Thursday, August 27, 2009

Visiting Roadside Ditches

There's something to be said about visiting roadside ditches. These microhabitats can surprise you with what they hold.

For instance, one day last year I discovered Smaller Purple Fringed Orchids (Habenaria psycodes) blooming in the ditch next to the rescue squad. This year they were back.

This summer a friend told me to keep watch for Spiranthes , another orchid, in the same location, for they both like similar conditions. And lo! and behold, there they were: Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).

I decided to see what else might be blooming there, and was shocked and surprised to find a lone White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra).

A small dragonfly (a White-faced Meadowhawk, Sympetrum obtrusum) flitted about as well, keeping me company and graciously posing for a picture.

As an added bonus, you can help the ditch by picking up the trash which is also a frequent find.

Selecting a roadside ditch to explore is fairly easy, the only requirements I would make would be ease of access and, of course, safety. I think I'd avoid ditches along the Northway, but any ditch on a side road, or even along your street, might prove to contain all sorts of hidden treasures. Dress appropriately (long pants and boots, the latter preferably water-proof), bring a couple field guides, a hand lens, and a camera. Then carefully stalk your way through the vegetation, looking for the small things that usually escape our notice. Who might just find some rare and endangered specimen!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Bats in Free Fall"

The title to this post, borrowed from an article in the current (September-October) issue of the Adirondack Explorer, reflects the fact that some of the heretofore commonest species of bats are in catastrophic decline in the Northeast. As reported recently by NCPR's Brian Mann who spoke with DEC biologist and bat guru Al Hicks at the annual meeting of the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Adirondack Land Trust, the decline of bats is accelerating in the Northeast and is rapidly spreading south and west. At the largest counted hibernaculum of Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) in the world, an abandoned graphite mine protected by The Nature Conservancy near Lake George, only 3,000 or so Little Brown Bats remain out of an estimated wintering population of over 200,000 bats.

Our home in Lake Placid has hosted a summer colony of Little Brown Bats for many years and as recently as three summers ago we counted over 200 bats leaving their roosts (under the eaves and in two bat houses) in the late evening. This summer we have not seen more then 2 bats emerge, a 99% decline similar to that reported by Al for the graphite mine hibernaculum. (Anyone who has data on the numbers of bats roosting in their home or other buildings is urged to report their data to the US Fish & Wildlife Service's office in Concord, NH.)

The most likely culprit appears to be a white fungus, recently described and aptly named Geomyces destructans, which appears on the nose, ears, and wing and tail membranes of infected bats. The fungus causes swelling and scaring and may cause the bats to arouse prematurely (and fatally) from hibernation and attempt to forage for food long before food is available and in freezing temperatures to which bats are not adapted. There is speculation that the fungus was brought here from Europe where bats infected with the same or a similar fungus exist in much lower numbers and density compared to bats in North America.

After its initial detection in the Albany area just three years ago, white-nose syndrome has appeared in bats from Maine to southwestern Virginia. Bats routinely travel long distances and there appears to be no way to stop or even slow the spread of this bat-killing pathogen, although scientists are desperately trying to do so. Bats play critical ecological roles in insect control, plant pollination, and seed dissemination. The potential catastrophic decline of North American bat populations would have serious ecological consequences, and the possible loss of entire species would be irreparable.

For an exerpt of Brian Mann's interview with Al Hicks, part of NCPR's continuing coverage of this unfolding tragedy, see Also see The US Fish and Wildlife Service white-nose syndrome web site at

Caterpillar look-alike

I noticed recently that several of the dogwoods (Cornus sp.) in our Lake Placid yard had become almost completely defoliated in the past two weeks.
Close examination revealed many caterpillar-like larvae curled up on the undersides of some of the remaining leaves.
These are the larvae of the native Dogwood Sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus). The Dogwood Sawfly is neither a moth nor a fly, but a member of the order Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, ants, and sawflies). The wasp-like adult sawfly lays eggs that hatch into larvae, the first instar of which is an almost translucent yellow.
The second instar appears to be covered with a chalky powder.
The last instar is creamy yellow with a shiny black head and black spots along the sides.When fully grown, the larvae cease to feed and overwinter in rotting wood in the ground. The larvae pupate in the spring and the adults emerge in the summer to mate and lay eggs on the undersides of dogwood leaves.

