Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Garter Snakes

The common garter snake is common, the most common and widespread reptile in our region. Yet, despite its commonness it is a snake and a reptile and that is still pretty cool.

A common garter snake basks in the sun on a bed of dried grass.

The garter snake is variable in color and attitude, sometimes being fairly docile and other times more aggressive if handled. This garter snake let us get close, without much reaction. I think the snake was just happy that the sun was shining.

My niece called it the gardener snake; seems like we usually find them in or near gardens and the snake is a good gardener, eating garden pests, so a good name.

These pictures were taken at Winterberry Farm in Western Massachusetts last week. Now that I am back in coastal New Hampshire, the rain continues. I think we are up to 8+ inches for the month of June, 3x times the average.

Given the gloomy weather here, it is nice to think of this snake basking under a warm sun (apparently the sun is still shining at Winterberry Farm).

The common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) typically is blackish with three light yellow stripes on its back or dorsum -- one down the center and one along each side. The females give birth to 14-40 live young (being "viviparous") between July and September. Many of our snakes are viviparous, but some such as the racer, smooth green snake, and milk snake lay eggs.

Bring on the sun and the garter snakes.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Feral and Free-Roaming Cats

A feral cat is an unowned and untamed domestic cat (Felis catus). It is the offspring of lost or abandoned pet cats or other feral cats that are not spayed or neutered. They are "wild" and difficult to handle and tame. They often live in colonies in cities and their outskirts. Feral cats can reproduce exponentially, even though they typically have a short, difficult life, dying from disease, infection, poison, wounds, predation, or being hit by vehicles. There is a huge nationwide coalition of groups that like cats, including feral cats, don't want them to be euthanized, and support what is known as TNR -- Trap-Neuter-Release.

There is a raging controversy about feral cats and what to do about them. Several groups are active in TNR and politically strong. These include Alley Cat Allies, The Humane Society of the U.S., Best Friends Animal Society, No Kill Advocacy Center. Generally, these groups support stabilizing the feral cat population by TNR and improving the health of these feral cat colonies through active feeding and removing new cats for TNR. One example of their political strength. They helped defeat a bill that was intended to eradicate invasive species from National Wildlife Refuges; the opposition to the bill was based on the idea that feral cats might be considered invasive and therefore killed on wildlife refuges.

Wildlife biologists are concerned that TNR is not effective, that feral cats kill millions of birds, small mammals, and other wildlife, and that they transmit diseases to wildlife and humans. Feral cat advocates are adamant that no cats be euthanized. And yet, these cats kill many wild animals. So, one might ask, "why do individual cats matter more than individual birds? Currently, it seems that there is little middle ground on what to do about feral cats. Adoption of feral cats seems one solution that everyone can agree on. Assuming that those adopting keep their cats inside. And that brings us to the other group of domestic cats of concern to wildlife biologists and others -- free-roaming cats.

Free-roaming cats are pets that are allowed to roam free at least part of the time. In 2007, it was estimated that there were 82 million pet cats and at least that number of feral cats in the United States. It is documented that cats, whether free-roaming or feral, kill millions of birds, a billion small mammals, and thousands of reptiles and insects each year. Bells on collars and de-clawing does not prevent cat predation on wild animals.

Lisa Macki, a graduate student at The Evergreen State College, studied the attitudes and behaviors of cat owners in an urban neighborhood in Olympia, Washington. This neighborhood of 1,100 residents, covering 268 acres, owned about 850 cats. In a survey of the owner's treatment of the cats she learned the following: 54.2% allow their cat to roam freely outdoors as well as indoors; 35% keep their cat indoors all the time; 8.3% allow their cat outdoors under controlled environments such as on leash or in an enclosure; and 0% keep their cats outdoors all the time. These cat owners supported more owner education to reduce free-roaming cats and their impacts; they least liked the option of trapping and euthanizing.

Perhaps everyone can agree that much more education is needed on proper cat ownership, the impacts of outdoor cats on wildlife populations and human and wildlife health, and the difficult lives of feral cats, with an emphasis on healthy cats living indoors with people.

We've been watching Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, who has an amazing talent for calming dogs and their owners so that they can live happier, healthier lives together. Maybe we need a Cat Whisperer. It is always about the owner, not the animals. Cats are doing what comes natural; it is humans that impart their biases and moral values on animals that then lead to unwanted behaviors.

