New Life Storms into the Forest

by Liz Brownlee

The roots stretch high into the sky – ten feet, maybe fifteen.  Soil hangs midair, clinging to the roots. A tiny white pine sits in the depression, reaches for the warm, gaping hole in the forest canopy.

The red maple once towered ninety feet tall, spreading its arms wide into the canopy.  Screech owls made their home in the tree.  Woodpeckers searched for dinner.  Black Rat Snakes lounged in its branches.

Its leaves were the first to turn each Fall, and their brilliant red told of cool nights to come. Its seeds – little helicopters – spun down on the Spring breeze.

Now that giant lies on the ground, another victim of Hurricane Irene’s powerful winds. This forest, at Mud Pond Conservation Area in Williston, is littered with downed trees, thrown on top of each other like so many pick-up sticks.

Downed trees could seem like a tragedy to a passerby.  But the white pine seedling, small as it may be, knows a more complete story:  falling trees create new life in Vermont’s mature forests.

Forests of tall, old trees are cool, dark, moist places.  The leaves from full-grown trees absorb almost every bit of sunlight before it can reach the ground.  Seedlings starve for warmth and light.  They cannot grow, and they can wait years – even decades – for a tree to fall.

A storm, then, allows new life.  Wind is the most common way Vermont trees come toppling to the forest floor. The downed red maple is a “wind-throw,” because it fell in a powerful storm.

The suddenly sunny forest floor is a very happening place.  White pine and birch seedlings shoot up practically overnight.  Deer munch on young plants. Fungi break down the tree’s trunk, and worms, beetles, and salamanders move in.

The forest could not grow anew without downed trees.  Just ask the white pine seedling.

 

For hiking in Mud Pond, and other locations in the Town of Williston:  http://town.williston.vt.us/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7BE8A7EC77-4332-4BA8-BBEF-6B1AB2B4F06C%7D&DE=%7BCF447A7E-7514-4078-9910-933255CB6967%7D

 

Natural Destinations: Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge

By Danielle Owczarski

A view of Lewis Pond and the Nulhegan River Basin during October foliage.

Far from Burlington, hidden in the low basin of the Nulhegan River in the Northeast Kingdom, awaits a little known National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The 26,000 acres of refugium established in 1999 encompasses three headwater tributaries to the Nulhegan River, itself a tributary to the 7.2 million acre Connecticut River watershed. Protection of this basin is critical to the health of many species of plants and wildlife and to the water quality of the Connecticut River. The Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge was created to protect these valued natural resources.

The North Branch of the Nulhegan River.

Now is the best time to visit the quiet boreal and northern hardwood landscape. Red and sugar maple, balsam fir, tamarack, yellow birch, and beech color the landscape in the fall months, nourishing the soul’s need for creative inspiration. Lewis Pond, the Nulhegan River trail, and Mollie Beattie Bog (named after UVM Alumni and first women director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife), are a few of the Tolkienesque attractions within the refuge. Start your tour at the exemplary Visitor’s Center in Brunswick, VT, to collect trail maps and wildlife viewing guides and explore the interactive interpretive exhibits.

Mollie Beattie Bog, a black spruce woodland bog, is a significant natural community in Vermont. The interpretive trail includes a handicap accessible boardwalk.

The headwaters of the Nulhegan offer a tranquil and wild setting for fly fishermen and women. The Black Branch and North Branch, along with Lewis Pond, comprise healthy brook trout populations, which are periodically stocked by the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. The most recent stocking in the Black Branch on June 20, 2011, included 100 eight-inch yearling brook trout. Studies conducted in 2000 indicate that self-sustaining wild brook trout populations exist within the cool clear tannic waters of the refuge streams. The ideal habitat supports healthy macroinvertebrate populations that provide nourishment for the trout throughout the year.

A wild brook trout caught in the Nulhegan River.

The refuge also supports scientific research studies. While driving or hiking along the refuge roads, lined and filled with gravel and dirt, you’ll come across plots of young low grasses and shrubs, managed to encourage breeding and nesting of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). The area is also home to such projects as the Migratory Bird Stopover Habitat Study, the Canada Warbler Study at the Nulhegan Basin Division, Effects of Habitat Fragmentation on Carnivore Distribution and Fitness Indicators in Vermont Forests, and the Study of Public Use on the Nulhegan Basin Division.

