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A Myriad of Miniature Nightmares: A Brief Introduction to Parasitoid Wasps

by Kendrick Fowler

(Kendrick has been a technician with the Program since June 2018 and, as this blog amply illustrates, has ‘gotten into’ wasps.)

Hawthorne Valley Farm in Winter.

Hawthorne Valley Farm in winter.

When I tell someone that I work in entomology, their first reaction is often to ask me something along the lines of “So, what do you do during the winter? ‘Cause there aren’t any bugs around in winter, right?” The answer, of course, is that winter gives me the opportunity to do something with all of the insect specimens that the Farmscape Ecology Program (FEP) team collects during the spring, summer, and autumn (though it is worth pointing out that some very interesting insects can be found crawling around on the snow). Specifically, I identify and count the insects that we captured during the warm months, and I use the resulting data to create content to support the FEP’s research and outreach efforts. Each member of the entomology team, including me, specializes in identifying a few groups of insects whose biology makes them particularly interesting and fruitful subjects on which to focus our studies, usually because they are pollinators, predators, or otherwise considered beneficial to farmers: Conrad works with ground beetles, Dylan has mastered the moths, hover flies, and bees, and I am teaching myself to recognize ants and wasps. I feel like I lucked out when I was assigned my specialty: I am biased, of course, but I feel that the wasps are the most exciting and interesting of our beneficial insects.

entomological work desk

My workstation in the Farmscape Ecology Program’s “bug room.” The open boxes on the desk are filled with wasp specimens collected during the 2019 field season.

When most people think of wasps, they think of large, conspicuous, social species like hornets, yellowjackets, and paper wasps. The name “wasp,” however, is also used to encompass an enormous variety of insects that most people rarely (if ever) notice, yet which collectively may have a far larger impact in our lives than the creatures who occasionally invite themselves into our picnics and our homes. Most of these other wasps are small, solitary insects that make their living as what we call parasitoids: organisms that complete their larval development by feeding on or in a single host organism, and that kill their host as a normal part of their development. They are, in essence, real-life versions of the Alien. Fortunately for you and me, they attack only other insects and arachnids, and do not share their fictional analogue’s taste for human flesh.

parasitized hornworm caterpillar

Wasp cocoons hang from the body of a sphinx moth caterpillar. As larvae, these wasps slowly consumed the caterpillar from the inside. When they were ready to pupate, they worked their way out of the caterpillar’s body and immediately spun cocoons to protect themselves during their transformation into winged adults. A video by The Caterpillar Lab depicting the larvae of wasps similar to these emerging from their host caterpillar is available here (external link).

From the perspective of farmscape ecology, parasitoid wasps are interesting because many species feed on insects that damage crops or that are otherwise regarded as pests, and their activity can therefore contribute to suppressing populations of those insects. It is quite possible—perhaps likely, even—that parasitoids naturally prevent the populations of many kinds of insects from ever reaching levels where they can cause economic injury; it is, however, considerably easier to notice those insects that become pests than those that do not, so any such effect is surely underappreciated. On the other hand, considerable effort has been (and continues to be) expended toward devising ways to manipulate parasitoids into controlling the populations of those insects that do become pests. Often, such work entails introducing parasitoids into regions where they are not native, usually for the purpose of controlling a pest that is likewise an alien in the area; for example, the wasps Tiphia popilliavora and T. vernalis were brought to the eastern United States from Asia during the early 20th century in an attempt to control the Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica). Another popular strategy involves rearing wasps in large numbers and releasing them at the site of pest infestations to supplement natural causes of mortality (including the activity of wild parasitoids): wasps in the genus Trichogramma, for example, can be purchased by the thousands from commercial insectaries for release into a variety of crops, where they destroy the eggs of caterpillars. Less frequently, attempts are made to increase local populations of wild parasitoids by altering the environment to make it more favorable for their survival and reproduction, such as by planting wildflowers around field edges to provide adult wasps with sources of food. My research into parasitoid wasps at the FEP falls under the latter umbrella: we hope to understand the ecology of our native parasitoids (and other beneficial insects) in order to develop strategies for managing habitats on and around farms to maximize the benefits that these insects provide to agricultural production.

parasitoid approaching flea beetle

A parasitoid wasp (Microctonus brevipetiolatus) stalks a Striped Flea Beetle (Phyllotreta striolata), a pest of crucifers. M. brevipetiolatus belongs to a group of wasps that share the unusual habit of attacking adult insects; most other species parasitize the immature stages of their hosts.

While parasitoid wasps’ usefulness to humans is easily their most popular attribute, I personally find these insects fascinating because they are wonderfully diverse. Over 80,000 species have been discovered worldwide, and they come in a dizzying variety of shapes and colors. Many are decorated in bold, contrasting patterns of black and white, red, orange, or yellow, whilst others resemble tiny jewels, their bodies glimmering with bright, iridescent colors. A few are so miniscule that they approach the physical limits constraining how small an insect can be, and a handful of others grow to impressively large sizes. Even more compellingly, much of the aforementioned diversity is represented here in the Northeast. Some of the largest, smallest, and most colorful wasps in the world are common in our area, and could show up in your backyard or along your local nature trail (assuming, of course, that those places have appropriate habitat). And in terms of numbers, the Northeast is home to many hundreds, if not thousands, of wasp species. During the 2019 field season alone, the FEP collected specimens representing more than 200 species of parasitoid wasps from within a single, 1 mi² study area. Here, I’ll introduce you to just a small selection of my favorites.

a range of wasps of different sizes

Parasitoid wasps of all shapes and sizes collected during the FEP’s 2019 field season. A disk of the same diameter as a penny and an Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) are included in the image to provide a size comparison. From left to right, the wasps are: Baeus sp., Cheiloneurus sp., Torymus sp., Diadegma stenosomus, Tiphia sp., and the aforementioned yellowjacket. Baeus is so small that it appears as merely a speck! Except for the yellowjacket (which is not a parasitoid), all of these wasps are profiled below.


Bracon sp.

Bracon sp.

Braconidae: Bracon sp.

The most famous of the parasitoid wasps are those that belong to the closely-related families Braconidae and Ichneumonidae, which together contain many of our largest, most conspicuous, and most economically important parasitoids. The Braconidae take their name from the genus Bracon, some species of which are common and rather pretty. The needle-like structure at the end of the pictured specimen’s abdomen is its ovipositor, the organ that wasps use for laying their eggs. A pair of flexible sheaths cover the ovipositor when it is not in use; here, the near one is bent to reveal the ovipositor nestled inside.


Epimicta konzaensis

Epimicta konzaensis

The outward facing mandibles of Epimicta konzaensis

The outward facing mandibles of Epimicta konzaensis. (The mandibles have been digitally outlined for clarity.)

Braconidae: Epimicta konzaensis

Braconids in the subfamily Alysiinae share the unusual trait of having mandibles with teeth that curve outward, away from their mouth opening (outlined in the image above). All alysiines parasitize flies, and they use their unusual mandibles to escape from the hardened shelters (called puparia) inside which many flies pupate and to dig through detritus in search of new hosts. One of the most interesting alysiines in our collection is Epimicta konzaensis, a rare species that went undiscovered until the early 2000s, when a handful of individuals were captured in Kansas and Tennessee; our specimens might be the first collected from the Northeast.


Colpotrochia crassipes

Colpotrochia crassipes

Ichneumonidae: Colpotrochia crassipes

The bold yellow-and-black coloration of Colpotrochia crassipes, an ichneumonid, gives it a striking resemblance to a yellowjacket or a potter wasp. Conspicuous color patterns such as the one that these wasps share (often called aposematic or warning colors) are believed to function as a signal to predators that the organisms bearing them are well-equipped to defend themselves when attacked. Ichneumonids and braconids lack the potent stings of yellowjackets (and other related wasps), but they will nevertheless attempt to jab attackers with their ovipositors, and they are also speculated to produce noxious chemicals that make them unappetizing meals. It is worth noting that, despite their sometimes intimidating appearance, all parasitoid wasps are non-aggressive and harmless to humans (although a few particularly large species with short, stout ovipositors might give a painful prick if handled carelessly).


Diadegma stenosomus

Diadegma stenosomus

Ichneumonidae: Diadegma stenosomus

In my opinion, some of our most elegant wasps are those that belong to the ichneumonid subfamily Campopleginae, like this Diadegma stenosomus. Though widespread in North America, the sole host reported for D. stenosomus in the scientific literature is Carcina quercana, a non-native moth that has only established populations in the Pacific Northwest. In our area, then, D. stenosomus must be parasitizing other moths—presumably, native species related to C. quercana—but their precise identities have yet to be documented.


Diplazon laetatorius

Diplazon laetatorius

Ichneumonidae: Diplazon laetatorius

Diplazon laetatorius is probably the most widespread ichneumonid in the world: it has been recorded on every continent (except perhaps Antarctica) and on a number of small oceanic islands. It is sometimes regarded as a pest, as it parasitizes the larvae of aphid-eating hover flies, which are some of our most important beneficial insects.


Mesochorus sp.

Mesochorus sp.

Ichneumonidae: Mesochorus sp.

Remarkably, some wasps attack other parasitoids, a phenomenon called hyperparasitism. Some hyperparasitoids, including Mesochorus, seek out hosts that are still developing as larvae inside the bodies of other insects, while others, sometimes called pseudohyperparasitoids, wait until their hosts pupate—and thus, in most cases, have emerged from their victims’ bodies—to attack. The Caterpillar Lab has produced an excellent video of a hyperparasitoid wasp (but not Mesochorus) in action; you can watch it here (external link).


Cheiloneurus sp.

Cheiloneurus sp.

Encyrtidae: Cheiloneurus sp.

Some of the most colorful of our parasitoid wasps belong to a large group of closely-related families collectively referred to as the Chalcidoidea. Most of these species, however, are quite tiny, and it is difficult to appreciate their beauty without the aid of a microscope. This Cheiloneurus, for example, is slightly smaller than a mustard seed.


Torymus sp.

Torymus sp.

Torymidae: Torymus sp.

Many chalcidoids, like this Torymus, are colored in shimmering, metallic shades of green and blue. Though brilliant to our eyes, these colors might function as camouflage, hiding the wasps amongst green vegetation or making them difficult to follow when they move between sun and shade.


Blepyrus sp.

Blepyrus sp.

Encyrtidae: Blepyrus sp.

When viewed in the right light, the wings of most parasitoid wasps shine with patterns of bright, rainbow-like colors. Long regarded as little more than a curiosity, it has recently been discovered that each wasp species possesses its own, unique pattern of colored wing reflections, and it is now believed that these patterns function as some kind of communication signal; perhaps wasps flaunt the reflections when interacting with each other. The colors are formed by a process similar to the one that gives a soap bubble its psychedelic sheen; unlike the ever-changing pattern on a soap bubble, however, that of a wasp’s wing remains consistent regardless of the angle from which it is observed.


Paracentrobia sp.

Paracentrobia sp.

Trichogrammatidae: Paracentrobia sp.

Many of our smallest wasps, such as these Paracentrobia, complete their entire development inside the eggs of other insects. It boggles the mind to imagine a creature small enough to rely on an insect egg as its sole source of food (three of the pictured Paracentrobia could crowd onto the head of a pin)—yet a remarkable video produced by The Caterpillar Lab, available here (external link), shows not one but several wasps sharing a single moth egg. The smaller wasps in the video are probably a relative of Paracentrobia.


Neomymar vierecki

Neomymar vierecki

Mymaridae: Neomymar vierecki

Many of the tiniest insects, including many parasitoid wasps, develop wings in which the membrane is largely replaced by a fringe of long bristles. This characteristic is particularly pronounced in wasps belonging to the chalcidoid family Mymaridae (commonly called “fairyflies”), such as this Neomymar vierecki. The adaptive value of bristled wings is not well-understood; however, at the minute scale of these wasps, air’s viscosity has a much greater effect on the way air flows around the wing than it does for larger insects, birds, or airplanes; as a consequence, air flows poorly through the gaps between the bristles, and a bristled wing can exert almost as much force against the air as one formed by a continuous membrane. Meanwhile, it has been suggested that drag caused by friction between the air and the wing surface might be considerably lower in a bristled wing than in a similarly-sized membranous one because the bristled wing has a much smaller surface area. It therefore appears likely that bristled wings are an aerodynamic adaptation that minimizes the effort required for flight in the smallest insects by trading a small decrease in power for a larger reduction in drag.


Pseudometagea schwarzii

Pseudometagea schwarzii

Eucharitidae: Pseudometagea schwarzii

One of our strangest chalcidoids, Pseudometagea schwarzii belongs to a family of wasps (Eucharitidae) whose members are all specialized parasitoids of ants. P. schwarzii in particular parasitizes the larvae of the Cornfield Ant (Lasius neoniger). Unlike most parasitoid wasps, P. schwarzii and its relatives lay their eggs on vegetation near ant colonies rather than directly on or in their hosts, and the newly-hatched larvae are free-living. When the larva is passed by a worker ant, it clings to the ant and hitches a ride back to the colony and into the ants’ brood chamber, where it burrows into the body of an ant larva and then—in the case of P. schwarzii—becomes dormant for many months, overwintering inside its host. The wasp begins to feed as the ant larva completes its development in the spring, and it pupates inside its host’s cocoon. Upon emergence, the adult wasps leave the ant nest to mate and start the cycle again.


Inostemma sp.

Inostemma sp.

Platygastridae: Inostemma sp.

The large horn on the back of this Inostemma is a structure for housing the wasp’s ovipositor. Inostemma belongs to a group of wasps (Platygastroidea) that carry the entire length of their ovipositors internally. Those species that require long ovipositors (for attacking hosts concealed in plant tissues, soil, or other hard-to-reach locations) have consequently developed remarkable shapes and structures to create space for the organ inside their tiny bodies. Dorsal humps and horns are particularly common, appearing across a number of unrelated species within the family, but only rarely do their proportions become as spectacularly bizarre as they do in Inostemma.


Baeus sp

Baeus sp

Platygastridae: Baeus sp.

Big-headed and squat-bodied, wasps in the genus Baeus are fundamentally cute. These miniscule wasps (many are smaller than a poppy seed) are parasites of spider eggs. The females’ wings are reduced to tiny scales, an adaptation which renders them flightless but might help them to burrow through the silken walls of their hosts’ egg sacs. Most of the world’s Baeus species remain undescribed, even in well-studied regions such as the Northeast. Imagine: an insect that no human has ever documented could be crawling around in your garden!


Tiphia sp.

Tiphia sp.

Tiphiidae: Tiphia sp.

Wasps in the genus Tiphia are some of our most common and conspicuous parasitoids, though their hairy bodies might cause one to mistake them for bees. Tiphia parasitize the larvae of scarab beetles, and as mentioned previously, two Asian species, T. popilliavora and T. vernalis, were introduced to the eastern U.S. during the early 20th century in an attempt to control the Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica). Many native species also occur in our area.


Malaise traps in field

Insect traps set in the Farmscape Ecology Program’s experimental pollinator meadows. Several distinct habitats appear in this image: a native wildflower meadow, a fallow field, a field planted in rye (used as a cover crop), a riparian woodland, and an upland forest. All are home to a myriad of parasitoid wasps.

Want to see parasitoid wasps for yourself? In the Northeast, any well-vegetated habitat is likely to be home to an abundance of these wasps, and in the warm months finding one can be as simple as going for a walk in the woods and keeping a sharp eye out for insects. Large species, like the spectacular American Pelecinid (Pelecinus polyturator), can be quite conspicuous during the time of year when they are active. However, most parasitoid wasps are quite small and difficult to detect, and will be much easier to find by following some kind of intentional, targeted search strategy. Like many other insects, parasitoid wasps are attracted to nectar and honeydew, and can be found visiting flowers or aggregations of aphids and other plant-sucking insects. Presumably due to their small size, parasitoid wasps seem to prefer to visit small flowers; those of plants in the carrot family, such as Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata), and Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), can be particularly rewarding places to search. Alternatively, if your interest lies in finding wasps that parasitize particular insect hosts, searching locations where those host species occur can likewise be a fruitful strategy. It is also possible to rear wasps by taking potential host insects into captivity and keeping them alive to see whether parasitoids emerge (though one must be careful to avoid collecting host species that are rare or threatened). Many of our parasitoid wasps have not been associated with their hosts, and discoveries are waiting to be made for anyone reasonably dedicated to seeking new rearing records.

