Category Archives: Nature

Crossing Paths: Amphibians and Springtime Roads

[The content of this blog is almost identical to a posting on the Farmscape Ecology Program Facebook page by Conrad earlier today, which we hereby make available to readers who don’t use Facebook].

We are on the tail of Winter or the cusp of Spring. The time of year for ice and mud, snow and rain. It is the season when the Woodcocks peet bravely on a rimey mornings and evenings, when male Red-winged Blackbirds look cold and lonely around frosty ponds, and when… the salamanders and frogs move across wet roads.

To understand why creatures like Spotted Salamanders try to cross roads, one has to understand that they have their own routes to follow – the paths that lead them from the upland forest where they spent most of the year to the vernal pool or other wetland where they will mate. These are paths they may have followed year after year (Spotted Salamanders can live a couple of decades), generation after generation; and yet, more and more, they are intersecting with our own asphalt causeways.

During the first wet and warmer nights of Spring, these creatures undertake their migrations. They appear as if by some mysterious flowering from the earth for one rarely sees them at other times of year. The salamanders are slow and determined and we are fast and determined – many die beneath our car tires. Frogs are quicker but more erratic, they too are often hit. This photo collection profiles some of what we have seen so far this year.

The DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program has a valuable project to identify road crossings and encourage volunteers to help guide salamanders and frogs safely across the road, please check out their web site: for tips and information on this citizen science network.

This year, the majority of crossings to breeding ponds has probably already happened in many areas, but the next warm, rainy evening may bring further movement, including some breeders returning to the woods. It’s not too late to take a flashlight, a reflective vest and, while mindful of your own safety, walk to a nearby stretch of wetland-bordered road and see who you can help across.

At the least, please think twice before driving out on such warm, wet evenings.

No images of dark, wet roads at night, but this is a road on the morning after. This has been an ‘on again – off again’ Spring and, as happened on this date, a rainy evening eventually changed to a snowy night.


By the time morning comes, there are usually no live amphibians left on the road, especially if the night got cold. But evidence of what has happened remains.


In our area, Spotted Salamanders are usually the most common road-crossing salamanders, and we saw more than 30 last week, about half of whom were alive. These are long (up to more than 6”), lumbering creatures with bright yellow dots on a black (or, as early biologists, put it “subviolet”) background.


They seem to look better on leaves than asphalt. There was also one greyish Jefferson or Blue-spotted Salamander amongst those attempting to cross.


We also came across several of these last week, this is a Four-toed Salamander.


Four-toeds are rarer or, at least, less conspicuous. They tend to be associated with Sphagnum and their ways seem more mysterious. Look for relatively small, slim salamanders, 2-3” long with a squared snout and an orange, herringboned back. The belly is a characteristic bright white with black dots.


Frogs were also moving. We saw five or so dead Wood Frogs, but innumerable (50-100?) of these tiny Spring Peepers, perhaps a quarter to a half of whom were alive.


Many of these creatures want to get to places like this – a woodland pool. Such pools tend to dry out in late summer, meaning that many predators, like fish and Bullfrogs, are absent. If they develop fast enough, the eggs of the road-crossers, laid during the early Spring orgies, will hatch into larvae that will grow into terrestrial juveniles who leave the pond before it dries.


While I saw no eggs or adults in this pond over the weekend, these tell-tale, bread-crumb like spermatophores indicated that at least one ardent male salamander had arrived, perhaps several.


Although our roads have surely upped the toll, Spring breeding has probably always been a dangerous time for these animals. One occasionally finds dismembered salamanders or frogs around Spring pools, perhaps indication that a passing predator, such as a Raccoon or Opossum, had a meal. Spotted Salamander do release a sticky white ooze that is said to be mildly toxic and might provide some protection.
These trotting fox tracks were going up a road where several salamanders had been run over, I don’t know whether that was coincidence or scavenging.


Amphibians aren’t the only animals one is apt to see on wet roads, earthworms also come out in abundance.


And the avian ‘road crew’ seems take advantage of this.


I wanted to end this set of pictures with a Spring flower, but wild ones are still hard to come by in our area. However, this Skunk Cabbage was flowering in a nearby wetland.
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Posted by on April 9, 2018 in Farmscape Ecology, Nature


Encouraging Fall Flowers and their Insect Visitors on Farms in the Hudson Valley

Flowers are beautiful. Flowers are also necessary to produce many fruits and vegetables we like to eat. For example, there are no tomatoes without tomato flowers and no cherries without cherry blossoms. Additionally, flowers are a crucial resource for many insects, some of which, in turn, are beneficial for agricultural production.

In this blog, we want to share some late season images (most of them taken in late September/early October 2017) from the Hudson Valley, which illustrate different approaches to enhancing flower abundance on farms. While some of these approaches were the result of deliberate management to invite more flowers and beneficial insects onto the farms, others were more incidental. The photos were taken by various members of our team (see photo credits at the bottom) as part of a multi-farm study to compare the distribution of flowers and insects in vegetable fields and surrounding semi-natural areas. The pictures are from Hawthorne Valley Farm, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub, Ironwood Farm, and Hearty Roots Community Farm.

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Creekhouse Garden

Increased on-farm flowers through adjacent residential landscaping

Our program occupies one of the buildings on the farm, adjacent to a pasture. Since 2010, we have worked slowly, but steadily, to invite more species of native plants into the 1/2 acre yard around the house. The early years of that effort are described on the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program website.

This fall, the rain garden (where we collect the runoff from the parking lot), sported a mix of planted and volunteer native plants, such as New England Aster, Purple-stem Aster, Panicled Aster, Canada and Rough-leaved Goldenrod, Brown-eyed Susan, Obedience Plant, Indian Grass, and Big Bluestem.

View from the rain garden at the Creekhouse towards the barns of Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

The dryer roadside garden has several of the same species (they usually don’t grow as tall, there) in addition to Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint and Wild Bergamot.

A part of the roadside garden at the Creekhouse, featuring (counter-clockwise from bottom left) New England Aster, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Brown-eyed Susan, Wild Bergamot, Big Bluestem, and Purpletop Grass (photo by CKV).

In the shadier areas, Heart-leaved Aster displays a last hurrah of summer with its dense lavender-colored flowers.

A dense patch of Heart-leaved Aster in a shady part of the Creekhouse Garden (photo by CKV).

Much of the former lawn has slowly been transformed into a native wildflower meadow, where New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod put on a spectacular show of colors in late September.

New England Aster and Showy Goldenrod both propagate readily from seeds collected in the fall and stored in a dry cool place over the winter (photo by CKV).

Migrating Monarch butterflies, of which there were a lot more this year as compared to the last few years, were thankful for the nectar!

Monarch on New England Aster (photo by CKV).

But not only the showy butterflies graced the garden with their presence. Honey bees were busily collecting nectar on the different aster and goldenrod species…

A Honey Bee with its pollen baskets filled to the brim, buzzing among the flower heads of New England Aster (photo by CRV).

… as did the native bumblebees.

A Common Eastern Bumblebee is approaching the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

The less conspicuous small wasps where everywhere. Many of these smaller cousins of the dreaded Yellow Jackets are important beneficial insects for the farmer. Most of them are parasitoids, which lay their eggs into the larvae of other insects and thereby contribute to the biocontrol of pests.

A probably parasitic small wasp (photo by CRV).

Another group of beneficial insects are the hoverflies. Other than bees and wasps, which they often resemble because of their yellow and black markings, these flies do not sting. The larvae of many species are ferocious predators of other insects and also contribute to biocontrol of pests. The adults feed on nectar and pollen, and serve as pollinators. Here are images of three different species of hoverflies found on asters in the Creekhouse Garden.

Most likely, this hoverfly is Syrphus torvus, a common species whose larvae feed on aphids. This adult is visiting the flower heads of Heart-leaved Aster (photo by CRV).

Toxomerus germinatus, another species of hoverfly, visiting the flower heads of Panicled Aster (photo by CRV).

Drone Fly (Eristalis tenax), an introduced, migratory hoverfly, whose larvae are not predatory, visiting the flower heads of Heath Aster (photo by CRV)

However, not all flower visitors were interested in collecting pollen or nectar, or functioning as pollinators. This katydid was happily munching away on the white petals (ray flowers) of a Calico Aster.

A Katydid eating flower parts (photo by CRV).

Another creature was not interested in the flowers per se, but had set up shop to try and catch one of the abundant flower visitors.

A curiously-shaped orb weaver spider, most likely an Arrow-shaped Micrathena (photo by CRV).


Hawthorne Valley Farm – Hedgerows

Increased flowers by letting natural diversity bloom

Hawthorne Valley Farm has an abundance of hedgerows which separate the various pastures and fields. In the Spring, most flowers in this habitat are borne on the native (and non-native) shrubs that compose the backbone of these hedgerows. Late in the season, asters and goldenrods thrive along the unmowed edges of the hedgerows. Such “soft edges” between different habitat types or landscape features might appear ungroomed, but are very important for insect life. Unmowed riparian corridors and infrequently mowed wetlands can serve a similar purpose.

New England Aster of two varieties (purple and pink flowers) grow along the unmowed edge of a hedgerow at Hawthorne Valley Farm (photo by CKV).

Ironwood Farm – Old Fields Surrounding the Intensively Managed Fields

Increased flowers by allowing some former farmland to remain fallow

Ironwood Farm is a young farm reclaiming former farmland. Currently, the intensively managed vegetable fields are surrounded by old fields that have developed into perennial meadows, composed of varying mixes of native and non-native plants. We have observed an exceptional abundance of native bees in the vegetable fields of this farm and suspect that the surrounding old fields and their flowers may help support these bees, which then serve as pollinators in the vegetables. In addition, the Common Milkweed plants (note the large, oval leaves in the center of the image below) in the old field served as food plants for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, making Ironwood Farm a nursery as well as a stop-over for migrating Monarchs.

A goldenrod and aster dominated old field just outside the deer fence of the vegetable field at Ironwood Farm might contribute to the abundance of native bees we observed in the vegetables (photo by CKV).

In the fall, the flowers of New England Aster contrast beautifully with those of Canada Goldenrod in the old field (photo by CKV).

Earlier in the season, the old fields had many flowers of non-native plants, such as Knapweed, which nonetheless were very attractive to native pollinators.

A native bee nectaring on the flower head of a non-native Knapweed (photo by CRV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Cropland

Increased flowers through interspersed in-bed annuals

The Corner Garden near the school parking lot is a small, intensively managed vegetable field. The farmers are experimenting with augmenting the abundance of flowers near the vegetables by interplanting annual wildflowers (such as the pink Cosmos pictured below) within the vegetable beds. While some vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and squash have to flower before producing the vegetable we eat, others, such as lettuce, carrots, parsnips, chard, beets, fennel, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kohlrabi don’t get to flower before they are harvested. Occasionally, when feasible within the crop rotation, left-over crops (such as the Fennel pictured below) are allowed to bolt and flower, adding to the abundance and variety of flowers in the garden.

Late season flowers in the Corner Garden are provided by a Cosmos plant which was interplanted with Fennel and the Fennel itself, which is allowed to bloom before the bed is seeded with a cover crop for the winter (photo by CKV).

Hawthorne Valley Farm – Corner Garden Borders

Increased flowers through perennial edge plantings

In addition, we have collaborated with the farmers to bring more flowers into the Corner Garden by establishing small plantings of woody and perennial native plants around the perimeter of the vegetable beds. On the right in the image below is an area that was planted in early summer (with the help of several volunteers) with New England Aster, Showy Goldenrod, Wild Bergamot, Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed, all propagated from seeds collected at the Creekhouse Garden, in addition to some Yarrow and Lemon Balm plants. The abundant flowers of New England Aster (patch of purple flowers in image) became a true insect magnet in the fall, feeding migrating Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies, the Honeybees from the nearby hives, a plethora of native bees, hoverflies, and other beneficials, as well as the not-so-beneficial Cabbage White butterflies.

This planting was recently expanded (again with the help of several tireless volunteers) to incorporate a number of additional native wildflowers grown from seeds by volunteer Betsy Goodman-Smith. The perennial patch now also contains Purple Coneflower, Black- and Brown-eyed Susan, Anise Hyssop, Lance-leaved Coreopsis, Mistflower, Cardinalflower, Partridge Pea, Slender Lespedeza, and Purple Prairie Clover (the seeds for most of these species were donated by the Hudson Valley Farm Hub). We are looking forward to this wildflower patch providing nectar and pollen for insects all through the season, next year…

The expanding perennial native wildflower patch in the Corner Garden (photo by CKV).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Vegetable Fields

Increased flowers through bed-scale annual insectaries

In the large vegetable fields at the Farm Hub, the farmers experimented with several annual insectary plantings. The image below shows a section of the garden that had been seeded with Prairie Coreopsis in spring and was allowed to flower for a second time to provide late-season floral resources for insects.

