It is the season for hunting bear. They are fat from acorns and ready for sleep. The fur will keep us warm for many winters to come, the meat will keep us fed all winter long, the claws will decorate the warrior whose arrow flies true and the fat will serve many uses. Our three best warriors go out, one carrying the pot in case of good fortune. Running, running, running across the sky every night, until there, the big bear is just ahead. Fly arrow, fly. It makes its mark. Red blood drips down from the heavens and falls on the leaves making them turn brilliant crimson and orange. The bear’s fat, cooking in the pot drips over the edge, turning other trees yellow and gold. The hunt was successful. Our people will survive yet another winter. We must give thanks to the great bear.
You may adhere to this Abenaki Native American legend of how our leaves turn brilliant colors in the fall. I’m kind of partial to it myself. After all, the story plays itself out in the sky every night. The hunters and bear are stars that make up an asterism known as the Big Dipper, part of the Ursa Major (great bear) constellation. You can see the stars of the dipper’s handle – the three warriors. The second star (Mizar) has a star behind it (a good test of eye acuity) which is the pot. The three are following the dipper’s bowl which is part of the great bear.
Nevertheless I am plagued with an annoying logical mind that calls for a scientific explanation to the changing colors of the season. Yellow, orange, red, crimson, and bronze replace the once green woodland landscape. What causes these changes?
Leaf, stem, petal, fruit, and all plant colors are made by pigments of various sorts. We all know chlorophyll. It is the primary pigment involved in absorbing light energy for the process of photosynthesis, which fuels all food chains. Chlorophyll excels at absorbing light in the yellow and blue wavelengths, while reflecting green, which we see. But plants have other pigments as well. Carotenoids are accessory pigments, gathering wavelengths not absorbed by chlorophyll. There are hundreds of types of carotenoids. Carotene gives carrots their distinctive orange color. Lutein gives a yellow color you see in squash, corn, and other fruits and vegetables. Lycopene gives tomatoes their red color. Anthocyanins are another class of pigments that give plant parts their red, blue and purple colors. pH determines the shade. You see it in grapes, plums, apples, berries, flower petals, and many other parts of plants.
Yellow and Orange colors
So how does this all work in the fall? At this time of year, when the day length is shortening (actually, when the nighttime is lengthening – there is a difference to a plant) plants undergo many changes. Chlorophyll is dying off at a faster rate than it is made, and eventually chlorophyll manufacture shuts down completely. This then unmasks the hardy carotenoids, which have formerly been hidden by the dark green of chlorophyll. Yellows and oranges are now visible in the leaves until eventually they, and the whole leaf dies and drops.
Corky cells at the intersection of the leaf petiole and twig start to accumulate, shutting down water flow to the leaf. Now sugars, made during photosynthesis, accumulate in the leaf. These sugars, plus the anthocyanadins in the leaf together form anthocyanins, giving the leaf its red color. There are environmental factors that aid in this production. Acid sap, from a plant growing in acidic soil; dry weather; many bright sunshiny days; and low nighttime temperatures (but not below freezing) contribute to make high concentrations of anthocyanins and therefore brilliant reds in our landscape.
Poor Red Year
This year, reds are not abundant. What’s missing? For one, here in the eastern US, our dry summer has been followed by plenty of rain this fall. Also, nights have been quite mild. We’ve only had one night near freezing so far. I suspect that the abundance of water and lack of cold nighttime temperatures have prevented brilliant reds from forming in our landscape this fall.
Nevertheless, here in New England, our fall color show has been beautiful. It will soon be over, but this whole cycle will allow deciduous trees to leaf out again in the spring after a fine winter’s nap.
Look deep into my eyes. What do you see? My inner soul? True feelings? Hang on. I’m not that romantic. Let me share with you the non-existential angle of eye gazing.
My friend was curious about looking closely at the compound eye of a lacewing. She slowed him down by putting the dish he was in on a bed of snow. With the aid of a handheld digital microscope she could get a pretty close look.