American Pelecinid (Pelecinus polyturator)

The American Pelecinid (Pelecinus polyturator), one of our largest and most conspicuous parasitoid wasps, is a common sight in Northeastern woodlands during July and August. Its long, flexible abdomen allows it to probe deep into soil in search of its hosts, the larvae of June beetles (Phyllophaga spp.).



Resources preceded by an asterisk (*) were freely available online at the time of publication, and are hyperlinked. Most of the others can be acquired at your local public library via interlibrary loan, or directly through the library at your local college or university. Readers interested in a detailed, but accessible general introduction to wasps and their relatives are encouraged to seek out Eric Grissell’s Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens, which is available from many college libraries (external link); it also is reasonably affordable should one wish to purchase a copy.

Allen, H.W. 1966. A Revision of the Tiphiinae (Hymenoptera: Tiphiidae) of Eastern North America. Transactions of the American Entomological Society 92(2): 231-356.

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*Ayre, G.L. 1962. Pseudometagea schwarzii (Ashm.) (Eucharitidae: Hymenoptera), a parasite of Lasius neoniger Emery (Formicidae: Hymenoptera). Canadian Journal of Zoology 40: 157-164. (external link)

*Balaban, J., et. al. BugGuide [Internet]. Ames, IA: Iowa State University. Species Carcina quercana – Oak-skeletonizer Moth – Hodges#1069 [updated 2018 February 15, cited 2020 Jan. 22]. Available from: (external link)

Barbosa, P. 1998. Conservation Biological Control. Academic Press, San Diego, California, U.S.A.

*Bennett, A.M.R. 2003. Host location behaviour in Pelecinus polyturator (Hymenoptera: Pelecinidae). Journal of the Entomological Society of Ontario 134: 131-134. (external link)

Borror, D.J. and R.E. White. 1970. A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

*Buckingham, G.R. and M.J. Sharkey. 1988. Abdominal exocrine glands in Braconidae (Hymenoptera). In V.K. Gupta (ed.) Advances in Parasitic Hymenoptera Research, E.J. Brill, Leiden, South Holland, Netherlands, pp. 199-242. (external link)

*Buffington, M.L. and R.J. Sandler. 2011. The occurrence and phylogenetic implications of wing interference patterns in Cynipoidea (Insecta: Hymenoptera). Invertebrate Systematics 25: 586-597. (external link)

Cheng, X. and M. Sun. 2018. Very small insects use novel wing flapping and drag principle to generate the weight-supporting vertical force. Journal of Fluid Mechanics 855: 646-670.

Cheng, X. and M. Sun. 2019. Revisiting the clap-and-fling mechanism in small wasp Encarsia formosa using quantitative measurements of wing motion. Physics of Fluids 31: 101903.

Crompton, J. 1955. The Hunting Wasp. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

*Doucet, S.M. and M.G. Meadows. 2009. Iridescence: a functional perspective. J. R. Soc. Interface 6: S115-S132. (external link)

Eggleton, P. and K.J. Gaston. 1990. “Parasitoid” species and assemblages: convenient definitions for misleading compromises?. Oikos 59(3): 417-421.

Gibson, G.A.P., J.T. Huber, and J.B. Woolley, eds. 1997. Annotated Keys to the Genera of Nearctic Chalcidoidea (Hymenoptera). NRC Research Press, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Godfray, H.C.J. 1994. Parasitoids: Behavioral and Evolutionary Ecology. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A.

*Goulet, H. and J.T. Huber, eds. 1993. Hymenoptera of the world: An identification guide to families. Centre for Land and Biological Resources Research, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (external link)

Grissell, E. 2010. Bees, Wasps, and Ants: The Indispensable Role of Hymenoptera in Gardens. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.

*Heraty, J.M. 1985. A revision of the Nearctic Eucharitinae (Hymenoptera: Chalcidoidea: Eucharitidae). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Ontario 116: 61-103. (external link)

Hoffman, M.P. and A.C. Frodsham. 1993. Natural Enemies of Vegetable Insect Pests. Cornell Cooperative Extension, Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.

*Huber, J.T. and J.S. Noyes. 2013. A new genus and species of fairyfly, Tinkerbella nana (Hymenoptera, Mymaridae), with comments on its sister genus, Kikiki, and discussion on small size limits in arthropods. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 32: 17-44. (external link)

*Kula, R.R. and G. Zolnerowich. 2005. A new species of Epimicta Förster (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) from North America and new distribution records for Epimicta griffithsi Wharton. Proc. Entomol. Soc. Wash. 107(1): 78-83. (external link)

Marshall, S.A. 2006. Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity: With a photographic guide to insects of eastern North America. Firefly Books, Buffalo, New York, U.S.A.

Marshall, S.A. 2012. Flies: The Natural History and Diversity of Diptera. Firefly Books, Buffalo, New York, U.S.A.

Mason, C.W. 1927. Structural Colors in Insects. II. The Journal of Physical Chemistry 31(3): 321-354.

*Murray, T., B. Moisset, and B. Carlson. BugGuide [Internet]. Ames, IA: Iowa State University. Species Diplazon laetatorius – Hover fly parasite [updated 2012 June 7, cited 2020 Jan. 22]. Available from: (external link)

O’Neill, K.M. 2001. Solitary Wasps: Behavior and Natural History. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca, New York, U.S.A.

Poulin, R. 2011. The Many Roads to Parasitism: A Tale of Convergence. Advances in Parasitology 74: 1-40.

Pucci, T.M. 2013. Contributions to the classification of North American Microctonus (Braconidae, Euphorinae). Zootaxa 3725(1): 1-150.

Quicke, D.L.J. 2015. The Braconid and Ichneumonid Parasitoid Wasps: Biology, Systematics, Evolution, and Ecology. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.

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*Schwarzfeld, M.D. 2014. Ichneumonidae (Hymenoptera) of the Canadian Prairies Ecozone: A Review. pp. 317-397 In D.J. Giberson and H.A. Cárcamo, (eds.) Arthropods of Canadian Grasslands (Volume 4): Biodiversity and Systematics Part 2. Biological Survey of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (external link)

*Shevtsova et al. 2011. Stable structural color patterns displayed on transparent insect wings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108(2): 668-673. (external link)

Smith, O.J. and A. Peterson. 1950. Microctonus vittatae, a Parasite of Adult Flea Beetles, and Observations on Hosts. Journal of Economic Entomology 43(5): 581-585.

*Stevens, N.B. and A.D. Austin. 2007. Systematics, distribution, and biology of the Australian ‘micro-flea’ wasps, Baeus spp. (Hymenoptera: Scelionidae): parasitoids of spider eggs. Zootaxa 1499: 1-45. (external link)

*Tooker, J.S. and L.M. Hanks. Flowering Plant Hosts of Adult Hymenopteran Parasitoids of Central Illinois. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 93(3): 580-588. (external link)

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Wylie, H.G. and C. Loan. 1984. Five Nearctic and one introduced Euphorine species (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) that parasitize adults of crucifer-infesting flea beetles (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae). The Canadian Entomologist 116: 235-246.

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Posted by on February 21, 2020 in Uncategorized


Insect Songs and Sound Maps

By Molly Fava

(Molly was an intern with the Farmscape Ecology Program from June – December of 2019)


If you are like me, one of the first things you notice as the weather starts to cool off is just how quiet it is when you walk outside.  The birds have stopped chirping, the frogs have stopped croaking, and the insects have stopped calling.  Now that we are experiencing the long, cold, winter nights, you are probably missing those beautiful sounds of summer.  However there is one good part about the darkness creeping in earlier and earlier in the evening: now you have extra time to catch up on your Farmscape Ecology reading!  You may not be able to hear those summer sounds right now, but you can still learn about them!

false katydid sp.

A species of so-called ‘False Katydid’.


Insect Songs

Let’s start with some basics: can insects actually even sing?  Some insects, like crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers, can make sound and communicate, but they do not vocalize like humans or birds do.  The main way that these insects (Orthoptera) create sound is through stridulation.  Stridulation is the rubbing together of two body parts, which are modified for sound production.  In crickets and katydids, a sharp edge, often referred to as a scraper, at the base of one front wing is rubbed against a bumpy edge, often referred to as a file, at the base of the opposite wing (view image of file and scraper at

black horned tree cricket stridulation

Black-horned tree cricket with wings raised during stridulation.

Crickets and katydids lift their wings and move them back and forth to run the scraper across the file, which creates the chirping and buzzing that we associate with insect sounds.  Grasshoppers also use stridulation for sound production, but most grasshoppers rub their leg against the forewing to create these sounds rather than using wing movements like crickets and katydids.

grasshopper femur

Great view of a grasshopper’s hind femur, which it rubs against the forewing in order to produce sounds.

Insects create these sounds in order to communicate with potential mates, making other individuals aware of their species, location, and even their quality as a mate.  As insect songs are primarily used for mating purposes, in most species only the males produce songs.  However there are a few species where the females will produce short response clicks and chirps back to the males.


Why care about insect songs?

Hearing the melodious songs of insects through the days and nights stimulate nostalgic recollections of summers past, but those songs can do so much more for us than just spark memories.  They can also provide us with knowledge about the insect communities present in different areas.  Every species of singing insect has its own unique song that they use to communicate with other individuals of their own species.  These songs alone can allow us to identify what insect species are located throughout various landscapes.

In order to get a good understanding of what singing insects are present in an area, it is helpful to create recordings of their songs.  Recordings alone can be great to listen to, but they may not always provide a clearer picture of what we are hearing.  So to really break down these recordings and understand the insects, we create spectrograms.  Spectrograms are graphical representations of sound frequencies over time.

striped ground cricket spectrogram

This is the spectrogram of a Striped Ground Cricket song (recording from Singing Insects of North America).  The calling frequency (in kHz) is represented on the y-axis, while the time (in seconds) is represented along the x-axis.

Spectrograms let us look at and read insect songs in somewhat the same way we would read a piece of music.  Identifying the frequency of an insect call is just like knowing which note is being played.  Identifying the number of pulses per second in an insect call is the same as knowing how many notes are played in a specific measure.  So with this ability to identify the notes and count the beats, we can recognize exactly what song we are hearing.

general spectrogram

The brighter colors on the spectrogram represent louder noises.  We have outlined one insect call in red.  Its calling frequency is around 5 kHz, and there are about 2 chirps per second.  This call is most likely a Fall Field Cricket.  The other bright green areas in the spectrogram represent songs coming from other species of singing insects, as well as ambient noises in the recording.

Identifying the song really just means identifying which species is singing, but creating a spectrogram of a recording produced in a pasture that has many different sounds may show us a whole combination of species all singing within that area.  If one recording can tell us this much about a singing insect community, aren’t you curious about what else it can tell us?


Sound Maps

In order to learn even more from these recordings, we decided to start creating sound maps.  Sound maps display the power of sounds over a landscape.  They demonstrate where we would hear sounds coming from if we were there standing in that landscape listening for ourselves.

To create the sound maps we had in mind we had to collect a lot of recordings, 480 to be precise.  So we found a shrubby Hawthorne Valley pasture that was very busy with insect songs, and then we identified the areas within that pasture that we wanted to record.

aerial photo of site

The area outlined in red is the general location of our sound mapping recordings in a shrubby Hawthorne Valley pasture.

We set up 20 recording units, spaced out 50 feet from each other in a grid.

recording grid

Each yellow dot represents the location of one of our recording units.

setting up recording units

Kenny Fowler, field technician, sets up one of the recording devices.

Each of these recording units was set to record for two minutes, on the hour, every hour, over a 24-hour period.  We attached the microphone to a stake about a foot off the ground in order to limit interference with vegetation and orient all the microphones in the same direction.

Jules1 unit

This shows one of the recording units set up in the field with the microphone (circled) attached to the green stake.  All twenty of these units were created by Jules Madey, and this project would not have been possible without all of his hard work.

After a full 24 hours of field recording, we created spectrograms of the recordings we collected.  The spectrograms helped us identify which types of insects were calling throughout the area we monitored.  Although each species of singing insect has its own unique song, it can be difficult to automatically select these songs out of the spectrogram using software programs.  In the Northeast, there are about 55 species of katydids (about 20 of these are ‘traditional’ big, green, leaf-like katydids; most of the rest are Meadow Katydids, which more resemble grasshoppers with hair-like antennae) and about 40 species of crickets (including 9 tree crickets).  As the air temperature changes over a 24-hour period, so does the frequency of each of these species’ songs.  So our sound maps represent songs from types of singing insects (i.e. tree cricket, field and ground cricket, katydid) rather than representing songs from individual species (i.e. Black-horned Tree Cricket, Common True Katydid).

recording unit collection

Dylan Cipkowski, biologist, and Zion, good boy, collect recording units after the 24-hour recording cycle.

Using a software program called Raven, which is also the software used to create our spectrograms, we were able to identify the relative pressure of the insect sounds in each of our 456 recordings (one unit malfunctioned).  Then using ArcGIS software, we used radial basis functions interpolation techniques (available with Geostatistical Analyst extension) to map the relative pressure measurements of various sounds over the landscape.  Interpolation uses the pressure data and the location data of each recording unit to approximate the sound pressure in areas between each recording device, allowing us to see where the insects are calling.  Warm colors on our maps represent high pressure (i.e. louder) sounds.  Cool colors represent low pressure (i.e. quieter) sounds.

tree crickets calling at 9pm

This image shows the locations of calling tree crickets at 9pm.

Then we were able to use these maps to compare different aspects of the insect sounds, like what groups were calling at certain times of day.


These maps show the calling patterns of three types of singing insects at 12pm.  The field and ground crickets are extremely loud at midday compared to the fairly quiet tree crickets and the moderate noise level of the katydids.

Or, how the locations and sound pressure for one type of insect change throughout the day.


These maps show the calling patterns of field and ground crickets at three different times of day.  They are calling from different areas at various times of day.

Or, which habitats each type of insect is using.


These maps show the calling patterns of three types of singing insects at 12am over the different habitat types in the pasture.  The areas of the map covered in gray horizontal lines represent the tree and shrub covered land, while the uncovered areas of the map represent the open grassland.  At this time of day, the loudest calling from the tree crickets seems to be coming from the tree and shrub covered areas, while the loudest calling from the field and ground crickets seems to be coming from the open grasslands of the landscape.


lined up Jules1 units

Two recording units are clearly visible, with a third deep in the background.  Both the open grassland and the tree and shrub-covered areas of our study site are visible in this photo.

Our immediate goal was to create an ‘animated soundmap’ video showing how the sound landscape evolved across 24-hours, and here it is!


Future Efforts

These maps represent our very first attempts to make 24-hour sound maps, and this is only the beginning of our sound mapping efforts.  We are working to increase funding to our sound-mapping project in order to build more units and to apply this technology to other types of research.

We hope to focus on questions of (1) ecology, like ‘how does habitat use differ among the species?’, (2) farmscape management, like ‘how does the abundance of these creatures differ between organic and conventional orchards?’, (3) transmission arts, like ‘how do people’s perceptions of their sound landscape change after they see maps like these?’, and (4) phenology, like ‘how do these calling patterns change throughout the season?’.


Importance of singing insects and sound maps

At this point you might still be wondering why these maps, or even just these insects, actually matter.  Singing insects are inherently valuable as part of the wondrous diversity of life on Earth.  However, they also interact with lives of other organisms, including humans.  Often times crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers are thought of as pest species.  While this is sometimes the case, they are only able to cause significant damage to crops when there is a massive local abundance of these insects.  Grasshoppers tend to be the most damaging to crops, but crickets and katydids tend to be omnivorous, meaning they feed on both plant material and other insects.  We see crickets showing up at army worm egg baits we set up during field work, so they could even help control some pests.  Besides occasionally eating individuals of their own species, crickets and katydids are an important food source for a lot of other organisms as well.

