Monday, November 30, 2009

American Hazelnut

I thought the squirrels had eaten all of them.

Today I found a lone American hazelnut Corylus americana clinging to a twig, along with several catkins. 

I'll have to wait until spring to see the tiny flowers, which according to the UW-Green Bay herbarium web page, resemble a leaf bud - near the end of the twigs.

After some googling, I learned that the American hazelnut is a dominent (or co-dominent) shrub of the maple-basswood forests of Wisconsin.   The leaves, twigs and catkins are browsed by deer (and moose), the nuts by small mammals, Ruffed Grouse and deer, and the bark by beaver.

American hazelnut is a common understory associate of smooth sumac, chokecherry, arrowwood, dogwood, raspberry, eastern hophornbeam and shagbark hickory.

If you like your coffee flavored, the hazelnut syrup comes from the European cousin - filberts, the commercially cultivated nuts which are also used as fillers in cans of mixed nuts.

Hazelnut can reproduce sexually (the nuts) and asexually (from woody rhizomes just below the surface).  Underground roots and rhizomes can survive fire when the humus is moist.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Identity Theft

I bought a "serious" insect "sweep net" a couple of years ago.  I use it to catch butterflies and other insects so I can identify and photograph them.

I went on line and found the net I wanted at BioQuip Products, an entomology equipment supplier I found on the Entomological Society of America's website.  Everything was fine until last Friday.   The bad news came in the mail.

I almost tossed the letter without opening it.   It looked like "junk" mail.  But my curiosity got the better of me.  Good thing it did.

The letter, dated October 19 was addressed:  Dear BioQuip Customer.

Re: Compromise of Credit Card Information.

(Yikes!  And to think, I almost tossed it.)

"We are contacting you about a recent incident at BioQuip.  We have learned that our computer web server, which contains records of customer purchases, was breached by someone outside the United States, on or about September 14, 2009... as a result, the person... gained access to your name address, phone number, email address, credit card number ... and credit card expiration date...  Upon discovering the breach, BioQuip immediately implemented additional security measures..."

This happened two months ago (and probably explains all the junk emails I've been getting in Russian).

The rest of the letter explained what BioQuip is doing, and what I should do (call my card issuer and add a 90-day fraud alert to my credit files at Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - then check my credit reports regularly).

I guess I've been lucky - so far.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't eat the blue fruits, unless you're certain

I am amazed at how many trailside plants I'd missed earlier in the year.  They were there, but I just didn't notice them.

Now that most of the leaves are down, you can't miss their bright fruits.

This time of the year, most of the fruits are blue or black, with the exception of the rose hips (edible), and the white poison ivy and gray dogwood berries (both great for birds, but not for humans).

As a general rule - if you don't know for certain, don't eat wild fruits, especially the white and red.  
Poison Ivy  Toxicodendron radicans

Gray Dogwood  Cornus racemosa

Be careful with the blue fruits too.  This time of year they can be mistaken for wild grapes.   

 Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) 

The Canada Moonseed fruits really fooled me.   I thought they were grapes and popped on into my mouth, and spit it right out (they are toxic) after I realized the seed wasn't grape-like.

Under the skin of the Canada Moonseed was a single crescent-shaped seed which looks like someone took a bite out of the moon.  Thus the name.

Moonseed is classified as a drupe, a fruit with a single hard stone which encloses the seed.  Peaches, cherries, olives and coffee are edibe drupes.

Botanically speaking, the fruits of the grape are berries - with 2-6 seeds.  These fleshy fruits are formed as the entire ovary wall ripens into an edible pericarp.  Tomatoes and eggplants are also classified as "berries."  

I remember the Moonseed flowers and leaves from early summer.  The leaves resemble grapes - but they are smooth, not toothed along the margins.

The leaf attachments are different too.  Unlike most vines, the stem of the Moonseed leaf attaches on the underside.

Moonseed also has a different way of attaching to their "supports."  They climb by twining around.  Unlike grapes, they have no tendrils to help them hold on.

 Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea)

Smooth Carrion Flower is another fruit that seems to be every where these days.  One of a half-dozen or so "briers" found in Wisconsin, the fruits of the smilax are edible, but before you bite, consider its common name.  The flowers produce an unpleasant "carrion-like" odor to attract fly pollinators.

Virginia Creeper  Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia Creeper vines are easy to identify before they drop their 5 palmately compound, toothed leaves.  But now that their leaves are gone, they can be mistaken for a grape.  Be careful, creeper fruits contain oxalic acid, which can be fatal to mammals (including humans) when eaten.  Good news:  the berries taste bad, a clue to their toxicity.  If you accidentally eat one, spit it out!

Common Buckthorn  Rhamnus cathartia

Don't be tempted by Buckthorn either.  This invasive shrub that's filling the understory and crowding out our native species, is another blue-fruit-to-avoid.  The glossy, almost black fruits growing out from the leaf axils are toxic to humans.  The bitter-tasting fruits were used by early Anglo-Saxons as a laxative.   From what I've read, eating one is not likely to make you feel "better."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saturday Fog

The TV weather forecasters promised warm and sunny for Saturday, cool and cloudy Sunday, and rain for Thanksgiving week.

We got up early Saturday, and in the darkness, headed down River to get yet another dose of Tundra Swans.  I didn't expect the fog.  The River was socked in from Nelson to La Crosse and south.  According to the thermometer in my Prius, the outside temperature was just above freezing.

We could hear the cacophony of thousands of swans, ducks and geese, and the chittering of dozens of Bald Eagles.  But we only see a few birds through the fog.   Lesson learned:  check the weather before leaving the house.

The fog didn't lift until mid-afternoon.

We headed home on the Wisconsin side of the River and stopped at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma.  There were more birdwatchers than swans, one White Pelican, Mallards, Canada Geese and a very friendly muskrat at the deck.  A pair of Bald Eagles at the pond by Tell.  The highlight of our ride home was a Rough-legged Hawk hunting the newly harvested cornfields at the intersection of County Roads I and D. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Insects for Birds

I had a bucket of mealworms (larvae of the tenebrio molitar beetle) taking up space in my mud room recently.   They were leftovers from my bluebird project.  I didn't want to just toss them.  

So, I decided now is the time for my backyard birds to learn to eat them.  I'd tried before, but got no takers.

When I put the mealworms in a dish feeder with sunflower seeds, the goldfinches tossed them out to get to the black seeds.  When I put them in a dish of suet, the Downy Woodpeckers ate around them.  Then this morning, I noticed a Black-capped Chickadee tossing the oatmeal bedding and flying off with an insect.  Success!

Apparently the other birds were watching too.  I've caught the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and the White-breasted Nuthatch picking at the oatmeal and scarfing down a mealworm.

I haven't been quick enough to get my camera up and focused.  The best I'd been able to get (and I've had to sort through several blurry images) is this fanny view of the chickadee with a mealworm in its mouth.

With a little luck, I will get a beak-view soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Turkeys Eagles and Swans

A recent message on the Minnesota Ornithological Union's listserv motivated me to put my husband in the Prius and take another drive down-river.  

According to the report, the Tundra Swan count at Pool #8 overlook at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Brownsville, MN is up to a spectacular (and noisy) 12,000 birds - along with a couple of dozen White Pelicans, herons, ducks and lots of Bald Eagles.  I could hear their "chittering" calls in my head, as we headed south in the Prius.

Along the way, we caught good looks at a "rafter" of Wild Turkeys along State Road 25 near Nelson, Wisconsin.

We arrived at the swan-viewing overlook at 1pm.   The early afternoon light was perfect.  There were lines of swans as far as the eye could see.  The air was full of swan calls.  They were "woo woo wooing" up a storm.

Kudos to the  ish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers.  They've done a great job creating the viewing area infrastructure - and managing the river so that it provides a stop-over that's rich with waterfowl food.  We spent an hour enjoying the spectacle!

Bald Eagles harassed the swans, ducks and other eagles.  The swans pulled up vegetation, preened and bickered, as dozens of visitors watched and marvelled.  I practiced my duck identification skills - looking at goldeneyes, teal, Gadwalls, wigeons and pintails.

