Friday, December 31, 2010

How to register for a Christmas Bird Count Online

Registering online for a Christmas Bird count is easy!
Go to National Audubon Society's page. Click "Christmas Bird count."

Click on "Register for a count.
Use your existing account, or get a free one.
You will need to know the code for the count. For example, the Weldon Spring Count in Missouri is "MOWS." The Confluence Count in Missouri is "MOCF." You can find one near you here.
Click "Sign up here."

Step 5: Add your information and pay the $5 fee with a credit card. Click "submit." It's just that easy!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Website Wednesday: Views of the Ock

View Otters 2010 in a larger map
40 years ago, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that data transfer would “bring the accumulated knowledge of the world to your fingertips.” Substantially, Clarke was correct, if only it could all be found. A year and a half ago it was estimated that there were something close to 110 million websites, and that’s just in the surface layer of the web that search engines survey. I throw my hat into the Internet search arena with “Website Wednesday!” Each Wednesday, I will try to find a site for the nature-lover that is useful, surprising, entertaining or just plain gorgeous. Let’s go to Views of the Ock for a start.
I enjoy reading blogs about travel to exotic places, about people who compete for the longest list of birds, but there’s a lot to be said for appreciating and adding to the understanding of your own back yard. Richard is a “back yard blogger” in Britain. The Ock is a tributary of the River Thames, which flows through the Richard’s neighborhood.
Just because the territory is limited doesn’t mean the subject is narrow. He covers a great variety of topics, all accompanied by beautiful, or sometimes interesting photos. Did you know there is a special word that means “otter poo”? Neither did I! You gotta love a guy who creates a Google map of otter spraint (seen above). He shares photos of tracks and signs he finds in monthly otter surveys of the Ock, as well as water vole surveys. There are lovely photos of the countryside as well as the town of Abington in snow. He explores an ancient beech forest, full of trees in fantastic shapes, rare insects and even a rare fungus. He studies cuckoo bumble bees, mushrooms, damselflies and moths.
I first became aware of Views of the Ock when Richard left a comment on my post about European Starlings and their behavior in flocks. Unbeknownst to me, he had written about Starling flocks some weeks earlier. My vocabulary expanded again, when I found there is a special word for startling flock: “murmuration.” And I have to say, I was thrilled when he included my post in his list of “favourite blog posts over the last 12 months.” Be sure to check out Views of the Ock as well as the other blogs he links to in his “Blog Roll Review of the Year.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Missing Moon Rocks: Redux

“I thought they were in here…” AMcC
Shortly after the news broke that 19 of the moon rocks from Apollo 17 given to the 50 US states in the 1970s were missing, I interviewed my friend Randy Korotev on the topic in my July 26, 2010 post. Randy is a lunar chemist, Washington University research professor, and St. Louis birder. Moon rocks are Randy’s long suit; he’s been studying them since 1969. Moon rocks are interesting to me too, because: 
1. The moon rock given to my state (Missouri) was listed among the missing.
2. The missing minerals are of course worth millions of bucks—on the black market
3. Mom told me that my dad had received some “moon pebbles” from a friend who worked for big defense contractor McDonnell-Douglas, now known as Boeing. Family legend says that he were placed in an envelope with something written on it. Somewhere.
Pop's unused worry stone, but no moon rock. AMcC
Here’s the good news: Senator Bond—Kit, not James—who was governor of Missouri in 1972, is now retiring from the US Senate. But wait—there’s more! Missouri’s “Goodwill Moon Rock” has been located and returned. While packing up, Bond’s staff rediscovered the plaque with a letter from Nixon and the moon rock chip from the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The plaque was presented to present Missouri governor Nixon—Jay, not Richard. Plans are to display it the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City.
Not-so-good news: The moon rocks of 18 states, as well as Pop’s, are still missing.
Moon rock from the Apollo 16 site
The real deal! Section of a lunar meteorite from the Apollo 16 site. Photo by Steve Jurvetson

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays! Male Cardinal in first snow, photo by Jason Matthews

On a Christmas Bird Count some years ago, we surveyed a wooded area not far from the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. We were joined that New Year’s Day by a Washington University student from Seoul, South Korea. Her favorite bird of the day? A bird many of us take for granted, the Cardinal!
Officially known as the Northern Cardinal, its range covers the Midwest and eastern US, a corner of New Mexico, and an arch-shaped slice of Arizona. It has been introduced in southern California and Oahu, Hawaii.

