Pandemic Therapy: Fieldwork

                                              

My first view of the great blue heron I have observed at Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY.

Stewart Park in Ithaca, NY, has become my stomping ground during the pandemic. I go in the early morning after picking up a decaf with a splash of milk. Only a handful of regulars are there so early—one or two walkers and runners, a tennis player with a bandana who plays by himself and pulls ball after ball out of his skimpy shorts pockets like a magician, a cluster of kayakers at the boathouse, and a few people who just sit in their cars and observe Cayuga Lake, which is 38 miles long, disappear into the north. A long view is good right now. 

A favorite perch of “my” GBH at the Stewart Park “lagoon.”

Another regular is a great blue heron (sex unknown). Like many, I have always been attracted to great blue herons—their statuesque silhouettes, the intense stare of their yellow-rimmed eyes, the elegant plumes, and the lengthy stillness of their poses, which implies a fixity of purpose—an assumption that is not far wrong. They combine ganglyness and grace, the Abraham Lincoln of birds. They appear permanently immovable but can break repose lightning fast to seize prey. I decided to dedicate my walks to the great blue heron, a daily fieldwork, rain or shine, a time to meditate on the habits of a nonhuman fellow creature–a pandemic practice in schooling myself in the ways of another life form.

Two feet on the same perch!

I have been puzzling about how to refer to him or her without using “it” having recently listened to moss ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer discuss animacy, on Krista Tippett’s program On Being. Animacy is defined as “a grammatical and semantic feature, existing in some languages, expressing how sentient or alive the referent of a noun is” . Kimmerer objects to the use of “it” to refer to any sentient life form, noting that “it” is best reserved for manmade objects like a chair or a table. In the language of her ancestors, the Potawatomi, “You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane,” she writes. In searching for a pronoun other than “it” for a nonhuman living being, she learned of the Potawatomi word “Aakibmaadiziiwin” for “a being of the earth,” perhaps too long for everyday use. Here I will use GBH as a useful abbreviation. After all, RBG is used routinely for the great Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg.

Neck vertebrae of the GBH noticeable in the reflection.

The adult plumage of males and females is indistinguishable. It is difficult for even seasoned GBH watchers to determine sex. Male great blue herons are described as bigger than females but that comparison doesn’t work well when viewing a solitary individual. One fairly reliable criterion is the length from the tip of the bill (culmen) to the bit of bare skin before feathers emerge on the forehead.  This is called the culmen length. For males it is 129 to 146 mm, and for females it is 112 to 131 mm. The small overlap is considered negligible. When I learned that professional observers put a graticule or small scale in the eyepiece of a telescope to determine these lengths, I decided to give up my quest to know the gender of the individual I have been observing for four months or so. 

I am observing the photographer who is observing “my” GBH.

Like RBG in her white lace collar against the black gown, the adult GBH presents a stunning figure, having a splendid suit of feathers.  One can look up images of the flight feathers (coverts, rectrices [tail feathers], primaries, and secondaries) on an online Feather Atlas, and even observe development of the pin feathers. The final composition is extraordinary: overlapping layers of flight feathers in varying shades of slate gray-blue contrast with the delicate, white aigrette or plume feathers of the chest and the hints of reddish buff on the legs and chest.  The outfit is accented with black “epaulets,” striking shoulder patches that add a touch of officialdom. The GBH proves the adage that “clothes make the man.”

Preening the “epaulet.”

To learn more and avoid making assumptions about great blue herons, I turned to The Great Blue Heron: A Natural History and Ecology of a Seashore Sentinel by Canadian naturalist Robert W. Butler. He conducted research on Sidney Island in the Strait of Georgia off the coast of Vancouver Island near Victoria from 1986 to 1992. Although he and fellow observers mostly slept on the beach, they were able to take refuge in a small cabin on the southeast shore of Sidney Lagoon during the winter cyclones, snowstorms, heavy rains, and earthquake that occurred during this period. He writes that “Just watching the goings on is an important component of fieldwork, and living so much of the time outdoors keeps one in touch with the birds and their surroundings.” The goal of understanding daily habits and behavior is more possible through immersion in their environment. He writes, “By alternating sessions of watching with sessions of rest from dawn to dusk over a two-day period I managed to assemble a complete set of data for a typical day.” Their nighttime activities are more difficult to follow. Herons have excellent eyesight capable of 360 degree vision with little movement and are able to hunt at night because of a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors. (See Cornell’s webcam set up and the many clips from it available on youtube for how webcams have expanded our views of GBHs.)

My “fieldwork” is not conducted in wilderness, but I am fortunate that Stewart Park has its own “lagoon” and that GBHs have adapted so successfully to existence alongside humans. I have seen the GBH “calmly” hunting 30 yards or so from a dozen small children shouting and running around the park’s sprinkler fountain area. Butler also notes that fieldwork gave him time to “ponder the world’s problems.” Pondering, defined by Merriam-Webster, as “to think or consider especially quietly, soberly, and deeply” is a good word for the naturalist’s mindset when positioned outside in a state of observation aligned with natural rhythms. Balance seems more possible than when inside; fears become allayed in a natural setting, dissipating into the atmosphere.

