Category: Blog~ Naturey Goodness

14 May 2019

Fairy Umbrellas

I like to call these fairy umbrellas. Perhaps my mind is in vacation mode, but they remind me of a crowded beach. I like to imagine all of the little fairies posting up in their favorite woodland area to enjoy a day of relaxing. Maybe in the late summer when the fruit develops, they use it to play a game similar to beach volleyball…

Would you believe that the majority of these plants (see pic 1) are actually from one individual? That’s right, American Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is a rhizomatous perennial, reproducing asexually by means of rhizomes underground. It’s one of the first early spring wildflowers in Ohio, often found in shaded woodland areas. Mayapple is hard to mistake for many other wildflowers because of its large rounded leaves and colonial growth. The shoots that grow vertically, producing the colony above ground, consist of either one leaf (asexual) or two leaves (sexual). A lone flower is produced in the axil of the plants with two leaves, usually in May (see pic 2). This plant does not appear to be trying very hard to attract pollinators with its inconspicuous flower placement, but even more perplexing is that the flower lacks nectar! The pollen produced does in fact attract some native bees and bumblebees. Thus, because Mayapple is extremely unlikely to self-pollinate and is lacking in its sexual reproduction design, the majority of the energy goes into rhizome growth, creating a highly clonal species.

Mayapple stays in suspiciously pristine condition compared to neighboring plants full of insect damage. That’s because the majority of the plant is poisonous. In fact, podophyllotoxin can be extracted from the rhizomes or leaves and used medicinally for cancer treatment. The only edible part is the berry, but even then you need to avoid the seed and the skin. If the flower is pollinated, a small lemon shaped berry is produced by August. Some mammals and birds are known to eat the berry, but the primary Mayapple seed disperser is the unsuspecting Eastern box turtle. Even slower than a turtle, if a seed successfully disperses to a new area to grow, it is believed to take around five years to mature to produce rhizomes! I sure do love the image of a box turtle munching berries in the shade of mini umbrellas. Would the turtle be considered a pet to the fairies? Would it cause pandemonium like Jaws? I encourage you to go on a hike in search of these flowers currently blooming and again in late summer for the berries. Who knows, maybe you’ll come across a fairy or even a box turtle!

~Tracy

07 Feb 2019

A Mystery Waiting to Be Solved

Tracking_fox

Sometimes the stiff crunch of frozen leaves under our boots and the dull browns and grays can make winter seem a little underwhelming in the nature scene. We know from reading ‘Don’t Poke a Bear’ that most animals are active during winter. It’s funny to think about how many animals are eating, sleeping, and surviving all around us, most of the time without our knowledge. Winter is no exception. And with a little magic, we can get a better glimpse into their lives. And by magic, I mean a fresh coat of snow. Even their stealth and nocturnal habits are no match against Mother Nature. It’s like every movement is recorded into the blank pages of a book. For the Harry Potter fans out there, think of Marauder’s map. All of a sudden, footprints appear!

Tracking is an activity that can spruce up your winter time blues. One part of tracking is to identify footprints. Looking at the size, shape, gait, and number of digits will help you to decipher who was there. You can start tracking in your own backyard! Did you know that squirrels and rabbits hop with their back feet landing in front of their front feet (pic 1)? You may learn to appreciate how far squirrels can hop and that their tracks always seem to disappear next to a tree. Do you have a pet dog or cat? Look for claw marks with your dog, but not with your cat. Similar to your pets, our wild canine friends like fox and coyote also have four digits. Be sure to check on the surface of logs: foxes enjoy a little balancing act (pic 2). I love seeing the simple bird tracks from birds hopping around my feeders. Have you ever looked close enough to find wing prints in the snow? Some more obvious clues around a feeder may include tufts of hair, small feathers, or even blood! Some of my favorite tracks to find are tiny feet with a line running through it. Can’t you just picture the mouse dragging its tail while it hops through the snow? If you pay enough attention, you may even find the mouse’s tunnel or home.

On one tracking expedition, the temperatures had not gone over 25 degrees for a week, yet we saw evidence of: small song birds, great blue heron, coyote, fox, raccoon, squirrel, rabbit, field mouse, vole, turkey, and white-tailed deer. In addition to footprints, we found chewed twigs and nuts, urine, scat, and blood. You can be a beginner tracking the squirrels and birds in your backyard, or an experienced tracker following a fox back to its den. Tracking tells a story of what happened, whether it was a deer wandering around looking for food or a red-tailed hawk diving down to scoop up an unlucky field mouse. Tracking is a mystery waiting to be solved and I encourage you to put on your layers, take a hike, and tell your own story.