An insectary strip of annual Plains Coreopsis integrated in the vegetable fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub (photo by CKV).

The Coreopsis insectary became a lunch stop for migrating Monarch butterflies. We estimate that at least 50 Monarchs were nectaring in this patch at a time.

Monarch butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary (photo by DAC).

However, the Monarchs were not the only migratory butterflies who stopped to fuel up on energy-rich nectar. Painted Lady butterflies on their way to Texas and Northern Mexico were even more common than the Monarchs on the Coreopsis flowers.

Painted Lady butterfly on Plains Coreopsis in insectary strip (photo by DAC).

Other visitors to the Coreopsis flowers in the insectary planting included Sulphur butterflies, hover flies, and Honey Bees (all pictured below).

A variety of insects, other than the migratory butterflies, visited the Coreopsis flowers (clockwise from top left): Sulphur butterfly, hover fly (most likely Syrphus torvus), and Honey Bee (photos by DAC).


Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Test Plots

Increased flowers through field-scale planting of perennial native meadows

This spring, we established 4.5 acres of native meadow trial areas in flood-prone fields at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. We are experimenting with two seed mixes (Mix A and Mix B; see below) to compare their success in establishing meadows without the use of herbicides on former corn fields. We also monitor their suitability for erosion control, soil building, and as insect and wildlife habitat. We received invaluable technical support on this project from the Xerces Society, who is collaborating with the USDA/NRCS throughout the US to help make farms more pollinator-friendly.

Seeding the native meadow seed mix into bare ground in mid May 2017 (photo by CKV).

Mix A is rich in wildflowers and might, eventually, be most attractive to pollinators and other beneficial insects. It is also quite expensive.

Mix B is rich in native grasses with some wildflowers added. It is more economical and might, eventually, lead to meadows that attract grassland breeding birds as well as a decent amount of beneficial insects.

By early October, some of the test plots are well on their way to dense and diverse native meadows. The vegetation is relatively low because the test plots had been mowed throughout the summer to discourage the annual weeds.

A native meadow test plot (Seed Mix A) in October of its first year (photo by CKV).

A closer look into this patch of meadow (seeded with Seed Mix A) reveals a mix of blossoms from Mistflower (light blue), Black-eyed Susan (yellow), and Blanketflower (red). The seedlings of about 20 additional native plant species are well established and have spent their first season developing a strong root system. They are expected to begin flowering next year. The seeds of a few species remained dormant for the first season and are expected to germinate next spring.

A native meadow established from seed at the end of its first season: the most conspicuous wildflowers are Black-eyed Susan (yellow), Mistflower (light blue), and Blanketflower (red) (photo by CKV).

A closer look at the late season flowers in the native meadow trial (photo by CKV).

Bees, wasps, hover flies, moths, and butterflies, including Monarch and Painted Lady, were visiting the flowers in these meadows, but in smaller numbers compared to the Coreopsis insectary, which had a much higher flower density.

Two very different species of hover flies: Drone Fly on Blanketflower (left) and Helophilus fasciatus on Black-eyed Susan (right) (photos by JM).

The Sulphur butterfly is one of the most ubiquitous butterflies on farms. Its larvae feed on clovers and alfalfa, and adults can be found nectaring on a large variety of flowers.

Sulphur butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

An exciting observation was the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly visiting flowers in the native meadow trial. This is a northern species which, in some years, shows up in our region. This is our first sighting of this species in the Hudson Valley in more than a decade.

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly on Black-eyed Susan (photo by JM).

Hudson Valley Farm Hub – Medicinal Herb Garden

Increased flowers through blossoming herb crops

One of the farmers in training at the Farm Hub chose to experiment with the growing of medicinal herbs, this season. By mid summer, her herb garden was buzzing with bees and hopping with butterflies. The herbs were harvested by the time we took our last round of photos, so here are a couple of images from the herb garden in July.

The medicinal herb garden in July. In full bloom at this time were Toothache Plant (yellow), Calendula (orange), and Blue Vervain (purple) (photo by CKV).

It was particularly impressive, to see the Blue Vervain, a native plant of wet meadows, in a dense bed of obviously very happy plants in full bloom. The insects were all over them in July!

Blue Vervain in the medicinal plant garden (photo by CKV).


Hearty Roots Community Farm – U-Pick Flower Beds

Increased flowers through bee- and butterfly-friendly cut-flower beds

Another type of flower found on several farms this fall were ornamental plants grown for cut flowers. While ornamental flowers often originate from other parts of the world (e.g., Calendula comes from Southern Europe and Strawflower from Australia) and horticultural varieties bred to please the human eye often don’t provide much (if any) nectar and/or pollen for insects, we were happy to observe during our flower watches in the cut-flower beds of Hearty Roots Community Farm, that some species were very popular with the insects.

One of them was Zinnia, an easily grown annual which is represented in many flower gardens and a staple in cut flower arrangements. It is native to the Southwestern US and into South America.

A bed of Zinnia in the cut flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

The Monarchs and Painted Ladies might “know” this plant from Mexico and seem to LOVE it! (Of course, the individual butterflies we observed here this fall have not yet been in Mexico, so their “knowledge” of Zinnia–if any–would be at the level of the species which have co-evolved with the nectar plants.)

Monarch butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Painted Lady butterfly on Zinnia (photo by DAC).

Globe Amaranth is also often a component of locally grown flower bouquets, but its natural distribution is even more tropical than that of Zinnia, from Central into South America. Its flower heads are reminiscent of clover and seem to be very attractive to a variety of butterflies.

A bed of Globe Amaranth in the ornamental flower garden at Hearty Roots Community Farm (photo by CKV).

It was visited by some butterflies that are common resident species of our area farms, such as the Sulphur and Gray Hairstreak.

Sulphur butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Gray Hairstreak butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

However, we also observed several butterfly species on the Globe Amaranth, which are resident in the southern US and only sometimes stray as far north as our region. These include the Fiery Skipper, Common Checkered Skipper, and Common Buckeye.

Fiery Skipper butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).

Checkered Skipper on Globe Amaranth (photo by CRV).

Buckeye butterfly on Globe Amaranth (photo by DAC).


Fortunately, there are many possibilities to enhance flower abundance and insect life on farms (and in your gardens!), whether it involves adjusting the mowing schedule of natural areas/field edges/surrounding old fields so that the wildflowers can blossom; allowing certain vegetables to bolt and bloom; planting flowering medicinal herbs or pollinator-friendly cut flowers; interplanting annual flowers with vegetables, either as individual plants, or in insectary strips; using flowering cover crops; or establishing perennial wildflower areas at the field or nook & cranny scale. Each of these approaches can help make the farmscape more diverse and alive. They vary in their scale and in the time and money investment they require, so think about what’s the best fit for your situation. Where there are suitable flowers, the pollinators and other beneficial insects will be rewarding you with their beauty and service.

We thank the farmers at Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for their collaboration with the experimental establishment of native wildflowers. We also thank them, and the farmers at Hearty Roots Community Farm and Ironwood Farm for tolerating our research for the multi-farm comparison of the distribution of insects across on-farm habitats.

Photo credits: Dylan Cipkowski (DAC), Julia Meyer (JM), Conrad Vispo (CRV), and Claudia Knab-Vispo (CKV).

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Posted by on October 17, 2017 in Agriculture, Farmscape Ecology, Nature


In the Asparagus Patch.


An early illustration of Asparagus from Duhamel du Monceau’s Traité des arbres et arbustes, vol. 1: t. 31 (1755); image from Asparagus was among the earliest European vegetables to be brought to the New World.

As a child, the wispy, ferny fronds of wild Asparagus were always rather magical to me. It was as if the staid crop had let its hair down as it roamed the ditches and roadsides. It should not be surprising that Asparagus is widely feral; it has been here for a while. Asparagus has been recognized as a vegetable for millennia and apparently was planted in some of the first new world vegetable gardens, possibly because of its early-season arrival to the table, its hardiness and perennial habit, and its purported medicinal properties. In addition, its original native Western Europe seaside habitat may have preadapted it to road salt.

Asparagus was listed among the vegetables in William Penn’s colony in 1685. By 1747, Peter Kalm found it growing wild in various places, including along the Hudson north of Albany. Jefferson included abundant observations on its planting in his garden notebooks starting in 1767, and it was being sold commercially in New England in the same century. It was widely naturalized in NY by the early 1800s, and, by the mid 1800s, it was being grown extensively, including in 10-20 acre fields on Long Island for sale in NYC.


A late 19th or early 20th century Massachusetts asparagus farm, from Hexamer’s Asparagus : its Culture for Home Use and for Market : a Practical Treatise on the Planting, Cultivation, Harvesting, Marketing, and Preserving of Asparagus. Large asparagus farms served major East Coast cities.

As is often the case with newly introduced plants, for many years Asparagus apparently had few enemies. However, in 1862 New York State Entomologist Asa Fitch began his annual report with this line, “Much the most important entomological event in our State the present year has been the appearance upon the asparagus on Long Island of an insect new to us in this country, and doing great injury to this important crop, threatening even its total destruction.” The Common Asparagus Beetle had arrived.


The illustration that accompanied Asa Fitch’s 1862 description of the Common Asparagus Beetle upon its first recorded arrival to North America, from the 8th Report on the Noxious and Other Insects of the State of New York. Damage was apparently quick and extensive.


The Common Asparagus Beetle in action, as illustrated in Hexamer’s work. The beetles seem to attack the stalk and head while the grubs appear to spend more time eating the leafy fronds.


A sickly, beetle-damaged Asparagus stalk. Adults and grub feed directly on the plant, and extensive egg-insertion may stunt stalk growth.

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The Common Asparagus Beetle.

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On heavily occupied plants, the activity can be crowded.

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Mating Common Asparagus Beetles on Asparagus. The wet-looking scrapes on the Asparagus stalks are from its feeding.

After some research, Fitch concluded that the Common Asparagus Beetle (Crioceris asparagi) had probably landed on these shores some time in 1857 or 1858. He could offer little by way of control except, after dismissing the use of skunks (who did seem to enjoy beetle fare but were “in such bad odor”), the use of free-ranging fowl. For the next two years, growers apparently despaired but then a “small, shining black parasitic fly” appeared as a “deliverer” and the destruction abated somewhat. The mysterious parasite apparently then disappeared, and the beetle continued to spread, probably reaching our area (Columbia County, NY) around the turn of the century. In 1909 (see this paper), the parasite was  finally captured and identified as the small wasp Tetrastichus aparagi. Subsequently, and not surprisingly in retrospect, this wasp was found to be identical to T. coeruleus, a wasp known to parasitize the Common Asparagus Beetle in its native Old World homeland.


A probable Tetrastichus coeruleus, the wasp that saved the Asparagus crop.

The wasp has not disappeared again, and it is apparently crucial to controlling Common Asparagus Beetles. Estimates are that it kills approximately three quarters of the eggs produced by this beetle. Interestingly, American economic entomologists, struggling with the late 19th century rampages of the Asparagus Beetle, seemed somewhat baffled that Europeans could not provide them with any adequate control measures. It now seems likely that, with this little wasp already ‘on the job’, Europeans rarely needed extra measures.

Before describing some of what is known of the life cycles of both wasp and beetle, it’s important to emphasize the fact that Asparagus is a perennial; it may produce a crop for a decade or more. Unlike the case with annual crops, asparagus fields are not being ploughed under and moved every year, and so populations of both pest and parasite can build up over several years.


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Asparagus is a perennial crop that may be harvested for up to a dozen years. This allows predator/pest communities to develop over time.

The Common Asparagus Beetle overwinters in the soil as an adult. These beetles then emerge in the Spring and begin to feed on the rapidly growing asparagus shoots. Soon, rows of their tiny, neat eggs begin to appear on asparagus stalks, (The only analogy I can think of for the appearance of the eggs is that of a school of shark fins cutting through an asparagus ocean… OK, that probably doesn’t help.) After a week or so, these hatch into black-headed, grey-bodied grubs who feed avidly for a couple of weeks then pupate in the soil for a dozen days or so, re-emerging as the second generation a bit more than a month after their parents. These beetles go on to produce another generation, and, it is those beetles or their progeny who then overwinter.

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A Common Asparagus Beetle grub together with eggs of the same species.

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Several Common Asparagus Beetle grubs on a young Asparagus frond that they have nearly stripped of its outside layer.

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A Common Asparagus Beetle among eggs of the same species. I’m guessing the yellowish egg is recently laid, but I may be wrong.

