honda Passport with 270,000 plus miles, needed some attention from our local mechanic. I’ll spare you from the details of that unpleasantry.

The good news for me is that school is out and I no longer have to see the kids off to the bus, which frees up my morning quite a bit. My car is now moving forward again. However, I still try not to drive it and use my bicycle when ever possible. I’ll still be focused on plants but should be able to do at least one breeding season post per week.

As far as plants go, feel free to check out my photo albums for each family. I have many hundreds of photos posted at this point. If you see anything that is incorrectly identified, please don’t hesitate to let me know. My main focus with the plant project is to inventory all that grows at the Stroud Preserve. You can check out my running list here.

As for birds, I did manage to get out on Saturday (15 June 2013). I believe everything on my list below is pretty normal for this time of year. The most exciting thing for me was the many Yellow-billed Cuckoos that I heard and saw. Last summer I did not see or hear any. In fact, I did not record one for the preserve at all until the fall. Even then, I only saw two. On Saturday I saw twice as many as I have ever see or heard in total previously!

Here are the rest of the details. I misplaced my notes on the numbers seen today so an X signifies presence. All observations from 15 June unless otherwise noted.

 

Start time: 8:00 AM

End time: 1:00 PM

Temp: 60-82°

Wind: slight to none

Skies: Clear

Species Total: 58

  • Black Vulture – X
  • Turkey Vulture – X
  • Red-tailed Hawk – I haven’t check the nest site on the north side of the preserve since the middle of May.
  • Wild Turkey – heard calling on 19 June on the southwest side of the preserve.
  • Rock Dove – X
  • Mourning Dove – X
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo – Up to 6 birds seen or heard. I did not detect this species at all last summer.
  • Barred Owl – a pair calling along the green trail where I suspect they nested.
  • Chimney Swift – X
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird – X
  • Belted Kingfisher – X
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – X
  • Downy Woodpecker – X
  • Hairy Woodpecker – X
  • Northern Flicker – X
  • Pileated Woodpecker – Absent, last recorded on 10 May
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee – X
  • Acadian Flycatcher – A number of birds can be found calling in wooded areas of the preserve.
  • Willow Flycatcher – Many birds calling in open areas with small trees or shrubs.
  • Eastern Phoebe – X
  • Eastern Kingbird – X
  • White-eyed Vireo – X
  • Warbling Vireo – X
  • Red-eyed Vireo – X
  • Blue Jay – X
  • American Crow – X
  • Fish Crow – Not recorded at the preserve, however, numerous birds can be seen in downtown West Chester feeding fledglings.
  • Tree Swallow – X
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – X
  • Bank Swallow – X
  • Carolina Chickadee – X
  • Tufted Titmouse – X
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – X
  • Carolina Wren – X
  • House Wren – X
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – X
  • Eastern Bluebird – X
  • Veery – X
  • Wood Thrush – X
  • American Robin – X
  • Gray Catbird – X
  • Northern Mockingbird – X
  • Brown Thrasher – X
  • European Starling – X
  • Cedar Waxwing – X
  • Blue-winged Warbler – Multiple males singing on territory.
  • Ovenbird – X
  • Common Yellowthroat – X
  • Eastern Towhee – X
  • Chipping Sparrow – X
  • Field Sparrow – X
  • Song Sparrow – X
  • Northern Cardinal – X
  • Indigo Bunting – X
  • Bobolink – 15 to 20 birds in the usual nesting area.
  • Red-winged Blackbird – X
  • Eastern Meadowlark – ? I have not been able to check the suspected nesting area because of road construction. Last noted on 10 May.
  • Common Grackle – Strangely difficult to see in the summer months. Very common in other urban areas around West Chester and Exton.
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – X
  • Orchard Oriole – X
  • Baltimore Oriole – X
  • House Finch – X
  • American Goldfinch – X

 

The Stroud Preserve, 9 May 2013

Purple cliffbreak    Pellaea
atropurpurea  (L.) Link  9 May 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester,
Chester County, Pennsylvania. 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Purple cliffbreak Pellaea atropurpurea (L.) Link 9 May 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Today I spent the majority of my time focused on plants with preserve manager Fred Gender. I could have probably tallied more birds for the day list if I looked up more often, but I can’t complain about that today. I did manage to get one new bird for the year. Finally, after nineteen months after moving back to the east coast and many hours of fruitless searching I heard, the got extended looks at a Louisiana Waterthrush!

The waterthrush was in one of the smaller streams that drain off one of the hillsides in the preserve. Specifically, the stream along the “green” trail (I’ve started calling it green creek). It is probably the best creek in terms of a wooded stream with a completely covered tree canopy. It is perfect place to see a Louisiana Waterthrush.

Here is everything else. I didn’t really pay much attention to numbers today so unless otherwise noted and “x” will have to do.

Start time: 9:10

End time: 3:00

Temp: 63-68°

Wind: 3-7 mph from the east and south

Skies: overcast, with occasional sunbreaks

Species Total: 53

  • Black Vulture – X
  • Turkey Vulture – X
  • Canada Goose – X
  • Red-tailed Hawk – X
  • Mourning Dove – X
  • Chimney Swift – X
  • Belted Kingfisher – 1
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – X
  • Downy Woodpecker – X
  • Northern Flicker – X
  • Eastern Phoebe – X
  • Eastern Kingbird – 1
  • White-eyed Vireo – X
  • Warbling Vireo – X
  • Blue Jay – X
  • American Crow – X
  • Fish Crow – 2
  • Tree Swallow – X
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – X
  • Barn Swallow – X
  • Carolina Chickadee – X
  • Tufted Titmouse – X
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – X
  • Carolina Wren – X
  • House Wren – X
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – X
  • Eastern Bluebird – X
  • Wood Thrush – X, heard only
  • American Robin – X
  • Gray Catbird – X
  • Northern Mockingbird – X
  • Brown Thrasher – X
  • European Starling – X
  • Northern Parula – 3
  • Yellow Warbler – X
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – 1, heard only
  • Black-thraoted Green Warbler – 2, heard only
  • Prairie Warbler – 1, heard only
  • Black-and-white Warbler – 1, heard only
  • Ovenbird – 1, heard only
  • Louisiana Waterthrush – 1, FOY, Bird of the Day!
  • Common Yellowthroat – X
  • Eastern Towhee – X
  • Chipping Sparrow – 1
  • Field Sparrow – X
  • Song Sparrow – X
  • Northern Cardinal – X
  • Bobolink – 5, as with the past two visit, these birds were not in the usual field but in the larger field on the south side of the preserve.
  • Red-winged Blackbird – X
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – X
  • Orchard Oriole – X
  • Baltimore Oriole – X
  • American Goldfinch – X

The Stroud Preserve, 8 May 2013

Nodding trillium    Trillium
cernuum  L.  8 May 2013, Stroud Reseve, West Chester, Chester County,
Pennsylvania. 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Nodding trillium Trillium cernuum L. 8 May 2013, Stroud Reseve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Finally, a step forward! Not a big step forward, but a step forward nonetheless. I picked up 4 new birds for the year, Barred Owl, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Ovenbird. I almost decided not to go out as all today because of heavy rain. But my little iPhone app said it would be ending by 10:00 AM. So, I headed out at 10:30 just to be safe. My app lied. There was light rain until about 11:30.