Be sure to enjoy the ride.

This land is truly a place for anyone with a passion for the outdoors whether hiking, bird watching, hunting, fishing, observing, or renewing. So turn off the computer, grab a friend, and immerse yourself in Nature.

For directions to and in-depth information about the Silvio O. Conte NFWR:

http://www.fws.gov/r5soc/come_visit/nulhegan_basin_division.html

A Conversation with Norman Myers

by Liz Brownlee

UVM Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning (FNEP) students sat down with Dr. Norman Myers this week for a casual conversation.  He is on campus this week for multiple talks, including a “Gund Institute Tea” this Friday. 

 We bantered back and forth about biodiversity, social engagement, and the future of the planet.  Dr. Myers is quite the personality – his answers are full of stories and anecdotes, and he loves challenging the audience with some questions of his own.  Below are some of the questions from our conversation.

 Dr. Myers revolutionized conservation some thirty years ago when he introduced the idea of “biological hotspots,” which concentrates efforts on small areas of the planet that host a huge array of native species. Dr. Myers is also a UVM Marsh Professor-at-large.  Meet this environmental mover and shaker this Friday and ask questions of your own this Friday, Oct. 7, at the Gund Institute’s weekly “Gund Tea” in Room 133 of the GreenHouse Residential Learning Community.

 

FNEP: Why do we care about the diversity of life on earth (biodiversity)?

Myers: The one most important thing in the world is biodiversity and mass extinction.  How do I demonstrate that?  In 1958 I went to Kenya (as a photographer).  Within minutes of stepping off the plane I was in a preserve, staring at a lion’s tonsils, looking a giraffe in the eye.  There was the giraffe, doing its own thing in its own world.  I say to hell with everything else.  There was a rightness about it.  I’m shocked and appalled that we’re still letting these species disappear.

In the 1980’s science thought we were losing one species per year.  I found that we’re actually losing one species per day. The worse news is that the rate of extinction is to increase soon. It’s because we are not only destroying species’ habitats, but also evolution’s ability to create and adapt.

If I had a million dollars to devote to research, I wouldn’t put it to counting daisies. I’d put it to figuring out why we’re letting this holocaust continue.

 

FNEP: Where are the leverage points?  Where are the places we can put a concentrated effort and make large amounts of progress?

Myers: It’s biodiversity hot spots.  These are the best places for our funds. Some conservationists say it’s performing triage, but the reality is we’ve been performing triage for fifty years.  In the 1980’s we spent $17 million to save the California condor – it’s great that we saved the bird – but at that same time we could have addressed mollusks in the Mississippi River and saved 200 species.  Investing funds in one species automatically keeps money from other ecosystems and species [in other places].  So we need to address priorities for ecosystems and for evolution.

 

FNEP: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Myers: Your question is, “Why do I stick with this game?” I could have made more money selling used cars. But isn’t it exciting to be the generation that faces this thing and wins? It’s exciting to be alive for such a cataclysmic problem, and know that I’m trying to stop it. It’s empowering to know I can [help stop it].

Listen, I have an advantage over you lot.  When I was a little boy and the War was on, I used to listen to Churchill every night. The US and England were hiding, and Hitler was winning at every turn.  Churchill came on the air and said, “No! We can do it.  We can change this. We can win.” And he knew he was speaking rubbish.  But he kept talking and we did win.

 

FNEP: The difference between the War and mass extinction is that we had a common evil to oppose.  Today, not everyone agrees it’s a priority: we want to save a bird but we also don’t want to see kids starve.

Myers: But sometimes one problem’s solution can solve others, too.

And who would have thought that in 1950 that Americans would stop smoking, that the Berlin Wall would fall, that Apartheid would end?

 

FNEP: Those efforts are characterized by social pressure, good leadership, and subsets of people who cared deeply.  They knew what the world looked like without their problem, they could aim towards it. How do we do that with biodiversity and conservation?

Myers: Do you know the story of Henry V from Shakespeare?  The English are backed into a corner by the French, they are outnumbered ten to one.  Henry spoke to the troops: “If you don’t want to stand together, shoulder to shoulder and fight them, here’s money – leave.”  By the next morning, there were twice as many fighters.

