Nov 28, 2011

Identifying the Fungus among Us

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, October 23, 2011]

I knew as a kid that toads didn’t actually sit on toadstools (hookah-smoking caterpillars did that), although I did seem to find an awful lot of toadlets sitting under the umbrella tops of some mushrooms. Maybe they were feeding on insects that were eating the mushrooms, or maybe they were seeking shelter from weather or predators. That was a mystery I never solved.

This large mushroom, most likely a Parasol Mushroom,
kicked off a journey in learning to identify fungi.
This underside view shows the gills under
the cap and the partial veil (ring) on the stalk,
two characteristics that help in identification.
Photos by Pam Owen
Although other things about mushrooms also intrigued and, to some extent, repelled me—their funky look and smell, and their habit of growing in dark, damp places—I never got addicted to the taste of edible ones and became a true ‘shroomer. My interest in fungi got kick-started again when some impressive mushrooms started growing in my driveway during the deluge of rain we got late this summer and early in the fall.

Mushrooms are in the fungus kingdom of living things, separate from plants, animals, and bacteria. We usually think of them as having umbrella-shaped tops, but mushrooms come in a large variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. In my rambles during the wet spell, I came upon white, brown, beige, blue, purple, yellow, orange, green, and red mushrooms with various markings. Shelf mushrooms growing in layers out of trees, club mushrooms that look like coral, puffballs from small orbs to footballs, and delicate “fairy rings” of tiny mushrooms with umbrella tops filled the landscape everywhere I went—from hill to hollow.

One of the amazing things about mushrooms is that much of what we see above ground are merely blooms of a much larger fungus underneath. These blooms are spore carriers, much like flowers that carry a plant’s pollen. The largest living thing in the world is actually a common Honey Mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae). Although its blooms are clustered in small groups that are spread out, they all belong to one underground behemoth extending its rhizomorphs (shoestring filaments) over about 2,384 acres of soil in northeast Oregon's Blue Mountains. It weighs more than 200 tons and is estimated to be about 2,400 years old. Now, that’s a ‘shroom!

The flaky top of the mushroom is a characteristic of
the Parasol Mushroom but of other poisonous species.
Many underground fungi are key to healthy forests in that they break down nutrients that can be absorbed by the tree roots they entwine. Humans, some invertebrates, and voles are among the few consumers of mushrooms. The last, in excreting the spores, enable fungi that live below ground to be dispersed to other areas.

Poisonous mushrooms are commonly referred to as toadstools, and some species have been used for centuries as hallucinogens. Even some mushrooms that are considered edible are dangerous if eaten uncooked.

I’ve always considered all mushrooms to be poisonous until proven otherwise by an expert. Even then, I’d want that expert to take a bite first, then wait a few days for any reaction, before I thought about eating it myself. One genus, Amanita, is responsible 95 percent of the fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning. According to Wikipedia, the Death Cap (A. phalloides) alone accounts for about 50 percent of these. National Public Radio, in its story “On the Trail of the Death Cap Mushroom,” reported that this species, which has recently been determined through DNA testing to be an invader from Europe, is rapidly spreading along the coast of Northern California, although it also occurs in the East from New York to Virginia.
The mystery mushroom emerged as a button,
as many mushrooms do.
Avoiding the entire Amanita genus is not easy, considering it comprises more than 600 species with a wide variety of shapes and colors. A few are edible, and many resemble edible mushrooms in other genera. Most experts recommend avoiding coming into contact with any Amanita. My brother says a mycologist (mushroom scientist) he knows will not eat any wild mushrooms that grow outside of his geographic area because identification can be so difficult.

To identify the species in my driveway, I checked with other master naturalists and some local ‘shroomers, went a-Googling, and perused my few field guides, including Peterson’s. After my guides proved useful but ultimately inadequate, I ended up ordering a really good one I found for local mushrooms, Mushrooms of Virginia and Central Appalachia, by William C. Roody. From all these, I learned about the major identification points for fungi, including shape, size, color, location, and growing habit.

My mushrooms were white, except for beige-colored flakes on the top of the cap. They emerged from the ground as a ball (button) on a stalk, and then spread out their caps into an umbrella shape that reached 9 inches. The underside of the cap had feathery, spore-carrying ribs that fanned out from the stalk, which put them in the order of gill mushrooms (Agaricales). They also had a ring around the stalk, which was what was left of the cap when it expanded. The base of the stalk, the volva (or veil) was straight, so that ruled out Amanita, whose volva widens at the base.

I never got to the ultimate ID technique—examining the size, color, and shape of the spores—because my subjects kept getting run over by vehicles coming up the drive before I got around to it. I’ll check that next year, if the blooms come up again.

Ultimately, I concluded that my impressive fungus was probably a common, edible Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), in the parasol genus. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to eat it.