I haven’t checked the Eastern Meadowlark spot for a while because of road work that blocks easy access. I decided to make the extra effort to see if the male at the corner of Creek and Strasburg Road was still there. I have yet to see this bird interact with another meadowlark or any other signs of nesting. But, that it is still there lends hope that it will.

While the handful of new year-birds was exciting, it was overshadowed with the location of 23 nodding trilliums (Trillium cernuum). I had given up hope of finding any of these as I have checked all of the suitable habitats on the preserve several times. I had high hopes that I would find some at the site from last year but after searching the area I came put empty. However, I did find what I believe is a netted chain fern (Woodwardia areolata). I’m still working on the final confirmation, but if correct, it would be a nice addition to the preserves flora list.

Start time: 10:40

End time: 3:00

Temp: 63-68°

Wind: 3-7 from the east

Skies: Rain to partly clearing by 2:00 pm

Species Total: 61

  • Great Blue Heron – 2
  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 15
  • Canada Goose – 8
  • Mallard – 2
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 3
  • Solitary Sandpiper – 1 along the Brandywine.
  • Mourning Dove – 5
  • Barred Owl – 1, FOY, along the “green trail” which is a different area than last spring. I’ve gotten several
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 50
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – 4
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 1
  • Northern Flicker – 2
  • Eastern Phoebe – 2
  • Eastern Kingbird – 2
  • White-eyed Vireo – approximately 10
  • Warbling Vireo – approximately 10
  • Blue Jay – approximately 15
  • American Crow – 6
  • Fish Crow – 4, on the east side of the preserve.
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 100
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 20
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 30
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 3
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 10
  • House Wren – 2
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – approximately 15
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 10
  • Wood Thrush – 5
  • American Robin – approximately 25
  • Gray Catbird – approximately 15
  • Northern Mockingbird – 2
  • Brown Thrasher – 1
  • European Starling – approximately 10
  • Cedar Waxwing – approximately 10, heard only.
  • Northern Parula – 3, FOY, singing along the Brandywine.
  • Yellow Warbler – approximately 15
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – 2
  • Black-thraoted Green Warbler – 1, FOY, heard only
  • Black-and-white Warbler – 2
  • Ovenbird – 1, FOY
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 10
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 20
  • Chipping Sparrow – 2
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 20
  • Swamp Sparrow – 1
  • White-throated Sparrow – 1
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 20
  • Bobolink – 3, in first field on the left, as with yesterday, not where I have seen them before.
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 25
  • Eastern Meadowlark – 1, the same male on territory
  • Common Grackle – 2
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 12
  • Orchard Oriole – 5
  • Baltimore Oriole – 2
  • House Finch – 1
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 10

The Willisbrook Preserve, 3 May 2013

IMG_3891.jpg

Some how or another in the three miles between my house and the Stroud Preserve my GPS malfunctioned and I ended up at the Natural Land Trust’s Willisbrook Preserve near Paoli! Some people have asked me if I go birding in places other than the Stroud Preserve. Yes, occasionally.

My interest in the Willisbrook Preserve has less to do with birds and more to do with flora. The Stroud Preserve has a small serpentine out crop (a couple hundred square yards at the most) that has a small community of native plants that are adapted to serpentine soils. Willisbrook has about 20 acres of serpentine soils and likewise, the plant community is larger and more complex than the one at Stroud. Getting to know the plants at Willisbrook will probably help me understand things at Stroud a little better.

My interest in small grasslands isn’t just in passing. In graduate school I studied bird and plant communities in the remnant glacial outwash prairies of the South Puget Sound. While the details of the natural history between these grasslands are vast, literally a continent apart, the conservation and management concerns are quite similar.

As far as my visit today I saw my Prairie Warbler and Northern Paula for the spring. The wind was blowing pretty good which made picking up movement through the trees difficult, still, I ended up with 46 species which was pretty good for the small amount of ground that I covered.

American Holly Ilex opaca Aiton. 3 May 2013 Willisbrook Preserve, Malvern, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The understory of the wooded area is completely dominated by greenbrier. The leaves weren’t out enough for me to identify the species but I suspect it is Smilax rotundifolia. The other tree related find was an American Holly (Ilex opaca). When I moved back here I was surprised to see this species on the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory List as endangered. There is certainly no shortage of it in the urban areas planted as an ornamental. But, as I have walked through the woodlands here I have certainly noted its absence. The one today was the first that looked like it was truly wild.

Tufted hairgrass Deschampsia cespitosa (L.) P.Beauv. 3 May 2013, Willisbrook Preserve, Malvern, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

The small patch of grassland is an absolute gold serpentine mine of grasses and sedges. The only one that I have identified with any confidence so far is Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) which is a endangered species in PA found mainly in serpentine barrens.

Start time: 9:00

End time: 11:45

Temp: 55-63°

Wind: 18-10 mph from the east

Skies: clear

Species Total: 46

  • Turkey Vulture – 3
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 1
  • Killdeer – 2, with a chick or egg nearby as they were giving me quite the distraction display.
  • Mourning Dove – approximately 10
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 30
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – 2
  • Downy Woodpecker – 1
  • Northern Flicker – 2
  • Eastern Phoebe – 2
  • White-eyed Vireo – 6
  • Warbling Vireo – 1
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – approximately 15
  • Fish Crow – 1
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 10
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – 1
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 15
  • Carolina Chickadee – 8
  • Tufted Titmouse – 2
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 1
  • Carolina Wren – 2
  • House Wren – 5
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 4
  • Eastern Bluebird – 2
  • American Robin – approximately 10
  • Gray Catbird – 1
  • Northern Mockingbird – 3
  • European Starling – approximately 10
  • Northern Parula – 1
  • Yellow Warbler – 4
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – 5
  • Prairie Warbler – 1
  • Palm Warbler – 1
  • Black-and-white Warbler – 1, heard only
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 10
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 20
  • Chipping Sparrow – 4
  • Field Sparrow – 5
  • Savannah Sparrow – 1
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 10
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 10
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 20
  • Common Grackle – 2
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 10
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 15

The Stroud Preserve, 2 May 2013

Nodding Trillium    Trillium
cernuum  L.  29 April 2012, Stroud Reseve, West Chester, Chester County,
Pennsylvania. 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Nodding Trillium Trillium cernuum L. 29 April 2012, Stroud Reseve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Another fairly slow day for birds, however, I did get three new arrivals, Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, and American Redstart. The high pressure that we have sitting over our region needs to move on so our birds can come home. I also didn’t get to check things as thoroughly today as I would have liked as I had to rush off to a doctor’s appointment.

The up side to the nice weather is that the vegetation will be pretty full by the time things start to arrive in earnest. Trees like beech, maple and poplar are already pretty full. The oaks, hickories and ash still have a ways to go. I’m still adding many new plants to the preserve list and have quite a backlog of things to document. 

I have run into a small, no, actually a large disappointment so far with the plant inventory for the preserve. This time last year I found two specimens of the rare nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum). The day after the photograph above was taken the I went back to take a better picture of them but the plants had disappeared. I am assuming the cause of the disappearance was white-tailed deer foraging.