 

FNEP: One major issue with saving biodiversity is the shear number of people on the planet.  But how do you begin a conversation about fewer people and less consumption when it’s every species’ imperative to reproduce and prosper?

Myers: I’m encouraged by a conversation I heard about (because it means the conversation is happening). It happed at the Vatican.  Someone pointed out that the edict of “Go forth and multiply” was issued when the Earth’s population was two.  He pointed out that the smallest families on Earth are in Italy.  And the smallest family size in Italy occurs in Rome.  And the smallest family size in Rome is…well, you get the idea.

Canada mayflower – more than meets the eye

By Nancy Olmstead

What is an individual plant?  It’s pretty clear when you are looking at an individual squirrel, or an individual blue jay: it starts at the tail and ends at the head.  The question gets harder to answer when you look at some kinds of plants, including many of our New England forest wildflowers.  Scientists who study forest plants need to be able to tell one individual from another.  If they can’t, their studies might accidentally be made up of many samples of the same few organisms, which would bias the results toward organisms that were sampled multiple times.  One example of an understory plant that presents this challenge is Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense).

This cute little plant can be found from the arctic to the Atlantic in a broad swath across northern North America, through the upper midwest and the iron belt states, and down the Appalachian mountains to northern Georgia.  When you’re walking in an upland New England forest during the late spring, summer, or early fall, keep an eye turned toward the understory.  You are likely to see a Canada mayflower plant.  You might see areas where many Canada mayflower plants grow in a loose patch close to the ground.  Some of the plants are just a single, teardrop-shaped leaf growing about four inches above the ground, while other plants have two or three leaves.  From late May to late June, you’ll see a crown of 10-30 tiny, white flowers on the plants with multiple leaves.  Some of the flowers will turn into reddish, round fruits by summer’s end.

If you gently dig up the base of one of these plants, you’ll find a slender root (or two) that runs horizontally into the soil.  If you keep digging carefully, you may be able to follow that slender root right over to a neighboring “plant.”  And you could go on to the next “plant,” and maybe to the next, and so on.  Eventually, some root connections break down, but they are all the same plant.  Canada mayflower has a clonal growth habit – it uses roots like other plants use twigs, to spread out leaves and capture more light.  Some clones cover more than 20 square feet; old ones can reach 30-60 years of age.

So what is an individual, and does it matter?  Maybe it doesn’t matter to a hiker just admiring the flowers.  But for a scientist trying to study plant responses to the environment, it matters a great deal.  If we want to understand how plants are reacting to acid rain, or dealing with a changing climate, we have to know where a plant begins and ends.  Our questions require us to take independent samples.  With molecular techniques, researchers can test individual stems to determine genetic identity.  But it’s expensive and time-consuming.  Our understanding of these beautiful wildflowers will therefore be limited until we discover an easy way to tell who’s who.

The Fall Migration of Raptors

By Emily Brodsky

Just about when the leaf peepers begin flocking to the roadways to observe Vermont’s spectacular autumn foliage, an equally-enthusiastic set of nature lovers is trekking up the peaks to watch a different seasonal event: the fall migration of raptors.  Also known as “birds of prey,” this majestic group includes the eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, ospreys, and the less-familiar but no-less-impressive group called the harriers, of which North America has only one (the beautiful Northern Harrier).   Perched on a mountain outcropping, one can predictably see large numbers of these birds as they make their way to southern climes.

Whether you’re a veteran bird-watcher or a novice, raptor-watching (usually referred to as “hawk-watching,” even though other types of raptors are included) is a great way to spend an autumn afternoon.  One of its draws is that the birds are highly visible.  Unlike the diminutive songbirds, which hop around incessantly and hide in dense shrubs, raptors are large, steady, and during migration, exposed.  Also, because each group of raptors flies differently and has a distinctive shape, these birds are easy to tell apart.  The peregrine falcon, for example, has long, pointed wings, which it flaps continuously for its fast, powered flight.  In contrast, the bald eagle rarely flaps and its broad, sturdy wings make it look like a flying plank.  At the popular hawk-watching sites, you’re likely to find fellow observers on the summit to help you with identification; learn the shapes and flight patterns of the major groups and you’ll be a hawk-watching maven in no time.