Many insectivorous birds rely on Orthoptera (crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers) as a large portion of their diets.  Some of these birds rely on them so heavily that their survival and reproductive success may be directly linked with the populations and abundance of these insects.  One species of bird that depends on Orthoptera is the Eastern Meadowlark, which is facing rapid population declines.  These are grassland-breeding birds, so the primary conservation concern is nest destruction from mowing and grazing, which have also been shown to cause large declines in grassland Orthoptera abundances.  With this connection it is possible that understanding the abundance of Orthoptera populations in a pasture may provide some insight as to whether or not the pasture could provide a successful breeding habitat for these birds if mowing and grazing practices were carefully monitored.

Other adult birds are heavily reliant on Orthoptera as well, but not for themselves.  There are multiple bird species that depend almost solely on Orthoptera for their young during the rearing phase.  The fact that singing insects are relatively large and frequently abundant means they are a nutritionally valuable, easily located food item for parents to feed to their young.

Birds are not the only organisms that rely on Orthoptera for food.  Some predatory insects and spiders, as well as parasitic insects, depend on crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers.  Certain species of beetle larvae feed solely on grasshopper eggs, so their populations are directly reliant on grasshopper populations.  There are even some flies that parasitize crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers.  One interesting fact about all of this: a lot of these organisms that depend so heavily on Orthoptera actually use the sounds they produce in order to locate and predate them.

It is because so many other animals rely on Orthoptera that monitoring their populations provides some insight into the overall biodiversity of our landscapes.  Organisms that depend on Orthoptera will not thrive in these areas if the Orthoptera themselves are not flourishing.

Sound maps provide a relatively non-invasive way to create Orthoptera biodiversity estimates through landscapes, and may even provide insight into relative abundances of these populations.  They also provide a creative way to present and discuss scientific topics that may engage the public more than a traditional scientific study would.

If you want to learn more about the sound mapping projects we have done, including Orthopteran habitat maps from Hudson Valley orchards, visit


Additional Resources:

To learn insect song identifications for yourself, visit

To identify any species of cricket or katydid within North America, visit


Helpful Singing Insect Guidebooks:

Capinera, J.L., Scott, R.D., and T.J. Walker.  2004.  Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Elliott, L. and W. Hershberger.  2006.  The Songs of Insects.  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

Himmelman, J. and M. DiGiorgio.  2009.  Guide to Night-singing Insects of the Northeast.  Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.


Works Consulted:

Capinera, J.L., Scott, R.D., and T.J. Walker.  2004.  Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.

Diwakar, S., Jain, M., and R. Balakrishnan.  2007.  Psychoacoustic sampling as a reliable, non-invasive method to monitor orthopteran species diversity in tropical forests.  Biodivers Conserv 16: 4081-4093.

Elliott, L. and W. Hershberger.  2006.  The Songs of Insects.  Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

Gawałek, M., Dudek, K., Ekner-Grzyb, A., Kwieciński, Z., and J.H. Sliwowska.  2014.  Ecology of the field cricket (Gryllidae: Orthoptera) in farmland: the importance of livestock grazing.  North-Western Journal of Zoology 10(2): 325-332.

Humbert, J., Ghazoul, J., Richner, N. and T. Walter.  2010.  Hay harvesting causes high orthopteran mortality.  Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 139: 522-527.

Marini, L., Fontana, P., Battisti, A. and K.J. Gaston.  2009.  Agricultural management, vegetation traits and landscape drive orthopteran and butterfly diversity in a grassland-forest mosaic: a multi-scale approach.  Insect Conservation and Diversity 2: 213-220.

Marini, L., Bommarco, R. Fontana, P., and A. Battisti.  2010.  Disentangling effects of habitat diversity and area on orthopteran species with contrasting mobility.  Biological Conservation 143: 2164-2171.

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Posted by on December 23, 2019 in Uncategorized


Early Spring Silhouettes.

01 3W5A0103

There is a period in Spring, before the grass greens and other plants become gaudy with color, when one looks expectantly at the branches wondering when buds and birds will show themselves. It is also a time to look at silhouettes – some of which also have their own seasonal changes.

This series of images, initially posted on our Facebook page, are derived from photos taken on walks near Hawthorne Valley Farm, but many of the trees are widespread in our region. How many of the trees can you recognize from their outlines before looking at the captions?

02 larch 3W5A0138


Larches are our only regional native conifer which is deciduous; that is, it loses its needles each winter. During this season, it’s easy to assume they’re a dead spruce. But keep an eye on them and you’ll see that clusters of bright green needles soon appear.


03 Red maple 3W5A0072

Red Maple

Since the time I took this photograph (6 April) and now (11 April), these flower buds have burst, producing Red Maple’s floral fireworks. The flowers are small but look for a grey tree now hazed with red and then inspect its branches closely – these are beautiful flowers when seen up close.


04 3W5A0228

Red Winged Blackbird

These birds bring a splash of visual color and plenty of auditory color. They arrived back a month or more ago. This one was calling from a snag close to a nearby wetland.


05 ash 3W5A9933


The stocky, opposite branches of ashes are easily noted in the canopy. Unfortunately, many of our regional ashes are dying because of the arrival of the Emerald Ash Borer. The trunks of such trees are often starkly obvious as woodpeckers strip the bark in apparent pursuit of the Borer or perhaps subsequent insect arrivals to the rotting wood.


06 oak 3W5A0015

Red Oak (or something close to that)

Oaks often keep their leaves in winter, providing a touch of brown tan to the grey of the forest.


07 populus 3W5A9980


The Aspen are in flower, and their long catkins are dangling down like tiny bedraggled socks. Slightly earlier in the year, Ruffed Grouse (one of which I think I heard near here this Spring) may have browsed in these branches.


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Grey Squirrel nest

Grey Squirrels sometimes make nests (aka dreys) out of twigs, leaves, moss and other materials. The nests serve both as nighttime quarters and nursery.


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Shagbark Hickory

Shagbark Hickories exhibit what botanists call ‘Gothic Branching’. Just kidding, but the branches of Shagbark often seem to form thought-provoking webs against the sky. This one may be showing some ‘witch’s brooms’ (that IS an official botanical term) – those oddly spaced clusters of dense branching. Such structures occur in a variety of trees and can come about for a range of reasons.


10 sumach 3W5A9904


Sea worms? These are the now-stripped stalks that once held the sumac’s reddish seed clusters.


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Red Cedar

Sun-growing Red Cedar quickly comes into old pastures, abetted by the fact that its sharp needles deter browsers. If the forest quickly grows around them, then they will often be shaded out, but Red Cedar on forest edges, such as this one, can grow long and large.


12 antenna 3W5A0041

Cell Tower

Rigid is the word that comes to mind.


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White Pine

One can almost hear the subtle swishing woosh that White Pine’s needles make in the wind. I haven’t yet found the audio guide to ‘tree calls’, but it could be useful.


14 alder 3W5A0006


Alders have the male flowers in supple catkins, while the female flowers are in woody cones.


15 nannyberry 3W5A0098


Purveyor of the Northwoods dates. Well, not really, but the dry, sweet fruit of this viburnum is reminiscent of true dates. It looks as if creatures or weather have already stripped this bush of its fruits.


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Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple has a lighter spray than Red Maple and doesn’t show Red Maple’s tiny pompoms of flower buds.


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Grey Squirrel in Elm

The squirrel may well have been feeding on this elm’s swelling flower buds.


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Grape Tangle

Unlike bittersweet, grape vines aren’t stranglers. Many are native. Nonetheless, they can form a heavy, shading load. The ecology of northeastern grape vines seems to be an understudied area of forest ecology.


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Willows end in wisps. Their flexible branches may help make them more resistant to damage from the floods that regularly hit their waterside haunts.


20 catalpa 3W5A0037


Catalpa’s dangling pods are distinctive (however, it’s not a legume). Originally a tree of the Deep South, it has been widely planted and can grow well north of its earlier range.




This appears to be a gangly, fast-growing elm. Although Dutch Elm disease killed many of our elms, they can still be common in various habitats, especially stream sides.


22 dead 3W5A0124

A rip, a river, a snag.

Hard to know what tree this was during life, but elm would seem to be a possibility.


23 ash 3W5A0109

Ash again.

The thick ash branches contrast with the fine whorls of seed stalks from which once hung this tree’s elongate samaras. Winter winds seem to have cleaned house.


24 spruce 3W5A0024

Red Maple and spruce

We have very few native spruce trees in the County; spruce’s densely packed needles are most often seen where they were planted in backyards, parks and the like.


25 Norway Spruce 3W5A9975

Norway Spruce

As the name suggests, Norway Spruce is not native (although Norway Pine is!). It is widely planted, and its Eeyore-like dropping branches are distinctive.


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Black Cherry.

Dogged. Black Cherry is another tree of young forests. Look for its dark, scaly bark. Its branches are sometimes marked with distinctive woody swellings of Black Knot fungus.


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Grey Birch

Grey Birch is the more winnowy cousin of White Birch. Grey Birches are common in our forests, especially in old field regrowth. Despite their name, their bark is quite whitish, but their stature and frequent clustering help identify them.


28 sumach 3W5A0117

Sumac again.

This sumac still has some of it dried fruits, producing a cluster of dancing seed heads in contrast to the earlier sea worms of its bare branches.

The forest will soon be turning green and the woody architecture will be hidden behind lively leaves. That will bring out new personalities in many of these trees.

29 landscape 3W5A9967




Posted by on April 11, 2019 in Uncategorized


Some Background History for the Hand Hollow State Forest.

This past Saturday we led a walk into the southern portion of the Hand Hollow State Forest in New Lebanon. In preparation for that, we did some quick historical research and created some background documentation. This post spices those documents with a few photographs from the site.

For more information on visiting this site, please see the following DEC web site:

Area Map

The Hand Hollow State Forest and surrounding public lands are located in the northeastern corner of Columbia County, in the town of New Lebanon, NY, not far from Berkshire County, Massachusetts and in the foothills of the Taconics.

01 Hand HollowThe Hand Hollow State Forest is part of a mosaic of conservation lands in this New Lebanon neighborhood (which was once called New Britain). The Columbia Land Conservancy’s Hand Hollow Conservation Area is to the west, the State Forest itself stretches both north and south of County Route 34, while to the east the Open Space Institute is holding lands earmarked for eventual inclusion in the State Forest.

For more on CLC’s Hand Hollow site, see their web site:

01b Hand HollowOn Saturday last, we walked south from the State Forest parking area north of route 34. The trail weaves its way to the pond, and follows an old public road for its southern half.

02 3W5A2733Between route 34 and Hollow Creek is a nice stand of old Hemlock. Judging by size (an admittedly risky criterion) some of these trees may well be over 200 years old. It seems unlikely that this area was ever completely opened, perhaps because it is so wet.

03 3W5A2754A bit farther along, the forest was heavily cut over in the early 2000s, but the rough topography and the presence of Yellow Birch and American Beech suggest that this part too was never completely opened for agriculture.

04 3W5A2767We soon hit the old public road, following its deeply worn, rock-bordered way.

05 Slide5This series of maps show our area starting about 1873 (a map from 1858 is largely similar). The red dot is the house foundation indicated in the second image of this series and located on the north side of what is now the open pond. Notice how the road and some of its connections fade to a dotted shadow and the historical wetland morphs to an open-water pond.

05c img003This and the next image are historical road pictures from the early 1890s in adjacent Berkshire County (both are from Picturesque Berkshire). They may give one an idea of what this road looked like. This picture shows a relatively well-kept, probably central road. Notice that the low rock ‘wall’ along the road is topped by a rail and cross posts fence, making it high enough to deter at least some animals.

05b img001This image may show something a bit closer to what the Hand Hollow road looked like – a somewhat rough and muddy track. The fence along this rock wall has apparently not been maintained.

06 3W5A2794This photo looks north along the ravine that drains the pond. Much of the late 19th century forest in this area was apparently along this untillable stretch.

07 3W5A2795The pond itself, with DEC’s handicap-accessible dock and a beaver excluder around the pond drain in the foreground. The pond appears to have been constructed in the 1960s from what was once an extensive wetland. This is a common fate of regional wetlands.

08 5 Slide2As background for what follows, it helps to quickly review forest history in Columbia County. As is true for much of the Northeast, opening for agriculture was widespread and peaked somewhere around 1875, when 70-80% of the County was open farmland.

Forest followed the reverse trajectory, bottoming out as farmland peaked, but then rebounding.

09 Slide3This aerial image from 1942, 50 years or more after maximum clearing, shows a landscape that might be about 50/50 farmland/forest. The purple lines show the approximate extent of the lands shown in the first map.

10 Slide4By 2017, farmland was the rare patch in a forest matrix.

11 Slide6According to an early map, the foundation north of the pond was the home of A. Spencer Hall. Based on census information, walls and guesswork, we have created this sketch of his farm around 1880. This would have been a wide-open landscape composed mostly of fields. The wetland was probably a meadow grazed or hayed as conditions allowed.

This map is somewhat speculative but more or less fits the census information we have. Taking the time to find and plot the original deed would probably increase its accuracy.

12 3W5A2802As one approaches the foundation from the northeast, the fact that one is walking through former fields becomes evident: flat ground surface, old-field White Pine and, although it’s somewhat hard to see here, an elevated plow terrace caused by years of plowing almost but not quite to the wall in the foreground.

13 3W5A2812Just before one arrives at the foundation, one reaches this tangle of Honeysuckle – the most evident reminder that this was once somebody’s backyard.

14 3W5A2816This is a sizable foundation with a stone-lined cellar. In the far corner, is a pile of bricks (a chimney?) while in the near corner a well hole seems to be attached to the house. Somebody familiar with the property told us that these and other bricks were made on-site. Judging by aerial imagery, the house probably disappeared in the third quarter of the 20th century.

14b 3W5A2845Just beyond the house is the crossroads where the two arms of the public road’s ‘Y’ meet. This photo looks northwest along the western arm.

15 3W5A2853Below the house, a ca. 5’ high stone bank supports the road, presumably helping to prevent it from eroding into the wetland. In this picture, one’s back is to the pond, and the road runs along the ground which is even with the top of the rocks.

17 Slide7Spencer Hall’s farm was, according to the census records, not a particularly small or poor one. It had twice the average acreage of its neighbors, nearly ten times the number of sheep, and was valued about 40% above that of its average neighbor (at ca. $172,000 in modern currency).

In 1880, he also had 2 oxen, 3 horses, 4 milk cows and 6 pigs, and raised, together with hired help, barley, buckwheat, corn, oats, rye, and potatoes. He also had a couple of acres of orchard and cut 10 cords of wood.

18 3W5A2856

This rock wall, running along the northeast edge of the modern pond, may have not only margined a field, but also indicated a property line. It may have separated hay meadow from neighboring woodlot.

Today, a walk through this landscape still reveals much evidence of the worked land that once was, although any rail and crossposts fence atop these rocks has now rotted away. We are privileged – the history of work on the land Area Mapis still quite evident in the landscape, it may well be more hidden in a century or so.




Posted by on February 12, 2019 in Uncategorized


Our New Old Fields in Three Acts.

The Line Storm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Habitat along a split rail fence – place for Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod.

Preconceptions are a challenge in historical ecology. After all, doesn’t the word ‘forest’ or ‘field’, even if written more than 150 years ago, conjure up some clear images in your mind? However, both culture and ecology can muddy this apparent clarity. The definition of a word can change with time and society. For example, medieval English references to ‘woods’ meant something other than what it does here and now. And even if there were general agreement on what was meant, changes in landscape ecology over time may mean that exact botanical equivalence is very unlikely.

The changing nature of our forests, while still only partially understood, has been widely described. Forest succession and other forms of forest change have been recognized and attempts made to document them. While not completely ignored by historical ecologists, the evolving identity of fields is less well understood and so is meat for further exploration.

This display, although far from comprehensive, asks ‘what did our 19th century fields look like botanically and zoologically?’ We will explore that question through illustrations and narratives appearing in 19th century books and will profile three organisms: Bobwhite Quail, Regal Fritillary, and Goldenrods (Goldenrods are actually several species which we won’t tease apart here).

In part, the motivation for this work is simple ‘natural historyitis’ – the affliction of some human beings for knowing what there is to know about the creatures and land around them, be that current ecologies or past lives. While not conclusively predictive, history can help us better understand an organisms’ current ecology and at least be alert to the potential outcomes of our intentional or unintentional interventions.