I was excited to find these plants here because there are only 30-60 probable sites for its occurrence in Pennsylvania and an estimated population of only 5000-5500 ramets (i.e., clonal colonies). I have put a great amount of effort in checking the creek drainage where these plants were found as well as other suitable habitats on the preserve and have come up empty. If the plants are still growing on the preserve I should have another month or so until they wither away and can no longer be found. So if the Pennsylvania birding community could keep your fingers crossed, I’d greatly appreciate it!

Start time: 9:00

End time: 12:20

Temp: 52-64°

Wind: 5-7 mph from the east

Skies: perfectly clear

Species Total:

  • Great Blue Heron – 1
  • Black Vulture – 2
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 30
  • Canada Goose – approximately 10
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 2
  • Killdeer – 1, heard only
  • Mourning Dove – 4
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 30
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – 4
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 2
  • Northern Flicker – 1
  • Eastern Phoebe – 3
  • White-eyed Vireo – approximately 15
  • Warbling Vireo – approximately 10
  • Red-eyed Vireo – 1, FOY
  • Blue Jay – approximately 20
  • American Crow – approximately 10
  • Fish Crow – 2, again on the west end of the preserve
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 30, numbers seem to be dropping for this species
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 10
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 30, numbers seem to be climbing for this species.
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 3
  • Carolina Wren – 2
  • House Wren – 3
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – approximately 15, either numbers have dropped or they are becoming less vocal
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 10
  • Wood Thrush – 1, FOY
  • American Robin – approximately 20
  • Gray Catbird – approximately 20, it is safe to say that the catbird factory is now in production!
  • Northern Mockingbird – 2
  • Brown Thrasher – 1
  • European Starling – approximately 10
  • Yellow Warbler – approximately 20
  • Palm Warbler – 1
  • American Redstart – 1, FOY
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 20
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 25
  • Chipping Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 30
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 15
  • Bobolink – 1, heard only. I don’t know where the small group went that I saw earlier in the week has moved.
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 75, there is still a large group of about 30 birds that forages in the old farm bed
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 20
  • House Finch – 2
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 40, numbers are way up for this species 

The Stroud Preserve, 26 April 2013

IMG_3743.jpg

Accompanying me on my walk today was Susan Charkes. We had high hopes for more spring birds but our hopes didn’t produce anything new. As we were lamenting about the lack of birds we ran into Kelly Nunn, who was not lamenting about the lack of birds. She had quite a list of birds that we had not seen including Blue-winged Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Orchard Oriole. Kelly did start about an hour earlier than we did but I still can’t help but think that I did something to offend the spring warbler. I seem to be little behind what is generally being reported.

The birds never did really pick up for us, but fortunately, springtime has other things to offer. While the photo above could reflect my grumpy disposition about the state of migration, it is actually a snapping turtle that I see frequently hauled out on a stream bank on the northwest side of the old farm pond. It usually on the side that is to squishy for me to walk on but today, it was on the opposite side, where I could take a nice portrait of it.

Susan and I worked our way around to the serpentine outcrop to look at the interesting plants in bloom there. Lyre-leaved rockcress (Arabis lyrata), large field mouse-eared chickweed (Cerastium velutinum var. velutinum),  and early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis) are still the only native flowering plants that we could find. I was hoping that some of the grasses would have grown enough for me to identify yet. I did turn my attention to the little yellow violets that grow commonly around the preserve. I have concluded that violets are just plain evil.

Yes, evil. In plant identification circles, you often hear people talking about how difficult things like grasses, sedges and willows are to identify. Well, I think violets are worse. With the others they are difficult, but the taxonomy is pretty much agreed upon by the plant taxonomy gods above. Violets are surprisingly difficult and there is very little agreement on their taxonomy. I have a number of flora text available to me both printed and on the internet. None of them employ the same taxonomy for Violaceae. An this little yellow violet is a poster child that illustrates the problem.

Originally, I identified it as Viola hastata, which I recently realized is clearly incorrect. V. hastata simply does not occur in eastern Pennsylvania. But each time I tried to key it using Rhoads and Block I keep coming out to V. hastata. Looking at my general field guides to plants the one that seems to be the best fit is V. pensylvanica. Turning to another flora, Weakley’s Flora of Southern and Mid Atlantic States, it easily keyed out to V. pensylvanica. But this species is not listed at all in Rhoads and Block. Humm…

After several hours of trying to reconcile the differences I finally figured it all out. The little yellow violet that I see at the Stroud Preserve is Viola pubescens var. scabriuscula in Rhoads and Block. The key stresses the features of V. pubescens var. pubescens, which is where I went wrong. In Weakley, the little yellow violet is indeed V. pensyvanica. Both Rhoads and Block and Weakley give V. eriocarpon as a synonym. So, the common bond between the two authorities that I use is V. eriocarpon.

It seems so innocent. 

It seems so innocent. 

Make sense? To give you and ideal of just how bad it can be, here is Weakley’s full synonym text;

[= WV; = Viola pubescens Aiton var. scabriuscula Schweinitz ex Torrey – K, V, X; = V. eriocarpa (Nuttall) Schweinitz var. leiocarpa Fernald & Wiegand – RAB; < V. pubescens – C, GW, W; > V. pensylvanica Michaux var. pensylvanica – F; > V. pensylvanica var. leiocarpa (Fernald & Wiegand) Fernald – F; = V. eriocarpa – G, S; = V. eriocarpon (Nuttall)Schweinitz var. leiocarpon Fernald & Wiegand; > V. pubescens Aiton var. leiocarpon (Fernald & Wiegand) Seymour]

And birders think flycatchers are difficult. Please.

Start time: 8:50

End time: 1:00

Temp: 52-57°

Wind: 10 from the south

Skies: clear

Species Total: 53

  • Great Blue Heron – 1
  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 20
  • Canada Goose – approximately 10
  • Mallard – 2
  • Northern Harrier – 1, immature or female
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – 3, 2 immature, 1 adult
  • Cooper's Hawk – 1 adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 4
  • Mourning Dove – 4
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 100
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – 4
  • Northern Flicker – 2
  • Eastern Phoebe – 4
  • White-eyed Vireo – 3, heard only
  • Warbling Vireo – 4
  • Blue Jay – approximately 40, mostly moving from west to east
  • American Crow – approximately 10
  • Fish Crow – 2, heard only
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 150
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 30, collecting nesting material
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 20, many collecting nesting material from muddy area in bed of old farm pond.
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – approximately 5
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 10
  • House Wren – 2
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 1
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – approximately 25
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 20
  • American Robin – approximately 30
  • Northern Mockingbird – 1
  • Brown Thrasher – 1
  • European Starling – approximately 15
  • Yellow Warbler – approximately 10
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – approximately 10
  • Palm Warbler – 4
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 10
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 20
  • Chipping Sparrow – 1
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Savannah Sparrow – 6, one was a distinctively different from the other Savannah Sparrows that I have seen at the preserve. This one seemed larger, and overall much deeper brown. The streaking on the beast was very well defined and the supercillium was very bold and a creamy yellow from front to back.
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 20
  • Swamp Sparrow – 1
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 10
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 50
  • Eastern Meadowlark – at least 2, the singing male at the corner of Creek and Strasburg Road still present. It can often be seen singing from the telephone wire just to the west of the intersection.
  • Common Grackle – 3
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 15
  • House Finch – 2, heard only
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 

The Stroud Preserve, 24 April 2013

Golden saxifrage Chrysosplenium Schwein ex Hook. 24 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

I spent the lion’s share of the day looking for wetland plants. The photo above is part of my reward for that. Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum). This is a new plant for me. It has one of the strangest flowers I have ever seen. I wish my dissecting scope had a photo attachment so I could post a close up photo but instead, here is a link to a webpage with one. I found a handful of these plants along one of the streams that flow through the preserve.

