When I heard (NPR) that pink dolphins, those denizens of the fresh waters of the Amazon are going extinct, I remembered their gift to me, grateful that I had been present as a receiver. On the last day of a three – year research journey (early 90’s) I was with my guide returning to a place on the river that I loved. It was absolutely calm; my guide and I were drifting along a serpentine tributary curtained and dripping with scarlet passionflowers when a circle of pink dolphins surrounded the dugout.
“I love you,” I repeated the words over and over in a trance-like state glued to the rippling brown water.
Round and round they came surfacing inches away from the side of the boat. Bulbous heads splashing pink and gray.
The Circle of Life was being inscribed in the water.
When one broke the round to swim away, it was time to say goodbye. I thanked them for their steadfast company during my Amazon journey.
Each of my many visits had begun with a dolphin encounter. My guides were initially astonished by the way these animals seemed to follow me up and down the river, and by the end of my first stay two of them shook their heads and rolled their eyes while declaring that the dolphins loved me. I believed them.
Now, many years later I am saying goodbye to an enduring friendship with a species I adored.
Reciprocity is fundamental to relationship but it must be predicated on genuine care/love as well as mutual need. This is another way of saying that our attention and intention comprise the weft and warp that weave us together. My relationship with the dolphins is a perfect example. I longed to see them, to make friends with these remarkable creatures. That longing manifested as my intention and attention. I opened my self to believing that the dolphins would come. The dolphins responded in kind out of awareness and choice.
We are all connected.
Natural History: Pink Dolphin
The Amazon River dolphin, also known as the pink River dolphin or boto, lives only in freshwater. This species is found throughout much of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Venezuela. The botos used to be a relatively abundant freshwater cetacean. This animal is the largest and (some say) smartest of the 5 freshwater species. Pink dolphins can grow up to 9 feet in length and weigh 400 lbs. They can live up to thirty years and they have unusually large brains. It is not unusual to see one dolphin, but more often they are seen in small groups, and in areas where there is a confluence of river tributaries it is possible to see many together (one of the unusual aspects of my last experience with the dolphins was that so many gathered in such a small area).
The dolphins’ color can be influenced by their behavior, capillary placement, diet, and exposure to sunlight. Shades range from mostly gray to pink. And when the dolphins get excited, they can flush a brilliant flamingo pink.
The vertebrae in the necks of pink dolphins are not fused; their ability to turn their heads 180 degrees allows them to maneuver around sunken tree trunks, rocks and other obstacles necks in very shallow flooded waters. They can also swim forward with one flipper while paddling backwards with the other, this ability allows them to turn with more precision. They can also swim upside down!
These dolphins seem very attracted to people in general. Their curiosity appears to be a driving force in human dolphin interactions.
I can’t help wondering who will bring such joy and playfulness to the Amazon when the pink dolphins are gone?
This summer we planted my cedar garden in an area that is protected by wire and situated just below the cabin by the brook. My intention was to create a safe place for northern white cedar seedlings to thrive; they are slow growing second succession trees and hungry Whitetails (deer) feast on their tasty fronds during the winter. In this small area there are a number of dead trunks that are decomposing; two have been cut at ground level producing beautiful patterns. Moist rich fragrant woodland soil made planting each seedling easy.
Just to the right of the garden a thirty year old adult cedar (rough estimation) was spreading her shallow roots over this ground. Because mycorrhizal fungi live around the ‘mother’ tree I believed that these rootlets (hyphae) would seek out others, hopefully providing the little cedars with nutrients (I say she out of habit – some trees seem more female than others to me – and this was one of them- but each cedar has male and female parts).
I have been watering my cedar garden every day since mid summer and I am pleased to note that none of the seedlings seem to have suffered transplanting stress. If all goes well, someday a small cedar grove may thrive here…
About a week ago (9/21) I was sitting among the cedars on a bench when I noticed that mushrooms were springing up around the base of the spruce that was last cut down because it was dead. Because we are suffering a severe drought I was surprised to see mushrooms, even here. I had only glimpsed one amanita, and one shelf mushroom this month so I found the fruiting odd. I broke a cap off and brought it back to the house to make a spore print as I researched the mushroom’s identity.
While waiting for the spore print I discovered that the mushroom was probably one of the species of Armillaria that appears growing out of the base of trees or stumps for only a few days a year in late September or early October.
The spore print was white, confirming my identification.
I remembered Merlin Sheldrake’s remarks about Armillaria. These honey fungus were long lived and form some of the largest living organisms in the world. Armillaria ostoye/solipedes one of two most deadly parasitic Armillaria species covers more than three and a half square miles in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest and is more than 2500 years old. Armillaria ostoyae started from a single spore too small to see without a microscope. It has been spreading its black shoestring filaments through the forest killing trees as it grows.
(This organism rivals Pando, the trembling giant who is a single aspen clone who is geneticially male. A forest of one he is a grove composed of 47,000 quivering aspen trees connected by a single root system).
Honey Mushrooms are not only circumpolar in the northern hemisphere, but are recognized as one of the most widely distributed mushrooms in the world as they can be found at the appropriate latitudes in the southern hemisphere as well.
Honey fungus is a “white rot” fungus, a pathogenic organism that affects trees shrubs and other plants. Honey fungus can grow on living, decaying and dead trees and plants.
At times the honey mushroom’s fungus is saprotrophic—that is, it decomposes the heartwood of plants, turning the non-living part of trunks and roots into soil, but this is a temporary state. Eventually the fungus gets hungry for more food.
Honey fungus spreads from living trees, dead and live roots and stumps by means of reddish brown to black root –like structures called rhizomorphs. These grow close to the soil surface and invade new roots or the place where the roots meet the trunks or stems. An infected tree will die once the fungus has girded it or after significant root damage has occurred. This can happen rapidly or take years.