One final word – it is easy looking at these old books to imagine stodgy old men, bent over candle light, carefully turning their browned and brittle pages. This is, of course, far from true. These were once crisp, new, hot-off-the-press publications eagerly awaited by aspiring field naturalists. While it is true that not everybody was able to afford the more ornate works, the widespread interest from people who spent much of their lives surrounded by nature is demonstrated by the presence of economy editions meant to satisfy that market.

Listening for the Bobwhite.

The Bobwhite Quail was perhaps the flagship bird of 19th century fields. De Kay, in the same 1843 book that contains Hill’s illustration, wrote, that it “occurs in every part of the State, where it breeds and is a constant resident”; Edward Forbush, harkening back to a Massachusetts childhood during the second half of the 1800s noted, “During my boyhood the cheery, heartening call of the Quail was one of the most common and welcome sounds of spring and summer. The plowman resting his team gave ear to the gladdening sound and it mingled with the ring of the whetstone on the scythe.” Others spoke of Quail feeding with chickens in the barnyard. In fact, it was such a common character that its call, now transcribed as “More Wet, More Wet“, entered the lexicon of folk weather forecasting. Even in the early 1900s, it was described as a fairly common resident breeding bird of Columbia County.

Today it is rarely seen (or heard) and may effectively be extinct in New York State, with scattered sightings probably representing game farm escapees or releases. What happened? There may be no single answer. Instead, as is often the case, a maelstrom of factors may have caused its demise, these likely included the following:

  • The Decline and Sanitization of Farm Fields. These birds consumed the seeds of many openland weeds and grasses and also relied on insects, especially for their young. At the same time they needed nearby cover in the form of shrubby fencerows and edges. As year-around residents at the northern margin of their range, thick winter cover was especially important. Look at the farmland in the background of Hill’s painting or in Gibson’s A Corner of the Farm. Today, not only is the total extent of farm fields much less but few have the openland habitat diversity occasioned by premechanization haying, pasturing and fence cleaning. One author even placed some of the blame for the Bobwhite’s demise on the arrival of wire fencing and the evaporation of scraggly rock and rail fencing.
  • Weather and Reintroduction. There are many accounts of Bobwhite Quail being hit hard by severe winters, especially when ice followed snow and the birds, who apparently sheltered together on the ground, were entombed. Perhaps this was always a bird of more modest climes, which, in our region, only ventured away from the warmer coastal plain as upland farming spread. In this scenario, winter survival was perhaps always a crapshoot. However, human reintroduction attempts may have worsened this. By repeatedly reintroducing southern birds as northern birds declined, sportsmen may have brought in quail strains which were less well adapted to winter weather and thereby hastened the species’ regional demise.
  • Hunting/Trapping. There appears to be little doubt that harvesting heavily impacted this species. Edwin Kent, recollecting late-19th century life in Dutchess County, describes the Bobwhite’s near extirpation of from at least the southern portion of that county, and he attributes it largely to on-farm market trapping, which took advantage of the already-mentioned willingness of quail to enter the barnyard in search of late-season food. The bird’s social ways meant that multiple birds could be trapped at a time. Alexander Wilson, writing American Ornithology during the first decades of the 1800s, also recounts market trapping and describes the farmyard traps in detail. Shooting is also described as a major decimating factor, especially when hunters with dogs ‘cleaned up’ the few surviving birds after a hard winter.

From the Bobwhite’s perspective 19th century fields, at least during the first half of the century, seemed to have been a place of bounty. Relatively loose field management ensured both food and shelter, while abundant barnyards probably served as emergency food lots. Today, our incessant drive for efficiency and our relatively new-found mechanical prowess means what few fields are left tend to be much neater than their predecessors. Because of this (not to mention the booming house cat population), even were they to be re-introduced, Bobwhite would probably be hard-pressed to survive in our modern landscape.


Bobwhite Quail, two illustrations by J.W.Hill (from DeKay’s Zoology of New York, part II: Birds, 1843, and a reproduction of his 1867 Hanging Trophies from The New Path, 1985, Brooklyn Museum ). John William Hill was both an illustrator (perhaps most notably of several animal volumes in the Natural History of New York series), and, later, an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  The Natural History was a mammoth, multi-decade undertaking by New York State. It produced volumes not only on various plants and animals, but also on agriculture, paleontology and geology. While other states likewise produced their own natural histories, none were so grandiose.

Bobwhite Quail by William L. Baily (from Our Own Birds, published posthumously in 1863) I have found little information on William Baily. He was apparently a writer and artist who died young. Judging by the book’s preface, he seemed to feel that popular, inexpensive children’s books on nature were important. Strangely, a few examples of this small book have some finely-colored illustrations – hardly a cost-cutting addition.

A Corner of the Farm by William Gibson (from Pastoral Days, 1882). Gibson was a wondrous illustrator whose works are worth exploring. In his day, he was widely respected as an artist-naturalist. The theme of this small image is, according to the text, a backwoods tramp gunning for Bobwhite.

Hedge Removal in Game Survey of the North Central States by Aldo Leopold (1931). Although this is not a 19th century work, Leopold was witnessing some of the same trends in land use (e.g., intensification) and Bobwhite populations (downward) as his East-Coast colleagues had some decades earlier, albeit with tractors to now drive the process. Leopold went on to write one of the first textbooks on game management and various of his essays were collected in the posthumous Sand County Almanac.


Regal Fritillary in Print and Life.

At about the same time that Bobwhite were winking out in New York State, Regal Fritillary was also waning. It is difficult to know how common this butterfly ever was in our region. Many more youth ventured Bobwhite hunting or trapping than took the time to note the abundance of particular butterflies, as a result, our glimpse into the butterfly past gets foggier faster. Historical records of this species exist from throughout southeastern NYS, including Columbia County. Scudder, a great 19th century lepidopterist based in Boston, described it as ‘tolerably common’ in adjacent Berkshire County, MA.

The past of the Regal Fritillary is almost as mysterious as its present: it was reported to favor wet meadows and yet apparently relied on dry field plants; it was widespread and yet rarely common; and its abundance apparently fluctuated dramatically meaning that its presence was sporadic at best. Today, its range has retracted dramatically for reasons still unclear. Once found throughout much of the East Coast, it is now gone from all but one site in the region – a Pennsylvania National Guard training area. One of the last confirmed NY sightings was in 1975. Another subspecies is still moderately common in parts of the Midwest.

Such uncertainty might be more understandable (although not necessarily excusable) were the Regal Fritillary a small, inconspicuous creature, but, at least by butterfly standards, it is not. Indeed, it is one of our physically most impressive butterflies with its relatively large size and dramatic, contrasting markings. “Fine” is how several 19th century lepidopterists appreciatively described it.

Its apparently conflicting ties to both wet and dry habitats can perhaps be reconciled if one supposes that, at least late in the season, the adults sought nectar sources that can be especially abundant in wetter meadows while nonetheless requiring drier land plants for caterpillar food. As a species of tall-grass prairies and their eastern analogies, Regal Fritillary caterpillars consume violets and some of their favored species are those of dry fields. There also seems to be a connection to native bunch grasses such as Little Bluestem, perhaps because they provide important shelter for overwintering caterpillars.

The East Coast demise of this species may yet be shown to relate to some species-specific disease, parasite or pesticide sensitivity, but more likely it was the result of a more straightforward, yet equally challenging force – habitat loss. The sporadic occurrence mentioned earlier hints at a life history based upon wide mobility and taking advantage of conditions that are patchy in time and space. This worked, so long as a sufficient number of patches appeared often enough. However, as agriculture declined and industrialization gathered momentum in the East, the species eventually fell over a demographic cliff – those populations that winked out were not subsequently repopulated and that, in turn, further reduced the repopulation pool.

Native warm-season bunch grasses are typical of dry, low-productivity pastures and hayfields. These were among the first fields to be abandoned as agriculture shrank in the East Coast. Wet meadows have probably also declined, first due to beaver extirpation and then due to draining for agriculture or excavation for ponds. As a result, except in perhaps a few special circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Regal Fritillary will again return to our landscape.


Regal Fritillary by C.J. Maynard (from Butterflies of New England, 1886). This book includes, so far as I can tell, relatively basic, hand-colored engravings, long a staple of natural history illustration. A black and white plate was created and then painted according to the lead artist’s instructions. The results were as impressive as the care of the painter made them. These illustrations are effective but not stunning. This is not a critique – Maynard was a wide-ranging, self-taught naturalist who circulated largely outside of natural history’s higher echelons and his goal was apparently, in part, to produce something that was more or less widely accessible. More detailed and time-consuming hand coloring would have upped the book’s price.

Regal Fritillary (center and lower right, together with several other fritillaries) from Samuel Scudder’s The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada (1889). Samuel Scudder was one of the preeminent 19th century lepidopterists, and this was his life’s tome. To create the color illustrations for his three-volume masterwork, he resorted to technique that might be called the pinnacle of color lithography. These images were not hand painted, instead they were the result of an extremely precise, multi-stone printing process involving, in some cases, up to 15 separately colored and imprinted stones. The precise registry and multi-layer printing gives the illustrations almost a three-dimensional presence. So far as I know, Scudder’s work was the first our butterfly books to include range maps; his map for the Regal Fritillary shows it spreading from the Midwest, through Pennsylvania and into southern New York and New England. Compare that map to the species’ current distribution as reflected on inaturalist.

Regal Fritillary (center) and relatives from W.J. Holland’s The Butterfly Book (1898). This book was published just as color photography was entering popular publishing. Holland was an energetic individual who, aside from being a lepidopterist, was a priest, paleontologist, Chancellor of Carnegie University, and director of the Carnegie Museum. Somewhat like Maynard, but now armed with new technology, he set out to create an affordable, if weighty, butterfly field guide including photographically reproduced color illustrations. He succeeded. His book sold well, inspired many, and was reprinted numerous times. Even if the illustrations lack the vivacity of Scudders’ or the hand-made touch of Maynard’s, they did their work.


A Lively Account of the Regal Fritillary from John Henry Comstock and Anna Botsford Comstock’s How to Know the Butterflies (1904). While actually falling slightly outside of our 19th century purview, the account is almost assuredly based on 19th century observations. Note the reference to Goldenrod, the topic of the next section. Anna Botsford Comstock was a key mover and shaker in the Nature Studies Movement, a widespread and influential turn-of-the-century educational undertaking to promote the direct study of nature. The illustration accompanying this was a color specimen photograph similar to Holland’s; the book was dedicated to Scudder.

(For more on the 19th century world of North American lepidopterists, we would recommend Butterfly People, by William Leach, a spirited tale of that era’s ecology and society.)


From Road Crew to Field Crew.

Picture an ‘old field’. Likely as not your image includes a rough display of Blackberries and other brambles, Grey Dogwood, Multiflora Rose, Goldenrod and late-season asters. Yours is a rough and scruffy place that nonetheless produces ample wild flowers in the right seasons. It is probably an abandoned agricultural field of some sort – crop field, hay field or pasture – that has been left to its own devices for several years, perhaps even a decade or two. It is heading, faster or slower, towards forest.

Nineteenth century botanists did use the term ‘old field’, and it’s tempting to assume that they had the same conceptualization of it, but they apparently did not. To them, ‘old field’ seems to have meant something more akin to what we would call a fallow field. That is, a crop field that intentionally or not has laid fallow for a year or two, and sports an exuberance of crop field weeds. The long-abandoned farm field that we associate with ‘old fields’ was probably not a common component of the 19th century landscape, at least for its first 75 years or so. During that time, farmers were more likely to be opening new land rather forgetting old acres.

This does not mean that Goldenrod and its companions were not present in the landscape, but they were apparently largely elsewhere – lining roadsides and enveloping walls and wood fences (helping to provide, one might add, ample Bobwhite cover). The technology to mow (or spray) road edges or weed-whack fence lines was yet to come. Thus, ‘rough and scruff’ was more a habitat of edges than of whole fields. That said, hand-cut hay fields and lightly grazed pastures were no doubt more patchy than modern ones, and accounts do mention Goldenrod in some of those as well.

Solidago (Goldenrod’s scientific name) derived from Elizabeth Colden’s botanic manuscript in the British Museum, unpublished,1740s and 50s. Elizabeth Colden was the daughter Cadwallader Colden, a prominent colonial administrator and a some-time botanist. She began assembling (but never finished) a Flora of New York. She described and created uncolored pen & ink drawings of each species, sometimes including notes on use or habitat. She profiles several Goldenrod species. Many of her specimens probably came from around her family estate in Orange County.

Description of Goldenrod’s Medicinal Value, from Formulae for Making Tinctures, Infusions, Syrups, Wines, Mixtures, Pills, etc., published 1875 by Tilden and Company, New Lebanon. The Tilden Company, which evolved out of Shaker industries, used plants, both native and imported, as ingredients in one of the nation’s first large-scale pharmaceutical industries. Goldenrod was one of their ingredients. As they note, Goldenrods (there are several species) were common at that time but more strongly associated with fencerows than ‘old fields’.

Willow Leaved Golden Rod from Susan Fenimore Cooper’s Rural Hours, 1851. Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the author James Fenimore Cooper, wrote this journal describing the natural history and society around her home in Cooperstown. She was an acute observer and the pages are filled with intriguing natural history. This illustrated edition used the same lithographer who produced The Natural History of New York State series, and some of the same plates, including this one, appear in this work. Her 6 Sept entry notes that Goldenrods are “lining all the fences”.


Pictures of Roads from Picturesque Berkshire, 1893. Most 19th century photographs are of people or single buildings rather than landscapes. While this book contains its fair share of those, it also includes many photos of roadsides and fields. The landscape is late-19th century with wire beginning to replace rock walls and split rail fences, but the landscape still contains many earlier traces, and the photographs of roadsides on this page, although they do not clearly show Goldenrods, likely show where you could have found them. Note that both hayfield and pasture are rougher lands than their current incarnations and probably left more space for diversity.

Taken together, Bobwhite, Regal Fritillary and Goldenrod hint at a landscape that is both familiar and foreign. Bobwhites sheltered in thickets that no doubt look somewhat like those along certain of today’s back roads, only such tangles were more common. Regal Fritillaries glided above fields perhaps similar to those one can still find on a few drier hillsides, only such fields were more numerous. Goldenrods, perhaps as common today as in the 19th century, have become flags of modern “old fields”, and are perhaps now less common – although certainly not unseen – along our roadsides and farm field edges. We are, I believe, moving from a landscape of messy gradations towards one of either/or, from one of either forest or tidy farm field, lawn and development. Certain forest creatures have benefited from the wood’s return, and that is worth celebrating. Less encouraging is the neat control of our open areas. I wonder if, in another 50-100 years, field Goldenrods (there are also a few woodland species) won’t be rarer organisms, not, perhaps, gone the way of the Bobwhite and Regal Fritillary, but nonetheless fading into memory.



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Posted by on October 8, 2018 in Uncategorized


The Story of a Forest Stand.

Sorry to lead with a family snapshot, but there’s a story behind it. That’s me, around 1970, walking through the Red Pine plantation behind our house.

We moved to Canaan (NY) in 1970 and, as a young boy, one of my most vivid memories is of walking through a Red Pine plantation in the woods behind our house. The tall, straight, light-barked trees aligned in regular rows lorded over a clean and cushy covering of pine needles. The combination of surprising, all-encompassing symmetry and a feeling akin to walking on a water mattress made the experience other-worldly.

I did not at the time ask myself where that plantation came from nor where it might be going. Neither my parents nor I had any inkling of a ‘what should we do with it?’ sort of question. And yet, encapsulated in the history of that stand are the histories of many stands throughout the County and perhaps the region – the story of the forgotten tree plantation.


Land Classification Map from the 1941 “Columbia County Agricultural Survey”. The classification was apparently based on a tour of the County. Regions in “Land Class III and higher” were still in active, profitable farming; Land Class IIR was apparently borderline in terms of its farms; most farms in Land Class IR were abandoned or obviously declining. The green dot indicates the location of the Red Pine plantation mentioned in the text.


