Pollinators, come get it

Shakerag Hollow continues its tumble through spring. The earliest blossoms are gone and fruits are fattening in their place. So goes the bloom of youth. The later flowers have now stepped forward and are waving for all they’re worth at the motley collection of pollinating bees, wasps, and flies. A few of my favorites:

Hepatica. Most bloomed weeks ago; a few persist.

Hepatica. Most bloomed weeks ago; a few persist.

Larkspur. So violet it makes your eyes hurt.

Larkspur. So violet it makes your eyes hurt.

Wild geranium. A lighter shade of pale?

Wild geranium. Violet calmed.

Spotted Mandarin. Coolest name in the woods.

Spotted Mandarin. Most fabulous name in the woods.

Celandine poppy. The zenith.

Celandine poppy. The zenith. The nonpareil.

Posted in Shakerag Hollow | Tagged , , , | 24 Comments

Bluebell Island…some botanical treasures

The South Cumberland Regional Land Trust trip to Bluebell Island today was a great success. The bluebells are just opening up. A few are in full bloom. The next week promises a fine display.

Some favorite species:

Two rare dwarf trillium were in bloom:

...only ones know to exist anywhere around here.

…these two plants are the only ones known to exist anywhere around here.

Delicious blooms.

Delicious blooms. Pollinators, do your work. Seeds needed.

Also present were both white and yellow trout lilies, growing side by side. Genetic incompatibility keeps them from interbreeding, even if pollen gets mixed up by the work of insouciant bees.

White trout lily: Erythronium albidum

White trout lily: Erythronium albidum

Yellow trout lily: Erythronium americanum

Yellow trout lily: Erythronium americanum

Thank you, South Cumberland Regional Land Trust, for keeping this botanical treasure thriving.

Posted in Travels | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Begone umbral winter

The spring equinox has passed, so light has the upper hand now. Darkness creeps away.

The plants in Shakerag Hollow know this and are starting to crack out of their winter shells.

Bloodroot. Waiting, waiting for bees.

Bloodroot. Waiting, waiting for bees.

Spicebush: female flower. These will turn to the bright red drupes so loved by migrant birds. Fast food for autumnal  avian wanderers starts right here.

Spicebush: female flower. These flowers will turn into the bright red drupes so loved by migrant birds. Fast food for autumnal avian wanderers starts right here.

Spicebush: male flower. This species is dioeceous, meaning that each plant is either male or female with, no doubt, a few exceptions.

Spicebush: male flower. Spicebush is dioecious, meaning that each plant is either male or female with, no doubt, a few individuals that break the rules.

Above, the robber baron trees are constrained by their size to delay leafing out. In the delay, a herbaceous and shrubby party below.

Above, the robber baron trees are constrained by their size and must delay leafing out until hard freezes are over. They keep Lent, it seems. The pagans below the canopy live under a different set of rules and hold a weeks-long herbaceous party.

Posted in Shakerag Hollow | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Toads, Saint Patrick, and biogeography

Warm the soil, add an inch or two of rain. The result: toads. Defrosted and ready to grasp springtime’s possibilities.

toads_amplexusAs I write, I hear one trilling in the pond outside. Hopefully the next weeks will bring dozens more. Toad song after a long, long winter is melodious glory.

Thanks to St Patrick (on whose feast day I’m posting this), the Irish don’t get to delight in the sounds of Bufo bufo, the common European toad. Apparently Patrick kicked them out along with the snakes. It is a herpeto-theological mystery why the saint chose not to preemptively bar more pestiferous species — biting flies, fungal blights, or the English — instead of the humble toad. His work was incomplete, though: the rarer natterjack toad has a toe-hold in a few parts of Ireland.