 

So when and where is a Vermonter to begin?  The peak of fall raptor migration is from mid-September to early November; try going at different times of the season to see different species.   The most popular hawk-watching sites in Vermont are Mount Philo, 15 miles south of Burlington, and Putney Mountain in the southeast corner of the state.  Snake Mountain in Addison and Mount Ascutney in Windsor are also decent spots, as are Coon Mountain, just beyond the ferry terminal in Essex, New York, and Mount Tom in Massachusetts, straight down the Connecticut River from Brattleboro.

In addition to being a popular place for recreational hawk-watching, Putney Mountain is also an official migration monitoring site.  Because raptor migration is predictable and easy to watch, people have been counting migrating raptors and recording their numbers since 1934, when the first official count site was established at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania.  Since then, numerous similar counts have been established all over the globe, from the Panama Canal to the Strait of Gibraltar.  The long-term migration data collected at these sites allow scientists to monitor raptor populations; numbers vary greatly from year to year, but over long periods of time, scientists can identify trends.  The decline in juvenile Bald Eagles migrating past Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the 1970s alerted Rachel Carson to the threat of DDT to these important predators, and she wrote about this trend in Silent Spring, the influential book which led to the ban of that harmful pesticide.  Visit the Putney Mountain Hawk Watch just for fun, or participate in the count to play a role in history.

You may be wondering why people hike up mountains to watch raptors migrate, instead of just observing from their driveways.  Do mountains simply afford better views of the sky?  The answer is that raptors concentrate along specific routes during the fall migration, and just as you’re more likely to find lots of cars on I-89 than on a dirt road in the sticks, you’re much more likely to see large numbers of raptors along these migration flyways.  Flyways tend to stick to mountain chains, because these topographic features allow for easy flight.

Source: http://donsnotes.com/nyc-nj/hawk-watch.html

As you can probably imagine, migration is exhausting.  When we humans are exhausted, we can take a nap and recharge; to a raptor, exhaustion usually means death.  Some raptors, such as Broad-winged Hawks, fly as many as 4,500 miles in about nine weeks to reach their wintering grounds.  To make it that far, they must do whatever they can to save energy along the way.  Lucky for raptors, there are some great energy-saving tricks.

When winds blow against a barrier such as a mountain, they’re forced upwards.  During migration, raptors fly along the sides of mountain ridges to take advantage of this upward push of air, called an updraft.  Instead of flapping their wings to generate lift, raptors can simply spread their wings wide and ride the updrafts like a surfer rides a wave.  Updrafts can carry raptors hundreds of miles along a continuous mountain chain like the Appalachians, which conveniently runs from north to south.  Not only does this strategy save migrating raptors an enormous amount of energy; it also makes for a great show, since updrafts carry the birds right past the slopes.

Source: http://www.loudounwildlife.org/HHHawksInAir.htm

Updrafts are helpful when the wind blows.  Early in the fall, however, when the sun is still high and the air is calm, raptors rely more heavily on another phenomenon of physics. You’ve probably seen hawks or vultures flying in circles, high in the sky with their wings outstretched.  These birds are using a trick called soaring flight.  As you know, the surface of the Earth is quite variable; some spots are covered with rocks, some with woodlands, and some with houses and streets.  When solar radiation hits these surfaces, they each heat up at a different rate, and thus, the air just above the ground heats up unevenly.  In spots where the ground is warm, the air rises, forming columns called thermal air currents (or thermals, for short).  Raptors find these thermals, and spiral upward without having to flap their wings.  When they get nice and high in one thermal, they exit and glide toward another (losing altitude but gaining distance), and they rise up again.  In this way, they can travel long distances without expending much energy.  Mountain slopes heat up faster than the valleys below them, which means they’re good places for thermals; thus, raptors stick to the mountains even on calm days.

Mountains aren’t the only places in which to spot large numbers of migrating raptors; these birds tend to follow shorelines as well.  Thermals don’t form above water bodies like they do over land, because water releases heat slowly and evenly.  Without thermals or updrafts, raptors must use flapping flight – the most costly kind of flight.  For migrating raptors, flapping across a large expanse of water is risky business: if they run out of energy, they drown.  Consequently, most raptors avoid flying over large water bodies, and when they reach one along a flyway, they hug the coast – or, if they must cross, they find the shortest crossing.  Short crossings and narrow strips of land between water bodies act as concentration points, or bottlenecks, funneling thousands of raptors over the land as they avoid the surrounding water.  Examples are the south-facing peninsula of Cape May, New Jersey, the narrow crossing from Europe to Africa across the Strait of Gibraltar, and the thin strip of coastal plain at Veracruz, Mexico.