On the way back we stopped at one of several roadside apple stands in La Crescent.  I bought a dozen apples and a gallon of cider.

Bauer Market apple consultant Sue Bott, offered samples.

And yes, I ended my day by baking an apple pie - from scratch (with my favorite buttermilk crust - from the Moosewood cookbook).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grouse (and a big surprise) in the Coulees

I'll never forget the morning I spotted a Ruffed Grouse drumming.

I was on my way to a hawk banding site on the Appalachian Trail in northwestern New Jersey on a crisp, fall morning.  Although I'd never seen or heard a grouse "drumming" before, I recognized it immediately.   (Think "muffled lawnmower.")  

I looked up the path, and there he was.   A sliver of sunlight breaking through the trees spotlighted the lone male Ruffed Grouse, sitting upright on a log, chest puffed out, flapping his wings against the air.  

Late this summer, I saw another Ruffed Grouse, standing right in the middle of Dorwin's Mill Road just east of Durand, Wisconsin.   I pulled off the road immediately.  While I fumbled to get my camera, the bird calmly walked off into the woods and disappeared.

I went back to Dorwin's Mill Road late this afternoon, with my camera ready, hoping for better luck.  Nothing.   Disappointed, I decided to take the long way home, through the coulees.  (In west-central Wisconsin, a "coulee" is a valley with steep hills on either side.)

As we followed CR AA into Buffalo County, I noticed a very large bird gliding effortlessly along the ridge.  I wouldn't have stopped for a closer look had I not seen the story on WCCO-TV last night about the increasing number of Golden Eagles spotted in west-central Wisconsin the past couple of winters.

I pulled off to the side of the road and watched as several crows came out of the trees along the ridge to mob the eagle.  It wasn't until the big bird banked and turned that I thought maybe it's not just another sub-adult Bald Eagle.    I willed it to land in a tree across the valley, and pulled out my spotting scope.  No mistaking the color of its head - a Golden Eagle! 

We watched until the light was gone, then took Stai Coulee Road back to Highway 25.  I was practicing better gas mileage by not accelerating downhill (it's a Prius thing), when I spotted a dove sitting right in the middle of the road in front of us.  As we rolled closer, I realized it wasn't a dove.  It was a Ruffed Grouse!   Too dark to photograph, but not too dark to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nien Cheng

I was stunned when I saw the photo of Nien Cheng (and the obituary beneath it) on the "Milestones" page in Time magazine today.  She died on November 2.

Our paths crossed at the Miami Airport years ago.  

I was sitting at the departure gate for a flight to Washington, DC.   The airline representative announced a gate change.  I picked up my bag and followed the other passengers to the new gate.  Minutes later, a disembodied voice announced another gate change.  Everyone got up and walked over to the new gate.  Then I heard our flight number again, followed by the words:  has been cancelled due to a snowstorm in DC.

It was Sunday, October 4.  How could it be snowing in DC?

As the other passengers headed towards the ticketing area, I stayed behind to consider my options.  That's when I noticed her:  an elderly Asian woman, sitting alone in the now-empty gate area.

I recognized her, but couldn't remember why.  Then it came to me: it was a story on 60-minutes.  

I walked over and asked Nien Cheng - do you have a plan?

No.  She said she was on her way home - to Washington, DC - after doing a one-day book signing in Miami.  

I told her my plan:   I was going to try to catch a flight to NYC and then take the train to DC.  Trains run in the snow, don't they?

Nien asked, "May I travel with you?"

By 5pm, we were in the air on our way to LaGuardia.  This frail-yet-resilient 72 year old woman sat next to me, and shared her personal story of Mao's Cultural Revolution - the Red Guards, her 6.5 years in solitary confinement, the torture, the beatings and the murder of her only child, Mei Ping.

As we approached New York, the pilot gave us the weather update.   Not good news.

We were stacked up over La Guardia, waiting for the green light to land.  The snowstorm hit New York, Boston and points north.  Planes were re-routed and delayed.  Our pilot promised we would land in New York, sometime before midnight. 