Initial symptoms of honey fungus infection include shortage of spring leaves or dieback. Rhizomorphs appear under the bark and around the tree, and mushrooms grow in clusters from the infected plant in during September and October. Thins sheets of cream colored mycelium beneath the bark at the base of the trunk or stem indicate that honey fungus is the pathogen. The sheets often have a strong mushroom scent. On conifers honey fungus often exudes resin from cracks in the bark.
The mushroom, the reproductive structure of the fungus, grows on wood or roots, typically in small clusters that last only a few days (mine lasted four days). The mushrooms are yellowish brown and may range in shape from conical to having convex depressions in the center (mine were honey colored and displayed both of these shapes). The stalk or stipe may or may not have a ring (some of mine did; others did not). All ten Armillaria species have a white spore print. Some species of Armillaria are bioluminescent – they glow in the dark.
Of the ten species Armillaria mellea and ostoyae are the most aggressive killers. Armillaria gallica frequently infects plants that are suffering from environmental stress or other infections. One of the former grows in the mountains of New Mexico.
I was not able to determine what species of Armillaria I have growing in the cedar garden but I do know that there are two more dead trees in this small area, one a spruce and the other a maple.
Oddly, also in this one small area many tree seedlings – balsam, spruce, hemlock, white pine, maple – are sprouting and virtually all of them seem healthy. It may be that the fungus has yet to enter these plants?
I read that on the west coast that red cedar seems to have some immunity to honey fungus disease and because the northern white cedar and red cedar are related (Thuja) I wonder if my seedlings might have some protection from the invasion of this pathogen. These new world cedars are actually junipers.
Honey fungus is particularly damaging to lilac, privet, apple, many flowering cherries, willow, birch, walnut, cedars, and cypresses. Box elder, Californian black walnut and yew seem to be virtually immune. Other resistant species include fir, bamboo, hornbeam, beech, ash, junipers (hah, found this information after writing the above), larch, and oaks,
Symptoms of attack by Honey fungus include:
1. Yellowish-brown (honey) colored mushrooms, usually in clumps, on or near tree stumps or recently felled trees or dead plants. The mushrooms may not appear every year but when they do the spore print should be white.
2. Occasional death over the years of previously vigorous woody plants in a relatively small area.
3. The best indication of attack by Honey fungus is the presence of white fungal growth beneath the bark on roots and the collar portion of a dead or dying tree. Peel back a section of the bark from the lower trunk or upper roots. Honey fungus mycelium forms white or cream paper-like sheets sandwiched between the dead bark and underlying wood. The sheets have a strong mushroom smell.
Control of Honey fungus
The stumps and roots of dead trees are ideal breeding grounds for the fungus, therefore the most effective way to prevent the spread of the disease is to remove all dead stumps and roots from an affected area.
Do not replant on the site for one year and then replant with resistant species.
Ironically as deadly as this fungus can be for trees and plants their fruiting bodies are considered to be delicious to eat. Honey Fungus are regarded as one of the best wild mushrooms by many, but they must be cooked thoroughly, and even so may cause gastric upset in some people. Don’t harvest honey mushrooms from spruce trees. They may make you ill.
I conclude that I have honey fungus in the cedar garden although I have no idea which species is growing there.
I planted my 2-5, inch seedlings in the beginning of August (2020)
I ringed each tree with cedar chips and sphagnum moss.
I continue to water my cedars each day and will continue this practice until it gets cold.
I observe that the little seedlings have exhibited little or no signs of transplant stress.
The older cedar has dropped more than 50 percent of her foliage and looks unhealthy to me – this happened suddenly two weeks ago – around the middle of September. Maine is experiencing severe drought.
The seedlings get plenty of light but little direct sun at this time of year.
The mushrooms first appeared in a cluster around the spruce stump (9/21) and then I saw scattered ones popping up next to roots. On (9/22) I took a spore print and left it for 24 hours. Three days ago (9/25) I discovered a cluster of honey fungus on the east side of the adult cedar and more nearby on the right side lying close to Trillium rock. All mushrooms disappeared fast. (Darn, should have marked exact spots where fungi appeared next to roots)
I have checked the decaying bark around the dead spruce and so far can’t identify the white mycelial network under the bark – but I am not confident I know exactly what I am looking for, and maybe its just too dry to see the threads? Marcus might help… I had no idea when I began this project that I was beginning an experiment. Although unwelcome, I am very interested to see what happens to the seedlings when they encounter the honey fungus… will they be able to resist infestation?
Dear Sara, Thanks for your kind note. I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. Unfortunately I don’t think I can be much help with your question. There is little one can do about Armillaria – in your case the best thing would be to keep a close eye on it. Very bests, Merlin
Recently I transplanted some small cedar trees in a cedar garden. The purpose of this planting was to help seedlings survive the winter grazing. Cedars are second successional trees that grow slowly and we have so many deer that these little seedlings often don’t make it to adulthood, so I am intervening on their behalf.
After transplanting I carefully gathered a small amount of the top layer of Sphagnum moss to put around the base of the tiny trees to help keep the moisture in while the seedlings are rooting in rich veins of mycelium. In the process I thought about how some species of Sphagnum moss can hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water – a fantastic attribute.
Mosses in general are small non – vascular plants called Bryophytes, probably the first green plants to grow on land. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover thin wiry stems. They produce spore capsules that are borne aloft on thin stalks.
On this property I have many kinds of moss including Sphagnum moss and yesterday as soon as the rain began I wandered around here taking deep pleasure out of the almost instant greening after such a dry summer. All mosses are designed to take in water almost instantly, it hadn’t been raining 15 minutes before the mosses that line my paths turned a brilliant emerald green. If moss gets too dry it stops photosynthesizing and although it’s too shaded here for that to happen I have noticed the graying out color of thirsty moss. Sphagnum moss is pale green when it has adequate water but as it dries out it turns almost a wheat color.