A compound eye is made of of a lot – could be thousands – of individual light sensors called ommatidia. Each one, arranged on a spherical surface points in a slightly different direction, catching light from that specific angle. The resulting image is a mosaic of light and dark spots. Much like pixilation, the more ommatidia, the better resolution of the image. Grasshoppers have comparatively few ommatidia, and their images are coarser grained as compared to a honeybee or dragonfly. But, because a moving image is caught by many ommatidia in a sequence, a compound eye is great at detecting motion over a wide field of view. Some insects, like the honeybee have visual cells in the ommatidia that can detect certain colors. Bees and butterflies among others can see ultraviolet light too. These abilities help them identify nectar-rich flowers for nutrition.
Anyway, my friend and I were just fascinated with the reflective/refractive properties of our lacewing’s eyes. A regular rainbow of color. I hope you like gazing into his eye.
Down South we tell stories about Jack. He’s been around for a long time and some of the stories are said to date back to Scotland and Ireland. I am sure that you’ve met Jack before. He’s famous for his exploits with a goose and a beanstalk. But today I would like to share with you another of the many Jack Tales told through the ages.
Every decade it is said that Saint Peter leafs through his book at the Pearly Gates and chooses a subject that seems to sit on the fence. Has he done enough to earn entrance to heaven or should he be banished to the other place?
This one year, Saint Peter came across Jack’s name. On the positive side was a long list of good deeds Jack had done for strangers who passed his way. But on the next page was a litany of dreadful things Jack had done to his own neighbors. “What was this man like”, Saint Peter thought, “someone who could be kind to strangers and ugly to those he lived with?”
Saint Peter had to see for himself, so he disguised himself and hurried down to East Tennessee. He came across Jack working in his blacksmith shop. Dressed in rags and looking disheveled, Saint Peter opened the shop door and asked, “Good sir, I am a weary traveler could I rest a moment here at your shop?” Jack stopped and looked up.
“Sure, stranger,” he said as he crossed the hard packed dirt floor. “In fact, take-a-sit here in my favorite chair.” Jack guided the stranger to a well-worn rocking chair sitting in the corner. Saint Peter was surprised. It was the most comfortable chair he had ever sat in. He was about to comment when Jack turned back to him and said, “I have a bowl-o-beans and a bite-a-cornbread here. Care for some?”
“Thank you sir, I would.” Saint Peter enjoyed the bread and beans while rocking comfortably in the chair. Finally, he confessed, “Jack, I don’t understand you. I am Saint Peter and I have looked at your deeds. You are kind to travelers like me, but difficult on your neighbors. If you continue in this way, I am afraid that I will not be allowed to welcome you into heaven. But I can offer you a chance to improve your life. As a thank you for your kind hospitality, I will offer you three wishes. Use them to make things better.”
Jack mumbled, “Make things better… make things better…” and then louder, “I git three wishes to make things better? I know just the thang for my first wish.”
“Excellent Jack, what can I grant you?”
“See here, Saint Peter, ya see that thar chair you’re a sittin’ in? Well my neighbors come by and set themselves into that thar chair and start yammerin’ away at me. I can’t get a dang thing done.”
“Yes… so what would you like me to do?”
“I want the next person that sits in that thar chair to be rocked so turrible that they get thrown across the shop.”
“Jack, that’s an awful wish. I can’t do that.”
“But you said any wish.”
“OK Jack, but let’s make the next two wishes a bit more positive. What’ll it be?”
“OK, see this here hammer? Some of my so-called friends will come by and pick it up without permission. The next time someone does that, I want this here hammer to smack them over-n-over-n-over in the face.”
“Jack!” Saint Peter said horrified. “That is an atrocious wish. I just can’t grant you something like that.”
“I thought so, you really don’t want to help me do you?”
“Jack, I do, I really do want to help you, but these wishes…
“I can be nicer to my neighbors if they ain’t sitting here botherin’ me an’ stealing my tools.”
“OK Jack, I’ll give you the wish. But this third one has got to be a good one.”
“Did you see my rose bush as you came in?” Jack inquired.
