To Brave the Cold

The sun had been up for an hour and the day was already warming. As I sat down to a steaming bowl of cinnamon oatmeal, Bernd walked into the cabin and announced that it was -24 degrees Fahrenheit outside. This made the rest of the week seem balmy, with temperatures fluctuating between -5 and 28 degrees F. Soon we would head outside for an exploratory ramble. It was just another day in Bernd Heinrich’s Winter Ecology class.

When I tell people about winter camping their reaction is often one of shock; sometimes I provoke a chorus of “That sounds terrible!” People ask these experiences with comic incredulity, but their questions give me the chance to explain why braving the cold is worth it.

  1. Winter is beautiful.

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    Photo by Bonnie Richord

The landscape sparkles with snow, the late-afternoon sun paints the hills pink, and the tree silhouettes stand twisted against the sky. After a snowfall, the world is transformed, quiet, and peaceful.

  1. Wildlife!

While many animals are sleeping or have left town, the ones that remain can be easier to see against the backdrop of snow and bare tree branches. Below, check out an owl sighting from winter ecology.

  1. You get to eat so much.

When we spend time in the cold, our metabolism cranks up. We eat more so we can produce more heat. On winter camping trips, when I’m outside 24/7, I eat twice what I normally do. Imagine eating as much butter as you want and snacking 3-12 times a day. Delicious.

  1. You can get used to the cold.

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    Photo by Bonnie Richord

While your toes might be chilled and you will always appreciate warm tea, with the right layers and by staying active, many people can be comfortable in the cold. Put on some long johns and snow-pants and you might even find yourself sweating as you walk.

  1. You earn hard-core points.

Once you’ve been outside in the negative 20’s, ten degrees feels pleasant. Any time you’re facing a challenge in another aspect of your life, you’ll be able to remember how strong and adaptable you were in the winter.

 

So, air yourself out this winter. Pack a hot thermos, some exciting snacks, and who knows, maybe you’ll see a winter wonder- a snowy owl, a golden-crowned kinglet, or some extremely fluffy chickadees.

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Photo by Shelby Perry

 

 

 

Kiss This: Mistletoe’s Higher Calling

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Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides haleus) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

GET YOURSELF UNDER SOME WILD MISTLETOE this Christmas. Your gift might be a shock-and-awe butterfly called Great Purple Hairstreak.

Mistletoe is a plant that grows on trees or shrubs. And it’s a bit of a leech, a hemiparasite, which means mistletoe draws minerals and fluids from its host. But mistletoe is also photosynthetic, generating some of its own energy demands from sunshine. Oh, by the way, there is no one mistletoe. The world has more than 1,000 mistletoe species. I’ve got one of them in a cottonwood next to my cabin here in New Mexico. Mistletoes grow flowers, have pollinators, and produce fruits like many other plants.

In Arizona this past weekend, among thousands of butterflies, I encountered a single Great Purple Hairstreak. That’s usually how we find them, sluggish and alone, about the size of your thumbnail, crawling among flowers and lapping up nectar. But the business side of this butterfly, at least when it comes to mistletoe, is the caterpillar. Great Purple Hairstreak caterpillars eat mistletoe species in the genus Phoradendron (and maybe others).

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Range map for Great Purple Hairstreak

After all, for butterflies, it’s all about the host plant – the plant on which (or near) the adults lay eggs and on which the caterpillars feed. So if you’re looking for a particular butterfly species, start by looking around its host. Great Purple Hairstreaks range across central and southern latitudes of the US, where we find a lot of that mistletoe. That’s the butterfly’s range map to the right. (Sorry, northerners.)

But this isn’t to say that we don’t have mistletoe up north. I’ve seen dwarf mistletoe (which I think is Arceuthobium pusillum) at home (where it’s rare) on black spruce in a bog in central Vermont. Dwarf mistletoe is an odd beast whose young shoots look, um, er, well … you’ll see below.

So, here you are, a few more photos: First, another Great Purple Hairstreak, which I photographed in Delaware; on this one you can see just a bit of its shocking orange abdomen. Then the mistletoe outside my cabin (where I’m wrapping up a book of essays, by the way). And finally that obscene dwarf mistletoe from Vermont.

Oh, by the way, Olivia Judson scooped me with a wonderful essay on mistletoe in Tuesday’s New York Times, although she didn’t mention Great Purple Hairstreaks.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Great Purple Hairstreak in Lewes, Delaware / © Bryan Pfeiffer

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The mistletoe out back.

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The dwarf mistletoe back home in Vermont.