Another benefit to checking wetlands for rare and unusual plants is that you stand a better chance of seeing birds that like these places. I flushed a male Rusty Blackbird from the edge of a oxbow along the Brandywine. It flew up to a nearby tree for a few moments then flew back down to the waters edge. I had the pleasure of watching it forage at close range for about 20 minutes. What a treat!

I saw two new spring arrivals today. A Green Heron flew over the old farm pond and a Blue-headed Vireo was working its way along the foliage by the Brandywine. I observed American Robins and Eastern Phoebe collecting nesting materials. Perhaps the biggest surprise for the day was a finding a nearly completed Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s nest! Those guys work fast. It has only been 13 days since I saw my first one for the spring.

Start time: 8:45

End time: 12:00

Temp: 42-55°

Wind: 3-8 mph from the south

Skies: overcast, clearing by noon

Species Total: 53

  • Green Heron – 1, FOY
  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 15
  • Canada Goose – 13
  • Wood Duck – 5
  • Mallard – 2
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 3, adults
  • Mourning Dove – 1
  • Belted Kingfisher – 1, heard only
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Northern Flicker – approximately 12
  • Eastern Phoebe – 3
  • Blue-headed Vireo – 1, FOY
  • Blue Jay – approximately 15
  • American Crow – 4
  • Fish Crow – 2, heard only
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 75
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 25
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 10
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 12
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 8
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 4
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 10
  • House Wren – 1
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 3
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – approximately 25. I observed a male and female attacking an American Robin that perched to close to their nearly completed nest! I observed the first gnatcatcher just 13 days ago on 11 April. They apparently are not wasting any time.
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 15
  • American Robin – approximately 20
  • Northern Mockingbird – 2
  • Brown Thrasher – 1, heard only
  • European Starling – approximately 10
  • Yellow Warbler – approximately 12
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – approximately 20
  • Palm Warbler – approximately 8
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 15
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 25
  • Chipping Sparrow – 1
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 20
  • Savannah Sparrow – 9
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 20
  • Swamp Sparrow – 2
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 40
  • Dark-eyed Junco – 3
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 10
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 50
  • Eastern Meadowlark – 1, singing at the corner of Creek and Strasberg Road.
  • Rusty Blackbird – 1, male. I flushed it from a wooded wet land while looking for aquatic plants. It returned to the ground where I had the pleasure of watching it forage at close range for about 20 minutes.
  • Common Grackle – 4
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 12
  • House Finch – 2, heard only
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 20

The Stroud Preserve, 23 April 2013

Large field mouse-ear chickweed Cerastium velutium var. velutinum Raf. 23 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

With all the reports of various and sundry spring migrants from our area from the PABirds listserver, I headed out today with high hopes of seeing some newly arrived spring warblers. Instead, all the highlights of the day seem to be birds of a more wintery nature.

The biggest surprise of the day was a single flyover Red Crossbill! A few days ago I was thinking about making a post to this blog about my disappointment in not seeing any of the good winter finches that had invaded the Delaware Valley. Crossbills, Redpolls, and Grosbeaks seemed to be everywhere, except the Stroud Preserve. At about noon today, as I had my nose pointed up searching for movement I in the trees that could turn in to a bright spring warbler, I heard a familiar “kip-kip-kip-kip!” In my experience whenever I hear their call in flight, I only actually see the bird in flight one out of ten times. So, I frantically searched the skies overhead and saw the bird flying due east. It didn’t land of course and kept on going until it was well out of sight.

Earlier In the day I had an absolutely awesome look at a Merlin perched in the big sycamore tree in front of the old barn. Most of the Merlins that I see are flyovers. This one let me walk directly under it and check it out from all angles. The other winter surprise was a Winter Wren. I thought these were all gone as the last one that I saw was way back on March 21st.

Otherwise, there were no new spring migrants. All in all, it was a pretty slow day for mid April. It was pretty chilly as well! There were good numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers along the Brandywine with a few Palm Warblers mixed in. White-throated Sparrows were still congregated around the serpentine outcrop.

Lyre-leaved rockcress Arabis lytata L. 23 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

Early saxifrage Saxifraga virginiensis Michx. 23 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

The serpentine outcrop had a few blooming specialties. Lyre-leaved rockcress (Arabis lyrata), large field mouse-eared chickweed (Cerastium velutinum var. velutinum),  and early saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis). I have found these three species only on the serpentine outcrop and no where else on the preserve.

Start time: 9:05

End time: 1:25

Temp: 42-52°

Wind: 0-10 from the east

Skies: overcast

Species Total: 53

  • Black Vulture – approximately 15
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 20
  • Canada Goose – 4
  • Wood Duck – 2
  • Mallard – 1
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 3 adults
  • Merlin – 1, FOY, only the second time that I have seen one perched in the preserve, as most are flyovers.
  • Mourning Dove – 5
  • [Barred Owl – The preserve manager said that he has seen Barred Owl within the last week]
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 20
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Northern Flicker – 4
  • Pileated Woodpecker – 2, heard only
  • Eastern Phoebe – 4
  • Blue Jay – approximately 25
  • American Crow – approximately 10
  • Fish Crow – 2
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 150
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 30
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 15
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 15
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 4
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 10
  • House Wren – 2
  • Winter Wren – 1, I thought I was done with these little guys!
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet – 3, heard only
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – approximately 15
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – approximately 30, these seemed to be calling from every group of trees I encountered today.
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 10
  • American Robin – approximately 30
  • Northern Mockingbird – 1
  • Brown Thrasher – 2
  • European Starling – approximately 10
  • Yellow Warbler – 3
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – approximately 40, only along the Brandywine.
  • Palm Warbler – 5, only along the Brandywine.
  • Common Yellowthroat – approximately 10
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 15
  • Chipping Sparrow – approximately 10
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 25
  • Savannah Sparrow – 7
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 25
  • Swamp Sparrow – 1
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 75, as with my last visit, many were found in the area of the Serpentine outcrop.
  • Dark-eyed Junco – 3
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 15
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately
  • Eastern Meadowlark – 3, two calling in the area of the Bobolink field. 1 calling near the intersection of Creek and Strasberg Roads. The one along creek road seems to be the only one singing in a sustained way as if defending a territory.
  • Common Grackle – 4
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 25
  • House Finch – 3
  • Red Crossbill – 1, Bird of the Day! A new bird for the preserve list. A complete and total surprise!
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 25

The Stroud Preserve, 16 April 2013

Toothwort  Cardamine concatenata  (Michx.) Sw ., 16 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.&nbsp;

Toothwort Cardamine concatenata (Michx.) Sw., 16 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

I am finding that I am covering much less ground in the last couple of visits because I do a lot of standing and listening. The landscape is alive with new sounds. Currently, my favorite sounds are the call of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and singing Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I did manage to see a new-year bird for the preserve, a Hermit Thrush, which I was somewhat expecting. I have still be searching the wetlands pretty hard for Louisiana Waterthrushes, but with no luck.