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Although egg laying on Asparagus should be the norm, this beetle decided to try grass. Since young larvae appear to travel in search of the appropriate Asparagus plant for feeding, perhaps these future hatchlings will make it to a nearby Asparagus stalk.


Common Asparagus Beetles reportedly overwinter as adults in litter, under tree bark, and in the somewhat hollow stems of cut Asparagus such as shown here.

While the adults scar the surface of the large stalks and eat the ‘scales’ of the heads, the grubs seem to favor the finer vegetation of the branching asparagus ‘ferns’, and can quickly girdle and strip smaller plants. The action of the adults, while apparently not as immediately dramatic, can scar and stunt the asparagus shoots growth, sometimes causing the stalk to do a complete loop the loop and rendering them unfit for sale.

Meanwhile, the wasp has been passing winter in the pupae of the eggs it parasitized the previous year. It soon emerges and begins its work. One of the characteristics that apparently makes this wasp so effective in control is that it is not only a parasite, it is also a predator. The adult wasp both consumes and lays its eggs in (that is, ‘oviposits’) the beetle’s eggs.




A sequence of shots showing the parasitic wasp approaching and sensing an egg, inserting its ovipositor in two different locations on the same egg, and apparently eating or at least tasting some of the content. The glistening circles evident on a couple of eggs are the insertion points. The ovipositor comes out of the central ventral portion of the abdomen, not the tip and is visible in a couple of the pictures.

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The somewhat deflated eggs visible in this shot may be the work of a hungry wasp, although I still need to insure that I can tell hatched from consumed eggs.

The wasp’s general behavioral sequence, based on the aforementioned early 20th century observations and a more recent European paper, is that a wasp approaches an egg and ‘sniffs’ or drums it with its antennae. It then makes the choice to eat, oviposit in, or reject the egg. Younger eggs seem to be favored for eating, while older eggs are favored for oviposition, although, on average, most eggs are rejected outright.

Egg consumption is an interesting behavior. Rather than simply walking up to an egg and taking a bite, the wasp seems to macerate the contents through rhythmical insertions of its ovipositor (see this video of the same wasp pictured here) and then lap up the contents. According to the above mentioned papers, actual oviposition involves a more tranquil insertion maintained for “several minutes”.

One last twist involves what happens next: the parasitized beetle egg hatches and the grub develops normally and pupates in the soil. This was clearly a head scratcher for early observers. But patience finally revealed the end result – the pupae never hatch, at least they don’t produce an adult beetle, instead, up to 10 wasp larvae emerge from the hollowed out beetle pupa. The wasp thus appears to practice delayed development, coordinating its own developmental rush to the pupation stage of the beetle. One possible advantage of this is that the young wasps can overwinter as larvae and/or pupae snug within the small underground cell originally created by the parasitized beetle larvae. The adult wasps then emerge in spring to renew the cycle.

The Spotted Asparagus beetle is commonly found with the Common Asparagus Beetle although, aptly enough, it is usually less common. The beetle in the lower image has decided to hang out on an adjacent weed rather than the Asparagus itself.
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The Spotted Asparagus Beetle usually puts its eggs on the Asparagus flower bud or berry rather than the stalk, so I’m guessing that is who laid these eggs, but I wasn’t present at their arrival.

The Common Asparagus Beetle and the parasitic wasp are not the only visitors to Asparagus. The Spotted Asparagus Beetle (Cioceris duodecimpunctata) arrived somewhat later and has not been as damaging. Its eggs are laid on the Asparagus berries, and its larvae apparently confine their feeding to that part of the plant. While often present, they seem to be generally less abundant than the Common Asparagus Beetle. Another species of wasp is thought to parasitize them. True Bugs sometimes also feed on the eggs, while the maggots of certain flies are known to bore into the Asparagus stems. In addition, passersby regularly alight on the Asparagus stalks, as they would on almost any piece of vegetation. There’s obviously a lot more going on here, but that’s enough for one posting!

Thanks to my colleagues at Hawthorne Valley Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub for tolerating my snooping.

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This wasp, a different species from the one pictured earlier, spent a while excitedly clambering over a grub-laden Asparagus frond but, in the end, it just flew away.
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This fly was moving up and down an egg-spotted Asparagus stem, apparently cleaning up some of the spilled juices.
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So far as I saw, this fly never did anything but perch. Several fungus-filled fly mummies were found nearby. I don’t know the species of fly, but perhaps these were simply using the Asparagus’ high and handy perches.
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This nymph of a True Bug patrolled some egg rows, apparently (although not definitively) sucking out the contents of some of them… think food-filled balloons.
And, amongst it all, a spider waited patiently; the Asparagus was as good a place as any for some hunting.
This red mite seemed to be sucking on a beetle egg, but perhaps it was only imbibing nearby plant juices.

Highlights from an Ecology Walk through the Oak-Heath Barrens of Taconic SP in Copake, NY

The Oak-Heath Barrens around Sunset Rock in Taconic State Park in Copake, NY were the destination of an Ecology Walk guided by the Farmscape Ecology Program on June 7, 2015. Here, we share some of the highlights from that walk and provide information that will help others explore this unique and beautiful habitat on their own.

Oak Heath Barren near Sunset Rock in Taconic SP, Copake NY

Oak-Heath Barren near Sunset Rock in Taconic SP, Copake NY

The Oak-Heath Barrens are characterized by low, shrubby vegetation surrounding occasional rocky outcrops. There is no tree canopy, although scattered Red Oak, White Oak, Red Maple, Pitch Pine, Sassafras, Shadbush, and Grey Birch do reach above the shrub layer.

Trail to Sunset Rock through Oak Heath Barren habitat

Trail to Sunset Rock through Oak-Heath Barren habitat

This habitat is called Oak-Heath Barrens for a reason: oaks and members of the heath family (Ericaceae; marked with * in the remainder of this paragraph), feature very prominently. The tallest shrubs, growing above the height of a person, are Scrub Oak, Mountain Laurel*, and Mountain Azalea*, mixed with stunted Red and White Oak. The hip-high shrub layer consists mostly of Black Huckleberry*, Chokeberry, and an occasional Deerberry*. Below that, three species of Lowbush Blueberries (Early*, Late*, and Velvetleaf* Blueberry), Wintergreen*, Trailing Arbutus*, and Bearberry* provide a fairly dense ground cover. For more details, you might want to look into the excellent community guide for Pitch Pine-Oak-Heath Rocky Summit compiled by the New York Natural Heritage Program.

View west from Sunset Rock across the Harlem Valley of Columbia County; the  Catskills are barely visible on the horizon

View west from Sunset Rock across the Harlem Valley of Columbia County; the Catskills are barely visible on the horizon.

In Columbia County, we find Oak-Heath Barrens almost exclusively located along the Taconic Ridge which extends N-S along the eastern border. Some of the most breath-taking views of the County are from peaks and lookouts on that ridge. However, much of the ridge remains forested and the lookouts are a rare treat to be reached only by walking through the dense, low forest that covers most of the ridge. Fortunately, a significant portion of the Taconic Ridge is protected from development.

Participants in the Ecology Walk to Sunset Rock on June 7, 2015

Participants in the Ecology Walk to Sunset Rock on June 7, 2015

There are several ways to access Sunset Rock and the surrounding Oak-Heath Barrens. Our group took the easiest way: drive up Sunset Rock Road in Copake, park at one of several small parking areas near the crest of the road, and follow one of the two foot paths which will merge into the South Taconic Trail continuing south along the ridge. Alternatively, one can park at the Taconic State Park headquarters in Copake Falls and hike up the trail behind the camp ground. Most adventurous, but also most interesting, is the Cedar Brook Trail, which starts just across the road from the main parking lot for Bash Bish Falls.

Three hiking trails leading to Sunset Rock

Three hiking trails leading to Sunset Rock

Above map is just a rough sketch of the approximate route of the trails. An excellent hiking map for the South Taconic Trails (which includes other trail options in Taconic State Park) can be purchased for $ 6.95 from the New Jersey – New York Trail Conference.

However you find your way, you have to be prepared to walk through some forested areas before reaching the barrens and their occasional lookouts.

Oak Heath Barrens south of Sunset Rock

Oak Heath Barrens south of Sunset Rock

South of Sunset Rock is Cedar Mountain, whose south slope can be reached by bush-whacking and provides a breath-taking view of Mt. Alander, located south of Bash Bish Gorge.

View south from Cedar Mountain, south of Sunset Rock

View south from Cedar Mountain, which is located south of Sunset Rock

The warm and dry southern slopes along the Taconic Ridge tend to be covered by a low and open Oak Woodland.

Oak Woodland on the south slope of Cedar Mountain

Oak Woodland on the south slope of Cedar Mountain

However, during our walk, we only explored the trail between Sunset Rock Road and Sunset Rock. It was lined with Pink Lady’s Slippers in full bloom. Although this is our most common native orchid in the County, it only occurs in a few places, mostly in the eastern part. Orchids have a delicate symbiosis with soil fungi. That is why they don’t disperse easily and tend not to survive attempts at transplanting. Please enjoy them in their natural environment and leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy!

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), one of our most common native orchids

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), one of our most common native orchids

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Occasionally, we spied a Mountain Azalea (or Pinkster)* bush that still had a few blossoms. Their peak bloom is usually in late May.

Pinkster, Pinxter, Rosebud Azalea, Mountain Azalea are all common names for this beautiful Rhododendron prinophyllum

Pinkster, Pinxter, Rosebud Azalea, Mountain Azalea are all common names for this beautiful Rhododendron prinophyllum

In Columbia County, we have two species of pink-flowering Azaleas. The Azaleas around Sunset Rock are Rhododendron prinophyllum, recognizable by a combination of characters: gland-tipped, sticky hairs on the flower stalk; corolla lobes approx. as long as the corolla tube; style not much longer than the stamens; leaves quite hairy below; and, finally, the heavenly perfume of the flowers!

Pinkster (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

Pinkster (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

Another pink beauty, flowering 3-4 weeks after the Azalea, is the Mountain Laurel, which was just starting to open some of its spectacular flowers. We expect them to be in full bloom the third week of June.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Not as common, but beautiful in their delicate way are the open bell-shaped flowers of Deer- or Squawberry, a type of blueberry that grows relatively tall and produces edible, but dryish and not very tasty fruits.

Deerberry or Squawberry (Vaccinium stamineum)

Deerberry or Squawberry (Vaccinium stamineum)

Along the path in to Sunset Rock, Conrad caught this Lilypad Clubtail dragonfly.

Lilypad Clubtail (Arigomphus furcifer) dragonfly

Lilypad Clubtail (Arigomphus furcifer) dragonfly

Reading up on this species, we learned that it lives around ponds and lakes with lilypads or other floating vegetation. What was it doing up on the hill with no water in sight? Dragonflies, like some other insects, are known to “hilltop”, i.e., fly up to the top of a hill and hover around, often in swarms. It has been suggested that this is part of their strategy to find mates (e.g., ‘let’s rendezvous at the top of the hill’) and might be a behavior that makes it easier for individuals of a relatively scarce species to find each other….

Back to plants:

Always growing right next to bare rock, we found the Three-toothed Cinquefoil, a plant which in Columbia County exclusively occurs in open areas along the Taconic Ridge.

Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata)

Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata)

Another plant which we regularly find on the Taconic Ridge, but rarely see elsewhere in the County, is the semi-parasitic Bastard Toadflax. Its roots tap into the roots of other plants and steal nutrients. It has been shown to parasitize a wide range of species (more than 200!) including blueberries, asters, birches and maples, as well as grasses. However, it has green leaves and is perfectly able to photosynthesize.

Bastard Toad-flax (Comandra umbellata)

Bastard Toad-flax (Comandra umbellata)

A very exciting find was this little plant with a single whorl of parallel-veined leaves.

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid

When I first saw it, I thought is was a young individual of Indian Cucumber Root (pictured below in its older, two-whorled stage), which can currently be seen in great numbers along the road leading up Harvey Mountain.

Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) seen on Harvey Mountain on June 7, 2015

A two-tiered Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) seen on Harvey Mountain on June 7, 2015

Indian Cucumber Root has the same parallel-veined leaves as the plant we observed on the trail to Sunset Rock, but it produces small, very symmetrical, three-parted flowers that dangle from the second whorl of leaves and place it squarely in the lily family.

Flower of Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) seen on Harvey Mountain

Flower of Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) seen on Harvey Mountain

The whorled-leaf plant we observed on the way to Sunset Rock, would have looked similar to the one pictured below a few weeks ago, which is a Large Whorled Pogonia. If you scroll back up, you can actually see the remains of the flower shriveled up on top of the leaves. The Large Whorled Pogonia is a very rare orchid in the region and had not been documented in Columbia County for more than a century. It was recently discovered and brought to our attention by David Lewis and Ellen Winner. Last year, we located the small colony near Sunset Rock, and now know that this species occurs at a few locations in Taconic State Park, but have not seen it anywhere else in the County.