Despite the loss of leaves, defoliated dogwood bushes don't die as the defoliation occurs so late in the growing season. However, not wanting to lose the leaves on our remaining three ornamental dogwoods, I lightly sprayed the larvae on them with an insect killing soap (organic solution of seaweed extract containing potassium salts). ;(

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Field Naturalists go exploring

Today, under the parting of heavy clouds that revealed a few hints of blue sky, the Adirondack Field Naturalists group met for a perfectly sublime paddling trip along Hoel Pond and on to the connecting ponds known as Turtle and Slang. From a near placid Hoel Pond we observed a common loon with young. As we entered into Turtle Pond the echoing of another pair of common loon calling out a warning seemed to bounce off the towering white pines. We regrouped and began a "botany paddle" along the pond's shoreline. Species such as Pitcher pant, sundew, marsh skullcap, pipewort, a couple species of bur-reed(Sparganium), Northern bugleweed(Lycopus uniflorus), and several other aquatic plants grab our attention as we lazily paddled along.

This Purple bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea) caught my eye just before we entered into the the shallow channel that connects us into Slang Pond:

After a quick nibble of food one of the crew spots a Double-crested cormorant(immature) hanging out on the shore...watching the canoe traffic go by.
With a cooling breeze blowing down from the north and darkening skies we reverse our course and head back to the cars. But right, you guessed it...the rain caught us in mid-paddle. Fortunately we could rest and find shelter inside the concrete "tunnel" spillway that connects Hoel Pond to Turtle Pond. After a few minutes wait we venture back out and the gods shine down on us and temporarily clear the skies.
8 participants...still drying out...all are now recounting the few great hours we spent together birding, botanizing, dodging the rain, and learning more about what's out in these Adirondack wilds.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A new way to birdwatch(or listen)

So, with the advent of field guides we turned our attention to the finer points of bird identification. Focusing on wingbars, eyelines, eye rings, belly bands,...etc. Many decades later we turn to the computer for assistance. Now with technology at an all-time high we look and listen night!

Across North America (and our glorious Adirondacks) birders this fall are training(and straining!) their ears to pick out the softest and highest of bird call notes that are given while birds are in full migration flying overhead...somewhere around 11PM to the early morning hours (4-6AM) the next day. Yes..correct...many birds migrate south at night(less bad weather, no predators to eat them, and hopefully good north winds to push them southward). We listen for "zips", "tsips", and "seets"!
I recently found a chat group:
that discusses the finer details of Nocturnal Flight Calls. They've taken birding to another whole different level of bird identification. Many will listen and call out bird names based on these flight calls(warblers, sparrows, finches,...etc), because they all give out a different sound. Some "nocturnalists" even have recording equipment that is pointed directly skyward to pick up the flight calls and then they analyze the calls on computers to identify the species...amazing!
Here in our Adirondack backyards we can hear the same calls. Just before bedtime head outside some clear, cool night or for the early risers...crack-o-dawn, and listen for those gentle buzzes, seeps, and tsips. No doubt you'll be hearing thrushes, warblers, sparrows, sandpipers...and the occasional snore from the neighbors, all winging their way south through the clear star-filled autumnal sky....except your neighbor.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Name that bug!

What has six legs, a blue body with a yellow band, and likes to climb Adirondack slides?

I don't know either.

Susan Bibeau took the photo of the insect on the right while climbing the slide on Kilburn Mountain in the Sentinel Range a few weeks ago. Ever since, we've been wondering what it is.

Anybody have any ideas?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The first stage of bird migration

The human calendar recently turned over to one last month of summer but the "calendar" that most birds follow is telling them something different. Although our Adirondack summer has been soggy at best we're now enjoying a warmer and drier August. The birds filtering through the Adirondack woodlands these days are sensing another need. Last night I heard a distant series of call notes from a shorebird(sandpiper-like birds) and many warblers passing overhead on a southward journey.
It's migration time for birds.
There are stirrings, feelings of necessity in the bird world. After a recent gentle rain I found the feeding activity had cranked up a notch in the surrounding trees where I live. Young birds are practicing their feeding skills on whatever caterpillar, moth, or spider they can find on the leaves. The adult birds are fending for themselves. This morning the bustling birds are still in a feeding frenzy.
All this to fatten-up!
The summer birds of the Adirondacks are just that...summer residents breeding in our forests, wetlands, and fields. Our plans to escape a winter involve the dependence on technology and money. Birds require the physical abilities that they've mastered for million of years....flight. But to fuel this flight fat is important. So over the next two months keep an eye out for the feverishly feeding warblers, sparrows, finches, and all the other migratory birds that are passing through the Adirondacks on the first stage of their "migratory tour de force".
-Brian McAllister

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Blog

Our intent in starting this blog is to communicate, through words and photographs, current and upcoming natural history and astronomical events and sightings that come to our attention and interest. We intend to complement and not duplicate other natural history outlets such as Northern NY Birds ( and Adirondack Almanac ( This blog will mostly feature events and sightings applicable to the northern Adirondacks.