GBHs spend a lot of time in shallow water near a shoreline.  They perch on little snaggle-tooth logs with their feet out of the water. They just stand there, motionless and inscrutable, for many minutes, no doubt assessing potential prey activity with their yellow-irised eyes or they may suddenly twist themselves into a multitude of contortions as they preen. Their industry along these lines is exhaustive and time consuming. A chain of vertebrae extending well up their long necks allows them to extend their beaks like corkscrews into the inner recesses of their copious feathers. In addition, each four-toed foot has a “pectinated toenail” or “grooming claw” that is used to spread “powder down” on sticky patches in their flight feathers. The powder forms on their breasts from the breakdown of specially designed, delicate feathers. Apparently they also use the powder down to remove slimy oils from fish, a dining nicety worthy of this elegant creature.

On the move.

If their intent is fishing, they finially stop preening, step off the perch and immerse their feet in the water, their bellies hovering just above water level to avoid inundation that would undo the work of preening. Standing motionless and still in the water, they look inanimate unless a breeze stirs the plumes. Prey in sight, they strike lightning fast and often come up with a fish, which they swallow whole if possible. After a successful swallow, they appear, to me, to take little sips of water. When wading to a different area, one foot slowly and deliberately sliding along under the water after the other, they trail ribbons of bubbles in their wake. They prefer to seize fish between their manibles, which have finely serrated edges, but some prey, like a sizeable bullfrog is more easily speared. The coiled neck can deliver a powerful strike.  

On the move, take 2.

Herons face a significant learning curve in the matter of catching their food, and they do not all achieve the same level of proficiency. They may bottom out at what biologists call a “low level of foraging competency” in fact. Butler writes that “handling slippery, wriggling fish takes a great deal of practice acquired over many months” and that larger fish need to be “subdued.” Some fish, like catfish, need to be de-spined. Catfish have spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins, which would damage the heron digestive system. A heron may take over 20 minutes repeatedly spearing a catfish until dead and then proceed to break the spines before swallowing it. One authority states that GBHs prefer to swallow their prey when dead and so will “play” with a victim to that end by tossing and spearing on a log or the shoreline. GBHs are omnivorous. They will eat anything—from turtles to dragonflies to snakes to small mammals. Butler reports in autumn and winter herons move to the old meadows of the Frazer River delta to hunt voles. How they reliably find voles, who have underground runways and move very fast, is a mystery. 

Take off!

One morning when I rounded the bend to the lagoon, I spotted a bicyclist paused a ways ahead, the headlights of her helmet flashing eerily. Her head was turned intently to the right towards the aquatic plants by the side of the lagoon. Though the heron rarely fished along that side, I figured he or she must be the source of the bicyclist’s attention. I made a wide arc so that I had a view back towards the front of the bicyclist and the edge of the lagoon that she was studying. There was the heron, struggling with a fish. He or she dropped it, picked it up, had it flopping around in its bill, dropped it again, picked it up, and so on. This went on for the next five minutes. As the bicyclist cycled past me, she said, “I’ve been watching for 10 minutes. I am in a rush. I have no more time. What’s going on? It can’t seem to swallow that fish.” She shook her head in a frustration and cycled off. The heron did swallow the fish. Observers of GBHs do need to learn patience.

The great blue heron in crouch pose.

Fairly often the skewered prey is simply too big, more of a Moby Dick than a minnow. One such story is told by Rick Marsi in his “The Great Outdoors” column, which often appears in The Ithaca Journal. The title of his column is “Sometimes blue herons can be surprising.” He describes how he watched a GBH at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the north end of Cayuga Lake catch a two-pound, 14-inch carp. The heron’s upper mandible pierces the carp’s head.  The heron easily carries it to the shallows and delivers a few blows. Marsi describes the heron’s problem this way: “It has beached the whale but cannot consume it.” A second heron who had been watching the activity discreetly from a distance (GBHs hunt alone) arrives for a look, a confrontation, or possibly a takeover. However, consultation provides unity. The carp is too big. They fly off together. There is also an amazing story documented online about a great blue heron using a seagull feather as a fishing lure.

American essayist E. B. White, famous for Charlotte’s Web, wrote a profile in The New Yorker in 1966 about American ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929), author of a lengthy three-volume tome titled Birds of New England. White writes, “When I am out of joint, from bad weather or a poor run of thoughts, I like to sit and think about Forbush.” White admires Forbush’s fortitude: “I like to think of him … on that night when he visited a heronry among the sand dunes of Sandy Neck, Barnstable: ‘The windless air was stagnant and fetid; swarms of stinging midges, deerflies, and mosquitoes attacked at will; and vicious wood-ticks, hanging from the vegetation, reached for me with their clinging claws, and crawled upon my limbs, seeking an opening to bury their heads in my flesh.’ In such uncomfortable situations, birds being near, Mr. Forbush found the purest delight.” By this standard I have not been uncomfortable enough in my “fieldwork,” but I have been delighted.

In lieu of another one of my fuzzy cell-phone images, I would like to direct you to the website of a bird photographer I follow on Twitter, @peargrin. At her website you can find a gallery of outstanding great blue heron images. When I was thinking about this post, one of her photos came to my Twitter feed showing a GBH landing, wings outstretched, reddish buff thighs exposed, huge landing-gear feet spread wide (see second row, third image from the right). I sent a screen shot to one of my sons, and he said “What a bird!” I feel fortunate to see the GBH revealed in poses that I have never encountered and probably never will. Thank you, @peargrin.