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid in flower in late May 2015 at another location in Taconic SP (photo by David Lewis)

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid in flower in late May 2015 at another location in Taconic SP (photo by David Lewis)

Last year, one of the plants on the side of the trail to Sunset Rock was starting to develop its seed capsule.

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid with its seed capsule developing (photo by David Lewis taken in June 2014 along the Taconic Crest Trail)

Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata) orchid with its seed capsule developing (photo by David Lewis taken in June 2014 along the Taconic Crest Trail)

Should you ever come across plants of this species anywhere else in Columbia County, we would love to hear where else it grows! According to my orchid book, Large Whorled Pogonia tend to occur in the same places as Pink Lady’s Slippers…

Please share your find with and attach a picture.

However, be aware that there is another plant with a similar single whorl of leaves, the Starflower. A careful examination of the vein patterns in the leaves can avoid confusion. Starflower has pinnate veins, which means there is a main vein that runs along the middle of the leaf and secondary veins which emerge from the main vein in a feather-like pattern. Large Whorled Pogonia has several main veins running parallel from leaf base to tip, like other orchids (and lilies and grasses, etc.).

And do keep in mind its very confusing look-alike, Indian Cucumber-root! Whenever you see a colony of whorled-leaf plants where some have a single-tiered whorl and some have a double tier, then you are most likely looking at Indian Cucumber-root – Whorled Pogonia is never double-tiered.

A rough outline of the three trails that lead to Sunset Rock

Starflower (Trientalis borealis ) has a whorl of somewhat unequal-sized leaves with pinnate venation

Probably the most puzzling observation we made during our walk was that of a Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry. Note the perfectly normal Huckleberry flowers in the top left corner of the image.

Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii, also known as the

Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii, also known as the “Azalea Leaf & Flower Gall”

None of the walk participants had ever seen such a thing and we could only guess that something quite abnormal was going on here… Upon closer examination, the strange growth really did look like a blown-up flower, complete with 5 sepals, a 5-lobed urn-shaped corolla, 10 stamens encircling the central pistil. We made sure to document this phenomenon with a series of photos and, back home, researched the internet for ideas. We concluded that these flower galls were probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii, also known as the “Azalea Leaf & Flower Gall”. However, we are no fungi experts and if somebody has a different insight, we’d love to hear about it!

Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)

Flower Gall on Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata)

The most curious thing is that, supposedly, the same fungus is the cause of the huge but irregularly shaped galls commonly found on Pinkster…

Galls on Pinkster (Rhododendron prinophyllum) probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii or

Galls on Pinkster (Rhododendron prinophyllum) probably caused by the fungus Exobasidium vaccinii or “Azalea Leaf & Flower Gall”

Finally, we came across several small dead or dying trees, surrounded by a ring of fresh root shoots. They were the ghosts of once stately American Chestnut trees which used to be an important component of many forests around here. In the early 20th century, Chestnut Blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), another fungal disease, was accidentally introduced to this continent and has basically wiped out large, seed-bearing Chestnut trees. The roots from trees that died a century ago persist in the ground and keep sprouting hopeful new shoots, which tend to grow into small trees, but usually succumb to the blight before they can flower and set seed. They then repeat the cycle of hopeful new shoots once more…

American Chestnut (Castanea americana) root shoots

American Chestnut (Castanea americana) root shoots

Conrad is wondering, what this significant change of a former common canopy tree to an occasional shrub in the understory might have meant for the native insect life that had evolved to live on American Chestnut. We can imagine that the lack of chestnuts in the fall meant a loss to Blue Jays, Black Bear, Turkey, Deer, squirrels and mice. But who else might be missing the leaves or plant juices of American Chestnut? How many little creatures who depended on this tree have been significantly reduced in numbers or gone extinct due to the Chestnut Blight? We may never know…

Leafhopper (?) nymphs on American Chestnut

Leafhopper (?) nymphs on American Chestnut

Are the insects we now find feeding on American Chestnut sap or leaves specialists dependent on the remaining surviving Chestnut plants, or are they generalists who feed on a variety of trees and just so happened to be feeding on a Chestnut???

Caterpillar on American Chestnut

Caterpillar on American Chestnut

Such are the little ponderings we bring home from our walks.

But we were happy to see the Pink Lady’s Slippers holding their ground along the Taconic Ridge. And we hope that many more generations of nature lovers will be able to enjoy them along the South Taconic Trail.

Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

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Posted by on June 14, 2015 in Nature


The Peak of Native Spring Wildflowers

Spring came late this year, but during the last two weeks we have seen an explosion of spring wildflowers in Columbia County, NY. This posting will highlight some of the common and not-so-common finds from our public spring flower walks, with particular attention to Violets and Trilliums.

Right now is a fantastic time to be out there comparing all the different species of wild violets. Our most common violet is, surprise, surprise, the Common Blue Violet. It has relatively large, usually blue flowers and all its heart-shaped leaves are basal. This means, that the flower stalk has no leaves emerging from it above the ground. This characteristic places the Common Blue Violet in the group of “stemless” violets.

These violets are common on lawns and in meadows, but can also be found here and there along forest trails.

Common Violet (Viola sororia)

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia)


The Common Blue Violet is not always entirely blue. In fact, sometimes one finds them with bright white flowers (usually in lawns) or with the beautiful combination of white petals with a blue core, that is known as the Confederate Violet.

Confederate Violet

Confederate Violet (Viola sororia priceana), a variety of the Common Violet


Another “stemless” violet with large blue flowers is Marsh Violet. It usually grows near water and its flower stalks are markedly longer than those of the Common Blue Violet, raising the flowers way above the leaves.

Marsh Violet

Marsh Violet (Viola cucullata)


The opposite of the water-loving Marsh Violet is the Arrow-leaved Violet which tolerates very dry conditions and is found in dry, often sandy fields and on compacted forest roads. Its flowers are blue and its hairy, arrow-shaped leaves are all basally arranged, making this species another example of a “stemless” violet.

Arrow-leaved Violet

Arrow-leaved Violet (Viola sagittata)


The next two species are examples of stemmed, blue-flowering violets. They tend to grow in bigger clusters and their leaves emerge from the same stalk as the flowers. American Dog Violet is the more common of the two in Columbia County and we found it during several of our spring flower walks this year, usually growing right along the trail in shaded areas.

American Dog Violet

American Dog Violet (Viola labradorica)


Its cousin is the Long-spur Violet, which often has slightly lighter blue-colored flowers and a very long “spur” protruding from the back of the flower. This species never grows on acidic soil and seems to be a good indicator for calcium in the substrate.

Long-spur Violet

Long-spur Violet (Viola rostrata)


Our most common yellow-flowered violet is the Yellow Wood Violet. It is “stemmed” (i.e., leaves emerge from the same stalk that bears the flower, as clearly visible in the picture below) and is often somewhat pubescent (note the velvety fuzz along the stem and under the leaves).

Yellow Wood Violet

Yellow Wood Violet (Viola pubescens)

We saw the Yellow Wood Violet during several of our spring flower walks, always growing in shaded areas.

My favorite is the uncommon, limestone-loving Canada Violet. It grows tall and has many leaves emerge from its stalk. The flowers are white with purple lines in the front and the petals are purple on the back. We know few patches of this lovely violet in Columbia County and all are close to limestone outcrops in the northeastern part of the county.

Canada Violet

Canada Violet (Viola canadensis)


Northern or Smooth White Violet is the smallest of our violets. Its leaves emerge all from the base, leaving the flower stalks bare. The leaves tend to be round-tipped and the flowers are less than 1/2 inch long, often only 1/4 inch. It always grows near water, besides brooks and springs, or along spongy lake shores.

Northern White Violet

Northern or Smooth White Violet (Viola pallens)

The Northern White Violet is sometimes hard to distinguish from the Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda) which grows in rich woods (rather than wet places) and tends to flower a couple of weeks later. We have not seen any Sweet White Violet in flower yet, this year, nor any the Palmate-leaved Violet (Viola subsinuata; fairly common woodland species, blue flowers, stemless). Two rarer violet species known to us from only a handful of places in the County and not yet seen this year, are Roundleaf Violet (Viola rotundifolia; yellow flowers, stemless) and Kidney-leaved White Violet (Viola renifolia; white flowers, stemless).

The next group of species we’ll introduce are the Trilliums. Our most common species of these gorgeous spring ephemerals is the Purple Trillium, which grows here and there in rich upland forests. Its characteristic, three-petalled flower tends to be displayed above the three leaves and is usually a deep maroon-reddish color. A few times we have seen white-flowering individuals of this species, always growing right next to its purple brothers and sisters.

Purple Trillium

Purple or Red Trillium (Trillium erectum)

This spring, we were fortunate to have been shown a large dense patch of Purple Trillium on private land in North Chatham. Usually, we see these flowers growing singly or in small groups of two or three, often at the base of a tree.

Purple Trillium

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum)


The white-flowering Trillium you are most likely to see in our County is the Painted Trillium, which also presents its flower above the three leaves and always has some pink marking at the base of its petals. This species is found more in the eastern part of the County in the higher elevation forests on acidic soil and we consider it uncommon in the County.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

We usually find it growing in small groups like this.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)


An exciting find this spring was the state-wide rare Nodding Trillium discovered and subsequently shown to us by a friend at the Art Omi Sculpture Park. It was only the second time we have seen this species in the County. It seems to like moist woods. Its flower is bright white and is displayed UNDER the three leaves, hidden from sight by the casual passer-by.

Nodding Trillium

Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum)

This is how the Nodding Trillium grows at the edge of a swamp forest. Should you know of any other locations where this rare Trillium grows wild in our county, please do let us know!

Nodding Trillium

Nodding Trillium Trillium cernuum)

We have been sent pictures of a fourth species of Trillium, the Large-flowered Trillium (T. grandiflorum), which grows in a garden in Chatham, but has so far not been found in the wild in Columbia County. However, it is known to grow wild in rich woods in the Catskills and in neighboring Rensselaer County and it is worth to keep an eye open for it around here. Please let us know if you find one!

We are always happy to find a nice patch of Dutchman’s Breeches, which we saw in bloom on three of our spring flower walks, this year. This uncommon species is closely related to the ornamental Bleeding Heart and displays its finely dissected leaves and uniquely-shaped flower as one of the first wild spring flowers each year.

Dutchman's Breeches

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Does the flower look like a pair of white pants hung up to dry?

Dutchman's Breeches

Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)


Whenever you see a colony of these Dutchman’s Breeches, it is worth taking some time to scan carefully over the flowers to see if you find some that are more heart-shaped, like the following:

Squirrel Corn

Squirrel-Corn (Dicentra canadensis)

These heart-shaped flowers belong to a close relative of Dutchman’s Breeches, the Squirrel-Corn. During our first public spring flower walk this year in Lebanon Springs, we discovered the second location known to us in Columbia County, where this very uncommon species grows. Its foliage is indistinguishable from that of Dutchman’s Breeches and they seem to like the same habitat. At both locations, Squirrel-Corn was growing interspersed amongst a large colony of Dutchman’s Breeches. When in doubt, carefully expose some of the roots: those of Squirrel-Corn have round, bright yellow tubers that look like corn kernels, while the tubers of Dutchman’s Breeches are pointy and pinkish-white.

As I write this posting, our native plant garden around the Creekhouse is ablaze with Wild Columbine flowers, which are visited every day by hummingbirds. Wild Columbine also adorns many rocky road-cuts along the Taconic Parkway, and is found flowering from the shaly shores of the Hudson to the rocky summits of the Taconic Range. It is not a common plant but is found in the right habitat (on sunny rocky outcrops) throughout the entire county.

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)


Less conspicuous, but much more ubiquitous is Canada Mayflower, which covers the ground of many forests in our County. The tiny white flowers of this “Wild Lily-of-the-Valley” are just about to open and reveal one of those delightful inconsistencies in nature: didn’t we all learn that members of the lily family have three or six petals? Well, if you find a Canada Mayflower in bloom, lean down and count those petals and you will be surprised to find four or sometimes even five…

Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense)

The “big brother/sister” of Canada Mayflower is False Solomon’s Seal. It is a much bigger plant, with many alternating leaves along a single stalk which is terminated by a similar cluster of tiny flowers (these do play by the rules and have 6 petals each). The False Solomon’s Seal flowers are also not quite open yet.

False Solomon's Seal

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)


So, if there is a “False” Solomon’s Seal, how does the true Solomon’s Seal look like? When there are no flowers or fruit, the two look awfully similar, but right now, the larger plants of Solomon’s Seal all have their bell-shaped flowers dangling from the leaf axils. There are two species of “true” Solomon’s Seal in the County, the most common one (with slightly hairy leaf undersides) is pictured below.