Besides being a beautiful creature, cardinals are terrific singers—or I should say, whistlers. The function of bird song is to announce, “This is my patch, buddy! Move on!” Or he might sing to his red, red, rose-like love luve, 
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry…
or the end of nesting season, whichever comes first.
(Apologies to Robbie Burns.) Females of all species vocalize of course, but most do not actually sing songs. Cardinal males and females both sing at all times of the year, though females sing less often, usually from deep cover (The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma, 2005).

I’ve been told that cardinals always incorporate a shed snakeskin into the nest. Lots of birds use this as a strategy to discourage predators. Evidently, chipmunks and squirrels find snakeskins very off-putting. An experiment comparing nesting materials found evidence that the tactic works, as reported in the journal the Cooper Ornithological Society, The Condor, 2006, by Medlin and Risch. I had cardinals nesting in the Pipevine in my yard, but their nest was skinless. They did however weave a long sleeve of cellophane from a rope of bubble gum or Laffy Taffy.

As with many bird species, occasionally an individual is found with leucism, a condition in which the animal produces less pigment than the rest of its species. I’ve seen red-tailed hawks with a few all white feathers in the wing and a grackle with several white tail feathers, but it seems paradoxical to call a bird a white cardinal. It’s not surprising then that when a white, cardinal-shaped bird, with pink wings, dark eyes, and a tuft of pink crest landed at a feeder in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it made the channel 6 nightly news. Another beautiful one showed up in Port Isabel, Texas, as did this female in Pedernales Falls State Park, Texas.

Leucism is seen in the presence of white feathers, but what about the absence of black feathers? Well, that amelanism, a condition shown in this male cardinal, that is missing the black mask and instead is all red. I’d love to show you each of these birds, but I’m waiting to receive permission to display the photos in my blog. Until I do, just click on the link to see the bird—very cool!

Such a conspicuous, awesome bird deserves some political attention. The cardinal is the state bird of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia (that’s just in case there isn’t enough identity confusion between the 2 Virginias), and of course, Saint Louis. I refer to the St. Louis baseball Cardinals. The Arizona football Cardinals, having deserted our fair city, now play in Phoenix. They must be named after the slightly paler southwestern subspecies.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Critical Mass of Starlings

Birding while driving is never a good idea, but while flocks of starlings wheel and twist over the highway, I give them a quick glance. When the flock is behaving this way, I suspect there’s a hawk nearby. Here it is, a red-tail, high and outside. As I leave the highway, I see another flock gathering, preparing to roost in the neighborhood. Blocks away, I arrive at my destination, still hearing the cacophony of chatters and whistles.
At one point, some called European Starlings the most abundant bird in North America. It wasn’t always so. The Acclimatization Society of New York, NY, is responsible for turning them loose on this continent in 1890. Their stated goal was to introduce to North America all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part I is play responsible. The character Hotspur, furious at the King over his refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Mortimer, raves that he’ll train a starling to say “Mortimer” and give it to the King as a gift. It’s a good idea. Starlings are great mimics, as befits a member of the myna family, as this video shows.
Cooper's Hawk with flock of European Starlings
photo by zen Sutherland
European Starlings are aggressive, noisy cavity nesters. In winter, they like to roost with about 999 of their closest pals. This has not endeared them to human communities. If you have to endure these gatherings, Cornell has some advice for you, and best of luck.
In 1960, Eastern Airlines flight 375 took off from Boston and struck a flock of starlings. The crash killed 62 people, the worst accident caused by bird strike on an aircraft. We blamed them too for the decline of bluebirds. Starlings have become of the most despised of all winged creatures—right up there with mosquitoes. Recent studies, however, have failed to turn up evidence that starlings have had any negative effect on any North American species, except the sapsucker.
Our relationship with the starling may be an uneasy one, but that doesn’t diminish our fascination with those amazing flocks. An article in Wired Science, June 2010 explains their behavior as “synchronized orientation…in a critical system,” meaning that members of the flock can communicate so well that if a single bird turns, the flock of thousands can follow. The behavior dazzles humans, as well as avian predators.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pokey Hat

Pokey hats, early on a snowy Sunday. AMcC

Some years ago I had the opportunity to visit a state park with a friend from Scotland. Montauk State Park is a beautiful spot on the banks of the upper Current River. After a long day of watching people fish for trout, we visited the lodge. My friend stepped up to the snack bar and in a heavy Glaswegian accent ordered a “pokey hat.” It took some effort to discover that she meant an ice cream cone. Hilarious!