Another thing that slows me down are plants. Above is a photo of Cardamine concatenata. This plant goes by a number of common names; toothwort, cutleaf toothwort, crow’s toes (I like that one), and pepper root. The name “toothwort,” probably refers to “tooth like structures on the rhizomes.” Since I was able to confidently identify the plant without collecting a sample, I do not know what these “tooth-like structures” look like. “Pepper root” refers to the fact that it root is edible and is somewhat spicy. “Crow’s toes” should be self-explanatory.

This is native and considered common in eastern North American, ranging from southeastern Canada to Florida and Texas. At the Stroud Preserve, I only know if it from one tiny spot on a hillside above the Brandywine where there are only about seven plants visible. It is an early bloomer along with spring-beauty (Claytonia virginica) which vastly outnumbers it. They are about the same size so I could easily be over looking others that may be around.

A close cousin is hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute). It is not native and is absolutely everywhere. It is most likely the tiny white flowering plant that you see growing between the cracks of the sidewalk as well. I have spent a good amount of time looking for another close cousin, Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica) which is supposed to be common and widespread in our area, but I have yet to see it. It might not be blooming yet, but I’ll keep looking!

Start time: 8:50

End time: 11:30

Temp: 51-61°

Wind: 5-8 mph from the south

Skies: high clouds, mostly overcast

Species Total: 50

  • Black Vulture – 3
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 15
  • Canada Goose – 4
  • Wood Duck – 2
  • Mallard – 2
  • Osprey – 1
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 1 adult
  • Mourning Dove – 1
  • Chimney Swift – approximately 10
  • Belted Kingfisher – 2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 5
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 5
  • Northern Flicker – approximately 8, heard only.
  • Eastern Phoebe – 3
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – 4
  • Fish Crow – 2
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 100
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 10
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 20
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 6
  • Carolina Wren – 4
  • House Wren – 1
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet – 3
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – approximately 12
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 7
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 15
  • Hermit Thrush – 1, FOY
  • American Robin – approximately 15
  • Northern Mockingbird – 2
  • Brown Thrasher – 2
  • European Starling – approximately 20
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – approximately 15, only observed along the Brandywine
  • Palm Warbler – approximately 25, only observed along the Brandywine
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 10
  • Chipping Sparrow – 1
  • Field Sparrow – approximately 10, many singing along the field edges
  • Savannah Sparrow – approximately 15, many seen along the road west of the bridge
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 25
  • Swamp Sparrow – approximately 10, near wooded wetlands or along the Brandywine
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 20, many singing in woodland understory
  • Dark-eyed Junco – approximately 10
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 15
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 150, a large flock (approximately  100) of mostly females in bed of the old farm pond.
  • Common Grackle – 1
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 15
  • House Finch – 2
  • American Goldfinch – approximately 10

Bicycle Botany: The Strange Vine

IMG_3312.jpg

When I first started riding my bike here I quickly learned the best routes for cycling in rural Chester County because 1), there were few cars on the roads and 2), the roads were full of cyclist. Easy enough. 

My favorite route, and apparently the favorite route for many Chester County cyclist, includes Brandywine Drive, which along the west branch of the Brandywine Creek. Brandywine Drive dead ends into Telegraph Road. If you take a left on Telegraph Road, it turns into Embreeville Road (also known by a numeric moniker Route 162), which slides past the old Embreeville Mill. As you go along on this stretch of road on your left will be the Cheslan Preserve, part of the Natural Lands Trust. This is same group that manages the Stroud Preserve, which I refer to as "my back yard."

In the winter when no leaves are on the trees one stretch of Brandywine Drive that tightly hugs the West Branch of the Brandywine Creek provides a very nice view across a low wooded riparian area. One plant here has always stood out like a giant neon beacon because it is the only broadleaved plant with evergreen leaves. It lies about 100 feet off the side of the road. I can tell that it is some kind of vine and every time that I see it I say to myself "one of these days, I'm going to stop, walk across that flood plain and see what the heck that thing is. 

Well, Saturday was that day. I finally stopped and fought my way through a large patch of multiflora rose (not an easy thing to do when you are clad in spandex) to get a better look at the mystery plant. I looked and quickly determined I had not an inkling of a clue as to what it was. I broke off a small branch, which included some leaves and a few fruiting bodies and brought it home for closer inspection. 

At home I looked at the fruit. It was divided into four parts which reminded me of another plant. I took me a minute but I finally remembered that the plant that it reminded me of was called winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus). Now, you may remember a blog post last spring about winged euonymus. It was a plant that I had a great deal of trouble identifying with a traditional identification key. I resorted to typing in the key features of the plant into google and seeing what I came up with. I figured that if I suspect this is a Euonymus my best chance of identifying was with google and not my botanical text. 

Ergo I entered "Euonymus evergreen vine" into the little box on my computer screen. In 0.19 seconds I had over 70,000 webpages with Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei). There you have it. Mystery solved. I am very grateful that we live in such interesting times. I am especially grateful for the home computer and the internet. It is indeed a good time to be an amateur botanist! 

I tried to take some photographs of the wintercreeper from that ride, but it was late in the day and the light was bad so they didn't some out that well. To rectify this, I decided to jump in the car and bring William along with me to get a better picture of it, and look for other early spring wildflowers and creepy crawly things. I'm glad we did. We had a great time. See photos of our visit to the Cheslan Preserve here

Ride lots, stop often!

Russell

Bicycle Botany: Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt). 13 March 2013. Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania

At long last, I took a ride on my bike that wasn't on my stationary bike in my basement. The last time that I did an out doors bike ride was sometime in November! Prior to that the longest break in bike riding was in 2007 when I dislocated my shoulder and broke my collar bone. Even then it was only for a bout 4 weeks. 

Excuses aside, it was great to get out for a 21 mile ride. As I rode my bike along Creek Road I saw one of my favorite sights of spring: skunk cabbage! Both the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast have skunk cabbage, albeit different species. The one that we have here in the northeast is Symplocarpus foetidus and the one in the northwest is Lysichiton americanus. While they both are in the same family (Araceae) and are commonly called skunk cabbage they are actually quite different. 

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt). 20 March 2013. Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

The reasons that I first became interested in skunk cabbage is that they employ a different strategy for pollination than most plants, and their name should give you some clue as to what strategy that might be. Their odor actually doesn't smell like a skunk. What it smells like is rotting meat and rotting meat will attract a whole bunch of insects, such as flies and beetles specifically, staphylinid (rove) beetles. Back in Washington when I would take a closer look at the flowers I would sometimes find 15 or 20 little black beetles on a single flower. Having come to the flower in the hopes of finding a meal of rotting meat, they find none and then move on to the next scent of rotting meat taking pollen with them. 

While pollination by carrion eating beetles is pretty cool, that is not the coolest thing I like about skunk cabbage. Actually the coolest thing about skunk cabbage is not cool at all. Skunk cabbage grows in northernly climates. Which, if you think about it, poses a problem if you are a large flowering plant that blooms very early in the spring and in wet marshy areas. The reason this would be a problem is that the surfaces of these wet marshy areas are often frozen solid in early March. The easiest way to deal with ice is to melt it, and this is exactly what the plant does. 

Skunk cabbage is one of the few plants that can produce their own heat, known as thermogenesis. And they don't just produce a little heat to melt the frozen ground, in fact, they can produce heat at temperatures that is 59-95° higher than the air temperature! Their ability to produce heat to melt icy habitats might be a lucky side product of the real reason they produce heat. 