I remember being taught as a child that Sphagnum moss could be used on any cut or wound that I got while in the woods. Sphagnum does have antiseptic properties. Sphagnum “bandages” produce sterile environments by keeping the pH level around the wound low, and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. The plant’s cell walls are composed of special sugar molecules that create an electrochemical halo around all of the cells, with the result that the cell walls end up being negatively charged. Negative charges attract positively charged nutrient ions like potassium, sodium and calcium to the sphagnum. As the moss soaks up all the negatively charged nutrients in the soil, it releases positively charged ions that make the environment around it acidic.
As long as the peat underneath the living moss is not disturbed, the peat acts like a sponge enabling the regrowth of Sphagnum. Peat – lands full of sphagnum and other mosses spend thousands of years accumulating carbon in their underground layers. If they defrost or dry out too much carbon leaks out into the atmosphere. The practice of draining sphagnum wetlands for agricultural, residential or commercial use raises deep concern. Today some measures are being taken to protect these bogs but scientists fear that bogs and swamplands could be drained or negatively impacted by agriculture and industry, or that too much peat will be used for biofuel.
Besides their role in global climate change, peat lands are rich ecosystems in their own right, boasting rare species like carnivorous plants. Sphagnum and the peat layer beneath are really important pockets of biodiversity. During the summer I kayak in North Pond to Sphagnum bogs to see the delicate orchids, carnivorous sun-dews and other plants that only grow in such specialized areas.
Peat moss is actually the dead, decayed plant matter of Sphagnum moss that settles at the bottom of the sphagnum bogs. In its natural setting, peat can help in flood mitigation, while in the long term peat forms coal. Anaerobic, acidic Sphagnum bogs are known to preserve mammalian bodies for millennia.
There are over 350 species of sphagnum moss, but most of the varieties harvested for sphagnum moss products grow in wetlands of the northern hemisphere primarily in Canada, Michigan, Ireland and Scotland, but we have it here in Maine too.
One fascinating activity is to hike through our diverse woodlands looking for different types of mosses. If you are interested in finding sphagnum moss search out boggy areas with some diffused sunlight. But please remember that if you wild – craft the moss only take small amounts from the top layer in different areas to preserve sphagnum diversity.
Today it was 90 degrees and I spent most of the afternoon with a friend wading in my brook – a body of clear mountain water that flows under a graceful canopy of trees, trees that sheltered us from the brutal Summer Solstice sun and kept the surrounding air moist and cool as well as almost unbearably fragrant. Oh, I am never more appreciative of the forest than on a day like this one. We haven’t had a soaking rain for almost two months and although the humidity provides a little moisture for thirsty trees the forest floor is drying up, the mosses are losing color, lichens are crispy. Fire is an ominous threat, and piles of slash have become a real danger… We were discussing these worries when suddenly three amazing apparitions interrupted our conversation.
Catapulted into the present we both watched in wonder as electric green damselflies darted back and forth below the waterfall, barely lighting on the lacy ferns for seconds before darting away. Emerald sticks shimmered and shivered as they soared after prey.
No other insects symbolize summer quite like this group of colorful, primitive-looking predatory insects. Often we confuse the two species calling both dragonflies. In the late summer garden, both damsel and dragonflies resemble tiny animal fighter jets, fierce-looking with bulbous eyes and gossamer wings.
Just the day before I was kayaking on the pond and had a number of the latter landing on my bow with their outstretched wings. I also noted strings of dragonfly – damselfly (?) eggs attached to reeds floating under water.
Damselfies and dragonflies are closely related. These members of the insect order Odonata include roughly 5,900 species – about 2,600 damselflies and 3000 dragonflies.
Damselflies and dragonflies are both predatory flying insects that look primitive and ancient because they are. Fossil records indicate that prehistoric species are quite similar to those we see today. Modern dragonflies and damselflies are most prevalent in tropical regions, but some species can be found in almost every part of the world except for the polar regions.
In all fairness it is easy to see why dragonflies and damselflies are often confused with one another because they share many characteristics, including membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies and small antenna. But there are also clear differences. Damselflies have longer thinner bodies that look like needles. In general, dragonflies are sturdier, thicker-bodied insects Once you the difference in body shape most folks can easily identify the two. What is easiest for me to remember is that damselflies look like flying needles while dragonflies resemble small aircraft especially when they land. Damselfly wings are held vertically while dragonfly wings are flat while the insects are at rest.
Both species come in a wide range of sizes and colors. Some are subdued, others dazzle the eye with their brightly metallic hues of greens and blues. Damselflies have the widest range of sizes, with wingspans ranging from about 3/4 inch (19 mm) in some species to 7 1/2 inches (19 cm) in larger species. Some fossil ancestors have wingspans of more than 28 inches! One of the first winged insects, dragonflies have inhabited the Earth for more than 300 million years.
Both damselflies and dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water. Hatched larvae go through a series of molts as they grow, and begin predatory feeding on the larvae of other insects and small aquatic animals like tadpoles. One year someone gave me some dragonfly eggs and forgot to tell me they would eat my tadpoles. Naturally, I was deeply upset when I discovered the trick and was quick to remove the offenders. The Odonata larvae themselves also serve as an important food source for fish, amphibians, and birds. Larval damselflies and dragonflies reach adulthood in as little as three weeks or as long as eight years, depending on species. They go through no pupal stage, but near the end of the larval stage, the insects begin to develop wings, which emerge as useable flight organs after the last molt of the larval stage.
The adult flying stage, which can last as long as nine months, is marked by predatory feeding on other insects, mating, and finally laying eggs in water or moist, boggy areas. As adults dragonflies and damselflies are largely immune to predators, except for some birds. These insects are our friends! They consume large quantities of mosquitoes, gnats, and other biting creatures. Damselflies and dragonflies are visitors we need to entice into our gardens!