May 1, 2011

Spring Is Marked by a Comma, Not a Question Mark

["Wild Ideas" column, March 14, 2011]

Spring Peepers are one of the first frogs to 
emerge in the spring, when their chorus
 of mating calls can be heard throughout Virginia.
Photo by Svdmolen.
I don’t care what the calendar says, here in the western Piedmont, spring begins March 1. This year, however, the winter was cold, dry, and windy, and seemed like endless.

Then, miraculously, substantial rains and lingering warm spells came as February turned into March. Up here on a dry mountain ridge, however, I’d seen and heard few signs of spring—no wildflowers, no Spring Peepers, no Eastern Phoebes, or even American Woodcocks. A couple of Titmice did carry off some of my dog’s hair that I’d left on the deck for the birds to line their nests with, nonnative bulbs that were planted on the property were coming up, and I’d even heard reports of woodcocks finally starting their courtship beeping up in Shenandoah National Park, but not a peeper or a beeper here.

The first real sign of spring at my house was around the first of March when I was working on my computer late one night and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A dozen small moths were beating against the glass of the sliding-glass door next to me, trying to get to the light coming from the lamp on the inside. I was thrilled to see these insects so late at night that early in the month, signaling a break in the plunging temps that had come all winter as the sun went down. As much as I enjoyed seeing them, however, I quickly drew the blinds and turned off the lamp to keep them from wearing themselves out beating futilely against the glass.

Reports of hearing Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers had started to come in from other nature observers at the end of February, but I didn’t hear these early-emerging frogs myself until the second week of March. I was driving a quiet gravel road through a low, wet area on a warmish, damp night when the a Peeper chorus crept in over the sound of the radio. I immediately turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and stopped the car. I’d longed to hear that sound for so many cold, silent nights that I wanted to savor it.

By that weekend I was itching to really experience spring, so I set out to find it where it was most likely to be—in low wet areas in the county.

Skunk Cabbage, one of the earliest 
native plants to bloom in the Piedmont
 and Blue Ridge in early spring. 
Photo by Pam Owen.
I started along the Rappahannock River on that beautiful springlike Saturday but didn’t see much other than swarms of midges and other insects. I was disappointed in not even finding skunk cabbage, which normally blooms in February or March. I’d heard of some sightings of its flowering but couldn’t find the distinctive but subtly colored (some would say ugly) blooms in the damper areas along the river. Lots of Autumn Olive, that pernicious foreign invader, was leafing out faster than any of our native shrubs all along the trail, but no flowers of any sort in sight.

It was still a gorgeous day, and later as I sat on a high hill in the still-bare forest with a friend and my dog, notes from Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” were running through my head. Green or not, spring was in the air in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills.

On the drive home at dusk, insects kept appearing in my headlights and then two bats appeared against the darkening sky, taking advantage of the buffet. Now that was more what I was looking for. When I got home, Spring Peepers were finally chorusing from a wetland on the other side of the road, a happy end to a fine day.

A battered Eastern Comma emerges
on a warm day in early spring, after
making it through a cold, hard winter.
Photo by Pam Owen.
On Sunday—still warm and sunny—a walk along the Thornton River was not very productive in terms of spotting signs of spring, so I went to the Hazel River. There I felt like I hit the spring jackpot: one Eastern Comma butterfly, then another, on the gravel road leading along the river. The two briefly chased each other, but both seemed more interested in ingesting the minerals on the gravel road. I finally got close enough to take a few quick photos of one, which was so battered that I had to look closely to make sure it was indeed an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) and not the similar Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis).

I hadn’t seen any migratory songbirds in my weekend rambles. Then again, I started in the afternoon and was more focused on trying to find flowering plants that might respond to the warmth at that hour and show off their blooms. Reports of migratory-bird sightings have been filtering in since early March from over in Shenandoah Valley by a birding group there: Tree Swallows, Pine Siskins, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Pine Warblers, and Cedar Waxwings. Although I haven’t seen or heard my pair of Eastern Phoebes, that species had also been spotted.
Bloodroot, also an early spring bloomer.
Photo by Pam Owen.

By the time this column is printed, early-flowering native wildflowers should be well along with their displays. A walk in natural areas should yield sights of Bloodroot, Toothwort, Liverwort, Dog-tooth Violet, Coltsfoot, Dandelion, Spring Beauty, Storksbill, Common Blue Violet, Rue Anemone, Trailing Arbutus, Star Chickweed, Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, Trout Lily, Round-lobed Hepatica, and Pink Azalea in bloom.

Feb 28, 2011

Quacking Frogs Get a Jump on Spring

I've always been an avid frog watcher. Even before the Spring Peepers’ chorus heralded the arrival of spring, I’d pull on my boots and go to still-icy pools to listen for the sound of Lithobates sylvaticus, the Wood Frog, kicking off the annual frog-breeding cycle.