“Yes, Jack, I did. It is a beautiful bush with such lovely flowers. Would you like me to make it bloom more often? More colorful? Would you like a second one to go on the other side of the door? Maybe one for a friend? Tell me, what can I do for you and your lovely rose?”
“No, that’s not what I want,” Jack replied. “I want that bush to grab at the next rascal who comes by an’ thrash him about until his clothes are torn to shreds.”
“Oh Jack!” Saint. Peter was horrified.
“Yep, that’s what I want,” Jack nodded.
“As much as I hate this, I will grant your wish. But Jack, I pray you change your ways.” And with that, Saint Peter got up and left Jack’s little shop.
“What?” said Jack, “I cain’t go now. Cain’t you see I’m busy? Tell you what though, you just go take a seat over yonder on that rocker. I’ll finish up straightaway and then we can be off.”
The devil was a bit put-off, but decided to take a seat and not put up a fight. At the instant his bottom touched the seat the rocker lurched forward violently and then slammed back. Viciously it jolted him forward and back, like a cowboy riding a demon bull. Finally the chair threw the devil all the way across the dirt floor. He crumpled into a heap along the edge of the log wall.
The devil sprang up infuriated. “I’ll git you!” he shouted, and rushed across the shop. Before Jack could react, the devil ripped his hammer from his hand. He raised the hammer up to strike Jack, but at that very moment, the hammer came to life. It turned and struck the devil square across the bridge of his nose. Again and again it struck him beating and bloodying him until the blows finally ceased and the devil dropped the hammer.
The devil was now so incensed he could hardly speak. He staggered around trying to get his bearings. Now, he just wanted to get out. He wobbled on his cloven hooves out the door past the ‘ole rosebush. Suddenly, a calamity arose just outside. Jack knew what was happening. He looked outside when it was all over. The Devil stumbled to his feet, his red garment torn, tattered, and bloody. Rose leaves and petals were tangled in his hair. The devil glared at Jack. Fiery anger seethed in his eyes. Then he turned and got out-a-there.
Many years passed and Jack, finally old and tired, died. He went to the Pearly Gates and met Saint Peter again. But Jack’s list of bad deeds was just too long.
Jack turned and traveled the long road down to the other place. As he approached the gates he saw two little devils playing outside. They spotted Jack approaching and dashed away inside, slamming the gate shut behind them. Jack reached the gate, picked up a large rock, and knocked. The heavy metal reverberated with a loud clang. Jack waited.
Clippity-clop, clippity-clop, Jack heard hoof-steps approaching the gate. A small metal door slid open and the Devil barked, “What do you want, Jack?”
“Saint Peter sent me. He said I cain’t go to heaven, so I have to come here.”
“Well, I don’t want you either, Jack. You’re trouble!”
Jack didn’t know what to do. He sat down as he heard the Devil walk away. A few minutes passed and he heard the Devil return, clippity-clop, clippity-clop. Locks and chains slipped from the gates and the heavy metal doors cracked open just a few inches. The devil stuck his nose out and called Jack over.
“Put out your hand.”
Jack stretched out his worn and calloused hand toward the Devil. The Devil reached out and dropped something into his hand. It was hot. Very hot.
Jack looked down and then up at the Devil. “What’s this?”
“It’s a little piece of hell. Go start your own.” And with that the Devil slammed the gates shut.
Jack turned and slowly walked away. He wasn’t sure where to go and so he just kept walking. The ember was too hot and not getting any cooler. As he passed through Ireland, he picked up a potato and used it to carry his little piece of hell. The potato burned through by the time he reached Russia and so he traded it for a turnip. That too burned through.
It wasn’t until he reached America that he found the perfect vessel for his ember. He picked up a pumpkin and hollowed it out. He cut three holes to let the heat and light out and found he could carry his little piece of hell rather well. And so was born the “Jack-o-Lantern.”