In some folklore green dragonflies are supposed symbolize abundance and the greening of the earth. To see these magical flying beings on the afternoon of the summer solstice seemed prescient. I couldn’t help wondering if their timely appearance might suggest that this turning of the wheel might bring us some relief from the difficulties that we are facing on a personal and collective level.
The picture that I have included shows a Sparkling Jewelwing damselfly. Only the tip of the wings is dark, making it easy to differentiate from the more common Ebony Jewelwing. Many areas of the east coast are blessed with these magnificent insects.
Last year when I returned from New Mexico I found an Eastern Phoebe’s nest under the eaves above my front door. I witnessed the three nestlings mature with deep pleasure, happy because the phoebes have only nested on the house once before, though this little valley has been home to these endearing birds ever since I built the house. Every year I watch them hunt from the wild apple tree with its golden apples that spans the entire southern wall of the house and overlooks the brook. In fact I am watching a phoebe hunt as I write these words. In years past I always looked forward to their arrival in the early spring after a long Maine winter.
This spring the phoebes chose another nest site, probably one of their old ones, perhaps because last year I removed the dormer that protected their nest; I can’t be sure.
Two days ago I watched a phoebe fly from a nearby crabapple towards the very spot above the door where the birds had their nest last year. I was baffled by this strange behavior and when I investigated I found the answer. Phoebe was hunting hungry mosquitos – there was a whole cloud of these little monsters that had convened there apparently while waiting for me to open the door! Insects are smart, and this convocation is a perfect example of insect brilliance. No wonder the bugs were getting in. I thanked my little friend for his help before rubbing peppermint oil on the wood to discourage the mosquitos, who then vacated the area. Because I am repeating this application the phoebes are no longer hunting around the front door, but have returned to their previous hunting ground, the apple tree. When I posted a couple of phoebe pictures my friend Carol Bondy mentioned that she had some nesting on their house. I hope at some point to see some of her pictures.
In Abiquiu I hear phoebes in the gracious Cottonwoods during the winter but I rarely see them and whenever I do it is always just a glimpse of a wobbling tail or bobbing. After hearing about Carol’s experience it suddenly occurred to me that these New Mexico phoebes might be a different species. And of course they are. The reason I had never thought about this issue before is because their calls sound alike to me although the literature states that there are distinct differences. I was baffled by this apparent inconsistency. When I actually listened to the two species singing I noted that The Says phoebe has a shorter call or peep, though it sounds similar to the call of the Eastern phoebe, a sound I have heard all my life. At least one of the sources I consulted said that the ranges of these two species can overlap Is it possible that both species inhabit the Abiquiu area? If they do I would love to know.
The primary difference between the Eastern phoebe and the Says Phoebe of New Mexico is that the former have a pale belly as opposed to the cinnamon – washed belly belonging to the latter.
Both species of flycatchers migrate north in the early spring and are noted for being early arrivals. Unlike many other birds both species reuse nests. With that much said it is also true that Phoebes that are breeding in the Southwest do not migrate and are present year round.
In the east the phoebes place their mud-and-grass nests in protected places like houses, barns, under bridges or around here in nests placed close to the brook (the one on the side of the cabin was made with a lot of moss). They gravitate to protected woodlands.
The Says phoebe will also nest on houses and buildings but otherwise “is an open country bird”. The literature says these phoebes perch on fence posts and pasture wire but I have not seen this behavior although both wire and fence posts border the casita on the riverside. It seems to me that phoebes in Abiquiu would be drawn to the Bosque because this is where there are more insects to eat. Out of season they are fond of berries. They are supposed to lay two clutches of two to six eggs. Here, the family that nested under the eaves only raised one.
Both species seem to tolerate and even befriend humans who pay attention to them. This has been my personal experience with the phoebes that hunt from the wild apple tree. They watch me through the window with beaded eyes while bobbing up and down and wagging their tail feathers in that characteristic phoebe way. They do not fly away, even when I approach them; they respond to the sound of my voice with apparent interest.
Happily, according to Audubon both species appear to be maintaining a stable population.
The Eastern Phoebe became the first banded bird in North America. John James Audubon attached silvered thread to an Eastern phoebe’s leg to track its return in successive years.
The Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes. Even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together. They may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her. I didn’t find similar information about the Says phoebe but my guess is that the two behave in much the same way. I never glimpsed more than one at a time in Abiquiu.
Say’s Phoebes have been in the U.S. since the late Pleistocene. Paleontologists discovered Say’s Phoebe fossils in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas dating back to about 400,000 years ago.
The Say’s Phoebe also breeds farther north than any other flycatcher and is seemingly limited only by the lack of nest sites. Its breeding range extends from central Mexico all the way to the arctic tundra.
I know from personal experience that befriending these little birds is a worthwhile endeavor providing the viewer with hours of entertainment – sometimes at the expense of work that has to be done! The little fellow outside my window keeps interrupting my train of thought with his aerial dives.
When I arrived home in Maine seven weeks ago my friend Kathy who lives down the road already had eastern bluebirds coming to her feeders. Because I think of bluebirds as being insectivores (although they love berries too) their early arrival seemed unusual to me until I did a little research and discovered that bluebirds as a species are expanding their winter range as Climate Change continues to push them northward. I didn’t know that some have been living year round in Massachusetts for some time.
Most Eastern bluebirds who breed in northern climates do migrate, gathering in large numbers during November to fly south. In March, April, and May they move north to summer breeding grounds. In Florida where there is a stable population the bluebird may breed as early as January. Putting up nest boxes for bluebirds is helpful because these birds have lost so much habitat. Around my house here in Maine all snags have been left intact, as have all the trees so I have many natural cavities for all kinds of birds to nest in. But except for my field I have little open space. This year a friend of mine is making me a nest box, so perhaps I can attract a bluebird couple of my own.
Wherever these birds breed, the male initiates courtship often providing his mate with a tasty morsel or two while delicately fluttering his wings. The female lays four to six eggs that are a stunning shade of blue. Here at least, two broods are raised during one season. While the female sits on the second set of eggs, the male takes charge of the nestlings.