Back then, this frog's scientific name was Rana sylvatica, but scientists recently decided figured out that it really belonged to the Lithobates genus. Of course, I had no clue about scientific names back then, so they were just Wood Frogs to me.
A young Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus

Photo by MichaelZahniser

L. sylvaticus, a forest dweller, is the widest-ranging frog species in North America and appears the farthest north—all the way to the Alaskan arctic. Further south, it prefers higher, cooler elevations. In Virginia, it ranges from the upper Piedmont throughout the Mountain region, but also occurs in the northern part of the Coastal Plain.

During most of the winter, Wood Frogs hibernate under rocks, logs, or detritus in wooded areas. Their emergence from hibernation is triggered by warm spells that, in Virginia, can occur as early as January. At that time theys mass in shallow, short-lived pools for a frenzy of breeding that lasts only a few days. These vernal pools are formed from rains and thaws in winter and spring and dry up as temperatures rise and rains disappear.

How does the Wood Frog manage to survive breeding in the cold of winter? As author Elizabeth Colburn explains in Vernal Pool: Natural History and Conservation, “Within five minutes of the start of freezing, Wood Frogs accumulate high levels of glucose in the liver and leg muscles, subsequently releasing the glucose into the blood and other tissues, where it functions as an antifreeze.”
While other frog species can pull off the antifreeze trick in anticipation of winter, only L. sylvaticus can adjust to changes in the immediate temperature conditions. It can survive freezing for up for four weeks and is back to normal within hours of thawing out.

Medium-sized (1.5 to 3.25 inches), the Wood Frog is easy to distinguish from other Virgina frogs because of its black mask, which runs from each eye to above the foreleg. The rest of its body color ranges from pink to black.

The Wood Frog’s distinctive clacking call—likened to the “feeding call of the mallard” on the Minnesota Herpetological Society’s website—has earned it the nickname of “quacking frog.” The Handbook of Frogs and Toads of the United States and Canada notes that Wood Frogs give two, four, or six short notes in rapid succession that are “high and grating in character.” (Click here to hear the call.)
A pair of Wood Frogs mating
(pulled out of the water for the photo)
Photo by Cephas
Male Wood Frogs are so frenzied in their breeding that they actually have a secondary call to let males who have trapped them in a lusty embrace know that the object of their desire isn’t a female. The clacking can go on day and night when temperatures are right but doesn’t carry far.

In northeastern forests, wood frogs are numerous, with almost 5,000 recorded at just one vernal pool in Massachusetts, according to Colburn. During mating sessions, they can turn breeding pools black in an orgy of procreation. 

Each Wood Frog is extremely loyal to its natal pool (where it was born), with up to 85 percent returning to their natal pool to breed, bypassing other pools along the way. The remaining percentage disperses to nonnatal pools, ensuring genetic diversity. While the dispersing males may plop down in any shallow pool they find, females are pickier, refusing to breed in any pool with fish, the main predator of frog eggs.

A Wood Frog tadpole morphing into an adult 
Photo by Brian Gratwicke

Each female produces 1,000 to 3,000 eggs. Barring water that is overly acidic, dries up. or refreezes, or predation, the eggs’ rate of success in hatching out is high—80 to 96 percent, according to Colburn. Tadpoles don’t fare so well, with less than 4 percent usually surviving to adulthood. Wood Frogs prefer to breed in pools that appear very early and disappear fast, so they have to grow fast, becoming adults within 50 days.

Once the breeding is over, the frogs go silent and return to their small terrestrial home ranges (500 to 700 square feet) on the moist forest floor 1,000 or more feet uphill from their breeding areas. The breeding migration can be dangerous, especially across areas that have been cleared of forest—roads in particular.

Wood Frogs are voracious eaters, especially in the far north, where insects are around only briefly in the short summer. They chow down on ground beetles, crickets, bugs, caterpillars, other small insects, earthworms, snails, and spiders, and in turn are eaten by hawks, wading birds, snakes, and turtles, among other predators.

On a recent warm day after a rain and thaw, I donned my boots and headed for the wetlands along the Rappahannock River. I was disappointed by the silence there, but the winter has been unusually dry and cold, and no one else in my conservation network had reported hearing the distinctive clacking yet this year, either. However, with the recent warm spell and rain, I'm now hearing from my contacts that the quacking frog is back. With the late start and the short time they breed, there has to be a real frenzy of the little guys getting their groove on now.

Want to Help Our Frogs?
Amphibians of all kinds are under siege from changing climate and environmental degradation. A fun way to help monitor their health is to volunteer for FrogWatch USA. You just need an area with frogs that you can visit at least a couple of times a week from now through August. It only takes a few minutes to do the monitoring by ear and then enter the results into the Frogwatch online database. With only a few species in the Piedmont and western Virginia, it’s easy to learn all the calls.

The Virginia Herpetological Society’s website has sound recordings of native frog calls and lots of other good information, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website has a breeding chart showing where and when each species breeds. VDGIF also offers a CD, Calls of Virginia Frogs and Toads, for $5.