When, like White, I am having “a poor run of thoughts,” I dip into The Redstart by John Buxton. It tells the story of how he and fellow British prisoners of war in a camp in Bavaria in WWII observed four pairs of redstarts from 1941 to 1943. He writes, “who but a prisoner could attempt to watch a pair of birds in all their waking hours throughout the breeding season?” Buxton had to organize a team because observations could only be made when outside. They logged in 850 hours on just one pair. For Buxton, “one of the chief joys of watching them in prison was that they inhabited another world than I.” Undoubtedly The Redstart inspired my GBH observation project. I try to always keep the book in sight.

As I was finishing this post, one of my sons encouraged me to watch a documentary called My Octopus Teacher. It is one of the most memorable natural history films I have ever seen. The fieldwork involved was an act of devotion like no other. The human star of the film, diver and photographer Craig Foster, says he learned to be “gentle” from his teacher. What did I learn from the Stewart Park GBH? I did try to realign myself with patience as other great blue heron observers have, but I also thought about the work of fieldwork, the power of observation. Buxton writes that “however much satisfaction there may be in tying up facts in neat parcels of theory, there is yet more in the mere observation.” The GBH was there every morning doing the work of living, and I did the same. The great blue heron taught me to just be there.

Algal bloom in the former swan enclosure at Stewart Park.

p.s. Other books that offer valuable information and images about the great blue heron include: Nature’s Way by Bud Simpson and The Great Blue Heron by Hayward Allen.

Skunk cabbage: an antidote for all seasons

Winter scene: Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY, looking north.

On March 14 I joined my daughter Charlotte and four-year-old grandson Henry for a walk in Stewart Park. A chilly wind had blown most people away. The water was jade green, and the lake’s surface was ruffled with frothing white caps rapidly heading for shore. To the north there was a fairytale view of hills, in delicate shades of gray, blue, and pink, sloping down to the lake’s edge. Henry was tiptop with zest, but my daughter and I were silent with unspoken thoughts about the pandemic. 

Stewart Park’s willows.

After checking out the playground, some parts under renovation, we meandered over the bridge to the inlet and sat on a bench while Henry tested his dinosaur boots in the mud and threw pebbles and rocks of different sizes into the water, analyzing plopping sounds, so satisfying even in troubling times. Seeking shelter from the wind, we decided to head into a remnant of forest between the train tracks and the park. Though they had not leafed out, the trees offered protection and companionship. In general, though, except for startling patches of emerald green moss, the forest floor was grey brown with matted leaves. In other words, there were no signs of life, or so it appeared.

Thing One and Thing Two.

We were following the blue-blaze path, which intrigued Henry. Sometimes he could see four blazes ahead and that kept him dancing forward while brandishing sticks, etc. But, looking at my feet, I saw a raised tuft of dead leaves with a hint of something maroon poking out. Aha! Of course! It was one of the first signs of spring, often missed because so early and relatively camouflaged. A skunk cabbage “flower.” Most people know the giant green leaves of skunk cabbage, which unfurl three feel or more in height in swampy, moist places, but these leaves arise much after the flowers when the weather has truly warmed up. They are hard to miss, because the leaves are so big and green and because skunk cabbages are so social. You rarely just see one. Like people, they prefer to congregate.

A vegetable penguin?

It turned that we had completely missed all the signs of life in the forest floor. There were hundreds of emerging “flowers,” little snouts poking out of dead leaves. The skunk cabbage “flower” is a composite structure known as the spathe and spadix. The spathe is a hood with a distinctive point, either left leaning or right leaning (a feature that is genetically determined), while the spadix is a yellowish, vertical column of male and female flowers inside the spathe. The spathe shelters the spadix, which is capable of elevating the ambient temperature around the flowers by as much as 77 degrees F*, which promotes the release of volatile oils that attract pollinators. 

Mahogany with dashes of gold.

Our walk had turned into an adventure. Watching our feet carefully, we investigated tuft after tuft of raised leaves while ooh and ahhing over new features of each new spathe. In most individuals, the maroon spathe was streaked with green and brown, sometimes a hint of gold. Some were taller, and some were rounder, each twisted in a gnomic fashion, fancifully odd. Inspired by these abundant signs of life, the sense of discovery, and the fact that buried treasure emerges when we least expect it, I said good-bye in much better spirits than when I arrived. 

On the way home I remembered that Thoreau often took note of skunk cabbage in his rambles around Concord, Massachusetts, though “rambles” is absolutely the wrong word. He was a documentarian of every detail of nature’s news, with a sharper focus than any wildlife photographer. When I was 16, my parents gave me the Dover edition of his journals, 14 volumes that spanned the years 1837 to 1861, totalling 1804 pages in Dover’s 2-volume edition, every page of which displays facsimile copies of four journal pages, so approximately 7000 pages in total!  Fortunately, the Dover edition has an Index, so I was able to read every passage, 42 of them, in which he discusses skunk cabbage.

Dover’s two-volume edition of Thoreau’s Journals containing about 7000 facsimile pages.

Throughout the year, he observed the progress of skunk cabbage, from the first tip of a spathe appearing in late February/early March to the dissemination of the nutlets (seeds) in the fall. His favorite locality was Clamshell, near the mouth of Swamp Bridge Brook along the Sudbury River, now the site of the Emerson Hospital apparently. He often remarked how numb his fingers were on the mornings he took notice of their doings, but his greatest sympathies were with the skunk cabbages themselves, which he often found blackened by frost damage, their mandate having been to emerge whatever the consequences.