Solomon's Seal

Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum pubescens)


Another example of a spring-flowering member in the lily family is the Perfoliate Bellwort. Its leaves are very smooth and the stalk seems to grow right through the leaves. A single, large bell-shaped flower characterizes this species.

Perfoliate Bellwort

Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata)


It is always a treat to stumble across the brightly-colored and curiously-shaped flowers of Fringed Polygala or Gay-wing Milkwort. At first sight, it might be confused with an Orchid because of its unusual flower morphology. Upon closer inspection, the flower is composed of five sepals, two of which form the “wings” and three united petals, the lowest of which terminates in a fringe. It is a perennial with leaves that stay green through the winter (and look just like Wintergreen leaves, but don’t have the root-beer smell…). It tends to grow in dry, acid forests around here. And right now is its season to present its lovely, deep pink flowers to the world!

Fringed Polygala

Fringed Polygala or Gay-wing Milkwort (Polygala paucifolia)


Another delightful find awaited us in the floodplain of the Kinderhook Creek: Spring Beauty was flowering at the edge of the floodplain forest and an adjacent hayfield. This plant is also called “Fairy Sprouts”, because of its tiny edible starchy tubers. We don’t find this species very often and rarely in big enough colonies that would allow for a substantial harvest of tubers. We just enjoyed looking at the delicate white flowers with their pink “nectar guides” and their many insect visitors that day… There are two species of Spring Beauty in the County – the one pictured is more common and has long, narrow leaves (vs. short, broad leaves of Claytonia caroliniana).

Spring Beauty

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)


Foamflower is sometimes found in moist, shaded areas, often near rocks and in the vicinity of streams. It has maple-shaped leaves that stay green in the winter and closely hug the ground. Right now, its star-shaped, 5-petalled flowers are in full bloom.


Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)


Miterwort has very similar leaves and tends to grow side by side with Foamflower. But its flowers are very different, sporting unique, feathery petals.


Miterwort (Mitella diphylla)


In dry, open woodlands, along forest roads, and in dry meadows and lawns, the dainty Bluets or Quaker’s Ladies can be found flowering. This picture does not do them justice, because they really are more blue than white! And don’t let the surrounding sedge leaves fool you: Bluets have tiny oval leaves at the base of the plant.

Azure Bluet

Azure Bluet or Quaker’s Ladies (Houstonia caerulea)


A few woody plants drew our attention during the spring flower walks, as well.

Hobblebush is a northern species, very common in the Adirondacks, which comes into Columbia County only in the cooler, north-eastern part. Its flowers compete with any ornamental Hydrangea…


Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides)


The American Fly-honeysuckle is a close relative of the invasive honeysuckle bushes which often dominate the shrub-layer of young forests. This native honeysuckle is a lot less aggressive, tending to stay in the shade of older forests, and growing smaller and more delicate bushes than the invasive species. Its flowers are pure white, tubular, with a shallowly lobed corolla. Its leaves resemble those of the invasive honeysuckles (Lonicera morrowii and L. bella), but these species have flowers with deeply loped corollas and often a pinkish tinge. However, all Lonicera species have paired flowers which will produce paired seeds. Go check it out on the nearest invasive honeysuckle!

American Fly-honeysuckle

American Fly-honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis)


In our last blog, we spoke about maple flowers and how different maple species have different arrangements of the pollen and seed-producing parts in their flowers. Below, you see the perfect flowers of Striped Maple, where each flower contains both, the seed-producing and pollen-bearing parts.

Striped Maple

Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum)


In contrast, meet Ms. and Mr. Boxelder! This species, which is easily recognized as a maple by its tiny maple fruits (‘keys”), has seed-bearing flowers and pollen-bearing flowers on separate trees. Therefore, you can speak of male and female Boxelder individuals.

Below is an image of the female flowers of Boxelder, which display a large two-parted stigma out to catch pollen.


Boxelder (Acer negundo) female


The male Boxelder flowers are reduced to pollen-bearing anthers. The red ones in the image below still contain pollen. The anthers that have already shed their pollen are still recognizable as dried-up remnants.


Boxelder (Acer negundo) male


Finally, not all plants produce flowers and seeds. Ferns are examples of plants that reproduce by spores. Some ferns produce their spores on the leaf undersides, such as Woodferns, Ladyfern, Hay-scented Fern, and Bracken Fern. Some grow separate “sporophylls” (spore-bearing leaves), such as Ostrich Fern, Cinnamon Fern, and Sensitive Fern. And finally, there is Interrupted Fern, which goes the middle road: on reproductive fern fronds, a few “pinnae” (=leaflets) are dedicated to spore production rather than photosynthesis. The entire leaflet grows spores and once they have dispersed by mid summer, those pinnae dry up and fall off, leaving interruptions in the fern frond, hence the name Interrupted Fern.

Interrupted Fern

Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana)


More on spring wildflowers (including images of many species not pictured in today’s posting) can be found in our postings of 12 April 2011 and 1 April 2012.

If you live in or frequently visit Columbia County and are interested in receiving announcements for our free public spring flower and other ecology walks throughout the seasons, please sign up here.

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Posted by on May 24, 2014 in Nature


First Signs of Spring

Spring is here at last! Even though there are no leaves on the trees yet, and the peak of flowering is yet to come, there are subtle signs of Spring stirring all around us.

1 silver maple male flowers branch

The first tree to flower this year (as usual) was the Silver Maple with flower buds beginning to open in the first week of April. Each flower cluster is composed of either all male (pollen-producing, see image) or all female (seed-producing) flowers. The clusters (which are generally arranged opposite each other on the branches) give the twigs a gnarly appearance and change in color from red to yellowish (once the pollen gets released).

2 Silver Maple

We are used to thinking of Pussy Willow as the first source of pollen for honey bees, but we observed many honey bees visiting these early Silver Maple flowers, as well… Red Maple comes into bloom shortly after Silver Maple, all the other maples will take a little longer. Sugar Maple only begins to flower once its leaves are unfolding.

Interestingly, different maple species arrange their flowers in different ways: Boxelder (which is a true maple, Acer negundo) presents male and female flowers on separate trees (= “dioecious”); Silver, Red and Striped Maples have male and female flowers in separate clusters on the same tree (= “monoecious”), while Sugar Maple is “polygamous”, with each tree having “perfect” flowers (which can produce pollen and seeds,) as well as male and female flowers… Go check it out as the different maple species come into bloom!

The next tree to present its inconspicuous flowers to the world, was the American Elm.

5 elm closeup

The tiny Elm flowers are arranged in clusters that clearly alternate along the branches, giving them a somewhat zig-zag appearance.

Several native shrubs also flower before any of the spring wildflowers, most famously, the well-known Pussy Willow. Following are pictures of a few less conspicuous shrubs that are currently in bloom.


Above you see a branch of Alder with the male (pollen-producing) catkins at the tip of the branch and the reddish, female (seed-producing) cones a bit further back. The closely related Hazelnut (not pictured) has a very similar pattern and is also an early bloomer.

7 leatherwood flower w pollinator

The rare Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) is presenting its diminutive flowers long before its leaves emerge and this tiny wasp is thankful! Below, you can see just how inconspicuous the yellow flowers of Leatherwood are. Unfortunately, Leatherwood is a preferred browse for deer in the winter and our tiny colony here at Hawthorne Valley has suffered tremendous deer damage during this cold and long winter. However, the few branches that escaped the deer are now full of flowers.

7a leatherwood

Also presented in small clusters are the wonderfully perfumed flowers of Spicebush, a native shrub of floodplains and other moist soils. It is related to Sassafras and the tropical tree that gives us bay leaves. Like its cousins, this shrub produces an array of aromatic substances that make it a favorite “scratch and sniff” example during our nature walks.

8 spicebush

But not only the woody plants are beginning to flower. In the miniature world of mosses, tiny spore capsules (“sporophytes”), are beginning to appear on many species. Below is the short-stalked sporophyte of a Grimmia moss.

10 Grimmia

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) has unusual, round sporophytes that look like – tiny apples!

9 Bartramia pomiformis

Below is a more typical, still very young sporophyte of a Broom Moss (Dicranium sp.).

11 Dicranium

Another group of plants that are early bloomers with inconspicuous flowers are woodland sedges. The tiny flowers of these grass-like plants are arranged in spikes. In the case of the Carex platyphylla pictured below, the purple spikes at the top of the plant have male flowers, whose pollen yet needs to be released. The white threads emerging from the narrow spikes lower down on the stem, are the stigmas of the female flowers, out to catch pollen from a neighboring plant.

x C. plantaginifolia closeup

On to “real” flowers! Hepatica is often the very first to flower. It keeps its leaves through the winter, which seems to give it a headstart. Sometimes, we have seen flowers when the snow was not even all melted, yet. But some years, they take more time: below picture was taken April 22nd at the High Falls Conservation Area in Philmont.

13 hepatica

Every year, the first flower to appear in the floodplain forest here at Hawthorne Valley Farm is Bloodroot. The image below shows a still somewhat tentative flower, barely emerging above its protective leaf mantle.

14 bloodroot

Also in the floodplain, as well as in other forests with rich and deep soil, this strange purple “fiddlehead” emerges early in Spring.

15 blue cohosh

It is the young shoot of Blue Cohosh, which will be flowering for a few weeks as its finely divided leaves emerge and the plant grows to its full height. However, some flowers can’t wait and are opening up before the leaves have unfolded.

16 blue cohosh flowers 2

Most of the spring flowers are still at the green shoot stage, such as the False Hellebore pictured below.

17 False Hellebore

The very poisonous False (or American) Hellebore is easily recognized by its prominently ribbed leaves, which distinguish it from the simultaneously emerging very smooth leaves of Wild Leek or Ramp.

18 Wild Leek

The recent culinary craze for wild-harvested Ramp has led to overharvesting of many local patches of this native plant. We encourage wild crafters to please only take Ramps in areas where they are certain that the harvest is sustainable (i.e., not in public areas, because nobody knows how many other people are “just taking a few plants”).

The distinctly mottled leaves of Trout Lily are springing up in many places and often form entire Trout Lily lawns. Most leaves of such a colony are actually connected underground and belong to the same clone. When the flowers start emerging, you will see that only two-leaved plants are strong enough to produce flowers. The majority of leaves will remain without flowers.

19 Trout Lily lawn

Even with the flower still firmly enclosed in its bud, Trilliums are easily recognized by their unique arrangement of three leaves in a whorl.

20 Trillium

Once in a while, we come upon a rare patch of Wild Ginger, usually in floodplains or near calcium-rich rock outcrops.

21 Wild Ginger

Their newly emerging leaves are thick and hairy and stay very close to the ground.

22 wild ginger 2

And below the fresh leaves, often half buried in the ground, are the flowers. These hidden and inconspicuous flowers are neither wind nor bee pollinated, but instead wait for flies to come and visit.

At the same time as these early plants are beginning to stir and reproduce, our early amphibians are on the move. This year, the first major movement of Spotted Salamanders (pictured below) as well as Wood Frogs, happened at Hawthorne Valley in the night of April 7. That same night, we heard the first Spring Peepers in the valley.

23 spotted sally

Spotted Salamanders belong to the mole salamanders, who live most of their life under ground and only emerge in spring to reproduce in vernal pools and other shallow waterbodies. The warm and rainy night of April 22 saw another major movement of these salamanders, most likely retreating from their breeding waters back to their upland habitat.

Red-spotted Newts are salamanders with a very different life history. They spend their adult life in permanent waterbodies, occasionally preying on the eggs of Wood Frogs (pictured below) and Spotted Salamander. Curiously, the bright orange salamanders so commonly found on rainy days in mid summer, and known as Red Efts, are but the teenage stage of the Red-spotted Newt. They spend a few years exploring the world away from water (and thereby colonizing new areas), before they choose a pond to settle in for the rest of their lives. When they return to the aquatic world, their skin looses most of its bright color and their tails become sideways flattened to aid in swimming. However, as you can (barely) see in the picture below, they keep their two rows of tiny bright orange spots, which are often also easily discernible on the Red Efts.

24 newt & WF eggs

On one of our jaunts to check out the vernal pools up on Phudd Hill, we came across the smallest Garter Snake we have ever seen. Its total length was no more than 5 inches. That was one cute snake!

Phudd Hill

Only slightly bigger was the DeKay’s Brown Snake (pictured below) we found at the Keep Conservation Preserve in Germantown. These snakes are not as often seen as the more familiar Garter Snake, although, supposedly, they are not uncommon, either. They lack any trace of the yellow stripes along the sides that are typical for the Garter Snakes.

