Saturday, May 30, 2009

Turtle Movements

Srini, the lawnmower in the family, is always the one to find the turtles in the yard. He finds the young ones emerging from their over-wintering nest in spring as they crawl across the lawn toward the wetland. He discovers the adults right about now as they search the uplands for a nest site. Today he found this female painted turtle.

Painted turtle, Chrysemys picta


Although common, the painted turtle is quite beautiful. It is referred to as the "sun turtle," as it is often seen basking on logs. They slip into the water quickly, so a stealth approach to a wetland is wise. Seeing one on land up close is a treat and a chance to admire its markings. The carapace (upper shell) is oval, smooth, and dark. The yellow head and neck stripes and the yellow spot behind the eye are visible in the photo below. The spotted and Blanding's turtles, which are more rare, both have yellow spots on their carapace.

Scutes are the bony plates or scales that make up the turtle shell. In the painted turtle the marginal scutes, along the edge of the shell, have distinct red markings above and below. A young painted turtle has an orange or salmon-colored plastron (lower shell), which changes to pale yellow with black splotches in the adult.

As I picked her up to check her underside - the plastron -- she squirted a lot of water. This likely means that she is on her way to lay eggs, since they release lots of water as they dig their nests.

Seven species of turtles are native to New Hampshire. To protect these turtles and all native reptiles and amphibians, the state has adopted rules and regulations that are nicely described here. Generally the rule is to leave things where they are, do not collect or move animals, and do not release pets into the wild. Helping turtles across the road is beneficial, moving them off to the roadside in the direction that they were traveling. Do not transport them to a wetland, since the turtle knows where it is going.

June is the time to watch for turtles on roads and with a little assist help them across.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Rain

The central theme of the past three days is rain. A steady, cold rain, with air temperatures hovering below 50 degrees. We needed rain for the gardens, but the cool temps put a damper on a growth spurt. The green bean and yellow wax bean seeds that I planted last weekend are surely shivering beneath the soil. The pepper plants have stalled. On the plus side the sugar snap peas continue stretching skyward and the tangy arugula has graced our salads all week. The perennials, shrubs, and herbs all seem happy with three days of drenching.

Some animals are also content. This morning while walking trails at Northwood Meadows State Park for an ecological assessment, we stepped carefully to avoid dozens of red efts creeping across the wide gravel road. The efts were all sizes and various shades of orange, and were wandering in different directions. These terrestrial juveniles of the red-spotted newt move about during rainy periods, hunting for mites, spiders, and other small creatures, and dispersing to new areas.

Just as I arrived back home and started to spread out the daypack to dry, a bedraggled fox darted past my window. I caught just a glimpse, but it was nice to see her as I had not seen any sign of her or the pups in a week or so.

Now I am wondering about all the nestlings. This is a difficult period when the parents fly off to find insects, leaving the young exposed to a cold rain. And insects are not active in this weather. I imagine it is slim pickings for the birds and some nests will be lost.

Back to our walk this morning. The Park was full of pink lady's slippers. Dozens and dozens, with some growing in clumps of 5 or more. I have never seen so many blooming in one place. If it had not been raining I would have snapped a few photos, but alas, my camera is not happy in a downpour.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Pawtuckaway

The long weekend culminated in a hike at the nearby Pawtuckaway State Park with friends and dogs. This 5,500 acre park has something for everyone. We always venture farther into the more remote areas to get away from the most popular spots. The Pawtuckaway Mountains within the park form a "ring-dike," the remains of an ancient volcano. The Park harbors a high diversity of rare plants and unique plant communities, a result of its geologic history and the resulting underlying bedrock, which yields lots of magnesium, iron, calcium, and other minerals.

Today we follow our usual route, starting with the hike into Round Pond. The first good swimming hole for the dogs. From there we hike along a wetland edge, where a few winters ago we spotted a bobcat hunting during the day. Today we watch several turkey vultures take flight from rocks and trees on the opposite shore. They join others soaring, a total of twelve circling overhead.
The trail leads through a boulder field; one of the largest aggregations of large boulders in the world. The boulders were plucked from the nearby mountains and dropped here by the last glacier. It is a hugely popular rock climbing spot, particularly for beginners.