There is much more to learn and think about regarding our pets, both cats and dogs. I'll have more on our dog, Bella. Our reason for watching the Dog Whisperer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Urban Wildlife

Back when I was the Wildlife Specialist for University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension I traveled the state to work with landowners and foresters on managing lands for wildlife habitat. These were primarily rural lands and the emphasis was on wildlife and forestry. While it was all interesting and mostly of value (but not always), I sometimes felt constrained in my role. Although the position and the profession has evolved toward thinking more broadly about biodiversity and ecosystems, we are not quite there yet. This is one reason I opted to start working on my own, so that I was free to work in whatever direction I desired.

Another aspect of the program that still surprises me, is how little emphasis is placed on urban wildlife and the urban/suburban human community. Granted managing larger parcels has the potential to yield greater benefits for wildlife. Yet, four out of five of us live in cities or suburbs. Most people interact with wildlife in these places, and often it is a negative interaction, leading to "nuisance" wildlife calls and actions. Somewhat contradictory though, people often have positive views of wildlife, but negative views of wildlife habitat.

With these thoughts in mind I was eager to attend the International Symposium on Urban Wildlife and the Environment, held the past three days at the University of Massachusetts. It was one of the better conferences that I have attended from the perspective of the diversity of ideas presented and the diversity of expertise of the presenters. This included landscape architects and planners, social scientists, wildlife biologists, private consultants, animal welfare advocates, and others. Despite this diversity we still struggle with ethnic diversity; it was a largely white Anglo audience.

Many interesting tidbits, ideas, and challenges were discussed. Several papers on feral and free-roaming cats were presented. I will devote my post tomorrow to that topic. Here are a few diverse ideas and concepts that I took away.................
  • "Gotham is wilder that you think" -- with 12,000 acres of natural areas New York City is home to high concentrations of rare plants, one of the largest colonial wading bird rookeries in the region, and is restoring wetlands, forests, and grasslands. A positive trend considering that from 1900 to 1964, NYC filled 90% of its wetlands with demolition debris and garbage and then built on them.
  • Chicago, one of the largest cities in the U.S. lies within Cook County metro area, one of the most urbanized in the country, yet has 11% or 68,000 acres as forest preserves
  • Phoenix has 1,600 Homeowner's Association, which are a "black hole" in terms of managing natural landscapes
  • Between 2000 and 2030 46% of the built environment in the U.S. will be new or replaced; providing countless opportunities to "get it right" this time
  • Invasive woody plants -- those not from the local food web -- host very few native caterpillars. The larvae of butterflies and moths evolved to feed on certain plants and can't shift to other species. The presenter began with a picture of his neighbor's yard that had 10 trees, all of which were from other countries. Native caterpillars are the base of the food web for most of our breeding songbirds.
  • Installing flow devices -- fences around culverts and pipes in beaver dams, is the best way to prevent flooding of roads and other structures; this allows beaver to remain in the wetland and for humans to co-exist. Trapping is the least effective, since beaver will return.
  • Mountain lions are successfully living in the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles. They need green corridors to enable safe passage to other large open spaces beyond -- well-designed underpasses and bridges across major roads is critical. They avoid humans as much as possible.
  • Rather than always trying to keep the effects of suburbs out of open space, how about extending the values and benefits of open space into developed areas

Monday, June 22, 2009


It was dark last night. Rain continues for days on end. No sun or moon in sight. I went out with Bella around 9:30 pm for her final duties before bedtime. The backyard was alive with fireflies, flashing a greenish light from their abdomen, alerting mates to their presence. Commonly called fireflies, lightning bugs, or glowworms, they are actually beetles. They are quite efficient in producing light, this bio-luminescence caused by a chemical reaction. Most of the energy they produce in their light-making organ is given off as light. In contrast, a typical light bulb gives off only 10% of its energy as light, the rest is wasted as heat. Fireflies would roast if they produced that much heat.