These tales of missing species from islands point at an important area of study in biology, namely the curious fauna and flora of isolated land masses. The technical term is “disharmonious.” Islands have communities that contain some, but not all, of the species of nearby continents (the islands are therefore out of “harmony”). The more distant the island, the more peculiar the biological community, all a result of the unlikelihood of colonization. Ireland is missing just a few European species. In contrast, the Galapagos islands sit far out to sea and are missing most of the species of mainland South America. Indeed, so few colonists have made it to these outposts that in situ evolution has provided much of the local diversity. The same is true of the Hawaiian islands and other oceanic isolates.

This disharmony is hard to explain from a creationist perspective, so it is no accident that islands feature prominently in the thinking and writing of the originators of the theory of natural biological evolution, Darwin and Wallace. To them, the idea that the distribution of animals and plants is explained by the particularities of historical accident seemed a more fruitful hypothesis than de novo creation.

Now of course, we’re erasing all this isolation with our planes and ships. Our mobility is undoing St Patrick’s work, homogenizing the world, sometimes with regrettable consequences: here is a list of the non-native species currently threatening Ireland’s biodiversity. More saints needed?

Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Toads, Water | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Spring is harbinged

Erigenia bulbosa, also known as "harbinger-of-spring." The plant's warm optimism will be greeted by temperatures in the teens tomorrow.

In bloom in Shakerag Hollow: Erigenia bulbosa, also known as “harbinger-of-spring.” The plant’s warm optimism will be greeted by temperatures in the teens tomorrow. Still, this solitary bloom emerging from a sea of dead leaves is a good sign that life is a-stir in the botanical world.

Posted in Plants, Shakerag Hollow | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Snow graphemes, scribed by plants

Fallen leaves and fruits etch the snow when caught by the wind, leaving inscrutable messages. Tree roots do the same as they carve up through asphalt. The last few weeks have provided ample opportunity to read these signs.

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These snow scribblings bring to mind David Hinton’s description of the work of the Chinese poet Summit-Gate (峰門). Summit-Gate would gather particularly beautiful autumn leaves and carefully lay them in book-scroll boxes. These boxes were her library. When snows came, she took the leaves to her poetry shelter and released them one by one, watching their wind-blown botanical calligraphy on the snow. She could read the start of every poem but, by choice, the conclusions eluded her.

There is more to her story, all told in David’s excellent book, Hunger Mountain, a meditation on landscape, mind, and literature.

So in these snowy days, we can learn from Summit-Gate and keep our eyes on the surface to see what legumes, samaras, and cast-off leaves might be saying. Ideograms are also being continually made and erased on other surfaces: beaches, dusty roadsides, perhaps even the ooze on a scummy lake. This is “tracking” of a different sort.

Posted in Fruits, Literature, Plants | 11 Comments

Graupel into beech

Yesterday, on the leading edge of the snow storm, rain turned icy, pelting the woods with interesting nouns-that-should-be-verbs: rime and graupel. This bombardment made for delicious sounds, and not just on the human tongue.

Here is the percussive beat of this snowy ice falling into the marcescent leaves of a young beech (heard best with headphones):

In .wav format:


In case your browser doesn’t like .wav, the same recording, in .mp3 format:


Next morning, Junebug and I had the pleasure of making the first tracks on the snowy trails, listening to the whomp and whisper of the woods.

2014-02-13 ash shakerag snow 019

Posted in Bioacoustic revelry, Junebug the hound, Shakerag Hollow | 5 Comments

Florissant fossils

One of the many pleasures of my visit to Yale last month was a visit to the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum. Among its treasures, the museum holds many of the fossils that were collected in the early 1900s from Florissant, Colorado.

The Florissant site is famous for its beautifully preserved plant and insect fossils, remains of the flora and fauna of the late Eocene, about 34 million years ago. In those good ol’ days, the climate was warmer and wetter, so a rich temperate forest grew in what is now a mix of dry, open grassland and ponderosa pine (replete with modern mammals, as I learned during my visit to the site last summer).