Caterpillars, spiders, and insects of various kinds provide the young with protein. Newly ploughed fields are an excellent source of insects and grubs. As previously mentioned bluebirds are also fond of berries and other ripe fruits. During the late summer and fall, bluebirds pounce on grasshoppers from the tops of mullein, an herb that is so common in natural fields. In the west hundreds of bluebirds might gather to feed on juniper berries. My guess is that they could do the same around here.
When I glimpsed bluebirds perched on my telephone wire a couple of weeks ago I got a chance to watch them through binoculars. I noted that the subtle coloring of the females varied as did the vibrant blue of the males.
I was also struck by how similar these eastern bluebirds were to those western bluebirds that I had glimpsed during the spring and early fall months in Abiquiu. I knew that I would probably not be able to distinguish one from the other unless I could identify the blue patch on the western male’s belly; the eastern bluebird has more white. Another identifying marker is that male western bluebirds have blue throats, while the male eastern bluebirds have orange or rust colored throats. I also didn’t know that the two species were so closely related that they interbred, or that both eastern and western bluebirds nested in the Rio Grande Bosque.
Around the casita I watched what I thought were western bluebirds (!) perch on the fence wire overlooking the field. When spotting tasty prey they sometimes took insects from the air; occasionally, they flew to the ground. By late fall these birds were gone.
Both eastern and western bluebirds prefer semi –open terrain; orchards, farms and ranches are excellent places because they are often surrounded by pine, oak, ponds for cattle, and streamside groves. Both eastern and western bluebirds tend to avoid hot dry regions during the summer but in the west they will nest in pinyon – juniper forests.
Overall, the eastern bluebird is also in decline for the usual reasons. In recent decades, the western bluebird numbers have fallen dramatically over much of their range. The use of pesticides and controlled and uncontrolled burns destroy masses of habitat and are creating havoc for all southwestern bird species. Because western bluebirds have also become relatively common Bosque breeders over the past two or three years, it is more important than ever to protect our precious Rio Grande Bosque.
Bluebirds are important in the traditions of many Native American cultures. In particular, Bluebird is a symbol of spring. In Iroquois mythology, it is the singing of the bluebird that drives away winter. Bluebirds are also associated with the wind by the Cherokees, and were believed to predict or even control the weather. The Navajo and Pueblo tribes associate bluebirds with the sun; in some Pueblo tribes, Bluebird is identified as the son of the Sun. The Hopi see the bluebird as a directional guardian, associated with the west.
I close this narrative with a personal memory…
When I was a little girl I would sit on my grandfather’s desk, (the same one that I write on now) and look out the east window to watch the bluebirds enter and leave their nest boxes. My grandfather had ten homemade boxes positioned across the large and open field. Each year the bluebirds returned and my grandmother, my little brother, and I loved to see the fledglings leave the nests for the first time. I was always afraid the little ones would fall and my grandmother would have to remind me that I had never seen one get hurt –not ever.
( I chose this picture rather than using one of my own because it highlights the male’s emerald green head and the blue on its feathers – gorgeous duck!)
A number of years ago I decided to raise some baby Mallards. As a child I used to feed and make friends with them, even as a toddler I was told. Because I live so close to North Pond I decided to raise some Mallards and release them on the lake, although I had never seen them here and wondered why. After doing some preliminary research I learned that this area was a breeding area for wild Mallards, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.
What an adventure! The “quackers” were characters. My dog adored them and they seemed equally fascinated with her because whenever Star visited with them they would waddle over to quack excitedly at her when she pawed their cage. I came to love them too, and although they made a horrible mess I loved the quackers enthusiastic morning greeting. When the day came to release them I felt sad.
By this time I had spent a lot of time in my kayak looking for a safe haven for the youngsters. I created a nest at the end of a peninsula, and left them there on North Pond. I saw the quackers occasionally during that summer while kayaking but when they migrated in the fall they didn’t return… I believed my experiment to re- introduce them had failed.
About a week before leaving Abiquiu I spied a Mallard couple on the river a few times. Much to my surprise, when I returned to Maine the first of April, I also spotted another Mallard couple on the North Pond – the first Mallards I had ever seen here since I let the quackers go. Was it possible that this couple had returned to breed?
When I researched this possibility I learned that Mallards choose new mating partners each fall. They stay together throughout the winter and once the mating season ends the male abandons the female to raise her family (up to13 chicks) alone. The female returns to her original waters to breed, so it was conceivable, that the female was the original “quacker” that I had raised.
All the breeds of ducks that are common today can trace their origins to the wild Mallard except the Muscovy who roosts in trees in South America. No one knows for certain when Mallards were first domesticated, but there is some evidence to suggest that the Egyptians sacrificed ducks and also bred them for food.
Breeding Mallards nest in the North Country and in Canada and Alaska. Females will build a nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water. She lays a clutch of eggs and incubates them for a month. Once the ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to water for safety. The ducklings will follow their mother for the next 50 to 60 days, maturing and developing their ability to fly. The ducks can reach breeding age after a year. Mallards frequently interbreed with Black Ducks and the Northern Pintail.
There are four major flyways that Mallards use. Migrating Mallards in Abiquiu use the Pacific Flyway; In Maine they use the Atlantic flyway. Non breeding Mallards inhabit most of the country, and some live year round in Florida and other southern most states including southern New Mexico. Many are considered pests and millions of these birds are killed each fall by hunters.
Mallards are the latest fall migrants and fly in a V-formation in order to have the lead bird break the headwinds and lower the resistance for those that follow. They migrate at night and although theories abound, no one knows how they manage to navigate such distances. Mallards can travel 800 miles in one day. They are excellent endurance fliers, sustaining speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. They usually fly at altitudes between 400 to 2,000 feet, but have been spotted much higher and have even gotten into crashes with commercial airliners above 20,000 feet.