Migration behavior varies among species.  Broad-winged hawks, for example, depart for their approximately 4,500 mile trek to northern South America in early September when the thermals are strong.  Aptly named, Broad-winged Hawks are built for soaring flight.  Although Broad-winged Hawks are solitary for most of the year, they flock during migration.  Scientists believe flocking helps the birds to find the best thermals, although it could serve other purposes as well, such as protection; even most raptors have to worry about predators.  Broad-winged Hawks are one of the main attractions at raptor watch sites, since it’s possible to see hundreds or even thousands of them soaring together.

Unlike Broad-winged Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks are mediocre long-distance flyers.  These birds have stubby wings and long, rudder-like tails; they’re built for maneuvering among the branches in their forested habitats.  Cooper’s Hawks don’t generally migrate very far, and some don’t migrate at all.  Those individuals that do migrate tend to do so later in the season than Broad-winged Hawks, departing in October and November, and dropping off along the way as they find suitable wintering grounds.  They rely heavily on updrafts to save energy during the trip, and are easy to spot on north-facing ridges.

You may ask: why do the birds go to all this trouble, anyway?  Or, better yet: if they don’t like the cold, why don’t they just stay in the south, where the weather is toasty-warm year-round?  A common misconception about migration is that it’s prompted by temperature change.  Since we like to follow the warmth of the sun in the wintertime and many of us head south to Florida beaches, we assume birds and other migratory animals share our preferences.  In most cases, however, migration relates to temperature only indirectly.  In actuality, migration is mostly about food.

As the northern days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, plants cease to produce fruits.  Annual plants reach the ends of their lives, while perennials drop their leaves and transfer their sugars into stems and roots for winter storage.  Many of the insects and mammals that feed upon these plants turn in for a months-long slumber, or stock their larders with seeds, nuts, and other high-energy morsels and settle into their winter dwellings.  Ice creeps over the surfaces of lakes and ponds, sealing in their inhabitants until the spring thaw.  Carnivorous birds suddenly find themselves with little to eat.  So, they follow the food.  And, because it coincides with warmer weather, the food just so happens to be in the south.

When migratory raptors reach their wintering grounds, they must compete with resident birds for food and roosting sites.  This works out okay in the winter, when the birds need only worry about themselves; once spring comes along, however, the birds must compete for nest sites, and food for their offspring as well as for themselves.  Making the grueling return journey is worthwhile, since the raptors will have their choice of nesting spots when they reach their mostly vacant northern homes.  They’ll also get there just in time for dinner; after the snow and ice melt, there will be fish, rodents, songbirds, and juicy insects around just about every corner.

 

 

 

Jack-in-the-pulpit: The Forest Floor’s Hermaphrodite

By Leah Mital-Skiff

I don’t want to make any controversial statements about whether it is easier to be male or female, but it is tempting in this case. When times are good on the forest floor, Jack turns into Jackie and when the going gets rough, Jackie turns back into Jack.  We could say that Jackie likes to cruise during the good times, but her reproductive work requires a more nutrient-rich environment.

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum, is hermaphroditic and begins adulthood as Jack, its male expression.  After maturing past the seedling stage, the plant will produce male flowers on the spadix, the cylindrical reproductive structure commonly referred to as “Jack” and are buried deep inside the pulpit, covered by the hooded spathe.  The musty-smelling spadix attracts gnats that enter through an opening in the base of the spathe and move up and down the spadix gathering pollen from the male flowers.

If conditions were ideal the previous year, elsewhere in the forest, another jack-in-the-pulpit stored enough energy to emerge this year as a female, producing female flowers.  This growth takes a significant amount of energy and requires optimal conditions of light, nutrient availability and moisture.  Thus, Jack will only emerge the next year as Jackie if the conditions are favorable.  Jackie comes endowed with two sets of leaves in order to capture more sunlight and produce the energy she needs for reproduction.  Male plants in a stressed environment will remain in the male form into the next year.  Females under stress will revert to male and conserve energy.