The trail to North Mountain, our destination, starts its ascent just past the boulder field and climbs along the edge of a massive rock outcrop. A pair of ravens calls more raucously than usual; one adult is perched in a tree near the rock face. We spot the nest tucked into a rock ledge, by all the whitewash splattering the rock below. Four very large raven nestlings sit on a loosely formed stick nest, peer out from the crevice, and call to their parents. They look bigger than their parents and more than ready to take flight. The nest is seen in the middle of this photo.
As we continue to climb the narrow path up to North Ridge we pass blooming pink lady's slippers, rocks covered in polypody ferns (Polypodium vulgare) and rock tripe lichen (Umbilicaria mammulata), and wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). One particular plant was set against some mountaintop graffiti.

We reach the highest point in our county, at 1,101 feet atop North Mountain. The view gives one the sense of a vast region of undeveloped land below, when in fact, Rockingham County is one of the more densely populated regions of the state. We look across the ring-dike to North Ridge.

Our route continues along North Ridge before we descend and follow a long loop back to Round Pond. Along the way we take note of the rich diversity of plants and a few animals.

A "lawn" of Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica)

Chestnut oak (Quercus prinus) seedling

Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) drapped in flowers

An unusual clump of Solomon's seal (Polygonatum commutatum)

A pickerel frog (Rana palustris) far from water

Back at Round Pond the dogs slake their thirst.
We rest our feet.
Bella brings home some Ossipee mucky peat.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Wild Sarsparilla

Wild sarsparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is an abundant perennial wildflower in our oak-pine woods. It forms a canopy one-two feet tall, shading its own flowers and other low growing herbaceous plants such as Canada mayflower and starflower.

A member of the ginseng family, wild sarsparilla has a long, smooth leaf stalk that splits into three parts at the top. Each part bears 3-7 (usually 5) leaflets.

The leaves are finely toothed. This is one way to be sure it is not poison ivy since the latter is not finely toothed. Also poison ivy has a woody stem, whereas the sarsparilla is entirely herbaceous above ground.
The tiny white flowers form on 3 or 4 round clusters or umbels that are borne on a separate smooth flower stalk.

Wild sarsparilla reproduces by seed and by branching roots (or rhizomes). The long creeping, fleshy rootstock is what was and perhaps still is used by some to flavor drinks and for medicinal purposes. Hence it is known as "the orginal backwoods root beer."

This is not to be confused, however, with the unrelated true Sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.), a vine that grows in Central America and that is also used for medicinal purposes. And the flavorings used in commercial root beer is also something different. Originally it was sassafras root until that was considered to be carcinogenic in the 1970s. Today various roots are used along with artificial ingredients or maybe just artificial stuff to make soft drinks.

Our common wild sarsparilla is favored by deer in spring; they have chewed some of the leaves at the edge of our driveway along with some tulips and hosta. By mid-summer dark blue fruits will form. In fall the leaves turn a golden yellow. On the hot days this week I noticed many pollinating flies on the umbels. The weather has changed dramatically. After two hot 90-degree days, today is cold, overcast, and breezy. Not a day for pollinators, but a good day for weekend chores.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cool Blue

With temperatures soaring above 90 degrees today (although a dry heat, not the sticky, humid, August 90 degrees), the dogs and I searched for cool places -- inside the house with all the shades pulled; outside at the wetland edge and later a favorite swimming hole.

Irises are starting to bloom in perennial gardens, yet when I discovered a wild blue flag iris its beauty surpassed any garden variety iris. The shaded wetland shore and the cool blue of the iris offered a welcome respite from the hot afternoon sun.

Iris versicolor

If you look close at the iris (click on the photo for a larger image; someday I'll get a better camera), you may see a half dozen or more small beetles. They were scurrying around the flower. If you look really close you might be able to see that they have a long weevil-like snout. Apparently there is such a thing as an "iris snout beetle" known as the Iris weevil (Mononychus vulpeculus). I am wondering if they are the creature in this iris.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Large Carpenter Bees

Sometimes you miss seeing things clearly that are right under your nose. Such was the case today when I discovered large carpenter bees buzzing about our house. This all started around mid-day when I ventured out to our deck to have lunch. Just then the fox trotted down the driveway with a meadow vole in her mouth. She was oblivious of me (and Bella) as she headed into the woods and back to the den with her meal for the pups.