“Vegetable shells”

In 1852 , he asked, “What a conspicuous place Nature has assigned to the skunk-cabbage, first flower to show itself above the bare ground! What occult relation is implied between this plant and man?” (Journal III, p. 437). The appearance of the spathes is surprising—like a magic trick done by a wizard or wizardess. Only close examination and even touching proves the reality of the situation. Like us, Thoreau was intrigued by the unusual color—the color word he most often uses is “mahogany,” but he also describes the streaks in various shades of yellow and green and how the colors change over time. The shape of the spathe seemed to entrance him. He describes the shape in various ways—often as “spear-heads,” other times as “vegetable shells,” or as “a little crypt or shrine for the flower.” The sinuous curvature compelled comparisons to “cows’ horns” and “the beak of a bird.” He marvels at how much “protection” they offer and how “roomy” the chamber is. It is instructive, companionable, and fun to accompany Thoreau on his skunk cabbage rounds. 

Skunk cabbage at Cornell’s Sapsucker Woods, seen on March 17, 2020.

He also asks questions for which he has no answers, just as we did: “I find that many of the most forward spathes, etc., have been destroyed since I was here three days ago. Some animal has nibbled away a part of the spathes (or sometimes only a hole in it)—and I see the fragments scattered about—and then eaten out the whole of the spadix. Indeed, but few forward ones are left. Is this a mouse or musquash? Or a bird? The spadix is evidently a favorite titbit to some creature” (titbit is his spelling). We noticed some nibbles and wondered about which predators were afoot. Skunk cabbage are members of the Araceae family, which contains several kinds of calcium oxalate crystals that cause , when ingested, burning, swelling of the throat, and inability to speak. Carol Gracie, author of a wonderful book called Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (2012), advises against eating any part of skunk cabbage even after boiling. 

A page from the Dover edition, showing the arrangement of the facsimile pages from the original edition of Thoreau’s journals.

After years of gathering detailed observations in the field, Thoreau broadened his message on October 31, 1857. The occasion was noticing the resting buds of skunk-cabbage, already formed to spearhead their way up at the first sign of warmth in spring:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Who shall be sexton to them? Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of their skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ‘em,” “Give it to ‘em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” –these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with skunk-cabbage. Its withered leaves fall and are transfixed by a rising bud. Winter and death are ignored; the circle of life is complete. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot! I say it is good for me to be here, slumping in the mud, a trap covered with withered leaves. See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

Thoreau’s negative opinions about some aspects of human culture and society often drew criticism and still do—but no one is better than he is at encouraging us to be our best, to be “transfixed” with hope rather than its opposite. Few writers could write so beautifully about an “occult relation” between skunk cabbage and people. He earned the right to eloquence, having put himself in just such a close relationship season after season, year after year, and word after word–through close observation. 

*see Gracie, p. 157.

A buttercup-petaled snapping turtle

Snapping turtle head

Harry the snapping turtle or…is it Harriet?

The other day as I was driving on a country road outside Ithaca I saw an impressively large snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) poised on the verge, head high as if looking both ways in order to cross. A bright buttercup petal lay plastered on the weathered shell. I was smitten.

Snapping turtle with buttercup petal 2

Remembering stories of drivers running over reptiles on purpose, out of fear or cruel impulses, I parked my car by the side of the road with flashers on, got out and approached the beast to assess the responsibilities of an amateur naturalist. Even though I kept at a discreet distance the turtle quickly sensed my presence and froze. This was a good opportunity for observation.The tail had matted strands of dark-green algae entwined on the spines.

Snapping turtle algae on the tail

 

The neck had numerous folds, ornamented with warty bits called tubercles. The claws were impressive. The whole appearance suggested the muddy depths whence they come.

Snapping turtle profile

I retreated. The turtle then reversed headlong into the ditch, traveled along it at a fast clip away from me, only to emerge ready to head back across the road as originally intended. Meanwhile the owner of a house on the far side of the road  (I call him the resident hereafter) walked over to see whether there was an emergency. He said that the turtle had lived in the pond behind his house since 1989 and his family had named him Harry.

snapping turtle on the move in the ditch

Harry on the move away from me.

One does not pick up a snapping turtle without extreme care. Recently the Boston Globe ran a story titled “People keep spotting huge snapping turtles in the middle of the road. Here’s why”  warning motorists to beware snapping turtles on the move. The resident said that his wife had assisted Harry across the road with a broom on occasion. One website recommends using a shovel to lift a turtle across the road. That would have been a disaster with Harry. The resident said he had tried to pick him up once and it had the opposite result. Harry was able to lash his tail and move all four legs and snapping head so vigorously that he had to drop him immediately. I left Harry in the care of the owner of Harry’s pond.

But I began to wonder about Harry’s habits and set off on a trek through the literature of snapping turtles, the results of which lead me to think that Harriet would perhaps be a better name. It is hard to distinguish males from females without having them side by side on their backs, which is almost impossible when they are alive. Snapping turtles are reserved in the water, but pugnacious on land, despite the fact that mature individuals are almost predator free. No one wants to mess with the rough-edged jaws of a snapping turtle’s head, which has a far reach.