Feb 22, 2011

Daddy Longlegs—Crawly but maybe not so creepy

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, January 2011]

Some people fear spiders in general — or are just sure that venomous Brown Recluse or Black Widow spiders are lurking in the dark corners of our houses waiting to pounce on us. The truth is that neither of these species is common in our houses and the arachnids that are more likely to be our housemates are innocuous ones commonly known as “daddy longlegs” because of their long, spindly legs.
The problem with the common name is that it is often used to refer to two different families of arachnids and even to an insect, the crane fly. Crane flies have wings and are insects, so that leaves us with the arachnids, cellar spiders and harvestmen.
A cellar spider
(Pholcus phalangioides).
hanging around in a house
Photo by Sven Siegmund.
Cellar spiders, also known as “skull spiders” because of the markings on their bodies, are in the family Pholcidae of the spider order, Araneae. The most common of these species in Virginia homes is a European immigrant, Pholcus phalangioides.
Harvestmen, like cellar spiders, are arachnids but belong to the order Opiliones. Harvestmen are well represented on the planet, with more than 6,400 species having been discovered worldwide out of a total that probably exceeds 10,000, according to Wikipedia. Determining which kind of harvestman is in your house is a task best left up to entomologists, since the variations among species can be extremely subtle.

Harvestmen can be differentiated easily from spiders in that their multi-sectioned bodies appear to have only one oval segment instead of the two of spiders. The eyes differ as well: harvestmen have a single pair of eyes in the middle of their heads, oriented sideways, while Pholcidae have the eight eyes indicative of their order.
Cellar spiders, like harvestmen, have long legs, but they appear more spindly and frail and are often askew, which makes these ethereal spiders appear drunk or dying. Like cobweb spiders, their webs are messy.
Cellar spiders are effective predators, preying on mosquitoes, small moths, flies, gnats and other insects that often end up in our houses, as well as other spiders, even those much larger than themselves. They’re also fond of woodlice, a tiny terrestrial crustacean commonly called a “pill bug.” When food is scarce, cellar spiders can turn cannibalistic.
I recently saw a cellar spider with a Marmorated Stink Bug trapped in its web. The spider kept touching the bug with its back two legs. I couldn’t figure out if the spider was trying to determine what it had trapped, was intrigued by the scent of this other exotic invader, or was trying to figure out how to get through the bug’s hard carapace to the feast inside. In any case, by the next day the stink bug was gone — probably having escaped rather than ending up spider food. When disturbed, cellar spiders often shake their webs violently to ward off predators.
A harvestman (Opilio canestrinii), probably a female
Photo by Pudding4brains.
Harvestmen do not spin silk, so don’t have webs. While they will occasionally eat small live insects, they mostly live off decomposing animal and vegetative matter.
Humans tend to have an uneasy relationship with spiders and their kin and can even be phobic about them. Maybe it’s because spiders are quick little predators that appear strange to us, are not exactly cuddly, can be aggressive and are in some cases quite venomous. We know so little about them, and there are so many of them, that we have a habit of spinning myths about them.
Take cellar spiders. Urban legend has it that they are the most venomous spiders on the planet, but that their jaws are too short or weak to bite through human skin. The television show “MythBusters” tested this myth by getting a spider to bite one of their onscreen reporters. The spider’s teeth did indeed manage to break through the skin, but the victim reported “nothing more than a very mild, short-lived burning sensation.” Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, back this up: “There is no reference to any pholcid spider biting a human and causing any detrimental reaction.” Some research shows that cellar spider venom is so weak it doesn’t even kill the tiny prey they normally use it on.
I used to freak out my friends when I was a little kid by letting wolf spiders crawl on my hands and bite me. I had the same sensation as that described in “MythBusters,” although the wolf spider’s bite was quite itchy after the fact. Harvestmen have no venom at all, but they do produce a harmless, albeit smelly, fluid when disturbed.
Harvestmen and cellar spiders are also decidedly nonaggressive. I’ve poked quite a few cellar spiders to see if they were alive, since they often look remarkably dead. Their only response was to shrink back a bit. And I’ve carried many a harvestman out of the house without them getting excited at all.
What isn’t a myth is that spider silk has antimicrobials in it, which makes sense, since spiders often catch prey that takes them a long time to consume, and antimicrobials preserve the nutrients. It is also hypoallergenic and so strong that the military is testing it for use in bulletproof vests.

Feb 18, 2011

Video on Burrowing Owls

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia)
Photo by Pete Wallace
What a hoot! Check out this video, just featured on NPR's Science Friday. Burrowing owls are ground-dwelling and diurnal. Not native to Virginia, occurring in open areas in the West and Florida, but I wish they were. Great eyes, and a lot easier to observe than their nocturnal cousins.

Feb 17, 2011

False Spring

Today was the kind of day that made me want to come back to Virginia after years in on the Northern Plains, where winters were so brutally cold that the brief Chinook in January was not enough to dissuade me of the thought that the winter would never end. When the Chinook came, there usually was so much snow on the ground that it hardly brought thoughts of spring.