Mallard ducks can be found in the Northern Hemisphere throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Most Mallard ducks are migratory birds, flying south to temperate climates during the winter, and northwards in the summer to nesting grounds. Mallards prefer wetlands near water sources with an abundant supply of food and cover. They can be found in many types of habitats throughout the country including lakes, rivers, streams, small ponds, swamps, marshlands, and water reservoirs.
Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and more recently grain crops like wheat and corn. They dip their heads under the water and forage for plants on the bottom. This “dabbling” is the feeding technique the ducks prefer and execute most often. When visiting the Bosque del Apache I was delighted to see so many Mallards. The heads of the males are fashioned out of shimmering emeralds, and to my mind are astonishingly beautiful to behold.
Mallards are also the most heavily hunted North American ducks, accounting for about 1 of every 3 ducks shot. This species can also be affected by poor water quality, including mercury, pesticides, and selenium pollution, wetland clearing or drainage, oil spills, etc, etc. They are losing ground. Across the continent, millions of acres of wildlife habitat have been converted to agriculture. Some have adapted and eat harvested rice, corn, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. I cannot help wondering what agricultural pesticides might be doing to these ancestral ducks.
Mallards, like so many other migrating species are migrating later and returning to breeding places earlier than ever before. And perhaps like other migrating birds their patterns are shifting.
I am anxious to learn whether the Mallards I saw for a few days were still migrating or if they will spend summer on North Pond.
(Frogs mating – note the one who didn’t make it! Eggs in upper right)
(Look at those golden eyes!)
The most exciting part of arriving home in early April is that signs of spring are everywhere. This is truly the season of new beginnings. I listened for the croaking quacking wood frogs at every ditch, puddle and vernal pool and was rewarded by one croaking male wood frog on April 12th.
Two days later in the same place I discovered one couple mating and laying; a few clumps of jellied eggs were scattered close to the frogs who were still clasped together. The frogs vanished the next day. I realized then that in this place there should have been many couples, not just one…All frogs and toads are the most threatened species on earth, our canaries in the coal mine. They absorb pollutants through their skin – human induced poisoned air, earth, and water. We are currently in the process of losing the species for good.
I happily scooped up the newly laid eggs to bring home to scatter in various vernal pools on this property where the have a better chance of surviving, grateful that I had not missed wood frog emergence. Normally they begin to croak before ice –out in late February March (March around here). So I am a bit puzzled by their current behavior.
Wood frogs are native to our Boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the Northeast. Wood frogs are the only frogs that live north of the Arctic Circle.
Wood frogs are omnivorous, and eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Adults consume a variety of insects including spiders, beetles and moth larvae. The tadpoles feed on plant detritus, algae (they also like lettuce) and also eat the eggs and larvae of other amphibians.
Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea accumulates in tissues in preparation for over wintering and liver fluid is converted in large quantities to sugars in response to ice formation. Both act to limit the amount of ice that forms and reduces osmotic shrinking of cells.
Amazingly, these creatures can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of their total body water freezes.
After wood frogs emerge from hibernation they begin a yearly migration to the nearest vernal pool for breeding, starting in late February or March. This species is often described as an explosive, short-term breeder which means that the window for survival is minimal. In this region, breeding often takes place over just a few days. Males search for a mate by hugging other frogs until they find one who is round enough to be carrying eggs. Females lay approximately 1500 – 3000 eggs, often in the deeper sections of the pools. Out of the large amount of eggs deposited only about 4 percent survive. The egg mass retains heat, and those eggs located near the center of the mass have a higher survival rate.
Communal egg masses are sometimes attached to vegetation within pools. The ones I have found in ditches are free floating. Eggs will hatch in 4 to 30 days. Temperature is a factor. Around here the eggs I have hatched have become tadpoles in 2 -4 days.
In four to sixteen weeks, depending on water and food supply, wood frogs have completed their growth cycle. My tadpoles become frogs during the month of July. Maturity may be reached in one to two years, depending on the sex and the population of frogs. A wood frog’s lifespan in the wild is usually no more than three years.
In my eyes the glorious sight of a wood frog (now very rare) is cause for celebration. I used to see a few each summer, but no more. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. Most of the time the frog lives close to the ground, hiding under leaves in woodland areas.
A wood frog’s most distinct characteristic is the black marking across its eyes, which has been said to resemble a mask. The bodies of wood frogs can be varying shades of brown, red, green, or gray, with females tending to be more brightly colored than males (note picture). These frog hues sound dull but each has an iridescent sheen. Adults can reach about three inches. The ones around here do not.
It seems to me that everyone loves to eat wood frogs from eggs through adulthood…Herons maneuver their way into my vernal pools for a snack even in the deep woods! My kingfishers love them. A variety of snakes eat adult wood frogs. These creatures fall prey to snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks coyotes, and foxes. Beetles, turtles and salamanders feast on eggs and tadpoles.
In the amphibian world, wood frogs may be the species best able to recognize their family. When many tadpoles are in the same place, siblings seek each other out and group together (my guess is that it is the only species that has been studied). My observations of all frogs confirm that the young like to be close to one another.
Wood frogs are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. They spends most of their time on the ground in woody areas except for during mating season when they are breeding.
I am anxiously awaiting the birth of these tadpoles hoping that my attempts to scatter the “Croakers” around my property will lengthen the time they remain on Earth.
(the wonderfully wrinkled bark of an old Cottonwood tree that I love)
Wandering among the trees and bushes in the Bosque each day has peeked my curiosity about bark and it’s less obvious functions.
Some trees like aspen and birch have smooth skin all their lives, others like the Cottonwoods end up with heavily wrinkled bark that sometimes turns reddish with age in the Southwestern sun.