The top shell of a turtle is called the carapace, and the bottom shell is called the plastron. Males have modifications of the size and shape of the plastron that make the mating ritual more feasible, morphologically speaking. A wikihow article indicates that the size of the claws is a helpful indicator. I would say that Harriet is the better name from that point of view.  Like most reptiles, snapping turtles do not pair bond, and in a marvelous feat of evolutionary sleight of hand, one might say, females can store sperm from several male partners for long periods of time, even several years, before egg laying. Most accounts suggest that the majority of snapping turtles seen crossing roads are females  in search of nesting sites on land–sometimes as far as a mile from their pond of residence. When I went back to the owner of Harry’s pond to query why he chose the name Harry, he said he had no idea whether it was male or female–could snapping turtles be hermaphrodites he asked (in general the answer is no, but see below)–and proceeded to show me two places in the gravel around his car where Harry had been digging, presumably to lay eggs. Road embankments, lawns, gardens, muskrat homes–the perfect spot is a work of trial and error apparently.

snapping turtle book

Trailing around after female snapping turtles in the wild to ascertain egg-laying habits is not easy. They can move surprisingly quickly through places that are uncomfortable for humans. An account reported in 1911 by Professor J. W. P. Jenks and archived, in the words of Dallas Lore Sharp, in the book pictured above (pp. 29-30) by Harold Babcock, goes this way:

Leaving my horse unhitched, as if he, too, understood, I slipped eagerly into my covert for a look at the pond. As I did so, a large pickerel sloughed a furrow out through the spatterdocks, and in his wake rose the head of an enormous turtle. Swinging slowly around, the creature headed straight for the shore, and without a pause scrambled out on the sand.

She was about the size of a big scoop-shovel; but that was not what excited me, so much as her manner, and the gait at which she moved; for there was method in it and fixed purpose. On she came, shuffling over the sand toward the higher open fields, with a hurried, determined seesaw that was taking her somewhere in particular, and that was bound to get her there on time.

I held my breath. Had she been a dinosaurian making Mesozoic footprints, I could not have been more fearful. For footprints on the Mesozoic mud, or on the sands of time, were as nothing to me when compared with fresh turtle eggs on the sand of this pond.

But over the strip of sand, without a stop she paddled, and up a narrow cow-path into the high grass along a fence. Then up the narrow cow-path on all fours, just like another turtle, I paddled, and into the high, wet grass along the fence.

I kept well within the sound of her, for she moved recklessly, leaving a trail of flattened grass a foot and a half wide. I wanted to stand up,–and I don’t believe I could have turned her back with a rail,–but I was afraid if she saw me that she might return indefinitely to the pond; so on I went, flat to the ground, squeezing through the lower rails of the fence, as if the field beyond were a melon-patch. It was nothing of the kind, only a wild, uncomfortable pasture, full of dewberry vines, and very discouraging. They were excessively wet vines and briery. I pulled my coat-sleeves as far over my fists as I could get them, and with the tin of sand swinging from between my teeth to avoid noise, I stumped fiercely, but silently after the turtle.

She was laying her course, I thought, straight down the length of this dreadful pasture, when, not far from the fence, she suddenly hove to, warped herself short about, and came back, barely clearing me, at a clip that was thrilling. I warped about, too, and in her wake bore down across the corner of the pasture, across the powdery public road, and on to a fence along a field of young corn.

I was somewhat wet by this time, but not so wet as I had been before wallowing through the deep, dry dust of the road. Hurrying up behind a large tree by the fence, I peered down the corn-row and saw the turtle stop, and begin to paw about in the loose soft soil. She was going to lay.

I held on to the tree and watched, as she tried this place, and that place, and the other place–the eternally feminine. But the place, evidently was hard to find. What could a female turtle do with a whole field of possible nests to choose from? Then at last she found it, and whirling about, she backed quickly at it, and tail first, began to bury herself before my staring eyes.

The account ends here. I am prepared to forgive Professor J. W. P. Jenks his comment about “the eternally feminine” since he had such a difficult time with all that wallowing and warping about in briery and dusty places, but I am not prepared to forgive him if he took her eggs.  Why was he carrying a pail  of sand between his teeth?

Snapping turtle with snail

A snail grazes on the moss and plant debris adhering to the top shell (carapace). Head to left.

 

Once the laying is over, females return home, never to know their offspring or their fates, which is a good thing. There is 90% predation of the eggs and hatchlings, which are only an inch long, from many predators–crows, raccoons, snakes, foxes, the list is long. However, this high infant mortality is balanced  by the well-defended morphology and contentious attitude of the mature snapping turtle, which is an evolutionarily successful organism, adaptable to human disturbance.  Interestingly, sex determination is temperature-dependent in turtle species. Snapping turtle eggs maintained at 68 degrees F yield only female hatchlings, while those maintained at 73-75 degrees F yield only males. A mix of the sexes is produced at 70-72 degrees F. In green sea turtles the opposite is true; the higher temperature range produces females only–and intersex hatchlings can appear at intermediate temperatures!