This map of the extent of agricultural decline across New York comes from Vaughan’s 1928, “Abandoned Farm Areas in New York”, Bulletin 490 of the Cornell Ag. Experiment Station. In most areas, the peak of farmland was around 1880.


Abandoned farmland reverts spontaneously to forest on a Gallatin (Columbia County) hillside in this 1935 image by Rogers McVaugh. Most of the County’s former farmland has returned to forest on its own.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, New York State land use visionaries, especially those in the eastern half of the State, had a quandary. For a variety of reasons (including the opening up of the fertile Midwest and a large-scale conversion to corn-based dairy), many former farm fields were being abandoned. For example, in 1925 it was estimated by Vaughan that New York had 4,500,000 acres less farmland than in 1880, the approximate peak of agricultural clearing. That amounted to about 15% of the State’s land cover, an area roughly equal to that of Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Dutchess, Ulster, Orange, Sullivan, Putnam and Rockland counties combined. In Columbia County alone, we estimate that improved farmland dropped by around 100,000 acres or more than 25% during the same period.

Reforestation was one way to fill this void. As Vaughan also put it, “The vast areas of idle land in the State are not only non-productive but they have a very depressing influence on agriculture and on the State as a whole…. In order that such land be kept from [unprofitable] agricultural production and still not remain idle and unproductive, reforestation has been suggested as the logical remedy.”

Perhaps inspired in part by German forestry, creating plantations became a focus of reforestation efforts. But what to plant? For several reasons, conifers seemed the logical answer: for example, White Pine was an eager old field volunteer, reflecting the ability of pines to grow on open land; pines tended to grow tall and straight in plantations; and the oft-erroneous vision of the primal pine forest perhaps helped to convince foresters of the long-term appropriateness and ease of growing such species. The State grew and planted millions of conifer seedlings. Between 1909 and 1952, over 790,000,000 trees were reportedly distributed. The vast majority of these were conifers, with White Pine, Red Pine, Scotch Pine and Norway Spruce prominent amongst them. Eventually, Red Pine was apparently favored over White Pine because it seemed more resistant to the pests and diseases that killed or, at least, distorted White Pine thereby reducing its timber value.


The distribution of seedlings as part of NYS reforestation efforts from the Atlas of Forestry of New York (1958?) by Neil Stout. A larger circle indicates a larger proportion of seedlings distributed.


European Larch is one conifer sometimes found in plantations. Unlike our other conifers, larch are completely deciduous and drop all of their needles every winter making them resemble dead snags.


Norway Spruce, a relatively common plantation tree, are distinguished by the characteristic drooping of the branches evident in this photo of an open-grown individual.


The White Pines lining this horizon could be those of a plantation, however, closer inspection would reveal that, in this case, they are probably old-field White Pine which spontaneously grew up in a former farm field. Both spontaneous and planted stands of White Pine are common in Columbia County.


Red Pine plantations can be identified by the red-barked trees evident in the first photo of this posting and the long needles grouped in clusters of two. Scotch Pine, another conifer sometimes found in our plantations, also has paired needles and red bark, but its needles are shorter and twisted.


Although pine plantations can be relatively low in diversity, some wildlife do like to use them for shelter, as evidenced by this string of deer beds.


While some of these plantations were on public land, many trees were distributed free to private land owners and plantations sprang up on farm fields throughout the region. However, as one prescient former DEC employee noted in 1959,

as every plantation owner knows (including the State of New York), with the trees in the ground the work has just begun. .. These plantations have got to be thinned out, just as you would thin out a row of radishes, if you want a good crop at harvesttime. … The problem – and it’s a very big one- is how to pay for these operations…. I can’t help wondering at times if reforestation, as an economic proposition, hasn’t been oversold, or at least misleadingly advertised to the general public. I’ve seen too many plantations, all over the Northeast, put in with a burst of enthusiasm, patriotism, and great expectations-and then left to take care of themselves when the time comes for somebody else to take care of them.

– Pieter W. Fosburgh, 1959, The Natural Thing: The Land and its Citizens.

Indeed, our landscape is now scattered with forgotten, decaying plantations. As the series of images below illustrate, my magical backyard Red Pine stand was no exception.


A 1942 aerial photograph, showing the future Red Pine plantation (circled) still as field.


In 1942 (above), the future location of that ‘home’ Red Pine stand was clearly open field, one of many in this well-worked landscape. Its microtopography suggests that, at least at some point, it was ploughed ground, not just hayfield or pasture.


By the time of this 1952 aerial, the plantation had been planted.


A landscape shot, probably from the early ’50s, with the young Red Pine plantation outlined.


By 1952 (above), however, the field had been planted to Red Pine, probably with funding from New York’s Forest Practice Act of 1946. The thick ‘head’ of trees suggest the seedlings had already been in the ground for a few years when that photograph was taken. An oblique view taken around the same time emphasizes how densely the trees were planted.

These trees continued to mature, and, by 1971 (below), they had formed a well-developed stand. The initial photo in this posting was taken at about this time.


A 1971 aerial of the stand at about the same time that the first photo of this posting was taken from within the stand.


In 1981, the plantation appears to have been generally intact, although a few holes are evident in the pine canopy.


A decade later (above), much of the stand was still intact, although holes had begun to appear. During the 1990s, a storm or storms tore apart the stand, breaking off many trunks. I don’t recall the exact meteorology but I do recall that, over a relatively short period of time, the stand collapsed, a startling glimpse of landscape mortality. By 1995 (below), most of the inner pines had evidently died, resulting in a configuration very similar to today’s.


A false-color image from 1995; the loss of mature trees from the core of the plantation is evident.


This 2017 image, taken during leaf-off, clearly shows that much of the former plantation is now composed of deciduous trees.


The mere ring of remaining pines in today’s stand (above) outlines a deciduous core. This too was a surprise to me. I had come think that pines begat pines, because their needles so acidified the soil as to rule out other sequences. However, if I were to have looked around me while walking through that 1970s stand, I should have grown suspicious – there were, in fact, no young Red Pines waiting to take their place in the slow-motion relay race of tree generations. Once the adult pines began to topple and light reached the ground, a flurry of deciduous trees started to stretch skyward. Today if one looks into the same stand where the initial photograph was taken (below), it requires imagination to believe it was ever a pine stand. True, a few incongruously tall and skinny Red Pines remain, but they are rapidly being enveloped by Sugar Maple and Black Cherry, together with lesser amounts American Beech, Red Maple, Hop Hornbeam, White and Red Oak, White Ash, and a couple of Hickory species.


A photo taken in the Red Pine plantation in early 2018. The main ingredient is no longer Red Pine, although a few of the edge trees are visible in the distance.


This should not have been a surprise. Red Pine is not a common tree in our area; McVaugh’s flora (digitized version courtesy of the NYS Museum), researched during the 1930s, described it as ‘rare’. It is a tree of dry sandy or gravelly soils, not of the loamy soils typical of our Canaan forest. As is true of many plants, that doesn’t mean that, given a head start as this plantation was, Red Pine can’t briefly prosper on a site, but it does mean that, without further human intervention, it will soon lose out to other species which are better able to persist. As a result, barring many new plantings, it is likely that Red Pine, despite its massive inoculation into our flora, will fade away over the coming decades. In fact, we are not sure we have ever found natural Red Pine in Columbia County, although, with a native species like Red Pine, distinguishing natural from planted is not always easy. Not all plantations are set in tidy rows that declare their origins. Aside from checking the soil beneath your feet (is it sandy/gravelly?), a glance at the ground cover may give a hint – according to Fergus (in Trees of New England: A Natural History), a plantation has the typical, pine-needles-only ground cover, whereas a natural stand will likely have populations of acid-tolerant plants such as Star-flower, Blueberry, and Canada Mayflower.

Many stand biographies similar to that outlined here likely exist in the County. We regularly come across fading plantations. They are bittersweet – on the one hand, a dilapidated plantation represents a plan and work that went unrealized; on the other hand, the determination of wild forest to dominate and slowly erase some of our handiwork is encouraging. The mixed forest that emerges will probably be home to a greater diversity of plants and animals than the mono-culture plantation.

And yet, we continue to use wood for paper, fuel and timber. Where should that wood come from?

While it is inconspicuous in some of the above aerials because of its deciduous trees, the plantation lot is bordered to the east by a much older forest that might help inform those questions (below). That adjacent stand had mature trees in the 1942 aerial, and its topography and botany suggest it was never completely cleared. A rocky creek runs through it, springing into being where a gentle dip in the field above it meets the forest land. This is an example of what we call ancient forest – forest that, while some of its individual trees were likely logged, was probably never completely cleared by humans.


A grove of mature trees is evident just to the east of the future location of the pine plantation in this 1942 image. That area remains in forest up to the present day.


A LiDAR image of the topography of the plantation and the adjacent forest. Note how the rocky stream bed ’emerges suddenly’ from the ploughed field north of it. Perhaps such a stream bed once wove all the way down the hillside but was erased by farming.


Looking up the rocky creek just east of the plantation; the ploughed field is visible in the background.

Ancient forests can contain relatively rare soil conditions and an unusual ground flora (although, to be honest, the narrow patch beside the plantation has few documented rarities). Although they are now embedded inconspicuously in a matrix of young, post-agricultural forest regrowth (below), such ancient forests deserve to be identified and given conservation preference. In our region, few if any ancient forest stands are primary or old growth forest, indeed many owe their persistence in the landscape to their role as farm woodlots. As such, some careful, continued use might be appropriate, although especial care should be taken to minimize soil disturbance and avoid the introduction of invasive species. However, the primary focus of wood production should be elsewhere in the landscape.


The greater landscape of the Red Pine plantation in 1942. Note the patches of mature forest (together with some evidently young forest).


The same landscape in 2015 – finding ancient forest fragments in such an extensively reforested landscape can be a challenge.


We believe that logging should be directed towards areas of post-agricultural regrowth and away from ancient forests and other ecologically sensitive areas. Today, plantation planting is relatively rare, and most timber management focuses on guiding natural regrowth. Managed timber stands are, by selective cutting, often shifted towards the production of high-quality Red Oak. Whether from plantation or managed stand, local timber production can help satisfy our demand for lumber and fuelwood, a demand that would otherwise require cutting elsewhere. However, this urge to be globally responsible (and, perhaps, to profit from our forests) should not be an excuse for ignoring the land’s history and ecology. In this context, I now regret that, while that Red Pine plantation was still healthy, we did not ask how it might be managed or harvested.

As illustrated by the story of this particular forest stand, we believe a community vision is needed for our land use. Without it, we can neither accomplish the local production that goes with being responsible for our own needs nor take the integrated, landscape-scale approach that is necessary for successful conservation. We cannot build the long-term commitment which forest management requires. The current composition of our landscape – its productive areas and conservation resources – is a largely accidental pattern, the product, in many cases, of individual hard work but not of an overall vision. There are important exceptions: the State and Federal governments make plans for the management of their lands and, to some extent, for their acquisition; some local municipalities having zoning statutes that reflect a basic vision of their communities; and land trusts like CLC and Scenic Hudson actively try to be strategic in the use of their resources relative to nature conservation, productive lands, and recreation. While such state and federal land purchases, land trust holdings, and zoning regulations all have an important role to play in shaping our landscape, the use of much land remains outside of the direct influence of these actions.

Alternatives exist for motivating (rather than enforcing) coordinated actions on private properties. For example, the New England Wildlands & Woodlands program, with its regional conservation partnerships (including one that encompasses Columbia County), seeks to encourage the formation of a regional vision and the orchestration of its fulfillment. More focused initiatives, such as the Bobolink Project, strive to link those physically capable of fulfilling a particular aspect of a vision (in this case, farmers managing grassland bird habitat) with those capable of incentivizing it. Such approaches may or may not have value here, but they illustrate the type of creative thinking and community-wide connections that could produce an effective approach.

The roughly 3.5 acres that encompassed both my magical childhood plantation and the adjacent area we came to realize was ancient forest are trivial in terms of their individual contribution to any larger vision as are my personal ties to the haunts of my youth. And yet, it may only be by gluing together actions across many such small lots and by helping individual land owners link their own memories and dreams with larger aspirations that we can assume greater responsibility for our own needs and for the conservation of the nature with whom we share this space.


Posted by on February 7, 2018 in Uncategorized


Book of the Year – 1907: Water Wonders

How can it be possible for such exquisitely beautiful jewelled crystals to fashion themselves in the vast spaces of the heavens, among the clouds!

Jean M. Thompson, Water Wonders Every Child Should Know (1907).

(photo by Wilson Bentley)

The most important and profoundly human act of exploration is not its execution, but its conception; it is the dream of knowing.

The turn of the 19th century brought landmark advancements in the science of technology – the study of electricity, of flight, of automobiles. One could be pardoned for thinking that natural history, that grand pursuit of the 1800s, had become passé. However, even if eclipsed in scientific headlines, the exploration of nature still occupied many and, in fact, had flourished, if not in the ‘lab’, then in the backyard and farmyard.

Water Wonders Every Child Should Know by Jean Thompson was part of the canon of the Nature Study Movement. A popular educational movement pioneered in the 1890s, it focused on insuring that, in the age of industrialization, children did not lose sight of the nature around them. The Every Child Should Know series, for example, included books on birds, trees, wild flowers, and earth & sky. The book’s subtitle, Little Studies of Dew, Frost, Snow, Ice and Rain, illustrates the movement’s emphasis on getting out and looking (i.e., exploring). Like Jean Thompson, many figures in this movement were women at a time when professional scientists were mainly men. The Movement would dwindle as the century progressed, but it helped make the popularization of science a respected calling.

What brings this book to the fore at this time of year is that it is illustrated with photographs by Wilson A. Bentley, a Vermont farmer also known as the Snowflake Man. Much of Water Wonders is devoted to the ‘games’ that water can play as it freezes in snowflakes, hoar frost and other ice formations, and Bentley’s black and white photographs provide clear, sometimes dazzling, examples of those patterns. Jean Thompson visited him several times in Jericho VT and his ideas apparently permeate much of the book.

He was a country bachelor, she was an affluent NYC divorcee, and the visits were something of a local scandal. She explicitly juxtaposes their two worlds as she invites the reader into the snowy landscape,

Most of us have given little time or very serious thought to the study of the snow, and the marvelous detail which goes to fashion the individual snow crystal. In fact, if we live in crowded city, we are inclined to look upon a heavy snowfall as something of a nuisance…impeding pedestrianism and traffic, and thoroughly undesirable until cleared away.

But once outside in the open country we are inclined to gaze forth upon the pure expanse of snow-covered hill and plain, resplendent and dazzling as it stretches afar under the pale winter sunshine, with a more kindly, tolerant mood…

The book is a call to scientific reverie, to the devotion of time and thought to snow, for she continues, “when you have … studied for yourself the marvellous phenomena and detail of snow-crystal formation, you will doubtless ever after.. in watching the fluttering, swirling flakes as they descend, exclaim: Oh, the wonder and mystery of it all!”

While Thompson does an inspiring job of invoking the mystery, Bentley spent much of his life actively wondering about snowflakes. He not only pioneered snowflake photography but, by keeping careful notes on climatic conditions, began to associate particular atmospheric conditions with the formation of certain types of snowflakes (see, for instance, his 1902 paper). Each of the snowflakes pictured in the book comes with a mini-biography. For example, one photo caption reads, “These snow crystals are the product of a very great storm, and they travelled a long distance before reaching the earth. They were generated in a very high frigid altitude. When these singular snow crystals descended they fell in parachute fashion, the larger section downward.” How Bentley and Thompson knew the details of this biography is unclear, but whether or not they were 100% correct, Bentley’s observations and the ‘thought experiments’ that attempted to make sense of them opened up a new world, and Thompson realized and expressed its poetry.