As kids we gathered up fireflies in jars and ran around with our homemade "flashlights." As the fireflies sparkled under a dark sky, a tree frog called from a nearby tree. Even by day I can't find these frogs, so well camouflaged they are and they seem to throw their voice like a ventriloquist. A few days back we found one on the road after a rainy night. It had ventured into the path of a car or vise-versa. Despite its condition it was readily identifiable by the bright yellow patches on the underside of its hind legs.

I am back at Winterberry Farm for a week. Attending a symposium on urban wildlife and visiting family. More on the conference in the next few days.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Farmer's Markets

Our town of Newmarket hosted its first Farmer's Market today.

Everyone was in a happy mood,
with fresh local produce,
and the sun was shining, at last.

I was there to help Joanna, the first apprentice at New Roots Farm, sell beautiful fresh food -- beets, radishes, lettuce, bok choi, garlic scapes, Swiss chard, and some herbs. The market was so successful that most of the produce was gone by mid-morning.

Joanna and I sported the new t-shirts designed by Farmer Jeff.

Back home, after the market, with the sun still shining the pollinators were busy in the perennials. The comfrey, in full flower, is hugely popular with bumble-bees.

A lovely Eastern tiger swallowtail flitted between the comfrey flowers.

Comfrey is a dramatic addition to the garden. It grows quickly, when cut back it re-sprouts easily, and it is a magnet for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other colorful garden creatures.

As a follow-up to yesterday's post -- Charlotte is feeding on a deer fly that she trapped in her web, wrapped in some sheer silk, and I believe is now sucking the insides dry. Her newly created egg sac of yesterday hangs nearby.

Happy Birthday to Spicebush Log for my 100th post!

Friday, June 19, 2009

House Spiders

We have several friends that have or have had a house rabbit. The kind that live in the living room and for which you pick up all the raisins it has left behind at the end of the day. We, of course, have dogs, but I've come to like another inhabitant of our home, the house spider.

Meet Charlotte

aka the common house spider, Achaearanea tepidariorum

click on the photo to get a slightly better look at Charlotte

Charlotte lives outside my home office window. She is a "cobweb" spider. You can't see it in the photo (I know, you can barely see Charlotte), but she has an irregular tangle of web that extends from the window glass to the side sash. A few small flying insects are tangled in the outer reaches. Think about the inside of your brain on a Friday afternoon (right about now) full of cobwebs, and there you have Charlotte's web!

Charlotte has a nice round abdomen that is grayish with light and dark speckles. Her head and thorax, collectively called the cephalothorax, is orange-colored. If you were up close you could see her narrow waist and her eight legs, both features that make her a spider.

At this very moment she is spinning some silk
by reaching her two hind legs
to her spinnerets at the back of her abdomen.
She is secreting a liquid through the spinnerets,
that hardens on contact with air,
as she pulls it to her two pairs of center legs,
which are holding a white ball of silk
that is getting bigger by the minute.
I think she is making an egg sac!

Charlotte probably has some relatives living in our basement and in the garage. When I vacuum down there (admittedly it is not often) I try to leave them be. When they start to take over the ceiling with their ever expanding webs, I admit to scooping some up in the vac.

There are thousands of spider species, most are harmless and beneficial eating flies, crickets, mites, and such. I am interrupted by Charlotte......

Charlotte is now extruding a yellowish-brown goo
from her abdomen into the partially formed silk wrap.
Some goo dripped and is stuck to the window pane.
I think those are eggs!
She's gone back to making silk,
continuing the silk wrap around the brown log-shaped sac.

Okay, back to spiders in general, as Charlotte continues her silk making. Spiders hunt in different ways. Some build webs to ensnare their prey. These can be cobwebby webs, or orb weaver webs (the circular, flat, elaborate webs that you see in meadows), or funnel webs. Some spiders are active hunters and some lay in wait. To identify spiders to just the proper family one usually needs a microscope to look at the arrangement of eyes (spiders have 6-8), thin sensory hairs, spines, and claws.

Our childhood stories and rhymes are full of spiders....."Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey......" The spider scares Miss Muffet away so that is not the best for getting kids to like spiders. How about "The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout, down came the rain and washed the spider out, out came the sun, and dried up all the rain, and the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again." And then there is Charlotte, friend of Wilbur, the pig.

My Charlotte continues to wrap the sac with silk.
It is an odd pear-shaped sac.
I must tear myself away now and fix dinner.
I'll check in with Charlotte in the morning,
and let you know her progress.