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus (L.) Salisb. ex Nutt). 26 March 2012. Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania. This photo shows many plants which are only about 25% of their final growth. They can be up to two feet tall. 

Most plants that are thermogenic also depend on carrion loving insects for pollination. Most of these plants live in the tropics, where no icy habitats occur. The reasons why these plants produce heat is not clearly understood. It may be a way for the plant to produce additional vapors that enhance dispersal of the compounds that attract insects to them. This got me to thinking that if the plants are producing heat, they must also be producing infrared light. If so, they could also attract insects that see in the infrared spectrum. I don't know how if carrion eating insects see infrared, but I do know that insects that are hematophags (blood suckers) like mosquitos and bedbugs, can see the infrared heat of their victims.

As a side note, another interesting group of insects that can see infrared are the metalic wood-boring beetles (Buprestidae). These beetles see infrared for a different reason. They see the infrared heat produced by forest fires because they lay their eggs on charred wood. 

Regardless of the evolutionary pressures that caused these plants to start producing their own heat, they are pretty cool plants in my book. If you are on your bike this time of year, they are well worth the time to stop and take a break to check them out. Click on any of the photos above for a better view. 

Ride lots, and stop often!

Russell

The Stroud Preserve, 22 March 2013

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When I get up in the morning around 5:40, I check my weather app on my iPhone to see what the day has in store for me. By the time I make breakfast for the family, see the children off to school and arrive at the Stroud Preserve at around 8:45, whatever little icon and temperature range was displayed earlier will have surely changed, and usually for the worse.

Let’s take to day for example. At 5:40 I got a sun icon with a temperature range of 28 to 47°.  Awesome! By the time I got to the Stroud Preserve at 8:50, the icon had turned to snow flakes and any hope of reaching 47° was nothing but a distant dream. Well, what can you do? I tell you one thing I’m going to do, if I ever met Punxsutawney Phil in a dark alley, I’m going to open up a can of woop ass on that hairy little rodent for saying we were going to have an early spring. That’s what I’m going to do.

That said, it actually wasn’t a bad day bird-wise. I tallied the highest species count of the year so far without seeing anything unusual. The meadowlarks and snipe of the day before were nowhere to be found. I saw a single Rusty Blackbird flying over an open field on the south side of the preserve. It briefly landed in a tree at the edge of woodlands and quickly moved on. There was a large flock of sparrows on the west side of the preserve, which probably totaled over 300 individuals by my best guess. They were madly foraging in, on, under and around a big thicket of multi-flora rose. The other highlight was a total of 4 Killdeer.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media (L.) Vill.), 22 March 2013. The Stroud Preserve, Chester County, PA, 

Field speedwell (Veronica media L.) 5 March 2013. The Stroud Preserve, Chester County PA. 

For the weed enthusiast out there I found a few others to add to the early bloomers list (I actually found these blooming back on March 5th but I’m just now getting around to posting the photos). They are field speedwell (Veronica agrestis) and common chickweed (Stellaria media). If anyone disagrees with identification of these plants please don’t hesitate to let me know (click on the photo for a better look). I’m not nearly as certain about my botanical identifications as I am with my ornithological identifications. I used the keys in Plants of Pennsylvania (Rhoads and Block 2007) to identify these. I am most uncertain about the Veronica. It shouldn’t be blooming until April. But I went through the keys several times with it and still came up with this one.

Start time: 8:50

End time: 12:40

Temp: 30-34°

Wind: 7-17 mph from the west

Skies: mostly cloudy light snow flurries, occasional sun breaks

Species Total: 46

  • Great Blue Heron – 2
  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 25
  • Canada Goose – approximately 150
  • Mallard – 9
  • Common Merganser – 2
  • Bald Eagle – 1 immature
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – 1 adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 6, 4 adults, two immature
  • American Kestrel – 1 male
  • Killdeer – 4, still an uncommon bird at the preserve!
  • Mourning Dove – 2
  • Belted Kingfisher – 1
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – 5
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1
  • Downy Woodpecker – 2
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 1
  • Northern Flicker – 1
  • Eastern Phoebe – 1
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – approximately 30
  • Fish Crow – 3
  • Tree Swallow – 7
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 4
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 5, heard only
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 20
  • American Robin – approximately 150
  • Northern Mockingbird – 3
  • European Starling – approximately 75
  • Eastern Towhee – 4
  • Field Sparrow – 7
  • Savannah Sparrow – 1
  • Fox Sparrow – 3
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 100
  • Swamp Sparrow – 1
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 250
  • Dark-eyed Junco – approximately 25
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 15
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 100
  • Rusty Blackbird – 1
  • Common Grackle – 1
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 15
  • House Finch – 1
  • American Goldfinch – 3

The Stroud Preserve, 4 March 2013

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Today started of with an unknown. I got out of the car and immediately heard a high pitched and loud “ki-ki-ki” call that reminded me of a Northern Goshawk. I looked for the bird but was not able to find anything that I could identify as the source. Sometimes, that is the way it goes.

Otherwise, it was cold and windy. Even a hardy jogger that I see regularly at the preserve commented about what a pain the wind was. As with other walks in the past couple of weeks, individual numbers were down, and it seemed that each species on the list was hard fought for. Crow numbers were way down again. Only 1 Fish Crow which is way down from Friday’s walk.

The Great Horned Owl was again sitting in a very elevated position. Today nearly the entire bird could be seen. It watched me as I walked around the field in front of it. I still did not see any signs of nestlings. Also, as a side note, I managed to get out and walk around the preserve at dusk and early evening last night in hopes of hearing American Woodcocks or other owls. However, I heard absolutely nothing. Sometimes, that is the way it goes.

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

I did manage to find another flowering plant. This one was actually just off the preserve along Creek Road. It is called winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), and is another introduced plant from Europe. It is a member of the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is the only member of it's genus found here, which is nice. If you have ever tried to key out a member of the Ranunculus genus then you know what I am talking about. It blooms from February to late April.  As a biologist and ecologist that has spent most of my career dealing with invasive and nuisance species, I'd rather not be giving any attention to introduced plants, but it is what's blooming out there at the moment. That said, early blooming is the type of advantage that give introduced plants the upper hand in finding a foot hold in new environments. My non-native bias aside, it is really a nice looking plant and I was quite excited to find it!

Start time: 9:00

End time: 11:30

Temp: 27-34°

Wind: brisk and steady and cold, out of the north

Skies: clear to scattered high clouds

Species Total: 35

  • Black Vulture – 6
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 20
  • Canada Goose – approximately 300
  • Mallard – approximately 15
  • Common Merganser – 4
  • Bald Eagle – 1, adult
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – 1, adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 8, 6 adults, 2 immature
  • Killdeer – 1, heard only
  • Great Horned Owl – 1, same bird, same place
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 5
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 2, heard only
  • Northern Flicker – 2
  • Blue Jay – 2
  • American Crow – approximately 10
  • Fish Crow – 1
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – approximately 10
  • Carolina Wren – 2, heard only
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 25
  • American Robin – 6
  • Northern Mockingbird – 4
  • European Starling – approximately 125
  • Eastern Towhee – 5
  • Field Sparrow – 1
  • Savannah Sparrow – 4
  • Fox Sparrow – 1
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 75
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 25
  • Dark-eyed Junco – approximately 75
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 20
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 50
  • Common Grackle – 3

The Stroud Preserve, 1 March 2013

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The weather today started out great! A completely spring like day, then it began to get cloudy and breezy and colder. In fact, about 10 minutes after I left the preserve driving towards Exton, I ran into a brief snow squall! Not what I was expecting!