Both Bentley and Thompson were “non-scientists” who, in some ways, bypassed the profession to bring nature directly to their followers.  This was not always well-received by full-time scientists and the tension is exemplified by early critics of Bentley’s photographs. Bentley took care to select flakes and even to manipulate photographs so as to highlight the most beautiful and intricate patterns. When others tried to replicate his efforts, they found that the vast majority of flakes were not fine symmetrical “jewels” but rather broken or misshapen bodies, and they called foul. In some ways, both sides were right: rather than being a random selection of flakes, the images in Water Wonders are indeed a careful, aesthetically-shaped collection of rarities, as Thompson herself noted. However, while explorers like Bentley and Thompson did have a responsibility to make accurate observations, they also had a responsibility to ‘sing the praises’ of what they saw. If it weren’t for the selection process, the images would not have been as awe-inspiring and, it is likely, many fewer people would have ventured down that first, dreamy step of snowflake exploration.

Ideas on snowflake classification and formation have evolved since 1907, but, for the most part, they are extensions rather than refutations of the book’s ideas. Current understanding holds that a snowflake begins life as a nubbin of ice on a tiny airborne particle such as a bacteria. Because of temperature differences, the air in the ‘vast spaces’ of a cold cloud can hold more water than that in the immediate vicinity of a growing snow crystal. The result is that water vapor in the cloud begins to accumulate as ice on the starting nubbins. The structure of the water molecule itself determines the shape of the initial base (a hexagonal plate), but the pattern of any individual crystal’s growth is the product of temperature, humidity and history. If the air is very dry and/or cold, for instance, the snowflake will likely fall to earth as a hexagonal plate or tube. If, on the other hand, the air is humid and only moderately cold, each of the six corners will begins to sprout a feather-like arm. As a flake travels through the clouds, it may well enter different temperature and humidity zones, each of which will cause the crystal to grow in new ways. Thawing and re-freezing may occur, and ‘rough seas’ may break flakes or glue them together. The huge diversity of snowflakes occurs because it is very unlikely that any two flakes will share exactly the same biographies during their trip to the ground.

When Jean Thompson and Wilson Bentley looked up at a snow-filled sky, they may not have seen all of this, but they saw much of it. However, exactly what they knew is, in some ways, less important than what they dared to imagine. That combination of observation and imagination, of rock and dream, is at the heart of exploration by young and old. It is as an embodiment of that, as a book eloquently beckoning children to walk into the mind of a true explorer, that Water Wonders is our nomination for Book of the Year 1907.


Interested in more information? Here are some likely leads:
The Nature Study Movement by Kevin Armitage, a thought-provoking book well worth reading.
The Snowflake Man by Duncan Blanchard, I’ve not read the book, but the author’s essays in the Snow Crystals newsletter are enjoyable (see especially vol. 14, the article “Jean Thompson in Jericho” for more on the scandalous visits).
For kids, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian is inspirational – in fact, this blog posting was written because Martin and Azarian’s book inspired a young boy to create a gingerbread house honoring Snowflake Bentley.
I had difficulty finding a ‘one-stop shop’ for modern snowflake information. However, Kenneth Libbrecht’s page is a great place to start. This video, while more about snow in general, is certainly a fitting, enjoyable evocation.
Aside from the first snowflake, the photographs here are our own. Advances in cameras and lenses have now made it possible to photograph ‘wild’ snowflakes. There are worse things that one can do than spending a snowy day hunting for freshly fallen snowflakes trapped in spider webs or feathery seed heads!

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Posted by on December 28, 2017 in Uncategorized


A Belated Labor Day Posting – 1893/2017

This was meant to be a short Facebook posting for Labor Day 2017. Unfortunately, I was … err… working on Labor Day (fieldwork – got to ‘make hay while the sun shines’) and the blog rather outgrew the Facebook format. It remains a bit shallow for a true blog, but here it is!

Columbia County Shoe Salesman from


Happy Labor Day – 1893.

In 1893, the celebration of Labor Day in New York was barely a decade old. We happened to stumble across the County’s labor statistics for that year and so now, 124 years later, in belated honor of Labor Day 2017, we present a brief glimpse of the County’s labor profile at that time.

As background, in 1890 the County had a censused population of about 45,557, with 51% women and 49% men. The workforce, having begun the century with a large majority of people working in agriculture, was now shifting more towards employment in manufacturing and services/retail. Although I don’t know how it played out in the County, ‘The Panic of 1893′ was a period of significant economic decline, with national business output estimated to have dropped about as much as during the Great Depression of the 1920s.

Employees of the Kinderhook Knitting Mill, from

The County’s 1893 employment profile contains some intriguing tidbits – Hudson had one billiard room keeper, a Canadian in his forties; Copake had one gardener, an Irishman in his 50s; and one harness maker, a Dane in his 30s. Out of New Lebanon’s 187 farmers, only one was Afro-American and two were women. The entire County had two professional actors, one American man and one English woman, but eight professional photographers. There were more watchmen (18) than policemen (11). The county employed 61 cigar makers and three professional “billposters” but only one butler, one piano maker, one trapper, one lighthouse keeper, one gunsmith, one iron miner (a Swiss), one frescoer (a German) and one button maker (a woman).

Of the 14,541 people reporting their occupations, about half were either farmers or “laborers”, split almost equally between those two occupations. Each remaining profession accounted for less than 5% of the total work force. About quarter of all jobs could be described as some type of manufacturing (not including “laborers”), roughly 15% were in retail and services, 4% appeared to work as home/garden help of some sort, while a bit over 3% had jobs relating to transport (e.g., RR, shipping or other cargo movement). Teachers accounted for 1.4% of the jobs, and today’s ‘healthcare workers’ (i.e., physicians, druggists, dentists and nurses) totaled just over 1% of the workforce.

Only 14% of the official workforce were women, although they slightly exceeded men in the total population. (Obviously, many women were working very hard at tasks that were not, at that time, considered in tallies of labor statistics.) Women were, not surprisingly, unevenly distributed across the official professions. All reported dressmakers, milliners (aka maker and/or seller of women’s hats), seamstresses, and housekeepers were female, along with more than 99% of the domestics. Together, these jobs accounted for more than 40% of the women in the official workforce. Women also predominated in the professions of shirtmaker, cook, nurse, laundry worker, looper (a role in the manufacture of clothing), waiter, boarding house keeper, and teacher. However, several of the most common jobs were shared, at least in coarse categorization, with men. These included the well-populated jobs of machinery/equipment operator and mill employee. While women were not the majority, they were commonly working as artists (albeit only 15 people in the County listed themselves as professional artists), weavers, students, tailors, and telegraph operators. Finally, there were a few professions were men dominated, but women did appear, such as bookkeepers and clerks, bakers, merchants, farmers (out of 3290 farmers in the County, 70 were women). There was also one female physician and one female lawyer. The most common all-male jobs were “laborer”, carpenter, railroad worker, painter, blacksmith, butcher, teamster (e.g. ox driver), and mason, in that order. There were at least 45 other somewhat common professions which were also male-only.

Dutchess County farm workers, from & Historic Red Hook.


In terms of race, respondents were tallied as either “white” or “colored”. I believe most or all of the 344 “colored” people were Afro-Americans, although I am unsure how some other ethnicities would have been recorded. Chinese people were, apparently, considered “white”. The most common jobs for “colored” men were, in decreasing order, laborer (accounting for two thirds of all “colored” males in the workforce), butcher, farmer, hostler (one who took care of horses, often at inns), coachman, waiter, porter, cook and barber (of which there were five). “Colored” people were absent from most remaining professions, although they were also recorded in such jobs as clergyman, papermaker, fruit grower, carpenter and builder. “Colored” women were mostly employed as domestics, with a few also working as cooks, laundry women, housekeepers, and waiters.

Jobs also differed among nationalities. A total of around 2,350 respondents were not American citizens. The most common foreign nationalities were, in order, Irish, German and English, accounting for more than 80% of the non-native workers. Poles, Canadians, Russians, Scots, French, Swedes and Italians rounded out the top 10 nationalities. (Today, Germany, Jamaica and Poland are the County’s most common non-US countries of birth in the full population.) The most likely jobs differed somewhat amongst nationalities. For all except the Russians, laborer was the most common job; peddler was the most common Russian profession (followed by laborer). Farmer was often the second most likely job, although there were no Russian, Polish or Italian farmers recorded. In some cases, certain jobs seemed especially common for specific nationalities. These included Russian tailors; Irish cooks, policemen, saloonkeepers, and furnacemen; Chinese laundry workers (which was the only job recorded for Chinese men in the County); Polish mill operators; German bakers, butchers, shoemakers, and tailors; French wood choppers; and English spinners and brewers.


Comparative pie graphs of workforce composition. 1893 data is from the Eleventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the State of New York (1894) and 2011 data is from U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

I have not had time to do a detailed comparison with the modern workforce, but in 2011, the total workforce in the County was 32,161 (out of a population of about 62,000). As shown in the pie charts above, times have changed. For example, in 2011, only 3% of workers were in farming, while in 1893 that number was probably closer to one third (exact values are difficult to determine because “laborer” likely included jobs in both agriculture and manufacturing – in the figure I split laborers half/half between these two categories). Manufacturing likewise was substantially more important in 1893. Conversely, health care, which accounts for about 15% of the workforce today, officially made up only a bit over 1% in 1893. Government and retail jobs also seem noticeably more common today (although “government” is underestimated in my 1893 tally – I could not determine all the jobs which were governmental). The sex ratio of the officially surveyed workforce is much more equal today with about 52% male and 48% female.

We made the graph below several years ago from a slightly different data set, but, in closing, I think it serves to put the historical and modern data in general perspective. In 1893, as for almost the entire period between 1850 and 1950, the official County workforce was roughly equally divided between agriculture, manufacturing and retail/services (i.e., many of the remaining professions). Today, retail/services (including healthcare and civil service) predominates. This may make us less self-sufficient as a society, but may mean greater social care (e.g., health, fire, police and other such services) and, perhaps, greater buffering from local or regional impacts on food or production. It would be interesting to compare this graph to that of so-called ‘developing countries’ which are transitioning economically. But that is definitely beyond the scope of this posting!

A rough illustration of the composition of the Columbia County workforce over time from state and federal census data. Various assumptions are made in classifying historic jobs, but general patterns should be more or less accurate.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Uncategorized


Columbia County Moths

 gr moth


At this time of year we have the opportunity to observe moths not only at our porch lights, but at flowers as well. A number of moths, including the American Ear Moth (Amphipoea americana) shown above, extract nectar from flowers in the light of day. However, most moth species await dusk or dark to come out from their resting places. Nectaring is not a behavior of all moth species. Some, like the famous Luna Moth (Actias luna) and other Giant Silkworm Moths, do not feed at all as adults and therefor have short lives. In Columbia County, we have just a brief period in spring where we may see the week-long-lived Luna Moth at rest in the forest, or by a porch light. Moths’ attraction to light is a bit of a mystery, but it may relate to their use of the moon for orientation. In any case, this attraction has allowed us to study Columbia County moths by using specialized lights to attract a great diversity of them.



A Luna Moth seen June 2nd, 2016 in Austerlitz, N.Y



The Moth Tally

One would think that tallying the species of moths in a rural county in upstate New York would be a feasible task. Columbia County is about 650 square miles of land, largely composed of Oak-Hickory and Northern Hardwood (with hemlock and/or pine) forest types. Yes, there are swamps, rocky barrens, shrublands, meadows, farmland and various other habitats; and elevation ranges from about 10 ft. by the Hudson River to over 2,000 ft. at Harvey Mountain; but, it’s just another rural county in upstate New York. How many moth species can this place have?

Well, after two years of simply observing or conducting official moth surveys; asking my girlfriend to spend many a Friday night in the woods or by the house beside a moth light; the answer is that I have no idea. For now, our number is about 560 species of moths in the county (determined with the help of other accredited observers), but give it a week or two, and we may have 600 or more. Nearly every time out mothing, whether it’s a place I have surveyed before or not, I find one, two, or ten new species for our list. With no end to the tally in sight given the continued occurrence of many new species on each outing, I’m excited to see just how big this list will get and what the next survey will bring in.



A starlit moth survey at an Ancram, N.Y. meadow


Being that moths are a very diverse group of insects, it’s no surprise that we apparently are far from determining their diversity in our county. Both moths and butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, the second largest insect order. There are about 13,000 species of Lepidoptera in the United States, with roughly 5,000 of them residing east of the Mississippi. New York has a long history of studying moths. In 1916, there were 2,304 documented species of moths statewide. The species list was the work of many observers, including entomologists Edward Doubleday, Augustus R. Grote, and Joseph Lintner, all who made considerable contributions to our knowledge of the state’s Lepidoptera; some 26 other observers throughout the state also contributed. A later estimate put the number at about 3,300 species statewide. Neighboring New York, John Himmelman, author of Discovering Moths, notes Connecticut as having about 2,300 species of moths.

To get an idea of what our total moth diversity might be in Columbia County, we can look at the results of some moth studies from smaller regions. Work at the 318 acre Hunt-Parker Sanctuary in Westchester County, N.Y. documented 450 species of moths from 2002 to 2005. Another study in several northwest Vermont counties used surveying as well as historical records and collections to assess moth diversity. They documented nearly 1,700 species.

Perhaps the most comparable assessment took place in the Ashokan region (the town of Olive, N.Y.) of the Catskill Mountains. The study took place over the course of three summers, from the spring of 1992 to fall of 1994. Instead of looking at the diversity of all moths, the study focused on the Sphinx Moth (Sphingidae) and Owlet Moth (Noctuidae) families. The region is quite close to Columbia County, about 20 miles south west. Elevation there ranges from about 700 ft. to 3,000 ft.; it hosts a large portion of the Ashokan Resevior, but otherwise is well forested with mixed development. The area is about a tenth the size of Columbia County. These researchers documented 358 Owlet Moth species compared to the 146 we have seen in Columbia County. If we make the assumptions that they saw all of the Owlet Moths present, that we have as many such species here in Columbia County, and that the ratio of Owlet Moths to non-Owlet Moths is constant, then we can roughly estimate Columbia County moth diversity at about 1,350 species. That number may be too high, as the Ashokan region hosts a variety of rare plants and has high elevation ecoregions that are absent here. Both of these characteristics may enhance moth diversity. However, that estimate could also be too low, because our study area is 10 times that of the Ashokan region. Either way, it gives us a ball park figure and suggests that we are not even half way there in assessing Columbia County moth diversity.

One difficult aspect of determining moth diversity anywhere is the much overlooked very small moths, called micromoths. Also known as microlepidoptera, these specimens represent a majority of moth species in the United States. The caterpillars of these small moths are unlikely to be seen by the human eye as most are endophagus (they bore into, or are hatched within, a plant’s stem, wood, fruit or leaves); some even feed on dead animals, fungi, or parasitize other insects; others are aquatic, feeding on algae in streams or waterlily in ponds and lakes. Because of their small size, there is relatively little known about micromoths. There may be undescribed species of them here in New York State, or even within Columbia County. We have seen a great number of these small creatures during our surveys, and we do our best to document them, but, even with the help of macro photography, it seems impossible to identify many of them due to their size and the limited identification resources.


This micromoth, the Orange-headed Epicallima (Epicallima argenticinctella), is about 6mm in length. Its caterpillars can be found under the bark of elm trees


I have to admit, before I was introduced to mothing by wildlife biologist Conrad Vispo, I knew of three types of moths: the Luna Moth, the clothes moths (the ones you fend off with moths balls) and the ‘none of the above’, which were, in my mind, all gray and nondescript. It took only a survey for me to discover their beauty and diversity. There are endless colors, shapes, and textures; although all moths are covered by scales (Lepidoptera is Latin for “scale wing”), some appear to be fury while others are smooth and glossy. Some moths have patterns that are so artistic and unique that it is hard to imagine the evolutionary paths that made them. Our program has done some mothing with students, and they have made up their own names for some species we’ve seen, including the “Dragon Moth”, the “Jet Fighter”, and the “Strawberry-lemonade Moth”.