Be not frightened of these amazing creatures.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bluebirds, Swallows, and Nest Boxes

Beginning in the 1970s peopled rallied to restore the beautiful Eastern bluebird, which was in a serious population decline. The causes of the decline? Changes in habitat for one. Bluebirds live in open areas--fields, orchards, farmland, beaver ponds, pitch pine-oak forests, clearings made by fire or logging. And they nest in cavities, in holes made by woodpeckers. By the 1970s, abandoned farms were being reclaimed by forest, metal fence posts replaced wooden posts, orchards and other habitats were converted to human settlements. Also, as an insect-eater, the bluebird's food source was likely contaminated by pesticides.

To bring back the bluebird, a campaign began and is still underway to build and maintain bluebird nest boxes. Some people maintain dozens of nest boxes along a "bluebird trail." Detailed information is available at several places -- the North American Bluebird Society and Sialis -- on how to build, place, and monitor bluebird boxes. This has been a hugely successful effort, engaging young and old in observing these beautiful birds.

The Eastern bluebird is a smaller version of a robin, one of its close relatives. The bluebird's cobalt blue head and back contrast with its rusty throat and breast. A somewhat plump bird, it perches and watches the ground, abruptly flying down to capture a grasshopper, cricket, beetle, spider, or caterpillar. Before nest boxes arrived, bluebirds nested in dead or dying trees at the edge of wetlands, in trees killed by fire or beaver, or in apple trees. In addition to nest boxes, it is important to maintain these natural cavities and the surrounding habitats.

Old apple tree, male bluebird seen visiting the holes

The specifications for building and placing nest boxes are precise (see websites above) to ensure maximum success and to deter predators and competitors. One potential competitor is another attractive native bird, the tree swallow, which is also deserving of nest boxes and observation.

photo by Amy Snyder, Charlotte, Vermont

The tree swallow's iridescent blue head and back and snow white throat and breast are striking. Its streamlined body slices through the air above as it captures dragonflies, moths, flies, and other flying insects on the wing.

Bluebirds and tree swallows can nest side-by-side. Try mounting pairs of nest boxes, about 10 feet apart. Individual or pairs of boxes should then be spaced about 300 feet apart to encourage multiple birds to nest.

To avoid another native, but pesky, cavity-nester, the house wren, place nest boxes more than 200 feet from woods or brushy areas. A nest box full of sticks is a sure sign of a house wren, which will first remove any other nest, eggs, and young. This is a bit of a judgement since the wren is also native, but the wren seems to do well in other natural habitats. And I guess looks do matter, since the wren is a little brown bird that can hardly compete with the glamorous bluebird and tree swallow.

A nice tree swallow tree at the edge of Winterberry Pond

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Living 03

One of my favorite ways to save money, save energy, and reduce use of fossil fuels is to.......

Hang out the laundry.

This particular style of laundry line was perfected by my Dad, relying on a ready supply of long, forked sticks for propping up the line on Winterberry Farm.

Our friend Dale was a bit skeptical of the physics of this technique. I assured him that my family has used it for decades. And if the stick falls down you pick it back up. You use several sticks at a time along the line, so the clothes never drag in the grass.

A few years ago we added three lines off the back of our deck, much to the delight of my mother-in-law, who loves to do laundry (isn't that great!). She could now hang her saris to dry in the breeze.

The sun and the wind, the only two things you need to dry your clothes, but it works on overcast days too! When it rains for days on end (that sounds a bit like June 2009), we have some lines and racks in the basement. We do have an electric dryer which we use for some final drying during long periods of inclement weather. And in winter, the towels and such get tossed in the dryer. Our other solar-powered clothesline is buried under snow most of the winter.

A few neighbors (okay one) hangs her laundry out year-round. The clothes are stiff as a board but dry. Another neighbor seems to hang out his laundry only when it rains. We're not sure of his technique. Mostly though, we see few people hanging out their laundry to dry in the sun. This boggles the mind, given the cost (in dollars and environment) of using electricity to dry clothes. And clothes smell so nice when warmed by the sun. Some of our neighbors use the totally unnecessary dryer fabric softeners. We know because we can smell it on our morning walks. I really hate that smell!