In your travels to a distant national park or from your own backyard, have you ever heard a strange nighttime sound? Whistling, screeching, howling, clicking, buzzing and things that go “bump” in the night have kept many a camper wide-eyed and sleepless. We humans are not at our best in the dark of night. If we can’t see it, we don’t like it.
Insects, amphibians, mammals and birds make themselves heard at night. No need being scared out of your wits unnecessarily. I thought I’d provide you a brief sampling of some nighttime sounds to change the “frightening” to “identifiable”. Once you know what you are listening to and decide you don’t like it, then you have my permission to be frightened.
Insects can fill a summer night with pleasant music. Members of the Orthoptera family are primarily responsible. These include crickets, grasshoppers and katydids. The following insect recordings are from the Singing Insects of North America (SINA) website. This fantastic site is still being compiled and is a great library of sounds. Click on the animal name to hear their recognizable sounds.
Southern Ground Cricket (Allonemobius socius) This is one of 900 species of crickets. Only the male cricket makes noise. It is done by rubbing the row of teeth-like ridges on the edge of a wing against the other wing edge. The wings themselves act as sounding boards.
Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) The chirping rate of this cricket can tell you the air temperature. The temperature in Fahrenheit is calculated by counting the number of chirps in 14 seconds and adding 40.
Katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia) There are roughly 6,400 species of katydids, but this is called the Common True Katydid and one that you might recognize.
Northern Mole Cricket (Neocurtilla hexadactyla) The northern mole cricket burrows underground and comes out to chirp at the entrance of its burrow.
The following amphibian recordings all take you to one website, where you can hear these and more, thanks to Michael Benard. His excellent collection of photos and recordings are for reference and enjoyment.
Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) This arboreal frog is probably quite familiar to you if you live in the Eastern US; if not by his appearance, then by his song. Gray treefrogs can camouflage themselves according to the substrate they are sitting on almost as well as a chameleon. So anything from green to gray are normal on their mottled, warty skin. You’ll probably hear a number of treefrogs chorusing from treetops throughout the midsummer night.
Other frogs and toads are commonly heard in the spring during their breeding season.
Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) This little fellow ( yes, only the male sounds off) is heard in the spring when it is calling for mating rights from nearby marshes, streams, and ponds.
Green Frog (Rana clamitans) is abundant in the eastern US in pretty much any fresh body of water.
The following mammal and bird recordings are from Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.
White-tailed deer snorting – usually silent, deer may give a loud air-filled snort when alarmed.
Raccoon - an adult male
Coyote - howls and whines from a pack
American alligator – listen to the low rumbling and disregard the bird
Barred owl – A mnemonic for this nighttime singer almost sounds like, “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. When two call at each other, people mistake them for monkeys, but of course no monkeys live in North America where these birds reside.
Barn owl – this spooky sounding character has the white color of a ghost to boot.
Of course this is not a complete list by any stretch. It is however, a fun sampling to help you become more atuned to what is happening in nature when humans are generally “out of it”. This concert will make a night around the campfire, on the back porch or in your tent an entertaining adventure.
Be aware that all rights are reserved for all these recordings. The sounds are property of the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Singing Insects of North America, and Michael Benard and can only be used for personal listening. Any other use requires you to contact them directly for permission.
Like many Americans, President Obama took his family out to visit a national park this summer. He, Michelle, Sasha, and Malia visited Acadia National Park last month. It’s a shame his handlers took his cell phone away; he could have downloaded a NaturePod for his visit.
Standing on top of Cadillac Mountain he might have had the same thoughts that many of us have had; wouldn’t it be great to preserve a big piece of land like this for future generations. Unlike us though, he has the power to do just that.
There’s a little bill that made it through Congress back in 1906. It’s called the Antiquities Act. It was written by a Congressman from Iowa to stop the “pot hunters” he felt were robbing America of its history. Artifact hunting was a big business back at the turn of the century and unscrupulous treasure hunters were ransacking western federal lands. Congressman John Lacey wrote a bill with just 4 paragraphs designed to give land management agencies a tool to fight the marauders. President Teddy Roosevelt signed it into law.
