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

The Stroud Preserve, 9 April 2013

SPRING BEAUTY Claytonia caroliniana MICHX. 9 April 2013. Stroud Perserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania

Awesome! Yesterday the starting temperature was over 50° with more 50 species on the day. Today the Starting temperature was over 60° and I ended the day with a grand total of 44 species! Wait a minute. What? Well that blows my theory that as the temperature goes up, so goes the species count. Actually, today I spent a lot of time looking for one species of bird. Louisiana Waterthrush. I also spent a lot of time looking for a plant Cardamine pensylvanica, or Pennsylvania bittercress. Both should be found about this time of year. However, I failed to find either. So it goes sometimes.

I did add a new bird to my list for the preserve. As I was walking around the bed of the old farm pond I heard the distinctive call of a male Ring-necked Pheasant. I also got an email today from a friend who said that his wife had seen a male pheasant on her walk this morning. While it is always exciting to add a new species to your list for whatever you are keeping a list for, the bird of the day was a male Rusty Black Bird in the bed of the old farm pond. The last one I saw was back on 22 March and I just had the felling they were done. This bird still had rusty feathers on its back. I also added a new warbler to the year list as a Yellow-rumped Warbler was mixed in with the Palm Warblers today.

RAMPS Allium tricoccum Aiton 9 April 2013, Stroud Perserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

Besides birds, it was a good day for flowers and cold-blooded animals. I took photos of some of them, which are right and below. My first reptile of the day was a fairly sizable common gartersnake, which was on a hillside in one of the wooded areas. I bent over to take a photo and it immediately showed very strong disapproval for anything of the sort, snapping at me and making a noticeable hiss. When I backed away it turned its head down slope, straitened out its body like an arrow. A couple of pushes of its tail and it shot down the hill moving literally faster than I could run (you will not see a photo of it below). Next, frogs (I’m not exactly sure which species as they were just a little to far out for me to tell for sure, but I’m guessing bull frog) were gathered by the hundreds and were busy making more frogs at the old farm pond. Nearby a very large snapping turtle was hauled out on the vegetation sunning itself. I figured he would probably not pull a stunt like the gartersnake. So I did manage to get a picture of it (see below).  

Bull frog egg mass

Snaping turtle. carapace approximately 14" wide. 

RED MAPLE Acer rubrum L. 9 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

BOX ELDER Acer negundo L. 4 May 2012, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

BLOODROOT Sanguinaria canadensis L. 9 April 2013, Stroud Preserve, West Chester, Chester County, Pennsylvania.

As a side note, some might wonder why I’ve been going on so about the changing of the seasons. I lived in Washington State for nearly 20 years. There we have two seasons, wet season and dry season. The wet season last for 12.5 months, and the dry season last for 2.5 months (I double checked my data and those numbers appear to be correct). These seasons are not necessarily defined by temperature. In fact, the last year I was in Washington I wore the same cycling gear in January as I did in August. From January to August, 2011 I wore short pants and shirt on just five days, two of those days were in February! So, bear with me. It might take a while for me to readjust to this concept of the changing of the seasons.

Start time: 8:50

End time: 12:00

Temp: 62-74°!

Wind: 6-16 mph from the west

Skies: high clouds, mostly clear

Species Total: 44

  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 25
  • Canada Goose – approximately 12
  • Mallard – 2
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – 1 adult
  • Cooper's Hawk – 1 adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 3 adults
  • Ring-necked Pheasant – 1, heard only. FOY and my first for the preserve
  • Mourning Dove – 1, where have all the doves gone?
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – approximately 8
  • Downy Woodpecker – approximately 15
  • Northern Flicker – approximately 15, as I noted yesterday, flicker numbers are rising. They are very vocal now
  • Eastern Phoebe – approximately 5
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – approximately 10
  • Fish Crow – 2
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 50
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow – approximately 12
  • Barn Swallow – approximately 10
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 4
  • Carolina Wren – 6
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 3, heard only
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 15
  • American Robin – approximately 40
  • Northern Mockingbird – 3
  • European Starling – approximately 75
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler – 1 FOY
  • Palm Warbler – approximately 12
  • Eastern Towhee – approximately 10
  • Field Sparrow – 8, heard only
  • Savannah Sparrow – 5
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 50
  • Swamp Sparrow – 9
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 50
  • Dark-eyed Junco – 1
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 12
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 100
  • Eastern Meadowlark – 3, heard only.
  • Rusty Blackbird – 1 male, Bird of the day!
  • Common Grackle – 2
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 20
  • American Goldfinch – 5

Bicycle Botany: The Strange Vine

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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, 20 March 2013

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Not a bad day for the first day of spring. It would have been perfect if the wind did not howl at times. The best observation of the day was approximately 2500 Snow Geese flying north over the preserve. The flew over in long lines for the first 10 minutes or so after I arrived. 

I searched the field for Eastern Meadowlarks again and only came up with 4, but I did hear one calling which was a first. I also flushed two Wilson Snipe and a Rusty Blackbird. The photo above is prime Rusty Blackbird habitat. Most observations that I have made of them this spring have been along the Brandywine.

Pilewort ( Ranunculus ficaria )  13 March 2013, The Stroud Preserve, Chester County, Pennsylvania.&nbsp;

Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria) 13 March 2013, The Stroud Preserve, Chester County, Pennsylvania. 

I did spend a fair amount of time looking for flowering plants in some of the wooded areas (partly to get out of the wind!). One of the common weeds that is now blooming is and hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It is an introduced plant which is native to Europe. We have a native one called Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica). It is very similar and might be blooming now. I have never seen the native one on the preserve and still haven’t. Otherwise, the ground is exploding with Pilewort (Ranunculus ficaria) and garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).

Start time: 9:00

End time: 11:45

Temp: 34-40

Wind: 8-20 mph from the West

Skies: Mostly clear

Species Total: 39

  • Black Vulture – approximately 10
  • Turkey Vulture – approximately 20
  • Snow Goose – approximately 2500
  • Canada Goose – approximately 250
  • Common Merganser – 4
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk – 1 adult
  • Red-tailed Hawk – 5, 4 adults, 1 immature
  • Killdeer – 1, heard only
  • Wilson's Snipe – 2, flushed from the field below “No Hang Glider” Hill
  • Mourning Dove – 2
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker – 2
  • Downy Woodpecker – 2
  • Eastern Phoebe – 2
  • Blue Jay – approximately 10
  • American Crow – approximately 25
  • Fish Crow – 3
  • Tree Swallow – approximately 30
  • Carolina Chickadee – approximately 10
  • Tufted Titmouse – approximately 10
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – 2
  • Carolina Wren – 3
  • Eastern Bluebird – approximately 25
  • American Robin – approximately 150
  • Northern Mockingbird – 3
  • European Starling – approximately 100
  • Eastern Towhee – 5
  • Field Sparrow – 3, all singing
  • Savannah Sparrow – 1
  • Song Sparrow – approximately 50
  • White-throated Sparrow – approximately 50
  • Dark-eyed Junco – 4
  • Northern Cardinal – approximately 10
  • Red-winged Blackbird – approximately 100
  • Eastern Meadowlark – 4
  • Rusty Blackbird – 1
  • Common Grackle – 18
  • Brown-headed Cowbird – approximately 15
  • House Finch – 3
  • American Goldfinch – 1, heard only

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)