The sun is shining this morning. Time to hang out the clothes.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Trembling Aspens

The bright green, roundish, finely-toothed leaves shake in the wind, its light colored bark carries on photosynthesis, and some are 80,000 years old. This is the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), which occurs across a broader range than any other tree in North America.

Its name, both Latin and common, expresses one of the aspen's most intriguing traits - the leaves flutter in the wind. The leaf petiole (or stem) is flat and oriented at a right angle to the leaf blade. This gives flexibility, allowing it to twist in the wind. Leaves of other hardwoods have a rounder petiole. Check it out next time you are walking by some trees.

The aspen's quaking leaves may reduce the effects of intense sunlight on outer leaves and allow sunlight through to the lower leaves, thus improving photosynthesis. Or perhaps it helps protect against strong winds, letting breezes pass through the tree evenly. Or maybe we just don't know.

Aspens are true pioneers; they colonize disturbed sites such as gravel pits, old fields, clear-cuts, and landslides. You often see them growing along with other early colonizers--gray birch and pin cherry. These trees like full sun. As other trees sprout around them and eventually over-top, aspens and other "early successional" species will fade out of the forest. Aspens start to look their age by 70 years or so.

In the Northeast, another aspen -- the bigtooth -- occurs less frequently, but shares many of the some traits as the quaking aspen. Bigtooth aspen, Populus grandidentata, has leaves with big teeth.

When aspens are young their bark is a smooth olive-green. In older age, the bark becomes furrowed as in these old bigtooth aspens.

You may notice aspens in the spring, when they send out their male and female fluffy catkins, which are borne on separate trees. All before the leaves emerge.

Although aspen disperse their seeds by wind, most new growth occurs from root suckering. A grove of aspen is often a clone, all the trees related and connected underground to an extensive root system. So the tree may die above-ground, but the genes live on. An "aspen" in southern Utah was aged at 80,000 years old. One technique for regenerating aspen is to cut down an old one, which spurs root suckering, and to cut other trees to create an opening. This provides full sun for aspen to sprout and grow.

Aspen is a favorite food of beaver. Ruffed grouse dine on the buds and flowers in winter and spring. Next year look for grouse perched on the sturdy branches high in the tree. Deer and moose and snowshoe hare browse the twigs. Watching aspen leaves flutter in the wind under a clear blue sky is a favorite past-time of mine.

In the East aspen is one of dozens and dozens of hardwoods. In the West it is nearly the only hardwood around. And they are beauties in the fall. A few falls ago we visited Rocky Mountain National Park, when aspen were in full glory.

Photos by S. Srinivasan

Elk are abundant in the Park, maybe too abundant. Years of browsing by elk leave deep scars on aspen trunks. As we huffed and puffed along the trails at high elevation, we watched the aspen leaves flutter in the wind and some fluttered to ground.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Brown Snake

Since my last post was about slugs, it seems appropriate that today is about a snake that prefers slugs as a meal. The brown snake, Storeria dekayi, is a dainty, docile snake that is fairly common, yet often overlooked.

This snake is a soft brown with a lighter-colored central band down the back bordered by a row of faint black dots on each side. Just behind the eyes is a black vertical stripe. The belly is buff-colored with no markings.

The brown snake reaches about one foot in length. It's small size, cryptic coloration, and general nocturnal and even fossorial behavior leads one to forget how common this snake is in the northeast. The brown snake occurs in a variety of habitats from urban to rural. I find it in fields or meadows. One year, unfortunately, we discovered dozens killed on the road. The adjacent fields had recently been cut, and I can only guess that they dispersed to the road to get away from the mowing. And yet there were other places they could have gone. The warmth of the road must have drawn them out of the field, woods, and wet meadows.

I love this little snake. You can get close, without it slithering quickly away like a garter snake. It rarely hisses or is aggressive. And they eat slugs!

Thursday, June 11, 2009


You know it has been overcast, cool, and raining a lot (this is supposed to be June not April) when the slugs are gliding through the grass at mid-day. Slugs are interesting, but if you search for information on the Internet all you get is how bad they are and the various ways to kill them because they will eat your garden. Many of the sites include chemical controls, which I ignore. My favorite recommendation was for "good garden sanitation." More on that later.