He kept his word.

Then there we were, Nien Cheng and I, dressed for the tropics, walking around La Guardia airport.  Forget the train - I said.  I'll rent a car.

By the time we got to the auto rental desks, they were out of vehicles.

Desperate, I approached a well-dressed businessman who was finishing his rental paperwork.

"Where are you headed?"  I asked.


"Want company?"  I asked. 

"Sure," he said.  "But you'll have to navigate and talk to me - to keep me alert and awake."

"We can do that," I said, waving my hand at Nien.

We followed David Kennedy outside to his rental (a limo) and hopped in.  Nien shared her stories.  I navigated.

We stopped once - for hot dogs and sauerkraut in Delaware.  Five hours later, we arrived in Washington.  The snow had disappeared.  The sun was creeping up over the horizon.  

On my way to work that morning, I stopped and bought a copy of her memoir, "Life and Death in Shanghai."  

"I've always been a fighter. When I'm confronted with a difficult situation, my first reaction is not to get frightened, it's 'Oh, wonderful, here's a situation that really calls on me to do something." 

"To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle."

Zhang Jiuling
A lonely swan from the sea flies,
To alight on puddles it does not deign.
Nesting in the poplar of pearls
It spies and questions green birds twain:
"Don't you fear the threat of slings,
Perched on top of branches so high?
Nice clothes invite pointing fingers,
High climbers god's good will defy.
Bird-hunters will crave me in vain,
For I roam the limitless sky."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tundra Swans, Again

I can't seem to get enough of these birds.

They don't do much while they're here.  They swim, fly around, vocalize, eat, preen, sleep and bicker.

Yes, they bicker.

It's hard not to be anthropomorphic.  One swan swims too close, lands too close, does a "woo-woo-woo" in a tone that only a Tundra Swan might find offensive.  Then feathers fly, breasts puff out, necks stiffen, wings flap and the bickering starts.

I have no idea what the problem is, but the aggressive display is easy to recognize.  It continues until one of them backs down.  Then, as if a light is switched on - all is tranquil again.

I used to be one of those birdwatchers who delighted in spotting and identifying my quarry. Then I'd move on to the next identification challenge.

Today, I came to see white swans in Alma - again.  They're relatively easy to identify.  Three choices:  Mute, Trumpeter or Tundra.  Go to the ID book.  It's a Tundra Swan (I go by the call and by the "u" shaped border of the eye and bill on the swan's forehead - click on this link to look at Sibley's illustration). 

These days, I find myself more patient, or maybe more curious.  I spend more time watching, waiting for birds to "do" something.  

Today, we watched several groups of swans tip their white feathered fannies in the air as their their long necks disappeared under water.   Seconds later they bobbed back up, bills full of vegetation, their white feathers soiled with the black muck lining the shallows of the Buffalo River.

It was noon - lunch time for swans too.    

We stayed in the car, on the shoulder of CR II - windows down, binoculars up (the temperature was an unseasonably mild 54-degrees).  The birds ignored us.  Suddenly, hundreds of Green-winged Teal and Mallards exploded into the sky.  Only the swans and Canada Geese remained.

What spooked them? 

We looked up in the air and spotted a Bald Eagle, apparently looking for lunch too, flying low over the open water - scaring up the ducks.  Unfortunately for us (and the eagle), we did not get to see the drama of a raptor at lunch today.

We checked the view from Badland Rd and then drove up to Cedar Ridge Resort, expecting to see the backwaters empty of swans.  As I pulled on to the shoulder of the Great River Road and rolled down the car window, I heard the familiar "woo-woo-woo."  Wrong!

Thousands of swans formed a thick line along the backwaters - way across the river where the swans had been feeding last week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nelson Swans Head Down River

I got a call from Wes at Cedar Ridge Resort this afternoon. 

The Tundra Swans just outside Nelson, took off en masse this morning.  One of the guests at the Resort caught the spectacle - thousands of white birds filled the sky - woo woo wooing.

Wes missed it.  So did I.

Wes had a question for me:  why'd they go - all at once?