Jack-in-the-pulpit is conspicuous in the early fall. The brilliant red fruits draw the eye from the changing canopy foliage in late September to the floor of eastern mixed hardwood forests.  The bright red show on an autumn day denotes its success after many potential cycles between its male and female expressions to result in the production of fruits.

Perhaps the Jacks boast that they can tough out a nutrient-poor environment and wait out the bad times. Jackie then reminds us how much more energy is needed for her role in reproduction; males have the easy job of producing pollen-bearing flowers.  In the end, the strategy of sequential hermaphrodism ensures more successful reproduction.  In a stressed environment, the jack-in-the-pulpits in the area simply do not produce seeds.  They conserve their resources and produce fewer seeds of a higher quality and viability for germination.  When we see the brilliant red among the browning leaves of the fall, the story ends in success of gender synchronicity. The male plants have browned and wilted along with the other plants of the forest floor while Jackie boasts hermaphroditic success in a show of red to beckon the birds to disperse her seeds. Jackie does steal the show in the end.

 

 

Doll’s Eyes

by Sophie Mazowita

A dozen eyeballs, dangling from their sockets, stared up at me on my last walk through the woods.  I was strolling through the forest on a gloomy Sunday afternoon, seeking out plants for a botany project, when I came across the startling sight.  The small eyes stood out from ten yards away, stretched out on their swollen red arteries.  A small black pupil marked the middle of each white, its stare drawing me in.

A few steps closer and I recognized my “observer” as a common yet ever-creepy resident of our woodlands: the 2-foot tall White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).  The plant is a member of the buttercup family, but it bears little resemblance to its golden-flowered relatives.  It’s most aptly known as Doll’s eyes, and true to this moniker, each of its white berries looks like it has been plucked straight out of the head of a porcelain doll.  Up to 30 of the fruits sit affixed to a stalk that towers over the plant’s leaves and turns a bright red as the summer progresses.  The black “pupils” are actually the vestiges of some flower parts from earlier in the season.

The plants are poisonous to humans (though I doubt any would be tempted), but they offer food to birds.  Imagine the sight of a bird pulling an “eye” from its thick red stalk and swallowing it whole!  A visit to a hardwood or mixed forest will offer your best chance at viewing this spectacle; the baneberry plants grow in the shade below mature maple, basswood, and other broadleaf trees.  The white berries should stand out above a dozen or more jagged-edged green leaflets that strech out horizontally, about a foot off the ground.

Doll’s eyes is but one of the attractions of early autumn woodlands.  Most people would pick the spring as the prime time to view wildflowers; when trees are still bare, spring ephemerals like trilliums and trout lily put on a show on the sun-soaked forest floor.  The end of the growing season, however, offers a whole other set of treasures.  White baneberry’s eyes follow you through the woods until the frost hits.  Jewelweed seed pods offer an explosive surprise to anyone who brushes past.  Beech branches thick with fruit begin to drop their bounty, a favourite of black bears.  A leisurely walk and discerning eye will offer many rewards.

What’s your latest discovery?

Why do birds fly south for winter?

by Doug Morin

I opened my backdoor and stepped into the yard to a flash of red and buzz of wings – a hummingbird.  Maybe the last of his kind I will see this year, he perched on a small branch, tilted his head to either side, then flew off down the road.

Here in Vermont, hummingbirds disappear in late September and reappear in late April.  We know the story well: birds fly south for winter.  Of course they do.  But, have you ever wondered why?

First, let’s turn the clock back a few thousand years.  It turns out, most migratory birds in North America trace back to ancestors that lived in the tropics.  Over time, these birds expanded their ranges until a small proportion eventually made it to North America.  Even today, most birds arrive in late spring and leave in early fall – spending less than half their year in North America.  The real question then isn’t, why do birds fly south for winter? but, why do birds fly north for the summer?