In Virginia, on the other hand, we're usually treated in February to springlike weather that can actually bring out the Wood Frogs, if an even earlier brief stretch in January hasn't already done the trick, and give more than a hint of the spring to come. Sure, we can still get pounded by three feet of snow in March,but by then we know we're over the hump, that spring will surely follow.

Today was the second day into this year's false spring. Temps in the 70s, and bugs flying through the air. In walking through a stretch of forest that is normally filled with vernal pools, which in turn should have been full of Wood Frogs making their frenzied attempts to breed in the brief warm stretches that pop up this time of year. But it's just too dry - no vernal pools. The last snow, less than six inches, has quickly disappeared into the parched winter ground or run off to join the Rappahannock River somewhere downhill.

Barred Owl (Strix Varia)
Photo by Sterren
That doesn't mean the woods was without life. A Barred Owl flew past me, and settled high in a tree down the trail aways. I got out my binoculars to make sure of the ID, and we stared at each other for quite a while until it decided it was better to find another stretch of that forest to rest in before going on its nightly hunt. It's passage stirred up a variety of woodpeckers, who sounded the alarm throughout the forest.

A few wasps were also out enjoying the weather and a pile of feathers that used to be a Titmouse, but that was about all.

The day was so warm that I'd left my windows open at home to air out the house and ended up keeping them open until well into the evening. As the full moon came up, it drew me to the deck to a perfect night—a few clouds slowly drifting by the moon, a gentle breeze, and temps still hanging in the sixties. If I hadn't had a deadline, I might still be out there.

Feeding Wild Birds in Winter—What's best for them and you

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, December 2010]

An evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
at a tube feeder filled with sunflower seeds
Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
You like birds. You want to see them up close. You’d like to help them survive through the winter. For any or all of these reasons, you’ve decided to feed your wild feathered neighbors, but doing it so that you and the birds get the most out of it can be complicated.

You can just buy a bag of mixed bird food from wherever and stick it in any old feeder, but you’re unlikely to attract all the native species overwintering in your area and could even endanger the ones that do come. Think first about which species you want to attract, how many feeding stations fit within your budget and your willingness to maintain them, and where they will be located.

Every bird species has its food preferences, and some commercial mixes have seeds in them that they may not eat and that may even discourage wanted birds and attract unwanted ones. Corn will more likely attract unwanted nonnative species, such as weaver finches (a.k.a English sparrows) or cowbirds, and can get wet easily and become dangerous for the birds that do eat it.

Milo (sorghum), the little brown seeds in many mixes, is not preferred by any species in our area, according to National Bird-Feeding Society (NBFS) director Dr. David Horn. White proso millet, also often in mixes, will attract birds who feed close to or on the ground—such as quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, and towhees—but will likely go untouched if it’s in a tube feeder higher up.

If you’re only going to use one kind of feed, black-oil sunflower is best because of its high fat and protein content. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, hulled sunflower seeds are consumed by the widest variety of bird species, including jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, northern cardinals, grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and grackles.

Finches, redpolls, juncos, doves and pine siskin love Nyjer® (Guizotia abyssinica) seed. Often mistakenly thought of as thistle, it’s actually cultivated in Asia and Africa and belongs to another plant family.
A pair of Northern Cardinals
(Cardinalis cardinalis) at a feeder
Photo by Ken Thomas

If you want to use a seed mix to attract more species to one feeder, how about making your own? Use seeds that suit the birds you want to attract and the location and type of feeder you want to use. Shelled sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, and safflower seeds make a good mix that leaves less mess and is easier for softer-beaked birds to eat. (However, “hit-and-run” birds with tougher beaks, such as chickadees, enjoy hauling off larger or unshelled seeds to feast on in private.) You can use the various types of seeds separately to attract specific species.

Not all birds are seed eaters. Mockingbirds prefer raisins and berries, and bluebirds may come calling if you put out meal worms. For many birds, especially woodpeckers, suet is hugely popular because of the high fat content.

To get a variety of bird species, have feeders at different levels, with food matched to birds who feed in those zones. The ground, or a flat feeder not more than about five feet off the ground, is more likely to attract doves, northern cardinals, juncos, and sparrows. Doves won’t visit tube or hopper feeders—those that release seed when birds hop on them, but cardinals may visit both feeders they’re large enough. Chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, and finches will feed higher up and do fine with most types of feeders.

Many species don’t like to be crowded or will gang up and take over, so spreading out feeders horizontally keeps everybody happy and also helps prevent spread of disease. Salmonella and other diseases, along with seed that has gone rancid or moldy, can be a problem, so it’s really important to dump out old seed and keep feeders clean. A mild bleach solution is recommended by most bird organizations.

Water is often more important than food for birds, so have that available, too. And you’ll need to protect the feeders from bears, squirrels, dogs, cats, and other nonbird marauders.

The quality of the seed processing can vary, according to Horn. How do you know which brands are best? Horn says the Wild Bird Feed Industry, a trade association, has set quality standards based on purity, test weight, maximum moisture, mold, odor, insect infestation and damage and heat damage.