Cup Plant hangs on to the snow too,
almost as well as it does rain water. AMcC
Hold on now, Scottish readers! I got my comeuppance when that same friend and I dropped into a Glasgow curry shop and I ordered “nan bread.” In my Saint Louis accent, “naan” rhymes with Anne. The clerk could hardly take my order he was laughing so hard. He called the cooks to come out and begged me say it again!

I saw a pokey hat in my front yard early this morning. The prickly seedhead of Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is especially good at showing off the beautiful snow. It’s afternoon now and gusts of 40 mile-per-hour winds haven’t yet knocked the hat off.

Male American Robin rides the storm out in the witch hazel tree. AMcC
About 3 months from now, a meteorologist on local TV will proudly display a photo documenting the arrival of the first robin of the year. Actually, American Robins are present in our area all year long, but they aren’t quite as conspicuous to non-birders as they are in spring.

Am. Goldfinches hard at work on
the seeds of Prairie Dock. AMcC

In spite of a temperature of 19° F (wind chill of 2°), Slate-colored Junco, Carolina Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, and White-throated Sparrow are busy in the back yard. In the front, American Goldfinches tease the last seeds out of Prairie Dock seedheads (Silphium terebinthinaceum). 

All this activity is missing from gardens where the owner tidies up in fall. That’s one less chore for those who garden with binoculars.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Waxwing Party at the Pond

White lines on the back and red "wax" AMcC
The Cedar Waxwing is a lovely bird with silky smooth feathers, a jaunty crest. and a mask that makes him look like Zorro the Avenger. They are expectable in winter, but unpredictable and easy to miss when you’re out birding in my area. So when a flock of Cedar Waxwings dropped by my yard some days ago to visit my little swimmin’ hole, I grabbed my point-and-shoot camera a got a few shots.

I never really noticed the striking white lines on the back that show in this photo, but then I don’t often have a view looking down on Cedar Waxwings. The white edge is formed by wing feathers close to the body (the tertials). Usually I see them high in the sky, calling to each other in the flock with a high-pitched “Seeeee!”

Joined by a few Dark-eyed Juncos and a small group of Pine Siskins, the waxwings bathed the way they do everything; enthusiastically, and with friends. The Birder’s Handbook; A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, by Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, describes the exact behavior we see in this photo. They use their wings to splash water up onto the back, while holding the tail up and head back to “form a cup” (Birder’s Handbook, 1988, 429).

This waxwing uses his wings and tail to form a cup. AMcC 
Cedar waxwings are very fond of the blue “berries” of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Although they are round and appear as berries, they are really the female cones of this evergreen tree. According to Dave Tylka, in Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People, the cones are low-fat and low-sugar, which means that birds will ignore them until late winter when all the high-fat dogwood, sassafras, and black gum berries have disappeared into the crops of fall-migrating birds. Cedar berries are a reliable reserve food--sort of like oatmeal. If you can’t get a Belgian waffle, you take what you can get.

Waxwings have been found to digest cedar berries in 12 minutes flat! Research shows that seeds that take the short outing through a waxwing’s digestive tract triple their chances of germination. Of course, within 12 minutes the bird may travel, depositing the seed many yards away from the shade of the parent plant.

The fondness for cedar berries accounts for the first part of the English name, but what about that strange surname? Waxwings are named for the waxy material on tips of the secondary wing feathers of adults (The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, Elphick, Dunning, and Sibley, ed. 2001, 484). Only adult birds have this, and it’s very hard to spot, in spite of the fact that the Wikipedia article on Cedar Waxwing calls it “the bird’s most prominent feature.” Birds were named during the era when devotees of birds carried shotguns, not binoculars. Those early “birders” named birds for features that stood out as unique while holding the bird in hand, not for field marks as we think of them today. Sibley says that this material feels “more like plastic,” so I’m guessing he’s handled a few waxwings in hand too. This red “wax” is visible in my first photo.

Cedars provide wildlife with food and shelter. AMcC
Cedars are an important wildlife plant in my area. Tylka calls the cedar the number-one winter roost for birds. Besides providing winter dining for fruit-eating birds, the cones/berries are used to flavor gin, of all things. Wikipedia records that the oldest red cedar was found in Missouri. It was 795 years old.

Cedars are a “pioneer” species, meaning that they thrive in open, disturbed areas. They have invaded the open glade habitats found on west and south-facing slopes throughout the Ozarks, shading out rare glade plants. In the past, wildfire would have controlled the advance of cedars. Between habitat loss to roads and parking lots and the suppression of fire, glade species have declined while cedars increased.