26 McKay's Brown Snake

The insect world, too, has interesting discoveries waiting in early spring. At the Keep Conservation Preserve, we came across a small Sassafras tree that had several of these curiously shaped cocoons dangling from its branches. Some research (and the correcting hand of Bonnie, a RI moth’r) determined that these are the cocoons of Promethea moths, one of the four largest moth species in the Northeast, which reaches a wing span of 5 1/2 inches. Please look here if you are curious to see who is scheduled to emerge from its overwintering pupa inside the cocoon in May.

27 polyphemus

Not as big as a Promethea, but just as intricate in its color pattern and delicate arrangement of scales and hairs, is the Joker moth (pictured below; it is also known as the “Jacose Sallow”) which was attracted to a moth light Conrad put onto the porch of the Creekhouse in mid April.

29 moth

30 moth close

But not only the moths in their “fur coats” are out and about in early spring. Several butterflies could be seen fluttering around on warm days in early April. Mourning Cloak and Comma are the two that every year are spotted first. Both overwinter as adult butterflies and can sometimes even be seen flying on a warm winter day. They lick sweet tree sap dripping from broken twigs instead of looking for nectar, which is at that time in preciously short supply.

The aptly-named Spring Azure (pictured below), is the first butterfly of the year to newly emerge from its overwintering pupa.

28 spring azure

A Red Flat Bark Beetle (Cucujus clavipes) – known for its flat, under-bark-facilitating shape and its overwintering prowess. Apparently larvae (reportedly the main overwintering stage) can resist amazingly cold temperatures. Not surprisingly, their range extends quite far north. Less know is how they spend their time and their main diet items.

31 Red Flat Bark Beetle

A Green Stink Bug, apparently some individuals do hibernate through the winter. These creatures suck plant juices and so are considered pests by some.

32 Green Stink Bug

Following is a Jumping Spider in the process of subduing its large Stonefly prey.

33 jumping spider w stonefly

And finally, a Citronella Ant (Lasius sp.), which gets its name from its characteristic smell. These ants are livestock farmers who cultivate and protect root aphids from which they harvest honeydew. This ant is transporting one of the root aphids.

Phudd Hill

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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in Nature


Winter Memories

This posting features some of the images Conrad has shared in small installments on facebook during the last month. So, if you periodically look at the Farmscape Ecology Program Facebook Page, most of this will be familiar… If you haven’t yet seen these images, we hope you enjoy them!

But before I share some of our favorite memories from this long winter with you, I want to put this “cold and snowy” winter in context. Thanks to our local weather station, lovingly called the “Weatherpig”, after the favorite animal of its generous donor, we have a continuous (5 minute intervals) record of the weather right here at Hawthorne Valley for the past several years.


The "Weatherpig" weather station on a pasture at Hawthorne Valley Farm.

The “Weatherpig” weather station on a pasture at Hawthorne Valley Farm.


A comparison of the average monthly temperature over the last three winters shows how this winter was colder than the last two and the long-term average (for Hudson) in January, February and March

A comparison of the average monthly temperature over the last three winters shows how this winter was colder than the last two as well as the long-term average (for Hudson) in January, February and March. The winter of 2011/12 was exceptionally mild throughout…

Average daily temperatures fluctuate enormously throughout the winter.

Average daily temperatures fluctuate enormously throughout the winter. January featured the coldest days, but also had a warm spell (“January Thaw”).

This winter, we got a little more snow than last and both winters, snow started relatively late and kept falling into March. In the winter of 2011/12, snow came very early and not much was added during the winter.

This winter, we got a total of 50 inches of snow, slightly more than last winter. In the winter of 2011/12, snow came very early (remember the snow storm at Halloween?) and not much was added during the winter, totaling half the amount of this winter.

Probably the most spectacular snowfall this winter was in mid February, when we got 10 inches. It turned everything into winter wonderland...

Farm Creek below the Creekhouse in mid February

Probably the most spectacular snowfall this winter was in mid February, when we got 10 inches. It turned everything into winter wonderland…

But some creatures were out and about the very next day, having seemingly less trouble moving through the snow than we did.

Who moved here?

But some creatures were out and about the very next day, having seemingly less trouble moving through the deep snow than we did.

River Otter track

A River Otter traveled the length of the farm creek, switching back and forth between moving through the snow on top of the (mostly) frozen creek and through the water below the ice and snow.

Skip and slide, and into the water...

Skip and slide, and into the water… – How much fun is this???

The Otter's track close-up.

The Otter’s track close-up.


The tracks got lost on the other side of this culvert (culverts are well-known wildlife corridors), where the Otter had walked onto the ice of a pond and the wind had blown snow over the tracks.

The tracks got lost on the other side of this culvert (culverts are well-known wildlife corridors), where the Otter had walked onto the ice of a pond and the wind had blown snow over the tracks.

And who said that robins move south in the winter? Well, not this winter! They were gathering to drink around the few open water sources in the middle of February.

Robins gather around a water hole

And who said that Robins move south in the winter? Well, not this winter! They were gathering to drink around the few open water sources on the farm in the middle of February.

A closer inspection of their droppings revealed that they were mostly eating rosehips of Multiflora Rose (seeds on the right) and the fruits of Staghorn Sumac (seeds on the left) at this time. Most of the seeds will have passed the bird's guts undamaged and will soon be ready to germinate wherever they were dropped.

Seeds in a Robin dropping

A closer inspection of the Robins’ droppings revealed that they were mostly eating rosehips of Multiflora Rose (seeds on the right) and the fruits of Staghorn Sumac (seeds on the left) at this time. Most of the seeds will have passed the bird’s guts undamaged and will soon be ready to germinate wherever they were dropped. Last fall was extraordinarily bountiful for all sorts of fruits and berries. This generous food supply might have been the reason why we saw Robins all through the winter, often in large flocks gorging themselves on Sumac fruits and also on rotten apples.

The occasional water hole was also frequented by much smaller creatures...

Water hole with insects on the snow around it.

The occasional water hole was also frequented by much smaller creatures…

Winter Stoneflies are aquatic during their larval stage, but emerge from clean streams as adults in the middle of winter.

Winter Stoneflies are aquatic during their larval stage, but emerge from clean streams as adults in the middle of winter.

They mate, lay their eggs in the stream they just emerged from...

They mate, lay their eggs in the stream they just emerged from…

... and end their short life, right there, in the middle of winter.

… and end their short life, right there, on the snow, in the middle of winter.

Even smaller "creepy-crawlies" which can be observed in the middle of winter are the snowfleas. Often they jump about on top of the snow for now apparent reason. These guys, Conrad discovered in the rotten hollow of a tree. Note the white, empty skin which was left behind by a molting snowflea.


Even smaller “creepy-crawlies” which can be observed in the middle of winter are the snowfleas. Often they jump about on top of the snow for now apparent reason. These guys were in a field puddle on one of our warmer days. Note the  empty skin in the bottom corner, which was left behind by a molting snowflea.

A somewhat bigger creature formed this small "snow angel". Upon closer investigation, Conrad concluded that this pattern was created by a vole.

A small snow angel…

A somewhat bigger creature formed this small “snow angel” (which was no more than 6-8″ across). Upon closer investigation, Conrad concluded that this pattern was created by a vole who had ventured out onto a snow-packed field. The Vole was above the snow, but periodically made ruts, like the one shown, into the snow. Mark Elbroch in his great book, Mammal Tracks & Sign, interprets similar sign as the tracks of a Vole looking to burrow below the surface but being stymied by an icy or hard-packed layer. Voles are probably warmer and safer from predators when in ‘subnivean’ burrows. Why this Vole headed out into the middle of an open field, rather than sticking to the shrubby edge whence it came, is less clear.

The tiny vole footprints were clearly visible on top of the snow crust nearby.

The tiny vole footprints were clearly visible on top of the snow crust nearby.

Other creatures had a much harder time with all the snow…

It was a hard winter for deer, as witnessed by this Leatherwood shrub, which got heavily browsed. This beautiful little shrub is rarely seen in Columbia County,

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) heavily browsed by deer.

It was a hard winter for Deer, as witnessed by this Leatherwood shrub, which got heavily browsed. This beautiful little shrub is rarely seen in Columbia County, and one reason might be just that: Deer love to browse it!

Dead Deer at Hawthorne Valley at the end of February.

Killed Deer at Hawthorne Valley at the end of February.

This Deer got killed most likely by a Coyote. Nearby, we saw several patches where the snow was scraped away to reveal Hickory nuts underneath. Maybe the Deer got surprised by the Coyote when it was busily munching Hickory nuts. Or it was too weak to run…

We placed a game camera near the carcass to document who all would come and feed on the dead Deer. Clearly, nothing goes to waste in nature and the Deer’s meat nourished a whole bunch of other animals during these cold days and nights.

Coyotes feeding on Deer carcass at night.

Coyotes feeding on Deer carcass at night.

A Fox just had a meal during the day.


Crows frequently visited the carcass.

Crows frequently visited the carcass.

A Red-tailed Hawk got its meal.

A Red-tailed Hawk got its meal.

And, finally, an Opossum waddled by. We have no images of it actually eating on the Deer. It might have just moved through...

And, finally, an Opossum waddled by. We have no images of it actually eating on the Deer. It might have just moved through…


The next set of images is from a frosty morning, with surfaces that had been decorated by hoarfrost. The sun fast warmed the scene. Crystals coalesced to drops and then, simply, to dampness. While some of these photographs are simply frosty (Conrad has a weak spot for ice crystals), the last one shows that edge between ice and water, between Winter and Spring.

Frozen fog on Wild Carrot

Hoarfrost on Wild Carrot

Hoarfrost on Virgin's Bower.

Frost on Virgin’s Bower.

Ice cristals

Ice cristals

Frozen waterdrops

Frozen waterdrops


But winter wasn’t quite over yet. The first week of March brought ideal conditions for ice boating on the Hudson River, even if there wasn’t always as much wind as the ice boaters would have liked… We were fortunate to have been invited to come and see the ice boats on a stretch of super smooth ice south of Tivoli Bay and just north of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge. Apparently, ice boating on the Hudson River began by 1790, if not earlier. Although there is some reference to carrying cargo, it seems as if it has long been a sport. As Frank Wall, the ice boater who invited us to this mini-regatta, pointed out, in their day ice boats were the fastest man-made contrivance; this was an extreme sport.

Many of the ice boats pictured here are antiques, including the famous (at least amongst certain circles) Jack Frost, which is shown in a couple of these shots. Reportedly, earlier this season, the Jack Frost and another antique boat had a rematch of a race that last happened 100 years ago.A nice source for Hudson ice boat history is this article:
28ice sailing 1

The big ships kept moving through their open water channel past the stretch of smooth ice where the ice boats were sailing.

30ice sailing 2

31ice sailing 4
34ice sailing 8
33ice sailing 5
32ice sailing 3
29ice sailing 7
25ice sailing 6
Finally, by the middle of March, we had some good thaws, which highlighted the ‘niveal flotsam’ (i.e., that which has been scattered upon snow). The sun warmed the darker objects, causing them to create little pockets. This series of feathers with their contrasting patterns of light airiness and wet-ratness seem to be a fitting summation of the conditions at this time of year.
40Feather 5 March 12
39Feather 4 March 12
38Feather 3 March 12
37Feather 2 March 12
36Feather 1 March 12


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Posted by on March 28, 2014 in Nature


Winter Exploration along the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in Hillsdale, NY

On Sunday, Feb. 9th, a group of 20 people spent a couple of hours with us exploring the winter botany and animal tracks along the recently opened section of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in Hillsdale. In this post, we will share some of our finds during this public “Winter Exploration”. We hope this serves as a nice review for the participants in the exploration, but also as a means for others to familiarize themselves with this public trail, aspects of its history, and some of the wild plants and animals now living there. We parked on the far side of the parking lot in front of Herrington’s main store (take White Hill Lane off Route 23 just west of the IGA supermarket) and found the trail head at the end of Anthony Road. We walked the first section of the trail heading southeast (see aerial photos below; if you still have trouble finding the trailhead, please feel free to contact us at

The old harness shop (?) just north of the site of the former Hillsdale train statation.

The old harness shop (?) just north of the site of the former Hillsdale train station.

The history of the Harlem Valley rail line (whose bed now forms the Rail Trail) is long and rich. Starting in NYC in 1833, it was one of our earliest railroads. Apparently, the track north along the eastern margin of the State was approved as being the most economical path northwards and received impetus from NYC fears that the Boston/Albany connection would usurp NYC trade. The route reached Chatham by 1852. However, by that time, river towns, fretting over their loss of status, had a apparently banded together to support the construction of the rail line along the eastern bank of the Hudson. That competing line reached Columbia County at around the same time and, eventually, robbed the Harlem Line of its business. The line closed, despite public outcry, in 1972 . There’s much more interesting detail available; see, for example, this site and this one.