Most of the fossils are preserved in the finely laminate shale. Some of these laminae represent one year’s deposition: a layer of diatoms from the summer, overlain with ashy clay in the winter. These are interspersed with coarser material from rivers and landslides.

Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30074. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30074. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved. The whole section depicted here is about 5 mm deep.

Many of the animals from the Florissant fossil beds look familiar to us, an indication of the continuity of taxa and their ecological roles across tens of millions of years.

Tethneus twenhofeli (orb-weaving spider). Collected by W. H. Twenhofel, date unknown. Described by A. Petrunkevitch, 1922. (Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM 25588. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.)

Tethneus twenhofeli (orb-weaving spider). Collected by W. H. Twenhofel, date unknown. Described by A. Petrunkevitch, 1922. (Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM 25588. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.)

Cranefly. Collected by J. T. Gregory, 1953. (Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM 50208. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.)

Cranefly. Collected by J. T. Gregory, 1953. (Division of Invertebrate Paleontology, YPM 50208. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.)

The flora likewise contains many familiar taxa — redwoods, poplars, pines, hickories — but it also contains some enigmatic extinct species. One such puzzle is Fagopsis longifolia, a tree that may belong to the Fagaceae. If this interpretation is correct, Fagopsis is  kin to the modern oaks and beeches.

The following remarkable fossil shows Fagopsis with attached leaves and a fluffy ball of staminate inflorescences (i.e, the “male flowers,” bearing the stamens that produce pollen).

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30249. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30249. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

The separate pistillate inflorescence (the “female flower”) is also beautifully preserved.

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30121. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30121. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

Here is a close-up of the same specimen, showing the details of the long styles.

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30121. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

Fagopsis longifolia. Division of Paleobotany, YPM 30121. Copyright 2014, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, New Haven, CT. All rights reserved.

The most comprehensive treatment of the Fagopsis is Manchester and Crane‘s analysis of the leaves, flowers, fruits, and pollen of the species. It was therefore a privilege to examine the fossils with Peter Crane and to learn that the species still presents something of a puzzle, not fitting neatly into any modern group.

My thanks to Peter Crane, Shusheng Hu, Susan Butts, Derek Briggs, and Rick Prum for their welcome and assistance at the Museum. If you’re in New Haven, I strongly recommend a visit to the museum.

Posted in Fossils, Travels | Tagged , | 16 Comments

The Forest Unseen audiobook from Tantor

Unseen it may be, but it will not now be unheard. Tantor Audio has just published an audio edition of The Forest Unseen, narrated by Michael Healy. I have not yet listened to the whole reading, but the parts that I’ve heard are great.

You can hear a sample, buy the CDs or mp3s, and hear some clips from the woods on Tantor’s website.

Cover art for the CD case, with Buck Butler’s great photo making another appearance:

B1751_ForestUnseen_D

 

Posted in The Forest Unseen | 12 Comments

Icy

I’m in northwestern Ontario, paying a visit to some long-buried ancestors. As a bonus, I get to experience some chilly weather

Here’s what happens to a waterfall in a chilly breeze at -25 (-13 Fahrenheit):

The lip of Kakabeka Falls in summertime...

The lip of Kakabeka Falls in summertime…

...and in the winter. All motion ceases.

…and in the winter. All motion ceases.

kakabeka_falls_ice

Some of the upstream river is still unfrozen and it slides behind the “ice falls,” briefly appearing in a pool below, before diving back down.

All this is very impressive, but the birds and mammals are even more staggering. Chickadees bounce among the branches, a goshawk chatters, ravens wing by, and red squirrels are out foraging. I took off my gloves (idiot) to snap a few bird photos. One minute later, the wind and cold did their work and I lost all feeling in my thumb. Its skin still tingles, hours later.

I salute you, boreal masters of mikwan, ice.

kakabeka_chickadee

Black-capped chickadee

Pine grosbeak

Pine grosbeak

Posted in Archosaurs, Travels, Water | 22 Comments