While scientists use clinical terms like  “reproductive biology” and “the mating strategies” of organisms, nonspecialists form descriptions using casual words that apply to humans as well. It is rare to have the chance to observe snapping turtles in the act of love-making because they are nocturnal, though females search for nest sites in daylight,  and copulation is an aquatic activity. The sitio tiempo press blogger in an essay titled “Summer, snapping turtles’ mating dance, and the glory of life” writes of feeling a  “common humanity”  after observing mating turtles and a writer for the Pittsburg Post-Gazette  in a piece titled “Outdoors: Snapping turtle courtship unusual shell game” shows near reverence for the “reptilian rapture” he observes. Both writers enhanced my perception of snapping turtles and caused me to wonder about the evolutionary history of love-making. I have a book waiting to be read titled The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World–and Us by Richard O. Prum, an ornithologist. It appears the thesis focuses on the importance of beauty in pair-bonded, nonreptilian organisms. Tank-like and unfeathery, except for that buttercup petal on Harriet’s shell, snapping turtles are not beautiful, like almost all birds are, but they seem to be good lovers.

My last sight of the snapping turtle was a steady, unblinking eye peering at me through the vegetation of the ditch as she plotted a return home.

snapping turtle eye in grass

 

 

 

Watching Winter Aconite, a Spring Ephemeral

In March, here in Ithaca, NY, spring is a pop-up affair. Bright yellow winter aconite suddenly illuminate muddy earth and sludgy leaves. Spring ephemerals, winter aconite vanish as soon as they have finished their work, so it is best to watch their behavior carefully while you have the chance.

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Winter aconite remain closed on rainy, gray days.

When the sun is out, and I can’t resist being out also, there they are: golden bowls lifted off the ground on short but sturdy stalks,  embellished by a distinctive green ruff. The flowers open and close depending on temperature and light conditions.

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It’s a sunny day!

Winter aconite flowers benefit the first pollinators of spring. Each flower is a “goblet” offering sugary nectar and pollen, vital food for the first foraging bees of the season.

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A whorl of anthers sit above a whorl of funnel-shaped nectaries. Greenish  carpels (ovaries) are visible at the center, tilted to the right.

Polish researchers Krystyna Rysiak and Beata Żuraw discuss many aspects of the flowers in their study “The Biology of Flowering of Winter Aconite.” Like the hellebore, their close relative in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), winter aconite guide honey bees to their pollen and nectar through scent and the reflection of UV rays. Each flower has on average 29 stamens, which shed pollen copiously for only 2-3 days, so the bees have to watch for visiting opportunities, and 3-6 funnel-shaped nectaries, which produce on average 1.23 mg nectar per flower. The concentration of sugars in the nectar averages 72.11%.  In the 75 or so open flowers I observed on the one sunny day this week, I only noticed one bee. I went inside to get my iPhone and when I came back it was gone and did not return. It was a sunny but windy day. According to the Polish researchers, honey bees prefer sunny windless days.

Botanically, the winter aconite flower is not what it appears. The yellow “petals” are actually sepals, having become petal-like,  and the nectaries are considered modified petals. The “Elizabethan” ruff leaves are considered “stem” leaves, while “true” leaves emerge after flowering.

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The funnel-shaped nectaries are clearly visible in this photo.

Once the bees have been fed, the flowers complete their reproductive cycle, offering up seeds when mature in lacily veined  “chalices” (carpels or ovaries), to continue the goblet metaphor.

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Mature carpels (ovaries) open to release seeds. Photographer: Rüdiger Kratz (Wikimedia Commons).

Botanical illustrations often clarify the confusing relationships of floral parts seen in photographs. The floral diagram (number 7 in the image below) shows five carpels (ovaries) surrounded by many anthers (two circles end to end). The outer ring of heart-shaped symbols represents the nectaries.

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Original book source: Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
Permission granted to use under GFDL by Kurt Stueber
Source: www.biolib.de

In Lublin, Poland, the flowering period recorded during Rysiak and Żuraw’s study lasted from February 5th to March 22nd. This is a good long spell for foraging bees. Here in Ithaca I suspect the duration of flowering is much shorter, but I will have to record dates.  The researchers noted that snowfall did not injure blooming buds.

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This flower will reopen when conditions improve. [By Goranpavic (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Winter aconite has been cultivated since 1570, and its small tubers are readily available in bulb catalogues and garden centers for fall planting. They also naturalize by seed, creating cheerful, golden patches that are good for us and the bees. They are the gardener’s friend for two reasons: they repel deer and they can colonize under black walnuts, whose secretions of allelopathic chemicals deter many species from growing within their root sphere.

There is one very large patch in Ithan Valley Park (Radnor Township, Pennsylvania) that horticulturalist Carolyn of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens calls “a wonder of nature.” Carolyn writes that “There is so much yellow that I think it must be visible from outer space.” Be sure to scroll all the way down to the end of her post. The patch was originally part of an arboretum belonging to botanist John Evans (1790-1862). The biographical entry in the History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, From the Discovery of the Territory Included within its Limits to the Present Time, With A Notice of the Geology of the County AND Catalogues of its Minerals, Plants, Quadrupeds and Birds, Written under the Direction and Appointment of the Delaware County Institute of Science (1862) by George Smith, M.D., portrays a lovely man who earned his living in the milling business while pursuing horticulture and natural history as an avocation:

Being almost shut out from social intercourse, our young miller, after having attended closely to his business on week days, spent much of his time on Sundays, in rambling over the wild and romantic country that surrounded his mill–in traversing its streams and in scaling its precipices. It was in this state of isolation from civilized society that the habits and tastes of John Evans underwent a change. It was in these solitary rambles that he laid the foundation of his character in after life. Here he became a devoted lover of nature, acquired the habits of close observation, and fitted himself for the successful study of the natural sciences.