The Wikipedia article on cedar also mentions their use as Christmas trees in the Ozarks, a fact confirmed by my brother-in-law. He grew up in Rolla, Missouri, in the heart of the Ozarks. They would cut a cedar on Grandma’s farm, then cut the top out. The lower portion of the tree is too scraggly to use a decoration. The house would fill with scent of the fresh cut cedar heartwood.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It’s Tupelo, Honey!

Black Gum in October AMcC
Like Nancy Drew, I’m closing in on The Mystery of the Black Gums. Besides the puzzle of identification I talked about in my last post, whats up with the mysterious name and many aliases? This tree of moist soil has a genus name “Nyssa,” which according to Kurz refers to the home of the mythical water sprites of ancient Greece--although their home is located in the country we now call Turkey. “Sylvatica” is from the Latin word for forest.

One of its many common names is Black Tupelo. The black in black gum and tupelo I believe refers to the dark bark. According to HortNet, “Tupelo” stems from a Muscogee word meaning “swamp tree”--not very different from the scientific names. The “gum” part of the name is unexplained. I could find no reference to resin or gum obtained from this tree, though there must be some since it’s known as Black Gum, Sour Gum, Bee Gum, and Upland Yellow Gum in different parts of its range. In Martha’s Vineyard, Massachussets, says Wikipedia, it’s called Beetlebung. I know you’re thinking, “Wasn’t Beetlebung the horse that wins the race in Spike Jones’ version of  ‘The William Tell Overture ?” I thought so too, but evidently this is a reference to the toughness of the wood; tough enough to use as a mallet to drive in the stopper (bung) of a barrel. Yet another common name is Pepperidge. Except for the famous farm that produces wonderful cookies, I found nothing to explain that why a lowland tree would be growing on a ridge. The abundance of popular names suggests that human culture in all its regional variation has taken note of this tree.
photo by TW Collins

The Sibley Guide to Trees says that Tupelo has “a relatively high fructose content” (Sibley, 359), which is another way of saying, “sweet as Tupelo honey.” So perhaps the song you were thinking of wasn’t done by Spike Jones, it was written and sung by Van Morrison. Tupelo honey is a high-quality variety of honey, as well as the title of Morrison’s 1971 hit. According to the Wise Geek, the best honey is from the swamp-loving white tupelo or water tupelo, Nyssa aquatica, though both Tupelos are famed for their nectar and both are sometimes called Sour Gum. National Wildlife Federation’s site American Beauties recommends Black Gum as a bee tree, call it a “heavy nectar producer.” Thanks TW Collins for licensing your photo with Creative Commons.

Though its range just touches Vermont’s border with Canada, here in the Midwest, St. Louis is the northern limit of Black Gum’s range. Water tupelo’s range is more limited, as you would expect for a tree that requires standing water for at least part of the year. It’s found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and along the Mississippi River, though it stops about 150 miles south of St. Louis.

Black Gum for the gums? AMcC

One last mystery was solved in my Black Gum research. A few short decades ago I attended a Girl Scout event that featured a competition for “Most Useful Item Made from Nature.” I met an older scout who told me that her entry was a toothbrush. Fascinated, I asked her to let me see it, but oh no, it was her secret. Then, way at the bottom of Duke University’s article on Black Gum, the answer. Too bad it doesn’t taste like Dentyne.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Mystery of the Black Gums

My neighbor's mystery tree in early October. AMcC
In the back of a neighbor’s property stand the mystery trees. They certainly must be wild trees. Instead of being installed in the center of the lawn, as human landscapers like to plant, these trees grew in a group along an unmowed property line. Perhaps birds dropped the seeds, along with a bit of fertilizer, while perched on the rusting remains of a fence.

At first I thought of persimmon. The chunky, dark bark seemed right. The leaf seemed right, but where were the fruits? What is with that 45° turn about a third of way down most branches? It looks like each branch has a bent elbow with palms up, saying “I dunno.”  

I suspected Black Gum, but thought of that as a swamp tree. These grew in soil that was average in moisture. I even looked with binoculars, searching for small berries without success. And I had read about Black Gum’s spectacular fall color, something that I had never noticed in these.