“Not all seed producers who belong to the organization meet the standards, and not all producers who meet the standards belong to the organization,” Horn says, but he still suggests looking for WBFI’s logo on bird-feed packages.

What about the use of pesticides or herbicides in the growing process? I haven’t found any information on that and neither has Horn. However, he did point out that, since most of what ends up going to the bird-feed market is initially aimed at human consumption, the type and amount of chemicals (if any) used in the growing process should be the same wherever the feed ends up.

If all this doesn’t seem worth the rewards of seeing lots of different birds in your yard, you can just keep it simple and scatter a small amount of bird food around on the ground early in the day so that it’s gone before nocturnal nonbird foragers come calling. Change the locations regularly to avoid the spread of disease. To learn more about wild birds and feeding them, check out the following websites: Audubon, NBFS, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website.

Jan 29, 2011

World's Rarest Bird Pictures

I'm not sure "rarest" is the right word, but these photos are definitely worth checking out.

Jan 28, 2011

California Town Considers Broadcasting Bird Sounds on Public Streets to Add Ambiance

I love Two-Fisted Birdwatcher. This particular post brings to mind standup comic Brian Regan's bit about the irate birder who called up NBC Sports when he heard, in the background of a golf tournament, the call of a bird that distinctly was not indigenous to where the tournament was being played. 

While Regan apparently thought this guy was whack job, or at least a total nature nerd, I totally get the birder's point. I can be enjoying an otherwise well-written TV show when a bogus comment or storyline about nature suddenly brings a halt to my willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, how hard is it to Google the local conservation (or game, wildlife, or natural-resources) department of any state and find out what wildlife actually live in the location where the story is set? 

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)
Photo by Petra Karstedt  
TV producers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on police procedure, getting at least some of it accurate, but nature invariably takes an accuracy hit in most TV shows and many movies. Regan didn't bother to do any research either, coming up with totally bogus bird names and calls for his bit, but that's easier to forgive with a comic. Of course, the bit would have rung more true—especially for those of us who are not nature impaired—if he'd used the name of a real species.

Back to the town in California considering adding bird noises to its streets' ambiance: Citizens could soon think they're surrounded by Northern Cardinals, a species whose range has yet to reach that far west. Or they could be regaled with the song of the nightingale, a species not found in North America. Speaking of nature impaired.... Does it matter that they would be barraged by misinformation at a time when nature deficit disorder is one of the reasons we're heading for ecosystem collapse? Guess not, considering how misinformed most of our citizenry are about nature.

Still, the parallel to 1984, or at least an elevator or dentist's office, is scary enough. Personally, I prefer actual sounds, no matter what they are, in the background when I walk down a street, not some Orwellian idea of what should make me happy. What really makes me happy is not living anywhere near this town. What makes me really happy is living in Rappahannock County, where I only have to open a window to hear all the bird sounds I want.
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Jan 27, 2011

Deer Foraging in the New Snow

Sunrise out back after yesterday's snowfall
Just had a herd of nine deer foraging in the forest behind the house. I rarely see them this time of day, so I'm sure it's the 5.5" of snow we got yesterday that has brought them here. I welcome them back there, since it's a mature deciduous forest and pretty much all the browse that's low enough is nonnative invasives—honeysuckle, multiflora rose, with a bit of native greenbriar and young pines. The pines don't have much of a chance because of the mature hickory, oak, locust, and tulip trees back there that crowd out the light during the growing season, so the deer are welcome to whatever they find.

It's interesting that, with a huge mast crop of acorns and hickory nuts just a few inches below their feet, they still are looking for browse.

There's one mature buck with a good rack, two younger bucks with little racks, a mature doe, and what looks like this year's crop of fawns to round out the herd. After munching on some honeysuckle and greenbriar, they've wandered on down to a pine forest, where they're more likely to find chow.

Wish my old digital camera was up to the task of documenting the passage of the deer. I'm really looking forward to investing in something better next month, so I can add more photos to this blog and my column.

It's been a cold winter, but not a particularly snowy one, and the snow we got last night is slowing melting in today's sun. More snow is on the way tomorrow and Saturday, but not much accumulation is expected.

I'm working on my next "Wild Ideas" column, on wood frogs. Most years, by this time we're hearing their mating call by now, during a brief warm spell when, within a few days they frantically produce the next generation in ponds and vernal pools that are often still partly covered with ice.

This year, it's been silent here in the Blue Ridge. Too cold. I'm missing the chinooks of January that gave a brief respite from the longer, colder winter in the Northern Plains. Spring can't come soon enough here in Virginia this year.

Jan 25, 2011

Things that Go Screech in the Night

Melancholy were the sounds on a winter's night. 
—Virginia Woolf (Jacob's Room)

I’m really not a winter person. As the days get shorter, the nights longer, and the temperature drops, all I want to do is hibernate. I like to be lulled to sleep by a full chorus of cicadas, crickets, tree frogs, and the occasional whip-poor-will, so I find the winter nocturnal silence, with the occasional burst of bizarre and even blood-curdling noises, to be a lot less restful than the sounds of a summer’s night.