After she disappeared into the woods, me without the camera, I turned and was face to face (or nose to nose) with a bee. This bee was buzzing about the deck, hovering near me and then Bella, zooming off over the roof only when another bee entered his territory. Only to return to defend his space.

I suddenly realized that this was not a bumble bee and that I had been seeing this bee and its kin buzzing about our house, particularly on warm sunny days and especially near the gable end of our house above the driveway. And I had, quite mistakenly, assumed they were bumble bees.

The reason for my mistake was twofold. On warm, sunny days in spring for several years we have found dead bumble bees on our driveway. Sometimes we had seen Aria catch and kill them, perhaps other times they have just died. So, I had not even considered that the other bees buzzing around the house on hot days were something other than bumble bees, because they looked quite similar. But today I suddenly realized something was different about them.

First, I now noticed, with this bee buzzing about my face, that his abdomen was black and shiny, almost metallic with no hairs. Bumble bees are quite hairy on their abdomen with at least some yellow. And as one who usually prides myself on identifying animals based on their habitat, I kicked myself for just noting that this was not the right habitat for bumble bees. They typically nest in the ground and spend most of their time moving between their nest and nearby flowers. These bees were hovering around the house, far above the ground and from flowers.

So, here is what I found out about my new bee friends, the large carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica. They appear in spring around April and May, after emerging from their overwintering spots in wood (trees or structures). People first notice the males, which are quite aggressive, although thankfully harmless since they have no stingers, as they hover, like probes. This time of year the bees are looking for mates and good nest sites. The latter being wood that is not painted and is preferably some type of softwood.

Later in the day I was retrieving some things from the laundry line and noticed another bee hovering near the shed to my right. Ah, it's a large carpenter bee I now knew. And then it disappeared. By now, from my reading on the Internet, I knew that females drilled holes in wood to lay their eggs. So, I looked under the shed eaves and found some holes. As I was looking at this one below, fresh wood shavings fell from the hole and I could hear the bee chewing inside.

This perfectly round hole was about 1/2 inch in diameter. The carpenter bee does not eat the wood, just like a carpenter's drill she is making way for something. As she first chews her way into the wood, her path is across the wood grain. About an inch or two inside, she turns at a right angle (apparently always to the right) and continues with the grain, another 4 to 6 inches, and sometimes up to ten feet. Once at the end of her chamber, she places "bee bread" (a mixture of pollen and regurgitated nectar) and lays one egg on top of this "nest." She then seals off this cell with chewed wood pulp and repeats this 6 or 10 times as she backs out of the tunnel.

As I examined the side of the shed, I spotted a splattering of yellow goo. This is the waste from a carpenter bee - a mixture of spent wood shavings and their own excrement. Just below and to the left is another fresh hole. In this hole I could see the 90 degree angle turn to the right.

Once laid, the eggs will hatch in a few days, and the female will die shortly thereafter. The larvae remain in their cells for another 7 weeks or so, when they will emerge as adults. It takes the female 6 days to chew once inch, so getting the full nest gallery prepared will take awhile, so the new adults will not emerge until August. By then the parents will have died.

I suppose lots of carpenter bees could do some damage over time, but for now I will enjoy this "new" addition to our yard (and buildings). The male is harmless, and yes the female will sting, but she is docile and if left alone, is also harmless. As with other bees, the carpenter bee is an important pollinator of flowers and trees. I'll trade a little wood from the shed for this service.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Fox

Just as I was sitting down at my desk around 1:00 pm the mother fox appeared in the yard by the bird feeder. She moved slowly, trotted into the back yard, listened, then trotted up the driveway. She disappeared into the ditch for a few minutes then reappeared at the top of the driveway. By then I had grabbed my camera and snapped this photo through the window as the fox stood listening. Nothing caused her to pounce. Abruptly she turned and trotted down the road.
click on photo to enlarge

The den is in the opposite direction. The two pups (or kits) that I've seen are under a shed at a nearby house that is currently unoccupied. They are dangerously close to a busy road, one of the greatest threats to their survival. I saw the mother farther down the road hunting in woods along a stone wall. She was about a mile from the den.