First, let me introduce the slugs in our yard. I tried to determine the species, but could not find a good source on slug identification. When you Google "slugs" you get a lot of unrelated stuff. Anyway, this may be a common garden slug, and it may be native to Europe, not the U.S. If anyone reading this is a slug expert please comment on your best guess for species.

Okay back to the slugs, these snails without shells. Here "it" is. Yes, they are or can be both male and female. They are hermaphrodites or better known today as "transgender." Alright, here is the smooth, yellowish-brown naked mollusk.

The head is to the left. The two dark blue antennae or "optic tentacles" are used for smelling and seeing. The top half by the head is the "mantle," which in other mollusks is what creates the shell. Somewhere underneath is a guillotine jaw and a scraper-like set of teeth for chewing through plants, fungi, and decaying matter. They are true composters. A blowhole for breathing, more scientifically known as a pnuemostone, is located somewhere on the side of the mantle.

In Spanish they are called "babosas" from the verb "babear" meaning to drool. And that they do. They excrete a mucus or slime that serves many purposes. It helps them glide along without harming their tender feet; remember no shell. It prevents them from drying out and leaves a slime trail for mates to follow and so they can re-trace their "steps" to a food source.

Slugs move slowly and mostly at night, except when they move on cold, wet June days.

Okay, on to the tips for good garden sanitation....
  • Avoid watering gardens at night, since slugs like things moist; morning watering allows plants to dry before nightfall
  • Plant veggies and flowers with good air movement and ventilation between plants; crowding invites slugs and they especially love hostas
  • Stake tomatoes and other fruit-laden plants to keep leaves and fruit off the ground
  • Encourage robins, toads, turtles, ground beetles, shrews, and garter snakes, all predators of slugs, as are ducks and chickens
  • Apparently containers filled with stale beer buried at soil level are effective at capturing slugs
  • Since slugs move so slowly it seems quite easy to pick them up and dispose of as necessary if creating havoc in the garden, otherwise seems fine to let them be
As the rain and clouds persist, this might be Slug Fest Week in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Toad Stops Traffic

I just read Tom's post at Tom and Atticus, and had to link to his recent entry. Great story and well-narrated as always. A must read.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Living 02

While driving home at suppertime this evening, I heard the letters section of All Things Considered on NPR. I always enjoy these, as the writers or callers often express my own sentiments about a previous story. Tonight was a comment about toddlers playing with hi-tech gadgets, a story that ran last night, and which I missed.

Apparently toddlers these days are playing with cellphones, iPhones, smartphones, blackberries, and other hi-tech gadgets, often without supervision, which means they sometimes end up in toilets, crawfish fryers (really!), and just plain lost. Well, a listener submitted a comment about that story, writing to say that the commentators failed to provide the obvious recommendation to avoid these snafus. Ahhh I knew what he was going to say.......and I chuckled.

The NPR host went on to read the letter....."The obvious recommendation is to keep the gadgets away from toddlers." Well, shoot, that is not what I was thinking. Even I know that toddlers want things that adults are "playing" with, so that isn't the solution. In the original NPR piece the hi-tech guru talked about "toddler locks" on phones, a toy smart phone for kids, multimedia bedtime stories for kids. Egads!

Talk about all children left inside. The NPR commentators did laugh about going back to tin cans with string, the calling method for children of yore. That would be me.

Here are my ideas. For multimedia bedtime stories -- open the window. Listen to bullfrogs, barred owls hooting, coyotes howling, the train rumbling in the distance, all the night time sounds in your neighborhood. And for the adults -- here is my blackberry in the toilet solution..................

This is my calendar for work and home. I can pull it out anytime, see a month at a time, it works without batteries or charger, it doesn't even need the sun. My mother gives us calendars as Christmas presents; calendars that she has gotten free in the mail from some organization that she has contributed to or not. So, they are free, are nice presents, are recyclable when the year is over, no toxic materials to dispose of when the gadget fails. I have had a calendar fall apart, but really a calendar can not fail.

A few years ago while at a professional meeting with my wildlife peers it was time to schedule a meeting. I pulled out my trusty wildlife calendar given to me by my mom. And my colleagues laughed as they pulled out blackberries and spent several minutes turning them on, poking them to locate the month and date. Meanwhile I was waiting patiently (or not), pen in hand, to record the date on my calendar.