Cleaned the backwaters of their favorite food?  Harassed by boaters?  Just time to go? 

I could only guess.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More Swans and Warm Weather

The temperature today:  68-degrees!   The River:  full of waterfowl.  
Fifteen Tundra Swans were in front of the Rieck's Lake Park observation deck in Alma at noon.  (We haven't seen any Swan Watch volunteer guides at the deck this fall, so you're on your own.)
Over 100 swans are in the backwaters of the Buffalo River off Badland Road (County I).

Looking towards Minnesota from Cedar Ridge Resort (south of Nelson), there are close to 1,000.   The riverfront here is private property, so stop in at the Resort Offices and ask for Wes Stensland.   He'll give you access directions and permission.

A hundred or so are at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.   The Refuge Vistor Center was open Saturday until 4pm.

Easily a thousand are at Weaver Bottoms, several close to the road (US 61).

Don't miss the special event at the Brownsville (MN) swan observation area on 14 November 10am-2pm.  And, if you're a bat fan and you're in the neighborhood, don't miss the Wisconsin Bat programs at the new Myrick Hixon EcoPark in La Crosse, Saturday afternoon, November 14th.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Tiny Moth on an Unseasonably Warm Day

I spotted a very small (about an inch long) whitish insect - a flitting along the Chippewa River State Trail today.   A butterfly, or moth?

Every time it stopped, I would hurry over with my little Sony CyberShot, bend down, and ...  off it would fly again.  I was about ready to give up, when it flew down and landed on a plant.

If I could take a photo, I might be able to figure out what it is.  I snapped one photo, and off it flew.  In the camera, it looked much darker - but maybe good enough for an identification.

After I got home and downloaded it, I went to my favorite web page, The Bug Guide.  I thought I had it figured out - a dogbane saucroboyts, but I wasn't quite sure.  So I sent an email off to Phil Pelliteri at the University of Wisconsin.  He suggested a late season inchworm, a geometrid.

I went back to the bug guide, and uploaded my photo.  Charlie Eiseman responded with Bruce Spanworm.  Looks right to me.

The caterpillars of this species feed on the leaves of hardwood trees.  Sugar Maples and Aspens are among their favorites.  By the end of June they pupate on the ground and emerge as adults in October or November.  The wingless females lay their pale green eggs singly, in the crevices of tree bark.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Day - Another Gall

I noticed these little bullet-like growths on the twigs the Bur Oak earlier this year, but I my curiosity didn't get the better of me until today.  I saw them again, took a photo and vowed to figure out what they are.

I've been on a "gall" kick lately.  A little voice in the back of my head has been telling me:   Learn Your Galls!

I listened to the little voice, and took a stab at identifying it.  It was surprisingly easy.

I googled "bur oak," "twig" and "gall."  The search engine gave me 10 pages of links.  I found it at the Forestry Images webpage.  It's an oak rough bullet gall, made by a wasp known as Disholcaspis quercusmamm.   Bullet galls are found on three oaks:  the bur, overcup and swamp white oak.

The wasp lays an egg in the twig, causing the twig to grow the gall.  As the plant cells grow, the galls are green or bright red, then brown or dark red.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Crunch, Crunch: Hackberry Galls

It was the noise that drew my attention to these odd corn-shaped growths on the downed leaves along the side of the Chippewa River State Trail this afternoon.  The crunch, crunch, crunch.  I had to stop to see what the crunch was all about.

There were literally thousands of them attached to the dried up and brown leaves that littered the macadam.  What were they?  Not maple, ash, elm or cottonwood.

I looked around at the naked trees.  Only the oaks were still holding on to their leaves.  Botanists have a word for this:  marcescent (leaves that wither but don't fall off).   Definitely not an oak.  But what?

Then I noticed that tree with the odd bark.  I looked up at the branches, and there it was:  a lone, brown leaf with the dried "corns," spinning in the breeze.   A Hackberry tree.

What was the crunchy corn stuff?

I guessed it was a "gall."  I googled "Hackberry" and "leaf gall."  The internet coughed up several pages of links.   