This is a particularly important question because migration carries a deep cost.  It’s easy to discount the effort required to fly to and from the tropics, given the convenience of modern air travel (though I’d still like more leg room), but the journey for a bird takes huge amounts of time and energy as well as exposing the bird to unfamiliar environments and predators.  The hummingbird in my yard, for instance, weighed only as much as small handful of paperclips, yet over the next weeks, it will first fly to the southern coast of the U.S., then across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan Peninsula in a single, non-stop flight lasting nearly 24 hours, and finally overland to southern Central America.

The time, energy, and risk involved in migration have severe impacts: migratory birds are twice as likely to die in any given year, compared to tropical non-migratory birds.  So, why in the world do they do it?

The answer is that the benefits outweigh even these high costs.  Since relatively few birds come to North America, migrants have easy access to abundant insects, plants, and nesting grounds.  With plentiful food and territory, migratory birds produce many more offspring each summer than their non-migratory counterparts.  As winter arrives, however, insects and plants disappear, and the diminished food supplies (rather than dropping temperatures per se) drive migrants south.

Overall, migratory birds do not live as long as non-migratory tropical birds, but produce more offspring each year – resulting in nearly the same number of over their lives.  Since the number of offspring determines how many birds will be in the next generation, these two strategies are roughly equivalent in evolutionary success.

So, the birds that grace our summers with color and song do so for windfall payoffs, but at immense cost.  As you see the last of our migratory birds leaving over the next few weeks, wish them well on their way.

Also, look out for a more in-depth post by Emily Brodsky on Raptor Migration in the next few days!

 

Note: For excellent maps of where birds spend their summers and winters, see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds.

Chicken of the Woods

by Becky Cushing

Frog legs, rabbit, octopus, sea lamprey: Tastes just like chicken. But a mushroom? That might take some convincing.

Purple toadstools dot moist ground. Tiny aliens emerge from rotting wood. A stalk shoots from leaf litter on the forest floor. Like Alice’s Wonderland, the damp woods in and around Burlington are splattered with wild mushrooms. While identification of the 70,000+ worldly fungi species (many more unnamed) might seem like a daunting task, learning one or two of the “showy” local varieties can be a good way to get started.

Two weeks ago I was exploring Centennial Woods, a natural area managed by the University of Vermont, when I caught a flash of bright orange through the tall white pine and maple tree trunks. Like a reflective safety vest, it stood out against the earthtone browns and greens of the surrounding woods. Squinting harder I could make out suspended shelves attached to one side of the rotting trunk. Getting closer I clearly saw half a dozen two-toned fanned layers, a giant-sized carnation corsage.

Becky with her find.

Becky with her find.

Crouching down I realized this mass was more than a foot wide and each 3-6 inch orange shelf layer was outlined along the waving free edge by a pale yellow, like fresh cow’s milk. Subtle web-like strands of white mycelia penetrated cracks in the dead trunk where, hidden from view, they obtained nutrients through decomposition. If this tree had been alive, it most certainly would have minded this organism’s parasitic affinity for heartwood. As it were, the dead trunk suited the mushroom’s role as a saprophyte, or decomposer.

I recognized this rubbery fungus. I had seen it before. Some call it “sulphur shelf” or “chicken mushroom.” Wikipedia even suggests “quesadilla of the woods” — a bit of a stretch if you ask me. It was Laetiporus sulphureus or “chicken of the woods.”

I’m not a mushroom expert. In fact, I first learned about “chicken of the woods” at an informal dinner party: I thought I was eating chicken. And yes, with loads of butter, it tasted much like the popular poultry. Luckily the skilled chef had several decades of mushroom foraging under his belt but it leads me to an important point: Never ever eat a mushroom without an extremely confident identification (which is usually preceded by many years of foraging experience). For others, past mistakes have caused disintegrated livers or failed kidneys. With 70,000 to 1 odds? It’s just not a good idea.

Subtle Wonders of the High Sierra

by Cathy Bell

After a night spent deeply burrowed into the warmth of my down sleeping bag, I wake to discover that my tent has abruptly transformed itself from a cozy refuge to a swelteringly confined space.  The sun has only just cleared the ridgeline of Cirque Peak, but its rays are strong here at 11,000 feet above sea level, and my little tent heats up like a greenhouse.