Partial Migrants: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

By Sonia DeYoung

Outside my window, a robin pecks around in the rain. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the forecast calls for the rain to turn to snow tonight in my Massachusetts hometown. So why isn’t this robin right now flying south toward a warm, easy winter?

American robins are facultative partial migrants:  they decide each year whether to migrate

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

Casual birdwatchers see robins as harbingers of spring, but you can actually find them year-round throughout much of the U.S. Based on my own observations, robins seem to stick around more now than they did twenty years ago—perhaps global warming plays a role in that trend (see November 6 post). But climate change can’t explain why some robins flee wintertime and others take their chances.

[Update: The day after publishing this post, I stumbled across an article by biologist Mark Davis saying that more robins stay in the north for the winter now because of a greater winter food supply: they happily eat the berries of several increasingly common non-native species.]

Many birds, like warblers and hummingbirds, migrate annually no matter what. Others, including robins, kingfishers, and chickadees, are “partial migrants”: within a single population in a given year, some will migrate and some will not. Backyard birdwatchers who rejoice in the first robin of spring aren’t necessarily unobservant. There are fewer robins around in winter, and those that do stay often roost in bogs and swamps instead of backyards. Each year, a robin must decide based on the available food supply whether to migrate; a snowy winter landscape can never provide as much food as the same land in summer. Some robins may even leave mid-season if the conditions turns especially harsh.

They’re taking a gamble either way. Birds who reside year-round in temperate climates risk a 50-80% chance of death each winter. Migrants do a little better, with at most a 50% chance of death. But they invest a great deal of time and energy in migration that they could have put toward reproduction. Temperate residents make up for their high winter death toll with their better success raising offspring.

European robins are obligate partial migrants: genes determine which members of a population will migrate

European robins are obligate partial migrants: genes determine which members of a population will migrate

Not all partial migrants have to make this annual choice. Within a single population of European robins (not closely related to American robins), genes dictate which individuals will migrate and which will stay. With these birds, migrants are born, not made. Gene-determined migrants like European robins are called obligate partial migrants, while American robins are examples of facultative partial migrants.

Still other kinds of migrants do make a choice, but it’s a group decision. Evening grosbeaks and snowy owls, for instance, will leave their typical wintering grounds en masse if the autumn produced a poor seed crop. Then they pop up in unexpected places in what’s called an irruption: an unpredictable winter boom of birds.

The robin outside my window, though, didn’t have the advantage of consensus to decide where to spend this winter. She reminds me that animals are individuals who must make daily life decisions based on their experiences. Watching her hunched under the cover of a dripping rhododendron, I hope she made the right one.

Information gathered from The Handbook to Bird Biology published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul; and the Audubon Society and Smithsonian field guides to North American birds.

 

Give it a Shot: Staying Safe in the Woods During Rifle Season

Shelby and one of her dad's bucks sometime in the early 90's.

Shelby and one of her dad’s bucks sometime in the early 90’s.

It’s hunting season, and this year I’m working through my end-of-semester stress with a rifle.  I’ve never been a hunter before, but, as a native Vermonter, deer camp, hunter-safety orange, and the first rule of gun safety (always point your muzzle in a safe direction!) have been in my vocabulary since childhood.  As I prepare for my first rifle season as a hunter, I have been surprised to find that many of my classmates did not grow up around hunting, and haven’t really thought about what it might mean to them.  Staying safe during hunting season really boils down to three main points, and shouldn’t be intimidating or frightening.

  1. Be visible.  Wearing hunter-safety orange any and every time you go out in the woods during rifle season is a must.  A lot of people think wearing any bright color will do, but almost nothing is more visible and recognizable as human in the late fall forest than hunter-safety orange.
  2. Be respectful.  Few things are more frustrating for a hunter who has been shivering silently in a tree stand since dawn than a person or dog thrashing obliviously past.  If you think there might be a hunter already in the woods it’s best to stick to heavily traveled trails or to just avoid the area during rifle season altogether.  Less about safety and more about etiquette, respecting other legal uses of the forests you love is a condition on which your own access depends.
  3. Take it seriously.  “It won’t happen to me” is the wrong approach to safety during hunting season.  Spend 8 hours looking for deer in the woods and your brain will start to make them out of everything – tree branches are antlers, the crunching leaves under a retreating rabbit are footsteps.  I am not condoning the actions of anyone who would pull the trigger before being absolutely certain of their target, but I am saying that it is wise to set yourself up for success.    Never assume your safety is someone else’s responsibility.