I went to the "Rutgers - the State University of NJ - Agricultural Extension" web page and there it was:  the Hackberry Nipple Gall, one of 10 types of gall-making insects that attack Hackberry foliage.   

Curious, I went to one of the US Forest Service pages and learned that parasites of the insects that make these galls actually eat the galls after they eat the insects that originally created the galls.  The insects, called "psyllids," look like miniature cicadias (4mm or 1/8 inch).  

They emerge as adults in September, and over-winter in the cracks and crevices of tree bark.  The adults have an interesting nickname:  jumping plant lice.  They're considered a nuisance when they emerge in huge numbers.  (They get on cars, in buildings, etc.)  

I don't have any Hackberries nearby - but I know the feeling, the nuisance, annoyance, etc of  Asian ladybug beetles and box elder bugs.

Most of the Extension experts concur - if the Hackberry in your yard is "infested" with nipple galls, there's no need to spray.  These psyllids may look bad, but they do not damage trees.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alma Swans

Tundra Swans have arrived near Riecks Lake Park.

According to the message on the swan hotline, they arrived on Halloween.  But don't expect to see them from the observation deck yet. 

The first 14 swans to hit the Buffalo River wetlands are 3.7 miles east on State Rd 37 (turn left just south of Reicks Lake, then start looking for them past the dairy farm - in the Lake at Tell (before the left turn to County Road II).  They're way out there (see below - a photo of the two swans at the top of this page taken with a "normal" 50mm lens).

Every fall, fewer and fewer swans stop-over in Alma.   Ducks and geese are still using the wetlands, but if you want to see the spectacle - thousands of swans and their noise - you'll have to head down the Mississippi River.   Last week there were hundreds at Weaver Bottoms and further down the River at Pool 8 south of Brownsville (MN).  

Brownsville is the "hot spot" - where the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Geological Survey, Wisconsin and Minnesota DNRs, Minnesota Pollution control Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have been working together  to construct new islands to maintain and re-establish aquatic plant beds (swan food) and the deepwater habitat they need for resting.

If you drive down - look for the big parking area on the river side of the Great River Road (Highway 26).

When weather permits, the Fish & Wildlife Service conducts a weekly flyover of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge,  starting at Lake Pepin, then south including Pools 2-14 and Trempealeau NWR.  They post a list of what they've spotted at the Refuge website.

If you head over to the observation deck at Riecks Lake park, you will get close looks at ducks, geese and coots; but swans - not yet.  Also absent at the deck - the local volunteers who in past years have cheerfully pointed out the birds and answered questions. 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nest Box Surprise

I can't help it.

When I see a bluebird nest box along the road, I have to stop and take a look inside.  This time of year, if they're full of nesting materials, I clean them out (to make them more attractive to the birds that hang around during the winter.  Bluebirds often roost in them to get out of the cold).

When I spotted this weathered box on Great River Road near the Alma cemetery, I stopped to take a peek.  It was full of nesting materials.  Maybe there'd be a surprise inside, something with an exoskeleton or fur.  

I popped the top.

 It was packed with fur, cattail "fluff," grasses and and other plant materials.  Eight pairs of beady little eyes looked back at me.  The creatures attached to them were frozen in panic.  Four of them bounced right out of the box - making me take a step back.  Three dug deeper into the soft bedding.

The last one just sat there, cringing as I watched in awe.  Peromyscus - Mice!  I couldn't determine which species:  either white-footed or their cousins, deer mice.

Eventually, all of them took the great leap, but the last one just couldn't get his body through knot hole.  After a few minutes, he backed out and bolted from the "official" entrance in the front of the nest box.


I think mice are cute.   But, in a bluebird box, they're trouble.

In fact, according to bluebird conservationists, if mice are a in the boxes during the off season, bluebirds won't be safe during the nesting season.   So - I put on my gloves, donned my filter mask, stood up-wind and emptied out the box.  (Don't be cavalier, protect yourself when cleaning out nest boxes.  Mouse nests can be dangerous to your heath).

For more tips about fall bluebird box maintenance, go to the NABS and BRAW websites.