Lacey might have been concerned about protecting Native American artifacts, but Roosevelt read a broader message in the law. Section 2 gave the President the authority to establish national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.” Roosevelt quickly set aside Devil’s Tower in Wyoming as America’s first national monument.
Roosevelt might not have read the law very clearly for it states “the limits of which in all cases shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” At more than 50,000 acres, Devil’s Tower National Monument was a bit of a stretch.
Two years later Roosevelt was at it again. He set aside 800,000 acres as Grand Canyon National Monument. By the end of his term, he would establish 18 monuments. Other Presidents would follow, for the Antiquities Act allowed a President to quickly preserve lands at peril. The Congressional route to National Park status was often too slow.
It wasn’t until Franklin Delano Roosevelt that Congress modified the Antiquities Act. By 1943, FDR and his predecessors had used the act nearly 100 times to establish or enlarge monuments. Congress had even taken the next step and reauthorized these monuments as national parks. But now FDR wanted to establish Jackson Hole National Monument in Wyoming and the state’s congressional delegation opposed the move. A fight ensued. The monument was established, but the Antiquities Act was amended to prohibit its use in Wyoming.
Alaska forced a similar amendment after President Jimmy Carter used the Act to establish 15 national monuments in 1978.
President Obama has yet to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors, but in less than 2 years he has already taken his family to 4 National Parks, 2 of which, Acadia and Grand Canyon, began as national monuments formed from the Antiquities Act.
I stopped my cadre of 5th graders right under the tree where a songster was loud and distinct. “Listen to this fantastic bird, my friends,” I urged excitedly, and the group of 23 inner-city kids fell silent. After listening a few seconds I whispered, “This awesome bird sings his name. He’s called a Phoebe. Do you hear him sing “Phoebe” over and over?” Again, we all listen intently, and I see smiles creep across faces.
“Yea, I hear it.”
“That’s what he says.”
Other murmured phrases and nods of recognition ripple through my rapt audience.
I can’t really memorize bird song very well. I’m relieved to say I’m not the only one. The best way to distinguish and remember specific bird song is to translate it into English. It is not only easier to describe to kids (and adults) but recognizable in our brains.
There are a number of mnemonics that are commonly associated with certain birds. Here is a list of some birds you may hear this month, and the mnemonic of what their song sounds like:
American Robin – “cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheerily”
Yellow warbler – “Sweet Sweet, Sweet I am so sweet”
Eastern towhee – “Drink your teeeeeea”
Black throated green warbler – Zee Zee Zee zoo Zeee”
Barred owl – “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
Whip-poor-will – “WHIP-poor-WILL, WHIP-poor-WILL WHIP-poorWILL…“
Eastern Wood-Pewee – “Pee-ah-wee Pee-ah-wee”
Eastern Phoebe – “Fee-bbbbbe Fee-bbbbbe”
Black-capped Chickadee –
Warbling Vireo – “If I SEES you, I will SEIZE you, and I’ll SQUEEZE you till you SQUIRT”
Red-eyed Vireo – “Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Look up now. Do you see?“
Tufted Titmouse – “Peter-peter-peter. Peter-peter-peter.”
Carolina Wren – “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle.” (loud and fast)
Brown Thrasher – “Spring’s here, spring’s here, plant it plant it, in the ground, in the ground, cover it up, cover it up…” (doublet after doublet; each doublet seldom repeated)
Chestnut-sided Warbler – “very very very very pleased-to-meet-you” (quite fast)
Ovenbird – “teacher teacher teacher teacher” (with each “teacher” progressively louder)
Common Yellowthroat – “Which-i-ty which-i-ty, which-i-ty, which-i-ty
White-throated sparrow – “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” or “Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada” (depending on your nationality of course)
Red-winged Blackbird – “Honk-a-reeeeee”
Eastern Meadowlark – “spring of the year”
American Goldfinch – “per-chick-a-ree”
Here are some resources to further your study of birdsong:
The Backyard Birdsong Guide, by Donald Kroodsma – an audio field guide. Lets you listen to the birdsong with a push of the button.