I love hunting season; it is full of memories of excitement and anticipation for me.  When my dad got a deer it was a big deal, and I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement, even during my 10 years as a recalcitrant teenage vegetarian.  The deer would hang from the rafters of our garage for a time, while it was disassembled into small freezer paper packets labeled in my father’s shaky hand with strips of masking tape.  I was in rapture of these deer, their beautiful fur and antlers an endless source of fascination for my young mind.  The resulting packets were a staple of my childhood winters, when at the hands of my mother they would blossom into venison stews and chili that bubbled alluringly all day in the crockpot.

My dad hasn’t gotten a deer in quite a while now.  He hunts less than he used to, and many of his cousins and hunting buddies have moved out of state.  I’m not quite ready to let go yet though, so I’m putting down my books and picking up a rifle this year, and I’m going hunting with my dad.  No one is more excited than he.

Shelby is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  She is very much an animal lover, but reserves the right to occasionally kill and eat them.  She is also a very good shot.  

It’s Getting Hot in Here

By Maddy Morgan

Most of us have probably seen the headlines: “2014 on Track to be Hottest Year on Record,” or “Climate deniers lost for words: 2014 set for hottest year on record.” Yikes! Is it true? If so, what does this mean for us?

The story behind the headlines is based partially on information on the month of August. NASA and NOAA have both confirmed data showing that this August was the warmest August on record. Although New England’s August was relatively mild, temperatures in Central Europe, northern Africa, parts of South America, and western North America exceeded the norm. Ocean temperatures were also warmer than usual.

All this added up to a record-setting August. One month may be no big deal, until you consider that this makes August the 354th consecutive month that is above the 20th century average. And the top 10 hottest complete years on record are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2013. I’m beginning to see a trend.


If, like me, you hate hot weather and despair at the thought of these rising temperatures, take heart in the map above, which shows most of the United States falling below 20th century averages. If we get too hot we can always relocate to the midwest.

In Search of New England’s Sequoia

By Sam Talbott

Photo page 2I inherited many things from my dad: blue eyes, an affinity for two-cylinder engines, and a passion for woodworking. A set of long-handled carving tools made the journey north from Massachusetts to Vermont with me. I left behind a stout wood lathe, a former resident of the local vocational high school. Between its dark-green metal housing and the exposed 2×4’s of the garage is a well-kept pile of saw dust and wood chips.

If you were to plunge a soil auger into this pile, you’d see a resemblance to “varves” left behind by freezing and thawing cycles of glacial Lake Vermont. Large wood chips give way to fine sawdust—evidence of increasing from 60 to 400 grit sandpaper. The red layers are not redoximorphic reactions, but rather the presence of redwood, Honduran rosewood, and other species not found in the typical New England northern hardwood forests.

Photo page 1The redwood (suspected to be Sequoia sempervirens) made a clandestine trip eastward after being salvaged in the early 1980’s. Large blocks of this wood have been situated around my mom’s house, purporting an insipid appearance. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered the splendid inner grain hidden behind a weathered exterior. Using one of my dad’s bowls as a template, I attempted to turn a nine inch diameter round.

A common theme lurks among my personal ventures: I have no idea what I’m doing. Sometimes the engine starts first kick, other times it takes me 4 hours to realize the fuel switch is off. With woodworking, it is all up to the potential hidden behind layers of bark and cambium. The finished products of Redwood (and similar species) speak for themselves, regardless of form or function. Whittling down a block into two chopsticks would furnish a pair of beautifully extravagant eating utensils.

I speak highly of foreign timber, however Vermont’s forests contain an arguably greater potential than the aforementioned exotics. The gnarliest of trees can have the greatest capacity for charming grain. Burls, or stress-induced growths on trees, are a perfect example of this conjecture. Although challenging and dangerous to turn, the results are worth it. Another woodworking project is borne out of reaction wood—the formation of a hardened elbow along the bole of a tree in response to natural disturbance. These make perfect walking sticks or wooden canes with limited input from the craftsman/woman.

There are approximately 4.46 million acres of forest in Vermont, each one hiding infinite potential for bowls, spoons, and cutting boards. I urge you to go out and salvage from fallen logs and limbs, only a sharp knife and 100 grit sandpaper is required.

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Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic.

Jen O’Reilly, a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, leads the recovery effort for the Odell Lake population of bull trout, a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. The recovery team consists of US Forest Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited. In order to monitor recovery of bull trout, biologists conduct an annual juvenile count in Trapper Creek, the only known spawning location for this population.