The strawberry-lemonade themed Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) is common in Columbia County and can be seen in May and June



The County’s Rare Moths

There are moth species that we see in great abundances during our surveys, like the Tent Caterpillar Moth (Malacosoma sp.; there are in fact two species in our region) and the Common Idia (Idea aemula), whose caterpillars feed on dead leaves. On the other hand, there are rare moths here as well. A moth may be rare because their larval host plant is uncommon. In the case of the Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria), an uncommon moth here, their host plants, Gooseberry and Currant, were deliberately removed from our landscape during the early 20th century. These plants were a threat to lumber production because they were an intermediate host of a disease that affected White Pine, a once economically important tree in Columbia County. Other factors, such as environmental pressures caused by pesticides, light pollution, development, invasive species, or deer herbivory, may negatively affect a moth species and contribute to its rarity. A third possibility is that a moth species is simply difficult to survey for and is therefore seldom noticed. For example, I have seen a number of Tomato Hornworm caterpillars in our garden, but I have never seen its adult form (the Five-spotted Sphinx Moth), even though I survey for moths around my home regularly.

Below are a few examples of Columbia County’s rare moths. In our many surveys, we have seen these species just once.


finned proinent.jpg

The Finned-willow Prominent (Notodonta scitipennis) is uncommon both locally and throughout its range. Its larvae feed on Poplar and Willow. Although these plants are certainly abundant in parts of Columbia County, it remains to be a rare moth. Seen in Claverack, N.Y.



barred granite

The Barred Granite is not a regular sight in Columbia County. The moth flies for just one month. Their caterpillars are specialized and feed only on Gooseberry and Currant. Seen in Austerlitz, N.Y.




The wildly patterned Glorious Habrosyne (Habrosyne gloriosa) is uncommon throughout its range. What their caterpillars feed on is not known to science, but Rubus species, including Blackberry and Raspberry, are likely. Seen in Austerlitz, N.Y.




The Sphinx Moths

Sphingidae, commonly referred to as Sphinx Moths, is just one of many moth families; their species in our region represent only a small fraction (less than 4%) of our moth diversity. However, Sphinx Moths are conspicuous creatures. They are large, often strikingly colored or shaped; many species nectar from flowers and are able to hover in place, giving them common names like “hawk moths” and “hummingbird moths”. There are diurnal, crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) and nocturnal species in our region. At 1,400 species worldwide, they are one of the best studied groups of insects in the world, partly due to their large size. In the northeastern U.S., there are nearly 40 Sphinx Moth species, of which we’ve documented 20 in Columbia County; with three subfamilies, two of them—commonly referred to as the Large Sphinx Moths (Sphinginae) and the Small Sphinx Moths (Macroglossinae)—are regular visitors to tubular flowers and can be seen nectaring during the day or at dusk. A third subfamily in our region, the Eyed Sphinx Moths (Smerinthinae), have scalloped wings and robust bodies; on their hind wings, most species have blue-filled circular spots resembling eyes.



The diurnal Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), of the Macroglossinae subfamily, nectars at a Monarda flower



A Laurel Sphinx (Sphinx kalmia), of the Sphinginae subfamily, rests on goldenrod




A Modest Sphinx (Pachysphinx modesta), of the subfamily Smerinthinae, shows its eye-like spots


Members of this group host the longest probosces (a tubular mouthpart used for feeding) of any moth or butterfly in the world. In 1862, after observing Madagascar’s large Star Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedal), Charles Darwin wrote, “In Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches”. Darwin’s prediction was verified some 20 years after his death, when a very large Sphinx Moth, Xanthopan morganii praedicta (sometimes referred to as Darwin’s Moth), was discovered in Madagascar; it had a foot-long proboscis that pollinated the orchid’s lengthy nectar spur. The interaction between this strange orchid and its unique pollinator has become a classic example of coevolution; both specimens have reciprocally affected each other’s evolution and now rely on one another to survive.

Although there are no Sphinx Moths in our region that could pollinate such a flower, I have seen a Pawpaw Sphinx (Dolba hyloeus) in Austerlitz, N.Y. nectaring with a roughly 40mm long proboscis; impressive, but hardly comparable to that of Darwin’s moth.



The nocturnal Xanthopan morganii of Madagascar uses its 12-14 inch proboscis to feed from the lengthy nectar spur of a Star Orchid



Attracting Sphinx Moths

A great way to attract certain Sphinx Moths is by providing their sought-after flowers in your garden or around your home. In my experience, the hands-down favorite native flower of a number of Sphinx Moths is Monarda fistula, commonly called Wild Bergamot, or Bee Balm. It’s native to every state in the contiguous U.S. except California and Florida, and the flower is also a favorite of many butterflies and other pollinators. The plant seems to prefer well-drained soils and a good amount of sun. If conditions are right and there is a good pulse of flowering, these Monarda patches can be incredibly active with Lepidopterans, including Sphinx Moths; depending on the species, one can observe them nectaring during the day or at dusk. Sphinx Moths like the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hyles thysbe), Snowberry Clearwing and Gallium Sphinx (Hyles gallii) will frequently visit Monarda in daylight hours. Other species, including the Pawpaw Sphinx (Dolba hyloeus), the Laurel Sphinx, and other large and small Sphinx Moths, can be seen nectaring these flowers at dusk. Small amounts of fresh manure will also attract some Sphinx Moths; they will consume liquids from the manure and extract the salts and amino acids.

hyles gallii.jpg

An Ancram, N.Y. Gallium Sphinx at a Monarda flower nectaring



This Nessus Sphinx (Amphion floridensis) is extracting nutrients from manure at Hawthorne Valley Farm



Sphingidae Conservation

Entomologists who have been studying and observing moths for decades in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada unanimously agree that populations of the large-sized moths, including Sphinx and Giant Silkworm Moths, are collapsing. Species once present or even abundant just decades ago are now reduced or even absent from locales observed. There are various pressures that collectively are causing this decline, such as excessive deer drowsing, habitat destruction, climate change, light pollution, reduction of early successional habitats and other anthropogenic influences.

The decline of Sphinx and Giant Silkworm Moths has been occurring for a long time in the Northeast. In 1906, decades after the invasion of the nonnative and destructive (responsible for mass tree defoliation/mortality) Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar), a parasitic Tachinid fly native to Europe was intentionally introduced in our region. This fly then parasitized caterpillars not only of this invasive species of moth, but of a great number of native moth species as well. Because the Gypsy Moth’s caterpillars occur in forests for just a short while, during the remainder of the year the fly must seek out other caterpillar species to parasitize. Lepidopterists (those that study moths and butterflies) in our region from the 1950s to the 1970s witnessed firsthand the rapid decline of Giant Silkworm Moths and a number of species of Sphinx Moths due to this introduced parasitic fly.

In the 1920s and 30s, Columbia County was on the ‘front-line’ of Gypsy Moth control, many 1000s of pounds of insecticides were sprayed in hopes of managing Gypsy Moth populations. More recently, in the past couple decades, millions of acres of eastern forests have been aerially sprayed with insecticides to suppress Gypsy Moth outbreaks. Because these chemicals specifically affect Lepidoptera larvae, this spraying has had lethal impacts on various species of moth and butterfly caterpillars and is a serious threat to rare Lepidoptera in our region.



An Austerlitz, N.Y. Gypsy Moth



We can get a glimpse of historical moth abundances by looking at old insect collections. The Farmscape Ecology Program was donated some preserved moths collected from Columbia County in the 1950s. There are several species in the collection that we have not seen here, not in my two years nor during Conrad Vispo’s previous surveying for moths. Two online resources that verify public reports of Lepidoptera sightings also have no reports of these moths in the county. These species include the Tulip-tree Silkworm (Callosamia angulifera), the Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja), and the White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata). How common these moths were in Columbia County some 60 years ago is not known, but it’s a fair assumption that their populations here have either been extirpated or significantly reduced.

The most common Sphinx Moth in our Columbia County surveys by a long shot has been the Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa). It’s a very large moth (wingspan to 110mm) and has waved markings and some yellow scales throughout its body if you look closely. Their larvae feed primarily on ash trees, which face certain decline as the recently introduced Emerald Ash Borer infects a higher percentage of ash in our state each year. Although ash makes up only 6-7% of Columbia County’s trees, they are much depended on by a number of Sphinx Moths found in the county, including the Waved Sphinx, the Laurel Sphinx, the Twin-spotted Sphinx (Smerinthus jamaicensis), and other Sphinx Moths that may or may not reside here. There is an uncertain future for these moths in Columbia County.



A Waved Sphinx caterpillar and adult


Columbia County, like in much of our region, has a deer problem. Whether in forests, meadows, or un-fenced gardens, it is clear that nearly everything in their reach is being browsed. This browsing is another threat to Columbia County Sphinx Moths, specifically to the Hemaris species, including the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing. Although we see the diurnal adult clearwing moths nectaring at flowers, their caterpillars are dependent upon various woody and herbaceous plants of forests and meadows, including Viburnum, Honeysuckle (possibly native and non-native varieties), Hawthorn, and Dogbane. These are all relatively small plants. Because their larval host plants are generally low and easily reached by deer, the Hemaris larvae are more affected by these herbivores than larvae that rely on leaves of trees or taller shrubs.

When a larva’s food plant is stunted or killed by widespread herbivory, or anything for that matter, it reduces or removes a vital resource of that species, preventing the completion their life cycle. A Lepidopteran cannot successfully reproduce without access to its larval food plant, which then must sustain the caterpillar until metamorphosis; only as adults can they reproduce. It is hard to say the degree to which deer herbivory in Columbia County, which does seem excessive in certain habitats, is affecting our resident clearwing Sphinx Moths or other Lepidopterans that rely on low plants frequently browsed by deer. NatureServe, a network that assesses the conservation needs of western hemisphere species, notes that deer herbivory when in excess is a serious threat to both the Hummingbird and Snowberry Clearwing. The organization reports other pervasive threats, including herbicides and invasive plants that reduce the abundance of Viburnums and other larvae food plants relied on by these species.



A Hummingbird Clearwing unfurls its proboscis for feeding


If you are interested in learning more about Columbia County moths, visit our webpage for a photographic list that we are frequently adding to. We would greatly appreciate hearing from any readers in our region who would like to share historical observations or collections (not for our keeping of course) of moths or butterflies from our area. Additionally, if you have any current observations that you’d like to share, or any questions, please contact me ( Below, I have listed some moth field guides for our region that are relatively inexpensive and are great resources for species identification and further reading.



Works Consulted

Ardetti, J., Elliott, J., Kitching, I.J. & Wasserthal, L.T. (2012). ‘Good Heavens what insect can suck it’ – Charles Darwin, Angraecum sesquipedale and Xanthopan morganii praedicta. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. 169 403-42.

New York Department of Environmental Conservation. New York State Ash (Fraxinus spp.) Distribution: Percentage of Ash per Basal Area per County [Map]. <; (accessed August 13, 2016).

Himmelman, J. (2002). Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard. Camden: Down East Books.

Kawahara, A.Y., Mignault, A.A., Regier, J.C., Kitching, I.J., Mitter, C. (2009). Phylogeny and Biogeography of Hawkmoths (Lepidoptera: Sphingidae): Evidence from Five Nuclear Genes. PloS One,. 4(5), e5719.

Schweitzer, D.F., Minno, M.C., Wagner, D.L. (2011). Rare, Declining, and Poorly Known Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera) of Forests and Woodlands in the Eastern United States. U.S. Forest Service, Forest Health Technology Enterprise Team, FHTET-2011-01.

Vispo, C.R. (2014). The Nature of the Place. Hillsdale: Adonis Press.

Wagner, D.L. (2005). Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wagner, D.L. (2012). Moth Decline in Northeastern United States. News of the Lepidopterist’s Society, 54(2), 52-56.


Moth and Caterpillar Guide Books for Our Region


Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America

This guide book by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie is an excellent resource for getting to know moths. It includes additional information for each species, including range, if it’s common or uncommon, and the larval food plant.

Caterpillars of Eastern North American

David L. Wagner’s caterpillar guide is an essential tool if you’re hoping to identify caterpillars you see in our region. If you know what kind of plant the caterpillar was on, this guide’s food plant index makes identification very easy.


Additional Online Resources



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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Uncategorized


The Merry Dancers

Church Aurora

Aurora Borealis (1865) by Frederic Church. While Church apparently based this image in part on the notes and sketches from an Arctic-exploring friend, he likely witnessed the aurora personally at times as well, perhaps even from the land around Olana. While a straightforward landscape depiction at one level, this painting is also believed to present an allegory for the culmination of the Civil War. Courtesy Wikipedia and Smithsonian Institution. Image in the public domain (


PLEASE NOTE: There are three different ways that you can read this blog. First, read ye olde paper copy – go out and buy the Columbia Paper, and read it as our end-of-year “Perspectives on Place” contribution; second, you can read the digital narrative below and ignore the footnotes, thereby getting the gist of it all, and saving yourself the mind-twisting details (it is a holiday after all!); lastly, if you want to be hard core and take advantage of the ‘added content’, then explore the links to the footnotes – they’ll take you a level deeper into understanding our shifting aurora, watch out for the geomagnetical quicksand. However you do it, we hope you enjoy it!



On February 19th, 1831, at around 8:30pm, somebody, possibly Principal J.W. Fairchild, stood looking at the night sky from near the Hudson Academy atop Prospect Hill. A half moon hung in the dark. Notebook in hand, our observer was aurora watching, and tonight he was not to be disappointed:Brilliant…in the west and south west, shooting up in spangles towards the zenith, very much like the process of crystallization beneath the solar microscope. These consistently faded, and were succeeded by others in different lines, exhibiting at times most of the colors of the rainbow. About half-past 9, similar appearances were seen in the east and south east, meeting those mentioned at the centre above, and forming an illuminated dome of spars and spangles, the most brilliant and beautiful ever beheld.”1

On that same night, others were also peering upwards. Near Kinderhook, the aurora (aka Northern Lights) was uncommonly beautiful streaks of light. At Albany, columns were observed shooting up to the zenith from the whole northern hemisphere”. In New York City, the aurora began to be visible around 9PM, and was “peculiarly interesting… Some of the eastern coruscations were at times transiently curved, as though their middle parts were driven eastward by the impulse of the westerly breeze that was blowing at the time… A luminous band…passed near the moon, around which was one of the large haloes.” Sky watchers in Otsego, St. Lawrence, Oneida, Franklin, Herkimer, Westchester, and Kings Counties also logged awe-inspiring displays on that evening.