As a sight-oriented human, I find it’s harder to describe the sounds of animals than their appearance, but I’ll give it a try with the help of some good references. The first sound that woke me up since the summer chorus went silent was a Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), making what is often referred to as “strange” sounds. While this native of Virginia may bark when threatened, its vocalizations can run the gamut of something out of Jurassic Park to a hawk’s scream or a hoarse cough—sometimes a medley of all these.

The sometimes strange vocalizations of the
nonnative Red Fox (
Vulpes vulpes) can be
heard all over Virginia, particularly at night.

Photo by John Sarvis/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), which is not native to Virginia but is now threatening to crowd out its gray cousin, also has a hawklike scream and doglike bark, adding yips and some more exotic sounds—chattering monkeys, gobbling turkeys and a haunting, loonlike cry come to mind.
If you hear a “bark” that is breathier and more consistent in pitch than a fox, it’s probably a White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

The vocalizations of the native Bobcat (Lynx rufus) and nonnative Coyote (Canis latrans) can add other dimensions to a winter’s night, none of them likely to lull you to sleep. The Bobcat’s range from piglike grunts to the yowl of a cat on steroids, to a scream similar to its larger cousins, the cougar and lion. The Coyote’s vocalizations are similar to that of a small dog yipping, barking and howling, with some sounds closer to those of a wolf. While I used to hear choruses of coyotes outside my door in the Northern Plains, I’ve yet to hear that here in the East.

The sound of the Eastern Screech
(Megascops asio) can be more
like a
 pony's whinny than a screech.

Photo by Wolfgang Wander
Then there are the owls, the earliest of the bird species to mate in Virginia. The small Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio), a woodland species common in Virginia and abundant here in Rappahannock County, makes less of a screech than a ponylike whinny that descends in pitch. Its repertoire also includes cooing similar to that of a Rock Dove (pigeon).

At the other end of the owl spectrum in the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus), the largest native owl in the Americas. At home in diverse habitats and also known as the Tiger Owl, its “HOO...HOO…HOO” is what most of us think of as the owl sound.

The emphatic hoots of the native
Barred Owl (
Strix varia) can be
heard in woodlands throughout
Virginia on winter nights.

Photo by BoxknightJace at en.wikipedia
The Barred Owl (Strix varia), popularly known as the “hoot owl,” has a call similar but “more emphatic” than the Great Horned Owl, and is likely to close with an “aw,” according to Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Birds. Another woodland owl, it can also make doglike barks.

The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) has what the Peterson guide characterizes as “a shrill rasping hiss or snore.” It also can make a chirping sound somewhat like a loud cricket. As its name implies, this bird is fond of roosting in barns or similar rural structures, since it prefers hunting in open country—farmland or grassland—along the edges of woods.

The Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus), the tiniest (2.6 to 3.5 ounces) and most elusive of owls in Virginia, is also the only one that migrates—leaving for more southern climes by early December and showing back up in February. As an article in West Virginia Wildlife Magazine aptly put it, its call is “an incessant, monotonous TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT…TOOT...much like the back-up alarm on a garbage truck!” This woodland owl’s migration flyway goes through the Shenandoah Valley, and it occurs elsewhere in Virginia, too.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re hearing the “normal” call of a nocturnal predator or the last scream of its prey. The Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is not prone to vocalizing but ill squeal or shriek, especially in distress, and is a favorite prey of several nocturnal predators.

Since hearing these sounds is the best way to learn to recognize them, I often head online to find recorded versions. While there are myriad CDs and special audio devices that provide bird vocalizations, recordings of other animals are not as plentiful. The best site I’ve found is Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library (, which also has video.

Animal-vocalization expert Lang Elliott has several wonderful nature-sound books that come with CDs, including A Guide to Night Sounds: The Nighttime Sounds of 60 Mammals, Birds, Amphibians, and Insects. His websites, Music of Nature ( and Nature Sounds (, also have these sounds, plus videos.

As thrilling as the animal cries on a winter night can be, I yearn for the return of the soothing hum of cicadas in the long, steamy nights of summer.

[From my"Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, December 2010]

Jan 19, 2011

Enjoy Webcam of Allen's Hummingbird on Nest

Photo of Allen's Humming bird feeding her chick.
From Phoebe Allens website

This is a great webcam-view of a female Allen's Hummingbird (Selaphorus sasin) on her nest in California. Looks like she has one only one chick. The Allen's has extended its range from the West Coast into Virginia in the last few decades and are sometimes confused with the most common eastern species, the Ruby-throated (Archiochus colubris) and another West Coast species that has also expanded into Virginia, the Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), which is more common than the Allen's here. Both the Rufous and the Allen's will overwinter here when food is available. The fact that people are increasingly feeding hummingbirds is the reason why these western species are successfully expanding their range all along the East Coast, and even to some areas in between. See my post on the Rufous for more info on that species and its successful expansion of its range.