For our purposes, the most relevant aspect is perhaps the economic importance of the line during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This importance is nicely illustrated by the following two images. The first is a fire insurance map showing the area around the Hillsdale station in 1912; the second is an aerial view of the same area on a snowy February day in 1944 (not so unlike the day of our walk). Look at the cluster of buildings around the rails: aside from the passenger station and nearby rail-side hotel (perhaps bespeaking City tourists), a milk depot (on the left, connected to its adjacent ice pond by a ramp for ice transport), a general store, a foundry and plow company, a feed store, and a lumber yard all shared the space. The daily milk train to New York City, from this and other stops along the line, was important for the development of dairy farms, and hence the landscape, in this region. While many of these buildings are now gone; some are not. A few minutes spent reflecting on the parking lot’s former heyday might be a nice way to start or end your walk.

hillsdale 1912 fire insurance sheet crop

A 1912 Sanborn fire insurance map of the area around the Hillsdale station.

The Hillsdale station area on a snowy February day in 1944; not much had changed since 1912.

The Hillsdale station area on a snowy February day in 1944; not much had changed since 1912.

Enough railroad history, on into nature!

Participants in the Winter Exploration on the first section of the Rail Trail in Hillsdale

Participants in the Winter Exploration on the first section of the Rail Trail in Hillsdale

The following pair of aerial photos nicely illustrates the changes in land use history in the area now traversed by the Rail Trail.

Comparison of a historical and current aerial photo of Hillsdale.

Comparison of a historical and current aerial photo of Hillsdale. The section of the Rail Trail walked during this Winter Exploration is marked in pink.

Seventy years ago, the now forested hill west of the Rail Trail was a meadow with rows of planted trees. The 1942 aerial photo was taken in the summer, so it is not possible to distinguish between evergreen and deciduous trees. However, a winter shot suggests the trees were deciduous and the hillside was probably an orchard, rather than a Christmas tree farm or the beginning of a conifer plantation. (However, aerial interpretation is tricky, so if you know better, please let us know!)

We familiarized ourselves with the most common trees growing along the trail.

The abundant conifers along the first section of the trail are Norway Spruce.

The abundant conifers along the first section of the trail are Norway Spruce.

Next to the Norway Spruce, we also saw one big Pignut Hickory, lots of Black Cherry, some Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Boxelder, American Elm, White Ash, Trembling Aspen, Serviceberry, and a few Red and White Oak.

At the bottom of this post, we compiled some internet references that might be helpful if you are trying to remember the winter botany characteristics of these species, or if you just would like to see some images of a certain plant species during the growing season.

Black Cherry is one of the easiest trees to recognize in the winter just from its bark alone: in older trees, it is very dark and flakes off in potato-chip size pieces…

Black Cherry trunk with the tell-tale "potatoe chip" bark and a big Oriental Bittersweet liana.

Black Cherry trunk (dark bark) and a big Oriental Bittersweet vine (on the right).

Black Cherry is a tree native in North America and tends to be present in forests with a recent disturbance history. Its seedlings and young trees need a lot of light and cannot grow under a dense canopy. Furthermore, there seems to be a soil pathogen native to this continent, which limits the density of Black Cherry at any one site. Interestingly, Black Cherry was introduced to Europe and has become an invasive species in the forests of England, where the pathogen is absent (or less virulent); this enables Black Cherry to grow in dense stands. For more details, see this paper.

Black Knot Rust on Cherry branches.

Black Knot Rust on Cherry branches.

Native and domestic cherries, as well as plums, are susceptible to Black Knot, which forms unsightly black woody blobs on their branches. Although not beneficial to the tree, this fungus can be a valuable help in the winter identification of woody plants, because it is exclusive to cherries and their relatives. Along the Rail Trail, in addition to the very common Black Cherry trees, we also saw shrubs of Choke Cherry, and a couple of domestic Cherry trees. Scrapped twigs of cherries also have a characteristic bitter smell.

As shown below, many of the trees on the side of the trail still seem to have a rich crop of berries in their crowns…

Oriental Bittersweet, an invasive woody climber is common along the Rail Trail.

Oriental Bittersweet, an invasive woody climber is common along the Rail Trail.

However, these berries belong to Oriental Bittersweet, which is a high-climbing woody vine that covers many tree crowns along the Rail Trail with its twining branches. Its big stems can actually strangle trees by growing around the tree trunk, thus inhibiting its lateral expansion and the growth of new vascular (water-transporting) tissue.

Oriental Bittersweet fruits in late winter.

Oriental Bittersweet fruits in late winter.

The now-common invasive Oriental Bittersweet is quite similar to the much rarer native American Bittersweet, and word has it that the two species hybridize! However, the fact that the fruits are growing in small clusters (up to three fruits) in leaf axils, are located all along the branches, and contain 5 or 6 seeds each, makes us think that this is definitely an Oriental Bittersweet. American Bittersweet would have a larger, single cluster of fruits at the tip of the branch and only 1 seed per fruit. American Bittersweet also does not seem to grow as big and tall as Oriental Bittersweet.

If you ever suspect of seeing an American Bittersweet growing wild somewhere in Columbia County, NY, PLEASE do let us know – we’d love to go and check it out!

Japanese Barberry is another invasive species growing in abundance along the Rail Trail.

Japanese Barberry is another invasive species growing in abundance along the Rail Trail.

The prickly shrub sticking out of the snow is Japanese Barberry, another very invasive species in our forests. Japanese Barberry were preceded in our landscape by European Barberry, which was introduced by early colonists. However, it was later found to harbor a wheat disease, and efforts were made to eradicate it. Japanese Barberry was presented as an alternative with less impact on grain growing. More recently however, ecologists have found correlations between the occurrence of Japanese Barberry and Lyme Disease. Apparently, Japanese Barberry creates a welcoming habitat for both the disease-bearing ticks and the mice who host those ticks. For more on this link, see this web page.

Japanese Barberry fruits are eaten by birds who disperse them to new sites.

Japanese Barberry fruits are eaten by birds who disperse them to new sites.

Japanese Barberry is easily distinguished from our other prickly invasive, the Multiflora Rose, by its oval fruits which grow singly or in pairs in the leaf axils, and by its stiff branches. Multiflora Rose has round fruits growing in clusters and flexible, arching, sometimes even climbing branches.

A bird nest in a well-protected location.

A bird nest in a well-protected location.

Birds love to build their nests in spiny bushes, and many birds eat the fruits of Multiflora Rose, Japanese Barberry, Oriental Bittersweet and other invasive species, thereby dispersing their seeds to new locations.

During our walk, we found somebody else who had made a temporary home in a Japanese Barberry bush.

The cocoon of a Cecropia Moth is attached to a Japanese Barberry branch.

The cocoon of a Cecropia Moth is attached to a Japanese Barberry branch.

This is most likely the cocoon of a Cecropia Moth, one of our largest native moths. Apparently, it used to be more common, but is now relatively around here. There are several suspected reasons for its decline, including pesticide use in forests and agricultural crops, and also the introduction of biological control agents who were supposed to attack the harmful introduced Gypsy Moths, but might also attack native moth species. Whether this caterpillar simply found the Japanese Barberry to be a good ‘hang out’ or also used it as food is not completely clear; while Japanese Barberry is not reported as a caterpillar food plant, European Barberry is.

We saw tracks of Deer, Squirrel, White-footed or Deer Mouse, and the track of a small mammal (vole? shrew?) which lead us to a place where, inside a tangle of prickly bushes, a large bird had landed on the snow and taken off again without much walking around, presumably after snatching up the small mammal…

Wing tracks left in the snow probably by an owl that snatched a small mammal from the surface of the snow.

Wing tracks left in the snow probably by an owl that snatched a small mammal from the surface of the snow.

Back to the winter botany: a surprising find for many in the group were several native American Hazel shrubs that grew along the side of the Rail Trail. One bush even had a nut left…

Fruit of American Hazel, a native, wild-growing hazelnut shrub.

Fruit of American Hazel, a native, wild-growing hazelnut shrub.

We have two native species of hazelnut in the County: the American Hazel, pictured here, and the Beaked Hazel, whose nuts are enclosed in a calyx with a prominent “beak”. Although resistant to Eastern Filbert Blight, the bane of Hazelnut producers on the East (and now West) Coast, this species is not a big nut producer and so most growers have planted European Hazel.

Another surprise for many in our group was to learn that our most common dogwood species in the County is not the well-known Flowering Dogwood tree, which actually is quite uncommon in the wild around here, but a shrub, the Gray-twig Dogwood, which grows profusely in many disturbed areas, including old fields and the side of the Rail Trail. In the fall, the flower stalks are bright red and topped by little white berries, which are quickly eaten by birds. During our scouting, we also saw Silky Dogwood farther down the trail. Near the trail head, we observed one example of Alternate-leaved Dogwood, which is an exception amongst the otherwise strictly opposite-leaved dogwoods.

The empty flower stalks of Gray-twig Dogwood.

The empty flower stalks of Gray-twig Dogwood.

One of the more common trees along the Rail Trail is the so-called Boxelder, which is botanically classified as a maple. It shares with all other maples the opposite branching pattern and the typically shaped winged fruit. However, when you come back in the summer, you will see that Boxelder has pinnate leaves, like Elderberry. When you come back in the spring, look out for two different kinds of flowers growing on different Boxelder trees: male trees have only pollen flowers, while the female trees have seed flowers.

Boxelder fruits

Boxelder fruits

The remains of a profuse climber still cling to many trees and shrubs along the Rail Trail.

Wild Cucumber, a native climber grows profusely along the Rail Trail.

Wild Cucumber, a native climber grows profusely along the Rail Trail.

The peculiar-looking, spiny fruit give it away as the native Wild Cucumber. Come back in mid summer and admire the plentiful white star-shaped flowers of this attractive vine.

Wild Cucumber fruit

Wild Cucumber fruit

Several of the non-woody (herbaceous) plants are still sturdy enough to be clearly identifiable, even though their above-ground parts are totally dried up and dead, except of course, for the seeds that still cling to them and carry the life of the next generation inside.

White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot is a native member of the aster family, which produces lots of tiny seeds, each equipped with a dandelion-like umbrella. This inconspicuous plant was the source of much grief from the colonial period through at least the 19th century, when it caused milk sickness (also referred to as “milk fever”) in people who drank the milk from cows that had eaten a lot of White Snakeroot.

Other native herbaceous plants we saw along the trail included Wild Bergamot, Virginia Sticktight, Canada Goldenrod, and Smooth Goldenrod. We also had a look at the tiny hooked seeds of the introduced Japanese Hedge Parsley.

Finally, on our way back towards the trail head, Conrad pointed out an oddly colored snag. It was probably a dead White Oak, and it was well-stained with a raspberry-like color. Initially, he thought this might be human work, but the stain wound its way at least 12′ or so up the trunk. After some research back home, we suspect this to be some extravagantly colored relative of the Blue Stain Fungus, but we’d appreciate hearing alternative or confirmatory comments.

Mysterious pink stain on dead tree.

Mysterious pink stain on dead tree.

If you would like to match any of the common names of plants mentioned in this post with their scientific names, please check out our Draft Checklist of Pflants of Columbia County. You might find it easiest to open the Ecxel version of the checklist, which allows for sorting by common name…

Conrad compiled a lot of bud images and other useful woody plant winter botany info and posted it here.

If you would like to look up additional images of woody and non-woody plants throughout the seasons, I highly recommend using the New England’s Wildflower Society “Go Botany” web-site. They offer a number of images for each plant species in our region and you can trust their identifications. Just type the plant name into the “search” box and hit return.

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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Nature


Winter “Flowers”

Before the snow covers the ground and changes the landscape to true winter, covering up many of the remains of our wildflowers, we would like to highlight the amazing beauty found in winter “flowers”. Although one can still find an occasional intrepid flower head of Dandelion, Aster, or Goldenrod full of colorful blossoms, most actual flowers have long wilted by Thanksgiving. However, many of the fruits and seeds that now take the place of the flowers have a pleasing symmetry in shape and a flower-like quality, even if their color palette is limited to mostly white, silver, tan, and many shades of brown. Here are some examples we found around Hawthorne Valley over the last few days.

1 JoePyeWeedMaybeThis graceful structure stranded on the ice of the farm creek is the fruit of one of the many wind-dispersed species in the aster family. It is composed of a 1-seeded “achene” which carries an umbrella or “pappus” to help the seed fly through the air.