Trapper Creek is a tributary to Odell Lake. In the shadow of Oregon’s Diamond Peak, the lake lies in a glacier-carved basin physically detached from the Deschutes River by a 5,500 year-old lava flow. The flow enclosed the lake, genetically isolating this population of bull trout.

At midnight this past July, ten of us in dry suits and thick neoprene hoodies shimmied up different reaches (Fig. 1) of Trapper Creek. Shallow in most places, the snorkel is more of a crawl and scramble than a leisurely swim upstream. Even in mid-summer Trapper Creek is icy cold.

We closely observed the nooks of each piece of in-stream wood and dove into pools where rapids converged and bubbles enveloped our sightlines. We held dive lights, counted each fish and estimated its size class. We kept our eyes peeled for the creek’s bull trout.

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Named for their broad heads, bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) serve as apex predators in aquatic systems of the West. Often called “Dolly Varden (S. malma),” they are in fact a separate species. Bull trout exist in less than half their historic range and prefer clean, cold waters. As a member of the char genus, they grow to be shark-like beasts in comparison to their trout relatives. Bull trout can measure up to 41 inches and weigh as much as 42 pounds.

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Figure 1: Trapper Creek runs north into Odell Lake. The three primary snorkeling reaches are labeled on the map (Richardson and Jacobs, 2).

The Trapper Creek bull trout population is known as the only adfluvial, non-reservoir population of bull trout in Oregon. During the 20th century, the building of railroads, construction of revetments, and removal of woody debris turned the creek into a large ditch of rushing water, unsuitable for spawning bull trout.

In 2003, this all changed. The recovery team restored the channel to increase spawning and rearing habitat by deconstructing revetments, placing woody debris and rebuilding a meandering channel. The annual snorkel count of juvenile bull trout increased from 26 in 1996 to 150 in 2005. Restoring, sustaining and monitoring native habitat is crucial to the survival of this iconic species.

If you find yourself on western waters, keep an eye out for these stream predators. Light spots of yellow, red and orange cover their dark bodies, and a white margin can be found on the leading edge of their ventral fins. And watch out, anglers: they will steal a hooked fish right off of your line.

Enjoy the video:

Bull Trout – A species at-risk from Levi Old on Vimeo.

Sources:
  • Montana Water Center. (2009). Trapper Creek. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://wildfish.montana.edu/Cases/browse_details.asp?ProjectID=36.
  • Richardson, Shannon and Jacobs, Steve. (2010). Progress Reports. Retrieved on October 16, 2014, from http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ODFW/NativeFish/pdf_files/Odell_BT_Report_final.pdf.

Doing the Runway Strut: Fall 2014

By Ben Lemmond

Not unlike humans, fall fashion is a major event in the fungi kingdom. The theme this fall is retro-seventies blend of yellow, red, tan, and faded orange. Here are some of the superstars I’ve spotted out and about this week. Also, watch the instructional video below on lending a helping hand (or stick) to a puffball in need.

Inside Studying the Outside

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By Kathryn Wrigley

Colors burst forth from the trees.  It is fall.  Or so my Instagram feed, chocked full of apple cider donuts and flaming red trees, portends.

I am soaking in the beige and pale yellow of my desk in the University of Vermont’s Aiken building.  The first-year Field Naturalists appear sporadically to study, still in the midst of their first-semester field courses.  I’m square in the mid-semester of my second year.

My field work from the summer seems like a dream as plot data fills in the squares of Excel spreadsheets – the ostensibly dull side of the field ecologist’s life.  Yet I gain a certain excitement from all the numbers. I’m a detective, a quantifying detective.  I see patterns on the landscape during the summer.  Will they emerge from my data?  Will I find an unexpected pattern?

Since I do not have the brisk fall air to keep me alert and awake, coffee and classical music fuel me.  Oddly enough, this inside work is why I am here at school.  At age 15, I swore to myself I would never work inside.  I worked outside for the next 15 years.  During my time in recreation management, I wondered about the ecological aspects of low-impact recreation.  What were the effects of backcountry rock quarries?  What were the impacts of mountain bike trails?  Were rock climbers threatening rare plants?

For my masters project I delve into low-impact recreation as I explore whether glading, clearing in the trees where skiers can make multiple linked turns, has an effect on wildlife habitat suitability.  I am inside, studying the outside.  Working for all those years outside led me to realize that humans and landscapes cannot be managed separately.  In the spring, I hope to leave this beige and yellow world to work for an organization that focuses on the importance of the ecological and social aspects of conservation.