May the sound of a familiar songster bring a smile to your face too.
Can you find a more apt name for this plant whose roots ooze red or
orange sap? I think not. This early bloomer is already in seed in my area, but in the last few weeks, the brilliant white blossoms dotted woodland slopes and stream sides. The single protective leaf that wraps around the blossom continues to grow even after pollination duties are fulfilled.
American Indians used Red Pucoon, as it is also called, for medicinal and practical uses. Here are a few:
*Paint skin and dye cloth and baskets
*Repel insects and treat rattlesnake bites
*Treat cramps, induce an abortion, and induce bleeding
Early settlers used it for the same purposes, plus a few more:
*A few drops of the sap on a sugar cube was used as a cough drop
*Treat skin ailments
*Treat sick mules
The efficacy of these medicinal purposes has not proved out. Taking this plant internally is a bad idea as the roots are poisonous. Just as well. It is too fantastic a wildflower to go digging up its roots all the time.
Swan Song is the term used when, after a lifetime of ineffectual silence, a heart-wrenching beautiful song is sung just before death. This charming folklore is attributed to the beautiful Mute Swan. Despite the fact that the mute swan makes hisses, grunts and other noises throughout its life, it doesn’t revert to a song before dying. The name does apply however, when comparing it to other species of swans that are noisier than the mute swan.
Being native to Europe and Asia, the Mute Swan has been introduced to North America and is expanding. I visited Irondequoit Bay off of Lake Ontario in New York last week and counted no less than 75 birds hanging out. Thought I’d share some pics.
Throughout history and with various cultures, the plant world was the pharmacopoeia for ailments. Not only that, but some plants were believed to hold powers that could do things besides provide treatment. Here is a listing of some of the more interesting uses of wildflowers I’ve found:
*False Hellebore was used to call rain, to jinx people and to kill sea monsters.
*The Meskwaki Indians used a decoction of Columbine root to heighten their powers of persuasion either at council meetings or when they were trading.
*Iroquois used Columbine to detect witchcraft.
*Folklore relays that a Jack-in-the-pulpit seed can predict the outcome of a sick person. The person will recover if the seed, when dropped into water, spins around 4 times clockwise.
*A Native American superstition claimed a Trillium root, served by a young woman to a man would make him fall in love with her.
The American Robin is a migratory bird. After all, we’ve named it Turdus migratorius. Or is it?
Birds gather in flocks in the fall and fly to Texas or the Gulf states, often as far as Bermuda or Guatamala. They go to find adequate nourishment. Check any field guide and it will show you winter range and summer range.
Yet New Englanders like me, Wisconsin-ites, cold-hearty Canadians and others in cold northern climes report more and more frequent sightings of American Robins in winter. What is going on? Has something changed, or are there just crazy birds who linger?
Some of these winter birds might be more northerly populations that come southward to what is still a pretty snowy, cold place. If you see some robins with a nearly black back, brighter red breast, more prominent white eye ring and white throat streaking, you are probably seeing the northern race of the American Robin, coming down from Labrador or Newfoundland.
Also, research suggests that some resident robins simply decide to hang out for the winter if there is adequate food. They then have first dibs on the best territories before everyone else comes back. Fifty to 100 birds may flock together seeking food sources. Chances are, when you see robins in the winter, it isn’t just one or two, it’s a whole flock.
One thing going for these resourceful birds is their flexible diets. Summertime’s abundance of worms and insects suits their needs completely then. In the winter, robins change to an herbivorous diet, eating berries and other available fruits. Bittersweet, crabapples, rose hips, mountain ash, sumac, hawthorne, and other berries are eaten. If you put strawberries, raspberries, raisins, blueberries, apple pieces and other fruits out in the winter, robins might happen upon them and enjoy your bounty.
March is when the migrants generally return. Watch the weather and notice when the weekly temperature averages 37 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll soon see robins if the snow cover is gone. Robins tend to appear with warm fronts, when rain drives worms from the thawing ground.
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