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Jan 16, 2011

Good Birding Blog

Here's another blog for nature lovers. The blogger does a nice job of blending humor with nature anecdotes. Well worth a visit.

Jan 13, 2011

Virginia's Quail Recovery Initiative

Good video about trying to increase quail populations in Virginia, and restore them in some areas where they've disappeared. Heavy on the hunting aspects, but you have to consider the source. The shots of quail taking advantage of reestablished habitat are the best.

Jan 4, 2011

Green Treasure on the Winter Forest Floor

[From my "Wild Ideas" syndicated newspaper column, 11/26/10]

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)
growing along 
the Rappahannock River
Photo by Pam Owen
As the leaves have fallen off, the green wall of oak–hickory forest behind my house has given way to glimpses of mountains and valleys to the south and west. With the lush green of summer and the brilliant fall colors now a memory, any spot of green left tends to beckon me when I walk back there.

The slope is dry, and the soil poor. Other than a few spunky baby pines waiting for the deciduous trees around them to keel over and let in more light, there is little relief from the sea of browns and grays of this bare oak–hickory forest this time of year. Most water drains off so fast that moisture is retained only in few spots where underlying rock has tumbled or worn in such a way as to slow the downhill progress of water and organic detritus, creating pockets of richer, moister soil than on the rest of the slope.

In one of those spots, an understory evergreen common to the region—Polystichum acrostichoides, known commonly as the Christmas fern—has sprouted here and there. According to some sources, its name came from the early colonists’ using it as a Christmas decoration.

Also known as the dagger fern because of the knife-like shape of its sturdy pinna (the leafy parts) and hilt on the stem end, this is no delicate plant. If it were, it wouldn’t stay green through winter.

The Christmas fern is “one of the most characteristic and abundant herbs of mesic [moderately moist] mixed hardwood forests,” according to the Va. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). While it prefers rich, moist soil and shade, it is less picky than other ferns and is quite tolerant of direct sunlight. It will even grow on dry slopes if its roots are kept moist. These characteristics, and the fact that is not invasive, make it a popular landscaping plant. As the Virginia Native Plant Society notes, the Christmas fern also “serves as a wonderful host for butterfly larvae.”

In walking recently on a friend’s property along the Rappahannock River, where the soil is much richer and wetter than in my woods, I enjoyed the lush abundance of Christmas ferns there. With the recent cold snap, some of these had hunkered down, appearing more prostrate than their usual perky selves but still showing remarkable resilience compared with the mostly brown understory around them. Despite its daggerlike pinna, it leant a soft, lush look to the landscape.

Although I’ve never thought of using this fern as a holiday decoration, I do have fond memories of going out with my brother into the “wilderness” near our house in the Town of Fairfax when I was six or seven to collect other greenery for that purpose. This included “crow’s foot” (Lycopodium digitatum), a vining, ground-hugging evergreen whose foliage resembles the foot of a crow, although with more and softer digits. It’s also known as fan clubmoss, ground cedar or running cedar. I loved that plant and its association with Christmas, looking for it in vain on my hikes around Virginia in later years.

Crow’s foot (Lycopodium digitatum) growing with
wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate, center).
The vertical 
spikes at left are the strobili of the
crow’s foot, which 
carry the plant’s spores.
Touching the strobili will 
release a cloud
 of the spores.
 Photo by Pam Owen 
As kids, we considered all land not turned into subdivision as ours to roam and plunder, not thinking that anyone would care. As an adult I realize that, not only were we trespassing and stealing, we were also loving nature to death by bringing it home—from animals to plants to stones. Even then, collectors had admired crow’s foot and other clubmosses almost to extinction—to the point where they had to be protected by law.

Clubmosses, plants in the genus Lycopodium (Greek for “wolf’s foot”) are delicate-looking, low-growing evergreens that carpet forests, especially those with rich soil. They are considered fern “allies” in that they share a sexual reproductive strategy that involves shedding spores to initiate metagenesis—alternating generations that have different growth phases that are actually two distinct organisms. Fortunately, because of conservation efforts, many plants in the Lycopodium genus are now rebounding, and I’ve had the joy of seeing crow’s foot, along with two cousins, Lycopodium clavatum (princess pine) and Lycopodium obscurum (ground pine), growing in Rappahannock County since I moved here eleven years ago.

No Lycopodium is currently on DCR’s lists of vascular plants of concern. However, some similar-looking plants that are also called clubmosses but that have been reclassified as belonging to other genera are on those lists. In general, if you are interested in collecting a wild plant on your property, it’s a good idea to find out whether it’s protected before you whip out your shears or trowel. Contact DCR if you’re not sure, but it’s always best to stick to plants that are abundant if you do want to use some for holiday decorations.

If you really want to do our native plants a favor, whack away at oriental bittersweet (not the native). It has lovely berries; just don’t put them back out where they can take root.