Red fox are small, the adults weighing only about 10 pounds. They are all legs, tail, and fur. Their skinny legs are black as are their feet. The long, bushy tail is tipped in white. Their reddish color easily distinguishes them from the gray fox. The young stay with their mother for many months, so we should see the family all summer assuming they learn to avoid the busy road.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Pack Reunites

Bella and I returned to New Hampshire on Friday to reunite with the rest of our pack, Srini and Aria. Here Bella and Aria sniff the plants and share a few blades of grass or sedge at the edge of the wetland just behind our property. Inside the house they are not so happy to share resources.

Bella and I swapped the back forty of Winterberry Farm for the back one of our yard. It is not quite the same but there are a few gems to be found in small places too. The fringed polygala, Polygala paucifolia, is in bloom near the wetland.

A great-crested flycatcher and scarlet tanager are singing in our yard. The sugar snap peas are about six inches high. Srini saw a red fox run through the edge of our yard. Today we spotted two fox pups near the road, the den is close.

I spent several hours this morning at New Roots Farm, my nearby organic farmer friends that I help every year. Things grow while one is away for six weeks during the early planting season. The greenhouse is stuffed with seedlings -- dozens of varieties of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, squash, basil, parsley, scallions, more herbs, lettuce, and much more. All at various stages of growth, to be planted out in the fields as they are ready. The weather for the next two days has put all field planting on hold. Temperatures are to dip into the lows 30s the next two nights. Why did I plant my zinnia seedlings yesterday?....will need to cover those sensitive plants.

Other happenings on the farm while I was away -- the chickens got out of their pen and ate two flats of lettuce. Let's just say the hens are in the dog house and not so free-ranging. A goat and her kid arrived, the mother is providing fresh milk daily. And 16 or more piglets arrived (I never can count them when they are all bunched together). A new irrigation pump was installed so water actually comes out of the spigot by each field. This will save us from dragging hoses everywhere.

Renee and I spent the morning in the greenhouse. I planted several flats of kohlrabi, bok choi, fennel, zinnias, and scallions. I need reading glasses for this work as the seeds are tiny. It felt good to be in the greenhouse on this cool, rainy day. After planting, Renee showed me the location of a killdeer nest. While the parents scurred off with "broken wings," I snatched a photo of the shallow scrape of a nest with four eggs set at the edge of a yet unplanted row. I think Jeff and Renee will give them some space, but planting season is underway....so the parents better hurry with their hatch date, not that they can.


After lunch Srini and I took Aria and Bella to one of our favorite haunts. The trail, soft underfoot with its bedding of pine needles, leads through a floodplain forest along the Lamprey River and through an upland oak-pine forest. The latter is habitat to the pink lady's slipper, also known as moccasin flower. Now in full bloom, its showy rose-colored pouches set a striking pose on the forest floor.
Pink lady's slipper, Cypripedium acaule


A nice weekend to reacquaint with home and haunts in New Hampshire, after six weeks away.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Heading Home

Today the clouds were blowing from the southwest to the northeast. Tomorrow morning Bella and I will pack up and follow the clouds as we head home to New Hampshire, after spending nearly six weeks here at Winterberry Farm with my parents. My mother saw her surgeon this week, 6 weeks after he replaced a cracked femur with a titanium ball and neck and some cement. He said her leg strength was good and her gait progressing well. She can start going about daily life without too many "precautions," bending and turning are now okay, just don't do it all at once. Her strength training via physical therapy shifts to outpatient. Before we know it she'll be out mowing the lawn again (and with a push mower).

I will miss many things from this extended stay. Stepping out the back door for walks in the back forty (priceless). The asparagus patch and the rhubarb (I picked a big bunch today). The woodland trail through the fern glade. Watching nature in and around the Pond, especially the green herons making their sharp, skeow, as they take flight when we approach. Catbirds calling from every thicket. Sharing space and time with my parents. Redtail at dawn. Watching Bella spring through the fields, ears flapping. Bella will miss much of the same.

A few things, just a few, I will not miss. The road noise (too much traffic on this now busy road. As kids we walked down the road and waited at a neighbors for the bus. I don't remember much traffic in those days). Pulling garlic mustard. I made, I think, a big dent, but ugh, there is more waiting for my next visit. Ticks - deer and wood - but they are back home too.

A few of my favorite images from my stay at Winterberry Farm.

Mom's celebratory visit to the pond, 6-week's post-surgery.


A "family" of ferns emerging.