The term “bark” is often used to describe only the corky, visible outer surface of trunks and branches. In botanical terms, though, bark includes the entire, multi-layered shell of a tree that can be detached from the wood -that is, everything outside a thin ring of tissue called the vascular cambium. Cells divide and grow in the cambium layer, producing a ring of wood in the inside and a layer of bark tissue, called the active phloem, on the outside. The phloem transports sugars and nutrients throughout the tree, and is typically hidden from view, beneath the outer bark.
Outside the phloem, trees have three additional bark layers, collectively called the periderm. The first two layers are virtually invisible; the inner layer – the cork skin – usually contains chlorophyll and does some photosynthesizing. The middle, cork cambium layer facilitates cell growth. The third, outer layer is made up of cork cells that die soon after they mature. This cork layer protects the tree from infection, infestation, and drying out. The smooth, unbroken outer bark that all trees start out with is this cork layer.
As a tree grows, its wood thickens and pushes out against the bark that surrounds it. The different ways in which the outer bark adapts to this pressure is what gives each species its distinctive appearance. Some species maintain their original outer layers for their entire lives. In such cases, the outer bark expands to match the growth of the wood beneath it, and it remains unbroken.
However, in other trees pressure from the faster-growing wood soon causes the initial periderm to split as a new layer forms in the inside, usually in overlapping sections that vary in shape, size, and thickness according to species. This process can repeat itself as a tree grows. Alternating layers of old periderm and dead phloem form the thick, craggy, wrinkly outer bark that is found on most mature trees.
In each tree species, the bark’s appearance is determined by the shape of the overlapping sections of periderm, the type of connective tissue, and the rate at which layers of bark break apart.
Thick outer bark is generally a good investment, since it better protects a tree from wounds and provides more thermal protection. The outer bark’s air-filled cells function much like home insulation, keeping the inside warmer or cooler than the outside. Ridges, scales, and vertical strips can dramatically increase the outer surface area and help maintain a more even temperature. Contoured barks also hold moisture, which slows the transfer of heat through the outer bark. I think these characteristics are really easy to see on the trunks of adult cottonwood trees.
Thick bark is especially important for fire protection. Redwoods, for example, have bark that is almost a foot thick making the tree impervious to all but the hottest fires.
Rapid temperature changes can also damage or kill sections of bark. In winter, for example, direct sunlight can warm bark to temperatures much higher than the surrounding air. When temperatures plummet rapidly, cooling bark can crack as it contracts. Extreme temperature changes create havoc.
With all the protective advantages of thick bark, why does the bark of some trees remain thin? Smooth bark is easier for the tree to grow but a major advantage of thin bark is its increased ability to photosynthesize. Scraping away the outer bark on a twig or young branch reveals the thin skin that photosynthesizes in some cases almost as efficiently as the leaves of trees can.
Since thick bark blocks most or all sunlight from reaching the cork skin, photosynthesis levels are usually much higher in species that maintain thin bark on their trunk and branches. Energy produced by bark photosynthesis is thought to support regular cell maintenance in the trunk and branches and can help trees recover from defoliation due to insects, storms, or severe drought. Bark photosynthesis works best when leaves do not shade the bark. Even in a seemingly dormant forest if the sun warms the bark it can photosynthesize even when air temperatures are below freezing.
Thin bark also helps thwart mosses, lichens, and algae. Epiphytes can block sunlight preventing efficient photosynthesis. They can also absorb heat, which increases a tree’s risk of damage from temperature changes. Some trees, like paper birch, feature strips of bark that peel away from the trunk and take with them any light-blocking epiphytes that may have become established there. An amazing adaption, that!
Outer bark also protects a tree against intruders. In general, thin-barked species like American beech are easier to penetrate than species with thick bark. But bark of any thickness has weak spots at pores, cracks, and furrows, and at branch junctions where wrinkles bring the inner bark closer to the surface. Wounds in the outer bark open pathways for fungi, bacteria, and insects, but in healthy trees the bark’s chemical and structural defenses can often overcome infections and infestations.
For example, resins in conifers and the gum in black cherry bark repel insects and infectious agents, seal small wounds to prevent infection; they also trap insects. Betulin a substance that whitens the bark of paper birch, deters gnawing animals, fungi, insects, and other invaders. The inner bark of aspen and other members of the willow family contains, salicin which deters bacteria, fungi, and insects.
Structural mechanisms also defend a tree against infection and infestation. Fungi that breach the outer bark, for example, can be walled off, or compartmentalized. This action contains the infection, but it also kills sections of bark by blocking the incoming flow of water and nutrients. The resulting small areas of discolored, sunken, or cracked bark are called cankers.
Even when an infection or infestation is controlled, a tree must contend with the breach that has occurred in the protective outer bark. The inner bark generates cork to surround a wound, and can close small openings and narrow or close large gaps over time. In Maine Eastern hemlock is the only species that produces wound cork in annual increments that you can count – like rings of wood – to determine a wound’s age. Unfortunately, despite its multiple chemical and structural defenses, bark can’t protect trees from all attackers, especially introduced organisms for which a species has no evolved resistance. In many cases foreign pests successfully kill a tree.
However. Some bark-inhabiting fungi and bacteria do no harm. Other fungi and bacteria defend their hosts by out-competing or preying upon canker-causing fungi. These beneficial organisms are often found near weak areas of bark where pathogens might gain entry. When tiny insects, such as springtails and bark-lice, inhabit bark and feed on mosses, lichens, and fungi growing there, they can benefit their host tree by attracting spiders, ants, and other predators that can help control populations of defoliating insects.
At any given moment there are thousands of interactions between the bark and its environment that most of us take for granted. Especially during the winter months if you pay attention to bark you may, like me, develop a deep respect for the unparalleled beauty and for the protective skin of every tree.
(Addertongue only grows in a Redwood forest Biome)
A whole ecosystem….