While particularly brilliant, this was no one-off: around the State, throughout the calendar, and across the years such night logs accumulated. These observations were not the incidental sightings of several people who happened to be out for a night-time ramble, they were mostly the duly-reported annotations of participants in one of the Country’s earliest citizen-science efforts: the network of New York State academies, which Anna described in an October Columbia Paper article. These men (and they were almost all men) had been enlisted by the Regents to gather observations on the working of the weather and other celestial processes. While not institutions of the Regents, the Regents provided limited funding for the payment of teachers and other necessities, and the academies filed annual reports justifying and describing their efforts. Beginning in 1827, they were also asked to brave the night-time chill in order to note auroral activity.2

At that time, scientists were only just beginning to turn an analytical eye to the weather, although the revolutionary idea of weather forecasting was still a couple of decades away. What the so-called Scientific Revolution had so far brought to meteorology was not its understanding, but rather the conviction that it could be understood. For generations, people had read portents into celestial events, deriving omens good or bad from the likes of haloes, meteors, eclipses, and auroras. Now ‘science’ was taking its turn. Observers were observing and patterns being sought. Who knew what mysterious threads might link aurora, magnetism, electricity, and weather? For example, based on observations made two months later to the day, a then-little-known teacher at the Albany Academy drafted a short note entitled “On a disturbance of the Earth’s magnetism, in connection with the appearance of an Aurora Borealis, as observed at Albany, April 19th, 1831”. The author was Joseph Henry and, in 1849, he was appointed the first Secretary of the nation’s premier national scientific institution – the Smithsonian, whence he spearheaded meteorological studies, including the creation of the Country’s first weather maps.3

In good scientific form, the Regents tried to standardize the work of their collaborating observers so that the reports would be more comparable across geography and time. In 1833, they published aurora observation instructions assembled by the illustrious British Society for the Advancement of Science: during a one-hour observation period set to begin at 10PM, various characteristics were to be noted such as opacity, breadth, velocity relative to the stars, lateral motion, “defects in symmetry” and elevation with the aid of a theodolite. However, despite such analytical instructions, the aurora continued to simply enthrall. On January 14th, 1837, for example, a Kinderhook observer described the show asBrilliant, fantastic and very changeable; arcs, radiations, flashes and lurid banks On the third of September 1839, an Albany viewer noted Splendid; the entire heavens lighted up with long massy rays of a rich silver hue, radiating from the zenith, and forming a dome of magnificent proportions. Deep crimson mass in east and west alternately, which formed a striking contrast with the long lines of white light with which it at times mingled… Light so strong at times it cast shadows.” On 18 November 1848, an observer in New York City reported, The Merry Dancers very numerous.” 4

Each of the Regents reports was filled with such notes, and a 19th-century compiler estimated that, at one academy or another, the aurora were noted on about 50 nights per year. While the Regents may have struggled to derive standardized information, it’s clear that many had the opportunity to wax poetic about these light shows. Fast forward to the present, and how many of you have seen aurora from your backyards? Aside from any mystery about their origins and interconnections with other terrestrial and celestial phenomena (connections which are, by the way, still debated), one of the questions that taps most persistently at the skull of a modern reader of these accounts is, Where are the aurora today? The answer to that question tells us something about the aurora and perhaps something about ourselves.5

One of the explanations for why we see fewer auroras today is, simply, that there are fewer. This is because the Sun is fickle and the poles have wanderlust. The current scientific explanation for the aurora is that a flow of protons and electrons emanating from the Sun as the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s atmosphere, exciting atmospheric atoms which release light as they subsequently calm down. Because of the interactions with the Earth’s magnetism, an auroral halo forms in a roughly 350-mile wide band about 10-20° from magnetic north (or south). The stronger the ‘hose’ of the solar wind, the brighter is that halo and the farther from the poles the auroras are visible. While some of the high ‘floods’ of solar wind are caused by unpredictable solar flares, others are associated with turbulence on the Sun’s surface which, in turn, can be indexed by counting sun spots, those dark blemishes visible on the Sun’s skin. More sun spots will, in general, mean more aurora. There is a continuous record of sun spot abundance going back into the 1700s, and so we have a way of numerically comparing then and now in terms of one force behind the aurora. Inspection of those records reveals a roughly eleven-year cycle in sunspots and shows that we are indeed on the waning arm of one of the weakest recorded sunspot cycles.6

On top of this, we are getting farther from the magnetic North Pole. The magnetic North Pole and the rotational North Pole – the one heralded by the North Star – are not the same. Indeed, the point towards which your compass directs you has diverged from the rotational North Pole for all of its recorded history. Furthermore, the magnetic North Pole, to the chagrin of navigators, wanders. Today, it is moving towards Siberia at around 35 miles per year. In 1831, the year it was first pin-pointed, the magnetic pole lay at about 70° N, 96° W (a location in northern Canada some 1400 miles from the rotational North Pole and 2100 miles from us); today it is found at roughly 86° N, 159° W (a spot in the Arctic Ocean about 250 miles from the rotational North Pole and 3200 miles from us). The auroral halo has moved with it. Picture a classical monk with his tonsure of hair around a bald pate. With a good barber, the ring of hair will perfectly encircle the top of his head, and a fly sitting on either ear gets a roughly equal view of the furry higher reaches. Now suppose that, after a few glasses of wine, the barber is a bit off center – he keeps the radius of the hair ring constant, but tilts its center point to the left. The fly on the monk’s left ear may then be brushing the hairs from its eyes, while the fly on the right ear may be convinced the monk is now bald. If we assume the ring of hair is the aurora, the monk’s head is the globe, and we observers are flies, then we were the left-ear fly in the 19th century but are now heading towards being the right-ear fly. The auroral halo is receding from our view.7

These celestial and geophysical processes probably account for much of the auroral drought at our latitudes, but we ourselves may also be contributing. Foremost amongst our own contributions is probably light pollution, the erasing of the nighttime sky by our ever-more powerful lights. In the Academy records, for example, Erasmus Hall, located near Prospect Park in what is today Brooklyn, provides some of the most vivid descriptions of the Northern Lights. One need only compare the candlepower of a mid-19th century gas street lamp (ca. 13 candlepower) with those of a modern street lamp (potentially measured in the 1000s) to understand that the neighborhood of Erasmus Hall was surely a darker place during that era. Such is true not only of city locations but also of more rural spots, where the light auras of nearby villages or cities, or of the commercial or residential cluster down the road tinge the nighttime sky and so can mask faint auroral glows.8

Finally, while we can pin some of the blame for the apparent rarity of modern aurora on sun cycles, drifting poles, and light pollution, perhaps we are also short in the wonder that fuels observation. Those academicians, stamping their feet, clutching their pencils, and, no doubt, pulled by the tasks of the day ahead or behind, weren’t just out to see a show, they were out to discover. They believed that through patient, coordinated observations, perhaps with compass (to detect auroral-induced magnetic variation) and theodolite in hand, they could start unraveling the aurora’s secrets, revealing mysteries which had puzzled generations. Curiosity and the idea that new knowledge could be derived from the observations of the ‘common person’ was heady stuff and likely a potent spur for getting up from beside the fire. Imagine looking at the night sky and seeing more questions than answers; and imagine believing that some of those answers might be at your own finger tips. One of the greatest challenges to learning today is, I think, the perception that we know it all. We don’t, but sometimes the enticing corners of unknown which can be illuminated by our own senses get buried beneath a dulling hubris.

It’s unlikely that many of us who stay in the County during this upcoming days will see the aurora, and yet who cannot wish that their holidays might sparkle just a bit more given a visit from the Merry Dancers. We wish you all such a visit and, more than that, we hope that as you travel through the natural world in 2016, you have the health and peace of mind to really wonder.9

This image of the Aurora was created by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a Frenchman who worked in Boston from about 1852 to 1882. The subtitle states "As observed March 1, 1872, at 9h. 25m. P.M.", presumably from near Boston. An accomplished astronomical artist, Trouvet is best known today as the man who introduced Gypsy Moth into Massachusetts. Reportedly, he alerted others to the potential problem, but none took him seriously.

This image of the Aurora was created by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, a Frenchman who lived in Boston from about 1852 to 1882. The subtitle states “As observed March 1, 1872, at 9h. 25m. P.M.”, presumably from near Boston. An accomplished astronomical artist, Trouvelot is best known today as the man who introduced the Gypsy Moth into Massachusetts. Reportedly, he alerted others to the potential problem, but none took him seriously. Image courtesy of Wikimedia and the New York Public Library.



1) ^ Each year the academies submitted their reports, including aurora sightings, to the Regents. These reports were compiled and published in the Annual Report of the Regents. Periodically, these annual reports were gathered together and published in a multi-year volume. The first such volume was published in 1855; and the second in 1872.

There are many beautiful auroral videos on line; here are two of my favorites, feel free to suggest your own: Ole Salomonsen’s Polar Spirits, much of which may be accelerated time-lapse photography, and these two (by Garðar Ólafsson and Ronn Murray) which are in real time and so perhaps give you a better feel for what the 19th century observers were probably seeing. This space-station footage shows a unique, if somewhat ‘distant’, view of the Aurora.

2) ^ For more on the network of academies, see our web page on this project.

3) ^ The Smithsonian has a web page profiling Thomas Henry and his role in early meteorological studies. Henry’s early article on magnetism is available here. While it only touches upon developments in the US, Peter Moore’s captivating book on the development of 19th century meteorology, The Weather Experiment, is a fine read that provides relevant background on the state of meteorological thinking at this time. For an example of contemporary pattern searching using these records, see Joslin’s Meteorological Observations and Essays (1836).

4) ^ Eager to try Aurora observation yourself? Check out the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s Instructions for Observers of Aurora Borealis as published in the 1834 Annual Report of the Regents. Despite its jovial, spontaneous sound, “Merry Dancers” was actually a repeated descriptive term in the Aurora accounts, and I’m not sure if it referred to all Aurora or to a particular class of Aurora. One hint on contemporary usage comes from the 1838 Annual Report, in which a Mr. Haskins, a Buffalo-based observer states,”All these [auroral streamers] rose, faded, and were renewed again and again, with great rapidity; but they did not exhibit any of that tremulous motion sometimes denominated Merry Dancers” [italics in original]. As this blog describes, the term may have originated in the northern isles of the UK, although it’s not hard to believe that it popped up more than once.

5) ^ For papers describing apparent links between sun activity (as reflected in aurora) and concurrent climate, see this paper (summarized here) by two NASA scientists linking water levels in the Nile with northern European auroral observations between 622 and 1470 AD. Another paper, by a researcher at Duke University, compares climate cycles and auroral cycles.

6) ^ For background on the aurora and their connection with solar storms, see this easy-to-understand video. It gives an overview of the connection between solar storms, sunspots, and the Earth’s magnetic field. As is often the case, Wikipedia contributors do a nice job, its pages on sunspot cycles and its table of historical cycles provide some textbook-style background; either source will provide you with a sketch of current and bygone sunspot cycles.

For those of you leery of links (or lazy), here are two graphs showing sunspot cycles:

Sunspot cycles since about 1600. The Maunder Minimum was an intriguing late 17th century sunspot lull; Wikipedia offers a good summary of it. In this image 1928 is marked because, when this graph was made in 2009, scientists believed it would be similar to the upcoming cycle. (Where they right? See below.) Notice how sunspot activity in the mid-1800s seem relatively high, although there was also a mid-20th century peak. From;


The latest sunspot number progression plot

The scientists who predicted that the most recent cycle would peak at levels similar to the 1928 peak were not far off; this cycle seemed to peak with a sunspot index of about 75 sunspots. From


7) ^ Before getting into the deep and mucky intricacies of the priest’s wandering tonsure (, there’s a useful number to become familiar with: the Kp index. This index is, so far as I can understand, a number representing on the scale of 0 (very low) to 9 (very high) the current strength of solar wind being experienced by the Earth. Apparently the “p” stands for planetary and the “K” stands for the German word Kennziffer which means, ta-da, ‘characteristic number’. There, doesn’t that help?!  Basically, it seems to be a measure of how much the lines of magnetic force around the Earth are deviating from orientations typical of calm solar weather. Think of the surface of a pond: when there’s no wind, that surface is perfectly flat, however, as the wind builds, so too does the angle assumed by the waves of water. That’s not a perfect analogy, but as the solar wind increases, the magnetic lines are pushed further from the norm, and so higher Kp, means higher solar wind energy.

The reason Kp is so useful to us is that, because it is directly related to solar wind energy, it is also, more or less, directly related to aurora strength and, hence, the chance of seeing the aurora at any particular place on Earth. Maps such as this indicate the Kp value at which aurora might be visible at a given latitude. Using that map, one can predict that, at our latitude, aurora would not be visible unless Kp reached about 7 or higher, quite a strong solar storm. For our purposes (this doesn’t hold at the highest latitudes), the farther one is from the magnetic north or south pole, the higher the Kp needed to view an aurora. But, you may ask, how the heck am I supposed to know the current Kp values, it’s not as if they are regularly given on the six o’clock weather? Luckily for aurora lovers, there are regular forecasts. The NOAA space weather program, for example, gives the latest Kp index on this page (for the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink version of these data, see this page). As I write this, the Kp index is around 3, and there’s no point in my running outside to scan for aurora.

How kind, you may think, for the government to cater to aurora lovers. Their motives are more practical: geomagnetic storms not only cause aurora, but can also cause radio interference and, at high levels, badly damage power grids. During the greatest recorded solar storm in 1859, not only were there terrific aurora, but some telegraph operators were able to communicate with each other relying only on the solar electrical energy gathered by their transmission lines. Other operators were less fortunate and received bad shocks and/or had their equipment disabled by the storm. For more on that 1859 solar ‘hurricane’, you can read this account.

OK, so the last part of our puzzle is this: if we know that the Kp value (i.e., the intensity of solar storm) needed in order to make aurora visible increases with distance from the magnetic north pole, and we know that the magnetic north pole has wandered away from us over the last 200 years or so (e.g., see this map or, with bells and whistles, here), then what Kp value was needed in order for there to be visible aurora at our latitude in 1831, when the magnetic north pole was first directly determined, and how much more likely did that make a visible aurora for, say, an observer in Kinderhook?

Answering that will involve a series of ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculations whose crudity would probably make a good space scientist shudder. (Actually, a couple of them gave me input on this, but my mistakes remain my own.)

Here are the basics:

In 1831, when Ross first pinpointed its exact location, the magnetic North Pole was found at about 70.09°N, 96.77°W. Today, best estimates put it at around 86.3°N, 160°W. These locations are, respectively, about 2095 and 3230 miles from our present location in Hillsdale, NY. In other words, relative to the magnetic pole, we are now about 1135 miles farther south than we were in 1831.

However, if one gets down to the nitty-gritty, as I did with the help of those kind folks at USGS and NOAA, it’s not, strictly speaking, just the magnetic pole’s location that determines the likelihood of us seeing aurora. It’s all a bit more complicated but can be reduced to a number called “corrected geomagnetic latitude”; a short-hand for determining how far north we are relative to the geomagnetic (rather than geographic) North Pole,  NASA has a handy-dandy web page for calculating one’s corrected geomagnetic latitude for various years.

Using that tool, in turns out that our modern “corrected geomagnetic latitude” is about 51°N, whereas it was about 55.3°N in 1900 (the earliest date this tool accepts and, given how little the poles wandered between 1831 and 1900, probably not too far from the 1830s-1840s value). In other words, we were, from an auroral perspective, about 5° (or 350 miles) further north back then.

If we return to that map of the Kp’s needed in order to have visible aurora, we can make the following hypothetical modification,

Kp map

Our effective latitude, relative to the geomagnetical North Pole, in the 1800s vs. today. We were, in terms of aurora viewing, about 350 miles further north.

Be careful to interpret this map correctly. Relative to the geographic North Pole, we basically didn’t move over this period, so this does not say we were  experiencing southern-Canadian seasons in the 1800s. However, relative to the geomagnetic fields, our relocation has been more dramatic. Following this logic and using the above map, in the 1800s we were probably experiencing aurora skies like those in Minneapolis or southern Canada today. In other words, we saw aurora at a Kp of around 5, whereas today we need a Kp of 7 or higher.

Continuing on this vein, how much more likely were local residents to see aurora in the 1800s vs. 2015? To answer that we have to ask how frequent various Kp values are – in other words, how likely is it for the Earth to be buffeted by a Kp7 solar wallop vs a stiff Kp5 gale? Luckily for us, two authors named Zawalick and Cage wrote just such a paper (in 1971 in volume 76 of the Journal of Geophysical Research, pages 7009-7012) for the period 1932-1970. If we use their Kp frequency table as a reasonably accurate reflection of the likelihood of Kp reaching various levels, then we can conclude that Kp levels reach 5 about 8% of the time, whereas they reach 7 about 1% of the time. In other words, based on this calculation, visible aurora were about 8 times more likely in the 19th century than today. Of course, these calculations are frighteningly crude and, as the above narrative suggests, many other factors also influence the abundance of visible aurora, including sun spots, light pollution, weather, etc. However, it seems likely that wandering magnetic poles may have played a part in the 19th century abundance of aurora reports.

Indeed, some evidence in the historical accounts suggests, we may have been, geomagnetically speaking, even further north during 1830-1850: the summary of aurora records for that period states that they were seen in New York on about 50 nights per year; that would be about 14% of the nights. If that’s an accurate estimate (and it may not be), it would suggest that aurora were visible at Kp values of between 4 and 5, suggesting that our “corrected geomagnetic latitude” was perhaps closer to 57°N. Got that?

8) ^ For more on the history of NYC lighting, see this paper.

9) ^ Finally, those of you who have read this far deserve a treat, one more image (below) and this, my favorite aurora forecast web page. Enjoy, happy aurora hunting and please let us know what you see!


An engraving perhaps from New York State, from page 271 of American Progress or, The Great Events of the Greatest Century, published in 1890 by Richard Devens and available on-line through

An engraving, perhaps from New York State, from page 271 of the humbly titled American Progress or, The Great Events of the Greatest Century, published in 1890 by Richard Devens and available on-line through See pages 269-275 of that book for an exciting historical narrative of the November 1837 aurora.


A big thanks to Josh Rigler of USGS and Rob Steenburgh of NOAA for helping me piece this together.



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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Uncategorized