Keep those calendars coming mom.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


While on a walk through a local state park, I had stopped to look over a large pit full of brush and wood chips left by the snowmobile club after clearing trails from winter blow downs. My companion on the walk commented that turtles love to nest in these mulch piles in his yard.

Just then I looked across at the berm.......and there just above the bare slope....

was a snapping turtle. We walked across to take a closer look. This good-sized snapper, with a carapace about a foot long was not moving. She was silently laying eggs. Given that they lay 20-40 ping-pong ball-sized eggs, she was going to be there awhile. Click on the photo above to see if you can pick her out.

She did not move a muscle, or hiss, or snap. This gave us time to admire her long, prominent tail with the saw-toothed ridge, the smooth edge to the carapace, except at the rear where it looks like jagged teeth.

Snapping turtles have muscular legs with 5 sharp claws and a sharp powerful jaw. The carapace and plastron are joined only by a narrow bridge. So, unlike other turtles, they can not pull their head and legs completely inside their shell. This makes them vulnerable on land and a reason for their aggressive behavior when out of water.

Snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina

This female, peacefully laying her eggs, reflects their behavior in water. Snapping turtles are shy and docile when in water, slipping quietly underwater. They hang out in all kinds of wetlands, feeding on small fish, snails, frogs, ducklings and other birds, carrion, cattail shoots and other plants.

This reptile is often maligned, yet it evolved 60 to 100 million years ago. Despite this long existence, most snapping turtle nests are lost to predators such as skunks, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. We moved on, leaving the female in peace to finish laying her eggs. When done she will crawl down the hill into the wetland that borders the headwaters of the Lamprey River.

If the nest is successful and the eggs hatch, the sex of the young turtles that emerge will have been determined by temperature. Warmer temperatures produce females, cooler temperatures produce males. The eggs won't hatch for another 2 to 4 months so who knows what this summer will bring for temperatures and snapper offspring.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Killdeers Hatched

Four fluffy killdeer chicks are scurrying around one of the plowed and mostly planted fields at New Roots Farm. Their parents are pulling any potential predators far away by feigning a broken wing and calling loudly. Perhaps the reason for their Latin name, Charadrius vociferus.

I took this photo of the eggs on May 17th.

The nest was a small scrape, a slight indentation lined with a few pebbles at the edge of a plastic covered row. This row was left unplanted until the eggs hatched. The big day was Wednesday, June 3rd. As soon as they hatched and dried their feathers, the precocious young walked out of the nest.

Farmer Renee took this photo of two chicks
still in the nest the day they hatched. Cute.......

It is fun to watch the chicks move about just like the adults. They run a few steps, stop suddenly, do a slight bob, look about perhaps for a flushed insect, then run again. When still, they are nearly impossible to see. The mobile chicks remain dependent on their parents and do not formally "fledge" for another month. At that point, the adult pair, which both incubated the eggs and feed the young chicks, may raise a second brood.

For now they are busy searching for grasshoppers, earthworms, beetles, snails, and seeds to feed four hungry chicks. And the New Roots farmers (and their helpers, such as me) can finish planting the row.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Long Lunch at Longmarsh

Yesterday I spent much of the day indoors researching documents for two different work projects. As I drove from The Nature Conservancy office to the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge around mid-day I was casting about for a place to stop for a picnic lunch, where Bella could stretch her four legs. I drove on Durham Point Road along the shores of Great Bay and turned off on Longmarsh Road, a dead end dirt road that leads to one of my project sites. As I parked, a local passed by in her truck warning me about the ticks, beware of the ticks she repeated. I am always prepared for ticks and as it turned out we did not see a single tick on this walk.

Longmarsh Road, an old town road that is now closed to vehicle traffic in the middle section, is aptly named as it passes by (and sometimes through) a series of wetlands, influenced by beavers. This wetland drainage is known as Crommet Creek, a focus of land protection efforts by public and private groups. As a result, much of the area is permanently protected.