Evans  became a well-respected amateur botanist, maintaining an extensive correspondence with like-minded people in Europe, including Sir William J. Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens. In exchange for American plant material, he received European material from Sir William. Perhaps tubers of winter aconite, considered native to southern Europe and east to Asia, were included in these exchanges.  Plant hunter Joseph D. Hooker, Sir William’s son, shared seeds from his Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851. Evans was interested in local flora as well and traveled extensively in the United States on collecting trips. A devoted horticulturalist, Evans used saw dust from his mill to mulch his extensive collection of local and exotic plants and is described as dying somewhat prematurely from a “consuming disease” after too much “exposure” in his garden.

Because winter aconite are so agreeable, they get a fair bit of press. The Guardian featured the winter aconite in their  Plant of the Week column in 2017. The column offers useful horticultural advice and a lively Comment field. ‘HumptyDumpty’, the first to comment, offered this story:

The novelist Anthony Powell was once at Buckingham Palace receiving some medal or gong, and when he went into the investiture room where the Queen awaited him, gong/medal in hand, she wished him a good February morning, enquired where he lived (“in the country, your Maj, near Frome)”, and she then asked:

“Do you have aconites?”

AP, wondering what the bloody hell they were, decided they must be some unpleasant but not fatal medical condition, possibly related to piles, so answered:

“not as yet, your Majesty, although at my time of life I find a careful diet is advisable”

A careful diet should include the omission of winter aconite. Closely related to the beautiful but deadly garden plant monkshood (Aconitum sp.), they are full of cardiac glycosides. ‘Wolf’s bane’ and ‘queen of poisons’ are some of the common names for monkshood.

As I watch winter aconite responding to the vagaries of late winter-early spring weather, open and closing with the changes in temperature and sunlight, I become more attuned to changes everywhere. I also realize how much weather can influence a successful relationship for the winter aconite and the honey bee. When the weather is bad, as it has been all this week, the flowers are closed and the bees are absent. (I need to find out more about how the bee benefits the winter aconite. It seems probable that they can self-pollinate, but cross-pollination is always a good thing.)

I am happy with my small patches of winter aconite. They are close at hand where I can keep my eyes on them–right by the back door (which I use as the front door) and by the driveway where I can see them as I come home. If the flowers are open, it’s a sign to go outside. By “outside” I mean “Outside” in the John Muirean sense:

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

–John Muir (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir)

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Neerland’s Plantentuin : Afbeeldingen en beschrijvingen van sierplanten voor tuin en kamer by Oudemans, Cornelis Antoon Jan Abraham, 1825-1906; Glijm, C (Biodiversity Heritage Library)

p.s. Today, March 31, 2018, is sunny, 51degrees F, with a slight wind chill. The winter aconite have opened and the solitary bee who visited the front-of-the-house patch last Tuesday, is back. (Of course, it could be a different bee, but it seems likely the same bee has come back, as honey bees are known to be repeat visitors.) Here is a video of today’s visit.

The New Year, 2018, Begins in Vinegar Hollow

It looks like my New Year’s post from Vinegar Hollow is going to be an annual event. What new is there to say one might ask? I am different, the land is different, the weather is different–more wear and tear in general–not that these are necessarily bad things. Some wear-and-tear is simply polishing. In the hollow I never tire of looking at the trees

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View from apple orchard to old barn (center) at the Big Meadow.

 

and the hills and the play of light, and I always see new designs and colors in the landscape. The snow illuminates the hoof-marked cow trails, while Mike’s tractor, which delivers hay morning and afternoon to the

This, the old locust grove, is where the cows prefer their hay. The little barn is more visible.

 

cows, uncovers grass still green. Yesterday Mike and I had a talk about the cows’ preference for the locust grove  this time of year. He is surprised they are not out in full sun on these cold days and observes that this is their favorite spot. They are reluctant to move around when he delivers hay elsewhere, which is fine with him  because when he leaves hay near the barn, they stomp around and unplug the automatic timer to his tractor. Which is not good, because then on these cold mornings, some below zero, he can’t get the tractor started.  (The timer activates the heating of the engine oil so it is not too sludgy on a bitter cold morning.) He thinks the cows prefer the locust grove because it is their shady home place of summer.

Tractor ready to distribute hay bales for the next feeding.

Cows have memories he says. When it is time for a twice-bred cow to go into the barn to calve, he just opens the door and she heads straight into the stall she had the year before. If there is a cow in there already, there is sure to be a terrible fight. On the other hand, getting first-time mothers into the barn presents a problem. Mike has tender feelings for his cows in the winter when he is out feeding no matter the weather and his bad knee. Cows can withstand the cold if all their several stomachs are full. The gut bacteria create a literal fire in the belly. It’s freezing rain that causes Mike to tighten his lips and shake his head about the suffering of domesticated animals.

On a clear day when the sun reflects off a layer of snow, it’s hard to notice anything but a beautiful dazzle.

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Looking south to Stark’s Ridge.

Farms have a lot of fences and gates that create intersecting shadows. Because of some construction going on at the old house, there is provisional wire fencing adding to the complexity of the design above.