Despite the downturn in the weather, I did manage to 39 species for the day. The best among these was a flock of about 30 Northern Pintail flying north over the preserve. Fish Crows put in a good appearance (sorry Patty!). There were at least 15 and maybe as many as 30 or more. They were calling from all corners of the preserve today. One very vocal flock of 21 crows flew overhead with at least 5 calling fish crows at once and no calling American Crows. I suspect that they were all Fish Crows but there is no way to tell for sure. I ran into one sizable mixed flock of sparrows mostly consisting of Dark-eyed Juncos. Other than this flock, I saw no other juncos, and only a handful of White-throated Sparrows.

The Great Horned Owl was once again sitting high up on the nest. There was one bump on the nest that I haven’t noticed before, which could have been a chick. I normally don’t carry my scope with me on my daily walks, but I think I’ll bring it on my next visit to see if I can see any chicks.

Snowdrops  (Galanthus nivalis)

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

I also came across my first flowering plant of the year. Galanthus nivalis, commonly called snowdrops. There is a large group of many hundreds of these blooming on the south side of the preserve along Lucky Hill Road. It is a member of the Onion Family (Alliaceae) and is native to Europe. It is also a new plant for my plant list for the preserve.

Start time: 8:45

End time: 12:00

Temp: 37-32°! Holy cow, it got more colder!

Wind: none to start becoming brisk from the NNE

Skies: partly cloudy to start, becoming overcast by noon

Species Total: 39

  • Great Blue Heron – 1
  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 25
  • Canada Goose – approximately 150
  • Mallard – 5
  • Northern Pintail – approximately 30, bird of the day!
  • Common Merganser – 3
  • Bald Eagle – 1, adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 7, 6 adults, 1 immature
  • Killdeer – 1, heard only
  • Ring-billed Gull – 3
  • Mourning Dove – 3
  • Great Horned Owl – 1, same bird, same place
  • Belted Kingfisher – 1, heard only
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 10
  • Hairy Woodpecker – 8!
  • Northern Flicker – 3
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – approximately 100
  • Fish Crow – at least 15, as many as 30!
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch – 1
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – approximately 8
  • Carolina Wren – approximately 10
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1, heard only
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 25
  • American Robin – 1
  • Northern Mockingbird – 3
  • European Starling – approximately 75
  • Eastern Towhee – 1, heard only
  • Savannah Sparrow – 4
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 100
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 25
  • Dark-eyed Junco – approximately 75
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 12
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 50
  • House Finch – 1, heard only

Bicycle Botany: Road Marbles, Part Two

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In part one of Road Marbles we learned that humans were not the first of earth's organisms to engage in chemical warfare. Plants were probably in need of a Geneva Convention long before animals ever showed up on the scene. Osage orange also has interesting chemical properties…or not.

A common story that floats around is that placing an Osage orange under your bed or in your basement would repel spiders and insects from your house. There are even websites today that sell Osage orange touting it just for that purpose. However, there is not a lick of science to back up that claim. Plus, why would you want to drive away spiders? Spiders are a surefire way to get ride of insects in your house! Osage orange does contain a chemical, elemol, that has been shown to be as effective at repelling insects as DEET. However, the chemical has to be extracted and refined from the fruit for it to be effective. Here is a website that talks about the myth of Osage orange repellent. 

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An other myth around about Osage orange is their edibility. Some say that is, some say that they are but why bother, and most (overwhelming majority, including myself) say they are not. My reasoning is that zillions of these things fall to the ground around here and remain there until they rot and turn to a putrid mush (see right). If they were edible I would think some animal would eat them. Plus, who in their right mind would eat something that could also repel and kill insects. We'll just leave it at that. 

Chemical and food issues aside, the thing that I find most interesting about Osage orange is that it is native alien. Yes, a native alien. Osage orange is a native tree of North America. However, it's natural range is fairly restricted, confined to eastern Texas, and small portions of Oklahoma and Arkansas. It's current range extends across nearly the entirety of North America. It is particularly common in the east and midwest. 

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The primary reason for this distribution is cattle. Not because cows eat the orange and the distribute the seeds in cow pies (a process know as endozoochory). Nor do the seeds stick the cows fur and fall off in some distant spot later (a process know as epizoochory). Nope. Osage orange has sharp thorns on their branches and can grow in thick hedges that cows cannot pass through. Humans planted these trees far and wide to keep cows close to home. But as it turns out, metal fence post and barbed wire was cheaper and could be put into use fairly quick as there was no waiting around for that fence to grow. 

It was also planted widely as a windbreak in the Great Plains and other places. It was such a popular plant for hedges and windbreaks that FDR incorporated it into his New Deal program called the "Great Plains Shelterbelt." This WPA project set out to stop the dust bowl and change the climate. Really. They planted 220 million trees for this project, most of them Osage orange. 

Osage orange was also prized by Native Americans as the best wood to fashion bows from. It was such a valuable resource for them that wars were fought between tribes for control of lands where the tree grew. I'm thinking the Osage Tribe was pretty popular amongst Native nations. The bows sure were, as they have been found as far as 2000 miles away from native Osage orange range. 

The uses of this tree are many and I could go on and on. It is clearly a plant that humans value and admire. Except for me. I hate the darn things. These oranges are large and when they first fall off the tree they are pretty hard. When the 23 mm wide front wheel of an expensive road bike meets one of these unexpectidly, the chances that you will become a road marble are suddenly increased to a troubling level! 

Ride lots, stop often, and avoid road marbles!

Russell

Bicycle Botany: Road Marbles, Part One

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In case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t blogged much about cycling lately. This is due to what boils down to one reason really; I haven’t spent much time on my bike lately! Actually, that is not true, I have spent a lot of time on my bike, just not outdoors.

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I’m still having some issues with keeping my hands and feet warm so the idea of heading out on my bike lately has been a difficult issue do deal with. I have been riding my trainer in the basement of our house a great deal (there is Zippy to the left). Which has been working out fine. I don’t know about anyone else, but I really do get an excellent workout on that silly thing. It’s just not a whole lot of fun.

It was about this time last year I started having issues with fatigue, numbness in my toes and various and sundry other stuff that effected my ability, or desire, to ride my bike. I had a blood test done which showed that I had extremely low levels of vitamin D. Normal is between 30 and 100. Mine was 7! My response to hearing this was that 19 years of living in the Pacific Northwest finally caught up to me! Hummmm, sink me.

So, to make up for this I took massive doses of vitamin D and things were dandy...or so I thought. Now, a year later, I just got another blood test. The results were good in that my vitamin D levels are higher, all the way up to a 15! So I’ve still got some work to do there. In addition, I also learned that my vitamin B-12 levels are low. Normal is 200-1000. Mime is 230. So, starting tomorrow, I’ll be getting shots to boost that. Hopefully, that will bring back some of the feeling in my toes. Either way, I’ll be back out on the open road soon! You’ll see.