I read once that many old town roads pass across wetlands where beaver dams provided a narrow and somewhat flat place for horse drawn wagons to cross. Along the base of one of the longest beaver dams in Crommet Creek the town built a boardwalk. The dam and the boardwalk lie over the old road.
On the impounded side of the dam, a band of light green, that looks like scum, is actually thousands of tiny plants commonly called duckweed, the smallest flowering plants in the world. They are free-floating and eaten by ducks, hence their name.

Spirodela polyrhiza, common duckweed

In this same wetland I caught a snapping turtle napping, with all four legs draped around a floating log.

Bella and I walked on to the next large wetland. Here we rested and watched an osprey carry a fish to its mate and young in a nest on the far side of the wetland. The osprey called and soared, appearing to give the fish, clutched in its talons, a ride around the wetland before dropping to the nest. Just behind and above the osprey nest sits a rookery of 8 or more active great blue heron nests. I could hear the young herons, their croaks carried across the water. The rookery is visible in the photo below, the osprey nest is atop a dead white pine just in front of the herons.

Stonewalls abound in New Hampshire. As beavers alter water levels over time the stonewalls lead into the water, where once they bounded a pasture.

By now it was well past the time that Bella and I should retrace our steps. We passed back by wetland after wetland. Just as my mind started to wander back to my afternoon work I looked up and saw a red fox trotting toward me on the woods road. She was probably on her way to catch some frogs at one of the ponds. She darted back into the woods once she caught sight of me.

At the next wetland I caught the movement of a beaver swimming along the wetland edge. He crawled over stones and logs to get to a stand of sedge. Shortly he swam back with a beautiful bouquet of fresh green sedge in his mouth and swam off, I assume to present the fresh food to his young and mate. As I peered through my bins an object rose up out of the water like a spaceship; it was a painted turtle covered in duckweed. At the same time a red-shouldered hawk screamed and soared overhead.

As we passed the last wetland a symphony of animal sounds accompanied our last steps to the car. A scarlet tanager scratched out its five notes, a pewee whistled a plaintive pee-a-wee, a chipmunk chipped from the stonewall, and the baritone bullfrogs croaked out their rum-rum-rum.

Now that was a fine long lunch at Longmarsh.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Living 01

Today I am starting a new once a week post on my search for a simpler life, called Living. For me a simpler life is one that uses fewer fossil fuels and extracted resources, relies on more local foods, restores a balance to nature's processes, maintains my (and my family's) health, promotes peace, and supports efforts, both local and global, that allow others to do the same.

I have actually been on this quest for several years, certainly since I left a full-time job to begin consulting. That is one of the conundrums of this search for a simpler life, as it takes time to live in balance with nature given our current culture. Most people are working long hours, in part to buy things that don't support Living, but instead are harmful to our health, our community, and our planet. I am not immune to buying such things, hence my continued quest.

Here is one personal dilemma that I am mulling over. Most of the nature blogging community would likely concur that photos, beautiful photos, enhance the written story. The digital camera that I use is getting old and does not take great photos (I know that it is more about the operator than the equipment, but sometimes equipment does matter). So, I have dreamed about getting a new digital SLR camera. I am not so much debating the cost of such a purchase, but the resources that go into making the camera, extractive resources and processes that are arguably harmful to the planet and possibly harmful to a community in some far off country. So my very purpose in writing the blog -- to appreciate and protect nature -- has me thinking about whether I really need a new camera.

This debate goes on in my head every day. Do I really need a new camera? Of course not, so today I lean toward sticking with my current camera. Perhaps this is also the time to take up drawing.

One aspect of Living where I have achieved greater success is relying on more local foods. I have written about my gardens and helping at New Roots Farm in previous blogs. Planting, weeding, harvesting, and eating your own food is a cornerstone of Living. This week we are enjoying the "fruits" of our labor -- rhubarb, Swiss chard, asparagus, eggs.

Swiss chard, asparagus, and eggs from New Roots Farm.

New Roots young farmer Caleb feeding Swiss chard to the free range chickens.

Bright Lights Swiss chard, one of the best foods.

Hey, those pictures aren't so bad!

No one likes to be told what to do, whether they are my 6-year old niece or a large country at odds with the U.S. My belief is that you can only show by example and by offering positive alternatives. My niece is a great artist, I think I will ask her to teach me to draw. They do say that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten.

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