The fence in the center divides the orchard (very few trees left) from the orchard meadow. A few small sinkholes are visible in the ground that rises to the hillside.

On a day when the sun is wan, the colors of a winter landscape become subtle. I notice the soft brown of frozen mud, the pale russet of dried sage grass, and snow poked through with a thousand blades of grass. Tree branches are witchy, twitchy, sometimes ungainly, and always beautiful against the sky.

The side of Stark’s Ridge with tree branches against a wan sky.

I walk around the farm looking at everything, trying to understand placement of objects, natural and unnatural, how a landscape becomes what it is.

Layers of limestone that have heaved and broken apart provide dens for foxes.

 

A cattle chute with rusty chains.

Maybe I have a memory like the cow going into the stall where she has been before. Since brought home to the farm at birth, I always return, amazed at how much more there is to see and think about. When I visit Roy, my neighbor, who will be 94 on January 24 of this new year, we deconstruct  the history of the hollow, no moment or detail too small for discussion.  He lives alone with his cat Big Red, who for the first time deigned to sit in my lap before jumping, somewhat gracefully for a big cat, from the kitchen counter to a perch on top of the refrigerator. Mike checks on Roy every morning and the driver of the woman who cleans his trailer brings two apples each week for his old, long-legged donkey.

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Roy’s mailbox. The road at the upper right winds around to his home. Cow in front of the old barn seen from a distance in the first photo.

Roy only needs one meal a day now he says–two fried eggs, two pieces of toast, a rasher of sausage, and a cup of coffee. He fixes it himself even though his hands are almost curled shut with arthritis. I took him two bite-size mincemeat pies made by my English friend who makes wonderful pie crust. That’ll be dinner he said as I set them by his easy chair. The thing I puzzle about is that Roy even in midwinter, when he can’t sit outside on the top step to his trailer, seems to know what is going on in the hollow. It’s as if he is now not bounded by walls and poor vision (he lost sight in one eye as a child) because he is so attuned to the hollow. “You should see Mike’s dog running after the tractor. Down the road and back up the road these cold mornings. You should see that,” he tells me. I have seen that but I wonder when he has.

A paper wasp nest dangles from the copper beech branches in the foreground; Stark’s Ridge in the background.

On the long drive from Ithaca to Mustoe, we listened to the audio version of La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. As a frontispiece he  quotes a few lines from Irish poet Louis Macneice’s  “Snow” , a poem about how much lays before our view– how “the world is suddener than we fancy it.” The hollow has always looked “sudden” to me. Now it’s time to say good-bye again; I have had my reset for the New Year!

Outside with Henry: Looking for Pill Bugs

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This spring and early summer I have been looking for pill bugs with Henry, my 20-month old grandson, who lives in Ludlowville near Ithaca. Henry is happiest outside, looking for bugs. “Outside” was his first peremptory command.

This is the way it works with pill bug exploration. We turn over a rock and Henry squats with the intensity of a prospector looking for gold. There are always pill buggies. He carefully picks up one between thumb and forefinger. His parents have encouraged him  to be gentle with everything. He passes it to my palm—saying “pill buggy.” I watch as the pill bug unrolls and starts to roam the palm of my hand, its touch imperceptible. According to Henry’s wish, I then transfer it to an area where it can go home to do “booby.” If it is large, it is a mommy; if it is small, it is a baby. In either case, there is a need for nursing, i.e., doing booby.

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Selfie with pill buggy.

As it turns out Henry is intuitive about the family life of pill bugs. The females are “maternal” and the males “paternal.” The female carries eggs in special fluid-filled pouches. Pill bug families live in burrows, and males and females raise their young together. Cleaning the burrow is a communal activity. In time young adults move out, find mates, and establish their own burrows. Individuals can live for up to five years.

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I remember now that when I was a teaching assistant in General Biology at UT-Austin, pill bugs were used in exercises demonstrating responsiveness to stimuli. The lab technician had a cage of tarantulas next to the pill bug terrarium. He told me that tarantulas were as inoffensive as pill bugs, and tried to persuade me to let one crawl up my arm, but I resisted. Like Henry, I find pill bugs perfect companions.

Pill bugs are blue-blooded, a quality they share with their fellow crustaceans the lobsters. Lacking wax on their exoskeletons like insects, they need at least 50% humidity to survive on land. A list of 10 Fascinating Facts about Pill Bugs reminds one that small, drab-looking bugs should not be underestimated. Although called woodlice and pests, their ability to detoxify soil outweighs a little minor nibbling on plant material. Their capacity for rolling into a ball, termed conglobulation, inspires one of their other common names, roly-polies. Their Latin name, Armadillidium vulgare, references their armadillo-like appearance.

A serious recycler, Henry also has an eagle eye for cigarette butts and bottle caps, which he also routinely hands to me for better disposal than on the Earth. Now on my morning walk around the block with Belle the dog in my neck of the woods, I see pill bugs where I have never noticed them before–and cigarette butts. While they are said to be nocturnal, Henry and I have observed a lot of pill bug activity during daylight hours.

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I love watching Henry pick up pill bugs and witnessing his intuitive understanding that all living creatures belong to one family. I think he’s a naturalist. Soon Henry will be moving from Ludlowville, but fortunately there are pill bugs everywere.

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