Changing from long underwear to field clothes, I clamber out of my tent to find a heavy frost riming the sedges along Siberian Pass Creek.  It is the morning of July 20th.  I don’t have a thermometer, but last night didn’t feel too cold.  I’d guess that the overnight low was in the high 20s.  I stretch and take my time over breakfast, giving the sun a little more time to warm the high country before I set out for my day’s fieldwork.

foxtail forest and Siberian Outpost, Sequoia National Park

Looking over Siberian Outpost.

I’ve set up camp at the edge of a foxtail forest, where widely-spaced pines yield to the treeless gravel flats of the fetchingly-named Siberian Outpost.  Around me, steep talus slopes rear skyward, hinting at the expansive alpine plateaus above.  I am spending my summer in the wilderness of Sequoia National Park, just ten miles south-southwest of Mt. Whitney in the southern Sierra Nevada.  At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48, but—though it soars a gasping 3,000 feet above treeline—the famed summit is just one of a dozen exceeding 14,000 feet in this region.  Spectacular alpine country abounds: I’ve heard that the Sierra Nevada feature more acres above treeline than any other mountain range in the conterminous 48 states.

The rocky, seemingly-barren high reaches are the reason that I find myself here, in some of the wildest country remaining in the United States.  Though the Sierra peaks seem lifeless from a distance, a closer look reveals a surprising diversity of hardy alpine plants growing amongst the boulders.  I love this hidden world.

tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice

Tiny Ivesia grows in a rock crevice.

At the same time, I fear what the future holds.  Research suggests that alpine vegetation is especially at risk from the rapid shifts in temperature and precipitation caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in our understanding of how high-elevation vegetation will respond to a changing climate.  In fact, since alpine areas are such hard places to access, we don’t even know if their plant communities have already started showing the effects of a warming world.

To try to fill in some of those holes, my master’s project work involves searching for vegetation survey plots that were established some twenty-five years ago.  When I can find the plots, I re-survey them in an effort to compare the plant populations we see today to the ones that were documented in the 1980s, hoping to determine if alpine species are already showing a response to climate change.  So far, the project is going far better than I had dared to hope; I have found every single plot I’ve sought.  Today, I’m going after Plot 403.  I tried to visit it ten days ago, on July 10th, but it was still buried beneath two feet of snow.  I’m hoping I have better luck today.

Shouldering my frame pack with its twenty pounds of field gear, I hike upvalley for half an hour, then scramble up a bouldered slope to the top of a ridge.  As I walk, the rhythm of my footsteps and breath ease me into an almost meditative state.  I take in the dramatic views and reflect on how the wilderness of Sequoia National Park is beautiful but vulnerable.  Though we think of national parks as pristine, even our most highly-protected places are not insulated from human impacts.  The beautiful and diverse plant populations of the High Sierra could be pushed out by changing conditions or the arrival of other plant species, irrevocably altering the character of this unique and inspiring wilderness.  In order to preserve and protect this place for future generations to enjoy, we first have to determine if and how it is changing—and that is what my project is all about.

The ridge brings me west onto the rocky fellfields of the Boreal Plateau, where I start looking for the steel stake that marks the center of Plot 403.  An expansive snowfield still clings to the slope to my right, but it lies east of where the plot should be, and I think I’ll be able to find the plot marker.  I methodically work back and forth, trying to line up the mountains in the distance with rocks on the ground until they match the relocation photo on the clipboard I clutch in my left hand.

dead alpine plant with massive taproot

In life, this plant grew only about an inch above the surface of the ground, but its massive taproot kept it anchored among the rocks.

A brown tangle on the ground catches my eye.  Distracted for a moment from my search, I stop and kneel to peer at the crushed and matted-down plants that the rapidly receding snow has revealed.  Though seemingly dead, most will soon pull energy from their deep taproots and green up, life reasserting itself after the long winter.

Long winters define this world above treeline.   A plant trying to survive here must contend with a growing season of only about two months, howling winds, and an environment that—despite abundant snowfall—is startlingly short on liquid water during the summer, when growing plants require it.  It’s a tough place to make a living, but the alpine plants of the Sierra Nevada are well-adapted to their environment.  They have weathered gradual shifts in climate for a long time.  They are survivors, I know.  I just hope they are able to cope with the climate curveball we have thrown them.

Straightening up, I resume my search for Plot 403, and in just a few minutes I glimpse a flash of reflected sunlight off the center stake.  I take off my pack and get to work.