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That’s all good and fine, however, low vitamin levels are a metaphorical road marble that have kept me from riding much lately. They are not the type of road marbles I was thinking about for this blog post. I was thinking about real road marbles. The ones that can actually be a real hazard here in Pennsylvania if you are on your bike. Anyone who rides here probably knows what I am talking about.

What are these road marbles you ask? Road marbles are green and range in size between a racket ball and a soft ball. They come in two types, the smooth smaller type with a fleshy outer layer and very hard center and the nubby fleshy type that are just plain fleshy. Yeah, is said fleshy twice. These road marbles are in fact the fruiting bodies of the black walnut and osage orange trees.  And in the fall they can completely fill the shoulders of the roads around here. I have nearly hit the pavement on more than one occasion after hitting one of these little green spheres.

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Black walnuts probably don’t need much explanation. It is a common native tree here in the east. I see them just about everywhere and I think they are quite beautiful (in my humble opinion) and I also think they are one of the trees that define the eastern forest (now that the American chestnut is MIA). The photo to the left is of my parent’s old barn (constructed out of American chestnut) on Fisher Branch near Mars Hill, NC with a walnut tree beside it. While I assume not everyone reading this could pick out a black walnut tree in a tree line up, I would think all most every one was familiar with black walnuts the food item. They are, in fact, yummy. I would expect fewer people to know that the black walnut tree is an important dye for both fabric and wood. Black walnut stain really comes from black walnuts!

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My favorite fun fact about black walnut trees is the fact that they are allelopathic. I’m sure you haven’t use the term allelopathy in a while so let me refresh your memory. It is “a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces one or more biochemicals that influence the growth, survival, and reproduction of other.” Got that? Great.

Allelopathic properties are the reason that you plant marigolds in you garden to control nematodes. Marigolds produce a substance known as alpha-terthienyl that kills nematodes at a 100% kill rate. Who knew? Asparagus also produces compounds that control nematodes but they are not quite as showy as Marigolds. Other things like corn pollen can affect the growth rates of other plants. Being able to control the growth rate of your neighbor is a pretty cool trick when it comes to competing for valuable and limited resources.

Black walnuts trees produce a compound called juglone or more specifically 5-hydroxy-1, 4-naphtalenedione. I don’t know about you, but I’m calling it juglone. Like corn pollen, it also allows the walnut tree to inhibit the growth of their neighbors. Which may be a good reason that I see so many of them around.

The problem with so many of them around is that walnut trees are prolific producers of walnuts. They fall to the ground and become road marbles. Something cyclist must stay on their toes (petals, peddle, pedal?) for…

Bike botany, part 2, the osage orange, coming shortly. Stay tuned.

Ride lots, stop often,

Russell

Bicycle Botany: The Kudzu of the North!

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Back in Washington State I would occasionally be riding along on my bike when I would smell a particular fragrant plant then have the overwhelming urge to head to a mirco-brewery. The plant that would cause such an urge was Humulus lupulus, or Common Hops. I knew the odor well as we had a Centennial Hops growing in our back yard in Sequim.

Back in the spring I began to see a plant growing on the side of the road that looked very much like hops, but the fragrant smell was absent. I stopped and crushed the leaves to see if it had the distinctive odor and it did, but very faintly, clearly not the hops that I was familiar with back in Sequim. I took a chunk of it home and as it turns out, it was a species of hops, Humulus japonicus, or Japanese Hops.

As the summer has worn on here I have seen more, and more, and more of this stuff creeping along the roadways of southeastern PA. In fact, once I began to hone in on it, I’d notice it taking over whole fields! Instead of invoking pleasant thoughts of heading to a brewery, I began to have nightmare that if I stopped to long on the side of the road I would be swallowed whole by a killer plant. It reminds me of that other invasive vine from Asia – kudzu.

One of the things about the Northeast that I have always liked is that the winters here seem to be to cold for kudzu to thrive like it does down south, but where kudzu leaves off, Japanese hops seems to take over. One thing that is a little reassuring is that Japanese hops dies back completely in the winter, so its ability to cover entire forest is somewhat limited.

According to the USDA there is not much that can be done to control Japanese hops. The best method that I can find is mechanical control which, in the long run, does little to stop its spread.

As a side note, it is one of five members of the Hemp family found in Pennsylvania. According to the Plants of Pennsylvania common hopes and its more infamous cousin marijuana are also found growing wild in the state but in a very limited number of places. The two other members of the family are native. Hackberry (Celtis accidentalis) is found commonly throughout the state and dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia) is limited to the southeast and southcentral regions.

See more photos of the best here.

Ride lots, stop often,

Russell

Plant Identification 101

There is no greater happiness in the known world better than coming home with a plant that you have absolutely no idea as to it’s identity, turning to the front of your 1042 page “Plants of Pennsylvania,” starting with first step on the technical key and 90 seconds later worked your way directly to the correct species. This happens to me about once out of every 32.7 plants I try to identify.

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The rest of the attempts end up as an epic struggle with my Flora of Pennsylvania where I spend hours pecking my way through the key ending up on incorrect species after incorrect species. Often times, I can’t even figure out the correct family. At those times I usually refer to my botany book as “Road Block.” Which comes from the fact that the authors are Ann Rhoads and Timothy Block.

If you have never looked at a botanical tome you might think they were of another language and culture altogether. And for the most part, you would be right. These works usually start off with a dichotomous technical key to the families. If you are unfamiliar with a dichotomous key, they are a simple concept where you are presented with two options. You decided which option fits your situation and then move on to the next option. In business and management they are referred to as “decision trees.”

The first two lines of Road Block is this;

A. non-green epiphytes or parasites, or plants lacking normally expanded leaves and/or stems

A. green, not obviously parasites, stems and leaves present

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Seems easy enough, right? Well after than all hell usually breaks loose. Sometimes the route to the right plant can have scores of options. One wrong turn and you are sent off to the incorrect part of the plant kingdom. Further, the specialized botanical language alone is enough to make a normal person not so normal. In fact, I have another book to assist me for that called Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary, because words like cleistogamous are not part of my every day lexicon. Cleistogamous, by the way, means a flower that never opens. Who knew?

To make matters more difficult, you must have a dissecting microscope to see many of the plant parts that are used in the keys. In this regard, I am lucky in that I happen to have one of those in the basement. Still with all this highly specialized and precise terminology and advanced optical technology, I can still often come up completely empty.

Not long ago, I came across a shrub at the Stroud Preserve that was unfamiliar to me. It had “wings” on the stems and green flowers. Both of these characteristics are fairly uncommon and conspicuous features and I figured that this plant would fall into the category of species that I quickly identify. I broke off a stem to bring back home to work through the key.

I was wrong. I spent hours trying to figure out to which stupid species this stupid plant belonged. In fact, I felt pretty good in calling it a “stupid shrub” because of the fact that “shrub” was really the only thing about the plant that I knew was a certainty.

I was obviously over looking something as I keyed it out. I checked every fork in the key to make sure that I wasn’t over looking something to no avail. I was clearly overlooking something. Frustrated, I walked away from it and moved on to something else. Later in the evening when I was sitting at my computer I figured why don’t I give Google a try. I typed in “shrub green flowers.” In less than a second, there were scores of images of winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus).

I still chose to refer to it as stupid shrub.

Russell