Interrupted ferns

Wild grape

Early morning walks with Bella in the back forty.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pigs and Cows

The pasture-raised pigs and cows were shifted to some of our fields this week. Farmer Mark, affiliated with Brookfield Farm, tends the animals. Spring through fall he moves them from field to field as they eat through the forage.


The cows shift every four days or so. By then they have eaten all their favorite clover and look longingly at the next pasture over. This cow looks serenely at Bella as she rushes about barking.

These Dexter cows are gentle and on the smaller side as breeds go. This morning as Bella and I stopped by to say hi, they wandered over to the watering trough. Maybe they know Mark is coming by today to move them over to the next pasture - they can smell the fresh clover.


The water comes from our pond (Winterberry Pond) via a sturdy pump and fire hoses.

How many pigs are there in this little pig house where they spend the night? Apparently pigs like to be warm.


Now that the sun is up the ten (!) young pigs are frolicking about in their expansive pasture. The electric fence is only a foot high. Pig noses are sensitive so the fence meets them at nose height. These are Heritage pigs, an assortment of breeds, that many small-scale farmers raise. Heritage pigs do well on pasture, being thrifty and hardy, compared to the breeds raised by large commercial "operators." Those pigs, unfortunately, are used to a different sort of life.


Bella stays well away from the pigs and the pig fence. Last summer she ran barking into the pig pasture (the low fence perfect for frisky and foolish little dogs). The pigs were good sized by then and started chasing Bella. She flew back across the fence, but caught one paw. Ouch. Bella paws are sensitive too!

So, the pigs and cows seem to be content with fresh, green plants to eat, clean water and great views. Though even here, you can still get that sweet pig smell!

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Not So Clever Nest

Starting more than a week ago, a pair of robins started raising a ruckus as I walked along the woodland trail to the pond. I looked about in the red maples and small beeches, but could not see a nest that I was sure was there. The robins were quite alarmed by Bella and me. They hopped about in the canopy, loudly calling peek, peek, peek and tuk, tuk, tuk, tuk, until we were out of sight.

On Saturday as I walked back from the pond through the woods, I looked about as the robins started their alarm calls, and there it was, just off the trail. A beautiful nest and in a clever spot.

The robins had chosen a ledge of sorts. A broken red maple, the trunk split at about eight feet, created a flat surface, with the split trunk overhanging to provide protection from rain. The robins built their nest under a lean-to. Granted the lean-to had no sides so wind and rain could be a nuisance.

When I discovered the nest, the female had already flushed, so I took the opportunity to get a closer look. Ah, four beautiful baby blue eggs. Such a perfect nest, with a view overlooking a small ravine.


The next morning Srini and I walked into the woods from the lower field so I could show him the nest. From a distance, with binoculars in hand, we could see the female incubating the eggs. Rather than disturb her on an unusually cool and quite windy morning, we retreated along a different path to the house.

Just before lunch I took Bella for another walk to the pond for her mid-day exercise. I wanted to get a few more pictures of the setting for the robin's nest so Bella and I entered the woods. I raised my bins to check the nest, but just as I did I sensed something was wrong. The day before I could see the broken branch hung up in the tree as soon as I entered the woods. I peered about thinking I wasn't close enough. I walked farther along the path until I could plainly see that something was amiss. I gave a small shout as I realized that the strong morning winds had shaken the broken trunk loose.

In its fall, the trunk had snapped further, kicking out another piece of wood, just at the level of the nest, essentially sweeping the nest off its platform.


The contents of nest were scattered about below and down into the little ravine. The eggs were smashed against the root of the red maple.

Robins are common and often have two to three broods per year. Being only May, this pair has plenty of time to re-nest. Still, I had hoped that this nest of eggs would hatch and fledge. I was set to write my blog about this nest, calling it "A Clever Nest" because I thought the location was very cool. I had to change the blog post title after nature set the story on a different path and offered up an unexpected ending.

Today, as I hung out the laundry, I noticed another robin, hovering about, giving a few tuks. Sure enough, there was another robin nest in the large, old crabapple tree that holds one end of the laundry line. This nest is well-protected from the elements. Maybe that is the clever nest - well-hidden, safe, and secure. Perhaps an excuse not to do laundry for awhile......so as not to disturb mother robin.