~Tracy

31 Dec 2018

Puff Ball-Eating Machines

cardinal2
cardinal-e1546268945314

What comes to mind when you see a bright red cardinal in the winter? Beauty. Male. Contrast. Christmas. Charley Harper. What about awe? If you find yourself grumbling about how you don’t want to go outside and fill up the feeder again (because it’s too cold, you just filled it, or because they are costing you a pretty penny), think about how birds are exposed to nonstop cold temperatures this time of year. While our water fowl migrate during winter, most of our local birds (white-breasted nuthatch, finches, Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, woodpeckers, wrens, tufted titmouse, blue jay, mourning dove, and more) tough it out all winter long. Clearly if they are so well adapted to survive cold winters, they could forage their own seeds and insects, but it’s a win-win to give them a little energy boost while getting to enjoy some local wildlife. In fact, most passerines (perching birds) are eating as much as they can during the day just to make it through the night. An excuse you don’t have this holiday season. On really cold nights, tiny chickadees and other passerines undergo ‘nightly hypothermia,’ meaning they use up all of their energy to keep warm by shivering. Birds would probably shiver themselves right off the branch if it weren’t for their special gripping feet. I know what you’re thinking, those dainty feet look as if they might break just by landing! The tendons in their feet have an involuntary reflex that automatically locks their toes around the perch when they land and unlocks when they straighten their legs. Now you know why birds make it look so easy to perch up on the tiniest branch at the tip top of a tree.
You don’t have to have fur like a deer or coyote to rock a winter coat. Passerines have quite the stylish and practical winter coats, made with a new set of down feathers. Fluffing up these feathers creates warm air pockets and keeps cold air away from their skin. Sorry to break it to you that birds aren’t looking like cute little puff balls for your enjoyment (although I do tend to want to give birds more food when they look like that). A common misconception about birds is their nesting area. Nests are used during breeding season in the spring and summer. This time of year, most birds don’t have a designated home, so they roost in a new spot every night. Some birds use old woodpecker holes and cavities in trees or seek out evergreens, thickets, and shrubby areas for protection from both predators and low temperatures. I encourage you to not only give our feathered friends mad props while they are crunching their way through your seed, but to go on a hike to look for small tree cavities and other good overnight roosting spots.

~Tracy

29 Oct 2018

Horsehair Worms

There’s something about long, thin worms that puts people on edge. Even I hesitated to pick up this little guy because of the fear of parasitic worms. Don’t worry, these horsehair worms (Gordius robustus) are not some parasitic nematode ready to crawl up your nose and take over your body. Well actually, I should clarify. You’re safe if you are a human. Even your pets are safe. However, if you’re an arthropod, you might be in trouble. The mature adults (like you see in the picture) aren’t the ones causing problems. It’s the babies you have to look out for, and you won’t even see them coming!

Adult females lay MILLIONS of eggs in the water. The minuscule (~0.01 inches) larvae are ingested by certain bugs for food. A hard covering (cyst) protects the larva, then dissolves after entering the gut of its host. Many macroinvertebrates become hosts because they live in aquatic habitats. Other common hosts are crickets, grasshoppers, and beetles because they eat macroinvertebrates, thus becoming the new host to the horsehair worm. As a horsehair worm develops into an adult over a few weeks or months, the host becomes the ‘walking dead’. Because adult horsehair worms require water to leave their host, the zombie host bug is triggered to find water, where it meets its demise. Most of us have seen witches melting from water in the Wizard of Oz, but here’s a new visual for you: death by worm breaking through a body cavity. And if you really want a good visual, search for horsehair worms on youtube. You’ll find all sorts of videos of them crawling out of crickets, spiders, cockroaches, and other arthropods. Maybe save it for Halloween.

One legend behind their name is that people believed the hairs from a horse’s mane or tail would fall into the water bucket and come to life. In reality, a cricket or host had hopped up to the water bucket, prompting a horsehair worm to break free in the water source. They are also referred to as Gordian worms because they twist and squirm into ‘Gordian knots’. In addition to having a very remarkable life cycle, horsehair worms are important for keeping our pest population in check. I encourage you to go on a hike and keep an eye out for any strange behavior from arthropods around water.

~Tracy