Totally by accident, I discovered a picture of a most beautiful flower commonly called Adderstongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) that I had never seen before. Of course I had to look it up…
I learned that Adderstongue only grows in old growth forest in the understory of the ancient Redwood trees of California in moist mossy places that are shaded. It grows from a rhizome, and I immediately suspected the plant must have a symbiotic relationship with the Redwood’s underground fungal network. The flower is pollinated by fungus gnats, the fruit is a drooping capsule and when it bursts the seeds are carried away by ants. The moment I laid eyes on the picture I longed to see one in the flesh… and this is what got me started on my Redwood Quest.
Once Redwoods grew throughout North America as well as along the coasts of Europe and Asia, but now they are now restricted to the Pacific coast. And I have never seen one.
The earliest Redwoods -Sequoia sempervirens -(the name Sequoia is Cherokee in origin) appeared shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared. Redwoods have lived in their present form for about 240 million years although California didn’t become their home until about 20 million years ago.
A coastal Redwood tree can grow to 350 feet or more and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Compare this to the tallest pine tree that might be 270 feet high. What amazed me initially was learning that a Redwood’s tap root system extends into the ground for only 6 to 12 feet. However, Redwoods compensate by creating surface roots that grow at least 50 feet from their trunks, and because they live in groves the trees literally support one another by intertwining their trunks and surface roots. Consequently, they have the strength to withstand powerful winds and flooding. Taking down even one tree creates havoc for the whole ecosystem.
Redwoods live a long time perhaps even longer than the 2000 plus years that are allotted them. Many Redwoods around today are 100 – 150 yeas old but a reasonable number reach an age of 600 years.
Studies show that coastal Redwoods capture more carbon dioxide than any other tree on Earth. And, as the climate changes, the Redwood forests are one of very few places that can provide a refuge for plants like the Adderstongue. Many wild creatures thrive in these forests because the area has many micro – climates, and is cooled by coastal summertime fog. California’s North Coast provides the only such environment left in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. Fog precipitates onto the forest greenery and then drips to the forest floor. Fog accounts for about 40 percent of the redwoods’ moisture intake. When fog isn’t present, a grove of redwoods will make its own: a single large tree can transpire up to 500 gallons of water a day. The fog condenses on tree crowns and drips to the earth below. A Redwood’s ability to perpetually move this water hundreds of feet straight up from ground to crown defying gravity is a source of awe to me.
Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall remains a mystery.
Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of coastal Redwoods. Diseases are virtually unknown (or were until recently) and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.
The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees do. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone.
Cloning is defined as the process of producing genetically identical individuals of an organism either naturally or artificially. Cloning in biotechnology refers to the process of creating clones of organisms or copies of cells or DNA fragments. Although grammatically correct, I object to the use of the word clone because it suggests to most people an artificial process – one that distances us from the fact that we are talking about a living organism that is reproducing itself. The Redwood’s ability to clone itself means that many of the forest’s trees are related to one another.
Cathedral or family groups are trees that have grown up from the living remains of the stump of one fallen Redwood, and since they grew out of the perimeter, they are organized in a circle. The genetic information in the cells of each of these trees is identical to that of the stump they sprang from.
Amazingly, Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can also sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.
Undoubtedly, the most important environmental influence upon the coastal Redwood is its own biotic community. The complex soils on the forest floor contribute not only to the redwoods’ growth, but also to a verdant array of greenery, fungi, and other trees. A healthy redwood forest usually includes massive Douglas-firs, Western Hemlocks, Tanoaks, Madrones, among others. The emerald ferns and leafy redwood sorrels, mosses and mushrooms help to regenerate the soils. And of course, when Redwoods die they eventually fall to the forest floor where they decay and provide more nutrients to create new life.
The coastal redwood environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle, so when logging occurs, the natural recycling is interrupted.
Many different shrubs populate the understory of old-growth redwood forests. Among them are berry bushes such as red and evergreen huckleberry, blackberry, salmonberry, and thimbleberry. Black bears and other inhabitants of the forest make use of these seasonal food sources.
Perhaps the most famous and spectacular member of the redwood understory is the brilliantly colored California rhododendron. In springtime, rhododendrons apparently transform the redwood forests into a dazzling display of purple and pink colors.
The survival strategies of these trees like their ability to reproduce identical relatives astonishes me. A Redwood that is knocked over will attempt to continue growing via its limbs. If undisturbed, the limbs pointing up will turn into trees in their own right.
Another unusual survival strategy is the Redwood burls. The growth of a burl is held in check by the presence of chemical signals in a living Redwood. However, if the tree should die, or even be stressed, say by drought or fire, the chemical signal weakens or vanishes and the burl will burst forth into verdant life. Burls kept in a shallow pan of water will grow almost indefinitely. They can also continue on to become a full grown redwood tree.
Sexual reproduction can also occur by seeding. About 20% of today’s present Redwood trees sprang from seeds ( some Redwoods don’t even produce them). The rest came from one of the various cloning/family-based proliferation strategies. This means that some of these trees could be the latest incarnations of the same line that stretches back 20,000 or 30,000 years.
Coastal Redwoods also have the unique ability to survive rising soil levels. Rising ground levels are commonly brought about by flood deposits, deposits that typically smother other trees root systems, killing them. The Redwood simply grows a new lateral root system. Seven successive layers of roots were observed on one fallen Redwood meaning that the ground level had risen dramatically up the tree seven times and each time the tree responded with a new root system. It has been observed that some 1000+ year old Redwoods have experienced and survived rises in ground level of as much as 30 feet.
Redwoods compensate for induced leans caused by shifting slopes, collisions of other trees, flood pressure and tectonic induced tilting, by the unusual ability to “buttress” their undersides through accelerated growth on the downhill side. What this means practically is that it is possible to find whole groves of trees that are leaning in the same direction.
Recalling that as a human I share 25 percent of my DNA with trees, it seems quite natural that I would want to meet a forest composed of my most astonishing relatives and perhaps visit with the Addertongue in the process!