The mystery began to unravel when I read Don Kurz’ description of Black Gum’s bark as “alligator hide,” a description I had previously read applied to persimmon. He also mentions that Black Gum is “the first tree to turn color, typically beginning in August, and one of the first to drop its leaves” (Kurz, Trees of Missouri, 218). No wonder I had missed the autumn show! HortNet helped with the mystery of the invisible fruit. They note that only female trees bear fruit, the fruit blends with dark green leaves in summer, and any ripe fruit is quickly gobbled up by birds in late summer or early fall.
The Hebrew Moth, photo by Jenn Forman Orth

Many sources describe spectacular red fall color. This is variable. Most trees in my neighborhood--now that I recognize them--have yellow leaves in fall. I saw one young tree however that had the most beautiful red leaves, and these persisted until late October.
Most often, Black Gum is a lowland tree, but not a tree of the swamps as I had thought. It's characteristic elbow branches are interesting in winter and a great help in identifying it.

Besides being a great nectar-producer in spring and fruiting tree for fall migrating birds, Black Gum is the host plant for an interesting underwing moth, called the Hebrew moth,  Polygrammate hebraeicum. Heitzman, in Butterflies and Moths of Missouri mentions that the  larvae “conceal themselves by pressing into crevices in the bark of the host plant” (263). My moth photo comes from Flickr friend Jenn Forman Orth. Check her original in full size along with a lively discussion about the origin of its name.
The "alligator-hide" bark of the Black Gum AMcC

Bark of a young Flowering Dogwood forms squares AMcC
Persimmon tree bark forms rectangles AMcC

David Sibley, in The Sibley Guide to Trees, compares the bark of three similar trees. The related Flowering Dogwood has scaly bark in square blocks, the unrelated Persimmon’s bark is rectangular blocks, while Black Gum’s bark on mature trees is “deeply furrowed.” I see this not only on the trunk but also on large limbs. Perfect for hiding a caterpillar! 

More mysteries to come in my next post…

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


American Bittersweet AMcC
Spring is a time of easy metaphors for renewal, hope, life. Autumn, well, not so much. Lovely fall colors are cheery, but brief. Just as Goldengrove is unleaving, a magnificent vine is revealed, covered with clusters of small, shiny red fruits, surrounded by open capsules of orange. We call it American Bittersweet, Celastrus scandens. Kurz notes in Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri that Celastrus is a Greek name for a tree and scandens means climbing. But how did it get its melancholy English name? Perhaps its autumnal display associates it with the demise of summer, the season of loss.

We humans like to ascribe meaning to natural phenomena. The albatross symbolizes guilt; the raven, death; the lark, “blithe spirit;” bittersweet, remembrance.

The contradictory name has been on my mind, since the furry friend you see in my profile picture died this week. For those who have experienced the death of a dear pet, I don’t need to explain my feelings. For those who have not, I don’t think I can adequately describe it. Instead, I’ll focus on the sweet memories.

Rosie and I went everywhere together for more than 16 years. She accompanied me on many birding trips, though she really preferred chipmunks, moles, and other mammals. She camped with us in the Rocky Mountains one June, and I was surprised to see her barking at two Gray Jays. She didn’t usually pay attention to birds. Then I saw one dart in and snatch a bit of her fur while the other stole a kibble from her bowl.

Rosie the Fishin' Dog AMcC
My brother-in-law called her “the fishin’ dog.” Her favorite spot was the tiny pond in my back yard. I keep a few goldfish there to eat mosquito larvae, and once she spotted them, she wanted them. She tried to catch a fish every day of her life and never succeeded. Far from being discouraged, she came back to the job fresh every time. She spent so much time in the water that one summer I had to take her to the vet for swimmer’s ear.

Like a true a terrier, she was independent. She seldom asked to sit in my lap as I watched TV, but she did like a good nature show now and then, especially if there were bears to bark at. When she was a puppy, she sat up on the bed while I watched Turner and Hooch; starring the tidy detective Tom Hanks and the untidy Dogue de Bordeaux named Hooch. She barked and jumped and generally went nuts every time Hooch came on the screen. That video was like a Jane Fonda exercise tape for Rosie.

If you grow bittersweet in your woodlot or on an arbor, be sure you get the native variety, not Celastrus orbiculatus, Round-leaved or Asiatic bittersweet. The fruits of Round-leaved bittersweet are less showy, and the plant is aggressive. As the name suggests, the easiest way to determine if the vine is native to the US or an invasive invader is the shape of the leaves. American bittersweet’s leaf is not round, but an elongated oval with a pointed tip. Sweet as they are to look at, the fruits are poisonous.