2 AsterGoldenrodThe wind-dispersed seeds of asters, goldenrods, Joe-Pye-Weed, and Boneset develop in flower heads, surrounded by a set of specialized leaves, the “bracts”, which often remain on the plant long after all the seeds have flown away and form a shape that looks like a silvery flower, itself. This picture shows a dense cluster of several flower heads, the center one having dropped all its seeds and displaying the flower-like structure composed of bracts. It is surrounded by the white umbrellas of seeds still attached to other flower heads. The brown structure on the right is a single withered, narrowly bell-shaped flower, still attached to the seed growing underneath it and surrounded by the seed’s “pappus”.

3 Virgin's BowerThe one-seeded fruits of Virgin’s Bower have feathery appendices that help them get carried away by the wind. They are arranged in clusters, each of which developed from a single white flower. Virgin’s Bower is a vine, whose fluffy fruit clusters can currently be seen draping over shrubs and tree branches in hedgerows and riparian areas.

4 Milkweed Seeds 2Milkweed seeds are another well-known example of wind dispersal.

    5 Swamp Milkweed PodThey grow tightly packed inside pods.

6 Common MilkweedOnce the pods open, the seeds are released into the wind, little by little…

7 Common Milkweed empty pod… until nothing else but the empty pod remains on the stalk.

8 WoolgrassWoolgrass is only remotely related to true grasses. Its seeds are also wind-dispersed by means of “woolly” hairs.

10 Seedbox CloseupThe fruits of Seedbox resemble little salt shakers who release their tiny seeds through a hole in the center, as the dried plant gets moved about in the wind or by passing creatures. Each fruit is less than 1/4 inch across. Note the flower-like pattern surrounding the central hole.

13 BeeBalmThe flowers of Wild Bergamot grow in dense flower heads. The tightly packed calyxes persist far into the winter. Several little seeds have long since been released from the depth of each calyx cup.

14 Brown-eyed SusanBrown-eyed Susan is a member of the aster family whose one-seeded fruits bear no umbrella. In this picture, a few fruits, held by their protective bracts, can still be seen at the center of the flower head.

15 crabspider on common ragweedThis little spider sits on a fruit of Common Ragweed. Note how the color of the spider makes it blend in perfectly against the fall coloration of the plant. Below are the remains of male flowers of the same plant, which in late summer released innumerable tiny pollen grains that are one of the main causes of seasonal allergies.

16 common ragweed male flowers

18 Burdock seed headThe seed heads of Common Burdock are the natural “velcro”. They are designed to get stuck in animal fur and to disperse as hitch-hikers. Have you ever got one of these stuck in your hair? No fun! But looked at closely, the burs (which are really the remnants of flower heads, with the mature seeds still hiding inside) have a certain visual esthetic about them.

17 agrimonyThese beautifully-sculpted fruits belong to Agrimony, a yellow-flowering member of the rose family which grows as a weed in pastures and hayfields. At this time of the year, it is a major source of little burs that get stuck on socks and other woolen garments. Obviously, this plant is also counting on animal dispersal for its seeds…

19 Pokeberry CloseupThe plump and juicy deep purple fruits of American Pokeweed are getting dry, revealing the incredibly regular circular arrangement of seeds underneath the now transparent skin. Many parts of this plant, including the seeds, are poisonous to people!

Witchhazel 2Finally, here is a true late flower. It belongs to Witchhazel, a woody plant of the forest understory. Its delicate yellow flowers appear in October, just as the leaves turn yellow, and can often be seen alive and well into the winter. Below the flower are two open seed capsules which have ejected their seeds.

20 WitchhazelAn entire Witchhazel branch with mixed this year’s flowers and fruits that have developed from the flowers that bloomed last fall.

WitchhazelSeedsTry bringing home a few closed seed capsules and let them dry on the mantelpiece. As the capsules dry, they begin to open and shoot the seeds across the room. Alternatively, put them in a tin can and enjoy the “ping-ping-ping” as the seeds get released with great force.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Nature


A Trio of (Somewhat) Obscure 19th Century Naturalists from the Region: Relevant Bygones.

first image

Clockwise from the top. A Tiger Salamander sketched by James Eights (from McKinley’s book on Eights); the title page of William Hamilton Gibson’s Sharp Eyes, and the title page from the illustrated edition of Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours.

Reading the words of past naturalists who wrote about familiar landscapes can seem nostalgic, however, such reading can also reveal immediate relevance for at least two reasons: first, each naturalist is a new set of eyes on the World, perhaps recounting new observations that one has never noticed oneself; second, these writers are describing past incarnations of one’s own landscape, thereby revealing changes that might otherwise go unmarked and hinting at potentials that may still exist.

This blog posting serves to introduce a trio of somewhat forgotten naturalists from “the area”: James Eights of the Capital District, Susan Fenimore Cooper of Cooperstown, and William Hamilton Gibson of Litchfield County, CT, and Brooklyn, NY. These three (together with some possible ‘special guests’) will be the basis of many of our upcoming Facebook posts. Each of these people published nature journals of a sort, and we will use many of our posts to recap some of their sightings and compare them to what we see around us today.


A portrait, apparently by scientist and colleague Ebenezer Emmons, showing Eights around 1840 at about 40 years of age. Source: New York State Museum.

Our first naturalist is James Eights, probably born in Pennsylvania around 1798, his family soon moved to the Albany area. His father was a well-respected medical doctor, and while his schooling is unknown, when he appears in the historical record, he is already pursuing naturalist ways. For most of the rest of his life, he seems to orbit around the Capital District, occasionally heading to the South Seas (he apparently visited Patagonia a year or so before Darwin and a coast of Antarctica is named after him), Central America and other regions, but, sooner or later, returning to his old haunts. Eights seems to have supported himself (barely) as a scientist and draughtsman, but he held few steady jobs and, one almost feels, roamed the periphery of the day’s scientific hotspots, brushing elbows with better known scientists of his day, such as Amos Eaton and Ebenezer Emmons, but never settling into their sometimes tumultuous circles. His bibliography is a string of generally short articles on varied themes published more often than not in popular rather than strictly scientific journals.


One installment of his “Scraps from a Naturalist’s Note Book” as it appeared in the fireside section of the Country Gentleman during 1853 (left). His collection and description of a 10-legged Sea Spider, Declopoda (right; in his own illustration), from the South Seas was responsible for his 20th century, posthumous rediscovery.

Eights qualifies for our group because of three sets of articles he published at various points in his life, each of them describing aspects of the natural history which he saw around him. The first series was his “Naturalist’s Every Day Book”, published in the Albany-based Zodiac, chronicling the seasonal events of May through Sept 1835. Some 18 years later, in 1853, he published 24 installments of his “Scraps from a Naturalist’s Note Book” in the Country Gentleman, a weekly agricultural magazine printed in Rochester but widely circulated. Finally, 1864 he published a collection of 8 articles entitled “Our Songsters of Summer” in the same journal. For the most part, these are short accounts mixing descriptions of plants, insects and other animals together with brief asides on the feelings they provoked. They tend to be a potpourri, mixing intriguing descriptions of local flora and fauna with more exotic or generalized accounts.

fenimore cooper

The only image of Susan Fenimore Cooper which I have been able to find. It was probably taken around 1850 when she published Rural the age of 37.

Our second regional naturalist is Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894), daughter and secretary of novelist James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was a philanthropist, editor and writer, but her inclusion here is due to her best known work, Rural Hours, a year-long series of natural and cultural observations from near her Cooperstown home (although presented as a single year’s journal, it is actually a compilation of two years’ observations). First published in 1850, Rural Hours mixes astute observations of surrounding people, plants and wild creatures with religious and philosophical ruminations. Her descriptions are detailed and ring true, reflecting not only her surroundings but also the ‘state of mind’ of people like herself living in what had recently been the frontier of colonial settlement.

Cooper’s work has been compared to Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and, apparently, had some influence on that piece. Unlike Eights’ disconnected snippets, Rural Hours is a single, coherent work, containing both more ecological detail and reflection on nature’s significance. Rural Hours achieved quick acclaim and went through numerous 19th century editions, although it fell from favor during most of the 20th century. More recently, it has seen something of a resurrection, with a 1998 edition and a wave of new critical consideration. Susan Fenimore Cooper lived into her 80s, but focused much of her later energy on stewarding her father’s literary estate and on philanthropic work.


The illustration of the Baltimore Oriole from Rural Hours; the bird images were apparently reprinted from DeKay’s 1844 bird volume in the state-published Natural History of New York series.

The last of our trio is William Hamilton Gibson (1850-1896), a CT and NYC based naturalist writer and artist. His biographer declared him to be, together with Thoreau and Burroughs, one of the great naturalists of 19th century America, and yet today he is certainly the least known of that triumvirate. Beginning as an illustrator, Gibson achieved substantial recognition during his own lifetime, largely for the illustrated articles he contributed to various magazines of his day and for the books and compilations he published.  Although some of his writing may seem flowery, he was obviously a skilled artist and, like the preceding pair of naturalists, an original observer.

His drawings and prose are lively, sometimes humorous, and usually finely detailed. By all accounts, he was an hard-working, energetic missionary (as he phrased it) of nature study. An ardent lecturer equipped with an ever-curious eye, his themes ranged from trapping to New England paths to flower pollination strategies. In at least some cases, the precision of his observations seems to exceed that of Eights and Cooper, but Gibson’s fame has dwindled since his death, perhaps in part because photography (of which he was an enthusiastic practitioner) has somewhat reduced the esteem granted illustrators. At least a couple of his works, Pastoral Days, about the passage of the year in southern New England, and Sharp Eyes, a year-long nature chronology, are fitting companions to the journals of our previous two naturalists.

gibson montage

Our montage to two of Gibson’s illustrations, one of him working at his easel and the other of milkweed seed drifting away in the Autumn.

Although Eights, Cooper and Gibson are far from being mere puppets of their eras, it is useful to briefly consider how each of them reflects an aspect of the human-nature relations of their days. James Eights was a member of the explorer genre in that, aside from actual voyages of exploration, the closest he seemed to come to a profession was helping the likes of Eaton, Torrey and DeKay in their efforts to create the descriptive groundwork that was to form the basis for the work of later naturalists. Indeed, Susan Fenimore Cooper makes frequent mention of the work of these authors as she describes the nature she finds around her. However, like Thoreau and others of her time, she is also searching for a deeper link between the human condition and nature; Cooper was well traveled and could hardly have been blind to the growing divide between urban life and nature. The Hudson River School of painting can be seen as another response to this same disconnect. In some ways, her work can be seen as an effort to alert a increasingly alienated world to the value of nature, presenting it not as something exotic and ‘red in tooth and claw’, but rather as an important component of one’s home landscape. William Hamilton Gibson needs to make no such case – by his day, nature writing and illustration were popular and widely appealing. His forte was, perhaps, to urge people to look deeper – not only to see, but to try to understand. His works contain microscopic detail and evolutionary considerations, and yet he was a populist, dedicating himself to bringing his insights to wide audiences.

Returning to our first paragraph, there is perhaps a third reason why these historical observations have modern significance: they illustrate ways in which we can view our worlds and our relationships with nature. Whether civilizations progress or not, I do not know; however, I am convinced that not all perspectives are discarded because they are proven archaic or irrelevant; some are simply forgotten as new fashions or distractions avert the public’s thoughts. These are worth periodic resurrection and comparison with the new reality of our day; the human condition of the 19th century is not so distant that we should suppose its pondering can provide us with no modern insight.

Over the next few months, we will take excerpts from the works of the above authors and match them with observations we are able to make around us today. These will serve as periodic updates to our Facebook page. That medium does not encourage extensive consideration of context, and our focus will be on highlighting aspects of current nature rather than trying to draw grand conclusions about the flow of ecological thought. For those of you wishing to study the original texts (and we welcome you make your own extracts, take your own pictures, and contribute them to our Facebook page), here are links to the relevant texts:

James Eights: See this NYS Museum publication, James Eights by Daniel McKinley. In addition to providing a biography, Mr. McKinley provides ample extracts of his work. If you want copies of the original articles in their entirety, please drop me a line. Thanks to Al Breisch of NYS DEC for first alerting me to James Eights.

Susan Fenimore Cooper: Rural Hours is available in the full 1850 edition and the subsequent, edited (by Cooper) 1887 version. Cooper signed the book simply “A Lady”, a by-line which hints at the complex gender and possibly family roles she was trying to negotiate. See this web page for an introduction to her works and their subsequent exploration.

William Hamilton Gibson: Gibson was the most prolific (albeit shortest lived) author of the three. The primary works which we will be considering are his Pastoral Days or Memories of a New England Year and Sharp Eyes: A Rambler’s Catendar. A biography by John Coleman Adams is also available on-line.

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Nature